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Paul Flannery | February 16, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

The NBA's next wave of stars is ready

A new age of stars in the NBA

NEW ORLEANS -- Whether it was intentional or not, the layout for media day at the All-Star Game revealed a very interesting pivot point in the league’s history. On one side of the ballroom: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson. On the other: Paul George, Roy Hibbert, DeMar DeRozan, John Wall and Kyrie Irving.

The only thing separating them were a few feet of carpet, a bunch of championship rings and 35 more All-Star appearances. While the Heat trio did their thing surrounded by the usual media crush and Melo dealt with the voracious New York press corps, the up and comers handled their business in front of much smaller constituencies.

"The league is starting to get young again," said George, who drew the largest media crowd on his side of the room. "It’s getting where you got guys like me and John and Kyrie who are going to be LeBron and D-Wade at some point, when it’s going to be our sixth, seventh, eighth All-Star appearance. We’ll have huge shoes to fill. I like it. I like the pressure. I like having to own up to that."

It was only a year ago that George was a wide-eyed innocent at his first All-Star Game. Now he talks confidently about his place in the league and his team’s position in the standings. When asked how he felt about being included in the periphery of the MVP conversation, George nodded and said, "If it’s not my year this year, it will be soon."

George’s confidence is as smooth and natural as his game. It comes from a place of self-assuredness rather than empty boasts and cockiness. His rise up the league ranks has been slow and steady and forged from the ground up on the defensive end of the floor.

Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that the young players are fully ready for their takeover. After all, as Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, "The LeBron’s and Wade’s and Bosh’s are still very much in their prime. I still think it’s their era."

Yes, we are still living in the age of LeBron, and until someone knocks off the Heat when it counts, they must be accorded the respect they deserve. Nobody knows that better than the Pacers and no one would be foolish enough to write Miami’s obituaries yet, as tempting as it may be.

"It’s always going to be like that," Bosh said with a wry smile. "We’re the defending champions, two times, and we understand that nobody’s ever going to give it to you. You don’t win it until you win it. That’s how it’s going to be. We don’t need everybody to crown us. I think that’s misleading for your brain and your team."

That will all be decided this spring, so consider this a snapshot in time of a league transforming itself once again. Look around at not only who is here, but who isn’t. Tim Duncan didn’t make the cut. Kobe Bryant is hurt. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are past their All-Star primes. The superstars who defined the league throughout the 2000s are slowly winding down, and while the LeBron/Wade/Melo era may still be in its heyday, the next generation is here and it’s ready to stake its claim.

"You look around the league and some of the faces of the league are becoming younger and younger," Griffin said. "You still have the LeBron’s, Kobe is obviously still in that. Now you see Kevin Durant, you see Paul George all these younger guys. It’s definitely taking that turn. You kind of don’t realize it as it’s happening, but it’s getting there."

The lines may have been drawn more clearly in the East, but the Western Conference team is a blur of young talent and fresh faces. Take the starting lineup that consists of Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.

At 25 years of age, Durant is the old man of the group and the bridge between the two eras. While Love, Curry and Griffin are enjoying career years and pushing their way into the upper echelon of players, Durant is knocking on the doorstep of the ultimate validation that comes with a possible MVP.

It’s not just the starters. Anthony Davis still isn’t old enough to drink legally and yet here he is, making his first All-Star appearance. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, is also playing in his first All-Star Game, as are Wall and DeRozan. Players such as Dwight Howard and Tony Parker are practically ancient compared to their younger peers.

"As you know, father time is undefeated," Love said. "This league has always had a youth movement. Guys are getting bigger, faster, stronger at a younger age. You see Anthony Davis, you see Steph Curry has made his first All-Star Game. Happy belated to him. I felt like he should have been in a couple of times. KD is still young. There’s a generation of younger stars that are starting to assert themselves and they’re consummate professionals."

That last part is important. Not only is the younger generation of players starting to make their name, but they have been given high marks for the way they’ve handled themselves on their upward ascent. They represent some of the league’s far-flung operations and are establishing a superstar presence in some of the league’s smallest markets and historically-forgotten franchises.

"The league’s in great hands," Vogel said. "There’s some really bright rising stars that are really great people and represent the right things."

