Weekly Countdown: NBA déjà vu
Dynamics surrounding today's stars similar to those around stars of 1980s
Kobe Bryant's title has quieted critics like Michael Jordan's first title did in 1991
More topics: Draft prospects of three key guards; teams to watch on draft night
"A season for the ages," commissioner David Stern said of this NBA year gone by. But I prefer to view it as a recasting of the 1980s: The names have changed, but the dynamics are familiar.
5 characters worth recalling
5. Introducing Dwight Howard in the role of Hakeem Olajuwon, circa 1985-86. Though he would lead the Rockets to a pair of championships in the latter half of his 18-year career, Olajuwon, throughout the 1980s, was a secondary star to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan.
Both Olajuwon and Howard were 23 when they drove their teams surprisingly to the NBA Finals. At this stage, Howard will hope that he deviates from the Dream's track, for Olajuwon spent the next seven years losing in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs (including one season when his Rockets failed to make the playoffs). Olajuwon then exploited Jordan's brief retirement from the Bulls to win his back-to-back titles, in addition to a league MVP award in 1993-94.
The trick for Howard is going to be overcoming the presence of Kobe and/or LeBron. Will Howard -- like Olajuwon -- have to wait until his 30s to return to and win a Finals? To get there, he must develop the same kind of low-post footwork that enabled Olajuwon to respond to the variety of defenses aimed his way, and the Magic must continue to develop a formula that will not only make the most of Howard's talents but also create the inside-out teamwork that can nullify the great one-on-one talents of Kobe and LeBron. Their current formula worked against the Cavaliers this postseason, but Cleveland will surely improve its roster over the next two years with the goal of beating Orlando.
4. Chris Paul as Isiah Thomas, 1985-86. When Thomas was 24, his young Pistons appeared to be headed in reverse: One year after a second-round series in which they took the Celtics to six games, the Pistons were drummed out of the first round 3-1 by the Hawks.
Paul can surely relate: Now 24 himself, Paul and the Hornets -- who appeared so promising while challenging San Antonio in the conference semifinals last year -- were humiliated in a 4-1 opening-round loss to the Nuggets. Paul is filling the role created by Thomas two decades ago as the league's tiniest and toughest fighter. Much like Isiah, the 6-foot Paul must try to compete harder than Kobe or LeBron to overcome his size.
The cost of winning was excruciating for Thomas, whose high-strung competitive nature cost him friendships among his fellow stars. So far, Paul has succeeded in protecting his relationships with LeBron and other stars separate from his desire to kill their teams.
More to the point is this issue: Will Paul find championship success -- as Thomas did -- by staying with the same franchise throughout his career? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
3. Dwyane Wade as Larry Bird, 1982-83. That was the year when the Bucks upset the 26-year-old Bird in the first round. Afterward, he took responsibility for the loss and vowed to work harder over the summer, and the next season he led the Celtics to an NBA Finals victory over Magic's Lakers.
Though Wade, too, is coming off a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Atlanta, his career with Miami has followed a different track than Bird's. Now 27, Wade has led the Heat to its lone championship with a virtuoso performance in the Finals. Since the quick breakup of that veteran 2005-06 Miami team, Wade hasn't enjoyed anything like the roster support that Bird received from Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. And, of course, Wade is 5 inches shorter than Bird while playing a more athletic, above-the-rim style than Bird ever could imagine.
But other similarities are strong. With his three championships, Bird went down as the No. 3 star of his generation behind Jordan (six) and Magic (five). Unless Pat Riley can quickly surround Wade with a couple of All-Stars, it appears that Wade is headed for the same destiny behind Kobe and LeBron -- which is nothing to be ashamed of. The fear is that his all-out style will shorten his career, much as Bird's similar approach forced him to retire with back problems at age 35 while sidelining him from 142 games over his last four seasons. In terms of charisma and his relative status at the top of the league, Wade is his generation's Bird.
2. LeBron James as Magic Johnson, 1984-85. It is no easy thing to compare James to one player because he does so many things at a high level. But in his approach he is closest to Magic. LeBron views himself as a creative playmaker more so than a finisher. In terms of height, passing skills and vision for the game, he is his generation's Magic. Those attributes are augmented by athleticism and scoring skills that Magic neither had nor needed on his great Lakers teams.
Magic was always surrounded by Hall of Fame talent -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo toward the end of his career -- while James has yet to play with a teammate anywhere close to that level; Byron Scott was a more effective player for the Lakers than anyone who has yet teamed with James in Cleveland. The fear of losing James to free agency in 2010 has led to discussions of trading for Shaquille O'Neal in the last year of his contract, which would then enable Cleveland to apply cap space in pursuit of a max complementary star like Joe Johnson next summer.
Whether James re-signs in Cleveland or joins the Knicks next summer, this much I can guarantee you: He will succeed in recruiting a star like Johnson or Chris Bosh to come play with him. Players throughout the NBA are drawn to LeBron. He has gone out of his way to be accessible and accepted by his fellow Cavaliers in Cleveland, and before the last All-Star Game he bought Steuben Glass crystal keepsakes that were inscribed for each of his Eastern Conference teammates. In his relationships with other players on and off the court, he is very much like Magic.
In the 1984 Finals, Magic was renamed (briefly) as Tragic Johnson after the Lakers' surprising loss to Bird's Celtics, and he devoted himself to learning from those mistakes to reclaim the championship the following year on Boston's home floor. While James shares in Magic's showmanship and the way he carries himself, he was in such a funk following Cleveland's surprising conference finals loss to Orlando that he didn't shake hands to congratulate the Magic players or give an interview after Game 6. It's hard to see how James could have done anything more statistically while producing 35.3 points, 7.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game in the Orlando series, and yet there surely are lessons for him to apply from that loss.
James has been on the verge of winning it all for the last three years. When he is teamed with Johnson, Bosh or someone of that high standard, his Magic-like skills will flourish and the championships will come.
1. Kobe Bryant as Michael Jordan, 1990-91. Following the season when Jordan won his first championship, against Magic's Lakers, all of the criticisms -- that he was too much the scorer, too demanding and too self-absorbed -- vanished. So it is now for Bryant, who led the Lakers in both scoring and assists in the Finals while erasing the lifelong complaint that he didn't have it in him to relate to teammates in a meaningful way.
We've been making comparisons of behavior and drive between Jordan and Bryant for a decade now, so there's no need here to revisit what everyone knows. But here's the interesting dynamic: Jordan, who played three seasons in college, was 33 when he won his fourth championship. Bryant, who jumped from high school to the NBA, has won four and he will be 31 going into next season. Does Kobe have two or three more titles in him?
This is the kind of race Bryant always imagined for himself, taking on the record of the champion against whom he has always been measured. No one should think that Bryant will relax now that he has proved he can win without Shaq. The goal has always been much greater than that.
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