Following the Miami Heat’s championship clinching victory last Thursday, LeBron James and Kevin Durant engaged in a lengthy and heartfelt embrace near the half-court line. As they spoke in each other’s ears, onlookers could only wonder what the two superstars could be saying to each other following their mesmerizing Finals showdown.
Wishfully thinking, I was hoping they were saying something along the lines of: “See you in the Finals next year. And the year after that, and the year after that… and the year after that….”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who enthusiastically symbolized the moment as such and rightfully so. Because this can’t be it. This cannot be the first and only Finals meeting of Durant’s Thunder and James’ Heat.
Not when arguably the two best players on the planet put on an offensive showcase for the ages and heighten their individual matchup by guarding each other for the most of the series. Not when the audience feels shorted because the Heat’s previous Finals experience combined with the Thunder’s lack of it prevented the series from reaching the desired duration of seven or even six games.
More succinctly, however, this can’t be it because, quite frankly, nothing else matters anymore. Nothing.
It is an irony that underscores what was undoubtedly a successful 2011-2012 season. In addition to a game schedule that was clustered as a result of brought the NBA lockout, a major part of the campaign’s success was the return of a sporting concept far too foreign to the NBA in the past, say, ten years: Parity.
Over the past decade, you often had two teams from each conference in mind as the front-runners for the NBA title. It made for a dull 82-game schedule that had no element of surprise and, really, reduced the regular season to a mere formality; a delay of the inevitable Finals matchups most observers had correctly predicted.
This past season was different. Even though Miami facing Oklahoma City in the final round was far from a shocker, the Spurs, Mavericks, and Lakers were all legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. In the East, there were the Heat, Bulls, Celtics, and Magic who also began this season with championship aspirations. This coupled with hungry middle-of-the pack teams like the Pacers, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Hawks made for an exciting slate of basketball on a nightly basis, and fans were eating it up.
But Durant and James changed all of that with their spectacular performance in the 2012 NBA finals. Through their once-in-a-generation talents, they’ve removed our need for parity and have made it all about them. They have made countless fans look forward to June 2013 as if everything between now and then, (including the entire 2012-2013 regular season) is unimportant as long as the Heat end up facing the Thunder in the last round of the playoffs again.
At least for the time being, they have essentially nullified the relevance of every NBA team not named the Thunder or the Heat. LeBron James’ awe-inspiring blend of speed, power and all-around play has turned the tragically pathetic Dwight Howard saga in Orlando and the end of the Boston Celtics’ Big 3 era into an afterthought.
Any recollection of the Dallas Mavericks as this past season’s defending NBA champions has been lost thanks in large part to the four-game sweep they suffered at the hands of Kevin Durant’s precision shooting and offensive prowess. Even Kobe Bryant’s historic quest to tie Michael Jordan with a sixth championship now seems, with all due respect, obsolete. All that matters now is that James has just gotten his first ring, and is now in the way of Durant getting his.
And for both players, time is of the essence. After making it to the conference finals last year and the NBA finals this year, the Thunder squad now appears on the cusp of a championship season. But in spite of their youth (the average age of their starting lineup this year was less than 25-years-old), the Thunder are likely to already be in a “championship-or-bust” scenario heading into next season.
As long as the Miami Heat have a trio of superstars that are in the prime of their respective careers, which, realistically speaking, should be around 3-4 years, they won’t cede the throne easily. Therefore, LeBron James’ ability to fulfill on his promise of multiple rings is almost in direct conflict with the Durant’s championship ambition.
It is what makes this fledging rivalry so compelling and quite possibly one that will loom large over this upcoming season and beyond. With the exception of Michael Jordan (isn’t he always an exception?), there is not one man who is bigger than the NBA. But two just might be.
In a season whose excitement derived from a larger-than-usual field of competitive teams, James and Durant punctuated it by overpowering the league into reverting back to being a “two-team” system. It’s KD versus LBJ, and nothing else matters anymore.
Despite my appreciation for this past season’s league-wide competitiveness, consider myself as one of those who would not want it any other way following both men’s dazzling display over the past two weeks. If you agree with my sentiments, then join me as I toast to a “Durant-James” sequel in the NBA finals of next year. And the year after that, and the year after that… And the year after that….
Contact Antoni Nerestant through email.