Curry has transformed the Warriors from a League Pass curiosity into a primetime attraction. Wall has the woebegone Wizards on the brink of the playoffs. DeRozan is helping lead an unlikely emergence in Toronto. Durant and George came to New Orleans with the best records in their respective conferences and an avalanche of positive press. Davis, meanwhile, has everyone’s attention.

"He’s going to be here for a decade, plus," said Dirk Nowitzki, the resident veteran sage of this year’s All-Star Game. "That’s how good he is. He’s going to be in the All-Star Game every year. He’s long, he’s skilled, he plays defense and rebounds. He’s the future of power forwards."

Not that there haven’t been a few bumps and bruises along the way. Irving, for example, went from All Star darling to star-crossed enigma in the span of a single calendar year. Love will have about 10,000 more questions about his future before his next move. But in general, the next generation of NBA stars has seemed older, wiser and more mature than their years and there’s no question about their games.

"I’m still a League Pass geek," Nowitzki said. "The wife and baby are in bed and I sit at home and watch League Pass for like a whole night. I love these young guys showing their talents. I think the league is in a good place. All the old guys when I first got in the league, it was Shaq, KG, Kobe, Duncan every year and now it’s on these younger guys to take this league to new heights. I think we’re in a great place."

***

THE QUESTION THAT DOMINATED All-Star weekend was the same question that has cast a spell over the season: LeBron or Durant? It was telling that the majority of players took Durant for first-half MVP while also remaining extremely respectful of LeBron’s place in the league hierarchy.

"It’s almost a situation where you have 1A and 1B," Love said. "Both of them do so many different things on the court. KD is able to distribute the ball better, he’s rebounding the ball better. Then you look at LeBron and at this point it’s like old faithful: you know what he’s going to give you. They’re both once in a lifetime players."

The Durant-LeBron question feels momentous, like it will represent a massive shift the way Bird, Magic and Jordan took turns leading the league. That’s the natural way of progression, but it’s a false premise and a misleading narrative.

As significant as Durant’s season has been, it has also served to magnify LeBron’s greatness. It’s not as if James has slipped, it’s that Durant has taken his game to another level. The King’s reign is only as meaningful as the challengers to the throne. This is not the end, but rather the apex of the discussion.

Both players have gone out of their way to distance themselves from the conversation. On Friday, Durant suggested we were wasting our time comparing the two. On Saturday, James shot back at a question regarding Durant’s development, like he was some kind of novice. The respect is there, even though the competition is fierce.

"That’s just how it is," Durant said. "They build you up then after a while, I guess they feel tired and bored and find faults to try to bring those up. It’s just part of life. I just don’t worry about the noise on the outside."

But the outside noise is good for business. All the talk about LeBron and KD and the Pacers and Heat has brought energy to a season that has been notably lagging in many respects, with all the chatter about tanking and the looming draft class that will make the league even younger still.

It would seem then that this is not the beginning of a new era, but rather a culmination of two generations reaching their potential concurrently. What we have is nothing less than the dawn of a new epoch in professional basketball, led by two transcendent superstars and a core of players coming into their own at exactly the right time.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

Adam Silver’s first press conference as NBA Commissioner was long on open-ended possibilities and short on specifics. Perhaps that was a function of addressing a laundry list of questions and side issues that have been tabled for years, but Silver left just enough of an opening to suggest the possibility of change for a league that has been running on inertia for years.

He indicated a desire to make better use of instant replay, including the use of a centralized command center that would help expedite calls in the flow of the game, raising the age limit to 20 and a nebulous pledge to focus on the quality of the game, which was in and of itself, a welcome departure from the usual drone of marketing speak.

"My priority right now is the game," Silver said. "I think that the coming together of the larger community of basketball is probably my priority, and that means focusing on the game all the way up from the youth level through college to the pros. So that’s my short list."

As for how Silver intends to address that priority beyond raising the age limit -- a debatable point of contention -- well, that’s for another day. Part of this is the inability of the players’ association to get itself back on track.

