A slew of tanked games. Lame big-market teams all over the place. Injured stars galore. Can you recall an NBA season with so many disappointments, so little excitement?
Now ask yourself this, Bango: What would the No Buzz Association be without Kevin Durant and LeBron James, its two best and most marketable talents at the moment?
One notch above the Big Ten Conference, I say.
So if I’m new commish Adam Silver, I ask the basketball gods to keep Durant and James upright the next four months or so. Then I instruct my people to make sure, uh, I say another prayer that the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat meet in the NBA Finals this spring. Because that’s the only way the league can salvage something from this train wreck of a season.
If the last few weeks have been a sneak preview, then a Durant-Thunder/James-Heat showdown has the potential to be an epic series at best, must-see television at the very least. No offense to the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs, legitimate contenders in their own right, but each lacks the star power that has driven the league since the George Mikan days. Only the Los Angles Clippers have the mix of marquee talent and market size to be a reasonable alternative. Even then, as much as Blake Griffin has taken his game to new heights this season, the Clip Joint has no one of Durant’s ballistic capabilities.
But if James is a no-show, then Silver and company may as well cancel the showcase event, advance to the draft and collect nothing in the process. You may love him, you may loathe him, but either way, you can’t help but watch him.
There shouldn’t be any question about which player wears the pants in the league, but if there was any, then James responded in another loud voice in his latest performance. In a victory against the Golden State Warriors on the road, he went off for 36 points (along with 13 rebounds and nine assists) and did it in almost every way imaginable. A breakaway dunk. A step-back three-pointer. A baseline drive punctuated by a ridiculous reverse slam. Then pair of triples with the game on the line in the final minute.
The greatness of James was on full display in the final sequence. Far beyond the three-point arc, his team behind by two points while the seconds ticked down, he held the ball long enough for head coach Erik Spoelstra to believe a time-out was in order. “He would have had to run to halfcourt to get that time-out,” James would say later. No sooner did Warriors TV analyst Jim Barnett get “Make somebody else beat you” out of his mouth than James hoisted a fade-away 27-footer over Andre Iguodala, one of the best defenders in the league. Nothing but net. Buzzer.
Go ahead, try that in your driveway.
“I’m cold-blood! I’m cold-blooded!” James shrieked like a giddy kid on his way to the locker room.
Yet Durant has been so otherworldly himself this season, the Who’s best? debate is worth more than two words for a change. In their most recent matchup, Durant scored 33 points, James responded with 34 and Durant’s team won on the road. That was fairly indicative of the Most Valuable Player race, which has the new-and-improved Durant in front by a neck right now. I mean, the guy reached the 40-point mark more times in January alone than any other player had the entire season. Even more impressive is the fact that, with Durant in an expanded role, the Thunder own the league’s best record despite the loss of Russell Westbrook, whose absence has barely been noticed the last two months.
That’s precisely the kind of one-upsmanship that the the league sorely missed in the Michael Jordan era. I covered each of his six league titles, and my biggest regret was that he didn’t have a rival to push him hard in any of them. As hard as the Patrick Ewings and the Karl Malones tried and tried again, they weren’t a match for him. Better yet, James often is paired against Durant and vice versa, something that even the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson wars didn’t have back in the day.
Don’t think for a second that James doesn’t hear footsteps at the moment. Has for several weeks, in fact. Last month he admitted to some envy about Durant’s expansive role in the offense. “I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he’s like 16-for-32 (from the field) and then 14-for-34. . . . Man,” James told ESPN. “But there are games where I have it going, and then at the end of the game, I’m like, ‘Damn, I shot just 12-for-16? Why don’t I get up at least six or seven more?’ I definitely notice it.”
Then James took what some considered to be a gentle poke at Durant when he added, “I’m not much of a forced-shot guy.”
There was a time not long ago that, when somebody or something got inside James’ head, it wasn’t always a good thing. The next Jordan was the anti-Jordan too often, known to shrivel up in big moments while he deferred to lesser teammates. But on one memorable shot late in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last spring, James seemed to chuck whatever insecurity he may have had once and for all.
The new King James version boldly draws a line in the sand, as the reigning MVP did the other day, when he announced his intention to be part of the NBA version of Mount Rushmore eventually. “I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure,” James said when asked by NBA TV about his fab four recently. “And if they don’t want me to have one of those top four spots, they’d better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody’s gotta get bumped, but that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the architects.”
James called Jordan, Bird and Johnson “easy three” choices for the mountaintop. After a long pause, he added Oscar Robertson as his final pick. By my count, that’s two hits, two misses, which qualifies as a slump for him these days. Durant hasn’t been 2-of-4 since he was a first baseman in high school, it seems.
The inclusion of Jordan is a six-inch putt. I can’t think of a player in any professional sport who dominated everyone from opponents to teammates to referees to league executives to media like he did for more than a decade. Top two players of all time? As His Airness liked to say back in the day, “Most definitely.” I’m not sure about numero uno, though.
LeBron, I’d like you to meet Wilt Chamberlain . . .
When it comes to individual dominance, five players immediately come to mind — Wilt Chamberlain, Wilt the Stilt, The Big Dipper, Goliath and just plain Wilt in that order. You know about his 100 points in one game and 50.4-point and 25.7-rebound averages in one season — Shaquille O’Neal had as many as 50 and 26 in one game exactly . . . never?! But were you aware that, while Jordan changed the game from a marketing standpoint like nobody before or since, Wilt just changed the game – period?
See the free throw lane? It was widened to move Wilt the heck away from the basket. Know the offensive goaltending rule? That was adopted because he had guided too many passes and shots into the basket with ridiculous ease. Know why you can’t cross the free throw line to retrieve your own missed shot? Because Wilt did it so often in high school, where his max was 22 feet in the high jump, it finally had to be abolished. Uh, he is not on the list of best free-throw shooters ever.
That takes us to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another guy who has been overlooked by more than James over the years. Cap hasn’t played in 25 years, yet he still ranks first in points, minutes played and total win shares in league history. He was Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player six times and NBA Finals MVP twice. Most of all, he was a winner – three consecutive national championships in college, a half-dozen more in pros.
Perhaps you heard of the Sky Hook? How about Airplane! then?
Then there’s Robertson, who many in the ESPN generation have forgotten but James knows well. The Big O spent most of his college and pro career in Cincinnati. James is an Akron guy. Physically and talent-wise, Big O abused opponents a lot like James does now. He’s also the one James plans to knock off the mountaintop eventually. James is next in line, it says here, but there’s enough room for him and Robertson on the same mountain. After all, basketball is a five-man game, and this is the expansion era.
Of course, Durant may have something to say about the pecking order before all is said and done. Best to give chisels to the two best players on the planet, I say, and let them hammer it out themselves. Come playoff time, Mount Rushmore may not be big enough for them. If the league and its fans are lucky, Mount Everest will be more like it.