The newly starting season of the National Basketball Association carries with it the promise of fulfillment of potential. But unfortunately we tend to focus too strongly on the validation of a career that winning a championship brings. As a community we stake out positions on people in such a binary manner that we ignore what is actually already being achieved. You are brilliant until it’s deemed you should have won a championship. Then we start to ask questions.
We did it to Lebron. Fueled firstly by his decision to team up with Dwyane Wade, then his failure to win immediately. As a community we turned on him. We questioned his willingness to do whatever it took. We asked if he was a choker.
We’ve done it to Derrick Rose. The youngest Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the league ever broke his knees in all kinds of ways. His career since has been fits and starts of trying to recapture his athletic ability stolen from him by a series of unfortunate accidents. Instead the narrative that follows Rose around like a ghost whispers questions about whether he really ‘gets it’, like we all know what it’s like to reinvent our very being on the fly.
It will be about everything but the basketball. We do it every season. And we will do it again this season.
And it’s a shame.
Kevin Durant is apparently six foot and nine inches tall, but when he stretches his arms out you could swear he could touch the rim without jumping. His height makes his perfect jump-shot un-blockable.
If he can get the rest of his body to a position on the court, he can shoot the ball from there. And it will probably go in. He has won the MVP, four scoring titles and an Olympic Gold medal. He is probably the second best player in the league, depending on who you talk to.
He also had surgery on a broken foot three times last year. And his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder expires at the end of this season, making him a free agent. The whisper campaign is that he will move to his hometown Washington Wizards at the end of the year.
His Thunder will be a force in the Western Conference this year. With Russell Westbrook he forms one of the most dynamic and graceful combinations in the league. This year they get the breaks that allow them to win a championship. But with the brilliance of the Warriors, the rejuvenated Spurs and the deeper-than-ever Clippers the odds are simply against him.
At 27 and in his ninth season, the sharks are starting to circle, demanding that he ‘prove himself’. If he moves to his hometown Wizards after the season he will likely end his partnership with Westbrook. We will say they never won it all because they never gelled. Because Durant was too timid in the face of Westbrook’s furiosity. We will only remember these recent Thunder sides as mere blips on the historical cavalcade of Spurs and Warriors championships.
And that’s stupid.
Anthony Davis moves with the fluidity of a man half his size. His six foot ten inches has filled out since his early years, and he now has the size to compete with any of the behemoths he encounters every night in the Western Conference. He is barely scratching the surface of his skills.
He is already an elite defender, leading the league in blocks last season – in both raw and per game numbers. He has developed his offensive game, able to hit long jumpers if opponents back off him. If given a second, he is quick enough to blow by the best defenders the league has to offer. He led the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) last season at 30.8. That’s the eleventh highest rating ever for PER. The names above him on that last? Jordan, LeBron, Chamberlain. He also plays for the New Orleans Pelicans, a middling team in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Already the expectations have been set for this season – making the playoffs. Last season the Pelicans scraped in when they beat the defending champ Spurs on the last day of the regular season. They eventually lost in straight sets to the eventual champions, the Warriors, despite Davis’ best efforts. There is talent outside of Davis, but in the Western Conference that may not be enough. They will need health and a great deal of luck to make the playoffs again.
Davis submitted the 11th best season by a player in the history of basketball. And it was only just enough to get his side into the playoffs. And if he doesn’t deliver again this season the bifurcation will begin, and people will begin to debate whether or not he is really fulfilling his potential.
And that’s annoying.
Watching Kristap Porzingis at this stage of his career is like watching a giant puppy – the coordination isn’t always there, but when you look at those giant paws it’s not hard to envision the power that will come. He is seven foot one inch, and not every part of that length is under control yet. He’s only 20 now, so one day it may be.
In the pre-season he has been every bit the rookie. He looks lost on defensive rotations – I’ve seen him more than once rotate to defend an imaginary combatant on the perimeter. He’s been pushed around inside by pretty much everyone as he works to get his NBA legs properly developed.
Oh but his jumper – it’s a thing of beauty. How it emerges from a seven foot one frame is baffling. He’s also shown some good instincts and speed on one-on-one defence, impressively recovering if he’s beaten to block shots on several occasions.
There’s just one small problem.
See Porzingis plays for the New York Knicks. They’re not really the most traumatised fan base in the NBA, but they sure are the most talked about. The city of New York demands a lot of its basketball team which is odd given how rarely that side delivers. Porzingis is just the latest in a long line of players who have come to New York to bring about the redemption of a title. Bernard King, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Zach Randolph, Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony are just some that came before him. They all ‘failed’ in the sense that they never delivered a championship to the city that hasn’t had one since 1973.
And that’s infuriating.