Last year at this time, the ouster of Billy Hunter as the union’s executive director was a major part of the backdrop of All-Star Weekend. A year later, the union still doesn’t have a permanent executive director. All of those quality of basketball issues that were unaddressed in the latest collective bargaining agreement -- an agreement that can be terminated by either side three and a half years from now -- are still floating somewhere in the ether.

Silver also talked the language of conciliation, another welcome change after years of contentious posturing from David Stern.

"The most important message you’ll hear from the league, that when the time for collective bargaining comes, we’ll deal with whatever issues we need to, but in the meantime we’re partners in this league," Silver said. "Remember, through our collective bargaining agreement (the players) receive roughly 50 percent of the revenue that comes in. So their greatest incentive should be to grow the league with us. So, I’m looking forward to dealing with a partner in the league, not an adversary, a partner that’s going to continue to build this league with me and the league."

To be sure, Silver’s era began not with the bang of a reformer, but with the steady drumbeat of a careful pragmatist. He rejected the idea of tanking, saying there was no evidence of teams losing games on purpose. That’s a narrow distinction because there are clearly teams not trying to put rosters together with the idea of winning games, whether it’s packaged as tanking or rebuilding.

There are no grand plans to scrap the lottery system, although he left open the possibility of tweaking the system. One suggestion of a single-elimination tournament between non-playoff teams was quickly shot down on the grounds that the competing teams would have no incentive to win such a competition as it would potentially cost players’ jobs. (Silver has a good point there).

The idea of a longer mid-season break was floated and sleeved jerseys appear here to stay. "From a fan standpoint, the greatest indicator we have is how they’re selling and I’ll say we’re having trouble keeping them in the stores," Silver said. "Fans like them and I happen to like them too."

Perhaps the biggest change was one of appearance. While Stern appeared larger than life and ready for battle during these periodic set pieces with the press, Silver presented himself as part of the larger basketball community, "a steward of the game," as he put it. He used the word "transparency" no less than three times in his answer to a question about innovation.

There was no news hook here and no pithy one-liner that will make the morning edition. But there exists the possibility of new ideas and that was enough of an opening message.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

TUESDAY Spurs at Clippers

Chris Paul missed 18 games, but the Clippers went 12-6 in his absence by taking advantage of the soft underbelly of their schedule. Having Blake Griffin play some of the best basketball of his career didn’t hurt either. Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and an eye-opening 4.4 assists as the Clippers ran their offense through him. So why isn’t he thought of more highly as an MVP candidate?

WEDNESDAY Wizards at Hawks

The obligatory Eastern Conference game between two middle-of-the-pack teams who could win a playoff round if they get the right matchup. AKA the NBA-TV series.

THURSDAY Heat at Thunder

There is nothing better in sports than when a champion is pushed to its limits. Kevin Durant and the Thunder were the clear winners in their first meeting this season, so let’s see what LeBron and company have in store for them this time around.

FRIDAY Clippers at Grizzlies, Spurs at Suns

Boo! It’s the ghosts of playoff past. It’s probably safe to say the Clippers want no part of Memphis if the Grizzlies happen to get into the postseason, but the up-tempo Suns would love a shot at the aging Spurs. None of the current Phoenix players were around for those epic 2007-08 playoff series, but most of the Spurs’ core is still in place. Somewhat amazingly, so is Boris Diaw, who now plays for San Antonio.

SATURDAY Nets at Warriors

It’s kind of a lame night on the schedule, so let’s take stock of those Brooklyn Nets, who will be in the middle of a punishing six-game road trip. If the Nets are going to make any kind of noise in the postseason, it would benefit them to move into the 4-5-6 range in the East. All things are possible in the junior circuit, but this trip could break them if things go poorly.

SUNDAY Clippers at Thunder

We’ve gone Clipper crazy in the Guide this week, but that’s what happens when one of the West’s marquee teams gets a schedule like this, with San Antonio followed by Memphis and then Oklahoma City. So, why not the Clippers? Their defense has improved dramatically under Doc Rivers, and with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, plus outside shooters like Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, they have more than enough offensive firepower to survive the Western Conference gauntlet. The question, as always, is depth, and they’re not in a good place to make a move at the trade deadline.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

The trade deadline is upon us and all around the league, things are quiet. Too quiet, really. Will we get a repeat of last year, when the biggest name to switch teams was J.J. Redick? Or will there be a surprise or two? We’re betting on the former, so let’s re-live some of the glory of trade deadlines past.

