As a native New Englander and dyed-in-the wool Boston sports fan, I’m obligated, by birth and precedent, to hate and wish destruction upon the following:
1.) Every team from New York
2.) Every team from Philly
3.) The Lakers
4.) The (Montreal) Canadiens
5.) The Colts
6.) The Steelers
7.) Kobe Bryant
8.) Alex Rodriguez
9.) Rex Ryan
10.) Ron Borges
I’ll spare you the rest. It’s a long, long list.
Living up (down?) to a stereotype isn’t easy, particularly in a region as hidebound and parochial as the one I live in. Straying from the pack, giving credit to your rivals in any way, shape, or form, refusing to acknowledge or care about Pawsox transactions in the middle of the goddamn NBA season; all risk incurring censure or, worst of all, having a drunken Sawx fan (adorned in the obligatory Pats hoodie and baseball cap) scream at you until his or her thick Worcester accent and beer breath prove too overwhelming to withstand.
So it’s at great risk to my personal safety (remember: we New Englanders have an especially grisly track record in regards to heretics) do I admit that I’ve come to admire this year’s Philadelphia 76ers squad. Now excuse me while I choke back the vomit.
Okay, that’s better.
Anyway: while some have attributed the Sixers’ early success to an easy schedule and weak intra-divisional competition (the struggling Celtics, the struggling Knicks, the irrelevant Raptors, the irrelevant Nets), few can dispute that the Sixers have played at an impressively (and surprisingly) high level thus far. Doug Collins’ defensive schemes, a deep roster full of athletic and versatile players, and an unselfish and balanced offensive system have allowed what had once been regarded as a collection of talented, but underachieving players to fully realize their not inconsiderable potential.
Assuming they’re able to capitalize on their hot start, the Sixers will, in all likelihood, usurp the foundering Celtics atop the Atlantic division and, by extension, qualify for a top-4 playoff seed. And they may, incredibly, have a shot of sticking around until May. For in a season as wacky and unpredictable as this one, in which older squads have proven themselves particularly susceptible to the grind of a condensed and unforgiving schedule, and in which powerhouses are in exceedingly short supply, teams which in any other NBA season would have had little hope of legitimately competing for a title (i.e. the Sixers, Pacers, Nuggets, Blazers, Jazz, Hawks, and, provided Zach Randolph can make a complete comeback from injury, the Grizzlies) have the rare opportunity to crash a postseason party that has traditionally been reserved for the league’s elite.
Is 2012 the Year of the NBA Dark Horse?
Which is an important development indeed. The rise of these otherwise middling teams would not only infuse the league with some much-needed parity, it would also fly in the face of much of what passes for conventional thought in the NBA, particularly the “Gold Medal Superstar Theory.” First articulated by Robert McChesney for NBADraft.net in 2006, this theory essentially proposes that, with very few exceptions (the most prominent examples being, as the NBA Realist pointed out not so long ago, the ’79 Sonics and the ’04 Pistons), virtually every title team (as well as their chief competitors) has been blessed with a mega-talented superstar (or two, or three). And even those Sonics and Pistons squads weren’t without players that have either entered the Hall of Fame (Dennis Johnson) or at least deserve consideration (Gus Williams and Jack Sikma in the case of the former, Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace in the latter). In other words, it’s nearly impossible to compete for a championship without a dominant player or, alternately, a bevy of extremely talented All-Stars.
Not exactly quantum physics, but it’s an argument which rests on a Mt. Everest-sized body of historical evidence. Take a look at the standings at any given point in NBA history, and one comes away convinced that possessing a superstar is the prerequisite for entering the league’s Gold Club. Notable underdogs like the ’76 Suns, ’82 Kings, ’94 Nuggets, and ’07 Warriors (the ’82 and ’95 editions of the Rockets don’t qualify due to the presence of Moses Malone for the former and Hakeem Olajuwon for the latter), while exciting and memorable, have usually played the role of spoiler rather than that of legitimate contender, exposing the hopes of unsuspecting powerhouses, while themselves falling to superior teams in subsequent rounds. They are, in other words, the exceptions to the rule (in this case, McChesney’s).
Yet, with the Duncan-Kobe-KG era drawing to a close, and the LeBron-Wade-Howard generation failing (so far, at least) to seize control of the league, the time seems especially ripe for these “ensemble teams” to disrupt the natural order of things before the league’s rising powers close the door and bar it forever. Isn’t it at least conceivable that deep, athletic teams like the Nuggets or Blazers could knock off the Thunder or Clippers in a seven-game series? Or that a dangerous Sixers squad could fell the rapidly-aging Celtics? And couldn’t the Pacers give the defenseless Knicks, or the size-deficient Heat, fits if the chips fell right?
Alright, maybe not so much. One can safely assume that the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, Knicks, and Clippers will eventually replace the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, and Mavs atop the NBA hierarchy and inevitably confine the league’s great middle-class (as it so often has been in the past) to “also-ran” status. But where before this arrangement would’ve been a given, the new C.B.A. (which has and will severely constrict the construction of super-teams like the Heat or Knicks), combined with the aforementioned generational trends, has at least made the conversation a little more interesting, and the game a little more competitive. That a team as dependent on the Three Musketeers-ethos as the Sixers can legitimately claim contender status signifies something quite significant and unprecedented, a power shift as anomalous as an Amare Stoudemire rebound.
What will ultimately come of this is anyone’s guess, but the NBA’s elite should be extremely wary of the barbarians at their gates. They may seem a shabby and unimpressive lot, but to underestimate them could prove fatal.