Back in Black
Out of its own ashes comes the phoenix—although not this year, as Phoenix has been wallowing in its ashes for some time. However, HT is now entering a new phase after months of rebuilding and relearning the pick-and-roll. We’ve studied game footage late into the night. We’ve worked on our typing and on our joke delivery. We’ve experimented with open mics at jazz nightclubs and putting banners on propellor planes. And boy, are we ready.
This edition of the NBA Finals has featured a seesawing push-me-pull-you between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. We could turn this into another analysis of LeBron James’ many talents, ranging from his post-up game to his spectacular blocks to his violin skills.
Likewise, from the Spurs side, bloggers have been alternately supportive of, dismissive of, and puzzled by the Spurs’ aged stars, random journeymen, and low profile. Even the BBC has jumped on this bandwagon. The Tracy McGrady story is quite tempting, admittedly. This is the same player who burned the Spurs in December 2004 for 13 points in 33 seconds, turning a seeming defeat into a famous win that still surfaces in any discussion of improbable comebacks. McGrady, though, has mostly remained on the bench and only rumors of his prowess in practices have filtered through.
At least McGrady didn’t turn into a latter-day Stephon Marbury and build a statue to his own ego. If nothing else, McGrady has fit in well with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the quiet, steely players from San Antonio.
Then, dear readers, you may be asking yourselves what this post actually is about and why it’s worthwhile to read. Chris Bosh and his continued raptor-like visage? Is Dwyane Wade turning into Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway?
The answer lies behind the teams in the nature of the NBA itself, a league that is at a major crossroad. With the hype around the NBA Finals, several major stories have been buried or pushed aside:
- Derrick Rose’s recovery from and return
- Kobe Bryant’s recovery and his nearing retirement
- David Stern’s retirement in February 2014
- the retirements of Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, co-Rookies of the Year in 1994-95
- the renaming of the New Orleans Hornets to the New Orleans Pelicans (no, that’s not a joke)
Additionally, the 2013 NBA Draft is a reminder of the subtle shift of the NBA over the last decade. Following changes to eligibility, promoted by Stern and others, the composition of the NBA has reverted to the late 1990s. Clubs are less willing to gamble on internationals (think Darko Milicic), and without straight-from-high-school players games appear more polished, more competitive.
The Eastern Conference looks better balanced, with genuine contenders in the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, and, of course, the Miami Heat. The New York Knicks will soon shake themselves straight—or at least we hope they will.
In the West, as the Spurs and Lakers ride into the sunset, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets, and the Memphis Grizzlies have played excellent basketball for the last few seasons and are champing at the bit for the opportunity to win a championship.
Pundits will comment that all time periods are in periods of greater and lesser flux. True; but this is a major inflexion point. The 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s were hardly eras of great social mobility, dominated as they were by the Celtics, Celtics and Lakers, and Bulls, respectively. The last major end of an era, the late 1990s, ushered in a dark age with two Finals appearances by the New Jersey Nets. Fortunately, this promises to be a fruitful transition:
- the last players of the golden mid-1990s are retiring or winding down their careers: the aforementioned Kidd and Hill, Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, to name a few
- the late 1990s and early 2000s produced generally poor drafts
- one of the best drafts in recent memory, 2003, has yielded a strong crop of rising statesmen in the game: James, Carmelo Anthony, Wade, and Bosh were four of the first five picks, after all
- later drafts have played out well: Rose and Kevin Durant immediately come to mind
The NBA lives and dies with the quality of its play, regardless of the plots and intrigues fomented by the media, the NCAA, the players, and various other actors. The lockout last season did not damage the league as much as it could have because of the high-quality basketball played afterwards. The best comparison of this NBA Finals might be with 1991: the aging Lakers against the rising Bulls. The Spurs have played better than their Lakers counterparts, but the similarities are striking. Fortunately, the league, as in the early 1990s, is poised for a new, prosperous era.
Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s matchup, the Spurs will don their away black and travel back to Miami for at least one more game. HT is back in the black and white of internet ink. And the NBA is at a crossroads, much like AC/DC was before the release of Back in Black. The band almost broke up following the death of a member but continued to forge on. Hundreds of millions of albums sold and 30 years later, they go on strong. The NBA will, I hope, take this opportunity to solidify its strengths and work on rebranding and refining itself for another decade.
†Courtesy of Google +, another of LeBron’s stunning marketing successes.