2015-16 SEASON: THE SUPERSTARS ARE BACK!

BY NBA SCHOLAR

Only five players have made it to the exclusive 20 years club. Kobe Bryant is the only guard in this list. Yet another milestone for the already iconic Lakers player. After a long tribulation of injuries and setbacks, this season the Lakers fan base has plenty of reasons to be smiling. Kobe is looking fresh.

Lakers played five games so far and there is an immediately perceivable trend: points production. Five, thirteen, sixteen and twenty-one on the first four. Always rising. After the first “tryout” game when he played only thirteen minutes, the LA coaching staff seems to have set twenty minutes as the limit for his preseason participation. It’s all about getting those legs ready. That deadly first step. The jordanesque fade away, which he mastered over the years. In one of the latest installment of Kobe’s return he made four out of his six three point attempts. Kobe Bryant looks poised.

Same old plot? Not quite

The Lakers script in the last regular seasons were everything but exciting. No Kobe, no wins. That simple. Some youngsters made some improvements, we saw the “arrival” of Clarkson and the explosive nature of Nick Young. Other than that, just another lost season for the faithful Lakers nation. This time, with Kobe returning to action and a plethora of new faces, it sure looks more promising.

In a way, Lakers have 2 first-tier rookies, if we count the unlucky Julius Randle alongside D’Angelo Russel. Moreover, the arrival of Hibbert, Metta World Peace, Brandon Bass and Lou Williams makes this a very intriguing Lakers team. Hibbert, Bass and World Peace should provide the young Julius Randle the tricks of the trade, more precisely on the block. Hibbert´s qualities are already tested: an excellent rebounder and shot blocker. He will be his very own enemy this season, as he battles some struggles in the decisive mental aspect of the game. It´s not only about the talent. 

Basketball, although a team sport, includes many characteristics of a single player sport like tennis, boxing or golf. Transcendent players can dominate at will, sometimes win the game on their own terms. The great players of the past all did it. It might be a sharp comment at someone´s ear, a stare down after a dunk or a rad ball handling move. At the end of the day, only the strongest carve their legacy in the NBA history books. Magic, Bird, Isiah, Jordan, they all had it. Kobe is the latest updated version of this dying breed.

Still some venom in mamba’s bite?

What
can be expected from Kobe´s production in 2015-16? Surely not the
same scoring
level. Not so much because he can´t do it. Simply because his
minutes will be carefully monitored. Kobe will serve this Lakers team
as the alchemist, a Panoramix of sorts, sharing his special
infusion of greatness to the rest of the “tribe”. Like all the
great Hollywood productions, the script should be carefully crafted
for a possible sequel. This is a transition time for this legendary
franchise.

Even the most die-hard Lakers fan will agree this team can´t compete for the Championship (the only thing that really matters to the Lakers fans). The measurement stick became making it to the playoffs, assuring the healthy return of Kobe plus the united efforts of the “older bunch” with the rising new stars. The success of this team will be evaluated according to the positive evolution of the “young guns”, the chemistry between such a diverse roster and maintaining Kobe fit throughout the season, not necessarily in this order.

The competitive, tunnel vision and individualistic old Kobe faces new Kobe, the more relaxed teacher of the game

Old Kobe vs new Kobe

Kobe Bryant´s obsession for winning is well documented. When he came into the league only one thing mattered to him. Joining that eternal club of transcendent players, those type of names who will be referenced in fifty years time. Kobe Bryant has nothing to prove, from an individual standpoint. He already won everything he wanted. A sixth title would be the cherry on the pie but maybe that ship has sailed. Or maybe not. Only Kobe knows what are his plans for the future.

His main battle this season will be with himself, more precisely with the previous version of Kobe Bryant. The ruthless, not so friendly team mate that didn´t hesitate to correct someone if they weren´t in the same mindset. Bryant has said this extended period away from the game gave him the necessary distance to see the big picture. As he looked at the blunders night in, night out from his young colleagues, he probably saw a bit of the young Kobe out there. Trying to prove himself, trying to belong. Asking Michael Jordan for tips and advice. Kobe Bryant is the Michael Jordan for this younger generation. Just the other day one one of the rookies expressed this idea.

Will the new Kobe annihilate the burning desire which is embedded in Kobe´s basketball DNA? Or will the old Kobe, the one who always demands the absolute best from everyone, create a bad chemistry amongst this group of players? These are questions to be answered in the first months of competition. The western conference can be a daunting place for a young, rebuilding team. Kobe Bryant patience will shape the future of this franchise. A new, compassionate and understanding Kobe will ensure these kids “grow up” well, according to the Lakers “bible of winning NBA Championships”. A not so calm Kobe has the potential of causing quite a stir amongst the youngsters.

