Yet another NBA season is complete and the Los Angeles Lakers proved kings of the mountain. Congratulations and coronations are certainly in order for the team and its King of Kings Kobe Bryant, but, to me, the best part of the 2008-09 season was watching how immense the actual mountain itself has become. The depth of talent across the League and the new generation’s approach to the game is as refreshing as it is impressive, and a new Golden Age of the NBA now seems imminent.
Depending on your individual outlook, the Association’s renaissance began anywhere from two to six years ago, but after yet another great season, there is no denying the fact that the NBA is in a better place now than it has been at any time since MJ stuck that iconic pull-back jumper over Bryon Russell in 1998. Kobe is unquestionably among the all-time elite. LeBron is Haley’s Comet. Chris Paul is the best point guard since Magic. Dwyane is a combination of relentless and universally appealing that we haven’t seen since Jordan. Dwight is an athlete rivaled only by cartoon characters. Duncan is a sage old man. KG is a warrior hoping for one last battle. And dozens of other All-Star caliber players are putting on spectacular shows across the League every night of the season.
Much larger than any individual’s effect on the NBA, however, is that the fact that, not only do these future legends play the game the right way, but the concept that the only style of basketball that can win is team basketball is again paramount. The Jordan Era mythos that great individual players can will their teams to victory has evaporated. Whether that revelation came before LeBron’s highly favored Cavs lost in the Eastern Conference Finals a few weeks ago or back when Kobe’s 35 ppg average earned him little more than awe and a first-round Playoff exit is irrelevant; all that matters now is that every competent GM and, more importantly, every competent fan now knows that no team can contend for a title without a solid four- or five-player nucleus that knows how to play together — and is willing to do so. The days of getting excited when a franchise pairs a few mercurial mercenaries and just rolls the ball out on the court hoping for the best are over. If your team is serious about competing for a title you need a core of talented players who complement each other like Kobe, Pau, Lamar and Ariza just did for the past two months. You need KG, Pierce and Ray Allen. You need Dwight, Hedo and Rashard. You need Carmelo, Chauncey, Nene and KMart. And you need them all on the same page with a focused agenda on winning.
The successful teams in 2009 were built around depth, defense and details. There are very few players remaining on the elite teams in the League who ever seem to put their personal play above the team’s mission. The players who now matter in the League — almost to a man — have learned from the Ghosts of Failure’s past like Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Antoine Walker. The other teams and other players in the NBA have gotten too good to beat any of them by going two on five. An indifferent, lethargic tandem of Baron Davis and Zach Randolph can’t even get you 20 wins in this League anymore. And after a decade of watching half the teams in the NBA flounder directly after making high-profile acquisitions — as the 2009 Clippers just did — we now have a League where the Los Angeles junior varsity club is the exception as opposed to the rule.
In many ways, the current Clipper incarnation is like Frito Lay’s failed attempt at putting together a party mix. (Bear with me; I’m not even high.)
I still remember the first time I saw a bag of Frito’s new product “Munchies” when it first came out a few years back. Four of the company’s flagship chips were together in a single bag: Doritos, Cheetos, Rold Gold pretzels and Sun Chips. As a college student who adored three of the four (does anyone really like Cheetos?), this seemed like the best idea in culinary history. (Yes, I considered this cuisine.) Why hadn’t they thought of this sooner?
I eagerly opened the bag and dug in, pulling out a Dorito. Since it was a Dorito — the best chip in the history of chip-makingkind — it was excellent. Next, I grabbed a handful that included a few of the others. Even though each one is a little too big to allow you to shovel multiple pieces into your mouth at once, it’s hard to be disappointed when you can follow up a Sun Chip with a Rold Gold pretzel. It wasn’t long before the whole bag was gone. A handful here and then a handful there gets you through an 8-ounce bag pretty quickly.
But the more I ate, the less impressed I became. Ultimately, these chips didn’t go together. It was just two really cheesy chips and two really bland chips. So between everything having the same tongue-numbing, fake cheese flavor and the fact that they’re all too big to pop three or four pieces into your mouth at once anyway, it was just like eating four different things in an arbitrary order. It wasn’t a party “mix,” but merely a collection of pretty good chips.
If we’re going to compare players to chips (and don’t worry, folks, we are about to) Baron Davis is the Dorito. Both are universally beloved and both have inimitable flavor, but, deep down, you know neither is good for you. Marcus Camby is the pretzel: simple, reliable and underrated. Zach Randolph is the Cheeto; like the chip’s cheese, Zebo’s 20/10 is clearly artificial. Still, like the fond memories we all have of the Chester Cheetah cartoon, Zach’s steady post moves create a ruse that makes you think he’s a throwback low-post scorer who will exceed your initial aversion. Al Thornton is the Sun Chip: solid, yet ultimately nondescript and bland.
