FOX Sports North's Joan Niesen looks at NBA superstardom's current changing of the guard.
By JOAN NIESEN FS North
There are certain players. You know who they are. They're your idols. They win championships. Meeting them would involve a healthy dose of nerves, and you certainly wouldn't be surprised if they looked right through you. They're the guys for whom reporters linger after games, even if they're prone to inordinately long showers.
They're the stars. The superstars. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, too. This year, add Carmelo Anthony to the bunch, and Chris Paul, and maybe even James Harden. There's a pecking order among the greats, determined by championships, age and general demeanor. At the top is anyone in the Los Angeles purple and gold, the Boston green and white, followed by the new order, Miami's red and Oklahoma City's blue and orange. By virtue of that, it's Kobe and Garnett and then James and Durant who seem the closest to untouchable, the players for whom the concerns of mere mortals do not matter.
Seem. Or seemed, at least after this season. Sure, there are still superstars: Anthony, Paul, Durant, James, to name a few. But beyond that, this season has been unique in its humanizing. There have been the minor superstars, such as Kevin Love, who's battled two separate hand injuries and a fan base coming close to turning on him in Minnesota. He's learned a lesson in invincibility, namely, that it doesn't hold. Same goes for Dirk Nowitzki, one of the league's most respected players whose championship certainly seems longer than 20 months ago. He's injured, his team is rebuilding in the fullest sense of the word, and it's hard to imagine Dirk going out on a high note.
But the falls to earth go much bigger than Nowitzki and Love, mere mortals when compared to the likes of Bryant, Garnett and even Dwight Howard. Perhaps the greatest sign of it all, in a bigger sense, is Kobe on Twitter. His team was (and is) such a disaster that he is bolstering his image by interacting with fans in 140 characters or less, messages that on Sunday night included a lecture on slurs and congratulations to Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. It's mundane and chummy and the opposite of everything Bryant has ever been.
Then there's Howard, too, being attacked from all sides, the nightmare that was his departure from Orlando having hardly dissipated like he'd hoped it would. He's subject to nitpicking and scrutiny after his arrival failed to catapult the Lakers to greatest-of-all-time status as some predicted it would, and he, too, is forced to explain himself and justify and do all kinds of things from which he was once exempt.
And while Bryant and Howard have been brought down in part by the Lakers' woes and injuries, Garnett's problem is a very different one, more akin to that of Nowitzki than anything else. The difference, though, is that Nowitzki has unflinching support from the Mavericks, whereas Garnett's name has been floated in trade rumors in recent weeks, just before he scored his 25,000th career point, in fact, on Thursday. The murmurs are most likely untrue, but their sheer existence is revelatory -- this is Kevin Garnett, people. Kevin Garnett. You can't trade him. (He has a no-trade clause.) But now, apparently, you can talk about it, believe it, even. You can point out that he's aging, that his time is so close to being over. That's no longer taboo, and these superstars, at least some of them, are slipping with age and struggle from their former statuses.
Your turn, LeBron and KD. The mantle is passing on, and see what you may have to look forward to.
The Celtics, who won seven straight following Rajon Rondo's ACL tear Jan. 25. Prior to the streak, Boston had lost six straight, its longest skid of the season, and it seemed like it might be on course to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Losing Rondo and then Jared Sullinger for the season looked to be the death blow, but instead, the Celtics have proven their resiliency and are looking like they have a good shot at the postseason, even if they're not legitimate title contenders.
The Southeast Division, which contains arguably the three worst teams in the NBA: Orlando, Charlotte and Washington. The three teams have a combined 40 wins, exactly the same as the Spurs have this season. Yep, you read that right: three teams combined have as many wins as one. And it's still February. Add that to Orlando's 12-game losing streak that ended Sunday and Charlotte's seven-game skid, and every middling or better team should wish itself into that division if solely for the win boost of playing said division rivals.
