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Paul Flannery | February 15, 2016

Monday Shootaround: The NBA is ready for the end of Kobe Bryant

The NBA is ready for the end of Kobe Bryant

TORONTO -- So, we need to talk about the weather because that’s all anyone really talked about this weekend. It was cold you see, really freaking cold. How cold was it, Kobe?

"It's cold," Kobe Bryant confirmed on Friday. "It's really, really cold. Really, really cold."

And that was before we got to Saturday when leaving one’s hotel felt like a truly courageous act, if not downright lunacy. The funny thing about the cold, the locals all said, was that it had been such a mild winter. And the really funny thing was that it would warm up just when the NBA’s All-Star carnival of marketing delights was set to get up on out of here. What can you do, eh? (No one shrugs about bad weather like Canadians.)

"Nobody believes me," Raptor guard DeMar DeRozan said. "They think it's cold like this all the time. But that's not the truth. You've got to take the good with the bad. We've got an All-Star Weekend here. Everything's here. We can't complain."

It’s true: no one believed DeRozan, but everyone did complain. The shame of it was that Toronto was a wonderful host city. It’s a gorgeous place, filled with fantastic restaurants and friendly, welcoming people. Everything they say about Toronto was true from the clean sidewalks to the oddly well-organized traffic congestion. No one wanted to be an ungracious guest, so we whined in private, put on Canada Goose jackets and tried to make the best of it. As Adam Silver pointed out, the very point of the game of basketball was to give people something to do when the weather turned brutal.

"Yes, it's a bit cold here, but I've been reading up on James Naismith," Silver said. "Dr. James Naismith, who, of course, was born in this very province of Ontario. And what I read is when he founded this game 125 years ago, it was because he thought there was an activity needed to keep young boys, young men active on these very cold winter days. And of course, he planned it as an indoor activity. So when I keep hearing about how cold it is, I keep reminding people that's true, but our events are inside, so no big deal and we're all enjoying it here."

Into that frigid atmosphere stepped Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine, who lit up Saturday night with one of the greatest dunking exhibitions any of us have ever seen. Their overtime dunk contest was an instant classic and redefined the possibilities of human flight and creativity.

It came down to a choice between LaVine’s graceful artistry and Gordon’s overwhelming power. Like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins before them, LaVine’s aerial ballet carried the day, but who cares about the winner after such a show? The dunk contest redeemed everything about the weekend, which up to that point had been lacking in anything so visceral as two dudes flying through the air.

It was Kobe who defined this year’s All-Star experience, and while Bryant was trailed everywhere by an ever-eager international media begging him to say something, anything, in their native language, even that seemed a bit ceremonial. His farewell tour has been so well-chronicled at this point that All-Star weekend was just another signpost on this nostalgic journey through the past.

While Kobe held court, it was impossible to look around and notice who wasn’t here this time around. There was no Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce. His old nemesis Shaquille O’Neal was a finalist for the Hall of Fame as was Allen Iverson, who was a member of same draft class.

Kobe, fittingly, is the last of his era. He’s the final, most prominent link between the beginning of the NBA’s golden period of Bird, Magic and Jordan when pro basketball transformed itself from a winter activity with a devoted cultish audience into an international spectacle. No American player has carried the NBA’s banner overseas better than Kobe. The modern players referred to Bryant as their Jordan, and in the global vision of the league, he has more than earned that singular title. The stage, for most of the weekend, was his alone.

"This is pretty cool," Bryant said. "I'm looking around the room and seeing guys that I'm playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It's true. I mean, how many players can say they've played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It's not sad at all. I mean, I'm really happy and honored to be here and see this."

The most memorable All-Star weekends are about transitional moments. At their best, they are a time when one generation rises up to assert itself and its place in the game. At the very least they are a signifier of where the league stands at a moment in history. And so, the NBA finds itself in a curious place. Kobe’s farewell marked the end of one of the most enduring passages in league history and the future feels very much uncertain. The incoming crush of television money threatens to rewrite the landscape in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend.

"The answer is, I'm not sure," Silver said candidly. "As I've said before, a dramatic increase in the cap, as we're going to see next year, is not something we modeled when we designed this Collective Bargaining Agreement. We'd prefer a system where teams are managing for cap room, and we'd prefer a system in which stars are distributed throughout the league as opposed to congregating in one market. Whether that will happen with all this additional cap room this summer is unclear to me."

The generation after Kobe was still well-represented by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul but even they found themselves in the minority. The vast majority of All-Stars are from the current one. LeBron’s crew held their place at the head of the league table, but at a distance. Even a frenzied trade rumor involving Melo to the Cavs was shut down before it had a chance to take root.

"It's false," James said the morning after it was suggested. "It's the only thing I can look at it and say it's false. That's the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team."

Ah, but what a thing to conceive: The league’s most dominant presence, if not player, teaming up with another member of his fraternity to go another round with the young upstarts from Golden State. As time runs out on Kobe, there’s a palpable sense that time may be time may be coming for LeBron, as well. What better way to upset the natural order of things then to turn the league on its head once more with a power-pact among friends?

