Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: What’s up with Kyrie Irving?
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving will return to basketball at some point, healed enough for contact and basketball activity from a shoulder impingement that has kept him out for the past month.
And when he returns, the conversation surrounding him, as it’s always been, will be more black and white than layered and nuanced.
There were more than a few whispers about the severity of the injury — hell, the legitimacy of it — with the Nets facing Boston on Nov. 27 and 29, and Irving’s supposed reluctance to face the franchise he left in July.
There have been even more whispers about the Nets playing like a more functional unit in Irving’s absence following a 4-7 start in his first 11 games. In the last month, the Nets have settled back into the play-hard group many fell in love with last season.
Irving has allowed a glimpse into his psyche at points, with Instagram posts and even during a candid media-day showing where he seemed to admit external pressures affect him. Some believed it to be an act, to absolve himself of any responsibility for the disaster the Celtics season turned into last year, a carefully curated but random stream of consciousness to make the world a witness.
But what we are witnessing — and will document when he finally makes his way back in the public eye — is a young man figuring things out, the best way he knows how.
Irving hasn’t spoken to the media in quite awhile, a no-no in league protocol, which states an injured player should be available within 10 days of a prognosis. The NBA hasn’t come down on Irving or the Nets, which suggests a certain amount of empathy or, at least, understanding.
We all give great lip service to mental health when it’s presented to us. Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and others have pulled back the curtain and have garnered more empathy perhaps than even they expected to receive since being the willing faces of this new frontier.
How we approach Irving will be a litmus test.
He often says things that seem to come from fortune cookies, thus making him fodder for social media jokes and memes, and it’s hard to reconcile a player who’s so unaffected by anything on the floor being sensitive to matters off it.
We’re not doctors, but we can certainly apply common sense, wisdom and experience when it appears a player isn’t right physically, or if he has an injury history that could be creeping around.
While it doesn’t absolve players from their responsibility to perform and play well on a nightly basis, those things provide context for the pictures we present and the players we analyze. In this case, the signs are more subtle, and because there are privacy laws that protect a player’s health information and records, we don’t really know.
There’s certainly a distinction between when a player lectures the public about flat Earth theories that deserve jokes or ridicule, and when someone deserves a little humanity without being labeled.
There are people around the NBA who still call Irving a “kid”, which speaks to a certain protectiveness they feel for him regardless of his stature, salary or history. How we all approach the imperfect test model for this will say a lot about our progress in sensitive matters — or prove that it’s only easy to be empathetic when it’s obvious.
Second Quarter: Lakers-Clippers embracing the petty
The Lakers and Clippers are about a week away from their second meeting of the season on Christmas — and still months away from hopefully a seven-game bout this spring — but it hasn’t stopped the unofficial spokesmen for each club from throwing shots across the bow.
“If I’m healthy, I play,” James said to reporters that night. “I mean, that should be the approach. I mean, unless we’re getting to, like, late in the season, and we’ve clinched and we can’t get any better or any worse, it could benefit from that, but why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me, personally.”
If that’s not a shot at Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers, Lucy has some ’splaining to do.
Never mind James and the Lakers were walked down the primrose path only to be left at the altar by Leonard in free agency, but the Lakers know the Clippers are a legitimate threat.
Doc Rivers, no stranger to the microphone, no stranger to sarcasm and certainly not a man with back-down in him, fired back appropriately before the Clippers routed the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.
“It’s our philosophy. I don’t know what theirs are,” Rivers said. “I think theirs is whatever LeBron says it is, to be honest. That makes a lot of sense to me. I like what we are doing, and I think it’s the smart thing to do. Who knows? We’ll see at the end.”
It’s good old-fashioned pettiness and the two combatants share a building. Make no mistake: The Clippers fear the Lakers as much as the Lakers fear the Clippers. These two are in a special room in the West, and along with Milwaukee are the three rock-solid title contenders right now.
The next time a player or coach tells you they have tunnel vision or they don’t pay attention to what other franchises are doing, don’t believe him. This is a prime example of living in glass houses yet throwing stones.
This rivalry isn’t quite to the point of obsession, not yet at least, but each side is infatuated with what the other does. James, from his comments, appears to believe Leonard gets a pass from the media at large for managing his body and not living up to the standards of a superstar. The Clippers clearly knew what they were getting with Leonard and had no qualms with the terms dictated by Leonard and his health.
It’s easy to say both sides should mind their own business and settle things on the floor when it matters, but nobody’s ever objected to a little extra juice headed into Christmas Day, right?
