New Faces, New Places
Sports have a weird tendency to create these intensely emotional bonds that don’t totally make sense. Over the course of a season, the players start to feel like family members. Their personalities become familiar. You know their quirks and can tell when they’re having a bad day or when they look like they could go out and dunk on the entire world. You see them every couple of days and they can equally delight you or frustrate you. Every once in a while they do it both at the same time and it makes your head want to explode but, most of the time, you just want to sit down at the end of the day and spend time with them. They become a constant presence in your life, as real as any other relationship.
This attachment becomes more pronounced the longer an athlete stays with the team. Year in and year out, these players become synonymous with the teams and cities they represent. How many times during the worlds longest retirement party last year did you hear some announcer fawn about how, “Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers.” This sensation makes it all the more jarring when a long tenured player ends up wearing new colors all of a sudden. To this day I still get whiplash whenever a picture of Michael Jordan in a teal Wizards jersey pops up somewhere. It’s like seeing your older brother sit down to dinner with someone else’s family.
This is something that happens every year, but it feels particularly pronounced for this upcoming NBA season. The early preseason games have featured a whole host of “OMG that guy!” sightings.
· “Oh weird, Dwight Howard is a Hawk”
· “Pau Gasol in a Spurs jersey seems strange”
· “Is that really Joakim Noah on the Knicks? I forgot that even happened.”
· “Oh, so that’s what Al Horford looks like”
But most of these are mere curiosities compared to the seismic shift in the league caused by Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant leaving the only homes they’ve ever known.
In the build up to The Decision, I firmly believed that the triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh would end up on the Bulls. I thought everyone would want a change of scenery for the coup they were trying to pull, I thought Chicago was the biggest market that could make it work (sorry Knicks), and I thought Wade’s hometown ties to the city would be the kicker. During that time, there were roughly one million* (*facts and figures approximate) photoshops of these guys in various uniforms across the league and after a while they all started to run together, but I remember thinking that Wade in a Bulls uniform didn’t seem weird at all in 2009. Seven years later? Well, turns out it’s extremely uncomfortable.
Wade has now spent thirteen years in Miami and, even in spite of this late career detour, will always be the face of that franchise. He was drafted there, he won championships there, and he was the main reason they were able to borrow LeBron for a few years. The closest thing they had to an identity before Wade was Alonzo Mourning dragging Jeff Van Gundy across the floor in the ’98 playoffs. The Bulls? Well, the Bulls certainly already have a face but, aside from that, they were a completely different team last year. They were still very much the Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah Era Bulls last season (just ask Jimmy Butler). Shoot, as far as I’m concerned they were still the Thibodeau Era Bulls since I can never remember his replacement’s name.
My point is, Chicago had a well worn, specific identity last year and Wade still has his own very particular distinctiveness . It’s going to be a while before these two things can properly gel in the public conscious and, frankly, if the wins don’t come then it might never happen at all and we’ll spend a whole season watching the basketball equivalent of the host rejecting the graft.
Meanwhile, the Super Warriors era has officially kicked off and it’s almost enough to distract us from the fact that Golden State blew a 3–1 lead in the finals last year.
KD on the Warriors still feels like that thing in a video game where you can just turn off trade or salary cap restrictions and send something like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut over to the Thunder in exchange for Durant and the computer can’t say no, no matter how ridiculously lopsided the deal is (sorry Mavs). It’s so weird to not have Durant in a Thunder jersey that it seems more like the sugar rush fever dream of a twelve year old than a real life free agency transaction that happened.
Even still, watching the dubs utterly destroy the poor clippers the other night you could sorta feel the normalization process start to kick in. There he was running a pick and pop with Klay on the wing. There he was running an extremely terrifying fast break with Draymond. There he was doing a cute bench celebration after Steph made poor Austin Rivers look dumb.
I think these current Warriors feel like a monolith right now. I know the Warriors franchise has been around forever and have a history full of fascinating teams and passionate fans and…look, I get it. It’s just that, this current iteration is so big and so good right now that their identity doesn’t feel fueled by a complex history or other iconic players. A video of Steph Curry doing trick shots doesn’t invoke the shadow of Rick Berry for me.
Draymond literally isn’t wearing the same uniform that Baron Davis was wearing when he dunked the life out of Andrei Kirilenko.
The impending move out of Oakland and into San Francisco is starting to feel less like a business decision and more like the physical manifestation of a franchise becoming something new altogether.
Which brings us back to KD who, incredible as he is, doesn’t really alter the franchise’s outlook on a macro level. On July 3rd Golden State was a historically great team that was heavily favored to win a title. On July 4th, they remained a historically great team that is probably going to win the title this year. For the most part, it looks like Durant is seamlessly fitting into the ‘Our New Basketball Overlords’ model the Warriors have rolled out and that’s great.
The fact that he’s fitting in isn’t weird, but the idea that one of the brightest stars in the league might not stand out certainly is.