Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Thoughts On Melo/Bron and The End of History In The NBA

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? Early this morning the sky was gray, but if you go to the window now you are surprised and lean your cheek against the latch of the casement.
- Franz Kafka.

I'm not sure what that has to do with the NBA but I've always liked it. I guess it means the snow is melting and the playoffs are coming. Anyway, did you see Denver-Cleveland Thursday night? Carmelo had 40, 6 and 7, while LeBron had 43, 13 and 15. Making him the first player to score 40 with 15 assists and 10 or more rebounds in 36 years. He now averages a 30, 7 and 8.4 on the season. Simply put, if you are one of those people who persists in thinking that Kobe is the best player in the league, you're either insane or not very bright. There are a great many things that Kobe can do better than LeBron offensively, but concluding that Kobe's a better player because of all the things he can do that LeBron can't is like concluding that Vladimir Guerrero, in his prime, was a better hitter than Barry Bonds because Guerrero could hit the ball at his feet and Bonds couldn't. That said, LeBron, like Shaq, is this weird contradiction in terms, someone who's undeniably the best player in the game while being pretty raw in many phases of the game. But unlike Shaq, who never tried to do anything he couldn't do (except for trying to hit free-throws, which wasn't by choice), LeBron does try to do quite a bit that he's not very good at. For instance, last night LeBron shot 12-16 from within 10 feet, and 3-17 outside of ten feet. 1-9 from three. Now obviously on an average night LeBron's shot falls with greater frequency than it did Thursday, but even on a good night he's just an average shooter. Whereas Daniel Gibson is making 47% of his threes this year and Delonte West 41%. So why does LeBron take nine and Daniel and Delonte take 4 combined? I'd be crazy to call LeBron selfish, he's the best and most willing passer the game has outside of the point guard position, but he seems to be of the view, understandably, that as the best player in the world, he should be taking the shots that a Kobe Bryant does, and that's mistaken. If he weren't so content to inaccurately fire away from the outside, Cleveland would've won that game. I worry that LeBron is forcing himself into a Jordan/Kobe mold and thereby depriving his team, but more importantly us, of the chance to see what a fully realized power wing would look like. The game has never seen a face-up player of his power, speed and athleticism, and right now we're only seeing the half of it because he's trapped in antiquated notions of what a superstar perimeter player is supposed to do on a basketball court.

On the game in general, I think everyone's starting to realize that the league is at a crossroads in about 82 ways, the most obvious of which are the potential lockout and 2010 free agency. LeBron's decision this summer is probably going to be the biggest factor affecting the narrative of professional basketball in the next decade. But what's been less acknowledged is that the old generation of superstars is dying out - even Kobe only has a couple years left before age catches up with him - and is being replaced with a group that may be a lot less underachieving but is frankly a whole lot more milquetoast. When I began watching the NBA, at the beginning of the decade, these were the guys who made All-NBA teams:

Allen Iverson
Kobe Bryant
Tracy McGrady
Kevin Garnett
Shaquille O'Neal
Tim Duncan
Chris Webber (once)
Jason Kidd

And on the second teams you had Vince Carter and Webber and Iverson in years they didn't make the first team. Lesser stars included Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Baron Davis, Jermaine O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace. That was the constellation of superstars. In the new decade, the constellation of superstars going forward should look something like this:

LeBron James
Dwight Howard
Kevin Durant
Dwayne Wade
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Bosh
Chris Paul
John Wall
possibly Brandon Roy
and maybe Tyreke Evans several years down the road.

We can quibble about the composition of the second group, but I think it's safe to say that, of the first group, only Tim Duncan can match the sheer uncontroversiality of pretty much everyone in Group 2. Even Shaq had all his psychodrama with Kobe going on, the sense that he was just a big goofball who didn't maximize his talent or take care of his body, the passive-aggressive way he took shots at all his former teammates, coaches, competitors, the feeling one occasionally got that his warmth was something of a manipulative put-on, etc. Garnett, we forget, spent his career getting criticized for being too skilled, too intense, and too unselfish. Vince Carter only ceased to be controversial once everyone agreed to hate him. Sleepy-eyed McGrady, for many, epitomized what was wrong about the post-Jordan NBA. And then there were Iverson and Kobe and Webber. The NBA of the next decade, on the other hand, will be comprised of superstars who, everyone agrees, "get it" in the way that Iverson and Webber and perhaps McGrady and for years Kobe never "got it." It's not like the future is a league of Tim Duncans, these are players who by and large have a lot of personality (though see Kevin Durant), but it's all of the affable, jovial, extroverted sort, like Shaq if Shaq were genuine and not really just a public approval whore. The most controversial thing any of these guys ever did is appear in a Stop Snitching tape, and that was followed by boatloads of apologies. Besides, no one really thinks that that episode tells us anything about Carmelo, other than that he did come from Baltimore and that he's a go along get along sort of guy who will appear in your tape if you ask him to. It's more a sign of his chumminess than anything else.

