NBA: In good hands

The current NBA stars haven’t allowed for fan enthusiasm to wane in the aftermath of high-profile retirements. ‘Not on my watch,’ has been their collective motto. Instead, it’s been all action, record-breaking stats and adjusting on the fly to their new roles and the higher expectations from them in the new season.

Russell Westbrook has led The Oklahoma City Thunder to a strong start, posting a historic triple-double in the game against Phoenix Suns.   -  AP

Anthony Davis had a 50-point, 16-rebound, 7-steal, 5-assist and 4-block performance in the New Orleans Pelicans' opening game against the Denver Nuggets. It's a stat line that has never been achieved in the NBA.   -  AP

San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard lets his game do the talking.   -  AP

Houston Rockets guard James Harden seems to be emulating some of the best ball-handlers in the game.   -  AP

Say this slowly. Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett. Ray Allen. Names that roll out of the mouth while eliciting respect, nostalgia and awe in equal measure. Four players, who carried the NBA on their broad, athletic shoulders in the post-Michael Jordan era. 12 of the last 18 Larry O’Brien trophies have gone to either one of Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Allen. Four future Hall-of-Famers, who have their own legions of die-hard fans spread across all corners of the globe. Players, who served as barrier-breakers, record-setters and perfect ambassadors of the game for an entire generation, or two, of NBA fans.

You would think then that their individual retirement announcements over the last seven months would rob the game of some of its sheen, its flair, its mojo.

But tell that to Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard or James Harden. These players have kick-started the 2016-17 season with a bang. They haven’t allowed for fan enthusiasm to wane in the aftermath of the high-profile retirements. ‘Not on my watch,’ has been their collective motto. Instead, it’s been all action, record-breaking stats and adjusting on the fly to their new roles and the higher expectations from them in the new season.

Take Westbrook for instance. The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was a win away from playing in the 2016 NBA Finals. But then the Thunder lost three straight games to the Golden State Warriors and bowed out of the Western Conference Finals. Westbrook’s illustrious partner Kevin Durant was then successfully wooed by the Warriors in the off-season. Many thought the Thunder would no longer challenge the best in the league. And yet, Westbrook has led the Thunder to a strong start, posting a historic triple-double in the game against the Phoenix Suns. His numbers on that night — 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists — were the NBA’s first triple-double with 50 points since 1975.

Or check out Anthony Davis, the 2012 No. 1 Draft Pick. ‘The Brow’ went off for a 50-point, 16-rebound, 7-steal, 5-assist and 4-block performance in the New Orleans Pelicans’ opening game against the Denver Nuggets. It’s a stat line that has never been achieved in the NBA. And to top that off, Davis exploded for 45 points and 17 rebounds in his very next game against the Warriors. In doing so, Davis became the first player since 1986-87 to open a season with back-to-back games of at least 40 points.

Harden hasn’t been far behind. Although Dwight Howard left for Atlanta in the summer and Mike D’Antoni took over the coaching job in Houston at the same time, Harden has shown his playing chops to begin the season. Over the Rockets’ first five games, Harden is averaging a double-double (points and assists). This for a player, who is primarily a shooting-guard. We all knew Harden can score, but he now seems to be emulating some of the best ball-handlers in the league.

Kawhi Leonard has made heads turn, too. Yes, that young 25-year-old in San Antonio, who hardly speaks. Instead, he lets his game do the talking. And how! In all the excitement over the league’s marquee match-up between the Spurs and Warriors on opening night, Leonard powered the Spurs to a rampant 29-point win. The Warriors were humbled in front of their home fans at Oracle Arena, with Leonard notching up 35 points and five steals. Over five games, Leonard has averaged 28.4 ppg, making him one of the game’s most potent offensive weapons. And given that the Spurs are off to a 4-1 start, the baton in San Antonio has passed on most definitely and seamlessly from Duncan to Leonard.

In that sense the NBA has always been well served. From the time that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell called it quits on the game, the torch was carried forward by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West. Next came the magnificent Julius Erving or ‘Dr. J’ as he came to be known. Larry Bird and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson followed soon after and enhanced the league’s popularity like never before. ‘His Airness’, the great Michael Jordan then made basketball a global phenomenon in the late 1980s and 1990s, with his athleticism, tenacity and winning attitude. Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant, The Big Ticket aka Garnett, The Big Fundamental or Duncan and Allen Iverson then carried the game into the new millennium and handed over the league’s rich legacy to the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

What we are seeing now from Westbrook, Davis, Leonard or Harden, with several stellar contributions also to be expected from the likes of Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns and Stephen Curry, is yet another new, glorious chapter (read era) being scripted in this terrific magnum opus called the NBA.

The author is the editor of NBA.com, India edition