KEVIN DURANT

Kevin Durant return is one of the most anticipated moments of the upcoming season. Heralded as the next big thing, collecting multiple scoring titles, regular season MVP and co-founder of one of the most successful franchises in the NBA today, Kevin Durant suddenly fell into oblivion. As he watched his team collapse after years of recurrent winning, new players took the spotlight. His former colleague James Harden became an offensive super weapon, forever changing the immediate future of the Rockets franchise, who are now perfectly suited to compete with the very best.

Not far away, a young superstar took another step into NBA transcendence, that patio made for only a few. The mesmerizing dribbles, the uncanny video game like antics of Curry propelled him to worldwide superstar status. A very unique player, not too strong, not that fast. Quite simply, a skilled marvel, a hymn to ball handling skills and shooting motions. An innovator. An instant mention into the discussion of best 3-point shooters of all time. Finally, the explosion of Anthony Davis, with his unbelievable assortment of skills. The closest to Durant, from a purely physical aspect. Unlike Durant, Davis best work is done around the basket and in the mid-range section. His dominance is already recognized from everyone, from players to coaches and analysts.

In
a strange way, Kevin Durant might look at Anthony Davis, Curry or
Harden and remember a previous version of him. All those compliments,
all those articles… the future would belong to him, he thought.
Unfortunately, Durant´s trophies were merely personal. Not
translated to team success. A single participation on the NBA Finals
– when they lost against a much more experienced and well prepared
Miami Heat team – put everything in perspective. Although he’s
still young, years are passing by. Time waits for no one, it´s just
the way it is. Tempus fugit.

Durant reloaded

A few weeks ago Durant said he is still the best player in the world. All of the sudden, there are a lot of pretendants to this title! Curry, last season MVP is, obviously, in the discussion. Lebron James and his vast legion of followers claim he´s still the best (although he keeps on failing at the NBA Finals) and now James Harden and Anthony Davis have entered the discussion. Durant´s comment is a direct hit to the jaw of the current kings of the NBA. The new kids on the block rule: Harden, Curry, Davis and Paul George are perceived to be “the next big thing”. Somehow his merit, his accomplishments seemed to have suddenly vanished. Even some people started questioning if it wouldn´t be better to put all the chips on Westbrook and try to dispatch Durant as he has become a “questionable commodity”.

The former “choir boy” Durant gave place to a not so friendly Durant. He´s still polite in his demeanor but his “politically correct” days are over. There´s just so much injustice one can take. Kevin Durant is probably feeling betrayed by the fans, the same ones that elevated him to the next big ticket and now are eager to disqualify him as another very good player who can´t win a title.

Get ready for thunderstorm Durant

A Championship is possible with new found help

Lucky for Durant, next season won´t be as demanding for him. Westbrook has evolved into full grown superstar status. Like Durant, he is now able to single-handedly destroy an opposing team and dominate at will. Oklahoma addressed some well-known flaws and now possess a roster able to sustain multiple setbacks. The team is deeper and is filled with better players. Like Durant, OKC is poised to make this season count. Quite simply, they are done being the very good team that never gets a title (joining the Clippers and Grizzlies misfortune in that department).

This season is do or doom for the OKC-Durant collaboration. A failure to conquer a Championship will probably result in a farewell to their franchise player for the last years. Everything is on the line. The immediate future of this franchise. The immediate future of Durant. Rumors are already circulating that he might go to Washington or Los Angeles after this season. This scenery would become highly unlikely if he wins this season. If that happened, he would surely prefer to stay and show his support for the Thunder. Moreover, he would prefer to stay for the chance of the back to back, that sacred ground touched by only a few teams.

Make or break

Durant is set for an outstanding season. Maybe not so perceivable in the regular season – where he will try to moderate his efforts while trying to understand the dynamics of this “new team” – but mostly in the postseason. The NBA Scholar believes we  are yet to see the best Kevin Durant.

It wasn´t just the injury that got him eager to get back. It was all the noise, all the doubt… all the people ready to write him off in the elitist superstars category. He now faces stiffer competition. This league isn´t only about LBJ & Co. plus the Spurs anymore. The game has changed. It is faster now. New teams have deployed new weapons and are getting results. The wild wild west has never been this open. Spurs, Warriors, OKC, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets… they all have a say in the quest for the western conference title.

More than eight months after his injury, Durant will, once again, make his presence felt. He is that good. He´ll make sure these kids who have a lot of talent aren´t at his level. That will be his particular game within the game.

