I t is a world of superstars, All-Stars, ‘franchise players’ and Michael Jordan. With 5-man teams, there is probably no major team sport where individual players have so much importance than in basketball. While American football and the NFL has enjoyed a surging rise in popularity in the UK in recent years, with four games being played in London this year, the NBA has struggled to have the same growth over here, despite following the example of the NFL and holding games in London. There is no good reason why a league boasting bigger stars with even bigger personalities and a game that’s easier for the layman to follow shouldn’t be competing with the largely anonymous players in helmets and pads on an American football field. So with the season just around the corner on October 17 let’s recap a dramatic summer in the world of the National Basketball Association and convince the British public take up a new sport this year.
Superstars on the move
Kyrie Irving does a ‘Neymar’ and leaves the Kings
Secrets don’t last long in the NBA and in the middle of the summer a huge story broke when the media leaked that Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, one of the 2016 NBA champions’ ‘Big Three’ players, had demanded to be traded away. Probably the most YouTube-able NBA star for highlights, Kyrie famously hit the game-winning shot in the 2016 Finals to end the city of Cleveland’s curse and it’s 52-year championship drought. So why would he want to leave a team that again got to the Finals in 2017 and that is led by Basketball’s heir apparent to Michael Jordan, LeBron James?
“Kyrie tired of being under someone else’s shadow”
Well, simply put, the answer is that very man LeBron James. You probably know the name and just like Lionel Messi in his respective sport, LeBron is undisputedly the best player in the world. There is no bigger or more recognisable star in Basketball and there are few bigger in world sports than ‘King James’ – a nickname he has somehow justified. Just like Neymar at Barcelona it seems that Kyrie tired of being under someone else’s shadow and yearned for the spotlight. The surprise story of Kyrie’s ‘betrayal’ to LeBron was a media frenzy and culminated in the Boston Celtics swapping their own All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas with Cleveland to nab Kyrie and complete a summer of building Cleveland’s biggest challenger in the Eastern Conference.
The big question is whether Kyrie will succeed as the leader of a team; many are sceptical that the flashy dribbler is indeed capable of commanding for he is known mostly for his individual play. What is clear, though, is that Kyrie Irving’s Boston team and LeBron James’ Cleveland are the clear favourites to meet in the Eastern Conference finals and the LeBron vs Kyrie showdown is set to be a must-watch event and one of the storylines of the season.
New ‘Superteams’ as the Western Conference arms race heats up
The idea of the ‘superteam’ is a hot topic in the NBA. Multiple stars are increasingly joining one team and seemingly stacking the odds unfairly in their favour, in a sport where just one individual can have so much impact on the outcome. (For those of you who would like a footballing metaphor; imagine a 5 a-side team with David De Gea, Sergio Ramos, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar).
The recent trend was started and revolutionised by the dominant 2010 Miami Heat ‘Big Three’ of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that went to the NBA Finals in each of their four seasons together, winning two championships. Today’s top superteam is current NBA champions the Golden State Warriors, headlined by the superstar second only to LeBron, Kevin Durant and master of the three-point shot, Steph Curry. With unrivalled depth, having two more stars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors are considered the perfect team for the modern NBA. The four stars together can play a fast-paced tempo, change positions freely, shoot from any range on the court and defend any position.
Like Michael Jordan’s legendary Chicago Bulls of the 90’s the Warriors are probably unbeatable and many feel that their rivals should bide their time and wait for the dominance to end. Their conference rivals, however, have other ideas and veteran point guard and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was the first to make waves this summer. The ever-underachieving and intelligent playmaker surprised the league and joined the bearded, mercurial and last season’s Most Valuable Player candidate, James Harden, in Houston. Not to be outdone, Kevin Durant’s former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, made a shock trade for want-away star Paul George to team him up with the current holder of the Most Valuable Player Award and one-man wrecking crew, Russell Westbrook. After pulling off this coup, Oklahoma then lured the big-name and free-scoring veteran Carmelo Anthony from the Big Apple to the midwest to form their very own ‘Big Three’. Two top-five players in the Houston Rockets’ Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Westbrook have seen the teams they were single-handedly carrying be transformed into legitimate title contenders in one summer. If three heavyweight teams in one conference were not enough to entertain already then the often irrelevant underdogs in the Minnesota Timberwolves also joined the party by adding ex-Chicago Bulls defensive star Jimmy Butler to their promising young core of talent, further increasing the depth of quality in the Western Conference compared to LeBron James’ Eastern Conference.
Which moves will bring success and can anyone topple the champs?
The stage is set for a thrilling season, a tale of betrayal and revenge in the East, two new superteams in the West, and a team that may just be the best ever in the Golden State Warriors sitting firmly at the top. The names and personalities are bigger and more powerful than ever before. The NBA boasted the most players of any sport in the top 10 of Forbes’ list this year of “The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes” with four of basketball’s superstars present and a player such as Steph Curry is set to earn over $34m this season in salary alone. Able to change the landscape of the entire league with their moves to different teams these stars are super talented, super powerful and super-rich. Now is the time to stop sleeping and start watching these fascinating players.