Monday, February 15, 2010

That's What a Golden Age Looks Like: NBA All-Star Weekend 2010


The 2010 All-Star Game was a success.  Although the weekend was marred by probably the worst or one of the worst dunk contests of all time, the rest of the events held up. 

As I mentioned in my brief post on Saturday, the weekend started off right with the Rookie/Sophmore challenge on Friday night.  This game pits first year and second year players up against each other so that they may exhibit the skills that they are usually prevented from showing when they are on their actual teams and limited by veterans and limited minutes.  This game featured a ton of highlight worthy dunks and moves and was characterized by plenty of fast and loose action.  What this game showed was that in young stars like Tyreke Evans (Sacramento), Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City), Dejuan Blair (Spurs-next Charles Barkley like loveable persona), Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee), O.J. Mayo (Grizzlies), Eric Gordon (Clippers), and Brook Lopez (Nets – unfortunately) that the NBA will have plenty of marketable faces for years to come.  Out of the 18 players in this game, it is not a stretch to say that 9 or possibly 10 of these young guys will end up being All-Stars (Evans, Mayo, Gordon, Beasley, Curry, Blair, Westbrook, Lopez, Jennings, M. Gasol) and the rest will be almost at that level and at least likeable guys (Love, Flynn, Harden).  This has not often been the case with young talent in the NBA over the past ten years.  While I was watching the Rookie/Sophmore game, I muttered to my roommate, Erik Gundel,  “if this game is this good, I can’t wait for the actual All-Star Game.”  The league is once again building a solid foundation of players from winning college programs who learned under excellent head coaches.  Although, the “Lebron Rule” only keeps most of these players in college for a year before entering the NBA, I believe that they get a certain sense of discipline and perspective from having that one year of college experience as opposed to jumping just from high school to the NBA.  That is how the NBA rose to its golden era in the late 80’s and 90’s.  Guys went to college, played under winning coaches and in winning programs and then entered the NBA were they were humbled playing under greats like Magic, Bird, Dr. J, McHale, Parrish, Isiah and Jordan.  The same thing is happening now.  These young guys are all supremely talented, but they now enter a league where they have to face guys like Wade, Lebron, Kobe, Carmelo, Howard – legitimate stars who are larger than life and who have actual “good guy” personalities (yes, even Kobe in some respects).  This is all good.

Saturday night of All-Star Weekend is usually the most entertaining night because of the skills competition and of course the Dunk Contest.  This year there was an entertaining 3-Point Shootout with Paul Pierce winning in surprising fashion over Chauncey Billups and Stephon Curry, who I am sure will be in the contest many times. Steve Nash won the Skills Competition over younger players like Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Brandon Jennings.  Finally, Nate Robinson won the Dunk Contest in disappointing fashion of Demar DeRozen.  This year’s dunk contest featured too many obscure players in order to garner any actual interest or excitement.  The league really needs to figure out how to incorporate the stars back into  the contest in order to make it exciting.  There needs to be some kind of campaign within the ranks of the superstars where they talk each other into doing the contest again, otherwise the Dunk Contest may fall back into obscurity after its resurgence in the past few years thanks to Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard.

Now, the All-Star Game itself. I already broke down the merits of the rosters in my preview of the weekend and although the rosters were slightly tweaked because of injuries, the replacements that were put in were more than serviceable.  There are no two back to back weekends that are more similar or more entertaining in sports than Super Bowl Weekend and NBA All-Star Weekend.  With the record crowd of 108,713 on hand to watch the game, the NBA went for the true Super Bowl spectacle effect. Much has been made today in the aftermath of the game that the NBA cannot go back to doing the game in regular arenas and they should cater to the large domes, much like the Super Bowl caters to warm weather environments with excellent stadiums. I don’t know if I would get that worked up about the concept yet.  There is a certain novelty to the size and newness of the new Cowboys Stadium that may not be present in other domes.  I  happen to enjoy the touring aspect of the All-Star Weekend that allows each city with a franchise to play host.  It allows for crowd favorites and a certain pride for the history of each franchise to be showcased for good and for bad.  However, it is terrific to know that the NBA is able to draw a crowd of that size to witness its product.  It is something that is encouraging to a lifelong fan of the game and the league such as myself.

The actual game, too, was terrific.  The East seemed to have the game locked up with maybe not total superior talent, but a superior competitive edge (Lebron and Wade), until the West staged a late comeback.  Deron Williams’ mental error in fouling Wade when he didn’t have to ended up costing the West the game.  The final score: 141-139.  It had all the offense you could want and even some excellent defensive plays from time to time.  Each player had his chance to showcase his abilities and at each time there was one player whom you thought would take away the MVP: Carmelo early, then Dwight Howard, then Lebron, then Durant for a short period, then Wade, then Lebron, then Wade, then Lebron, then Wade, then Carmelo if he makes this three at the buzzer-NO!.

In the end, Dwyane Wade (my man) was named the MVP.  And with the line that he put up, there was no argument: 28 points (game high), 11 assists, 6 rebounds and five steals.  He simply did what he does all year round and play perhaps the most complete all around game in the NBA.  He and Lebron worked seamlessly together and put on a fantastic display of dunks, passing and (most importantly) defense.  Watching the two of them play together is truly amazing and it will be treat to see this continue for hopefully most of this next decade.  I don’t want them to ever be on the same team, because it is too much fun to watch them compete.  Even in the game, they were neck and neck with scoring and you found yourself rooting for each one to top the other.  While Lebron sat out in the second quarter, Wade upped his scoring.  Then, when Lebron was back in, he became more aggressive and you could almost sense he was thinking “gotta match Dwyane, gotta match Dwyane.”  I don’t know if there have been two players so closely linked in their styles and competition in the history of the NBA.  That is not to use “closely” as an adjective to describe their similarity in style, but to describe the scrutiny that each has  placed on them by the rest of the league and in their comparison to one another.  Wade edging out Lebron to win this award just ups the ante that much.  Lebron has two All-Star MVPs and one League MVP, while Wade as one All-Star MVP, one Finals MVP, one Championship and one Scoring Title.  These guys could go back and forth with the accolades and awards for years to come and we will be all the richer for it.  Especially if the NBA begins is climb back to the forefront of cultural consciousness as it once did when Michael Jordan ruled the court and the world.  I hope these two are able to bring it back to that level because then the world can be further exposed to the great personalities and talents that were on display last night from players such as Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose.  These players are all terrific but they need the powers of Wade and Lebron to bring this game to everyone’s TV sets and not just to devoted, beerswilling fans like me.

The mixture of  aging veterans (leadership and poise), rising veterans (awe, grace, envy or the “I wanna be like Mike Effect”), and young players (hope, skill, potential) that is present in the NBA right now is bound for success.  All of these aspects were on display this past weekend and it left me, while I was watching the All-Star Game on Sunday Night, mumbling “Now things are finally back in order.”  And this year more than I ever I truly believe it.  After a decade of trying to fill the shoes of Michael Jordan and restore order to the league, it seems that the solution is not to find the next M.J. per se, but to find a level of competition, sportsmanship and personality for the league that will breed the next M.J. or transcendant player.  Lebron may be that player, Wade may be an M.J. copy and neither of them will ever be the “next M.J.” but they are laying and have laid a foundation for the league to be that great again, for the league to produce players that have the competitive fire, the knowledge of the game and the extreme level of skill that the majority of the stars in M.J.’s era had.

We will never get Michael back again.  But we can get his league back again.  And in many ways, that is a much better reward.

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