Just like Frito’s failed attempt at a party mix (I hope the irony of the name “Munchies” isn’t lost on anyone), these guys do not fit together. They’re just a mismatched group of guys with individual strengths.
The 2009 Magic and the 2004 Pistons, on the other hand, were built like Chex Mix.
Neither team had a flashy superstar whose job it is to “take over” a game. Individually, none of Rasheed, Chauncey, Rip, Tayshaun or Ben Wallace stand out as superstars. The fact that they could not only upset the 2004 Lakers but get to another Finals and make it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals without an alpha-dog seemed preposterous when compared with any other NBA champion since the 1979 Supersonics. Who did these guys think they were? You needed at least one Hall of Famer to run the show or, better still, a dynamic duo.
Much like surprising, enduring appeal of Chex Mix, it turns out that putting together five or six reliable, if unspectacular, players who complement each other’s contributions perfectly might be all you need to do to create a winning combination.
Everyone has always liked Chex, just as they always liked Rasheed Wallace, but no one really thought you could make a great snack out of it — just like no one thought you could win a championship if Sheed was your best player. Rip is as solid as a mini-bread stick, but no one is really getting too excited about either one. And as with a rye chip, no one even knew they liked Chauncey Billups or Ben Wallace — but it turns out all three were great. Throw in a few well-considered spices (Larry Brown, Tay, Memo Okur) and you have the making of one of the more underrated yet universally appealing and highly successful combinations that the world has ever seen.
For years, most teams spent all their energy looking for Doritos. Like Michael and Scottie, it was presumed that any team could contend for a title if it just added some Rold Golds to a bag of Doritos and tossed in whatever other filler it could find. But that paradigm has shifted. No longer does anyone expect a single world-class contributor and one complementary piece to seamlessly mesh together into a winning mix.
The Post-Jordan Era, during which the landscape was dominated by temperamental “stars” whose varying commitment to playing basketball properly left even supposedly good teams running rudderless, is over. With a team focused on two highly paid players, all it took was one sensitive ego or one guy with a limited understanding of how to execute consistently and the whole thing became mediocre at best — or a five-year train wreck at worst. Of course, similar situations still arose this season (see the “Munchies” Clippers) and this will always go on to some degree, but, for the most part, even struggling teams like the Knicks, Wolves and Kings were derailed more so by their talent deficiencies than anything else. And a team like Miami showed that banding together behind an unselfish leader and sticking to a unified concept can allow even a very flawed team to overachieve.
Sure, expansion has led to a more watered-down NBA than the one that existed in the 1980s. We may never see powerhouse teams with as potent starting lineups as the Celtics had with DJ, Danny Ainge, Bird, McHale and Parish or the Lakers rolled out with Magic, Byron Scott, Big Game James, AC Green and Kareem. But teams today, even the middling ones, are mostly back to at least trying to build their foundations around the right combination of players playing good basketball again. The Pacers and the Nets aren’t setting any worlds on fire, but they also haven’t been hijacked by players who take the court just trying to look good first and win second. And Portland, through some astute talent recognition and acquisition, has set itself up to follow the Orlando and Detroit model.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that any of Brandon Roy, Danny Granger or Devin Harris will win an NBA MVP. None of them are Doritos. But their GMs and coaches seem to be fine with that. They seem content to build around these guys and bring in other complementary contributors, who while maybe unable to generate a ton of excitement on paper, will come together well enough to get the job done.
Can it work as well for these middling teams of today as it did for the 2004 Pistons and the 2009 Magic? Who knows. It’s difficult to see any team that doesn’t have LeBron, Kobe, Dwyane, Dwight, KG, Duncan or Melo winning a title in the next several years; ultimately, Doritos will always be the best chip.
But last season, we saw Brandon Roy drop 50 in a game and hit a miraculous walk-off three. We saw Danny Granger make nearly as many game-winning shots as his former teammate who donned number #31. We saw Devin Harris become unstoppable with a full head of steam and learn to pump ice through his veins in the clutch.
Sure, it seems unlikely that teams built around guys like this could make a run at the title. Then again, it will certainly be more enjoyable to see teams try a new strategy. And, who knows, I never thought an unmemorable cereal could be the foundation of one of the best snack foods of all time either.
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)