Maybe OKC can´t win a title. Maybe it isn´t written in the thunderous Oklahoma skies. Nevertheless Durant´s quest is far more complex. He wants to return to MVP status, to be recognized, once again, as the most dominating player in the league. Surpassing the “old regal” King Lebron and this new breed of Princes of the NBA: Curry, Harden, Anthony Davis, Paul George. The plot thickens for Durant. Father time waits for no one. It´s just the way it is. Tempus fugit.

We are yet to see the best version of Paul George. This will be the season where he can excel and go to the next level,

PAUL GEORGE

Same feelings, same city. Completely new team for Paul George. As he emerges from a devastating injury which took away practically all of last season, Paul George had his meteoric rise to the top of the NBA interrupted by a possibly career-ending compound fracture of both bones in his right leg. To say his evolution as a player had been exceptional to that point might be an understatement. Year after year Paul George perfected the nuances of the basketball game. A timid shooter from far at first, he now showcases a very good percentage from beyond the arc. In one of the last games, against Detroit, he hit the amazing mark of five out of nine three pointers! Dare we say that was a “Curryesque” shooting night? Twenty points in the first points make Indiana passionate hoop fans salivate for his return.

Will he fly higher?

As we all know, Indianapolis is one of the most knowledgeable places in the basketball world. People basically grow up consuming and playing basketball, while adoring the best product of the region, Larry Bird. Curiously, Paul George seems to be cut from he same mold as Kevin Durant: both are sleek, languid, elusive players, able to dominate via their quickness as well as their outside game. Both can easily penetrate and be dominant in post positions. They are two of the most athletic players the league has to offer. To see them sprinting in the open court is a thing of beauty.

Unlike Durant, Paul George (already a two time All-Star, two All-Defensive Team player and owner of the Most Improved Player trophy awarded in 2013) isn´t a superstar in the way Curry, Harden or even Anthony Davis are perceived. There seems to be a suspicion about his game that hasn´t fully  convinced the critics.

This will be the season where all of those voices will be muted. The Pacers team is now at full rebuild mode. They have Monta Ellis to help with the offensive part – hopefully aided by a consistent George Hill, the last vestige of a Pacers team that seemed to have everything in place to beat their nemesis, the Miami Heat. Those troubled playoffs series. That final shot in the last minute, when Lebron made that decisive blow by…

Sadly for Indiana and Paul George, a trip to the NBA Finals wasn´t meant to be and all of those “associates” have left the Pacers. Hibbert, West and Stephenson are now a nice memory but nothing more. As Paul George looks around, he probably realizes this team is set for a disheartening season. Maybe not a somber traverse through the desert (after all, they play in the weak east coast!) but a different season, for sure.

The good times are gone for the Indiana Pacers, at least for now. Paul George can be instrumental helping this franchise regenerate the support and passion that this region deserves. For all it´s worth, Pacers are Paul George’s team now. It’s up to him to take it to the next level.

Playing for his legacy

This is a very common scenario. A transcendent players emerges, fails and the team is reconstructed. What happens next? Depends on the player. This might be the year where we will see the more selfish Paul George,  not so much by design but more out of necessity. To put it mildly, this Pacers team isn´t very talented. This will become the Paul George-Monta Ellis show, illuminating arenas around the league with their unbelievable individual offensive skills.

It is reported the Pacers will make an attempt to transfigure themselves and adopt the current trend of the NBA: going for faster tempo and shooting more threes. It looks good on paper but actually, there is much more to this strategy. It´s not just out running and shooting a bunch of threes. There must be a high IQ abundance in the roster and players need to be very unselfish in order for this to work. It looks really fun and almost playground type but he fact of the matter is that not every team is properly equipped to adopt this tactic.

Therefore, Paul George will probably realize he´s in unfamiliar territory. It might seem a very bad proposition for the season. In reality, this new Pacers team is the perfect platform for the definitive rise and explosion to new boundaries, uncharted territory within his own personal attributes. We are yet to see the best version of Paul George. This will be the season where he can excel and go to the next level, meeting Curry, Harden and Anthony Davis as the future heirs of the NBA royalty.

It´s the perfect storm: an incredibly talented player poised to play again in a very bad team. Paul George can even be a contender for the scoring title, if he and his coaching staff give him the green light. Even though he is still at a younger stage of his career, he already experimented the sourness of losing in deep playoffs run as well as handling a very dangerous injury. Paul George is already an established player but now is the time to start playing for his legacy, his mesmerizing moments. Not framed in a cosntrained environment full of older established players who demanded the ball. Indiana belongs to Paul George. It´s up to him to take the next step into the NBA sacred ground. A MVP season, a scoring tile? Both?

KYRIE IRVING

Kyrie isn´t in the same category as the above-mentioned players. However, his injury meant far more to him and the Cavs. The ongoing discussion “if Kyrie didn´t get injured Cavs would win” will last forever. That block in the last seconds. That image of him in pain as he left the court, visibly irritated… tough luck for “uncle drew”. At the end of the day, it seemed his own creation came into life, somehow blending a young player with a troubling old man body.