And on the court, none of these players are a fabulous waste of potential the way Webber or Rasheed or 'Toine or Steve Francis or Carter or Iverson or McGrady arguably were. Some of them will win championships and some never will, but when Chris Paul or Melo retire ring-less many years from now, no one will blame that on them, they'll be graced with the John Stockton "they were one of the best ever (and nice guys too!), they just ran into superior teams" narrative. Maybe someone will complain that Dwight Howard could've done more with his ability, but Dwight Howard is no Webber or Rasheed. He just doesn't have a lot of post moves and probably never will. Some players are more agile in the post than others. That's rather different than being able to do anything and everything a power forward ought to be able to do but choking in the fourth quarter, shirking the spotlight or spending your career chucking up threes. It seems to me that we live in an era where players who don't get it are becoming marginalized, most spectacularly in the cases of Arenas and Marbury. Years ago, guys like Tyrus Thomas, Michael Beasley, Charlie Villanueva, J.R. Smith, Chris Wilcox, Rashad McCants would have been given franchises of their own to destroy, fan bases to tantalize with their talent only to crush, or at least in the case of Rashad some actual playing time. Sean Williams would be somebody's enigmatic starting center. So would Eddy Curry. Do you remember how many years Robert "Tractor" Traylor hung on in a haze of obesity and weed? The guy got drafted over Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki! Got indicted for laundering $4 million of his cousin's drug money. That doesn't happen in today's NBA. In today's NBA, columnists are running out of players they can call enigmatic. Even once enigmatic players are letting go of their enigmatic ways (Josh Smith, Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Ron Artest to a great extent).

How many guys are there left in the NBA who look like someone you wouldn't want to meet on a dark street corner, even when they're signing a kid's jersey?

None of today's rising stars inspire debate; they only inspire consensus. Just as there is no serious debate as to how good Duncan was or any lingering questions about unrealized potential, there can be no debate about how good LeBron, Wade, Howard, Paul, Durant, Melo, etc. are. They're all unambiguously great players to a greater or lesser extent. People will debate which one deserves the MVP in a given year, but people will never question whether they make their teams better or worse the way we did with almost all of the last generation of superstars, whether they're good enough to build a team around, whether they get it or don't. Even Brandon Jennings, who since the 55-point game is shooting 35% from the field and is still pulling the trigger 16 times a game, reaching levels of inefficiency that Iverson could never have dreamed of, somehow doesn't project the same "I'm going for mines" attitude that Marbury and Francis did every night of their careers. He just seems like a confused kid. Moreover, there are no villains in today's generation of superstars, no one who elicits hatred the way Kobe or Reggie or, for some portion of the public, Iverson could. And at the same time there's no one nearly as lovable as Iverson was. Even the stars themselves all seem to like each other; rivalries become dimmed by a glow of mutual admiration. Garnett's the only star left in the league who hates his opponents, and even he's become a parody of himself, more an exaggerated simulacrum of competitiveness and universal emnity than the real thing.

As a result, a kind of "it's just a game" indifference creeps into the game. The stars' reputations are already set in stone - even if LeBron never wins a title we'll blame it on his bad supporting casts - so in a very real sense, one ceases to feel, when one watches the NBA, that history is being made. The season takes on a feel of one long celebration of young talent (all good friends from their halcyon days on the Olympic team), with some suspenseful moments interspersed, rather than the feel of a narrative. In the past, the season began with unanswered questions - is McGrady for real or a fraud, is Kobe good enough to win on his own, who is Kevin Garnett really, etc. - that the playoffs ostensibly answered. In the past, the playoffs took on an air of a battle between good and evil, depending on one's idea of who the good and bad guys were. In today's game, they're all good guys and history has already been made before the fact. LeBron will inevitably win his rings, Durant and Melo and Paul may or may not but if they don't it won't detract from their reputations that they'll ultimately make as two of the great scorers and one of the great point guards the game's ever seen, Wade's title is on the books already. One begins to sense that the players themselves are aware of the ultimate irrelevance of how the games actually play out. This was especially apparent at the All-Star Game, when Deron fouled with seconds left not realizing the score was tied and laughed it off, when Melo clanked a game-winning three-pointer that he shouldn't have taken and laughed it off, when we had a dunk contest that none of the participants seemed to care about because we all know already that Shannon Brown and DeRozan and Gerald Wallace are great dunkers, won by a guy the sole point of whose being in the league is to win dunk contests. There was something very symbolic about Nate's bringing the cheerleaders onto the court and then not using them; their presence on the court was entirely meaningless, like the weekend itself.

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