Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Out With the Old Guard, In With the New

The Dallas Mavericks victory over the Miami Heat was many things. It was the end to a great career for Jason Kidd, a defining moment for Dirk Nowitzki, catapulting him into the upper echelons of the greatest forwards to play the game, a long awaited pay off for owner Mark Cuban, and another sorrow filled event for LeBron James.

The Mavericks not only toppled the highly despised Heat, but they stood as a last vestige of the old guard in the NBA, a group of highly successful players entering the twilights of their careers and phased out by a newer, younger group of established and emerging stars. Players like Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan are being replaced by names like Stephen Curry, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and numerous others.

With the departure of the old guard, the league also loses a state of mind that those players carry with them. An all business, hypercompetitive drive that drove many of the era to greatness. The shrewdness and bravado of Kevin Garnett, the killer like attitude of Kobe Bryant, the silent but deadly demeanor of Tim Duncan. With every great player on the last leg of their career, also hangs the attitude that was the driving force behind the many memorable moments left behind during their run. The NBA is now at a crossroads, one in which we’ll see the newer group of stars adopt these attitudes and carry on the legacy, or a complete transformation of the league in which players focus on being liked by one another and attempting to ensure they don’t come off as a bad teammate or being too cocky.

What many of these players have yet to realize, is that calling out teammates and being overly confident is what has driven the greatest in the game over the leagues history. Greats like Russell, Bird, Magic, MJ, Kobe, etc., all didn’t hesitate for a second to straighten out a teammate or chirp about any issue in the post game press conference. The greats are driven by success, and every single obstacle standing in their way, whether teammate, coach, friend, or family, was taken care of and disposed. Victory was their ultimate goal, and nothing was going to stop them.

This new generation of NBA superstar is still young, but shows no true signs of steering towards the ways of legends past. The leagues most talented player teamed up with a buddy, who should have been a rival, and another superstar for the chance to play together in a young city and chase titles. The league’s MVP is far too humble, letting poor performances by teammates slide under the radar as he absorbs all the blame. One of the leagues top performers has issues taking command late in the game, allowing a much more confidant but less talented guard shoulder the load in the closing minutes. In case you couldn’t guess it, the players just touched on were James, Rose, and Durant, arguably the top three young players in the league at the moment. Yet here they are, all three unwilling to take charge and become the big man on campus. Why is this?

First off, many of the young players in the league are the not only the best on their team, but are also on teams that are made up of mostly young players. The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder are perfect examples of this. Derrick Rose is easily the best player on that roster, but whom does he have to teach him the ropes. What seasoned guard is there to guide him through his career, and more importantly, call him out and teach him how to be a commanding leader both on the floor and in the locker room. The answer? Nobody. The Bulls, despite being successful, lack a veteran presence on the team that can assume a leadership role and mentor the young players.

Swoop down to OKC and you’ll find the same situation. The Thunder are lucky enough to have four extremely talented young players that look to be the core make up of their future. Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Ibaka. All four are superbly talented, but again, who is there to teach them how it all works. Sam Presti needs to go out and secure the Thunder a no nonsense veteran that will put Westbrook into his place and inspire Durant to become the leader of that team. When that dynamic is settled out, the rest will fall into place, but the beauty of MJ and Pippen was that Pippen knew his place, and that’s a lesson Westbrook will need to learn in order for the Thunder to reach their full potential.

This theory holds true for nearly all of the top young stars in the league. In Orlando, a lack of veteran presence has possibly been the hold up on Dwight Howard reaching his full potential. Despite their fading talent, the old guard still has a role to play in the development of the new guard; the only issue is whether or not they are willing to listen.

The second theory on why the new group of NBA stars seems to lack the “killer” gene stems back before any of them stepped onto a college basketball court, much less a professional one. Many of the leagues young stars played in one of the biggest booms of AAU basketball to date. Any young star worth his salt in an NBA uniform surely played in the ranks of AAU ball, being placed on select teams with other great talents and traveling the country to play the same teams again and again in different tournaments. The AAU dynamic is one that has not received much credit to the cause of the, “lets all be friends attitude.”

The fact of the matter is; many NBA players have actually shared the same basketball court for years by the time they reach the pros. Players like Kevin Love and Michael Beasley played AAU ball together, and their only one of hundreds of examples of this. Even if players weren’t on the same team, it’s almost a guarantee that at more than one point during their career they played another great player. Add this on top of the fact that many players play for multiple teams, chasing the teams that provide the most exposure and talent. All of this wrapped up creates an environment in which players are constantly in contact with other great players, developing friendships that are reignited at next tournament and carried upwards through their careers.

Team hopping and consistently facing the same competition also creates the need to acclimate to any team or set of teammates. This dynamic was especially well chronicled in George Dohrmann’s book, “Play Their Hearts Out.” Recent findings with the questionable recruiting done by perennial powerhouse Indiana AAU also demonstrate the darker side of competitive amateur basketball.

The combination of these two ideas, a past dominated by AAU basketball and the current lack of veteran leadership on many young NBA teams has led to the situation the league finds itself in now; an aging group of old veterans with an old school attitude, and a crop of young stars emerging in the league, carrying with them a new kind of competitiveness, one in which everyone can seemingly turn off the switch with the final buzzer and all be friends the same night.

(Originally Posted At Two Point Diversion)

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