Saturday, May 18, 2024
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With LeBron James, Kevin Durant fading into sunset, changing of the NBA superstar guard is officially underway

Anthony Edwards stood at halfcourt with an ear-to-ear grin that would make the Cheshire Cat jealous. He crossed his arms, thrust his hips forward and commenced with the universal sign of disrespect popularized by WWE’s D-Generation X and jovially ushered into the NBA realm by Joel Embiid.

The beaming, jubilant Edwards aimed his bold gesticulation toward the Phoenix Suns and their crowd, as his Minnesota Timberwolves prepared to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead in their opening-round series.

With the symbol and its accompanying lewd, two-word epithet, Edwards might as well have been putting an entire generation of NBA legends on notice, warning them that the unstoppable wave of talent they all knew was coming — the changing of the guard that would eventually knock them off their pedestals — was officially here, brandishing its unwavering sentiment of youthful invincibility.

Even one of the targets of the spectacle, Kevin Durant, couldn’t tisk-tisk Edwards’ behavior. How could he? He was once himself an up-and-coming prodigy, unafraid of the aging stars whom he would one day supplant.

“You win the game, you do whatever you want,” Durant said.

The response is as simple as it is prophetic, as the 35-year-old Durant — ever the student of basketball and its history — must increasingly feel the crushing weight of basketball mortality pressing upon him and his contemporaries. This postseason has made it impossible to ignore.

Kevin Durant? Swept in the first round as a six-seed.

LeBron James? On the verge of a first-round exit as a seven-seed.

Stephen Curry? Eliminated in the Play-In Tournament as a 10-seed.

Meanwhile, the youth movement is thriving, starting with Edwards in all his charismatic bravado. The top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, led by 25-year-old MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, became the first team in NBA history to have all of their points scored by players age 25 or younger in a playoff game. Another 25-year-old MVP finalist, Luka Doncic, helms what was the hottest team in the Western Conference entering the postseason.

Moving to the East, exuberant Indiana Pacers engine Tyrese Haliburton just turned 24 and already had his “I’m here” playoff moment with a game-winning floater. Second-year Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero, barely above legal drinking age, is already taking on the superstar burden in the postseason, performing feats only previously accomplished by The King himself. And then there’s Jayson Tatum, who seems like a wily veteran due to his playoff experience, but is marching a historically great Boston Celtics team toward a championship at the ripe age of 26.

Nikola Jokic, reigning owner of the “best player in the world” moniker, along with his chief competition — Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo — straddle the two generations.

Rest assured, the intent here is not to disparage the stars who brought the NBA to where it is today. The fact that James, Curry and Durant — the heliophysical marvels who vacuumed in the entire basketball universe for the better part of the past two decades — have continued to play at All-NBA levels at this stage of their careers is a testament to their talent, work ethic and limitless competitive vigor. The sunset of their careers has been as enjoyable as their first acts, even if their mere presence is no longer sufficient to produce a championship contender.

During this postseason, the sunrise of the league’s youth movement has clearly reached midday, relentlessly lasering its rays down upon the old guard until they’re eventually brought to submission.

The transition, however, isn’t necessarily a hostile takeover. While players like James, Curry and Durant desperately value winning and the mastery of their craft, there’s a genuine respect for the young Padawans following in their gargantuan footsteps.

“You see Luka, [Edwards], Shai, guys that are really coming into their prime and are highly decorated already as All-Stars and All-NBA guys,” Curry said during February’s All-Star Weekend. “The league is in pretty good hands when it comes to young talent that gets it and understands the magnitude of the platform we all have and will respect it as they come into their own.”

As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” It’s about time for the LeBron-era superstars to start embracing that sentiment, if they haven’t already, because their time for winning titles — at least as the unquestioned alpha — appears to have come to an ignominious end during their latest postseason run.

James’ desire to play with his son, Bronny, could provide the motivation to keep playing, knowing that his four championships and list of accolades that could fill Grand Lake St. Marys have cemented his place as one of the best — if not the best — to ever play the game. Curry has already hinted at a run at a PGA Tour card following his retirement from the NBA. Durant, given his penchant for unfiltered fan interaction, could probably start a social media content empire tomorrow if he wanted to.

No matter how it finally ends, we should all offer our gratitude for a generation of superstars who elevated the game through their rivalry, resilience and rarity.

“I’m on the other side, obviously, of the hill, so I’m not gonna play another 21 years. That’s for damn sure.” James said in late March. “I don’t know when that door will close as far as when I’ll retire. But I don’t have much time left.”

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

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