When Michael Jordan walked away from the Bulls in 1998, it ended (temporarily, anyway) one of the greatest careers in sports history. It also created something of an identity crisis for the NBA. Since the early 1990’s, Jordan had been the face of the league, inheriting it from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. With Jordan gone, who would assume that role? Several players tried (Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal) but few slipped into it naturally.
Then along came Kobe Bryant, with his picturesque jump shot, his fundamental footwork, his relentless pursuit of success and all was right in the NBA world again. For the better part of a decade—beginning somewhere in the middle of the Lakers first title run and ending when LeBron James started winning championships in Miami—Bryant became the league’s biggest star. He played for the NBA’s marquee team (the Lakers), played a glamour position (two guard) and filled a handful of fingers with championship rings.
If Bryant's generation wanted to be like Mike, the next one grew up wanting to be like him.
“I did idolize Kobe Bryant,” Kevin Durant told reporters recently. “I studied him, wanted to be like him. He was our Michael Jordan. I watched Michael towards the end of his career when he was with the Wizards, and I [saw] that’s what Kobe emerged as the guy for us.”
James is still the face of the league, and will be for a couple more years anyway. After that, Durant, 27, and Stephen Curry, 27, a pair of MVP’s, are poised to take over. But the heir to James, to Bryant, to Jordan might turn out to be someone without the impressive statistics—at least for now:
Leonard, admittedly, is an unorthodox choice. He’s not the face of his own team, much less the NBA. Duncan is still around, Tony Parker is having something of a resurgence and that guy Ginobili is still bouncing around. Heck, even newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge has more star power.
Podcast guests: Pacers' Frank Vogel, ex-Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks
But look closer and you can see some parallels. A common thread linking Jordan, Bryant and James: Defense. All three held a permanent spot on the All-Defensive team throughout their primes. Jordan and Bryant could defend any perimeter position; James one-upped them by adding an ability to defend power players in the post. Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender, and it isn’t really close. Of the top 11 players in defensive rating this season, ten are centers. Leonard, who led the league in that stat last season, is the other. His checking of James in the ’14 Finals is well known but any opposing coach will tell you, when San Antonio comes to town, offense better come from places other than the position Leonard is defending.
Offensively, Leonard has developed rapidly. Pegged as a Bruce Bowen, corner three-point shooter in his first year—a comparison, by the way, that Bowen has repeatedly scoffed at, citing Leonard’s far higher ceiling—Leonard has morphed into a dynamic offensive player. As age continues to erode his team, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has taken the shackles off of Leonard and encouraged, nay, demanded he look for his shot. Leonard is averaging 22.2 points per game this season, efficient from the floor (51.6%), the three-point line (47.1%) and the free throw line (86%). His repertoire is still evolving but it’s becoming more diverse by the say.
Defense? Check. Offense? Check. A singular focus? Check, check, check.
He has the ability to do what a Michael Jordan did at both ends,” Popovich said last month. “I don't mean he's Michael Jordan, but Michael played both ends of the floor. Kobe does the same thing, when he so desires. You think about the best players in the league, they're not two-way players. He wants to do that, and he stays after it every day.”
Leonard isn’t one to self-promote. A quick story: A year ago, I traveled to San Antonio to write a profile on Leonard for Sports Illustrated. Leonard was coming off a Finals MVP performance against Miami and was one of the league’s most intriguing—and largely unknown—talents. I hoped to spend a day or two with him. Then, I hoped to get a couple of hours with him. Then, half an hour. Then, ten minutes. By the time San Antonio’s public relations staff—which did everything they could—got Leonard to agree to an interview, it had been whittled down to 90 seconds.
It wasn’t personal, and I never took it that way. It’s just Leonard. He’s not interested in commercials or glossy magazine spreads. He just wants to play. And for those that recall an outspoken Michael Jordan and the let ‘er rip old man Bryant has turned into, remember, back in the day, they didn’t like to talk much, either. Go back and search for stories about Bryant before 2010. You won’t find anywhere near as much material provided by Bryant as you do today.
