TrueHoop Network 2009-2010 Preview: The Immortals

You know how some people think the NBA is in a state of decline? If you're watching, you know that's laughable. The level of play is high and getting higher. As part of the TrueHoop Network's season preview, Rob Mahoney points out that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James aren't the League's only legends-in-the-making. Consider Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

They Were Giants

By Rob Mahoney of the Two Man Game

In ages long since past, basketballers walked as men. But they were not men. One was Magic. One was a Bird. Others were giants or Warriors, another a sky-walker with a powerful will and a golden touch. They were the NBA’s true immortals, and they reshaped the league in their image.

Then came the collapse, when gods of the hardwood were quickly replaced with false prophets. The gilded succeeded the golden, and mortal after mortal fell short in the remarkable shadows of the greats.

I think I feel a Harold Miner joke coming on.

But that age of mere men is coming to a close. The NBA is entering a mythological renaissance, as a meteoric rise in talent coincides with intriguing narratives to fuel the ever-expanding hype machine. The best and brightest are not only superstars, but basketball figures with transformative potential. Olympians in their own right, this elite group has the opportunity to shape not only the NBA, but American sports at large.

Naturally, the conversation of modern NBA legend begins and ends with two diametrically opposed superstars: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Each is a consummate athletic immortal, and their respective places in the NBA pantheon are indisputable. But even if LeBron and Kobe are the alpha and the omega of the NBA world, what makes the modern NBA so outstanding is the emergence of everything in-between.

There are a handful of other players with “All-Time” potential, which is either coincidence or a sudden breakthrough in evolutionary biology. What’s more, these aren’t cookie-cutter imitations of the heroes of yore. They’re dynamic, unique talents who defy simple comparisons. These are players who aren’t forced to fall in line with legend because they themselves have come to form their own.

Dwight Howard is spectacularly flawed as a player, but his infectious personality and specific dominance make him a prime candidate for deification. On the court, Dwight reaches heights that other players could only dream of. At just 23 years old, Howard has somehow already risen to defensive eminence, and his limited but effective offensive repertoire of dunks, dunks, and more dunks strikes fear into the hearts of men. But what truly makes Howard a fantastic specimen is that he contradicts the very nature of sport while embodying it.

Howard’s form is impeccable, with size, strength, and athleticism like few would ever believe. He’s a tremendous athlete, and in that way he symbolizes sport. As a concept, sport is often thought to exist on somewhat of a continuum, with play existing on one end and spectacle on the other. Yet somehow, Dwight seems to experience the game with the ludic joy of a five year old in the yard while also setting new standards for NBA theatrics. Howard inexplicably exists at both extremes. He has blown apart the very fabric of sport as we know it in only a handful of seasons, and he’s done it while flashing that trademark smile.

Chris Paul eats gaudy stat lines for breakfast, and his surprising mean streak exposes a fascinating duality that makes him captivating as a competitor and craftsman. Who is the real Chris Paul? I’m not sure that anyone knows the true answer. Not even Chris. He’s a sinful saint, perhaps unsure if he wants to lead with a grin like Magic, or with ruthlessness like Jordan. Paul is entering his fifth season in the NBA, and at some point he’ll be forced to pick a side, one way or another. A man must have a code. Melodrama aside, the formative years of Chris Paul’s career are coming to a close. That makes this a very exciting time not only for figuring out who Chris is as a player, but what exactly he’s capable of. Paul will continue to rise amidst shades of gray, and the ascension of the league’s greatest point guard qualifies as must-see, regardless of the background hue.

Dwyane Wade is a focused and destructive force, with many a tale of solo heroism. But the 2008 Olympics were effectively a reboot on Wade’s career, with his gold medal launching his second creation story. It’s an existence that lies in harmony with Wade’s first life, but on strictly parallel terms; though he bears the same name and uniform, this is a completely different Dwyane Wade.

The silky midrange jumper is still there, the finishing ability is still there, and the killer instinct is still there. But Wade has supplemented his quick first step with fantastic strength, and he’s refashioned his style, even if a few of his trademarks remain. All-out recklessness receded in favor of Wade’s even more dominant basketball savoir-faire. Neo-Wade is essentially coming off his “rookie” season, one that bested his first incantation in nearly every significant statistical category. Wade’s seventh year looks to be anything but a “sophomore slump,” and though his resume is already packed with achievements, the new and improved model has only just begun.

These are the faces that will one day line grand halls in marble or bronze, with MVPs and accolades at their feet. Why revel in the myths of old when new ones are being written right before our very eyes? Howard, Paul, and Wade stand tall in their greatness, and they’re not alone; LeBron James and Kobe Bryant deserve mention for their divine providence, but prodigies like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose lurk in the background. These aren’t mere basketball players. One day, when the 2010 season is long since past, we’ll revel in the majesty of these players who walked as men. But they were not men. They were giants.