Investing in titles is necessary in sports. It gives a barometer, a basis of comparison and pays proper due to those who achieve at the highest levels. However because of this, they also serve as a measuring stick, a way to hold individuals accountable for what and who they are; it plays directly into the “With great power comes great responsibility” adage. In this year’s NBA Playoffs, the vast majority of the most decorated players factored into the final four teams standing: three of five All-NBA first teamers, three of five second teamers, the scoring champ, the Coach of the Year of the de facto #1 overall team in the entire Playoffs by record and last but not least, the league’s Most Valuable Player. There was no lack of well decorated star power on TV nightly, but what does it lead to? What does it say about what is to actually be? Do the awards and honors win games?
The answer is absolutely not, and there has not been a bigger overall example of this than watching the cases of two of the league’s top 10 stars, who combined to lead their clubs to a total of 2 wins (one each) in both conference championship series, in Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose.
Let’s rewind a bit on both of these guys to frame them correctly. Rose took home this season’s MVP honors after leading the Chicago Bulls to surprisingly finishing with the league’s best record and moving himself into the upper echelon of players in the game. Durant on the other hand won his second consecutive scoring title while continuing to take the Oklahoma City Thunder to the new levels of success that were widely predicted for them. Everything is coming together perfectly for both of them, right? Well…there’s more.
Playoff time, and the spotlight that comes with it. A lot of things became a lot clearer in the light. Among them, one fact started to reveal itself over time, and then became very clear on repeat: these guys don’t know what they’re into anymore. It looks like the same game, but the other guys are going about it a lot different than they did a few months ago. There are no more Sunday afternoon showcase games against the guys they grew up watching to get up for, followed by a chance to relax a bit and wipe out the bottom feeders on a Wednesday night game in Minnesota or Golden State. No, every night is a big and with each tipoff of each game in each series, they set a new record for longevity in their young careers.
There emerges the keyword in why neither of them is still playing this morning: young. The NBA is the youngest professional sports league in America, so its premier players will emerge earlier than any other sports’. While Rose and Durant are both charged with being the face of their franchise and living up to the expectations that their acknowledgements have landed them, in the end they are still two guys that haven’t reached their 23rd birthdays yet. However, they are charged with carrying the burdens that many most seasoned players have raised to a great standard, albeit at much more advanced stages in their lives and experiences. The MVP/Champion has come to be defined by names like Jordan, Olajuwon, O’Neal, Magic and Duncan. However, an MVP hasn’t won the NBA Finals since 2003 when Timmy pulled it off, but should it discredit the work that Kobe, Dirk and Nash did on the road to the honor? No, they balled, got there squads to where they should have and were beasts in the process. Should Durant’s career, despite him being the youngest two-time scoring champ ever, be derailed by the expectations set before him? Well of course not. The plain fact is that both are in a place where there is no historical standard for the early achievement they have reached, so holding them to a condition in the development of them as players, just by what accolades they have gotten already is a skewed way of viewing their shortcomings now.
Today’s NBA is different than any other point, with young impact players leading the way, but in the end, the status quo still stands up: experience wins games. The ironic thing about situation that Rose and Durant find themselves in is that the very example of what could be next for them is unfolding in front of their eyes (a little too close in the case of young Mr. Rose) in a certain highly debated forward in Miami. LeBron James won back-to-back MVPs in Cleveland and was a 164 game sensation in 2009 and 2010, before being wiped out in the Playoffs. During this run he was 23 and 24 years old, and took a world of honors and expectation along with him. But he didn’t have the gut or know how to finish it out. Fast forward a year later, and he’s quickly replacing any question marks from his immediate past trappings of his youth with periods.
Why? Because he’s been through and felt the pain of the losses that Rose and Durant are taking for the first time. Many great talents haven’t broken through after reaching a certain summit, but one thing that’s for sure is we’ve never seen anyone reach them so soon the way the Thunder and Bulls’ franchise kids have. Stay tuned, next year’s episode of this same program will have the same two characters with much different scripts in hand, and most importantly, season finales.