Losers of the Lockout
Ten players who have the most to lose.
6. Rudy Gay
Before the Grizzlies went on their exciting run in the Playoffs led by Randolph and Gasol, the focal point of the team was talented wingman Rudy Gay. Gay had been an effortless player at UConn. He played so smoothly that sometimes you questioned if he was even trying, which might have explained the underachieving 2006 UConn team. But in the ‘10-11 season, Gay was proving his worth as a franchise player. He had learned lessons in teamwork, effort and dedication from the young value driven 2010 US FIBA team and was ready to lead. He was having a fine season (19.8 ppg and 6.2 rpg) before injuring his shoulder in February. When the Grizzlies forged a new identity and had continued success without him, there were some questions about Gay’s actual worth to the team. The ‘11-12 season would have been the litmus test to see if Gay’s return to the lineup would disrupt the fantastic chemistry the Grizzlies found in the 2011 Playoffs. Instead, Rudy’s role and future with Memphis remain a painful question mark.
5. Blake Griffin
As we all know, Blake Griffin, everyone’s new favorite player, had a tremendous ‘10-11 season. In his first full NBA season Griffin averaged 22.5 ppg and 12.1 rpg, had a streak of 27 double-doubles, was named to the All-Star team and blew countless minds with his dunks, including his Jumping Over the Kia dunk in the Dunk Contest. For a few months, America’s National Pastime became watching Baron Davis lob alley-oops to Blake. The excitement was off the charts and you found yourself smiling and laughing each time. In the past 30 years there are only four other rookies who garnered that much excitement and attention: Jordan, Shaq, Iverson and LeBron. And really, the overwhelming awe at Blake was closer to Jordan-mania than anything LeBron attracted in 2003. The question that remained for Blake after the season was whether or not he could repeat his performance. Even as Blake was turning our brains to mush with dunks, we were all holding our breath for his safety after his knee injury before his intended rookie season in ‘09-10. Without a regularly scheduled ‘11-12 season, we are left wondering if Blake can do it all again or if ‘10-11 was some glorious aberration due to the stars and his health aligning. Maybe having Blake on the list is more of an elaboration on what we are losing, because, I mean, don’t you just want to see some new Blake dunks?
4. Chris Paul
I love Chris Paul (hated him when he was in college). You love Chris Paul. Mark Jackson loves Chris Paul. Jeff Van Gundy loves Chris Paul. He is an amazing basketball player and he truly does play point guard the right way. He is a textbook facilitator with the same recognition of the moment that Isiah had and yet still has another gear for innovation that maybe we haven’t ever seen before. But after arthroscopic knee surgery in 2010, there were nagging questions as to whether or not he would be the same dominant player he was. Paul’s performance against the Lakers in the First Round of the 2011 Playoffs silenced a lot of those doubts. Paul’s Game 4 Performance will probably go down as “The Clinic Game.” In Game 4, Paul had 27 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists and just toyed with the Lakers overall. I mean, it felt like every player on the court was on a string and that Paul controlled both his own teammates and the Lakers’ players. Seriously, rewatch the game. Paul’s series long performance, leading a Hornets team that should have been swept to a six-game scare, was truly the stuff of legend. After that series, it seemed that Paul was back at the peak of his powers and that he would enter ‘11-12 fully healthy, dynamic and heady as ever. And yet, his full ascension back to the top of the point guard head is postponed and he still has to wait to prove if he truly is back and is worth signing to LeBron deal or a potential Dwight Howard deal. Again, momentum is key and Paul was riding high after the ‘10-11 season.
3. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is an elder statesman at 33 years old. He has played in the League for 17 seasons. He is as heady as they come and has even taken on a Jordanesque transformation in his game with the development of his pivot moves. Yet, Kobe is on the decline. He looked tired and old at times last year while still making some of the sharpest decisions on the court. Though he did go to Germany for secret, experimental knee surgery that his supposed to revitalize his legs, time is Kobe’s greatest opponent now. Losing a year means everything to him, which is why he might be the most frustrated NBA player at the moment. His drive to compete mixed with his ticking clock and the delays of the lockout is probably driving him insane. Kobe knows history and is at the cusp of some extremely rarified air and any time lost only hinders that. Kobe’s losses due to the lockout are fairly simple and probably the most humanistic out of anyone’s. They are directly tied to time passing and our natural inclination to fight against it.
2. Dwyane Wade
Wade is my favorite player in the NBA, so naturally I am the most afraid for him. He is in a similar situation as Kobe. Wade will turn 30 in January and his physical, almost foolishly driven, play has definitely taken its toll on his body. If he hadn’t been even slightly hampered by his hip in the Finals I still feel that the Heat win that series. Time is not on Wade’s side and unlike Kobe, who really has nothing left to prove, Wade still has the weight of the entire ante of the Miami Heat on his shoulders. His leadership in LeBron’s strange absence in the Finals has bought him some rope, but he still has a small margin for error. And after the disappointment of the 2011 Finals, any continued time passing only adds to the mental pain of the loss. And still he has to keep on eye on the great clock of Time staring at him and the decisions he has made in his style of play. Like Rafael Nadal in tennis, perhaps his inspiring style of play has taken years from his career. Like I said, I love Wade and believe he has plenty of prime left, but I can’t ignore the other side of what I see. I can’t ignore the possibility of the truth tugging at my shirt. (I don’t mean Paul Pierce either.)
1. LeBron James
Who else would it have been? LBJ. Public Enemy No. 1. The most scrutinized athlete on the planet. I was a Heat-backer for all of last season. I thought people overplayed the struggle between LeBron and Wade. I thought people misplaced their own desires on LeBron and crucified him for things they shouldn’t have (obviously The Decision was awful, that goes without saying). But I cannot, absolutely not, explain what happened to him in the Finals. It was baffling. I’m not going to call him a choker or take some sort of satisfaction in his short comings as one would with A-Rod (his closest sports comparison) because LeBron contains come childish innocence, some unawareness, that A-Rod never seemed to have and that makes LeBron slightly easier to forgive. Maybe I’m wrong, but I need to find something to describe why I want to have faith in him. Perhaps its because he captures the imagination more than any player in the NBA or more than any other egotistical-seeming athlete like A-Rod. Even though I don’t love his decisions or his overall style of play, there is something good in LeBron that wants to improve, he just doesn’t completely seem to grasp its total possibility yet.
All of this aside, LeBron more or less blew the Finals. Bosh held up his end of the bargain and Wade left blood and sweat everywhere. If LeBron showed up and played even average that has to swing at least two games. And because his lack of presence was so egregious and because his personality is so present, he has to bear the brunt of the criticism and the scrutiny. He is the one who “took his talents to South Beach” only to fail. Now, a window that seemed open forever already may be closing with a lost season in ‘11-12. This is the man that needs to be on the court sooner than everyone. He needs to succeed. I’m not going to cut him slack because I understand the philosophy of the fan and the consumer wanting him to fulfill their expectations and desires, but any professional, any person with a recognition of History, Time and Circumstance knows what they have to do to succeed. And no one would compete at the highest level and want the best if they didn’t want all the success we want for them. Our desire is not something forged int total darkness. LeBron’s failures can be remedied and since they seem to be so directly tied to his ability to be present in the big moment, only he can do the fixing. And the only way to do that is to play. And he can’t.
Going through this list, the most frustrating thing I’ve realized is how many storylines and themes have been put on pause. Even in this list of 11 players, there are nearly 100 different stories that I am waiting to see play out. I haven’t even touched on Derrick Rose, the Spurs, Westbrook and Durant, the rise of James Harden, the Celtics, the Blazers and Brandon Roy, Dwight Howard or the Knicks. And so we’re all depressed, we’re all losers and the waiting is definitely the hardest part.