The interesting thing about living right in the middle of an era of historic importance is you get to see the narrative unfold in real time. Imagine if we could go back in time to the height of the glory days of Bird and Magic.
With the benefit of reflection and perspective, we have a widely accepted definition of how it unfolded: Two players from different backgrounds -- one black, one white although not as culturally obvious as it first appeared -- arrived at the same time at a critical juncture of the NBA's existence and saved the league through a combination of their style of play and personality with a fortunate amount of geography mixed in to make it beyond perfect.
Bird's Celtics won a lot, Magic's Lakers won more and both set the stage beautifully for Michael Jordan's arrival. But what if that played out in this age? What if we endlessly dissected who was better or more clutch? What if we lived and died with every trade rumor and cap ramification the way we do now?
Part of its majesty and aura is that while there is an impressive record of books, documentaries, magazine articles and, hell, even a Broadway play, there is still room for interpretation and plenty of time for old stories and anecdotes. To put it another way, the Bird and Magic era is still allowed to breathe.
We don't have that luxury right now for today's stars, which can make it tough to see that we are in the midst of something similar.
With a championship in his possession and three MVPs, it's safe to call LeBron James one of the greatest players who ever lived. Combining an evolutionary physical stature with an old-school passing mentality, James is Scottie Pippen's defense, mixed with Magic's court vision and Karl Malone's body. He is frightening to behold and at the peak of his powers.
Kevin Durant, on the other hand is a freakish scorer and a ferocious competitor. Uniquely proportioned in his own right, Durant is en route to his first 40-50-90 season. Larry Bird did it three times in his late 20s and early 30s, while Steve Nash did it four times in his mid 30s. Durant is still just 24 years old and it's worth remembering that while they arrived at the same time, Bird was three years older than Magic in their rookie seasons.
We have -- or should have anyway -- moved past the good guy/bad guy roles that so many wanted to pin on Durant and LeBron, respectively. There is so much more here to digest and savor. What we do have are two unique, historic players in the prime of their careers playing on perhaps the best teams in their respective conferences, and they are in a dead heat for Most Valuable Player.
The MVP debate itself will be annoying and aggravating. Narratives will be built and just as quickly discarded whenever they become convenient. There will be arguments, and good ones, made for Chris Paul, who also deserves to be included in this race. Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony will have their advocates, as well.
All of that shouldn't detract from the reality that we are witnessing two of the all-time greats in their prime with championship-caliber players around them. Years from now this era will hold its own in history. It may never be Bird/Magic because that was of a specific time and place, but it's the closest we've seen since those halcyon days and we should enjoy it to the fullest.
Here are four other storylines that will shape the rest of the season:
One by one the walking wounded are returning to work in the Western Conference. Steve Nash, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Dirk Nowitzki are all back in one form or another and it soon it will be time to properly judge their respective teams. But several could-be contenders in the East are still missing key players and in a conference with only one clear-cut favorite, any of them could tip the scales.
Derrick Rose: The biggest X-factor in a conference full of them, the Bulls are already the team NO ONE WANTS TO PLAY because of their stifling defense. Add in a presumably healthy Rose, and all bets are off. Of course there's no guarantee that Rose comes back like the old Rose. (Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus has done essential research into ACL tears).
Danny Granger: You never appreciate someone enough until they're gone, and in Granger, the Pacers have experienced life without their best scoring threat and have not liked what they've found. They rank next-to-last in offensive efficiency and are near the bottom in shooting and turnovers.
They have stayed afloat thanks to a combination of a great defense and enough offense from the likes of David West and Paul George, who has started to find his equilibrium after a tough start. Granger won't solve every issue -- paging Roy Hibbert's offense -- but his return would help bolster a rotation that has given 1,700 minutes to Lance Stephenson, Gerald Green and Sam Young, and shore up their biggest weakness.
Avery Bradley: In less than a year, Bradley has gone from barely holding on to a job to being a potential savior for a Celtics team with championship aspirations that has been mediocre at best. It's completely unfair, of course, but Bradley's meteoric rise at the end of last season raised expectations far beyond normalcy.
Bradley will immediately upgrade the C's defense and will allow the long-awaited trade dominoes to begin falling into place. The question for Danny Ainge is whether Bradley becomes a permanent part of the solution or a prime trade piece.
Andrew Bynum: No one knows what kind of impact Andrew Bynum will make or really if he'll play at all this season. He seems to be on the right track, but this is the same guy who hurt himself trying to pick up a 7-10 split. Even if Bynum does play, there's also no way of knowing how Doug Collins will use him or how he'll mesh with Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, et al.
All that said, if Bynum can give the Sixers anything, he could make them a dangerous first round playoff opponent. If not, they may be back in the lottery.
This is setting up to be an interesting trade period. Several teams have begun austerity programs in the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement and there may be fewer buyers than normal come February with cap flexibility the name of the game. Still, there are a handful of players worth watching.
Anderson Varejao: While he's injured now, Varejao is the prize catch. He has a very friendly contract and he's the kind of player who could fit in any system. It doesn't hurt that he was in the midst of a career year before injuring his knee. The Cavs should demand the world for Varejao and there are only a handful of teams with the assets to make a move. One is Oklahoma City, who has picks, players and contracts to make it work.
J.J. Redick: There will be bigger names making the trade rounds, but Redick is a player who can immediately help a contender without changing the overall framework. That makes him a valuable commodity. The Magic have admirably overachieved this season, but they are still years away from contending.
DeMarcus Cousins: The wild card in the mix. Recent reports have indicated a split in the Kings hierarchy -- shocker -- and if Cousins is indeed available, then teams should swallow hard and take a chance on the perpetually perplexing big man. One team that continually pops up is the Celtics, who have a huge need for a tall reinforcement and a number of young players and affordable vets to offer in return.
EAST PLAYOFF PICTURE
There is so much uncertainty in the East, owing to injuries and underperforming teams, but it all really comes down to a simple question: Can anyone beat Miami?
The Knicks seem to offer the best chance. They've taken the Heat apart twice already this season and have the right mix of shooting, size and heady guard play to handle the Heat's pressure defense. There are injury concerns and the very large question of what to do with Amar'e Stoudemire when he comes back. Still, the Knicks have proven both consistent and durable up to this point and if Stoudemire can adjust to a new role they could be very dangerous in the spring.
Indiana, Chicago and even Boston are all lurking in the shadows, waiting on key players to come back from injury. Everything had to line up perfectly for the Celtics to reach the conference finals last season and a similar run could await another fortunate franchise come playoff time. It's odd to say, but positioning and matchups may take precedence over homecourt advantage.
WEST PLAYOFF PICTURE
The Western Conference is similarly jumbled, but for different reasons. There are more good teams at the top and far more quality in the middle ground.
Consider that the Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies have all taken a run at the unofficial mantle of league's best team at various points this season and that's no slight to the presumptive favorite in Oklahoma City. For all their issues, the Lakers are obviously a serious threat. That doesn't even include Golden State, the league's biggest surprise, and owners of one of the best homecourt atmospheres in the league.
The next tier includes teams like Denver, Houston, Minnesota, Utah and maybe Portland, who could all pose problems. Even the Mavericks shouldn't be totally counted out considering the return of Dirk Nowitzki. That's a dozen teams competing for eight spots with as many as five legitimate contenders to go the distance, and one intense regular season.