The NBA at another crossroads

Sun, 10/28/2007 - 7:11am

By Nick Prevenas

[img_assist|nid=3644|title=Steve Nash - Credit: San Antonio Express-News/ZUMA Press/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=401]In 1936, legendary bluesman Robert Johnson recorded his most famous song, "Cross Road Blues," which may or may not have been a first-hand account about his experience with the devil.

In one of music's most captivating fables, Johnson felt so strongly about becoming a famous blues musician that he was willing to barter with the Prince of Darkness, offering his eternal soul - as long as it made his guitar sing.

Had Johnson lived to see the evolution of Dr. James Naismith's peach-basket game - still in its infancy in the 1930s - perhaps he would've been the man to properly put today's NBA into context.

Everybody knows professional basketball is facing its share of problems. Heck, it's what the NBA seems to be most famous for these days.

The always-entertaining Chuck Klosterman recently wrote a column for ESPN, pointing out these perpetual problems and how the "NBA is always in trouble."

Last season was one of the most difficult, most arduous seasons any basketball fan has ever had to endure (save for the brutal lockout-shortened 1999 season).

Between the lack of competitiveness from the bottom third of the league, the balance of power being shifted almost entirely toward one conference, the disastrous NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas and the occasional slap-fight that was blown wildly out of proportion, NBA fans had to sift through an unreasonable pile of nonsense to find what they loved most - the world's most poetic sport played at the highest possible level.

Of course, the league's one truly competitive playoff series - the San Antonio Spurs versus the Phoenix Suns - was marred by tragically bad officiating and the league's insistence to rally against common sense in favor of rigidly interpreting flawed rules.

It didn't help matters that one of the key officials in that series is currently awaiting sentencing for betting on NBA games.

I'm not saying that the 2007 season concluded with a fraudulent champion (the San Antonio Spurs were clearly the best team in the league and deserved their title), but the one series when the NBA seemed to really matter to people for all the right reasons had the life, energy, fun and soul sucked out of it, leaving most of us frustrated and confused.

And to top it all off, one of the NBA's most eagerly anticipated No. 1 picks was forced to undergo microfracture surgery before the Portland Trail Blazers even had a chance to see him step on the court.
Not to be outdone, New York Knicks' General Manager and national punch line Isiah Thomas somehow found a way to top his handling of the CBA, the Eddy Curry trade, the Steve Francis trade, the Jared Jeffries contract, the Jerome James contract (should I keep going?) by costing the Knicks millions in legal fees (not to mention the incalculable public relations damage) during the embarrassing Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment trial.

Things, as they say, have been better.

Of course, the league has faced adversity before (Kermit Washington's punch, tragic cocaine stories, NBA Finals on tape delay, the aforementioned lockout, the sight of Michael Jordan swinging a baseball bat, etc.), but it has always persevered.

Can the NBA withstand a subpar 2006-07 campaign and a disastrous off-season and regain its soul as it stands at the crossroads?

If so, I believe two things need to happen:

No. 1: The Phoenix Suns must contend for the title.

Now, I don't necessarily believe the Suns need to win the whole thing, but their style of play must continue to work late into the season.

The most common complaint about today's NBA is that it is far too predictable. Point Guard brings the ball up, passes to Superstar on the wing, Generic Center moves up to set a screen, Superstar dribbles toward the top of the key, Superstar dribbles for a while, Superstar checks the shot clock, Superstar dribbles back out and either shoots an off-balance jumper or drives toward the basket for a layup, dunk or bailout call from the referee.

Granted, this isn't an exact replica of every NBA play, but far too many offensive possessions resemble this blueprint.

Say what you want about the Suns, but at least they aren't predictable.

Coach Mike D'Antoni and point guard Steve Nash are two people who intuitively understand basketball's inherent potential.

They know basketball can only reach its true apex when it flows, with limited confinements.

That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate a good closeout on a shooter or a proper dropstep. Far from it. Those aspects of the game also occur in a free-flowing environment.

If basketball at its highest form is like jazz (as the great Ralph Wiley used to say), then Nash is John Coltrane and he's trying his hardest to record basketball's version of "A Love Supreme."

As long as the majority of NBA teams (except for the Mavericks, Warriors, Nuggets and a handful of others on the right night) continue to approach the game as if it's a tightly regimented puzzle with strict rules on how it should be solved, the Suns will stand in stark contrast as they continue to look at the game as a divine expression of poetry and athleticism.

Of course, an unhappy Shawn Marion and a void in the post defense (thanks to a ghastly, luxury-tax-influenced trade that sent Kurt Thomas out of town) might derail the Suns' title hopes.

But as long as they're in the discussion, the NBA still has a chance.

[img_assist|nid=3645|title=Kevin Durant - Sporting News/ZUMA Press/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450]No. 2: Kevin Durant needs to be really good, really soon.

Durant's phenomenal freshman season at the University of Texas was part of another reason why so many basketball junkies turned off the NBA last season.

Simply put, the college game was much more interesting.

Durant acted as the top story in what turned out to be one of college basketball's banner seasons.

The 6-foot 10-inch guard/forward/shooter/ slasher/penetrator/playmaker galvanized hoops fans and had everyone wondering, "What can this kid possibly do next?"

His emergence also created a heated debate on who should be drafted No. 1. "Durant or Oden?" was one of the only hoops discussions worth having last year.

A few months ago, I wrote a lengthy compare/contrast between the two, coming to the conclusion that Oden should've been the pick, assuming he wouldn't be going under the knife before his NBA career even began.

Even with the microfracture surgery, I still believe Oden was the right selection at No. 1, simply because athletic centers are much tougher to find than skilled wing players.

If I could do the article over again, I wouldn't nitpick Durant quite so closely. Instead of focusing on the parts of his game that need work (like his man-to-man defense), I would have paid more attention to the quality that separates Durant from other players his age.

Durant is inspiring to watch.

Perhaps Durant will have a chance to shine and maybe even save basketball in a passionate city, despite the owners' insistence on relocation.

Perhaps Durant takes the league by storm and gives NBA fans a fresh face to root for.

Perhaps Durant's never-before-seen skill set develops quicker than anticipated and we're given the chance to watch the initial stages of what could be a special career.

Perhaps Kevin Durant is what NBA fans have been patiently waiting for.

That's a lot of pressure to put on a 19-year-old kid. There's a chance he never lives up to his immense potential, and that's fine. Basketball will survive.

But I'm pulling for him.

Twenty-seven years ago, Larry Bird took home the NBA's Rookie of the Year trophy, with Magic Johnson nipping at his heels. Their emergence into bona fide legends helped save the NBA when it was at a pivotal crossroads.

Twenty-seven years later, Durant is standing in a similar position, with the Phoenix Suns by his side and the NBA's soul at stake.

In a related story, Robert Johnson lived to be 27 years old.

"I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees."

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