Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Generationally Defective: Why We Hate LeBron and Melo, but Admire Rose and Durant

LeBron James is a coward. The self-anointed Chosen One has led a NBA career with varying highs and lows, astounding us along the way with a dazzling combination of size, speed, grace and strength. Never before had we ever seen an athlete that drew comparisons to a Transformer; a burning locomotive train that could change into a blackbird jet at any given moment. LeBron's promise to his consumers has been that indeed, he would be the one to bring basketball to heights never before seen - we are all witnesses, afterall. However, in a folly of hubris fit only for a King, James has yet to deliver on his various pledges; while he has amazed, he has yet to conquer. The progenitor of the South Beach Theory, a situation where in trying to add value to your own personal "brand", you actually diminish it,  LeBron has somehow become the most despised player in the league. We should be thankful that he spends his time bestowing his gifts and otherworldly play upon us, and yet, we've come to resent the cowardice from a man who has shown a reluctance to walk the self-instituted path we've lined the streets of, waiting for ascendance. LeBron James was drafted in 2003.
Dwight Howard is a indecisive lout. Thought to be the next in the lineage of the great NBA centers of all-time, Dwight has ostensibly strayed from his labeled ancestry that Kareem, Ewing, Hakeem, the Admiral and Shaquille occupied. Though each of those men were laden with early to mid-career blunders, Howard's value in his eighth season seems lower than ever. At this point, Howard is best known for three things : 1) his all-world defense, 2) his noteworthy physical features, which range from his goliath-like shoulders to smile nearly broader than his countenance, and 3) an unbelievable hesitancy to be decisive. For nearly a year, the daily rumor mill has been rife with buzz of where Howard will continue his career. In a media storm that would embarrass a drunk Jose Conseco, Dwight managed to throw his coach, general manager, team and unwittingly, himself, under the bus. Though committed to the Orlando Magic for the 2012-2013 season, Howard continues to leave his team in managerial purgatory, not knowing whether he'll sign an extension to stay or leave for nothing. Oddly enough, Howard's unwillingness to make a decision regarding his contract future is mirrored by the lack of progress in his basketball repertoire. He is largely the same offensive and defensive player he was 4 years ago. Regardless of how you feel about LeBron as a person or a salesman, you have to admire that at least he's attempted to improve his game. Orlando's center has not. Dwight Howard was drafted in 2004.

Carmelo Anthony is a selfish ball-stopper. I suppose there's a decent reason for that; he is one of the deadliest scorers in the league. Gifted with a powerful 6'8" frame and a quickness that betrays that build, Anthony can score from any space on the floor. Facing up, in the post, out on the perimeter, back to the basket, on the fast break, cutting to the rack, mid-range, free throw line, multiple-defenders - the situation matters not. Carmelo Anthony can put the ball in the hoop. However, the Knicks All-Star forward has an all-around game that he rarely shows on the court. In flashes, Melo unveils his alter-ego; the black Larry Bird. His ability to rebound, defend and pass are often overlooked - because he infrequently displays them. With his strength, size and speed, there's not rebound Melo can't get to or a opposing player he can't defend. This is a skill set that can't really be quantified by numbers. You have to watch the games. Specifically, the Western Conference Finals in 2009 or in spots during the end of the 2012 season. Other than that, Melo has been exactly what you think he is; a selfish ball-stopper who doesn't seem to understand what it takes to win a NBA championship. He is, in my opinion, the biggest waste of talent in the entire league, and a historic underachiever. Carmelo Anthony was drafted in 2003.

Why bring this up? Is this just time for a bashing session on the NBA's most maligned superstars? We do enough of this already - not just on this blog, but by every talking head on television and in the newspapers. In an age where information is available at any point, any hour, via seventeen different means, criticism is dialed up 2,000%. More data is available and videos too innumerable to count. Everyone is an expert, and when they aren't, they can simply read the twitter feed of someone that is.