Best of the week
Team: The Nuggets, who seem finally to be living up to their preseason expectations. Sure, they lost to Boston in triple overtime Sunday, but before that they'd won nine straight, and the Celtics right now are improbably invincible. George Karl's team seemed at one point so close to being one of the year's biggest busts, and now they're creeping up the standings and into conversations of contending in the West. They're 33-19, jostling with Memphis for fourth place in the conference, and if things keep trending up, they could easily set the Clippers in their sights.
Player: The Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, who averaged 34.0 points on the week and almost single-handedly propelled the Knicks up and over the Timberwolves in a surprisingly close game on Friday. In the Minnesota locker room after, players seemed in awe of Anthony, with the word "superstar" being thrown around at will. These 30-point nights are starting to look pedestrian for the forward, but that doesn't take away from what he's done this year, both in elevating his own status and turning the Knicks into a fringe contender.
Pick-me-up for a sad fan: On Jan. 30, after Tayshaun Prince was traded to Memphis, Cory Brandt, a longtime Prince fan and Indiana resident, was waiting for the forward near the visitors' tunnel before the Pistons-Pacers game in Indianapolis. Unfortunately for him, Prince was en route to join the Grizzlies and never showed, and the whole thing was documented in what became a viral YouTube video. So, to make up for the big disappointment, the Grizzlies made Brandt a customized Prince jersey (his is not yet available in the team store) and honored him at halftime in Memphis on Feb. 10.
Worst of the week
Team: This one goes to Golden State. Although their four-game skid is hardly the Magic's 12-game plunge further into ineptitude, the Warriors have wavered of late, losing to Houston, Oklahoma City, Memphis and then Dallas. Despite the Clippers' recent struggles without Chris Paul, there's still good separation between them and Golden State in the Pacific Division, and it's safe to say that if Mark Jackson's team doesn't figure some things out soon, the conversation could be more about a seven or eight seed than a four or five.
Player: The Bobcats' Kemba Walker, who shot just 34.1 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from 3-point range this week, averaging 10.0 points in four games. When you're the leader of your team's offense and averaging 17.3 points on 42.6 percent shooting on the year, that's not a good thing. When your team has lost seven straight, that's even worse.
Excuse: At the beginning of the third quarter of Memphis' Wednesday loss in Atlanta, Tayshaun Prince missed two consecutive field goals. Also, coincidentally, rapper 2 Chainz had just performed at halftime. Two days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted that the Grizzlies were blaming Prince's poor free-throw shooting performance on that very halftime act, who apparently had "distracted" Prince when shooting. I get that 2 Chainz has some fabulous hair, but really? That's the biggest distraction in a road arena where fans are likely shrieking at the top of their lungs for you to miss? Okay...
Telling stats of the week
35-plus points: On Friday, the Heat faced off against the Clippers, winning, 111-89. LeBron James finished the night with 30 points, again failing to score 35 or more against Vinny Del Negro's team. In his doing so, the Clippers remain the only team in NBA against which LeBron has not scored 35-plus points. Of course, he didn't play in the fourth quarter.
926 points: Damian Lillard scored 19 points on Wednesday, included three 3-pointers, thereby becoming the first player in NBA history to score 900 points and hit 100 3-pointers in his first 50 games. It took Lillard 49 games to do so.
What we heard
"It's kind of like a 10-day, but more exciting, I would say."
— Timberwolves center Chris Johnson, deadpan, describing being signed for the rest of the year after two 10-day deals, breaking the hearts of TV reporters across Minneapolis looking for a sound byte.
"I always have to fight him. He's a pain in the a**. I'm tired of him. We've been together too long. ... He's the first guy in my mind to get him out of town."
— Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's response Wednesday as to whether he has to fight with Tim Duncan to keep him out while injured. He veered off course, slightly, and strayed into his own special land of snark.
"What the hell Bill Simmons talking about the jazz need a point guard. What the hell position have I been playing all yr? #smh #espn #cmon"
— Jazz point guard Mo Williams (@mowilliams) on Twitter Friday. Stick it to the media, man. Stick it.