By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, February 14, 2009
PHOENIX Finally, nobody is fretting over a lack of heirs to Michael Jordan.
No long shadow looms over Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. A league built on and sustained by star power appears on the verge of a renaissance. It's spread across the league pretty evenly, from Boston's Big Three to Chris Paul in New Orleans to Portland's Brandon Roy in the Northwest, circling back down to D. Wade and Dwight Howard in the Southeast and an even more decorated Big Three in San Antonio.
Even as Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson and Steve Nash are eclipsed, the NBA seems in better shape than it's been in a while as the league celebrates its All-Star Weekend here in Arizona. Commissioner David Stern, in a recent conversation, said the league wouldn't have thrived on the one-superstar model, as was dangerously close to being the case in the late 1990s when Jordan wrapped up his Chicago Bulls career. Fortunately, the NBA doesn't have to confront such a situation.
Without question, a handful of franchises -- most notably the Knicks, Nets, Bobcats, Clippers, Warriors and Kings -- are noticeably lacking in star power and perhaps not coincidentally are acting as the league's homecoming opponents. The Washington Wizards, comfortably in last place in the Eastern Conference, have been crippled by the loss of their biggest star, Gilbert Arenas. Even so, last-place Oklahoma City has reason to be encouraged by the emergence of Kevin Durant. And the Bulls, in at least their third rebuilding plan since Jordan's retirement, might have finally gotten it right with the selection of rookie guard Derrick Rose, not only a star in training, but a homegrown one.
But this season, especially evident in the two weeks leading up to All-Star Weekend, is about LeBron and Kobe, the same way it used to be about Magic and Bird, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving before that, and Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell before that. The league has always relied on instantly identifiable stars, beginning with George Mikan.
And unlike pro football and Major League Baseball, basketball championships almost always revolved around them.
It was exactly 10 years ago that the iconic stars expressed their disgust with the younger generation of NBA players. Erving, the biggest star of them all in the late 1970s, recalled yesterday that the league was suddenly being driven "by a bunch of kids who simply felt, 'It's our turn.' There were so many high school kids who were not aware. They were too young, not sensitized, who didn't know the history of the game."
Erving virtually beamed when talking about the likes of LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Garnett and Paul. "They appear driven to challenge the standards," Erving said. "I walk by the newsstand every day and LeBron is everywhere. But I must say Kobe is still carrying the torch. You know he's saying, 'LeBron, you're not just going to take this!' And I think that's kinda nice. David [Stern] has got to be happy. There are guys now who are more aware, who are more savvy, who have the technological savvy to engage the fans. It's like the guys who are the biggest stars now realize: 'Hey, we're part of something bigger than us that started long before us. We have an obligation to make this better.' "
And so, the best players lead the best teams and have put the league in a much more favorable light than it had been. The singular stars of the Cavaliers and Lakers battling threesomes in Boston (Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce) and in San Antonio (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker) are what the league and its fans fantasize about. Except for LeBron, all of the above have championship rings. And all, to some degree, have personalities that sell, but none more than LeBron and Kobe.
Some found it unimaginable five years ago that Bryant, his reputation trashed by an accusation of sexual assault, could ever again reach icon status. But he has. His No. 24 jersey is the league's top seller.
He's the unquestioned, undisputed star and leader of a championship contender and probably the No. 1 draw in the league. Last season's MVP award was the official acknowledgement that he'd done something else previously unthinkable -- morphed from selfish, petulant soloist to team player. He's even more popular in China than in the United States and on the day he accepted his MVP award, answered a Spanish-speaking reporter's question in Spanish, no better than his third language.
Yet the man positioned to become a bigger global star than Kobe is LeBron, even from Cleveland. He might be the first player to have the undying adoration of two cities (New York is the other). His jersey might not be as popular as Kobe's, but his commercial portfolio is bigger.
They're the leading contenders -- some would say the only serious ones -- for league MVP. The NBA couldn't be happier, especially because the teams chasing them all have established all-stars. Miami is a factor again because of Wade, New Orleans because of Paul, Denver because of Chauncey Billups, Houston because of Yao Ming and Orlando because of Dwight Howard, the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game.
Howard, if basketball is lucky, will be the last player to become a star without the benefit of college. The rule forcing players to attend college for at least one year has certainly worked for the league, and one could easily argue the player, even if his riches are deferred for a season or two. It would be stupid to argue that Chicago's Rose didn't benefit greatly from learning how to run an offense at Memphis, and from leading his team to the NCAA championship game. Durant's quantum leap forward in his second season is at least partly attributable to his apprenticeship at Texas.
The NBA, in its next round of negotiating with the players, ought to push for players staying in college a second season. Stern, asked about such a scenario, said he didn't want to begin negotiating with union chief Billy Hunter in the media. But clearly the league has to be thrilled with the results, and having eliminated the wild card of trying to accurately project what in the world a high school player will do in the NBA. Brook Lopez, not yet a star, nonetheless is starting to play like he might be one some day. Clearly, two years of college basketball at Stanford helped his transition. The Nets rookie told USA Today this week, "I thought I'd eventually work myself up to this, but not this quickly."
Imagine how much better, say, Kwame Brown would have been had he played at Florida for two years. Imagine how much stronger Shaun Livingston might have been had he developed his body and his game while playing with boys instead of men. A half-generation of players stunted their growth by never playing college basketball, and the NBA paid dearly for it because so many never became the kinds of stars the league depends on, which is what the league's elders objected to a decade ago.
"But what I'm seeing now," Erving said, "is stars with the right attitude putting forth the necessary effort. The guys who played for Team USA took that back to their teams. What a league needs, and what we seem to have again, is guys playing to the level of the very best players."