The youth movement that began two years ago in New Orleans is now cemented into the foundation of the league. Anthony Davis is all of 22 years old and he can talk credibly about his past experiences, given that this is his third appearance. The league is now dominated by the 20-somethings in general and by the Golden State Warriors in particular. They have built a perfect team, maybe too perfect to suspend any belief or mystery in how the rest of the season will unfold. Their brilliance has made everything else -- from the MVP race to the trade deadline to the playoffs -- feel as foreboding and inevitable as the arctic blast that settled over the Province.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

This trade deadline promises to be an interesting experience. There has been very little smoke up to this point, but the biggest deals tend to come together at the last minute when everyone gets serious about their offers. There are a number of teams who would like to make something happen, but seemingly few with the will to complete the transactions. It may be stone quiet on Thursday or it may be a perfect storm of wild movement and only one mega deal is needed to grease the wheels. Here are five teams to keep an eye on this week, but there are more than a dozen that could get into the action.

Boston: The Celtics feel like they are one star player away from becoming a serious threat and they have picks, players and contracts to offer. They will be involved in every discussion and linked to just about every available player, but Danny Ainge isn’t dealing from a position of weakness or desperation. There’s a growing sense around the team that they’re building toward something that’s worth keeping. Those Brooklyn picks offer legit chances of getting star-level talent in the draft and Ainge isn’t going to give them away for aging stars at the end of their contracts. Kevin Love, on the other hand ...

Atlanta: The Hawks are neck-and-neck with the C’s in the Eastern Conference, but one team’s ascent is another’s stagnation. The Hawks won 60 games last year and they won’t come close to that mark. Given the age of their core and the impending free agency of Al Horford it would make sense to see if they can get a Godfather offer for one of the league’s most underappreciated talents. And yet, this feels more like a kick-the-tires approach than a firesale.

Houston: The Rockets are nothing like the Hawks in terms of style or personality, but there are some strong parallels between the fortunes of last year’s conference runner-ups. Like Atlanta, the Rockets may have maxed out their window with their core and like the Hawks, they have an aging big man set to hit free agency. It’s a measure of how far the center pendulum has swung that Horford has more value than Dwight Howard, but here we are. Howard could still help a team, but there aren’t many contenders angling to land his services.

Milwaukee: Whether or not they actively try to deal Greg Monroe, this was still a gamble worth taking. Monroe brought free agent credibility to the Bucks and other small market franchises, and his short contract makes him very tradeable. For all the hits he’s taken as a defender, Monroe is still a productive offensive player and almost unique in his ability to score in the paint. Even if the Bucks punt on Monroe, they still have an interesting young core and another lottery pick on the way.

Denver and New Orleans: Neither team seems inclined to sell, but both have a couple of players who could fetch a decent return should they change their minds. Kenneth Faried maybe? The Pelicans, especially, would do well to cut their losses on this injury-decimated season and take a new tact in building around Anthony Davis. Even in the final year of his contract, Ryan Anderson has value for teams looking to add a proven shooter for the stretch run.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"My personal view, as I said last week, is beginning to change on the issue. As I said last summer, I said I was personally on the fence as well. I'm beginning to feel that a change needs to be made. And that comes in response to conversations with our network partners. It comes in response to fan data that we look at, we're constantly surveying our fans to get their sense of what they see out on the floor. I'm talking to players and general managers and our owners of course. I would say the interesting thing, though, and this is true even among the strongest critics of the so-called Hack-a-Shaq strategy, there doesn't appear to be any clear consensus on what the new rule should be." -- Adam Silver.

Reaction: The Ziller Plan is the best alternative proposal I’ve seen. You can check out the details here, but it looks like we’re finally going to see this strategy disappear.

"I think it's one of those things where it will be great to do that, but it's not something we talk about on a daily basis. If it happened and would we like it to happen, yeah. That would be cool. At the same time, if it didn't, it's not the end-all, be-all for us." -- Draymond Green on challenging the Bulls’ 72-win record.

Reaction: I almost believe him. Almost.

"Truth be known, Brad (Stevens) looks like he's 18, and Butler basketball has been fantastic. Before he was even in the NBA, I would watch tapes of their games and look at some of the things that he did. So among basketball people, it was common knowledge that he was a heck of a coach. But to bring this young-looking guy into the NBA and say, okay, you're going to have to command the respect of these guys, that took some courage on Danny's (Ainge’s) part. And he did it, and it's turned out to be the right choice because Brad is one of the top coaches in the league." -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Reaction: Pop always gives good Brad Stevens quotes. Makes you wonder if there might be a spot on his bench when he takes over Team USA.

"I don't play video games. I play dominos." -- Jimmy Butler.

Reaction: God bless Jimmy Butler and his old soul.

"First of all, I'd like to thank all these guys on stage. You guys inspired me so much, except Rick Barry. He came to LSU one time and wanted me to shoot free throws underhanded. No, Rick. I can't do it, Rick. I'd rather shoot zero percent. I can't do it. I'm too cool for that." -- Shaquille O’Neal on his Hall of Fame nomination.

Reaction: So Rick Barry won’t be one of Shaq’s presenters, then?

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Aaron Gordon may have had the most iconic dunks this year, but to the victor goes the Vine of the Week and this was just crazy stupid brilliance from Zach LaVine.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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