LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and the Six Stars Who Will Own the NBA in 2013
Most people don't start watching the NBA until football is over, and it's really not until the playoffs begin that professional basketball takes center stage. Everything that has happened thus far in the season is prologue.
The real story is yet to come.
As for which players will be putting their permanent stamps on the 2012-13 season, some of the characters are obvious. The tale of the Eastern Conference has started and ended with the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, with 2003 draft mates LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony drenched in glory.
What has already transpired will mean little, however, if their early success doesn't translate to the postseason. Only those who rule in the playoffs will become forever tied to the year 2013.
6. Kevin Durant
Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and George Gervin are the only players in NBA history to win four scoring titles. At 30.1 points per game, Kobe Bryant is so far ensconced atop this year's leader board, but Durant is not far behind at 28.4 a night.
In all, he needs just 79 points to catch up to Bryant, and Durant has played one fewer game. As we have seen during his two 40-plus-point games in the past two weeks, he can make up more than half that total in just one game.
The scoring crown is obviously not the title KD is most interested in. He wants to avenge his team's loss in the NBA Finals last year and bring Oklahoma City a championship.
If he can do either, he will forever go down in history.
5. Carmelo Anthony
Most people will tell you that either the 1996 Chicago Bulls, 1986 Boston Celtics or 1987 Los Angeles Lakers were the best team in NBA history. Not New Yorkers.
For those in the Big Apple, no team will ever eclipse the Willis Reed/Clyde Frazier New York Knicks, who won the championship in 1970 and 1973.
Seeing as how the Knicks haven't won a title since—not to mention the frenzy of modern-day media hype—Carmelo Anthony could put himself beside those NYC immortals if he is able to bring home a ring.
Regardless of potential king-making, this will go down as the year that the team that plays in the Mecca of Basketball officially became relevant again for the first time since Patrick Ewing left town. Sure, "Linsanity" captivated the public for a hot minute, but we are still talking about a franchise that has won just one playoff game since before September 11.
Just getting to the second round won't get Anthony's jersey in the rafters. But it is a start, and at this point, there doesn't seem to be another team in the East that will stop them from facing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. Tim Duncan
Nobody pays Tim Duncan any mind.
He's the four-time champ everyone takes for granted. He's the top-10 player of all time who bores fans. He is the epitome of the sportsman who every parent hopes their children can become when they first sign them up for tee ball.
Now, he is writing his swan song. But somehow, as he is supposed to be fading into the twilight, he is playing the best basketball he has in years—and soon people will be forced to take notice.
He is scoring more, per 36 minutes, than he has since 2007. By the same metric, he is rebounding better than he has since 2008. If you look at the total percentage of defensive boards he is grabbing while he is on the floor, this is—unbelievably—the best season of his career.
That mimics his ability to block shots: he has never swatted more attempts away than the 3.0 blocks per game he is now averaging per 36 minutes.
Statistics and individual accolades have never defined Duncan, of course. These numbers, while impressive, are just trivial facts. But they are illustrative of just how spry, fit and healthy he has been this season, which is something that has not always been the case in recent years.
His coach, Gregg Popovich, recently told the Dallas Morning News how this has helped Duncan have a larger impact on the San Antonio Spurs' success than he has in some time.
He was never a leaper, or Mr. Quick. But he’s driving by people. He’s pivoting, starting and stopping better than he ever has. All those things. He’s playing better than he has probably in the last two, three or four years.
Right now, most people aren't talking about the Spurs as true title contenders. San Antonio is just that, however, and barring any health setbacks, Duncan will once again have a huge say in how an NBA season is remembered.
3. Kobe Bryant
The old gunslinger dies hard. It's the way of every Western movie and, this year, the way of the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant, a 34-year-old man in his 17th professional season playing basketball, leads the league in scoring. It's safe to say that if he is to spend another year not winning an NBA title, he is going to go down shooting.
So far, the story in Hollywood has centered on the Los Angeles Lakers' comedy of errors. Even after their recent stretch of high-level play, they remain merely a .500 team, and every non-Laker fan has reveled in the schadenfreude.
There remains no bigger personality in the sport, however, and the Lakers are beginning to look like the super team that many expected them to be. If Bryant can lead his team to the promised land, in the process equalling Michael Jordan by winning his sixth ring, the perception of him dominating the league will no longer be rooted in nostalgia.
Bryant, playing as incredibly as he is right now, has the opportunity to again shift the balance of power back to Los Angeles and further cement his name in the NBA walk of fame.
2. Chris Paul
Raise your hand if you thought the Los Angeles Clippers would be the best team in the NBA on New Year's Eve. If you exclude the limbs of liars, there should be exactly no hands in the air.
Chris Paul is the primary reason that all preseason expectations have been turned on their head. He is the leader of the team from Los Angeles that was supposed to be an afterthought.
There are no lofty individual numbers to tout. From a statistical standpoint, Paul has played better in other seasons.
He has never run a team playing this well, however.
Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles reported the following after the Clippers destroyed the Boston Celtics by 29 points on Thursday to win their 15th straight game.
The Clippers have been defeating teams so handily during the streak that Paul and Blake Griffin have been relegated to nothing more than spectators in the fourth quarter; they are averaging career-low minutes in the final period this season.
“It shows we have a lot of depth,” Paul said. “I probably sat out more fourth quarters this season than in my previous seven seasons. People talk about how me and Blake’s numbers are down, but we don’t play many fourth quarters. It just says a lot about our team and how everything is balanced.”
Nearly each year he has been in the league, it seems as though Paul has played one or two exquisite playoff games that have captivated the world for a night. Sometimes, it has taken him just a single quarter—a single pass, a single crossover—to blow up Twitter.
This year, he is finally playing on a team that may have the chance to transform similar nights into enduring moments that are more than mere footnotes in a postseason ruled by others.
This year, the littlest superstar in the NBA may wind up owning its biggest stage.
1. LeBron James
LeBron James owns the NBA, and everybody else is just paying rent.
He has been the league's best player for at least five years, and he finally solidified that in the mind of all but the most extreme dissenting zealots last June.
With all due respect to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, professional basketball hasn't had a greater talent since Michael Jordan played in Chicago. His combination of size, speed, strength and versatility allow him to do things on a court that have never been done.
As such, there is no reason to think that the Miami Heat will have any tougher of a time defending their title than they did winning it in the first place.
So the only way anyone will take ownership of the Association away from LeBron is to push the king of the mountain off the top. Unfortunately for all challengers, King James and the Miami Heat appear to be on very solid footing.