Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Dawn of a New NBA Age

When 38-year-old leviathan Shaquille O'Neal lowered his meaty, tattooed left shoulder into the lane and flipped up the first shot of the 2010-2011 NBA season while wearing a white-with-green-trim Boston Celtics uniform it was undeniable that the political topography of the NBA is vastly different than even a decade ago.

Also on the floor in the home white for the Celtics were power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce, shooting Ray Allen and point guard Rajon Rondo. First-round draft picks at every spot. Pierce was drafted out of the University of Kansas with the 10th overall selection by the Celtics in 1998 and has been in Boston through the dark ages and the stabbings, but Allen and Garnett were acquired in separate trades prior to the 2007-2008 season.

Dubbed "the Big Three" and saddled with expectations befitting the sum of their impressive talents, the veteran trio went on to win the NBA championship in that first season together. After being ousted by the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals in 2009, Boston took a lead into the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2010 Finals before succumbing to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in the waning moments. ESPN's Bill Simmons will forcibly explain why this is the closest a team has ever come to a title without winning despite the fact that there have been 16 other Game 7s in the history of the NBA Finals and three of those were decided in overtime. Losing teams broke the 80-point barrier in handful of those games, as well.

As anyone with access to a television, radio or garrulous regulars at a dive bar can tell you, the Celtics' opponent on the opening night of the 2010-2011 NBA campaign, the Miami Heat, made waves in South Beach and throughout the Association this past summer by inking LeBron James and Chris Bosh to free-agent deals. James is the reigning league MVP, and Bosh is a very good (though not nearly as great as the company he keeps) jump-shooting big man. Both were brought to Miami by Heat executive Pat Riley to join the homegrown stud Dwyane Wade, who had lifted the club to a championship in 2006. That '06 Heat team also featured the aforementioned Shaq at center. But more about him later.

Wade, James and Bosh are to be the Bigger Three. Perhaps the Biggest Three if none are felled by injury; and respected veteran shotmaker Mike Miller (also acquired via free agency during the offseason) starts to shoot again after two years with fewer than nine field goal attempts per game. In the first nine seasons of his career he'd never put up fewer than 12 per 36, and this drop-off has gone largely unexplained (at least to me). Sidelined due to a hand injury, Miller wasn't involved in last night's season-opening tilt. On the floor to open the game and wearing black jerseys with white letters and red piping for the Heat was point forward James, shooting guard Wade, power forward Bosh, designated small guy Carlos Arroyo and center Jo-El Anthony, who, judging by the pronunciation of his first name, would be better suited playing outdoor day games so that he could absorb the powers of our yellow sun.

When James, Wade and Bosh entered the league as the first, fifth and fourth picks, respectively, of the 2003 NBA Draft such a constellation of stars playing in one regular-season game would have seemed far fetched. For the most part, David Stern's NBA entered the 21st century with a de facto one-in-his-prime-superstar-per-franchise policy. San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan had been named league MVP after the 2002-2003 season. He had led his team to the championship as well. Garnett was a menacing war machine in Minnesota that year and Karl Malone was still musclebound and delivering parcels in Salt Lake. Allen Iverson led the Sixers in points and body art.Tracy McGrady was dropping better than 30 per night in Orlando. Jason Kidd was the engine of a fast-breaking New Jersey attack. Chris Webber was angling to get over in Sacramento. And Rasheed Wallace was the main attraction under the big top in Portland.

Most star players (who were piloting contending teams) had a talented running mate or two playing with them, guys good enough to make an all-star team in their best years, but only Pierce had a pal netting better than 20.0 per game in Antoine Walker. And nobody was mistaking 'Toine for an alpha-male superstar.

The only title aspirant that really broke the star-plus-sidekicks mold in the season before James, Wade and Bosh broke into the NBA was the Los Angeles Lakers, who featured an increasingly tenuous pairing of future Hall of Famers in Shaq and Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had acquired the Big Aristotle via free agency after the 1996 season, three days after corralling Kobe in a trade with Charlotte, who had just selected the high-school hotshot with the 13th selection in the '96 draft. Looking back, one assumes that the Lakers had an inkling that they'd be inking Shaq when they shipped out incumbent center Vlade Divac in order to acquire Bryant.

At this point, though, there was no Twitter, no YouTube and no Facebook friending, and with the shine having come off international competition and even the All-Star Game and dunk contest there were seemingly far fewer cordial ties among players around the country. It was still a dog-eat-dog game and pride and respect seemed to be on the line more often than not. If Philadelphia played Orlando then Iverson believed a win would prove that he was a better man than McGrady. Those were the stakes.

Before Shaq and Kobe teamed up, and probably going back to the heyday of the personality cults established by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each of the league's best 10 players, winning a championship meant overcoming the other nine. Both Magic and Larry wanted to go through the other in the NBA Finals in the 1980s. Jordan furiously guarded his perch above the sport's other luminaries in the 1990s. For them, winning a championship was synonymous with knocking off Jordan. For him, victory meant humiliating his competitors. That was the journey. And it was, more or less, the point. Which is why, for many fans, the 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 seasons occupy the same relation to the rest of the decade that the third installment of the Godfather trilogy has to its predecessors.