A season of novelty

With the return of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving idyllic world in Cleveland ceased to exist. He was no longer the main player of the Cavs, their brightest star. After a period of adaptation to the polarizing figure of Lebron James, with all that represents (for starters, less shots and ball in his hands), Kyrie, Lebron and the Cavs finally clicked and started a memorable run that many saw as an omen to a future NBA Title.

The two epic performances of Kyrie Irving made Lebron smile and even dance… who can forget that game in San Antonio? And the 55 points scored at home? That was the time Lebron finally realized Kyrie wasn´t a simple sidekick, a good player to aliviate some of the pressure and delegate some minor responsabilities during the heat of the playoffs battles. Kyrie is the real deal.

He and Stephen Curry might argue who is better from a ball handling skills perspective but Kyrie’s game has some extra layers. Although not as good as Curry from 3-point land, Irving adds a needed dimension for the Cavs game. He has the uncanny ability to slash and go into the paint at will, defying stronger and bigger players, relying on his brilliant playground, almost Globetrotter-like one-on-one ability.

With LBJ, this is a very good premise for a team built following the latest playbook on “how to win NBA titles”, that is, assuring your team has reliable shooters to make you pay when you over-commit to LBJ and Kyrie incursions into the paint. Lebron James has already “adopted” Kyrie has the number two option. Reluctant at first, he quickly realized the diamond and potential of that elusive player. Kyrie, Lebron and Love seemed destined to fame and glory… until it all faded quickly.

The injury will motivate Kyrie to get back to the NBA Finals and get it done, this time.

That horrible play

Kyrie will probably return around December or early January. Those are the latest updates from the Cavaliers medical department. Not a long wait like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or Paul George. A different kind of wait. Kyrie will forever relive those moments in his mind. That´s the way it is with professional athletes playing at the highest level. There is so much talent around the league, chances to win don´t come along every year. One year might be chemistry, the other might be the coaching staff. Sometimes there is not enough talent.

Winning a NBA Championship is one of the hardest things to accomplish. There are too many factors that determine the final result, elements that can´t be measured or analyzed by cold hard facts. It´s a moment. A particular time in history where the universe seems to orchestrate a perfect play, a perfect gameplan. A perfect season. These times don´t come often. And even when they come, it doesn´t necessarily equate in a guaranteed win. Kyrie Irving only needs to look over his shoulder and visualize Lebron James, whose 2-4 NBA Finals record seems to testify against his own individual accomplishments.

Would the Cavalliers win the finals if Kyrie didn´t get injured? This will be a question that will entertain the NBA historians and “analytics junkies” forever.

For Kyrie, that question has a simple answer. For sure he believes a NBA title could have been obtained if he didn´t go down. That will haunt him through this season, the way the Mavericks Championship haunted Lebron throughout his second year in Miami. The way the Spurs couldn´t wait to redeem that NBA Finals loss at the hands of a Ray Allen’s desperation three in game six…

The coronation of Kyrie Irving

This could be the season where we can see the best of Kyrie. This loss and long time out of the court will make him even hungrier for success. Irving and his Cavs teammates were so close they could almost touch it… this year Varejao will be back, Mozgov, Shumpert and JR smith already know the system. The addition of the veterans Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson add a needed stabilizing older statesmen presence to the roster. They can contribute with relevant production in short periods of time. Nevertheless, the core of this team is still the trio made by Lebron James, himself and Kevin Love. From these two players, Kyrie has a bigger role to play. He´s the natural second best scorer of the team. A player able to disrupt a defense in any given night. His offensive arsenal is second to none.

This season could become the season where Lebron James coronates his buddy Kyrie. It would serve Lebron James well. Not only for him to begin nurturing much needed rest along the rigorous NBA season but also to further enhance the confidence and leadership skills of this young Cavaliers general. The stage is set for Kyrie to keep his ascending voyage into the pantheon of superstars. If all goes well (may the basketball gods prevent him to get injured after this one, for basketball fans enjoyment!) we might be putting Kyrie and Curry alongside Steve Nash and Isiah Thomas, to name a few of the players of their stature.

When compared to George, Kobe and Durant, Kyrie is the one who had to wait the least amount of time. Nevertheless, his absence was, in some way, more painful than any of the other three. Kyrie was so close to get his first NBA Championship… will he have the same opportunity this season? It won´t be for lack of commitment, for sure. Next season could be the Kyrie Irving year, an unparalleled run of continuous improvement and awe beginning in early 2016 and ending in June, when he would finally be able to carry the Larry O´Brien trophy.

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