This feature was first published in the 2013 - No.1 edition of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.
It all began in London.
But three individuals separated themselves from the rest. Three of them who played at such a high level that, at various points in the competitions, all three could compete for the nomination of the tournament’s most valuable player. In a team spoilt with talent, these three stood head and shoulders above the rest.
And all three, technically, played the same position.
Between LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony, Team USA was loaded at the Small Forward position. They decided to include all three, and all three made sure that their inclusion was more than justified. Anthony made history against Nigeria by scoring the highest point total by an American at the Olympics – 37 – in just 14 minutes! James was the team’s motor, leading the squad from start to finish and taking over in the clutch moments of the gold medal game against Spain for the win. Durant was the tournament’s leading scorer and consistently put up big numbers in each game.
The momentum of London has carried on back home in the NBA. James, Durant, and Anthony all find themselves playing high-level basketball two months into the new season, and have been the three best individual players in the NBA so far. And curiously, all three are following a similar blueprint to their success.
With the start of the 2012 NBA season, the ‘small-ball’ effect spread like wildfire ravaging throughout the league. Following the triumph of the Miami Heat playing 6-foot-8 LeBron James at the power forward position at crucial moments in their championship run back in June, other teams began to field smaller lineups as well. This was partly to keep up with the quickening pace of the game and partly to make up for the scarcity of high-scoring back to the basket players around the league.
In New York, with Amar’e Stoudemire ailing, Coach Mike Woodson began to follow the same pattern with the Knicks. A natural small forward, Carmelo Anthony was shifted to the power forward position and the Knicks began to start with Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, and Ronnie Brewer – three guards – in their backcourt.
The experiments so far have paid huge dividends for all three players and their teams. James has been able to demonstrate his versatility by shifting positions on both ends of the floor to defend both perimeter and post players and attack from the outside or the inside. After having a magical 2012, LeBron and the Heat are continuing their run as one of the NBA’s most feared teams and leading contenders to defend their crown. Teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may have been a step slower so far, but LeBron has been able to diversify his skill-set to get the most out of the Heat roster.
Over in Oklahoma City, Durant and the Thunder have come out the gates on fire this season. Perhaps hungry for success after coming so close to a championship last season, Durant seems to be on a mission this year to get back on top. Despite losing teammate James Harden, the Thunder seem to have become even better with the inclusion of Kevin Martin and improved play by both Durant and Westbrook. Durant in particular has evolved as a better well-rounded player, rebounding, creating, defending at the elite level, and still remaining one of the best scorers that the NBA has ever seen. Durant has the size of most NBA power forwards but the ability to stretch the floor and shoot the ball like a perimeter player. The Thunder have been able to plug him in as a big player when needed this year to beat slower teams on their speed and athleticism.
Meanwhile, other teams have tried out their versions of ‘Small Power Forwards’ as well. The Nets moved Kris Humphries to the bench and moved 6-foot-7 Gerald Wallace to play power forward to improve their team’s offensive moment. Atlanta has been playing their two best players – Josh Smith and Al Horford – out of position for years to moderate success. A natural PF, Horford starts games as a Center with Smith, who may not have the back to the basket game of an average post player, to play at the power forward position. In the absence of Kevin Love, the Timberwolves played major chunks of their early season with Andrei Kirilenko as a power forward. Shaun Marion regularly dons the ‘dual forward’ role for the Mavericks, too.
All in all, it seems like a good year to be for the natural small forward. The position is top heavy with the talents of Durant, LeBron, and Anthony, but strong showings by the likes of Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Josh Smith make this position as loaded as it has ever been. They are all multi-talented players now who in many teams have become the center of the system, the players around whom the offense and defense revolves, and the players who are counted on to help make the big plays at the game’s biggest moments.
But the standout individual talents in the season have been the three superstars who are also early top candidates for the MVP trophy: James, Durant, and Anthony. All three are guaranteed to be starters in the mid-season All Star Game – both for their immense popularity and for their actual production this season – but their work will truly count when the playoffs begin.
James and Durant, as well as their teams, have proven themselves with deep playoff runs and an epic matchup in last season’s Final. Anthony and the Knicks have had a fantastic start to the season, but their playoff credentials will be in doubt until they can prove themselves in the post-season. All three are now backed up with decent teams and systems to back them up, but ultimately, it will be the brilliance of the superstars in the middle that will be the difference between a good team and a great one.
And just like the previous summer in London, the next summer in the NBA postseason could also come down to the performances of these three forwards. The USA Olympics teammates played together and earned each other’s respect in London, but now, they will stand in each other’s way en route to the 2013 NBA Championship.