The NBA regular season is nearly over. Still, it’s worth talking about the year that was before we get into the good stuff. The league is divided. On one side we have the old standbys. The perennial powers. Your Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, even the Heat (and, of course, the Bulls, who seem to straddle the two sides). They’re leading the pack, back in the thick of things. And undoubtedly, two of those teams will meet up in the Finals and take it all. Still, there’s another side to the NBA this season. One which we might not see again for a few years, if the scouts are correct about the dry pipeline in both college and Europe (and/or if prolonged labor negotiations submarine the 2011/12 season). This dominance at the top has somewhat obscured the other big story in basketball’s top league. Namely, the emergence of a plethora of young talent. Talent which should see a changing of the guard within another season or two.
It started last year, with Kevin Durant’s emergence and scoring title. This season, the Oklahoma City star has been eclipsed to some degree (though his recent scoring binge has him back in the MVP discussion) by rebound machine Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves), dance-crazy double-double machine John Wall of the woebegone Washington Wizards, the LA Clippers surprising duo of Eric Gordon and human highlight reel Blake Griffin as well as most of the Memphis Grizzlies. And of course Derrick Rose’s emergence as a true MVP contender for Chicago.
What do they have in common, besides youth? Well, for one thing, they all seem to be on the brink of something big (with the exception of the ‘Wolves and Wizards). KD’s Thunder gave the Lakers all they could handle in last year’s playoffs, and this season he and budding star point guard Russell Westbrook are building on the breakthrough by making a real push for the Western Conference four seed. Their team success is undoubtedly inspiring for the other youngsters making an impact on the statistics, highlight reels and All-Star contests but who have yet to see those translate into Ws. The Clippers have shown a vast improvement since their insipid, slow start, and Griffin’s “over the car” dunk contest winner wasn’t nearly as impressive as the improvement in his overall game since they tipped off in late October (or, indeed, as impressive as many of his in-game dunks have been, although they’re rarely accompanied by actual choruses). The Grizzlies are on a late season surge, a team that no one wants to draw in the first round of the playoffs. And of course the Bulls are running away with the East.
They’re also just plain fun to watch. Griffin’s dunks are the obvious Youtube highlights, but Wall’s dishes have been fun to watch in short clip form, and Love’s impressive knowledge of the area around the rim is quite impressive as well.
So, enjoy the “classics” while you can. Another season or two and the changing of the guard just might be complete!