Fast Breaks: The Timidity of Kevin Durant
If you’re the typical American sports fan, you may not even know that the 2012-13 NBA season is underway. Longer and less frenzied than its gridiron counterpart, the Association will stumble through the first couple of months of the season while most fans and degenerate gamblers pay attention to the NFL playoff race. This is fine. Between now and the Super Bowl, there will likely be storylines that are proposed, endorsed, and eventually rejected by the pundits, analysts, and other (often loud) voices covering the NBA.
This is where I come in. This biweekly column will take some of the most-hyped stories and let them distill for some time before analyzing the media’s conversations and their relationships with what’s actually happening on the court.
The Timidity of Kevin Durant
Unless you happen to be an actual Miami Heat fan, the 2012 NBA Finals probably feels like it ended much longer than five months ago. With Team USA making a (mostly boring) gold medal run and plenty of off-season moves to take up the dead-air space allotted to NBA coverage during football season, it’s easy to forget exactly how close the Thunder really were to raising the O’Brien Trophy themselves. During those exciting games, there were flashes of Bird/Magic in the way LeBron and Durant were single-handedly willing their teams to victory. And in a way, Durant’s loss allowed many of his fans to buy into the idea that he would come back hungrier and angrier—the attitude we saw LeBron develop over the course of last season.
So far, I’m not sure that this is the case. You can chalk up some of the soft play to the fact that OKC is still reeling a bit from the loss of James Harden. They’re also trying to figure out how to manage the game vis-à-vis Russell Westbrook, their point guard who at times still requires the coddling “kid gloves” treatment. But these ideas are a little too easy and a little too obvious, and that’s why they sound like excuses. As Charles Barkley pointed out last week on Inside the NBA, Durant isn’t coming to the ball with much energy. He’s back on his heels when passes are coming in. And although Barkley didn’t mention it, this is kind of metaphorical for what’s happening with the Thunder.
Where last season we saw LBJ take over his team at the expense of Dwyane Wade’s numbers, Durant continues to orient himself at the congenial end of the good cop/bad cop routine with his hardheaded point guard. It’s obvious that the played-out idea that he’s going to come out with more energy and anger isn’t actually playing out. Durant’s definitely looking to improve his game, particularly his rebounding—he very nearly picked up his first career triple-double on Sunday night against the Hawks—but because the Thunder are so talent and (presumably) experienced that they are certain Finals contenders, it might take the entire season to find out if Durant needs to become downright tyrannical in his process.
82 Ways to Lose Your Mind
Whether or not you felt that James Harden was a max-contract player, there was no escaping the fact that his early performances with the Rockets—dropping 82 points in his first two games—were borderline historic. What to make of all this is not entirely clear. We know, though, that analysts and commentators will likely preface every comment with cop-outs like, “It’s still too early to know, BUT . . .” and then proceed to talk about how high the ceiling is for Harden. Either they will have truly forgotten his comments about not wanting to be the guy, or they will have realized that his comments simply don’t fit the current narrative about the spurned player going into revenge mode.
If the Rockets played in New York City, or in one of the few other locations in the country where the media can prematurely vault a player or squad into household-name status, we might have to consider Harden’s newfound superstardom. And while it did seem as if Jeremy Lin had the Linsanity torch to his new mate in the backcourt, too many commentators ignored last season’s lesson: part of what made Lin’s Knicks so potent was that they caught teams unprepared. Lin came out of nowhere to dominate a league where players like LeBron James have been known quantities since high school. More so, we haven’t yet seen Harden carry a team as a starter (at least in the NBA). Either way, if last year taught us anything, it’s that we have to let the sample size grow before we start making ridiculous platitudes or awarding Sports Illustrated covers in haste.
The Battle of New York
After last year’s New York Knicks collapsed in the playoffs, finally putting Linsanity to bed (first on the court and then by passing on Lin in the offseason), most people agreed that the Knicks were overrated and that their stars could not coexist with one another. The problem was, however, not that the entire locker room was going to spontaneously combust, but that there wasn’t much an opportunity for offensive production if both Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire needed to get touches.
Across the river, the once-hapless New Jersey Nets were getting ready to move into their new home on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn. You might have heard something about this if you live anywhere near the Northeast Corridor, follow sports even casually, or know anything about the rapper and part-owner Jay-Z. Long story short, by signing Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, the Nets were able to put together a roster that could (on paper, anyway) rival their “big brothers” in Madison Square Garden, if not most NBA teams.
