Much like the ending to a Chris Paul commercial, the NBA is in good hands.
I’ve loved the NBA since I was seven years old, and as with anything I love, I worry about it. I worry about the present and the future of the League. And I try to learn from the league’s past. That assessment has lead me to one inevitable conclusion: things are only going to get better from here.
It wasn’t always this good. The NBA has had some periods where it was in jeopardy. By the end of the 1970’s, the Association had an image problem. After several prominent players were revealed to be drug users (primarily cocaine), the NBA was battling the notion that it’s teams were comprised of addicts. Despite having players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, attendance and revenues were down. The NBA was considering eliminating both the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. Things were bleak, to say the least. And then Magic Johnson and Larry Bird showed up.
Johnson and Bird came into the league together as rivals, and were always connected to each other. They were both dynamic, exciting players to watch. The fact that they had wound up on the NBA’s two cornerstone franchises didn’t hurt either. With Magic going to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Bird to the Boston Celtics, the NBA now had a rivalry on which to build interest, and took advantage. Magic’s infectious personality and pure joy on the court was just what the NBA needed to combat the drug addict image that had plagued it. Bird was the definition of the “blue collar” player that fans of bygone eras could gravitate towards. There was something for everyone, and the game’s popularity grew.
Between the two of them, Magic and Bird captured eight of the ten NBA championships between 1980 and 1989 (5 for Magic and 3 for Larry). They went head to head in the finals three times, with Bird winning two out of three. They each collected three MVP awards, among other accolades. To put is simply, they saved basketball. As the NBA moved into the 1990s, the question was “what comes next?”
Spoiler alert: Michael Jordan came next. If Bird and Magic saved the NBA, Jordan pushed into another stratosphere in the 1990s. Jordan won six NBA championships, six finals MVPs and went a perfect 6-0 in Finals appearances. Even with his two year baseball hiatus in the middle of the decade, the NBA continued on strong. With Jordan’s absence, the NBA got by on the many other stars of the decade, such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and a young, charismatic center by the name of Shaquille O’Neal. Then MJ came back and won championships four, five and six, before retiring from the Chicago Bulls after the 1998 season. Considered by many to be the greatest NBA player of all time, Jordan is certainly the most important. But with the era of “I wanna be like Mike” over, again we wondered: what comes next?
The answer was another low point for the NBA, though not as dire as the late 1970’s. Magic and Bird passed the torch to Jordan, but there was no clear heir apparent for Jordan to bequeath the league to. O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson were the three best players of the early 2000s, but none could capture the heart of fans like Magic, Bird, and Jordan could. O’Neal was a born entertainer in interviews, and one of the most dominant centers of all time. But he was so dominant, overpowering lesser players for dunk after dunk, that he honestly just wasn’t terribly exciting on the court. Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time, but his play was never dazzling to the casual basketball fan. (He was nicknamed “The Big Fundamental,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know.) Iverson remains one of the most exciting players to ever lace up sneakers. However, the cornrows and tattoos unfairly had him labeled as a “thug” by the “traditionalist” (i.e. white) fans. It was not a great time for the NBA.
As O’Neal, Duncan and Iverson aged and slowly faded from being the best in the NBA, Kobe Bryant took over. Almost a carbon-copy of Jordan, Bryant was able to carry the league for several years. While not as universally loved as MJ, Kobe was polarizing. You either loved him or loved to hate him. Either way, he made you want to watch. A brief rekindling of the classic Lakers-Celtics rivalry, where Kobe’s Lakers met the Celtics in the Finals two out of three years, helped the League gain back some of the fans that had drifted in the early part of the 2000s. After back to back titles in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers team startled to fall apart, and Kobe got older. Say it with me now: what comes next?
Of course, LeBron James came next and has carried the League throughout the 2010s. With four MVPs, eight NBA Finals appearance (seven straight and counting), three NBA Championships and three NBA Finals MVPs, LBJ has owned this decade. It’s no coincidence that the rise in popularity the League has seen in recent years has accompanied James’ dominance. Early into this season, he appears to be as good as ever. But James is 32, playing in his 15th NBA season, and Father Time is undefeated. And I find myself asking that same old question.
Amazingly, as with when Magic and Bird handed the reins to Jordan, I think the NBA will actually get better after LeBron. That’s not to take anything away from him, but we are going to have several incredible talents fighting to be king of the hill. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and others are going to be dazzling as they compete for the crown. Even younger stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball are right behind them. Based on the history of the NBA, it’s stronger than it’s ever been and only getting stronger.
Get your popcorn ready.