Before we begin, let’s get one thing clear: the jerseys worn by the two players pictured above belong to the two best teams in the NBA as of right now. It just so happens that the two players pictured above also happen to be the two most important players in the NBA as well.
One of the players (Kevin Durant) is a two-time NBA scoring champ and was the youngest player in NBA history to average 30 points per game for an entire season, and the other is Lebron James. You may have heard of them.
Those two facts are inarguable when separate, but when combined illustrate another fact that has been coming for quite some time now; there is a changing of the guard upon us in the NBA.
In my time watching the league, I’ve seen shifts like this happen three times:
1.) 1990-91 - The Magic Johnson/Larry Bird era ends, and the Michael Jordan era begins.
2.) 1997-98 - The Michael Jordan era ends, and there is an NBA Civil War for supremecy, resulting in the Shaq and Kobe Lakers sharing supremecy with the San Antonio Spurs.
3.) 2007-08 - The Shaq and Kobe Lakers self-destruct, there is an influx of young transcendent talent (Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kevind Durant, etc) and Kobe Bryant peaks physically and mentally.
The third shift could be classified as the Kobe Bryant era given that from 2008-2010 he made three Finals appearances, winning two of them, and one MVP award.
Actually, yeah, screw it. That is his era. Forget any argument to the contrary (Steve Nash and Lebron James winning multiple MVP’s, Tim Duncan taking advantage of the Lakers self-destruction and winning two titles, and the Pistons and Celtics teams who beat Bryant’s teams in the Finals twice from 2004-08). The 81-point game, the two Finals MVP’s, one regular season MVP, leading teams who gave quality minutes to Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Brian Cook to the playoffs, there wasn’t a more dominant player in the NBA from 2006-10 than Kobe Bryant.
So, now that that’s settled we’re back where we began with the guard changing yet again. As great as Kobe has been throughout his career, watching him play in 2012 isn’t the same as it was in 2006. He has to work harder for shots, he has trouble with ball security (his 3.9 turnovers per game are the most in his career since his first season without Shaquille O’Neal), he’s saddled by teammates in his same age bracket who at times rely on him too much to perform like he did back in the day, and while he’s still more than willing to force his own offense, it isn’t the same formula for winning the way it was before the world discovered the iPad.
(And I know his fans are going to think that’s hating and all, but it isn’t. I’ve watched 80-percent of Kobe’s games in his entire career, and that may be understating. He’s still great, has more explosion left in his legs than any other player drafted in 1996, but asking him to compete on the same level as the guys shown above on a night-in-night-out basis is asking for too much. If you saw the last game before the All Star break against the Thunder, you saw what happens when Kobe gets it in his mind that he’s going to single-handidly take over a game that is a physical impossibility for him at this stage of his career. The result was a 7-24 shooting performance and a misguided s— talking scenario with James Harden, a sixth man! Bryant is a superstar in the twilight of his career, not his prime.)
Now that the iPad is in its second generation with a third ready to debut soon, it’s only right to recognize this as a moment when the most dominant talent in the NBA makes an irreversable shift. After seeing the first half of this season play out, it should then come as no surprise that the teams with the two best all-around players (Heat and Thunder) have the two best records, the team with the reigning MVP (Bulls) is right behind them, the team with the best coach in basketball (Spurs) are riding the best stretch of any team (winners in 12 of their last 13), and the team with the best offseason moves made (Clippers) are solidly in as the fifth best team despite having the most overwhelmed head coach of any talented team.
Roughly seven hundred words later, the reason I chose to use Nas’ 1994 seminal classic “Halftime” as a backdrop for this post is simple; I’m an old head who doesn’t like the way hip hop has seen a similar changing of the guard on its landscape, and it gives me an excuse to indulge in one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists from 20 years ago while linking references to the current NBA season.
“Halftime” was a single on the debut album from Queensbridge’s own Nasir Jones, better known as Nas debut album Illmatic, in 1993. Illmatic is regarded as either the album that signaled the end of rap’s first golden age (1986-93), or the beginning of rap’s second golden age (1993-99). Either way, its one of the all-time classics that, much like the Jeremy Lin two-week phenomena, secured Nas an extended line of credit and goodwill within the core audience that lasts (seemingly) forever.
