When the Music’s Over

by: Michael Shields

In one fell swoop we take a look at the commencement of the NBA season. the aging of a core group of superstars, the future of the league, and the recent firing of Mike Brown (and subsequent hiring of Mike D’Antoni)…

It is early in the season. Like pre-dawn early. Attack the snooze button like it hit you first early.  But although the season is just getting off the ground story-lines are beginning to develop, and one certainly has had time to inspect all of the teams rosters at this point ((NBA League Pass first week free preview!)). And it doesn’t take long, while watching some of the premier teams in the league, to realize that we are not very far off from a retirement party of epic proportions. The league is as strong and entertaining as it has ever been, but it is also jam packed with stars pursuing one final moment of glory.

It may be obvious to an avid NBA viewer that this subject came to mind while watching a Steve Nash-less Laker game during their 1 and 4 start ((The Lakers finished the pre-season 0-8)). I’ve seen faster moving Pedi-cabs. On Wednesday night the Lakers were dominated by the Utah Jazz, even though Kobe continued to excel at what he does best – score. The Lakers looked out of sync, unsure of themselves at times, and it is impossible not to equate poor early season production with the fact that the aggregate age of the starting line-up is 163 (An average of 32.6/player) ((The Sacramento Kings, one of the youngest teams in the league, have a starting line-up that totals 119 years in age (An average of 23.8/player). I also took the liberty of rounding up Dwight Howard’s age to 27 as we are on the cusp of his birthday.)). On Friday evening, after the Lakers brass fired their head coach Mike Brown only five games into the season ((I understand this. Not the timing of course, that is unnerving and sort of hilarious. But if you do not think Mike Brown is the man for the job, which I do not and the Lakers front office do not, then you move on – especially with the win-now mentality that comes with an aging squad. Enter Mike D’Antoni. Nash and Kobe are said to both be enthused to play for D’Antoni as he is an offensive mastermind.  Only problem is defense wins championships.  This should be fun to watch play out.)), the Lakers rolled over the Warriors as Kobe put up 27. Last evening they took it to Sacramento 103-90 behind a strong performance by Dwight Howard (23 /18) for their second straight win.  The true justification for the Lakers 1 and 4 start more likely has something to to do with the time of year it is (and Mike Brown’s faulty rendition of the Princeton offense). To the chagrin of a sometimes skeptical fan base veterans tend to turn up the intensity as the season progresses. The Lakers will more than likely shake off the rust, learn to play together, and be a dominating force contending for the Larry O’Brian Trophy at the end of the season. It is, after all, only week 2.

But it cannot be overlooked that many of the teams, and players, that have been competing for titles for the last 15 years are approaching the end of their respective ropes. Those teams, The Lakers, The Celtics, The Spurs, Dallas, and San Antonio have certainly supplemented their aging stars with young talent, but it is, as always, the performance of their perennial All-Stars that drives the team towards success, or steers them off the road. All of the stars of these organizations have won. They have hoisted trophies (sans the Lakers recent additions Steve Nash and Dwight Howard). There are dozens of All-Star games shared between these vets, MVP’s won, and they have competed in legendary battles that will not soon be forgotten.  The storylines of the NBA over this time period has been driven by these men, and by a few young superstars that emerged during their reign (which we will speak on in mere moments).

A laundry list of future Hall-of-Famers are literally making their final push for one more shining moment. Kobe Bryant (Age 34), Steve Nash (38), Kevin Garnett (36), Paul Pierce (35), Jason Kidd (39), Rasheed Wallace (39) ((I couldn’t help myself, I got love for Sheed – the Lakers v. Blazers rivalry at the turn of the millennium was in-arguably momentous.)), Vince Carter (35), Dirk Nowitzki (34), Tim Duncan (36), Ray Allen (37) and Manu Ginobli (35) are all undeniably at the tail end of their career.  In no time at all these players will no longer be a part of the National Basketball Association. It’s pretty unbelievable to think about. This core group of competitors has been the fabric and the face of the league for years. This ages us all.

I guess it’s always the case. The league is a rotating door and only the strong survive to compete at length. But, it has been well over a decade before we have seen such a sudden surge of mid-to-late 30 somethings who are so significant to the league all taking their curtain calls simultaneously. The times, they are a changing.

So, what is the league left with once Kobe, Dirk, Tim, Paul, and the gang ride off into the sunset?  The easy answer is Lebron ((In tandem with Wade – but what does it say that I used a sidenote here?)) and Durant ((Begrudgingly, I must throw Dwight Howard in here. Although enormously popular he hasn’t done it on the court but rather with a Superman cape and clown antics at the dunk contest. He tore apart a true contender and then joined Kobe and Co. to make a run at it.)). The idea that these two are the show runners of the league is no surprise. I am not breaking any news here; it’s a well known fact legitimized with their confrontation in the 2012 Finals. I would be happy watching those two battle it out for the next decade, supposing that they continue to be equipped with intriguing and capable cohorts as they are at this very moment. These two stars are bonafide. Legitimate. The real deal.  They have the power to carry us into the future. But the league is always more appealing when there is a handful of household names all battling it out on the hardwood. We need Ewings, Olajuwons, Barkleys, and Drexlers.  Pippens and Mullins and Isiahs. A David Robinson type even?

