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Tipoff for the NBA season finally arrives

Tipoff for the NBA season finally arrives
Opening night, a showcase for some of the league’s best matchups, won't feature LeBron James. Instead the Celtics and 76ers, a rivalry that should define the Eastern Conference for the next five years, will play along with Golden State-Oklahoma City. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

LeBron James is used to beginning the NBA season with the spotlight focused squarely on him, his first steps on the court acting as the starter’s pistol for the league’s 82-game regular season.

Opening night, a showcase for some of the league’s best matchups, has been James’ showcase, his teams playing on opening night nine times in the last decade.

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Tuesday, though, James will be just like the rest of us.

Someone who has spent a career being exceptional will spend the NBA’s first day in an unexceptional way — watching on television.

“I am looking forward to tomorrow night, just the season’s back,” he said. “I was truly excited about the first preseason game, either watching or playing. But the season is here. First of 82. It will be fun.”

It’ll be fun because distance makes it fun. And it’ll be fun because the games — the actual basketball — are a pleasant break from the ever-growing NBA universe.

It’ll have been 130 days since a ball bounced on the court during an NBA game that counted, 130 days without a whistle, without a dunk, without a winner, 130 days between James’ old team losing in the NBA Finals and Tuesday’s doubleheader beginning with the Boston Celtics hosting the Philadelphia 76ers.

For Lakers fans, it’ll have been even longer — an eternity of NBA news happening between a go-with-the-young-guys rebuild and a new future built around James.

In that gulf, the 76ers had an executive embroiled in a fake Twitter account scandal that cost him his job. The San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors flipped superstars after Toronto fired the league’s reigning coach of the year. The Dallas Mavericks’ culture was exposed as being misogynistic and, at times, unsafe for women.

Paul George picked Oklahoma City over Los Angeles. Players started to break news about NBA reporters leaving one job for another. Manu Ginobili retired. Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Jimmy Butler demanded a trade, didn’t show up for preseason games, then came back to work to curse out his bosses and outplay his teammates.

There was the draft, and the summer league. There was free agency. The Golden State Warriors somehow ended up with DeMarcus Cousins. The Houston Rockets predictably signed Carmelo Anthony. The NBA’s best profile writer, Lee Jenkins, is now an NBA executive, the type he used to question.

Kyrie Irving no longer thinks the Earth is flat. And, of course, James signed with the Lakers.

If the NBA were a TV show, a popular premise for people trying to preview the season, the “Previously On” portion of the episode would take up the full hour.

The NBA has loved the year-round attention — it actively leaned into it, going so far as to televise every summer league game even as the level of play fluctuated between entertaining and bad pick-up.

Because of this — all of it — the league can afford to leave its biggest star home on opening night.

Sure, we’re thirsting to see the Lakers, to see LeBron James in the same uniform worn by Jerry West, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Nick Young. But we’ll get that Thursday.

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Seeing the Celtics and 76ers go at it — in a rivalry that should define the Eastern Conference for the next five seasons — isn’t an opener. It’s a main event. So is seeing Golden State celebrate its title by opening its final season in one of the NBA’s toughest buildings, Oracle Arena, against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Warriors going for a three-peat, the East without LeBron — these stories aren’t as big as James debuting for the Lakers. He’s still the NBA’s biggest star. He’s still the King.

But the league knows the court is full of other front-liners: Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Irving, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and on and on.

“Four great teams playing [Tuesday]: OKC, Golden State and Boston and Philadelphia,” James said. “It will be fun as a fan.”

The league can afford to have James as a fan on opening night, instead of being the centerpiece. He’ll get his turn, his walk onto the court for the first time as a Laker.

We’ll wait — James included — and if he doesn’t mind, neither should we.

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