He created hype for himself through his performance, much of which he could never live up to as his career would later reveal. Still, in ’93, Nas was the young talented guy with the complicated flow that made it look easy. Hip hop heads hadn’t heard verses spit with the ferocity that the words carried, but the delivered as smoothly as a jazz man’s clarinet.
Were Nas to release an album in 2012 though, it wouldn’t have the same effect. The same way Kobe’s pump fakes fail to get a decent defender to jump, a Nas classic in 2012 won’t get 2 Chainz fan base to raise an eyebrow. The game has changed.
Anyways, a look at 2011-12 NBA basketball through Nas’ “Halftime”.
“When I attack, it ain’t an army that could strike back…”
Heat (27-7), Thunder (27-7), Bulls (27-8), and Spurs (24-10)
One of these four teams will win the title this season, all for reasons mentioned earlier. Give me these four teams versus the field, and I’ll put my imaginary house up. The Thunder are the fastest team in basketball (with the best young talent), the Bulls are the best defensive team in basketball (with an MVP) the Spurs are the team with the most cohesion in basketball (with the best coach), and the Heat combine each of those three teams best features into one seemingly unstoppable force.
Everyone has made it clear that they don’t care what the Heat and/or Lebron James do during the regular season, but rather the playoffs. Still, they’ve been impressive as hell this season. Nineteen of their twenty-seven wins were by double digits. Their not the best defensive team statistically this season, but they do cause other teams to panic, particularly around the perimeter, forcing 16.9 turnovers a game, good for third in the NBA.
And then there is the matter of Lebron having the most proficient season of any player since Michael Jordan in 1988. This team went to the Finals last season, lost, and got better. Be afraid, be very afraid.
The Thunder will be limited by the same thing that makes them great: if they don’t get a ton of scoring from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they don’t get any scoring. The good news for them is that they can actually count on Durant and Westbrook for the points (the two combine for 50 points per game). The bad news, there aren’t many people who believe the Thunder can win it all with Westbrook playing point guard the way that he does.
I’m the same guy who wrote this last year, and even I don’t think they can.
The Bulls are a well-coached, defensive-minded team with the second best player in the NBA (Derrick Rose). They are also the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for them, that formula wasn’t enough to getthem past teh Heat last season, and it won’t be enough this year either.
THE BULLS NEED ANOTHER SCORER. I was thinking that by using all-caps it would convince Bulls managment to do something other than signing a washed-up Richard Hamilton to address this flaw. Until they do, this could prove to be a fatal flaw for Chicago, and they way they’re running Derrick Rose into the ground, they are running out of time.
The Spurs are in first place in the Southwest, second in the Western Conference at the break, another statement that could have been carried over from seasons past. The difference between this season and last? None really. But then, there is no difference between this season and any of the Spurs seasons since 2007. San Antonio took the number one seed in the west into the playoffs last season, and were beaten by a team that took the Thunder to seven games, so write them off at your own peril.
“In rap I’m a professional and that’s no question, yo…”
Mavericks (21-13), Clippers (20-11), Lakers (20-14), and Magic (22-13)
Even with their flaws (Mavs and Lakers have age issues, Clippers have Vinnie Del Negro issues, and Magic have Dwight Howard brand building issues) these teams will win enough to at least look competitive.
Of this group, only the Clippers and Mavericks stand any real chance of competing with actual championship contenders. Inserting Chris Paul into the Clippers lineup almost makes it feel like the Clippers are an expansion team, and aren’t saddled with the over 30 years of baggage we’ve always associated with the franchise. The
Clipper Hater basketball purist in me wants to call the whole “Lob City” craze overvalued, but after seeing it in person, I can honestly say its anything but. The only flaw this team has is that Del Negro is an average at best coach, and that’s likely going to be their undoing. Still a fun ride.
(Actually, the Clippers have one more flaw: Post Play. They run enough pick-and-roll offense to hide this for the most part in the regular season, but it will be interesting to see them in a seven game series against a defense willing to let Blake Griffin take wide open jumpers instead of folowing him to the top of the key as he sets the screen for Paul. The post game isn’t coming from DeAndre Jordan, and Kenyon Martin makes awkward shots in the post, but he can’t be counted on forconsitency down there, so it’s going to have to be Griffin. We’ll see.)
