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The NBA is Back, and on ESPN, it's Unintentionally Retro

Strange deal if you tuned into the ESPN/ABC pregame show Christmas Day and were briefly stuck watching the feed from the 2010 season opener.

There was Magic Johnson asking, as only a Hall of Fame player can, “What’s the identity of the Heat? Who are they?” The question on the table — shared with Mike Wilbon, Jon Barry and Chris Broussard — was how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would feel out their roles.

“All this season is about,” Broussard said two hours into the season, “is what the Heat will do on the big stage.”

Thanks for watching, folks! See you around halftime in Game 4 of the Finals!

Magic went on to diagnose that “LeBron is ready for a breakout season” if he can “relax” in the fourth quarter of close Finals games. You know, the very moments at which LeBron last summer looked only slightly less relaxed than your average pretzel vendor. Sort of makes you wonder what the point in salvaging a 66-game NBA season was, if we’re already skipping so far ahead. Might as well have let the union and the owners bicker till early April, then seed a 30-team best-of-seven tournament with first-round byes for last year’s conference champs. Wake me on Memorial Day.

It would still come down to the Heat, but probably not the overhauled Mavs. Before those teams tipped off, the Mavs got to raise their championship banner. David Stern kept his intro short and sweet through the early boos. Then Mark Cuban and his gleaming forehead waved in Rick Carlisle before jammed his billionaire fingers in the pockets of his billionaire jeans. Carlisle gave a shout out to the six (!!) departed members of the title team, then, if only, poured out a 40 of King Cobra over the Larry O’Brien trophy in their honor.

Pregame, Jeff Van Gundy raised his hand as the only man in America who doesn’t think the Heat’s meltdown in the Finals was anything to be concerned about: “They got to the Finals. If he (LeBron) does a little bit better, I think Miami is the clear-cut favorite to win it all this year. I think they have the best record in the league.” (Van Gundy, ever untethered, later stumped for DirecTV to drop League Pass prices 20 percent to correspond to the four-fifths season.) Wilbon shared that outlook, predicting 58 wins in 66 games for Miami. That is, Wilbon forecast the same number of wins this season as the Heat won last season, smaller slate be damned.

(Side note: Why the hell would the NBA would adopt the marketing line “Something Big is Coming” in a season that’s 20 percent smaller than normal? Strange, too, that they’d let walking double-entendres LMFAO rip their pants off in a Budweiser ad just as that line flashes. Stand back, y’all!)

Nothing has changed, or at least, very little has. The Heat are favored to storm the East. The Celtics proved to be a bucket worse than the Knicks instead of a bucket better. According to Magic Johnson, truly one of the game’s most discerning observers, “Kobe Bryant has to be a great leader this season.” (Some commentators make viewers feel smart by arming them with obscure knowledge and incisive views that expand their understanding of the game. Others make viewers feel smart by inspiring even the most casual fan to remark, “I was just thinking the very same thing.” I’ll leave to you to decide which of those categories Earvin inhabits.) Actually the Los Angeles discussion was the only indication that we edged even the slightest bit into the future. Johnson went on to damn the Lakers with the faintest optimism they’ve received since the ’90s, surely: “If Gasol has an All-Star-type season, the Lakers will be one of the top four or five teams in the West.”

Finally, someone the lockout actually affected! “The Lakers are not in the conversation to win the West, to me,” Barry said.

Seconding that, Broussard added: “Hey, they’re not even the best team in their building.”

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