This discussion has been reignited because looking on this generation of stars espcially - who in addition to Bron, Dwight and Melo include their peers Dwyane Wade, Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum, Zach Randolph, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Josh Smith, and yes, Gilbert Arenas - there seems to be a level of irresponsible aloofness surrounding these players. Regardless of how otherwordly their play is, day after day, criticism is levied against them from 20,000 different angles. If I asked my sister, I'm sure she'd be able to echo, with some sort of familiarity, that yes, LeBron is a coward, Dwight is indecisive and Melo is selfish. Regardless of how well they perform on the court, we still...hate them so much. There's a general public perception that behind all their on-court highlights that these three gentlemen, along with their similarly-aged colleagues, do more than enough to warrant the criticism thrown at them.

Simply put, they just don't get it. How could they? If they understood why everyone attacks them, wouldn't they just stop? That's the normal human reaction. If everyone yells, don't you pause? Don't you just drop the act? 

A popular theory is that each of these stars have such an elaborate and complex entourage of managers, handlers and friends surrounding them like a cocoon in the deepest trenches of the ocean that maybe this criticism doesn't penetrate with constant reaffirmation around them. Perhaps it's that the criticism is so loud and ubiquitous that like a coach who yells at his players time and time again, they've just tuned everyone out. Or maybe it's a certain type of entitlement that all these players have built up, both from within themselves and from outside. They all to some extent received so much success at such early ages. Of all those players I just named, only Joe Johnson and Wade played at least two years in college. It could be possible that the cliché of "too much, too soon" is more than just hyperbole. These are young men turned millionaires suddenly and dramatically, whose job is to compete and defeat other men by being better than them. In an industry where everyone is constantly and ruthlessly trying to be better than every one of their co-workers, how could you not form a sense of over-arching arrogance? It seems built into the job description.

Every week, another sound byte comes from Wade, LeBron or Dwight that makes my blood boil. They are careless, unapologetic, arrogant, but most offensive of all, incredibly hypocritical. For a group of players that so often say "let's let the game on the court speak for itself", is this generation of braggarts and showmen participate in more off-court hijinx  that detracts from their on-court game than anyone. The Internet Generation as I call them seems so much more preoccupied with how and where they appear,that they consistently lose sight of the fact that improving and winning on the court is the most important component of their appearance as NBA basketball players. Though the rule isn't ironclad and steadfast, the trends that I've just described run consistently through the NBA player drafted from the years 2001 to 2005.

Let's be fair - this isn't strictly generational. History is re-written by the victors, and thus our memories are short-lived and glossed over. Just 10 years ago, a much smaller world of NBA writers and talking heads imposed the same criticisms over the generation of ballers before the Internet age. Let's call them the ESPN Generation.

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace were all just as lambasted as the Internet Generation. Kobe and AI were selfish ball-stoppers. KG and T-Mac were losers who couldn't do enough to drag their teams out of the first round. Vince Carter and Starbury amazed us with their athleticism but were arrogant showboaters . Jason Kidd's otherworldly guard play got all of his teammates involved in the game, but off the court he was such a distraction that even his standing as the best point in the game couldn't prevent two trades in seven seasons. Rasheed Wallace was crazy.  Compared to Jordan, Malone, Stockton, Robinson, Hakeem and Pippen, the ESPN Generation seemed like a bunch of spoiled, selfish brats whose antics often spilled onto the hardwood to affect their individual careers, and thus the success of their teams. Despite the posters of SLAM magazine that littered the rooms of kids who wanted to dunk like Vince or cross people over like AI, the NBA community largely resented them.

Time is the salve that heals all wounds, apparently. Over the years, these impetuous young pups morphed into grizzled old vets, and we went from hating them for their ballstopping selfishness that was ruining the game, to loving their old-school grit and toughness absent from today's NBA.

Kobe is no longer just a egocentric, shoot-first gunner who routinely throws his teammates and coaches under the bus; now he's the most competitive player in the NBA, a throw-back assassin who leads his team by expecting that they never let him down. Kevin Garnett isn't an intense psychopath whose unnecessary aggression on the court constantly detracted from the team's success; now he's a passionate veteran, whose psychopathic desire to win is what fuels the rest of his team to victory. Dirk was largely categorized as a soft Euro big man whose shooting acumen would never make him an effective franchise player, or champion; now he's tough franchise cornerstone, who cannot be stopped anywhere on the floor. More importantly, he's a Finals MVP and a champion.