During this feudal era, most NBA cities were the fiefdoms of one of the game's top players, and each had his own vassals, valets and serfs. When Shaq entered the league in 1992, Patrick Ewing controlled New York. He had a man at arms in Charles Oakley and a court jester in John Starks. Hakeem Olajuwan ruled Houston with an even more formidable retinue. Dominique Wilkins owned Atlanta. Charles Barkley had just taken over in Phoenix. David Robinson was the Admiral down in San Antonio. Clyde Drexler was the man in Portland. Reggie Lewis was the heir apparent in Boston. And Michael Jordan was Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. Of the 10 teams to win 45 or more games in Shaq's rookie season only two had tandem headliners. Utah featured John Stockton and Malone while Seattle showcased Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

Things remained more or less the same until Shaq departed Orlando via free agency in 1996. The Magic had won 60 games the previous season but had been dispatched by the veteran Bulls juggernaut in the postseason. Shaq then took his talents to sunny Los Angeles and teamed up with the blossoming Bryant. Sound familiar? The Lakers then racked up titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Sporting an No. 8 on his shirt, Kobe averaged better than 30 per night the year before Miami's SuperFriends entered the professional fray while Shaq was dropping about 27 per (though his per-minute scoring numbers were slightly better than Kobe's). Two of the most gifted players in the game were teamed up and winning titles. Of course, to hear Shaq tell it, the Lakers also followed the same star-plus-sidekicks formula that was prevalent elsewhere. Tension came with the success, though, and the interpersonal dynamics of the club were back-page news. Could Kobe and Shaq coexist now that each was as full-fledged superstar? Could two of the top players in the game share the ball?

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were upset by Larry Brown's Pistons in the 2004 Finals, and Shaq was traded less than a month later. Roll credits. With no Hollywood ending for Shaq and Kobe, their divorce seemed to fortify the alpha-male theory undergirding the Feudal Era. Yet it was actually the beginning of the end of the age. And it was, not coincidentally, the debut season for Wade, James and Bosh.

The first time that any of those three took the floor against the Shaq and Kobe, Karl Malone was also wearing a Lakers jersey. So was Gary Payton. Both had come to Los Angeles expressly to win a title before retiring. After falling short throughout their accomplished careers, they were taking their last best shot before they hung up their hightops. When their bid fell short, most fans and members of the media considered the Pistons' upset a referendum on such piggy-backing, but the formation of the 2010-2011 Heat suggests that the league's impressionable young players felt differently.

In the aftermath of the Lakers' loss in the '04 Finals, the club unloaded the Big Carpetbagger for a satchel-full of spare parts and a draft pick. Looking to reach the Finals with a third different franchise, Shaq opened the next season in Miami, with Wade. Pat Riley was running the Heat at the time and moved back too the sideline in December 2005. The trio would edge Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 Finals (a fact that I was unaware of for several days having departed for '06 World Cup in Germany after Dallas had taken a 2-0 lead in that best-of-seven series).

Cuban was and remains an aggressive presence in the league and no doubt understood that if Shaq could switch teams twice in the middle of his career then any personnel move was possible if you could find a hamstrung franchise to poach from and solve your own salary cap. Which is how the Celtics would acquire Garnett from Minnesota in a similar many-for-one type of deal just two seasons later. Which, mostly brings us back to last night's game, when Shaq was starting at center for the Celtics with hopes to win his fifth title before he hangs up his high tops.

Everyone wants to credit James, Wade and Bosh with ruining or forever altering the game, but the players drafted in the class or 2003 are the children of the Shaq-Kobe divorce that came after 2004 Finals, caught between O'Neal's gregarious roadshow and Bryant's isolationist rage, with their value system totally skewed by the spite-fueled rivalry between their estranged parents. James is not an innovator any more than he is a team captain for the Heat. He and his peers have grown up in the league as Shaq has traversed the country and won titles on both coasts. They've formed their opinions on business and team-building as he's paired with Kobe and with Wade; hooked on with Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns; and even danced on the sideline with James in Cleveland before coming aboard the Good Ship Celtic. Just like Malone and Payton had signed on with the Lakers for the '03-'04 season.

Even if the plan to join forces was hatched during 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the worldview that each of those players brought to the Redeem Team was forged in the Lakers' flameout of 2004 that occurred during their rookie season. More than James, Wade or Bosh, Shaq is responsible for the current roster of the Miami Heat. And, along with Kobe, he is responsible for promulgating the notion that quantity of titles matters far more than quality. The former running mates have been engaged in a counting competition ever since they parted ways. "More than" the other guy is now more important than directly beating the other guy in a head-to-head fashion. In other words, Robert Horry is an icon.

The notion that how one wins matters is perhaps the last vestige of the NBA's feudal era and the source of the rift that opened up between the two generations of players this offseason. Magic, MJ and Barkley all publicly criticized James for taking the "easy" route to the winner's circle. Meanwhile, Shaq continues to chase rings around the country. Which is why his presence on the floor last night in a Celtics uniform christened the beginning of the NBA's League of Nations Era just as much as the debut of the Heat.

Formerly autonomous nation-states in Cleveland, Toronto and Miami, respectively, each SuperFriend has sacrificed his provincial sovereignty to acquire titles faster and in greater number. And, if South Beach is the NBA's Versailles then we all now what comes next. World War II once enough superpower teams are established, the Cold War once the next Kobe-Shaq dyad emerges, and eventually a first-third world divide in which the scrappy have-nots will constantly threaten the juggernaut haves (think Golden State over Dallas). Carmelo will not stay in Denver. And Chris Paul is not long for New Orleans. Few players will see the value in asserting their rule over a particular city and player movement will increase. In part, because frst-world general managers like Mitch Kupchak will continue to fleece third-world executives like Chris Wallace for their naturals resources (think the Pau Gasol deal). Ultimately, more headline players will give up their fiefdoms to form coalition squads.

The kings of old are dead. Long live the League of Nations.

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