In the two teams’ preseason meeting, the Knicks took care of business pretty easily. They were playing in the archaic Nassau Coliseum, thanks to the Hurricane Sandy, which also prevented an opening-night showdown. But the Knicks’ 3-0 regular season start, included a surprising rout of the defending champions the Miami Heat, has them looking like one of the strongest teams in the league. The Nets, for their part, pulled out a close game against the Raptors and were just upset by the injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves. While it’s still too early to know what kind of season these teams are going to put together, some of the cockiness displayed by Brooklyn and its new fan base is looking a little premature.
When the Los Angeles Lakers opened this season with three straight losses, the combination of outrage and schadenfreude around the league was reaching a fever pitch. Unlike most overblown stories, there seems to be some merit to the worry coming out of La La Land and the delight shared by the rest of the NBA world. Yes, there are probably four Hall of Famers on the Lakers right now, but Steve Nash’s age has already started to show, and Kobe Bryant’s age might show over the course of a full season, all of which means Dwight Howard, who came to the Lakers because doing so supposedly guaranteed a championship, may still end up in the Hall of Fame without one. Pau Gasol hovers somewhere in the middle of this alleged greatness; Metta World Peace hovers somewhere on its fringe. But, again, it’s early— by destroying the Pistons without Steve Nash, the Lakers proved they can easily beat lesser teams without being fully healthy.
The team that continues to confound me is the Denver Nuggets. Excepting JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala, the roster is comprised of mid-level players who were, at best, the number-two options of their previous teams. In fact, it seems like the only reason we’ve been hearing about the Nuggets in recent seasons is because they’ve always been included in making other teams around the league that much better. They’re like the BASF of the NBA. You could probably still fault the cabal of Melo, James Dolan, Donnie Walsh, etc., for transforming the Nuggets from a team on the rise to an average-to-above-average squad.
On any given night, they’ll be well coached by George Karl and have a puncher’s chance of winning. But for the long haul, it appears as though they’ve bet on a lineup filled with sleepers, disappointments, and down-the-road-potentials. For fans who can remember how close they were to making real noise in the NBA just a few seasons ago, this is all further proof that they’re trending in the wrong direction. As such, we should definitely be more concerned about their 0-3 start than the Lakers—they will likely plummet faster, longer, and harder than their Californian neighbors.
The Return of the Mid ’90s UNC Tar Heels
The generation of basketball players that entered the Association after Michael Jordan and his superstar cohort has been attacked for being paid too much money too soon. They are also considered responsible (at least by me) for introducing the me-first mentality that is best exemplified by ultra-talented players like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. But while those two brash, baggy-shorts-wearing trendsetters are long gone, there are still a handful of players from that generation whose longevity seems to defy conventional wisdom if not nature. Grant Hill and Jason Kidd have been in the spotlight since the mid ’90s and are highly intelligent and respectable people (minus some DUI and domestic violence issues on Kidd’s record) who as players cut against the grain of most of their generation. What’s a little more surprising are the slight renaissances of three former UNC Tar Heels from that era.
Right now, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Antawn Jamison are all playing in the NBA. Except for Stackhouse, who is serving the Brooklyn Nets as a player-coach and has yet to take the floor in the regular season, the other two former Tar Heels are getting some decent minutes and performing at an unexpectedly high level. It may not be so surprising that Jamison is a dependable role player for the Lakers, considering that he was once the guy and is a little bit younger than his fellow UNC alumni. The real surprise has been ’Sheed, who was out of the league for two years, only to resurface with the Knicks. If his early returns—his signature three-pointers, a positive attitude—bear out over the course of the season, he may end up usurping the title of Fan Favorite from Steve Novak.
As an early Millennial, I was just a little too late for the Bird/Magic era and so came of age as Jordan dominated the sport throughout the 1990s. The athletic and commercial success of His Airness had an undeniable halo effect on the rest of the league, which is why superstars and would-be household names all looked for cool nicknames and brand extensions and ways to expand their revenue streams beyond the limits of their NBA contract.
Even if his exploits on the court fall short of Jordan’s, Shaquille O’Neal was, for a time, possibly the only rival when it came to marketing, self-promotion, and turning yourself into a brand before the word was a buzzword with cultural valance. Of all the ridiculous things Shaq got himself into during the first half of his career, nothing is more laughable than his try at acting; Shazam obviously had no business being made for the big screen. Not content to just be a failed actor, Shaq embarked on an ill-fated rap career. Before there was the infamous “Kobe, tell me how my ass taste” episode, there was Shaq Diesel and this amazingly awful song:
Double Video Bonus
Presented without comment.