The Mavs continue to get the benefit of the doubt because they’re defending champs. Even after Dirk Nowitzki came out and admitted that he wasn’t ready for the season to begin, the Mavs find themselves among the top-4 teams in the Western Conference, and enough manpower (Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, the surprisingly effective Brandan Wright, and Vince Carter once every week and a half) to make a deep run into the playoffs.
The Lakers and Magic have flirted with each other on and off since before opening day, but despite the overtures, there’s been no movement (unless you consider adding a washed up Rasheed Wallace an improvement for the Lakers, which I don’t), so they shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Of course the Lakers are still full of intrigue because they are, after all the Lakers. The “Pau for Rondo” trade rumors picked up even more steam the morning of the All-Star Game, and if it happens, I give you full permission to re-evaluate the team’s prospects at your own risk. Until it happens though, they are a team with the worst starting point guard in the entire league, an aging superstar (covered above), two seven-footers (Gasol and Andrew Bynum) who show fleeting interests in being competitive, and no bench. They’re still professionals, but they aren’t championship material.
The Magic will either trade Dwight Howard or they won’t. Whether or not that happens, this team is going to continue to win games that they should, and lose games that they should. Their 22-13 record comes with all kinds of variables (Eastern Conference, 14 wins came against sub-.500 teams, and 8-9 against teams .500 or above).
Any trade of Howard would mean an immediate drop in productivity for the Magic who would be a team going nowhere without Dwight’s 20 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks. Which is probably why, as Marc Spears of Yahoo! reports, Howard has prepared himself to play out this entire season in Orlando. This brings that eternal philosophical GM hypothetical: do you trade a star player in the last year of a deal because they “demand it”?
In this situation, I would say no. Only because there is no where Howard wants to go (Lakers, Nets, or Mavericks) that would net Orlando the players needed to not only stay competitive, but build upon their competitiveness.
Andrew Bynum is what the Magic would pull in a trade with the Lakers, but if I’m Magic managment, that’s not enough. Bynum is having a career year, and for him that’s 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Decent numbers, but Bynum isn’t the player that Howard is (3-time Defensive Player of the Year, 4 games missed in 8 seasons, and all the Hollywood stuff that puts butts in seats, which is very important, especially in a small NBA market).
Trading Howard to New Jersey without getting Deron Williams back is basically saying, “Here Mikhail Prokorov, be the third best team in the Eastern Conference for the next decade the way we should have been!”
The Mavericks have no superstars, nevermind players under-30 to offer Orlando in order to get Dwight, so they, more than any other team, are hoping he stays in a Magic uniform and takes a $30 million discount to be spoiled in other ways by Mark Cuban.
Blaming Howard for the uncertainty in Orlando is apprpriate, because he essentially wasted a season of his, and his teammates career whining about a trade when, if he really wanted to leave, he could have just played hard, enjoyed hosting the All Star Weekend in his team’s city, shut his mouth and walked during free-agency.
“I used to hustle, now all I do is relax and strive. When I was young, I was a fan of the Jackson 5″
Pacers (21-12), 76ers (20-14), Blazers (18-16), Nuggets (18-17)
We all love to believe in young love, especially in the NBA. In 2012, these four teams are the flavors of the month when it comes to picking up-and-coming teams destined for greatness. However, upon further examination, each of these teams have to worry about their ability to sustain their “success” this season because…
Indiana - A more than decent start in Frank Vogel’s first full season as an NBA head coach. The Pacers’ main problem is that at the end of the day, their best player is still Danny Granger, and Danny Granger is still unreliable as a best player. Case in point, the Pacers are the most competitive they’ve been since the brawl in 2005, and Granger is having his worst season as a full-time starter (under 20 points per game, shooting only .382 from the floor, and only .351 from three). Roy Hibbert is an All Star, Darren Collison is what he is (a 12 point/5 assist PG), second year player Paul George is coming into his own, and Tyler Hansborough has carved out a niche for himself as an contributor off the bench for a decent team. If only Granger could join in on the fun.
76ers - Great story for Doug Collins and the city of Philadelphia, but you can’t fully invest yourself into a team whose scoring leader (Lou Williams) comes off the bench and only puts in 15 per game. They’re an excellent defensive team, and they are (mostly) young. Andre Iguodala is exactly the kind of player a team with an older core (think Boston or LA Lakers) could use to keep them competitive at the small forward position (defensive minded, athletic, not looking to score but is still capapble of doing so), but on the Sixers those same talents are being manipulated by Collins to get a guy who could be gunning for points or demanding for a trade to instead be a team leader and an All Star. The Sixers still could use a defensive post presence (like say, Mareesse Speights), and that will likely be their undoing.
