by MARK GREY
The worst part about getting old is that you never see it coming. One day you're the youngest, hippest thing around; you know all the latest lingo and trends. Then before you know it, you're the guy in the corner of the club trying to figure out what the hell the kids are dancing to. No matter how much we have been warned, we all think it can't happen to us. But it does. One day you wake up and it just comes out of nowhere and doesn't even make sense - kind of like a Nicki Minaj punch line. You soon realize there is a whole new generation that is now "hot." It looks like my time has officially arrived, because I clearly don't understand today's NBA "Superstars."
One of the first signs of getting old is the inability to understand what the younger generations are talking about, and I must admit that today's hoop stars have me lost. Dwight Howard has become the latest superstar to voice his desire to play for a contender. But that desire makes no sense to me because, just like so many of the others who have made the same request, Howard already plays for a contender. Howard's Magic not only made the playoffs this season; they made it the previous five seasons as well. It is hard to understand why Howard would want to leave a Magic team that was in the NBA finals only four seasons ago for the Nets. The only thing the Nets have had a chance at winning is the lottery. Yet Howard's story is only one of many puzzling stories of superstars seeking relocation.
In just his third season in the league, Chris Paul led the Hornets to a division title and to the conference semifinals. Just three years later, Paul was demanding out because he wanted to win a title. In turn, he landed with the Clippers. The Clippers? When did players in search of a ring start joining the Clippers? Paul left a team that had made the playoffs three of the last four years for a team that had made the playoffs three times in the last eighteen seasons.
Just one year after playing in the Western Conference Finals -- and sweeping the Spurs in the semifinals -- Amare Stoudemire's quest for a ring landed him on the Knicks. The Knicks? Title? The last time the Knicks were in a conference final, Amare was in High School. Amare left a fifty-four win team and a two-time league MVP point guard who made sure he got his shots for a Knicks team that had twenty-nine wins. Two years later, Amare finds himself nowhere close to a title and punching fire extinguishers out of frustration because he doesn't get enough shots. While people worldwide were asking themselves "what was Amare thinking?" when he put his hand through that plate of glass, I'm guessing it was something along the lines of "why the hell did I leave Steve Nash?".
After Amare left his winning team, Carmelo Anthony soon followed suit. Despite making the playoffs every year in Denver, he decided his best shot at a ring was to join a Knicks team that had never even won forty games in any season since Melo entered the league. The question I have for these superstars is this: since when did leaving a playoff team for a lottery team increase your chance for a title? What exactly do these players consider a contender? Both LeBron James and Dwight Howard led teams to the NBA finals, but still didn't feel like their teams were contenders. Call me stupid, but if you're one of the last two teams standing, then wouldn't that make you a contender?
While today's superstars' favorite question seems to be "what is the team doing to get better?", the real question should be "what have YOU done to get better?". Many of today's most talented players have found it easier to blame the front office for not improving the team than to acknowledge that they themselves have done very little to improve their own games. It's much easier for Howard to complain about his supporting cast than it is for him to learn a post move or improve his free throws. After his eighth year in the league, LeBron decided it might be time to work on developing a post game. The fans of Cleveland have to cringe when they hear that. The Cavs won sixty games back to back years and he added very little to his game.
Another telltale sign that you are getting old and out of touch is when you always seem to say "Whatever happened to..." As I watch the NBA today, I can't help but ask, "whatever happened to just getting better and waiting your turn?". Michael Jordan didn't just come in the league and start winning titles; he improved his game every year and as he got better, Magic and Bird got older. After finally getting past Isiah Thomas and the Pistons, the NBA was Jordan's. Nowadays, kids don't want to put in the work to get better and they damn sure don't want to wait for anything. Thirteen and fourteen-year old kids across the country are switching high schools because they want to start on the varsity team their freshman year. Kids all across America are asking themselves why they should wait their turn and improve their game if their favorite superstars aren't doing the same thing. If kids can't make their current schools' varsity teams, then they will switch to schools where they can. The idea of "self improvement" has become a lost art. It's easy for Dwight to look at a box score in which he posted yet another twenty points and twenty rebounds in a two point loss and ask what more he can do. Here's a thought: make a few more free throws or add a post move. I know it sounds like a crazy idea, but if you improve your game then you have improved the team.
I know it sounds like I'm picking on -- or even singling out -- Howard, but that's not the case. It's this entire generation of superstars that I don't understand. While many feel that James justified his "decision" to take his talents to South Beach by winning his first title this year, I see things differently. As I watched LeBron put together a nearly flawless playoff run while carrying a hobbled Dwayne Wade on his back, and with Chris Bosh limited to little more than bench help after injuring himself, I couldn't help but think that LeBron was good enough to win a title even if he had stayed in Cleveland.
