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It took LeBron James longer than expected, but this past June, he finally delivered. Now with a championship in hand, growing potential dynasties in Miami and Oklahoma City, and with a generation of stars getting older, it truly feels like we are entering a new age in the NBA. It is officially LeBron’s league. Everyone else must get in line. We waited years for this moment. Twice, LeBron’s Cleveland teams had the best record in the league, and twice they flamed out in the playoffs. In Miami, even with enough talent to overwhelm all but a few teams in the league, they lost in 2011 to a hungrier, deeper Dallas squad. James has probably been the best overall player in the league for two or three years, but it took a ring to wrestle that claim away from Kobe Bryant. Akron’s finest finally has.
Yet the new age is more than just crowning a new King. Footwear is different, moving from glamorous, high-end materials back towards performance. Tattoos are now a staple of the typical NBA player. The game itself is a stranger to those who grew up on the physicality of the 1980s and ’90s. Gone are the days of isolation basketball. Today, a basket-protecting center is a novelty rather than a necessity, and dictating positions on the court means very little. Never before were there so many small-ball lineups, complete with explosive 6-3 two guards and versatile 6-9 centers.
With LeBron earning his stripes after the 4-1 Miami victory in the 2012 NBA Finals, we felt this was the perfect time to take a pulse of the best league in the world. Basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, is about individual creativity. Who’s the best player? Who’s the best dunker? Who can handle the rock, dictate tempo, and move the crowd all at once?
Dime Magazine always celebrated the culture of the game, the lifestyle of the player, and what better way to cover that on the dawning of a new age than to take it back to where all arguments begin. In this special section, we will break down the greatest of the present, on and off the court, as well as what’s in store for the future.
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10. PAUL PIERCE
In this summer’s Olympics, Lithuania and their 36-year-old guard Sarunas Jasikevicius nearly slayed the mighty Americans during pool play. It was Jasikevicius’ fourth Olympic run, and the fifth time since 2000 he nearly beat Team USA. Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations in Dallas, is a former assistant coach for Jasikevicius’ national teams, and after seeing Saras lead Lithuania to a near upset, Nelson told ESPN, “He must be drinking from the same fountain as Jason Kidd.”
Kidd came a long way â€“ from Ason, as Gary Payton called him because he didn’t have a J, to the best point guard in the world to now a 39-year-old backup point guard in New York. Back in the summer of 2001, when Kidd was swapped to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury, most of the basketball world didn’t see it as a Nets knockout punch. In two and a half seasons with New Jersey, Marbury averaged 23 points and 8.1 assists, making an All-Star team in the process. He was flamboyant, young, explosive, and his career 20-point, 8-assist averages put him in a class almost all his own. He also wasn’t cuckoo yet.
Kidd wasn’t any of that. But by the end of his first season with the Nets when he led the team to the Finals and nearly won a league MVP, Kidd reached a level of celebrity where even his young son (always present courtside) became a national commodity.
His effect on the Nets was inarguably ridiculous, and in the Eastern Conference Finals that season, he beat an upstart team from Boston led by Paul Pierce. Unlike Kidd, no one ever considered Pierce the best player at his position for any lengthy duration of time. But at one point in 2008, he did something even more memorable: He outplayed both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant during one playoff run and became a Finals MVP.
After all that happened, it’s remarkable Paul Pierce is still putting in 19/5/4 nights with the Celtics. Even after Boston basketball historian Bob Ryan gave the Truth the stamp of approval by calling him the best scorer in Celtic history; even after the former Kansas star twice brought the Celtics back from the dead â€“ first in 2001 when Boston made the playoffs for the first time since Sherman Douglas was relevant, and then again in 2008 when he was a Finals MVP for the city’s first basketball championship since 1986 â€“ even after 10 All-Star Games and 22,591 career points, Pierce is still the most consistently overlooked superstar of the last 20 years.
Some of that is his fault. His game is fit for excelling on the world’s biggest stages, but it doesn’t attract admiration amongst young fans (Pierce has never been voted to start in an All-Star Game). He complained and bitched his way out of the U.S.A. National Team’s conscience while being cited as a major cause for Team USA’s embarrassing sixth place finish in the 2002 World Championships. He nearly blew a 2007 Playoff series against Indiana because of a technical foul and ejection, and then walked off the court waving his jersey Petey Pablo-style before entering the postgame press conferences with bandages all over his face to fake an injury. It was pathetic.
But he also has as many big playoff moments over the past decade as anyone, and in Boston’s 2008 title run, he became the best player in the world for three months in the spring. That must count for something.
While Kidd was one of the best all-around guards of this generation and is a new-age Magic Johnson, he is also just a career 40 percent shooter from the field, and was never the best player on a championship team. Nowadays, Kidd is the shell of the player who once took the NBA by storm 11 years ago in New Jersey. Pierce? He quietly survived and excelled in Boston, and he’s still the go-to player on Miami’s toughest competition in the Eastern Conference.