The New Era of the NBA (10.27.14)
I have re-watched game six of the 2014 NBA Finals a few more times than I would like to admit, because watching Tim Duncan hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the fifth time was just as good as the first back in 1999. Given the fact that this game is sitting at the bottom of my list of television recordings, along with the start of the 2014–2015 season less than twenty-four hours away, I am pretty sure it is time for me to move on.
I have struggled to think of anything else besides basketball, as I have impatiently awaited the start of the season over these past few months. In turn, I have had ample time to come up with my usual list of conspiracy theories and predictions for the coming season. The topic of this post is one of my favorite discussions to have about the NBA, and it is finally the right time to have it.
As the saying goes, it takes three years to truly grade and evaluate a draft class. So lets go back to the 2011 when, in the shadow of the lockout, this draft class was criticized for its overall weakness. Analysts attributed its “inferiority” to the fact that many top players decided to stay in school rather than risk entering the NBA in the midst of the labor dispute. Today, people’s stoicism towards this draft class can be explained by the fact that most of the top ten picks were seen as defensive-minded players, and as we know, it is hard to play good interior defense in the NBA. This is why defensive-centered guys take longer to develop and make an impact in the league, compared to the explosive, offensive-minded rookies who easily stomp their way into the paint on opening night.
Kyrie Irving was the obvious superstar of this draft class, and as expected, the Cavaliers scooped him up with the first pick overall. As the first round dipped into the double digits, the Pacers used their fifteenth pick overall on Kawhi Leonard, who they would immediately trade to the Spurs for George Hill. Leonard’s draft stock was mediocre at best, because his physical attributes and defensive abilities were not represented in his statistics alone. He was described as “an average ball-handler,” who struggled “to make shots consistently from beyond the arc.” However, his defensive and rebounding ability made him a desirable pick……(Excuse me while I laugh at the fact that Kawhi Leonard was criticized for not being a consistent shooter).
Now lets fast forward one year to the 2012 Draft, when the Pelicans got the superstar everyone wanted; Anthony Davis. There was no question that he was the best prospect in this draft class; he ranked number one as the most efficient scorer, number one among big men at finishing off cuts, and number two as the most efficient scoring big man out of isolation situations. After the laundry list of titles he won during his only year at Kentucky, along with his outstanding performance at the combine, there was no question that he was going first.
These three players — Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis — have played with a certain tenacity that has indicated how influential they will be in the league in the coming years. Their first few years in the league have given fans a taste of what they are capable of, and this season will serve as the stepping stone into the next era of basketball; the era of the Irving, Leonard, and Davis takeover. (I’m trying my hardest to not make this sound like an after-school special). With the support of new rosters, new levels of confidence, and overall development of skills, these guys are entering the 2014–2015 season with the tools necessary to take over the league, and it all starts with tomorrow night.
Last month, during the Cleveland Cavaliers media day, the Cavs’ version of the “Big Three” was waved over to get their picture taken. The photographers asked Kyrie Irving to step up onto wooden crates, as to not get towered over by James and Love. This little bit of embarrassment could not get Irving down, as anyone would take a few laughs if he had a four-time MVP to his left and a three-time all-star to his right. Irving would go on to describe the experience of throwing outlet passes to LeBron James and running through pick-and rolls with Love as “surreal,” and the respect has not been one-sided. Throughout the preseason, James and Irving have been praising each other back and forth, but the most memorable comment was when LeBron stated that the Cavaliers will be “Kyrie’s Show.” As much as I want to roll my eyes and laugh at this comment, I actually believe that LeBron will take a backseat role this season, as Irving is currently in the perfect position to take over this franchise.
The Cavs acquired Kyrie Irving while Cleveland was still grieving “The Decision, ” so the 19-year-old rookie had some big shoes to fill and some seriously upset fans to try and cheer up. He had immediate pressure on him, as he was haunted by the championship Dan Gilbert promised in the Comic Sans letter he wrote in response to James’ departure. Irving was clearly a superstar, and his honor of rookie of the year reinforced just how talented of a player he was. However, the expectations were just too big, and as the losses piled up, along with the decline in his true shooting, rebounding and assisting percentages, it seemed that he was not going to live up to the hype. His shining moments came off of opportunities he created for himself off the dribble, and since he had an arguably incompetent offense around him, he was forced to take the first shot that was available to him. He shot 47.9 percent from the field in the 28 wins he was a part of last season, however his effort and technique were fairly inconsistent. Over the past three years, his raw talent was undermined by mediocre defense, empty stats, and inadequate team chemistry.