The point here is that our interpretation of today's superstar generation isn't wholly different to what's come before. At the same ages, Bron, Wade and Dwight face the same types of criticisms that Pierce, KG and Kobe faced a decade ago. However, to the Internet Generation's credit, they do it under the auspices of a 24/7 news cycle. The condemnation coming upon them is steady and brutal, unlike anything the ESPN Generation had to face. So perhaps looking backwards isn't the answer to why we seem to exceptionally despise the best and brightest. Maybe it's looking forward.

Derrick Rose is a true competitor. Chicago's favorite son is best known for his work on the court, and nearly nothing else. He doesn't laugh, he doesn't joke, he doesn't smile.  If teammate Joakim Noah wears his heart on his sleeve, then Rose's is buried in a lock box deep within the recesses of his gut.  Derrick Rose cares about winning and being the best. Early in the 2010-2011 season, he asked "Why can't I be the MVP?". 7 months later, he held up, stone-faced, a Maurice Poldoloff trophy in front of an adoring Chicago crowd. A year before, he never pandered to a free agent class of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, wanting to beat his peers rather than acquiesce and join forces with them. He is 23 years-old, but nothing besides the youth of his features would suggest that. He cares about winning, competing, making his teammates better and doing his hometown Bulls proud. Chicago's point guard is the personification of everything you'd want in a NBA superstar.  Derrick Rose was drafted in 2008.

Kevin Love is the hardest working man in the NBA. Entering into the league with expectations that he'd never progress to being more than the second  coming of Brad Miller, Love has defied all the prognosticators out here in cyberspace and on the airwaves. The Timberwolves power forward started his professional career auspiciously, being traded on draft night from the Grizzlies to Minnesota for a package deal that included OJ Mayo. Day after day, Love has worked diligently to make sure that  pact looks more and more foolish with every honor that's bestowed on him. He's worked tirelessly to perfect a body that was once kindly called "doughy" into a legitimate NBA big man's frame. While the physical transformation is what's most apparent, it's the wrinkles that Kevin has added to his game that are most impressive. From his year at UCLA, his rebounding acumen has always been his greatest skill. However, in gaining a shooting touch that won him a All-Star weekend 3-point contest, Love has made himself into one of the most versatile and valuable players in the entire league. Kevin Love was drafted in 2008.

Kevin Durant  is unselfish. He is one of the most unique players in the NBA, standing at 6'9" with an over seven foot wingspan, but moving lithely enough that in transition you'd mistake him for a guard. There is no shot he cannot take and make as one of the premiere scoring threats in the league. This wasn't an overnight fix, or a skill he was born with. Durant made himself this way over time.  Now in his fifth season, KD has improved every year not just offensively, but in every aspect of the game. Off the court, he is personable, humble and most impressively, focused. Though he finds his face tattooed on magazine covers and national advertising campaigns, Durant the personality is rarely is the center of attention or controversy. Anything noteworthy about the Thunder forward emanates from the court - though on occasion creates headlines from the sheer ridiculousness of his postgame outfits. Two summers ago, in the midst of LeBron's massive publicity gaffes of the Heat's pre-victory parade and The Decision telecast, Durant quietly signed an extension with the Thunder, paradoxically issuing a subdued announcement through Twitter. Kevin Durant was drafted in 2007.

These three, amongst their draft class brethren of Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, James Harden, John Wall and Kyrie Irving, are some of the brightest stars in the National Basketball Association. Usually, carelessness and ego help form the gulf between a young player and his potential. However, for this generation of players, they currently gaze upon a merely narrow chasm between the two, as their immediate predecessors are still trying to ford the river.