The Melo Deal: Three teams, 13 players and six draft picks were on the table but the only one who really mattered at the time was Carmelo Anthony, who got his wish to play for New York. Was it really worth it? Melo has become the Knicks’ signature star, but they won one playoff series and are capped out and underperforming. The Nuggets got a bunch of good players, but Danilo Gallinari has missed significant time with a knee injury. The Timberwolves somehow got the worst end of everything. All that and Melo probably would have signed on with the Knicks a free agent at the end of the year.

Would you like Deron Williams? Oh those stealthy Utah Jazz. While the rest of the world was focused on the Melodrama, the Jazz cannily unloaded Deron Williams on the Brooklyn Nets for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and a draft pick that became Enes Kanter. D-Will has had one good season and two others interrupted by injuries. Favors has become a franchise cornerstone in Utah. And you wonder why teams are reluctant to make deals these days.

The Pau Gasol deal: A few weeks before the 2008 deadline, the Lakers acquired Gasol from the Grizzlies for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, a couple of picks and his brother. There was much outrage throughout the land. With Gasol on board, the Lakers went to three straight Finals and won back-to-back championships. It wasn’t until a few years later that the other Gasol -- that would be Marc -- became a foundation player for Memphis that the deal looked even remotely equitable. Fun thought: Would the Lakers have achieved as much success with Marc as Pau?

That time Keith Van Horn was traded for Jason Kidd: Mark Cuban always has something up his sleeve, but including a player who had been retired for a year and a half in deal for Jason Kidd may have been his masterstroke. Kidd went on to help the Mavs win a title in 2011, while Van Horn showed up to collect his check and go home.

The Rasheed Wallace as a Hawk era: In an effort to remake the team in a more wholesome image, the Blazers traded Sheed to Atlanta for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Dan Dickau and Theo Ratliff. Wallace played exactly one game with the Hawks and was then sent to Detroit in a three-team deal that included the likes of Bobby Sura, Zelijko Rebraca and a pick that became Josh Smith. The lesson here is that the trade deadline used to be a lot more fun.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

The soul of the dunk contest

Relive the glory of the dunk contest through the words of Tom Ziller, Mike Prada, Ricky O’Donnell, Conrad Kaczmarek and yours truly.

The king of New Orleans

James Herbert profiles Anthony Davis, about whom Dwane Casey says, "He reminds me of a young Kevin Garnett."

Unlikely rappers

David Roth found the guys who wrote a rap about Joe Johnson. It goes like this: "Joe Johnson is an All-Star."

Our New Orleans travelogue

Lana Berry takes you on a bizarre journey through All-Star weekend in her travel diary.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"The Magic mascot. I don’t see no Magic in it. I think he could use a makeover." -- Paul George, on which mascot should get a facelift, a la Pierre the Pelican.
"I was always good when I was little. I just never passed." -- John Wall on his evolution as a basketball player.
"The horse is a nice animal. The Maverick, our logo, is a horse. That’s fate right there. Hopefully this is our year. The Year of the Horse." -- Dirk Nowitzki on the Chinese calendar.
"If it takes me taking a paycut, I’ll be the first one on Mr. Dolan’s steps saying, 'Take my money, let’s build something stronger.'" -- Carmelo Anthony, giving the New York media another month’s worth of columns.
"Right now I’m thinking about Derek Jeter’s decision. How about that?" -- Kevin Love, to a New York reporter when asked about his future, cutting off a month’s worth of columns.
"Unless it's something to do about hunting and fishing, it ain't a lot of shit on Mount Rushmore. I don't have nobody up there. If it ain't some hunting and fishing up there, I have no desire to be up there. I don't have one." -- Karl Malone, via Blazers Edge, being Karl Malone.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

LeBron James

He does that to a lot of fans on the road.

Anthony Davis

Totally unfair.

Bradley Beal

Beal was the Shoot-Out runner-up, but it was a good night for the Wizards' backcourt.

John Wall

Shut it down, Johnny. Shut it down.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Tom Ziller

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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