However, this summer was better than all of Irving’s birthdays combined. He received a max contract, a new coach, and a fresh roster with LeBron James and Kevin Love as the headliners. Then, during the FIBA Basketball World Cup , Kyrie displayed great defensive efforts, revealing that a sense of urgency returned to his game.
With the presence of top players on his side, he obviously will no longer be the only one on the court making plays. So while his impact in the game will differ depending on the night, his stats will look much better this season. Irving definitely has some adapting to do, but he finally has the on-court support he needs to start living up to the superstar status he entered the league with. With the future of the franchise in mind, the plan is that James’ will be more of a supportive piece to the ‘Kyrie Show’ rather than bringing the ‘LeBron Show’ up north from South Beach. If all goes as planned, we will see Irving begin to exemplify the MVP qualities we all know he possesses.
In the 2011 NBA draft, the Spurs agreed to send George Hill to the Pacers for Indiana’s no. 15 pick, which ended up being Kawhi Leonard. Indiana loved Kawhi Leonard, but they had been interested in George Hill since San Antonio drafted him back in 2008. As the clock was ticking down on the time allotted to the fifteenth pick, the teams finally agreed to the deal. Leonard had no clue that he was about to be traded, though he remembered the Spurs interviewed him at the draft combine.
The Spurs admired Leonard’s capabilities as a corner 3-point shooter and his work ethic; the latter being crucial in upholding the culture of the San Antonio organization. During his rookie year, Leonard shot 47- percent from the corners on only 49 attempts. During his second season, he gave a taste of his post-up game, shooting 19-of-27 from the block after he only hit one during his rookie season, per Synergy Sports. He was also increasingly praised for his moments of creativity on offense, such as his righty jump hook and his midrange turnaround.
Ever since Leonard entered the league in 2011, his time on the court has increased, he has taken more shots per minute, and he has improved his ability to draw fouls. Leonard has been praised for his footwork and timing, in addition to his large physical attributes; mainly his huge arms and hands. These are the reasons that the Spurs believed Kawhi’s defensive skills were the missing piece of their 2011 organization. Little did they know that he would make a huge impact on offense just a few years later.
During the 2013 NBA Finals, Leonard was matched up with LeBron James, and he received national attention for his defensive ability to hold off James’ powerful offensive expertise. In game 1, he covered LeBron for 35 minutes and did not commit a single foul. While his efforts were truly exceptional, it would not be until the 2014 NBA Finals that he would make his first major statement in the league.
During the 2013–2014 regular season, Leonard disappointed a lot of fans with mediocre stats and too many absences from games due to a broken hand. However, during the post-season, Kawhi revealed the uncommon ability to take a defensive rebound and immediately push the ball up court himself, thus eliminating the need for an outlet pass. Think back to game 5 of the 2014 Finals, when Kawhi did just that; rebounded, pulled ahead, and drilled the 3 to give the Spurs their first lead of the game.
During the 2014 Finals, Kawhi Leonard was matched up with LeBron again, and he was able to limit James’ offensive impact yet again. Leonard showed that he can force anyone, even the best player in the world, to have to put the ball back on the floor and dribble himself into a tough 2-point shot. He did so by putting pressure on the ball and using his huge hands to swat at everything LeBron tried to put up.
The most amazing part of his Finals performance was that Pop never called a play for him, rather
“everything he did [was] out of the motion and out of offense.”
Leonard finished the series with three consecutive 20-points games; shooting over 68 percent from the floor and scoring 71 points in the last three games combined. He scored 29 points in Game Three alone, making him one of only three players younger than 23 years old to score 29 or more points in an NBA Finals game. During Game 1, no one would have thought Leonard would be the MVP of the Finals, but after his performance in the last three games, it was clear that the Bill Russell Trophy belonged to him.
