Friday, June 17, 2011

Are Today’s NBA Superstars Just Leaching Off Previous Generations?

After he and his teammates allowed the Dallas Mavericks to celebrate a championship on his own court, LeBron James stood before the press and was asked about the issue of people being happy to see their team’s disappointing finish.

“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” he replied according to the Associated Press. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do…”

In certain regards, “The King” is right. Since the aftermath of the game six meltdown, the public is returning to their normal lives and routines. Sports fans will only have baseball to look forward to now that basketball is over for the time being (with the reboot date for the 2011-12 season unknown since the current Collective Bargaining Agreement will be up at the end of June).

Yet, the quote isn’t a reflection of the hatred between James and the public, but more so a sense of entitlement that is beginning to fester into the minds and personalities of many rising, young NBA stars of today.

That concept was most illustrative with this Miami Heat team and its inaugural Kanye West-style concert performance they put on when the big three was brought together. The combination of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh was set to be a frightful sight for anyone who opposes them, but their self-arrogance and haughtiness was a disrespectful spectacle for the NBA and those who came before them.

How could three players come out right and celebrate a dynasty when all three of them combined only have one NBA title since entering the league eight years ago?

Never did the thought of combining to become superior cross the minds of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird (except for the original “Dream Team”) and nor should it have: they all understood that the definition of greatness lies within the body of work and not their own personal feelings. In other words, it’s not how you look or how talented you are, but what you have done and how hard you work to get better.

The late 1980s-90s generation were not well off like the stars of today are; the generation of NBA stars in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s didn’t create a golden path towards millions of dollars, fans, and endorsement opportunities. There was no universal appeal for basketball; baseball was the American sport most played around the world 20 years ago. Prior to entering the NBA, they were not followed on Twitter or on Facebook and were not showered with publicity and attention by the media.

Most were not even noticeable by everyday people if they were walking down a street.

Their personas and the intrigue they created through the public was made over time. They were beloved by the world because of what they did throughout their career and not the hype surrounding their possible potential. The Jordan-Bird-Johnson period built a new era of basketball on their own and changed the game so much that today’s players are still reaping benefits from them.

That’s apparent when Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Joe Johnson are just a handful of players under the famous Jordan shoe line.

Today’s generation is obviously spoiled in the fact that so much of the groundwork has been laid out by the previous greats before them. This leads into the biggest conundrum with today’s generation: work-ethic and expansion of their game

When Jordan, Johnson, and Bird entered the league, there were flaws to their game that rendered them handicap from being champions and great in their sport. Jordan was a master of flight who had no other means of dominating outside the paint. Johnson had great court vision and versatility, but was more of a full court player with no ability to shoot. Bird was already a great precision scorer from the perimeter, but couldn’t make plays for his teammates.

Despite those inabilities, the three worked hard to not only overcome those shortcomings, but to become better “all-around” players. They understood that just relying on their special abilities wouldn’t allow them to be as great as they hoped. They worked tirelessly to turn their weaknesses into a strength that would make them hard to contain on the court.

What did all that hard work get them? A total of nine titles in their first eight seasons in the NBA (four for Johnson, three for Bird, two for Jordan).

This need to work to expand and improve as an all-around player is what is missing with so many of the great stars of today. Only a few players have shown they were willing to put in the time to be a reflection of past stars.

Derrick Rose was able to grow by leaps and bounds from what he was when he left Memphis to join the NBA three years ago. He can now extend out to the perimeter and be the main source on offense rather than just attacking the rim and being only a facilitator like he was in his first two seasons. It is even more obvious given the jump he and his team made in one year (an MVP award and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance).

Sadly though, Rose is in a small demographic of today’s great players who have evolved into that necessity of becoming that better, well-rounded player needed to become a champion.
The failures of the Heat were obvious given that their flaws were on display for the public to see.

James’ was reluctant to punish foes like Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Deshawn Stevenson, who are all small in stature and could not match up to his athleticism, in the post simply because he has no post game. Unless there was a turnover to ignite their team on the break, the six-foot, eight inch, 250 pound forward was helpless to stand around and do nothing in a half court game because his shot wasn’t falling.

Great players find a way to win, but James was nowhere to be found when his team needed him the most.

Wade and Bosh were just as useless in almost the same capacity as their other big piece of the puzzle. Wade has always been a great scorer, but he constantly missed key shots and couldn’t create easy shots for others (which has been a knock on him for years). Bosh is the type of player who has always appeared to loathe becoming a better physical presence in the paint on both ends of the court, a need the Heat was lacking sorely en route to losing the series.

Through it all, all three players also couldn’t cash in on the one area that was complimentary for them to earn during the game: their free throw shooting.

Hitting free throws at key moments is a clutch quality that is required in order to reach the pinnacle of success in the NBA. Jordan and Johnson couldn’t do that early in their career, but when the spotlight of the Finals shone down on them, they were able to capitalize. The Heat will have to learn that great teams make others pay for giving them free opportunities at points (see Dirk Nowitzki’s free throw shooting as a reference).

The Miami trio aren’t the only superstars of today who are subject to scrutiny. The idea of entitlement is an epidemic that is spreading widely throughout the league.

While the rising star of Kevin Durant has a long career ahead of him at such a young age, 22, his game must expand if he hopes to push his team as the favorite to win the West next season. His jumper and ability to score may be uncanny to anyone in the NBA, yet, it is his inability to create for himself and others and a lack of a back-to-the-basket game that continues to be the Achilles heel that has plagued him since his days at the University of Texas.

Another superstar who is nearly equal in his ability to put up points from anywhere is Anthony. Ever since he first stepped onto the court for the Orangemen, the now 27-year-old forward has been known as an unstoppable force who can pull from the outside or go to a post game depending upon his match up. Yet, since his only year at Syracuse and into his eight seasons in the NBA, he appears to be the same lethargic defender he’s always been and a player who has tunnel vision with no court awareness.

It’s difficult to imagine today’s players not eclipsing greats of the past, simply because of the physical specimens that they are and the tools they have before them. Jordan, Johnson, and Bird would have surely revered in such advantages and qualities, especially if they were as prominent early in their career as they were in their later years.

Alas, it appears that anointing these young players early on may only come back to haunt them for their unfulfilled abilities and goals they may never truly reach when the end comes near.

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