This is where we talk about Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose, when healthy, deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Lebron and Durant. He is the Michael to their Magic and Larry. He is supposed to be part of the three-headed monster that leads the league into its promising future.  Rose, it is impossible to forget, went down with an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the first playoff game last year. Word is that his rehabilitation is going well and Rose’s work ethic on this front is becoming lore ((Adrien Peterson came back from the same injury this year after just 10 months. He leads the NFL with 1.128 yards rushing.)). He is scheduled to return sometime this year, the exact when is still unknown ((Rumor is he will return after the All-Star break.)). For the good of the league, and for all of us who enjoy watching this spectacularly gifted athlete, we can only hope that he returns true to form. And when he does there is no question of his standing as one of the league’s best. Fingers crossed.

There are others that could possibly step into the fold, mature, and and gain recognition by more than just the avid fan. The contenders here are Houston’s James Harden (Who has gone from being Durant and Westbrook’s third wheel to ‘The Man’ in Houston, already averaging 26.5 points per game), Cleveland’s Kylie Irving (22.9 ppg), New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Minnesota’s Kevin Love, Boston’s Rajon Rondo (13.3 apg), Brooklyn’s Deron Williams, Memphis’s Rudy Gay (19.5 ppg), Griffen and Paul of the Clippers, and even possibly New Orleans rookie Anthony Davis ((Other names to consider….Curry, Cousins, Monroe, Bynum, Horford, Jefferson, Wall, Hibbert, George, Jennings, Curry, lee, Aldridge(21.9 ppg)…..all with much to prove.)). Yet all these players, with the exception of Rondo ((Who was aided by the Big 3 in securing his title.)), have so much to prove before they can be considered legends in their own time. But all are capable. All are close.

It is a concerning notion that many teams are poising themselves to wait out Lebron and Durant’s peak years as, in all likelihood, they will be monopolizing titles for the foreseeable future. But patience is a virtue that not all have and I respect the teams that chose not to accept the fate of mediocrity. The Los Angeles Clippers appear hell bent on becoming relevant in a city they share with the a team that has hoisted 16 World Championship banners. The duo of Chris Paul and Griffen could be looked at as the modern day Stockton and Malone ((In line to win just about as many championships.)). Their challenge is to take the Clippers, who are a damn good squad ((Added by some crafty veterans such as Chauncey Billups (36) and Lamar Odom (33).)), to the next level. The jump from good to great is one of the greatest challenges in the NBA and it usually comes down to a teams commitment to play defense. This year will be very telling for the Clips. The New York Knicks are undoubtedly going for broke (literally), and appear to be in good form in lieu of their clumsy and incompetent owner. Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudamire, and Tyson Chandler, paired with a dizzying crew of league patriarchs (Jason Kidd (39), Rasheed Wallace (38), Marcus Camby (38), Kurt Thomas (38)), and a point guard who was successful during his last stint in New York (Felton) are capable and if they can remain (or get) healthy, they are viable. The Brooklyn Nets want it now as well, and the talented backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnston does make them a capable contender in the East. But this squad has banked on a frontcourt of Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries for years, with minimal success. I do suspect they will be in the mix as the season wains. And finally, the Memphis Grizzlies have the talent to contest right now. But I have a sneaking suspicion that by season end they will be selling off their parts (Gay, Randolph, Gasol?) to the highest bidder. I hope this isn’t the case.

The inverse of the aging squads that have been perennial contenders is applicable to this discussion as many a fruit sits upon the branch not yet ripened. There are many teams in The Association that are pre-pubescent. These teams, The Wizards, The Hornets, Cleveland ((Irving is the difference here, and the potential he is showing could bump Cleveland to a contender sooner than later.  He appears to be a stud.)), Detroit, and Charlotte ((Kemba Walker has started the 2012-13 campaign on fire, averaging 18.8 ppg, 5.8 assists, and 2.80 steals.)), are far too young to compete with the big boys. But if they are able to keep their core pieces together they could blossom into something special.  This is unlikely.

So, Bron Bron, Durant, Rose, and whoever chooses to step up to the Round Table of the league’s governing body – the baton is in your hands. We already know this is your league, you proved that, but you are not only set up to be the leagues best players but you are on the verge of becoming its elder statesmen. You are simultaneously a veteran of the league and at the peak of your career.  Soon you won’t even have to defer to Kobe during All-Star Games and the Olympics.

This all comes paired with a big ole….BUT. BUT, Duncan is off to a hot start (18.9 ppg / 9.7 rpg), Kobe seemingly cannot be stopped from scoring (26.1 ppg), Ray Allen has had immediate impact on the Heat, Kidd appears just what the doctor ordered in New York, Tony Parker ages like a fine French wine, and I will never be caught betting against Pierce (20.8 ppg) or Dirk.  It isn’t over, possibly far from it.  But, there is no doubt the league will be changing significantly, and soon. The thrilling last decade plus of basketball championed by the veterans I speak of will eventually make way for another lot of future-stars, it already is.  I will personally miss this crop profoundly ((It is in my nature to miss something before it is gone, to try to soak up those last waning moments, even if those moments are years – as in this case.)). The question is….is the league in good hands? It appears as if so. But these vets I speak of are going down swinging, heightening the intrigue of this and the next couple of seasons. Either way, it is shaping up to be a fun year.

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