The prevailing sentiment around the league and it's observers is quite unanimous; watching this generation of players is just...delightful. Is there any other way to put it? Seeing Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love always so much fun, no matter what part of the sideline you're on. Their on-court brilliance is nearly as electrifying as their exuberance is infectious. Like I pointed out last week in the Lakers/Thunder series wrap-up, Westbrook, Harden and Durant play with a joyfulness to the game that's refreshing in today's NBA. This isn't to suggest that they're not competitive - quite the opposite. There's an ease to the intensity by which they play; it's as if they're playing for the sake of winning, rather than doing it for something as simple as improving shoe sales, or as grave as that losing is equal to dying. The Twitter Generation plays with a maturity that belies their years. There's an earnestness to them that the previous generation lacks.  They are humble, honest and hungry. They are all professionals. Wall, Durant and Love despite all reasons to do so, haven't been subject to the South Beach Theory.  Playing - and losing - in Oklahoma City, DC and Minneapolis could have prevented them from working hard and improving themselves. Instead, it seems to have only emboldened them to get better. That same deflation has convinced Dwight and Carmelo to mail in seasons like they were sending away for a free Benz. The Twitter Generation has avoided the same pratfalls as LeBron, Dwight and Melo, despite all reasons to do so.

I'm not sure where the humility went for James, Dwight and Carmelo. Their over-arching lack of accountability for their actions is even more baffling in comparison to the set of players I just crowed about.  I don't understand why a group of guys half a decade younger than them acts with a professionalism that makes them appear a decade older. As much as I want to say that this is simply a matter of a collection of peers growing up and moving past youthful mistakes, it's not. All the reasons why I described the Internet Generation might act the way they do can also directly apply to Love, Rose and Durant.
The players in a draft class, or drafts classes in this case, will always form natural bonds, like any team would. Similarities in age and upbringing will gel together a group of men and create friendships that will stand the tests of time and geography. And, like any team, there's always going to be a leader or leaders that pave the way for the rest of their peers. Their actions and attitude will characterize the lot, similar to a hard-nosed Gregg Popovich defense or a loose, yet intense Doc Rivers team. Leadership is a trickle down designation.  Looking at the three distinct generations I've just described, I see a completely applicable theory.
For the Internet Generation, the  unquestioned leaders are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. For the ESPN Generation, it's Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. For the Twitter Generation, it's Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. If you described those three groups on the whole, would it not reflect their leaders? Like the collection of ballers that are in their twilight such as Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd, the ESPN Generation is hard-nosed, stubborn, physical, cagey and incredibly competitive. The Twitter Generation seems most at home on the court, and bizarrely out of place off of it. Just like Rose, Durant and Love, they are for the most part a collective unit of humble and hard working basketball machines.
Conversely, LeBron and Dwyane exemplify a generation of guys whose on-court transcendence is implausibly eclipsed by their extra-curricular immaturity. Their lack of professionalism is such a stark departure from the two generations that sandwich theirs. Looking past the distinct obstacles that any generation faces with the changing times, it's incredibly apparent that it's the leadership that's the primary culprit behind such an unlikeable group of should-be legends. BockerKnocker has stated it so many times - there's only two types of people: those who hate LeBron and those who hate LeBron because they want to love him.
James and Wade set the tone, just like Kobe, KG and Tim did the same before them. It's not a fact set in stone, but looking at the test cases surrounding them, it certainly seems that the soldiers fall in line with the generals. Regardless of what you think of them, LeBron and Wade are looked up to by all the guys that came up alongside them.
Of course this could change. With Kobe, KG and Dirk, we all held our breath and waited for them to grow up and "get it". After nearly a decade and a half, the ESPN Generation rewarded us with a group of players who we tearfully lament that it's almost their time to go. I'm not sure when exactly the change came or the genesis by which our perception of them altered. But I did know the sadness I felt when I watched Kobe drop 42 points in a losing effort to the Thunder last week. Or seeing Tim Duncan hit those elbow jumpers as the crowd goes eerily silent.
I began writing this thinking that perhaps the lack of progress made by Bron, Wade and company was simply a case of a time-tested generation by generation maturity process. It's not. This is a story of a select group of men defining a generation. Time could change everything, but for now, it's just wholly dissappointing.

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