Fourth and Long

Published 2:07 pm Wednesday, April 27, 2011

As I watch this year’s NBA playoffs I can’t help but notice there seems to be an unspoken “changing of the guard.”

I have witnessed something very similar to this twice before in the NBA. In the early 90s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were on their way out of the league and Michael Jordan had reached new heights both on and off the court.

Jordan’s play was superb, but his marketability and popularity were untouched by any athlete in the world…. ever.  Johnson and Bird had been credited for bringing the NBA into primetime and Jordan picked up where they left off and helped make the NBA a global enterprise.

Jordan’s retirements came at a time when the league was being inundated with younger and younger talent. More players than ever where coming straight from high school to the pros and the “torch” was passed from players like Jordan to the likes of Kobe and Garnett.

I can’t help but feel like I am watching history repeat itself in the first round of the playoffs. Players like Kobe, Garnett, Shaq, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Jason Kidd represent the older generation. I guess I should be honest and call them what they are, members of my generation.

There were concerns when Jordan left the league that it might fail or drop tremendously in popularity. It did take a popularity hit, but it is far from failing. My generation of players, despite embarrassing themselves in global competition, managed to keep the league popular.

OK so maybe it wasn’t as popular is it had been in the past, but it was still far more popular from coast to coast than hockey.

The NBA, it seems, is beginning to grow in popularity once again and the credit for that has to be given to this new generation of players. While the talking heads are on television talking about the Lakers and the Celtics, I can’t help but notice the emergence of some teams new to recent playoff basketball.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, have been going head-to-head with the Denver Nuggets. Both teams are full of youth and I expect will be fixtures in the playoffs for years to come.

Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets are giving Kobe and the Lakers everything they can handle. While in years past the Lakers have been able to “turn it on” whenever they want, this year they appear to be struggling to maintain their normal playoff energy level.

While Boston swept the Knicks, it was clear to everyone that watched that the Knicks were a healthy player or two from taking over the series. I don’t remember ever seeing a series sweep that literally could have gone either way.

Miami may have been the anointed team, and they may still win it all, however it was fun to watch them struggle at times to beat a young 76ers squad with a roster made up of players most basketball fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

The Spurs and Memphis….ok, nobody cares. Memphis is young and talented. Be honest however, aside from O.J. Mayo I bet you can’t name a single player on their roster.

Derrick Rose and the Bulls have been involved in an incredibly entertaining series with the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls won the series, but it was nice to see both teams, once leaders of the Eastern Conference, battle it out in the playoffs. Neither squad appears to be going anywhere for awhile.

The Mavs have experience, but that has not stopped Portland from evening the series at two games apiece and serving notice that Chowan alumnus Nate McMillan has the Blazers ready to compete for a title.

The Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic both have rosters full of young, up and coming players. Neither team seems ready to make a run to the finals, however, both could cause problems for other contenders around the league.

All of the above are examples of the most exciting playoffs the NBA has had in over a decade. While Kobe, Shaq and Garnett…heck even Lebron and Wade may be enjoying their time on top of the mountain, I suggest they not look down.

If they do, I think they may be surprised at just how close the likes of Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul may be from reaching them.

David Friedman is a long-time contributor to Roanoke-Chowan Publishing. A Bertie High School graduate, he and his wife currently reside in Wilmington. David can be reached via e-mail at