Call it what you will. Passing the torch. Falling from grace. Time catches up to all of us. There is no cure for aging. Ask Kobe Bryant, who despite a 42 point showing in Game 5, has spectators and analysts doubting whether or not he can lead the Lakers to another championship. The youth and energy of upcoming teams like the Thunder is not only scary for opposing teams and fans, but it makes you wonder how much time some teams have to put together a contending team, and execute. Watching the mess known as the New York Knicks scramble for a seventh seed, and make their second consecutive first round exit left fans wanting more, but the bigger question remains. How much time do players like Carmelo Anthony have left to make a run? Dwight Howard, who seems to battle paranoid schizophrenia on a daily basis, may land on a contending team, but who’s to say they won’t have an equally difficult time establishing chemistry with him? Stan Van Gundy will tell you himself it isn’t easy.
If you look at the Celtics, it was only four years ago when they formed a “Big Three,” and made a phenomenal championship run with the help of a young Rajon Rondo. Despite what energy Kevin Garnett still brings to the team on a nightly basis, you can’t honestly say he is the same player that made the Timberwolves relevant with Stephon Marbury, who has been exiled to Beijing. It is still a question as to whether or not they will bring him back. Ray Allen, also known as Jesus Shuttlesworth, who enters free agency this off season, will more than likely end up coming off the bench as nothing more than a spot shooter. Paul Pierce will be in the backseat with Rondo orchestrating. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but it is always sad to see players come and go. Five years ago, a favorite player of mine, Baron Davis, unleashed a monster dunk on Andrei Kirilenko, which is still something I end up looking at, and drooling over, almost every time I’m on YouTube . Now, wheelchair basketball seems like a more likely option for him, at 33 years old. It wasn’t so long ago that Tim Duncan was a mentor to a very young Tony Parker. It hasn’t been that long since we watched Tracy McGrady devastate crowds with two consecutive scoring titles, or Kobe become the number one option in Los Angeles. Or has it?
The game evolves. Shaquille O’Neal, who stuck around a few seasons too long, is testament to that. Watching him on the Celtics was like watching Patrick Ewing stumble up and down the court with the Magic, or Hakeem Olajuwon on the Raptors. Players stick around for one last hurrah, and try to find ways to be effective. Karl Malone in LA, and Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen in Houston showed bursts of their old selves, but mostly displayed the erosion of their skills and mobility. If you look at Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, they have been supremely effective in utilizing experience to grow as a player, rather than succumbing to age. Gary Payton was able to become a role player to much success, being a factor in the Heat’s 2006 Championship team. Grant Hill has made a successful resurgence as well. Already though, you see Dirk Nowitzki, 33, and Jason Kidd, 40, being eliminated in the first round as a sign that they are not enough to build a team around anymore. The exit of Tyson Chandler, 29, hurt, as did the aging Lamar Odom’s let down of a season.
The talent pool of the NBA is rapidly expanding. Look at Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. These young men are playing at a level even Michael Jordan couldn’t reach until his 7th year in the NBA, despite receiving his first MVP award in 1988. He could break all the records in the league, but getting past teams like the Piston’s “Bad Boys” proved to be too much for him. As we watched the Thunder blow past the Mavericks, and the Lakers and turn the tables against the Spurs, this was not the case.
Young rosters, like the 76ers, and the Pacers, proved to be effective in ways no one would have imagined. The Pacers crushed the Magic, and were fairly effective against Miami too. The Sixers, with a little help from Derrick Rose’s knee, beat the Bulls, and gave Boston a run for their money after an appearance from Allen Iverson, who would be all but irrelevant if it weren’t for his marital problems. The Knicks, for instance, have found two young starters in Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, who have been effective since they were drafted. This is evidence that when teams are capped out, the college level provides an alternative to free agency with great potential.
For players like Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul, fans must be wondering how much time is left for them to establish their identity with a team and contend for a championship. Some of them have yet to display the maturity and commitment it takes to bring their team to the next level. Amar’e Stoudemire for example, lost a fight to a fire extinguisher exhausted by a season that provided overwhelming evidence of his deterioration. Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, and Chris Bosh may very well have their way with the young Thunder, and establish themselves as a dynasty for years to come, but the window is closing slowly, for them and many others as the league’s premier players get younger and younger.
You can pile up all the statistics you want, but records will be broken. Someone better will always come along. The league will evolve. Fans will forget how good you were. We seek immortality through our legacy. Fans live for dynasties. Rings are forever.