The NBA Finals revealed Kawhi Leonard’s playmaking ability. Therefore, it seems logical that in light of Leonard’s dominance in the Finals, along with the Big Three’s age and injuries, Coach Popovich will start creating plays around Leonard. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Pop has a high-octane teamwork system, and therefore Kawhi’s come-up this season will develop very differently than that of Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. Still, Leonard’s all-around game will continue to evolve due to the increasing focus on him, along with the support of many exceptional players on his team. Further, Gregg Popovich is notorious for resting his starters throughout the season and playing his veterans for the perfect amount of limited minutes. In their absence, and therefore dissipating responsibility, Leonard will have the perfect opportunity to become the go-to scoring option and central focus of the Spurs’ offense this season.
Leonard is on his way to become the next face of this renowned San Antonio franchise. When the big three retire, he will be there to take over the team once and for all. The most important factor aiding his takeover, is the great level of trust and respect that Coach Popovich and Kawhi have a for each other. Pop has been quoted many times calling Leonard
“the future of the franchise.”
Likewise, in the first moments following the buzzer at the end of Game 5, we saw an adorable moment in which Leonard repeatedly thanked Pop for pushing him so hard, which was supplemented by a few punches to the stomach from Pop.
Kawhi Leonard stands out to Coach Popovich because of his offense, his defense, his decision-making, and his ability to remain calm under pressure. These attributes, that are so rare to find in such a young player, along with the support system Leonard has behind him, provide him with the ability to become the face of the San Antonio Spurs and one of the best players in the league.
At the beginning of the 2013 season, Pelicans’ head coach Monty Williams slipped Anthony Davis a piece of paper with ten names on it. These names represented ten [active at the time] power forwards that Williams believed were better than his up-and-coming star Anthony Davis. By the end of the season, after Davis earned his first All-Star appearance and led the NBA in blocks, Williams was forced, much to his delight, to cross some names off of his list.
As Anthony Davis awaits the revised list for this season, Williams now finds it hard to find a power forward who is as talented and as skilled as his power forward. Anthony played solid basketball his rookie season, but he did not quite live up to the hype that a first draft pick should have lived up to. In his first year, Davis averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and he missed eighteen games due to injuries.Therefore, this list, that Davis would receive the following season, was justified and would prove to be necessary.
The list clearly served as a source of motivation, as Davis’ displayed excellence on the court throughout his second season. He led the Pelicans in scoring (20.8), rebounding (10.0), and blocks (2.8). He improved his offensive game with a nice soft mid-range jumper and an effective pick-and-role game. He finished last season with the highest player-efficiency rating (26.5) of any 20-year-old in NBA history.
At 6–11, with a 7–4 wingspan, it is impossible to not take note of Davis’ defensive capabilities, and he has a certain lateral quickness that is not possessed by any other player in the league. Even after the season ended, the improvements just kept coming, as he prevailed as the top player on Team USA during the FIBA World Cup this summer. When Davis was drafted, he was expected to be mainly a defensive stopper. However, he is now seen as one of the best two-way players in the league, and this makes his potential infinite.
Anthony Davis came into the 2014 preseason with about twenty added pounds of muscle, and a new found confidence in his ability to carry his team to a title contending position. He will have more of a leading role this season, compared to Irving and Leonard, because he does not have the caliber of support on the court that these other two guys have. However, in the preseason polls, the league’s general managers selected the Pelicans as the second most improved team behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, who acquired James in free agency. This acknowledged improvement is a direct testament to Davis’ breakout season last year. He does get to play with Omer Asik this year, which is going to give Davis and the Pelicans more options on defense. Further, if Monty Williams allows Davis to play the majority of his minutes with only one other big man on the court, his scoring will continue to rise and likely bring him into the MVP conversation. Anthony Davis is the playmaker, he is the leader, and he is the guy that will determine how well the Pelicans do this season. If any young player is up to the challenge, it is him.
There are plenty of talented players in the NBA; some who we have witnessed stack their fingers with rings, while others have excelled in isolation basketball but failed to take home hardware due to the lack of support from their team. As we watch Dwayne Wade’s knees give out, Kobe Bryant enter the last two years of his contract, and Paul Pierce change teams again, it is clear that the next era of basketball is rolling in. As the older stars begin to fade out, the younger up-and-comers are starting to take over the leading roles on their individual teams. Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis will not only emerge as the leader on their respective teams, but as the leaders of the league in general. These three players possess MVP-like qualities, as we already know, and with the changing internal structures of their teams and their individual improvements, these guys are going to be unstoppable. Tomorrow night marks the beginning of something new, something these guys have been waiting for since they picked up their first basketball.