The focus was on basketball, on winning, as Leonard’s is. And while Durant and Curry are two of the greatest offensive talents of this generation—and in the case of Curry, perhaps the greatest shooter of any generation—neither will likely ever develop into the type of two-way player Leonard has the potential to be. At 24, Leonard already has a championship, a Finals MVP and is on his way to his first 20-point per game season. The search for the next player to fit the Jordan/Bryant/James mold ends with him.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Golden State: The Warriors stretched their NBA record-setting start to 19 wins in Utah on Monday, the first of a seven-game road trip. Got a feeling that streak could end on Saturday in Toronto, but the way Golden State is playing it’s hard to pick the Dubs to lose any games the rest of the year.
2. San Antonio: Tim Duncan is running out of reasons to even consider retiring. While Duncan’s scoring has dipped to single digits for the first time, his defense has been among his best. Duncan’s defensive rating (91.0) is second in the NBA, and if he sustains it all season it would be one of the top 25 defensive ratings in NBA history.
3. Cleveland: The Cavs have struggled some on the road and their defense isn’t anywhere near as good as it should be. Still, with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert still in street clothes, it’s a pretty good start.
4. Oklahoma City: The Thunder have been scary good offensively lately, posting 100-plus points in five straight games and 110-plus in three of them. Enes Kanter was a plus-24 during OKC’s four-game winning streak and has not been the defensive liability many feared coming into the season.
5. Indiana: Paul George is playing out of his mind and Frank Vogel has turned a defense once singularly focused on rim protection into an opportunistic, turnover-forcing bunch. Before a narrow four-point win over the Lakers, the Pacers blasted the previous four opponents by an average of 23.3 points per game.
6. Miami: Hassan Whiteside has blocked 72 shots through the first 15 games of the season—more than seven teams have swatted away. That’s keyed a Miami defense that ranks third in the NBA in efficiency.
7. Chicago: Doug McDermott is starting to validate the Bulls' efforts to get him in the ’14 draft. McDermott’s field-goal percentage (46.8%) and three-point percentage (46.9%) are well above his rookie season marks.
8. LA Clippers: Three straight wins have settled things down in LA and have coincided with Lance Stephenson’s reemergence in the Clips' rotation. It’s a small sample, but Stephenson showed flashes of the playmaking and disruptive defense that made him a star in Indiana.
9. Atlanta: How much does Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer like Thabo Sefolosha’s defense? Against Oklahoma City on Monday, Sefolosha went scoreless in 39 minutes, missing all five of his shots. He did collect six assists and pull down eight rebounds, but his ability to defend the wing spots will keep him on the floor.
10. Toronto: Toronto has pulled out wins in three of the four games played without Jonas Valanciunas, but the success may be misleading. The Raptors' D has not looked as sharp without Valanciunas, who will miss the next 4-5 weeks with a broken left hand.
11. Dallas: What a nice pickup Zaza Pachulia has been. Pachulia picked up his 11th double-double on the season on Monday against Sacramento, his sixth in the last seven games. The loss of Tyson Chandler was expected to cripple Dallas’s defense, but so far it’s been better statistically this season.
12. Memphis: As Jeff Green goes, so do the Grizzlies. Well, not really, but Memphis is 8-1 when Green scores 10-plus points and 2-7 when he is in single digits. Mike Conley has been white hot lately, averaging 20 points and 6.4 assists on 50.5% shooting the last eight games.
13. Utah: Gordon Hayward has come on of late, dropping 33 points in a win over the Clippers last week and 24 in a loss to the Warriors on Monday. His three-point shooting, brutal in the first half of November, improved significantly over the last two weeks.
14. Boston: The Celtics stole a second night of a back-to-back win in Miami on Monday, even with Isaiah Thomas struggling. Boston continues to make incremental improvements defensively but has looked lost at times offensively when Thomas isn’t on the floor.
15. Charlotte: Losing Al Jefferson for 2-3 weeks with a calf strain is a body blow for a Hornets team that has been an offensive machine the last two weeks. Without Jefferson, Charlotte will have to ratchet up a leaky D that has regressed some from last season.
Give and Go
In the latest episode of Give and Go, Mannix is joined by Washington Post NBA writer Tim Bontemps to discuss Kobe's retirement, Kristaps Porzingis's potential and the Pacers' small-ball success.
14 and out
14. Rough week for Jahlil Okafor, who was involved in an altercation outside a Boston nightclub and busted for going 108 miles per hour on a Philadelphia freeway. Fans take far too many liberties with professional athletes, but Okafor has to be smart enough to walk away from some drunk heckler and driving that fast ever is incredibly stupid. Here’s hoping he learns from all this, because he is a terrific talent.
