In 1999, Michael Jordan retired (we are going to just pretend that whole debacle of a comeback with the Washington Wizards never happened, ok) and a big deal was made about who among the current crop of NBA players would replace him. Many acted as if the NBA would shrivel up and die without his presence. Considering Jordan was the preeminent player of his time (and to some the best NBA player ever) his absence left large shoes to fill. Many thought the heir apparent was Kobe Bryant who was three years into his career and seemed to pattern his entire game after Jordan. Kobe never quite lived up to those lofty expectations but built his own great career and 12 years later, the NBA is undergoing yet another changing of the guard.
For the first time in this millennium, the NBA Finals will be without several of its greats. Tim Duncan, arguably the best power forward of all time, was eliminated by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. The aforementioned Bryant was swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round. The Boston Celtics “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Piece were sent packing by the Miami Heat. The elimination of that team means we’ve likely seen the last of Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant big man in the NBA for 15 years. But unlike the end of Jordan’s career there is no big debate about who’s got next. Those three teams have accounted for every NBA championship except one since the turn of the century. That one championship was won by the Miami Heat and that team contained a declining but still dominant Shaquille O’Neal and a young, quick guard named Dwyane Wade.
Wade is one of the many young stars left to carry the torch of the NBA. Luckily, he shares a team with the Duke University of the league, LeBron James. People either love or hate LeBron and they do it with a passion. The great thing is no matter which side of the fence people fall on, they watch him. Ratings have increased this year after all of the drama of LeBron’s decision in the offseason (which he apologized for last night). The Miami Heat team has two of the NBA’s best players and, barring injury, has the potential to win multiple championships. But the one great thing about this time in the NBA: there are more teams and players in position to win than there have been in recent memory.
The new guard of the NBA includes two teams that have been out of the spotlight in the past few years who have retooled and rebuilt and should peak beginning next season, the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks. The Bulls have the reigning MVP of the league, Derrick Rose, who at age 22 is the youngest to ever win the award. His team had the best record in the NBA and, although young, has a very bright future. The New York Knicks brought in Amar’e Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony to be cornerstones of a franchise that, if it learns to play defense, could outscore any team on any night. Then there’s Kevin Durant, the quiet and unassuming scoring machine. Durant’s Oklahoma City team is young, hungry, and most of all talented. If someone can convince Russell Westbrook to play the role of Scottie Pippen and not Stephon Marbury there is no limit to what that team could become. There are other outstanding young stars that could make a difference in the coming years once they have teams around them. Stay on the lookout for Blake Griffin, John Wall, and Kevin Love to make noise in the near future.
If I’m David Stern, I would do everything I can to ensure the labor agreement is in place quickly so the NBA can begin marketing geared toward the changing of the guard. There’s an opportunity to introduce some of the lesser known faces to the average fan and continue to move the league forward. I wouldn’t hold on too tightly or be too sorry to see some of my greats move on because the NBA will be in good hands for a long while.