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Changing of the guard: Giannis, Ja Morant and others swing spotlight from LeBron

·6 min read
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You see it when Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant are bantering back and forth on a challenged call, or when Ja Morant lands awkwardly but pops up like a toddler numb to danger.

You see it when Luka Doncic waves to a road crowd after knowing his individual performances are matched by a bona fide team effort to lift Dallas to the second round.

You see it when Giannis Antetokounmpo pulls a Tracy McGrady in a hostile environment, throwing a pass to himself off the backboard.

And unfortunately, you see it when James Harden can’t rev it up like he used to, like an old boxer who looks the part on the outside but can’t dodge a jab in his later years.

The changing of the guard is upon the basketball world, and everyone’s battling for open real estate — land that wasn’t available when LeBron James ruled every basketball conversation on the floor and off, when his on-court excellence determined the course of the playoffs.

It’s not that the NBA couldn’t use James or an extended playoff run from Durant here. He’s compelling and bankable, and Durant is still very close to, if not at, his peak.

But the game moves on, and has to move forward to evolve. If the league relies solely on James, like it did with Michael Jordan, it’ll find itself in a world of trouble when the day comes where Father Time finally taps James on the back to say, “Come on home.”

Some have been reluctant to acknowledge Antetokounmpo’s occupation atop the mountain, even some in this space, even after watching his journey and ascension to clutch champion last summer.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has cemented his place atop the NBA's mountaintop. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has cemented his place atop the NBA's mountaintop. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

But there’s almost no denial now that any “baddest man alive” discussion has to look down Interstate 94 to Wisconsin. And even better, perhaps he has broken the collective addiction to James and the always-present drama that accompanies him. He’s not positioning himself to be the anti-James or anti-Durant, not falling into the trick bag of painting himself into the corner of staying in one place forever, but the public and basketball world has taken to him in an unexpected way, a way that opens the door for new characters to arrive while honoring and appreciating the ones still taking center stage.

And that’s not to take away from Stephen Curry trying to create a modified version of Magic Johnson’s “Showtime,” winning championships with different teams and different casts but him as the constant.

The trusted figures, even seeing as foils to the new generation, feels soothing as a period of transition is upon us.

And there’s no turning back.

Jordan’s retirements made it so the public never got tired of him, even if his opponents couldn’t get by him to win those coveted championships — so the oxygen then was different than what the NBA is facing now.

And what’s worse, nobody took it from him. It preserves his personal legacy, as evidenced in the Jordan-sanctioned “The Last Dance,” but for the story of the game and perhaps even Jordan himself, it would’ve been better to see the mantle forcibly taken, cleanly and definitively.

The league wandered in the wilderness, unable to properly contextualize the greatness in the decade following Jordan’s retirement, ill-equipped to appreciate the figures of that day.

Hopefully for all involved, they put real energy behind the new crop of stars, with this spring being the perfect opportunity to usher in a new way to look at the game.

Magic and Larry Bird, essentially, took it from Julius Erving. Magic beat Dr. J in two NBA Finals, and Bird and Dr. J engaged in numerous playoff battles. The old heads can remember Bird torching Dr. J to the tune of something like 42-6 one night, and resulted in Erving trying to exact justice with his hands in a way his wrists couldn’t.

Torch passed, and it was damned violent.

And by that point, Bird was already a two-time champion, a made man. So it wasn’t about a title, it was about establishing a new world order that all competitors must acknowledge and recognize.

It might hurt to see an all-time great at less than their best, during a moment where their minds are saying, “If I were a younger man …,” but it validates the next generation. Or at least it should.

Harden wasn’t a standard-bearer in a traditional sense, but his stats put him in a certain place in history. Even though this is the age of players staying at a high level for longer stretches of time than in any era, he’s in full decline and he might be the only one who doesn’t realize it.

We see it, and while it’s not the most pleasing sight, it’s required. Years of games, minutes and (allegedly) other activities have taken a toll, and the youngsters are here to take the corners.

It’s why Morant and Doncic are so aggressive, so audacious and so refreshing to watch. It’s not that they’ve developed a new identity in the wake of the usual suspects’ absence — this is who they’ve been in their respective cities.

Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies continuously show what fun basketball looks like. (Justin Ford/Getty Images)
Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies continuously show what fun basketball looks like. (Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Morant doing the Griddy isn’t new to the diehards, nor is Doncic limping around before popping up like James Brown with the cape on. But it’s being introduced to the casual fan who now is giving the NBA their full attention. Clearly, the results are positive.

Tatum has been around longer, even if the “he’s only 19” jokes have gotten old. He’s a full, grown man, no longer someone we imagine what he’ll be like once he matures. Tatum already had Durant’s respect before Boston’s sweep of Brooklyn, but doing it in front of the world gave him another layer of being certified

“I told Jayson when he was in high school, he gonna sell shoes, he gonna be an All-Star,” Durant told Yahoo Sports last week. “So for him to do this? I expect him to do this; it’s no surprise to me. I expect him to be a Hall of Famer, 30,000 points, three-time Olympian. I expect that out of him because that’s how talented he is. That’s how great he is.”

It seems easy to say that with no James or Durant, the league would find someone, anyone to push. But we’ve seen an inordinate amount of ink spilled and words stated on irrelevant teams and figures, almost as if we were willing them to be better out of fear. However, it was mostly out of habit, and plenty of attention would be focused on James’ Instagram posts and tweets if the basketball wasn’t up to snuff.

Luckily it is, and even if the likes of the establishment return for their turn and are met with a rude awakening, it makes for a better story.

And isn’t that what the NBA wants?