As I watch this modern version of basketball I often wonder where the game is going. I wonder how these stars will change the way the game is played and what coaching strategies will make the game look different in an arbitrary date it the near future like 2015.
Thanks to my near obsessive level of interest in basketball (I listen to Sports Guy Podcasts for the simple reason that Bill Simmons is a basketball nut, own the Chicago Bulls Dynasty DVD released by the NBA, and look forward to every NBA game on ESPN Classic) I like to think I have at least a decent base of knowledge to prophesize that future of the game.
I know that the five positions in basketball used to just three (guard, forward, center) before the ‘80s. I know that the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers were undeniably great in the ‘80s but did not face the same type of defense that exists in today’s game (even when players are not trying). I know that ripped players only started becoming commonplace a decade later. I know that Pat Riley almost killed the game after using guerilla warfare tactics with the New York Knicks in the ‘90s. I know that Michael Jordan brought a street mentality to the game with an emphasis on driving that equally hindered the game.
I also know that LeBron James is a sign of good times for the NBA and basketball in America.
The game in the late ‘90s suffered as a new generation of players trying to emulate Jordan. Unfortunately the only person who could do Jordan was Jordan (note the “was;” his Wizards years definitely make that statement deserving of past tense). Suddenly the ball was not moving. The stale half court drives were further complicated by defenses that hacked pushed and beat down the tempo.
Today, the new player everyone wants to be is LeBron. Not only is he a nice guy who stays out of trouble (making David Stern and his Chicken Little Suburban demographic happy), but he is also a great player who embraces the idea of team play.
The Cleveland Cavs superstar takes as much pride in throwing lobs for Anderson Varejao and kick out passes to Delonte West as he does driving to the basket and power dunking over every seven-foot Frenchman in his path.
It also helps that he is making defense a Sportscenter highlight. I am sure coaches would rather see solid players holding there positions with their arms straight up in the air, but they should be happy that the chase down block is at least giving the idea of defense a little sex appeal.
It is not just LeBron loving the D. Kobe Bryant is a tenacious perimeter defender out West with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dwayne Wade is diving for steals with the same intensity and brilliance that has him finding a way to the rim through three or four defenders for the Miami Heat. Superstars are identified for their complete game more and more, otherwise Carmelo Anthony would be listed among the top five players in the league.
Before this influx of new superstars, basketball found temporary saviors in Don Nelson and the Dallas Mavericks and Rick Adelman and the Sacramento Kings. They were bound to be only a bridge though. Their emphasis on back door cuts and talented passing and shooting big men breathed a little life into the game.
That bridge entertained the few remaining NBA diehards until the beginnings of this new era of basketball. A new era that has and will be as defined by the coaches as much as by the players mentioned above. Coach Mike D’Antoni picked up where Nellie left off, nearly winning the championship with the Phoenix Suns and his shooter happy, seven-seconds-or-less madness.
Basketball pundits harp on the lack of a big man and defense as two championship dream killers and seem to consider the Suns success and style of play an anomaly. I think that, like Riley, his strategy will infuse a new energy and strategy into the game. Teams may not approach offense with such reckless abandon, but they will appreciate ball movement and shooters and the money that comes with embracing those aspects. The D’Antoni system will be the hyperbole that will give way to a freer flowing offense that is sure to permeate the league.
It will not be minor changes in infractions on the wings that alter the game flow as Stern would have you believe. These changes may serve as some small aid, but it is ultimately up to the coaches and the players themselves to truly change the game. They are like the banks who must lend this new capital to get things moving again.
I believe a new golden age is coming soon with team concepts preached by coaches and styles of play valued by players that will make basketball something everyone can enjoy, not something just us basketball junkies must have every single day.