Jordan’s Bulls were the first dynasty built from the perimeter, and the 1990’s saw the NBA reach unprecedented heights of popularity as Jordan’s myth grew: the kid cut from his high school basketball team who dominated through sheer force of will. Everyone, as Gatorade and Nike realized, could dream of being like Mike.
But with Jordan’s retirement following the 1999 lockout, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal rolled back his revolution. Their teams won eight of the next nine championships, as none of the perimeter players hyped as the next Jordan, from Allen Iverson to Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, could win a title without one of the league’s great big men.
Now that the 2011 lockout has ended, the NBA is entering another transition period. The last four championship teams have had multiple near seven-footers in the front-court, while the league’s three best young teams – the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls – all lack a classic low-post threat.
On one level, the resurrected 2011-12 season is a generational battle, with teams built around players drafted between 1996-2001 trying to hold off teams built around players drafted between 2003-2008. On another, it’s a battle for the future of the game itself, and whether the balance of power will stay in the paint or drift out to the perimeter.
In the 2011 playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks, built around an unstoppable seven-footer from the 1999 draft and a athletic seven-foot defensive anchor from the 2001 draft, defeated the Thunder, with three perimeter stars from the drafts of 2007-2009, and the Heat, with three perimeter-oriented stars from the 2003 draft.
Now, if the Mavericks can retain Tyson Chandler in free agency, which team will emerge as their biggest threat this season: Does the old guard have one more run left? Will the Lakers, with their inside-outside attack of Kobe (1996) and Gasol (2001), be able to upgrade their perimeter athleticism despite a more stringent CBA? Can the Spurs find another big man? Can the Celtics?
Or has a new day come in the NBA?
Can the Heat, modeled after the Bulls formula of a versatile two-way small forward and a dynamic shooting guard, find enough interior defense to repeat Jordan’s run? Can Serge Ibaka provide enough front-court defense and perimeter shooting to push the Thunder over the top? Can the Bulls find some way to keep Carlos Boozer on the floor while still being an elite defensive team?
The game of basketball has not changed, but the players have. Instead of leveraging their height by scoring at the rim, European big men developed fundamentally-perfect jumpers they shot from nearly-incontestable release points. American big men, meanwhile, have emulated the model of seven-footers like Kevin Garnett, who steadfastly refused to be listed over 6’11 less a coach be tempted to park him in front of the rim and not let him use his all-around skills.
Nearly every American player of the last generation learned the game on the AAU circuit, a system bank-rolled by the sneaker companies looking to find the next Jordan. Big men had to learn to adapt to a frenetic up-tempo style of isolation basketball that wasn’t as conducive to the old way of throwing the ball in the paint, spacing the floor on the perimeter, waiting for the double team, kicking it back out and then re-posting again.
The end result can be seen in college basketball, where two of the best 6’10+ prospects, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Baylor’s Perry Jones III, are more comfortable using a cross-over to get to the rim than a jump-hook from the low-block. In a sense, they are the end result of Jordan’s revolution, big men unilaterally disarming and trying their hand at the more exciting perimeter game.
Yet, for all his influence on the modern game, Jordan’s rein can also be seen as a historical accident. His Bulls never played a great seven-footer in the NBA Finals; they could barely get by Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in the East. They never faced Kareem or Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan, and they were only 1-1 in the playoffs against Shaq’s Magic before that team imploded.
Similarly, what would today’s NBA look like if seven footers drafted #1 in 2002 (Yao) and 2007 (Greg Oden) could have stayed healthy? Yet another supremely-talented 7’0 center, Andrew Bynum, has struggled to stay healthy while biding his time in Los Angeles behind Kobe and Gasol.
That’s why, before we turn the 2010’s over to Durant, LeBron and Derrick Rose, there’s one more loose end that needs to be resolved: a 6’11 265 three-time Defensive Player of the Year with a steadily improving low-post game stuck playing for a capped-out small-market team without much talent.
For the last six months, the future of the NBA has been debated in board rooms in New York City. Now, all eyes turn to Dwight Howard, the one player who can upend both the 2011-12 season and the NBA’s new narrative.