Blazers and Nuggets - The Blazers can’t win on the road (5-11) or in close games (1-7 in games decided by 3 points or less). The Nuggets suffer similar deficiencies (7-14 against teams above .500). When each team’s schedule got tougher, the losses began to pile up. The “best players” on the Nuggets and Blazers are Danilo Gallinari and Lamarcus Aldridge, who are good players, but neither has the ceiling that you want to see out of an NBA superstar.
At best, each of these teams are scrappy, athletic squads with above-average coaches who get the best out of their players. That alone, unfortunately for them, doesn’t give them enough to contend for a championship.
“You couldn’t catch me in the streets without a ton of reefer. That’s like Malcolm X catching the Jungle Fever…”
Grizzlies (19-15), Hawks (20-14), Celtics (15-17), Houston (20-14), New York Knicks (17-18)
I refuse to write off Memphis until we see them at full strength. If anything, by getting off to a decent start without their best player (Zach Randolph) actually has me anticipating his possible return even more. This team proved they were for real last season with their playoff run (without their second-best player, Rudy Gay), and until we see Gay and Randolph on the same court at the same time, we haven’t seen them at their best.
And even then, Lionel Hollins guys are pretty good.
The Hawks, Celtics, and Rockets are the Mason-Dixon line between teams that are contenders-and-or-competitive, and the teams that are pretenders or worse. If you absolutely must know why they are pretenders, well…
Atlanta - 13 of 20 wins against teams below .500, and “Tracy McGrady has hade enough of this s—“.
Boston - The Boston Celtics are soooo old! (How old are they?) The Boston Celtics are so old that they average only 89 points per game! (Oh snap!) That’s only 2.9 points per game more than the 4 win Charlotte Bobcats! (Ohhhhh!) The Celtics are so old, that when Rajon Rondo threw that ball at the referee, his explanation was that he thought he was hitting Ray Allen on a fast break! (AHHHHHH!)
Rockets - I’m not sure how exactly the Rockets got to 20 wins before the All Star break, I just know that it can’t keep up. In 20 years when we’re watching Daniel Radcliffe portray Daryl Morey in the NBA’s equivalent of Moneyball, we’ll all be remembering the same thing about this season’s Rockets team, the forgotten team in the Chris Paul trade fiasco. The 2012 Rockets are the NBA equivalent of the 2002 Oakland Atheltics roster depicted in the movie, with Kyle Lowry (15.6 points, 7.6 assists) being the Scott Hatteberg experiment.
Neither team won the championship though.
Knicks – The Jeremy Lin inspired run up to a game below .500 was great, but it still leaves them a game below .500. The beat down handed to them by the Heat right before the break doesn’t help perceptions that by Carmelo anthony rejoining the lineup, things would be awkward. This team needs continuity and wins simultaneously. That’s the unfortunate byproduct of this shortened season for teams like the Knicks; no practice time to work out the kinks. I’m not sold on them as a contender. Without further evidence, its the Heat and Bulls out east, and then a wasteland.
“This is exercise ’til the microphone dies…”
Timberwolves (17-17), Jazz (15-17), Cavaliers (13-18), Warriors (13-17), Suns (14-20)
Competitively fun bad teams. The Timberwolves are the most competitve and most fun with the Kevin Love/Ricky Rubio factor, but they’re no doubt bad. The something in the Salt Lake City water will always keep the Jazz teams hovering around .500. The Cavs rookie sensation, Kyrie Irving, has been better than I expected (18 points and 5 assists). The Warriors are actually missing Kwame Brown, which means they obviously don’t have enough pieces to compete, but Mark Jackson has a team that doesn’t fit his ideal playing well (enough). The Suns are determined to bleed every last drop out of Steve Nash’s career, and he’s rewarded them by being as productive as any 38-year old point guard has ever been (his 10.9 assists lead the NBA).
“And ain’t a damn thing gonna change…”
Raptors (10-23), Nets (10-25), Bucks (13-20), Kings (11-22), Pistons (11-24), Hornets (8-25), Wizards (7-26), Bobcats (4-28)
Not competitive, not fun to watch, not worth explaining why.