Sunday, October 24, 2010 11:12 p.m.
By Ron ThompsonCSNwashington.com Contributor
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The start of the NBA season usually brings a flood of analyses on which teams or players will fare best over the eighty-two games played from October to May. Yet, paraphrasing the old quote, the race is not to the swift, but to the team that can endure. The professional basketball season is a long one, so any early evaluation of the squads should factor in a few keys: the work ethic set by those who guide them, adaptability to circumstances, and the teams that are able to play different styles.
Success in sports is chiefly defined by winning, and those teams, which dominate throughout the season, are often ones with persistent patterns of high effort. Two teams that usually jump to mind are the Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz. Even before its recent acquisitions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join veteran star guard Dwayne Wade, the Heat had long been regarded as a squad that usually gives maximum defensive effort. With a tenacious work ethic first applied as a player at Kentucky, then as a coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, Miami president and former head coach Pat Riley has molded his squad into a simple-yet-effective offensive force, matching its relentless defense. With due respect to Erik Spoelstra, Riley's incoming players have an unmistakable model of what awaits them, and many veterans regard him as a masterful motivator. Like the Heat, the Utah Jazz is noted nearly as much for their physical presence as for their offensive efficiency. Drawing on his youth spent playing at the University of Evansville (Illinois) while also working at a whirlpool factory, Utah head coach Gerald Eugene "Jerry" Sloan has regularly produced groups defined by grit, hustle, and competitiveness. Former legends Karl Malone, and John Stockton personify the Hall of Fame greatness of that organization. They and current Jazz standouts are why Sloan holds one of the league's best all-time win-loss records.
But simply having leaders like Riley and Sloan doesn't ensure a team's success. A keen awareness of the rhythms within a squad or among its players is just as vital as diagramming plays or negotiating trades. Which brings us to adaptability, the capacity to alter game-plans or adjust strategies to given situations. Several unforeseen circumstances can visit a coach at various times of the year: a rookie's break-up with his college sweetheart; a star player's sudden injury; a back-up griping about more playing time. The leaders of a sports team are responsible for tending to injuries and egos alike. Each year there are plenty of coaches or executives who deal with a variety of problems, but it is that rare breed (tempered by experience and ambition, in life and the locker room) who can turn adversity into an incentive.
With the NBA's thirty teams also comes at least thirty different styles. As each night brings varied performances, the most enduring lessons are in how teams adapt to their opponents, and leave the arena as winners. Boston's Celtics represent such a squad, with players whose different styles often force opponents to tweak their strategies between each whistle. Ray Allen is a legend at the three-point and free-throw markers who, in his fourteenth year, remains a half-court threat. Four-year veteran guard Rajon Rondo is a player who pushes the tempo, and makes Boston a sincere transition team when necessary. Paul Pierce joins him as a scoring threat, and as someone who can push the pace in as well. But Pierce also stands in exclusive company for his buzzer-beaters and triple-doubles that justify his nickname, "The Truth." Centerforward Kevin Garnett's versatility, nightly grind, and ability to score in the post have also helped restore the Celtics as a formidable force. Their off-season pick-ups of Shaquille and Jermaine O'Neal only make the point more painfully obvious. The Boston Celtics join the Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, and the defending champion Lakers as a talented squad with a variety of tools enabling them to play various styles to continue building a legacy.
The 2010 NBA season promises to showcase some of the league's brightest stars, its most accomplished coaches, and some of the wisest run organizations in sports. When the games begin on October 26, bring an open mind to either your nearby arena or your favorite living-room chair. When you see which teams fit the criteria outlined here - which squads are lighting it up from November to May - you'll have a good sense of who will be around to turn off the lights in June.