Third Quarter: LeBron James and the weight of the game
Here’s where LeBron James is right, though: He has an extra responsibility to perform and maybe even more so at this stage of his career.
He’s in Year 17, which means multiple generations of fans will be able to say they saw him play (and play well, too). It’s a source of pride for him, if not merely practicality. He can accomplish a lot over the next few years, rising up the scoring charts and other categories in his quest to strengthen his case in the GOAT conversation.
“I mean, I don’t know how many games I got left in my career,” James said in Atlanta. “I don’t know how many kids that may show up to a game and they’re there to come see me play and if I sit out, then what? That’s my obligation.”
Atlanta’s not a place known for high attendance. When marquee teams like the Lakers come to town, it’s an event more than a contest, a place to be seen more than a game that counts in the standings.
There’s Hawks red in the stands, but there’s far more Lakers gold and purple from fans who may show up to one game a year — to see the standard bearer of the game.
Whether it’s due to the endorsements or salary or all-around popularity, there’s an invisible torch James is carrying.
There’s plenty of great players today, and the talent is almost overflowing. But there’s a rarefied air James sits at in terms of how he’s been tabbed to push the game forward. At one point it was Julius Erving, then Magic and Larry, then Michael.
Kobe Bryant had it for a second as his career turned into more of a statesman role. But James, seemingly, has always had this weight on him from the moment he was drafted. He’s had to show up, entertain and know that each night there’s some father and son who’ll see him for the one and only time.
If a young fan were a teenager in James’ early years when we wondered if the hype were real, that fan is now in his 30s with perhaps children of his own — the shared but disparate experiences, seeing James at different stages, creating the mythology that keeps the game’s popularity moving. Even if James’ words were just the right thing to say more than his true feelings, the words were correct.
He holds the weight and understands. Stephen Curry does, too.
Kevin Durant, in a way, has the talent that demands he carry that as well when he’s healthy. But it seems he’s a half-step behind Curry and James.
James’ shot at Kawhi Leonard, whether you consider it subtle or not, isn’t totally accurate. Leonard isn’t carrying the league from a box office standpoint — his responsibility is to the Clippers.
James’ burden is unfair, but one he accepts for the game.
Fourth Quarter: All-decade team
How strong was this decade for the NBA?
Selecting an All-NBA First Team for the last 10 years leaves off Finals MVPs, regular-season MVPs and players we know will dominate the next decade.
But picking a first five is a tough task, so with apologies to Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, they’ll have to sit in reserve for this one.
PG Stephen Curry: If there’s a player on this list who’s the most unlikely, it’s Curry. His marks are all over the way this game is played today, and if we’re being honest, he’s most responsible for keeping LeBron James from having a Bill Russell-like trophy case. Two-time MVP, three-time champion. First-team sacrifice in ceding space to Kevin Durant, and with that shimmy that’s been missing in the Bay Area this season, first-team entertainer.
SG James Harden: Whether his game is hard to embrace or easy to appreciate, his accomplishments can’t be denied. Being traded from Oklahoma City to Houston revived the Rockets from mediocrity, unknowingly removed the Thunder from true championship contention and, shockingly, opened the door for the Warriors to start their ascension. His numbers keep rising as he hits 30, testing the limits of the rulebook as well as relentlessly knocking on the door of team greatness.
SF LeBron James: He started the trend that came to define the decade: playing summer GM and teaming up with talented friends in the pursuit of multiple championships. He started the decade with his second MVP and could start the next one with his fifth. No player has had the complete effect on basketball and its culture the way he has, and even though he’s not at his athletic peak, James has stayed as close to his prime as long as any player in the history of the game. The man belongs to history.
SF Kevin Durant: Perhaps the game has seen no greater scorer in terms of versatility and physical profile, and maybe no greater enigma, either. Lost in the vitriol from his move to Golden State from Oklahoma City was some of the most efficient and perfect basketball we’ve ever seen. He became a made man as a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP, even with the naysayers who claimed he ruined the game. But he merely played by the rules set out to him. Finding fulfillment has been tougher, but this one-time league MVP will go down as arguably a top-15 all-time player when he’s done.
C Dwight Howard: Whether it’s an indictment of the position, weak competition or disrespect for what he accomplished when he was fully healthy, but Howard is easy to forget and easy to hate. But when he patrolled the middle with health and vigor, he was a one-man wrecking crew on defense. His act wore thin in several places even as his stats stayed consistent. Some will cringe, but he’s a first-ballot, no-questions-asked Hall of Famer.
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