Problem is, it doesn’t seem the young, old and middle-aged can handle all the collisions. An achy regular season is already turning into a postseason of pain. The NBA couldn’t get through the first weekend without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ja Morant and Tyler Herro going down. Herro is out for the playoffs because of a broken hand. Morant was sullen as he talked about his availability being “in jeopardy” after he landed on his right hand. Antetokounmpo fell on his lower back, and again he must summon his famous fast-healing powers to keep the Milwaukee Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, out of danger.
Playoff seeds, especially in the Western Conference, have seldom meant so little. But the injuries have left an even stronger sense of uncertainty. The Bucks, with an ailing do-everything superstar, have lost home-court advantage against the accomplished and ornery Miami Heat, and it’s a serious concern unless the Heat can’t compensate for missing Herro’s 20 points per game. Because of a frontcourt decimated by injuries, the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies entered the playoffs on upset alert against the No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers out west. They’re trailing after Game 1, and with Morant’s status iffy, the Lakers will play the role of favorite. However, LeBron James is still managing a foot injury after resting, rehabbing and avoiding surgery, and Anthony Davis, always an injury concern, experienced a brief scare after suffering a shoulder stinger in the opener. So it’s a rickety assumption to consider the Lakers a sure thing, even with their improved supporting cast.
There is plenty of chaos and misfortune to come during these playoffs. And while a few good teams have solid depth, no one is dominant enough to absorb significant attrition. Over the past 10 years, we’ve gotten unusually comfortable with the Golden State Warriors being able to win a round or two while missing a star, or James being able to carry his team through just about anything. Superteams don’t exist anymore; they’re just weathered giants now. The transcendent, multi-championship superstars of the past decade — James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard — are 30-somethings who shouldn’t be asked to lift the heaviest loads for a six-month regular season and then rise to a celestial level for the two-month playoffs.
The NBA, like all pro sports, is still a young person’s game. It’s a league in which the greatest players will do their most damage between ages 25 and 32. The championship window is often tighter than that. The NBA is 77 seasons old, and throughout its existence, few legends over 32 have been the engines for title teams.
The majority of those have come in the past 25 years. In 1998, Michael Jordan was 35 when the Chicago Bulls completed their second three-peat. Jordan’s standard of dominance while hoisting trophies at 33, 34 and 35 has yet to be replicated. Post-MJ, there have been some solitary ageless championship feats: James, just shy of 36, leading the Lakers to the bubble title in 2020; Curry, at 34, winning his first Finals MVP last summer after leading the Warriors to their fourth title in eight seasons. Though Tim Duncan wasn’t as dominant in 2014, he should be included for guiding a balanced San Antonio Spurs team with four future Hall of Famers to a championship at 38.
In the NBA’s first 50 or so years, it took championship collectors such as Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to drive title teams after their prime. It took a combination such as Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West with the Lakers in 1972 to seemingly make it look easy, but that team also had a younger core, including 28-year-old Gail Goodrich, for balance. It’s far more natural to see even the greats achieve their capstone titles much younger: Larry Bird won his last title at 29. Magic Johnson was 28. Kobe Bryant was 31. Or, like a 34-year-old Shaquille O’Neal with Miami and Dwyane Wade in 2006, they embrace secondary roles to extend their glory.
Currently, the old heads and their teams are lingering in championship contention because they’re that legendary. With James, Durant and Curry, you’re talking about a cluster of players who should rank among the top 15 of all time. But the more they endure in a league without a true superpower, it becomes an indictment of the NBA’s young core of superstars. Of that group, Antetokounmpo is the only champion so far. The Boston Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum and co-star Jaylen Brown, need to break through next after making the Finals last season, or they risk missing their window. Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns, finalists two years ago, have evolved from young and full of potential to a squad lacking depth and hoping a 34-year-old Durant and 37-year-old Chris Paul can remain durable long enough to win a ring.
In Denver, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is no longer just a statistical marvel and joy to watch. The Nuggets are finally healthy, and they’re the No. 1 seed in the West. If they can’t get to the Finals this season, they’re doubtful to ever do it. The Grizzlies seem too battered and immature. The Sacramento Kings, a No. 3 seed that has won the first two games of an entertaining duel with the defending champion Warriors in the first round, are underrated but probably too inexperienced. The Suns played eight regular season games with Durant after the trade, and then they promptly lost Game 1 to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets have everything going for them except the aura of a winner — and a long history of ill-timed injuries. This has to be their year. If not, the West figures to have a vintage Finals representative.
The NBA is in anticipation mode. But is it nervously dreading the end of an era? Or is it excited to usher in a new one? The results of this postseason will dictate much of that perception. It’s time for the young stars — who soon will see another member of their caucus, Joel Embiid, anointed as a first-time MVP — to yank the torch away from the enduring legends. It will not be given to them. They have to take it.
In this league, the flight pattern is familiar: suffer, learn, thrive. But it’s easy to get stuck in the initial stages. If no one rises, nostalgia will become a burden once this era phases out.
The sooner a new superpower emerges, the more prosperous it will be for the NBA to move forward.