TORONTO (Reuters) – After a tumultuous offseason that forced the National Basketball Association to confront the delicate issue of race, the league will usher in a new season starting next week that could prove to be one of the best in years.
The defining story of the offseason could have been LeBron James’s return to his home state’s Cleveland Cavaliers, where the game’s most popular player hopes to ease the pain from his defection in 2010, but instead racism dominated headlines.
However, with Donald Sterling having sold the Los Angeles Clippers and Bruce Levenson disposing of his share of the Atlanta Hawks, both over racist comments, the focus can now finally return to the hardwood.
Thankfully for the NBA, there is no shortage of tantalizing storylines to keep fans focused throughout the 2014-15 season that tips off Tuesday with three games, including the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs hosting the Dallas Mavericks.
James’ quest to bring a long-awaited NBA title to Cleveland, the return of Chicago Bulls point guard DerrickRose after two substantial leg injuries and whether five-time champion Kobe Bryant has a final act up his sleeve for the Los Angeles Lakers are just a taste of the stories fans will be following.
There is also plenty of interest in how the post-LeBron Miami Heat, coming off a lopsided loss to the Spurs in the NBA Finals, will perform now that the team’s Big Three has been reduced to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Fans of the Indiana Pacers, who fell to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons, will be willing All-Star Paul George back to health after he suffered a broken leg that could force him to miss the entire season.
Reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant will miss at least the first month of the season while recovering from a fracture in his right foot and when he returns will be expected to get the Oklahoma City Thunder positioned for a title run.
Durant, set to become a free agent after the 2015-16 season, led the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 but untimely injuries to team mates derailed his team’s title hopes in each of their next two playoff appearances.
The Clippers, with coach Doc Rivers signed to a five-year extension, are eager to focus solely on basketball following a second-round playoff loss last season that came just weeks after Sterling’s comments surfaced.
James was unable to deliver a title to Cleveland during the first seven years of his career but, after a four-year spell in Miami that included two NBA titles, returns to a much stronger Cavaliers team that includes Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
To get Love, Cleveland traded Canadians Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, first overall draft picks in 2014 and 2013, respectively, to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a three-team deal that included Philadelphia.
With several teams likely to garner much of the attention during the 82-game season, it could surprisingly leave the champion Spurs flying under the radar, a possibility that will not faze the talented group.
The Spurs, a team with great depth and led by evergreen forward Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, will raise their title banner to the rafters on Tuesday before setting out on a season they hope ends with a sixth NBA title.