NBA

The Future of the NBA is in Good Hands

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Since the end of last season, the NBA has said goodbye to some of its most iconic stars. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand all retired this offseason, leaving Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Paul Pierce, Metta World Peace and Jason Terry as the only remaining active NBA players who were drafted in the 1990s.

While it is tough to say goodbye to players who have been around for roughly two decades, fans can take solace in the fact that the first few days of the 2016-17 season have served as a strong reminder that the NBA is flooded with top-level talent and a wave of younger players who are on the path to stardom.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and the other top-tier veterans have been around for some time and are still some of the league’s top performers. These star veterans now fill the role that guys like Duncan, Kobe and Garnett used to, while the younger generation of budding stars continues to collectively develop and prove itself.

Some of these younger stars have put up some huge performances in the first few games of the 2016-17 season, including San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. Through two games this season, Leonard is averaging 32.5 points, four rebounds, four assists, five steals and 11 free throw attempts per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field. Leonard’s scoring and steal averages will very likely decrease as the season moves along but this strong start has certainly been impressive.

“That dude’s good, man,” DeMarcus Cousins said about Leonard. “(Expletive), he’s good. He’s really good. He was hitting shots over two guys. I mean, I heard he was working with Kobe, and there was some flashes of Kobe in there. He’s really good.”

Leonard has won the Defensive Player of the Year award two years in a row and now with Duncan gone, he is the focal point of the Spurs’ offense. Once considered to be a “system player” that only thrived because of the strong offensive structure in San Antonio, Leonard is establishing himself as arguably one of the best two-to-three players in the NBA, which is incredible when you consider he’s only 25 years old.

Cousins wasn’t so bad himself in his last game either. He registered 37 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and one steal, though his team fell to the Spurs. Cousins is also quite young (26) and has established himself as the most dominant all-around center in the NBA.

Another early season standout has been James Harden of the Houston Rockets. Harden has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA – though his defensive limitations are problematic – and may be set for a career-year as Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has named Harden as the team’s point guard. In his debut as the team’s lead guard, Harden proved himself to be an elite playmaker and a dominant force, though his team did ultimately fall to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“James Harden obviously finished with 34 [points] and 17 [assists],” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “But that’s what stars at this level do. All you can do is try to make it tough on him. That’s it.”

Walton seems to be correct in that you can’t truly stop Harden from putting up big numbers on any given night. The best any opposing defense can hope to do is force him into an inefficient night, force a lot of turnovers and exploit his poor defense on the other end of the court. Over the course of two games this season. Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds and one steal, while shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from the three-point line. Harden may not be able to keep posting these huge statistics but he looks very comfortable as the Rockets’ lead guard and will give opposing team’s headaches on a nightly basis.

Another player who is putting up huge box score numbers is Harden’s former teammate Russell Westbrook. Ever since Kevin Durant announced that he would be leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, people in and around the NBA have been predicting that Westbrook would become the league’s most statistically dominant player. Through two games, Westbrook has been in the running with the NBA’s elite in terms of box score statistics. Over two games, Westbrook is averaging an eye-popping 41.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 9.5 assists and one steal, while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. In a 113-110 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook logged 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. He took 44 shots (career-high) and went to the free throw line twenty times. He became the first players to register a 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabar did so in 1975. Westbrook played 45 minutes against the Suns but somehow never seemed to slow down or tire.

“You’ve got to want to win,” Westbrook said after the game. “Very simple. When you want to win, you don’t think about being tired. To me, being tired is a mind thing. It’s in your mind. You’ve got to go out there and compete at a high level and leave it on the floor.”

Westbrook, age 27, is a man on a mission and doesn’t figure to slow down anytime soon.

While Leonard, Harden and Westbrook are all off to incredible starts this season, there is arguably no one playing at a higher level so far than New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis. Through two games, Davis is averaging 47.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, four assists, 4.5 steals and three blocks, while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 25 percent from distance.

“It’s hard to defend him,” Kevin Durant said. “You can’t. His first step is probably the quickest I’ve seen in a while at his position. He’s long, he can shoot it, he can dribble it, he can shoot the 3 — so he’s doing just about everything out there on the court.

“[He is] probably going to lead the league in scoring this year easily … 50 for him is a good game, and now [he’s like] move it to the next one. It’s kind of a customary night for him, so we’ve got to be prepared tonight.”

Davis is the first player since Michael Jordan to score 90 points or more combined in his team’s first two games of an NBA season. In his last game, Davis logged 45 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the seventh player in NBA history to have 45 points and 15 rebounds in consecutive games. The others are Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo. And remember that he put up these numbers against Draymond Green, who is arguably the most versatile and effective defender in the NBA. However, the problem for Davis is that despite his efforts, his team is now 0-2. He’ll need some more support from his teammates moving forward considering there isn’t much more he can do on his end to help his team win.

These are just some of the players that are putting up huge numbers early this season. Other players like Damian Lillard, Durant, Myles Turner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan and even T.J. Warren have put up stellar performances through the first few games of the 2016-17 season. And with young budding stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins (just to name a few), the NBA is sure to have a lot of star power and a wealth of talent for years to come. Though the NBA lost some iconic, future hall-of-fame players this last offseason, these extraordinary early-season performances are serving as a strong reminder that the league is still in good hands moving forward.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Senior NBA Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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