Setting The Stage
Dwight and Nash in LA. “Not one, not two…” You know the rest. Miami needed at least two to avoid reliving the summer of derision. Oklahoma City’s continued ascent, its resolve steeled by a finals loss (don’t take my word for it, Durant was losing sleep!) and the summer intrigue of Presti’s decision that James Harden was expendable. The 2012-2013 NBA Season would bring the maturation of the uber-talented Clippers, whose ceiling remained unknown. So too did we await the return of Derek Rose and the leap year for Rondo.
Reasons for hope in the desperate doldrums of the NBA. Bynum in Philadelphia, smack in the middle of an Eastern conference that lacked the size to stop him. The first thawing of the Minnesota tundra since Garnett’s departure – Rubio and Love would be on full display for the first time. Stern’s handpicked new star in New Orleans. Hell, the fatally flawed rosters in Golden State and Milwaukee would be fun to watch with those guards.
Even the downers were drowned out. Sure, Dallas was spurned and shaken. But Dork Elvis finally got his man. And we’d get no reprieve from the annually incomparably depressing Atlanta Hawks. But hey, the Nets in Brooklyn baby! So what if it was an overpaid collection of stars who’d seen their best days paired with a charisma-less Lopez twin.
Completely healthy Memphis and Indiana squads, together with improved rosters in Denver and Portland, lurked in the background alongside its usual resident – the up-tempo, yet somehow seemingly slow-plodding Spurs. Everyone licked their chops for the long overdue Kobe and Lebron showdown in the Finals. Even that expectation, which felt somewhat preordained, lacked the certitude that detracted from many a season past. OKC simply was too good to overlook.
All the big players had a lot on the line. Kobe’s last best chance. Durant nipped at Lebron’s heels; each needed this season in his column, Lebron to validate his status amongst Michael, Magic, Bird, Kobe, Shaq, and Hakeem, and Durant to become something more than the latest incarnation of “I’ve got next.” (All apologies to the WNBA, which it appears, does not, in fact, have next). Dwight had a reputation to rebuild. Wade needed to reverse a decline that could no longer be so easily dismissed. At what point is someone’s injury diminished play the new normal? D-Will had a contract to justify, while Carmelo shouldered NYC sized expectations. Could Westbrook do more without Harden? Could Chris Paul get more from Blake Griffin? Moreover, could Paul cement his status as the alpha-dog in a once in a generation bumper crop of point guards?
Still more questions beckoned. Mark Cuban wouldn’t really waste Dirk’s last semi-elite years, would he? Could Rondo’s rise and an infusion of backcourt talent squeeze blood from the Celtic turnip? Could Nash blend his game with Kobe’s, and vice-versa? What did Duncan, Ginobili, Garnett, Pierce, Nash, and Nowitzki really have left? The litany of questions made it easy to forget that Lebron was coming off of a pretty good year. Could he top it?
Yup, this season would be one for the ages.
What Went Right
Golden State’s Revival. The Warriors came from nowhere, as Curry made the leap, Thompson played his way into the all-star discussion, Barnes flashed serious potential, David Lee became underrated after being overrated until we decided he was overrated again, and Bogut got sort of healthy. Oh, yeah, and Jarret Jack is much better than we thought.
James Harden! He proved that he wasn’t merely feasting on KD and Russ’s leftovers. Harden was ready for a leading role, although he also proved that he wasn’t ready to submit an Oscar nomination worthy performance, let alone an Oscar winning one. And beyond Harden, the Rockets have something. What that something is will largely be decided this summer. If they manage to snag Dwight, that something is a legitimate contender for years to come. If not, it’s hard to see how anyone else that they could sign this summer – think along the lines of Josh Smith, Iguodala, or David West – spins that something into more than a rich man’s Denver Nuggets (rich only because Harden’s two levels beyond anyone on Denver’s roster).
Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. Gritty, gritty display of defensive prowess coupled with smart coaching all the way up to game 7 of the ECF. Hats off – in this order – to (1) Frank Vogel, a top five coach in the league, (2) Paul George, (3) Roy Hibbert, (4) David West, and (5) George Hill. Great season made greater considering the upper-middling, top-heavy talent on the roster. So I hate to be a buzz kill, because I really like George’s game. But dynamic, respectable, losing playoff performances have a way of catapulting a player’s stock well beyond its fair market value. Remember Mike Bibby?
PG13 (trying to steal that from Simmons, but it feels awkward…the moniker, not the stealing) demonstrated beyond a doubt that he’s a gamer, an elite wing defender, and a burgeoning shooter consistently capable of pouring in 20ppg., and every so often going off for 30+. And he’s only 21. So he’s an all-star, a real threat for 2nd Team All-NBA and 1st Team All Defense, and likely to emerge as Lebron’s biggest rival for years to come. I’d like to think that the last part is readily identifiable sarcasm, but someone who we all watch comment on these games actually said that. Then, everyone’s favorite analyst, Bill Simmons (never one to let his own history of knee jerks get in the way of the next one) boldly proclaimed that he wished he could’ve amended his trade value column to rank George third. Huh? Why? (Ditto the dumbfounded reaction for similar claims about Steph Curry.) Suddenly, we’d take George over Westbrook? Over Paul? Before Rose, Howard, Brow, Melo, and Kyrie? Man, I don’t know about that. Improve the ball-handling. Get to the basket more often. Add something more than a turn around jumper to your offensive game. Essentially, show me that you can run a successful offense through Paul George. Then, let’s talk. Until then, like I said, man, I don’t know about that.
Relevant Basketball in New York. Carmelo’s been there for three years now. Yet, this was the first season that the Knicks felt relevant. Big credit to J. Kidd, Mike Woodson, Carmelo, and even Ray Felton for making that mini-leap. Of course, that momentum halted in the playoffs, when too many predictable injuries to the old-timers caught up to them. Oh yeah, and what happened to Tyson Chandler? Always significantly overrated after the Dallas title, Chandler seemed like such a bystander in the playoffs that more serious questions about his future are warranted. Maybe Cubes was on to something after all. Not to be forgotten, the Nets were occasionally watchable, and would have been more so if I could have stopped thinking about the Gerald Wallace acquisition (millstone?). D-Will appeared poised to become the next Marbury, then snapped out of it with a string of performances that reminded us why he was ever compared, even favorably, to Chris Paul. I’m still not totally sure whether D-Will will be more asset than albatross over the next three years. But I’m increasingly convinced that Brook Lopez is good, despite the lackluster rebounding.
Misc. The Nuggets dispelled the myth that you need a superstar to win, until they proved once again that it’s no myth at all. Damian Lillard’s really good. Kyrie Irving and the Cavs appear poised for great things. Thibideau’s even better than we thought. Kobe and Timmy turned back the page with some prolific displays of athleticism that we thought they’d left behind three (Kobe) to six (Duncan) years ago. Marc Gasol continued to make that 2008 trade look better and better for Memphis, and Mike Conley really is a top-ten point guard.
The Finals. Confession time. This post was under construction before Miami and San Antonio turned in what was – at least from a basketball purist’s perspective – the best finals in more than 20 years. (One might argue that for all of the great ball and enthralling finishes, the series lacked a certain verve. This is probably because no one on the Spurs is a dick – should’ve kept Captain Jack around after all. If you haven’t heard yet, THE SPURS ARE BORING!). Close games, strategic twists, the collapse and resurrection of Lebron, legacy saving shots, and more generally, two evenly matched heavy weights trading blows through the final minutes of Game 7, when it appeared that each was poised to collapse at multiple junctures far earlier in the series.
And so it wouldn’t be such a stretch to pen a column entitled, “How the Finals Saved The 2012-2013 NBA Season.” But I’m not ready to go there.