After knocking off the Celtics last year, LeBron stated that this is the reason he went to Miami - he knew he couldn't beat the Celtics by himself. My question is, how long did LeBron think a team full of players at the end of their careers could keep him from a title? How different would basketball history be if Jordan had figured he could never beat Isiah Thomas and his goons by himself and just jumped ship and teamed up with Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing to knock off an aging Pistons team? Sure, it's easy to look at James teaming up with Wade and Bosh and conclude that that's the reason he won his first title, but what about the fact he has worked hard, gotten better, taken his defeats, and now it's his turn? I can understand the feeling of lining up with Larry Hughes and Big Z and feeling like you will never be able to beat Kobe and Shaq or Duncan and the Spurs, but those guys wont be around forever. I'm sure LeBron didn't enjoy going home early every year and hearing the cries of how he can't win the big game. But as talented as he is, it was only a matter of time before it was his turn. After winning sixty-plus games in back to back years and with James getting better every year, there is no reason to think that with minor tweaking his Cavs couldn't have been just as good as any team in the East this year. All season long, the Heat's biggest rivals in the East were thought to be the Bulls, a team with one superstar and a supporting cast that wasn't even good enough to beat the eighth-seeded 76ers without him. After almost single-handedly carrying the Heat to the finals, James found himself in the same scenario he was in for his first trip to the finals. Only this time, he was the adult/seasoned vet at the table. This time, James was able to teach a twenty-three-year old Superstar the same lesson he was taught at the age of twenty-two: there is no denying you're great, it's just not your turn yet. James did not win his first title because Wade and Bosh played like the All-NBA players they are, he won it because for the first time in the finals he played like the best player on the planet, and role players like Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier played their roles.
One of the biggest problems with getting old is that you find it hard to keep up with the times. So instead of even trying, you just start off your sentences by saying "remember when..." For example, remember when being a franchise player meant you spent your entire career (or at least your prime) with one franchise? Nowadays, it seems like franchise players are switching franchises every day -- and not only is the money not greener on the other side, neither is the grass. Is Melo really better off in New York watching the Knicks play name that 90s point guard -- is it A. Baron Davis B. Mike Bibby or C. Jason Kidd -- than he would be playing in Denver with Ty Lawson and other young talent? I'm sure Melo got sick of being knocked out by the Spurs and Lakers in the first round, but he had to know that Kobe and Timmy weren't going to be around forever. Is being the eighth seed in the East better than being the eighth seed in the West? While Deron Williams was in New Jersey losing more games than he could count and looking for big man help, Al Jeferson and Paul Millsap were becoming one of the most productive front courts in the NBA back in Utah.
For the better part of a decade, Mark Cuban tried to force feed Dirk Nowitzki a title. He brought in an All Star at just about every position, had twenty-point scorers coming off the bench, had a defensive minded coach and an offensive minded coach. Yet no matter what Cuban did, he couldn't build a title team around Dirk. No one ever questioned Dirk's talents; it was mental and physical toughness that was keeping him from a title. Sure, Dirk could have thrown in the towel and joined forces with another elite player. After all, he was part of that 2010 free agent class. But instead, he got better and tougher and took his game to another level. The Mavs did some tweaking and when it was his turn, Dirk wasn't going to be stopped by anyone. If Dirk was willing to put on his Superman cape and lead "his" supporting cast to a title, then why cant Melo? Why couldn't LeBron in Cleveland? Why can't Howard in Orlando? Yes, Dirk took his lumps from the Lakers, the Spurs, and even the Heat, but when he improved his game, he got his shot at a title and he took it.
The final sign that lets me know I'm behind the times is that I keep asking myself why these kids are in such a rush. The other day, I heard Kevin Love say that he is sick of losing and that something needs to change. He's twenty-three years old and plays for the Timberwolves. What did he think was going to happen? How many more twenty-three and twenty-four-year-old stars do we need to see jump ship or demand to play for a contender as if their careers were wasting away? Kevin Garnett asking to be traded after pouring in double digit years of sweat and tears into one franchise is one thing -- players demanding out before they even reach their twenty-fifth birthdays is another. Why does everyone feel like they are entitled to play for a title? Does anyone want to bring a title to "his" team anymore? Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose seem to be the last of a dying breed who take pride in bringing a title to the team that drafted them. What happened to good players being drafted by bad teams and turning them around? Today's young superstars do two or three years of losing (tops), then they're looking for the quickest shortcut to a title they can find. On draft night, lottery picks might as well keep it real with fans and just say "I'm going to do my best to put up numbers on this sorry team, then I'm leaving to play for a contender and this team will be right back in the lottery." I can officially say that I don't understand today's superstars. Why do we have shooting guards who can't shoot, and power forwards with no power? All I can do is wonder if my kids will even believe me when I tell them that once upon a time, superstars wanted their own team.
Pink pants? Skinny jeans? Man I really am getting old.