WASHINGTON, D.C. — We were off to see the Washington Wizards, and it made sense to stay on topic.
The original purpose of this piece was to assess Washington's chances—as compared to the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers—of competing for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and perhaps even pushing the five teams projected for the top five. After all, at media day, LeBron James, without prompting, mentioned Washington and Detroit as two of the East's most improved outfits.
Still, Chris Bosh put a stop to that silly storyline before it started.
"Right now, the East is very top-heavy," Bosh said. "With that said, there’s a lot of teams that feel they can really make a move, get into the playoff race. For the most part, it’s the New York teams (the Nets and Knicks), Indiana, Chicago and us, and we’re going to be duking it out all season."
So there you have it.
That's the East. Five teams.
One, the Heat, that has represented the conference in the NBA Finals the past three seasons.
Four others chasing, with three—the Bulls, Pacers and Nets—clearly making offseason strides; the Bulls have Derrick Rose returning, the Pacers fortified their bench, and the Nets added two Hall of Famers.
"That was enough," Bosh said.
And it might be enough to make this one of the most interesting seasons in years, not just because of the ability on each of those squads—24 players on the five teams have made at least one All-Star team—but because of the animosity between them.
"There’s a lot of teams that want to knock us off, there’s a couple teams in the Eastern Conference that hate us, and we know who they are," James said Tuesday. "We’re not going to hide behind that; we’re a focused group. And we’re looking forward to the challenges that this season has to bring."
Professional sports rivalries aren't what they once were, not with players from different teams sharing agents, endorsement deals, even vacations. That's the stuff that has driven old-school types like Pat Riley batty, even if the combatants—take Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the late 1990s—didn't necessarily let their off-night dinner outings temper their tussling on the floor.
So Riley must relish this return to the good old days, when players generated some healthy, open disaffection for each other, the sort that's been evident between the Heat and Pacers, Heat and Bulls and the Heat and Celtics in recent years.
That's been evident not only through words, but shoves.
And while the Celtics are no longer a contender, three of the Nets' new faces—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry—appear awfully familiar. Bosh said Garnett and Pierce would always be Celtics. Wade said something traveled with them: "the dislike."
"They might have on [a] different colored jersey, but you might see green when you see those guys," Wade said. "So that dislike, yeah..."
And Brooklyn had already irritated Miami before the arrival of Garnett (who's had confrontations with Wade and Udonis Haslem), Pierce (James' repeated choice for truest contemporary foil) and Terry (whom James enjoyed dunking on).
After all, Reggie Evans is still around, and he was the one who angered James for questioning the legitimacy of Miami's 2012 title. Angered him enough that he gleefully pointed out Evans' lack of productivity in the Heat's win later that night.
So will these be rivalries?
James resisted that designation.
"There’s tension, because you battle against certain teams, you battle against certain players year after year—but there’s no rivalries," James said. "So it’s not like the '80s. The Lakers and Celtics, they probably played in the finals nine times in the '80s. So it’s not like that. But there is tension. Coming out of a lot of camps, we’ve heard our name a lot, so we know."
They know something else: the names of the teams that matter.
For that respect, Washington will have to wait.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.
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