Leading Off

Leading Off: We now join regularly scheduled NBA season

Cleveland’s LeBron James tosses chalk in the air before the start of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Oct. 30, 2014, in Cleveland. LeBron returns to Miami, when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Heat on Christmas Day.
Cleveland’s LeBron James tosses chalk in the air before the start of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Oct. 30, 2014, in Cleveland. LeBron returns to Miami, when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Heat on Christmas Day. AP

Two months after its “Soft Opening,” the NBA celebrates it’s “Grand Opening” of the 2014-15 regular season today with five nationally televised games.

Until now, most sports fans have been occupied by the NFL and college football seasons. But now that we’re down to the final weekend of the NFL regular season and all that’s left of the college season is a heap of bowl games that sound more like NASCAR races (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, really?), we now join our regularly scheduled program already in progress.

▪ Seven of the eight teams that qualified for the Western Conference playoffs last season sit atop the standings once again this Christmas morning. The only team missing is Oklahoma City, which has played a bulk of its games without reigning MVP Kevin Durant – who will miss today’s 11:30 a.m. matchup against San Antonio. The Indiana Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, are not among the top eight after Lance Stephenson left via free agency and Paul George was lost to injury. With LeBron James back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are working their way up the East’s top eight while the Miami Heat is sliding.

▪ Of today’s five games, the most intriguing is James’ return to Miami at 2 p.m. Despite taking the Heat to two world championships, James can expect a mixed greeting. The game to miss is the 9 a.m. contest with Washington at the five-win New York Knicks.

▪ Have the Kings played well enough this season to be considered for a Christmas Day game next year? The team now has two marquee names in potential All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and forward Rudy Gay, but if Sacramento misses out on the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, the Kings can expect to be home for the holidays again.

▪ If you’re tuning in to the NBA for the first time this season, the Warriors have the best record at 23-4. Leading the Warriors’ charge is point guard Stephen Curry, who would get serious consideration for the league’s MVP if the vote were held today. Curry is averaging 23.4 points per game and is shooting 49 percent, equaling his career best. Other candidates would include Houston’s James Harden (27 ppg) and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (24.5 ppg, 10.1 rebounds, 2.9 blocks).

▪ While he would be a long shot to win the MVP, Portland point guard Damian Lillard is having a breakout season. The 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year, Lillard is averaging 21.9 points and 6.3 assists. But it’s Lillard’s ability to take over and win games that has made him a rising star and the Trail Blazers the second-best team in the Western Conference. Imagine, Lillard, who played at Weber State, was still available in the 2012 NBA draft when the Kings selected Thomas Robinson with the fifth pick. Lillard went to Portland at No. 6.

– Victor Contreras

vcontreras@sacbee.com

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