The Courtside Couch
As the holiday season officially kicks into high-gear, sports fans across the country and around the world received an early Christmas gift: The announcement of a new NBA labor agreement, paving the way for a shortened season set to begin on December 25th.
While the deal has yet to be made official, all signs point to this being the real thing, and by all accounts from both the players and owners groups, the “Doomsday” threat of an extended lockout and a lost season seem to be safely behind us now.
The stakes were never higher for a league that, in spite of perhaps the most spectacularly high-quality product in all of professional sports, had been in something of a shambles behind the scenes. And while the new labor agreement doesn’t solve every issue presented by the warring factions who delayed this season, what remains most important is that there will continue to be a league in existence to capitalize on its recent growth as a global brand with marketable talent and untold billions left to be made. The NBA marches on, and everyone who gets to go back to work can breathe a sigh of relief.
Thought they’d be the last ones to ever admit it, one of the greatest symbolic burdens to be lifted by this news lies in the legacies of the NBA’s class of aging superstars. It is practically impossible to accurately assess the value of missed opportunities and fleeting potential that define conversations of “what could have been…”
Such is the truest tragedy of the lost career of a giant (pun intended) like Yao Ming, the all-world Houston Rockets center who was forced into early retirement after an injury plagued career that formerly promised him a historical place among such prominent big men as Bill Walton and Karl Malone. While his place in history is secure as one of the greats of his era, an iron-willed workhorse in international play, and an ambassador and spokesperson who brought the game to its largest markets ever, Yao will never again get the chance to earn the one title that once seemed his birthright: NBA Champion. The Rockets closed a chapter last season with the official end of the Yao Ming era, and Houston looks ahead to rebuild under the “Moneyball”-esque leadership of statistical guru and General Manager Daryl Morey. And while there’s plenty to fascinate in this current Frankenstein’d roster of gritty misfits and rough gems, there’s little to be said about the legacies of the principles involved.
But for several other players currently residing in the Lone Star State, the announcement of another season to come means stakes that have never been higher, and the chance to turn present-day greatness into All-Time Legend status. In San Antonio, Tim Duncan will lace up his sneakers for a fifteenth professional season, and remains the lynchpin of San Antonio’s hopes to remain a powerhouse in the impossibly-crowded field of Western Conference contenders. Even as the Spurs rolled to the best record in the West and the top seed in the playoffs, the cracks of age were showing in the steadfast Duncan (and, to a lesser extent, a banged-up Manu Ginobili), and by the time the postseason finally arrived, the Spurs were gassed. Unable to keep up with the next-level grind of a hungry Memphis Grizzlies squad, Duncan and company were sent home in just six games.
It’s difficult to argue that Tim Duncan has anything left to prove in professional basketball. He’s been the Rookie of the Year, the Most Valuable Player (twice) and an NBA champion (four times over, in fact), and if he retired today he’d be remembered in the rarified air as a great among greats. And that’s why the ignominious defeat of a first-round knockout still stings so much. When there’s little left to do but age gracefully, to exit a season so unceremoniously could be what motivates the lion in winter for one last great run. A shortened season means fewer minutes, and fresher legs, and one more chance to remind everybody that a living legend still walks among us.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, the reigning champion Mavericks have decisions to make. Defensive anchor and clubhouse leader Tyson Chandler is still a free agent, and a “secret weapon” that every team with money under the salary cap will be taking an honest run at stealing away. Does Dallas have any choice but to over-pay to keep their championship-core intact? And what does Chandler risk in leaving behind the team that he almost inarguably put over-the-top?
Perhaps Chandler’s decision doesn’t even have the most immediate bearing on his own legacy. After all, the Mavericks were a trendy pick to be unceremoniously bounced in the first round of the 2011 playoffs by the plucky Portland Trailblazers, and for all the talk of cohesion and chemistry that accompanied their run to the title, Dallas’ championship tale is still spoken of as leaning just this side of being “a Cinderella story.” Who’s to say that Tyson Chandler isn’t the missing piece of the winning equation for another almost-contender? Can the Mavericks possible make that kind of magic happen again?
In this respect, the player in Dallas with the most to lose or gain in 2011-2012 is the franchise’s unquestioned cornerstone and Finals MVP, Dirk Nowitzki. Certainly his status as a newly-minted champion was a huge relief, pushing him beyond the realm of “He was great, but he never won a ring…”, his satisfaction is immediately replaced by the question of “Just how good of a career might he be capable of?” The now thirty-three year old Nowitzki is an anomaly in NBA history, and there’s never been a precedent to predict the shelf-life of a seven-foot tall white German shooting guard in a power forward’s body. While we’re unlikely to see a drop-off in his prolific scoring, how many more seasons of peak performance does he really have left in him? Is the prospect of Multiple MVP awards still a reality in an era that looks to be dominated by youthful athletic super-freaks like LeBron James and Derrick Rose? If not, what else does Dirk have to achieve to be remembered as not only the greatest foreign-born player in NBA history, but simply one of the greatest players of all time? The answer, of course, is to simply keep winning- a prospect that couldn’t happen without games to play in the nearly-aborted season.
No matter what happens this year, everybody gets that chance. It’s going to be a hell of a season.