Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? Imagine it’s 2007… a lovely time. No, I didn’t have a sweet goatee back then like I do now, but I can get past that for the sake of this column. Five years ago today, the Cleveland Cavaliers were hosting their first ever NBA Finals game. Do you remember how that went down? No? No worries, I’ll refresh your memory. Although Cleveland came into the postseason with the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference, there wasn’t too much belief that the Cavaliers could be a legitimate threat to win an NBA Championship. After all, LeBron was still young (only 23) and outside of him this Cavaliers team was sensationally underwhelming. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, LeBron James’ greatest accomplishment in his NBA career is carrying this particular team to the NBA Finals. He went to war that postseason with Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Eric Snow. To summarize, that’s only one other player who could create his own shot (Hughes, who was hampered by plantar fasciitis during the postseason), one player just about reaching the twilight of his career (Ilgauskas), one player who has played for SIX teams since that 06-07 season (Gooden), a starting point guard who averaged 4 points and 4 assists on 41% shooting (Snow), a rookie who averaged only 16 minutes per game in the regular season and then was thrust into the role of big shot taker (Gibson), an inexperienced and raw big man (Varejao), and two guys who should never be logging major minutes for an NBA Championship contender (Marshall and Pavlovic).
I’m sure you’ve connected the dots as to how exactly Cleveland got to the NBA Finals, but I’ll say it anyway; LeBron James was sensational throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs, averaging 25.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists. That really wasn’t a surprise. LeBron was already widely considered one of the best players in the league. He had won an All-Star Game MVP, made two 2nd Team All-NBA and one 1st Team All-NBA. Additionally, LeBron was coming off two straight top five MVP vote finishes. Still, it took the “48 Special” performance to truly launch LeBron to the next level. LeBron scored 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 points and momentum quickly started building for the “LeBron could be the best ever” argument. It was irrelevant that Cleveland got swept by San Antonio in the Finals. After all, San Antonio was a well-built team and Cleveland was essentially LeBron and the 14 misfits. Despite that fact, it certainly appeared that the future of the NBA was LeBron James.
Meanwhile, the Portland Trailblazers had unexpectedly won the NBA Draft Lottery and were mulling over the decision of whether to draft Ohio State University center Greg Oden or University of Texas forward Kevin Durant. Even though nearly all experts agreed that Oden should go number one, 15 year old pre-goatee Sonny Giuliano believed that Durant was the player that Portland should select. Just watching Durant at Texas you could see that he was going to be a special player. Durant took the college basketball world by storm, averaging 26 points and 11 rebounds per game, and taking home numerous National Player of the Year awards in the process. Aside from showing that he was an incredibly gifted scorer, the best I personally had ever seen at the college level, you could also see from Durant a hunger to be the best player in the world, a quality that was seemingly absent from Greg Oden, and the majority of players who ever step on a basketball court. Durant was a sure thing. Durant was the future of the NBA. I saw that, and I didn’t see the same from Oden… If only Portland had taken a chance and hired me as their General Manager in 2007. It must’ve been because I didn’t have a goatee.
Now we’re back in 2012. It’s LeBron James’ ninth year in the NBA. Since the summer of 2007, LeBron has won three MVP Awards, putting him in rare company along with Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as 3 time winners. He’s rounded into the most complete NBA player today, and possibly ever. It’s almost as if a mad scientist took Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, morphed them into one player and out came LeBron James. On the offensive end of the floor he vascillates between being the best point guard in the league and the most unstoppable physical force you could imagine. Defensively, he’s more versatile than anyone who has ever played in the NBA. Despite the endless amount of awards, rare statistical gems and overall skill level, LeBron still has not won an NBA Title. You know how that story goes. He fell short three straight years in Cleveland, took his talents to South Beach, and fell short yet again last year. I’m a LeBron fan. It’s a tough pill to swallow that he hasn’t won an NBA Title yet.
It’s Kevin Durant’s fifth year in the NBA. Since the summer of 2007, Durant has become the exact NBA player I expected him to become, except for the fact I expected all of this to be going down in Seattle, not Oklahoma City. Regardless, Durant is a scoring machine (3 scoring titles and in my opinion, the best scorer alive) with a proven killer instinct and has immediately risen to the top of the NBA. Over his first two years of postseason play, Durant took some bumps, losing to the eventual NBA Champions Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. This year, Durant and the Thunder avenged those loses to the Mavericks and Lakers in the first two rounds of the playoffs before running into the San Antonio Spurs, who were in the midst of an incredible run that started in the regular season and carried over into the playoffs. After the Thunder fell down 2-0, they were written off as “still too young” and “not yet ready” to play for an NBA Title. Durant and the Thunder are indeed young, but they are most certainly ready. Durant lead the Thunder to four straight wins against a Spurs team that had won 20 straight games up to that point. Just as we did when LeBron and the Cavaliers won four straight against Detroit in 2007, we’ve anointed Durant and the Thunder as the future of the NBA. It’s much more plausible this time around. After all, Durant is flanked by two-time 2nd Team All NBA point guard Russell Westbrook, 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and a supporting cast that would metaphorically corner LeBron‘s 06-07 supporting cast, takes their lunch money and then stuffs them into a locker.
After 1,000 words I’ve finally arrived at my point. There is obviously quite a bit of talent on the floor in this series aside from LeBron and Durant. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh round out the Miami Big Three while Russell Westbrook and James Harden flank Kevin Durant, but ultimately this series comes down to the two best basketball players on the planet. It’s the modern day Bird vs. Magic matchup, and we need to treat it as such. Maybe in 2007 we envisioned this potential future matchup as Cleveland vs. Seattle, but regardless of changes in scenary this matchup is five years in the making. As a LeBron James fan, yes, I certainly do hope the Heat win the NBA Title. But as an NBA fan I want seven close, competitive, down to the wire games, and I’ll be satisfied with any result if that’s the case. Rather than criticizing LeBron by picking at his clutch credentials, or hoping that Durant is too young and not yet ready for the biggest stage, I ask you to appreciate that we are on the cusp of a new era of the NBA, and these are the two individuals introducing us to it. If you are a true NBA fan or even someone who doesn’t have a metaphorical horse in this race, I challenge you to sit back and simply enjoy basketball at its highest level, and not concern yourself with who wins and who loses. If you can’t do that, that’s too bad for you. You better brace yourself for a lot more Miami and Oklahoma City on the biggest NBA platform. This is the future of the NBA, and it certainly appears as if the future is now.