13. The good vibrations Kobe Bryant felt after making his upcoming retirement official won’t last long long if Bryant keeps chucking up bad shots. After going 7-of-20 in a loss to Portland on Saturday, Bryant followed it up with a 4-of-20 night in a loss to the Pacers on Sunday. It’s hard to see how this type of season is sustainable. Bryant’s far too competitive to spend the next five months as a punchline. Could he walk away early? I doubt it. But don’t be surprised to see him sit out more games for rest or to nurse nagging injuries in the future.
12. Speaking of Bryant, count me among those puzzled by Kevin Durant’s comments on the media’s coverage of Bryant. Durant thinks the press is too hard on Bryant. For starters, he needs to single out who he is referring to. Most mainstream outlets are still very complimentary of Bryant. We recognize there are physical limitations and we don’t ignore the legendary career he has had. But when a player is making 20% of his three’s and 30% of his shots, you have to address it, you have to be critical of Bryant and the coach, Byron Scott, who is letting him do it. I don’t think there is anything unfair about it.
11. Milwaukee has lost seven of its last 10 and its defense is No. 29 in the NBA. Jason Kidd has responded by moving Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams to the bench. That’s more of a shuffling of the deck chairs, because this team has been horrendous defensively with nearly every lineup this season.
10. Think Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have issues with Reggie Jackson? Durant called Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the Pistons second-best player last week and Westbrook replied “Who?” when asked about Jackson. Jackson’s defection clearly irks Durant and Westbrook more than James Harden’s did. To them, Harden’s decision was about money as much as opportunity. From what I’m told, Durant and Westbrook were put off by a feeling last season that Jackson had no interest in being there.
9. The Rockets' awful defense has continued under J.B. Bickerstaff, and there is little reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Ty Lawson scored 11 points against Detroit on Monday, one day after picking up a DNP-CD against the Knicks. If Lawson continues to struggle, you have to wonder if the Rockets would consider a buyout. Lawson is effectively in the last year of his contract, having waived the guarantee on the final year of his deal.
8. Don’t look now but Sacramento is .500 in its last 10 games and Rajon Rondo is looking more and more like the elite player he was in Boston every day.
7. Orlando crept over .500 last week. What a job Scott Skiles has done with that team in the first month of the season.
6. Let me weigh in on the Stephen Curry for Most Improved debate. No question, he’s a candidate. His scoring and shooting percentage are up significantly this season. But even if he remains at those levels, it will be hard for him to win the award. Many votes—myself included—are more likely to vote for a player who has emerged from the shadows, so to speak, than the reigning MVP. That means Andre Drummond and CJ McCollum will garner more support than Curry will. Frankly, it will be easier for Curry to claim his second straight MVP than his first MIP.
5. At what point do we officially panic about the Pelicans?
4. The Nuggets have started to free fall after a solid start, and so has promising rookie Emmanuel Mudiay. Over the last five games, Mudiay has made just 29% of his shots. It’s a little early for the rookie wall but Mudiay, who played just 12 games in China last season, may be feeling early effects of the grinding NBA season.
3. What’s happened to John Wall? Wall appeared to turn the corner with his shooting last season, but he has plunged into 2011-2013 Wall territory. His three-point shooting has dipped to 28.8% while he’s connecting on a career-low 39% of his shots overall. Even worse, his turnovers are up to a career-high 4.3 per game. Wall’s struggles won’t effect his job security but they could impact Randy Wittman, who always seems to be coaching on the hot seat.
2. A final thought on Houston: The Rockets have to make an all-out run at Tom Thibodeau this summer. Yes, there will be questions about how Thibs' style fits with James Harden and Dwight Howard. But the Rockets have been flat-out bad defensively in two of the last three years, and Thibs is the best defensive mind on the market. There’s history there (Thibodeau was an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy from 2003 to 2007, and Van Gundy and GM Daryl Morey didn’t end well) but the Rockets badly need to revamp the system to have any hope of competing with the upper echelon teams in the west over the next few years
1. Episode 7 of SI.com’s NBA podcast is up, and it’s a good one. Former Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks jumps on to talk about why the Nets passed on Kobe Bryant back in 1996 and gives us an inside look at the thinking behind the scenes prior to the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade. And Pacers head coach Frank Vogel stops by to trace his path to NBA coaching, with some thoughts on Rick Pitino and how Indiana has succeeded with small ball. Check it out on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.