The waiting game is over for the NBA.
Ever since Michael Jordan retired in 2003, the league has been searching for his Air apparent. That year's draft - which included high school phenom LeBron James; Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, both college freshmen; and Dwyane Wade from Marquette - was supposed to produce the player to rival Kobe Bryant for the title of league's best.
Then reality set in. James, Anthony, and Bosh were each tagged as great individual talents who couldn't elevate their teams. And Wade proved to be a fine complement to Shaquille O'Neal in Miami, but like Bryant in Los Angeles before him, labored in Shaq's seven-foot shadow.
Now, except for Bosh and his Toronto Raptors, all that's changed. James's Cleveland Cavaliers and Anthony's Denver Nuggets are both playoff bound. And with O'Neal hurt for much of the season, Wade is the new face of the Heat. Even Bryant is poised to take the Lakers to the postseason for the first time since Shaq bolted L.A. for South Beach.
Not since the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dominated the hardwood, have the debates raged so hotly over who is the NBA's top dog. For many observers, it's a new golden age for professional basketball.
"There is always the perpetual transition between old and new, but right now the beauty of it is that the game is in such good hands," says Greg Anthony, an ESPN analyst who spent 12 years in the NBA. "These guys play the game the right way, and they are so young. That's not typical. And they're all heading to the playoffs - that's important because that's when casual fans are paying attention."
These young guns have taken advantage of new rules that tilt the floor toward more offense. Bryant leads the league in scoring, with James, Wade, and Anthony all in the top six. James recently ran off nine straight games scoring 30 points or more. Before this year he had never sunk a game-winning shot; he's had three this season, including one Monday night against the Hornets.
But close observers admire James and Anthony for what they do beyond draining buckets. This year James will become just the fifth player in league history to average more than 30 points, seven rebounds, and six assists.
"I think LeBron is actually a reluctant scorer," says TNT analyst Kenny Smith, a member of two NBA championship teams during the mid-1990s. "His best attribute is his ability to pass the basketball, but he has come into this scoring role because it comes so easily to him." Smith credits Anthony with a strong rebound from a disappointing sophomore season - and with singlehandedly willing the Nuggets into the playoffs. "He's having an unbelievable second half, and no one really knows about it," he says. "He's a lot more patient and, at the same time, he makes a quicker decision with the ball.... Carmelo has figured out what to do and what not to do."
Still, the playoffs are an entirely different beast. As ESPN's Anthony notes, the postseason is "all about adversity and how you respond to it. It's a grind, a grind where ... the intensity of every game [is magnified]. A lot of dealing with that means having experience."
Increased scoring isn't limited to Bryant, James, & Company. Offense is on everyone's mind after several seasons of ugly, jarring, and punishing basketball embodied by the Detroit Pistons' championship team in 2004. Under new coach Flip Saunders, the Pistons are averaging nearly four points more per game compared with last season, though they rank well below perennial scoring machines Phoenix, Dallas, and Miami.
Analysts peg Detroit and Miami as favorites in the East, with the defending world champion San Antonio Spurs expected back in the NBA Finals in June, even though Spurs star Tim Duncan has battled injuries much of the season. In addition, cross-state rival Dallas has demonstrated a newfound interest in playing at least a hint of defense - and still boasts a fearsome scoring attack fueled by Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas split four regular-season games against San Antonio. The high-wattage Phoenix Suns, led by reigning MVP Steve Nash and Shawn Marion, could also prove nettlesome in the West.
Beyond Detroit and Miami, which has veteran coach Pat Riley on the bench, the Eastern Conference could see sparks in New Jersey. The Nets recently ripped off a 14-game winning streak, defeating top contenders Miami, Detroit, Phoenix, and Dallas along the way.
No matter what happens, ESPN's Anthony, among others, is encouraged by the widespread new talent and the improved pace of games. "We went through a period where the game was far more physical and not as fun to watch," he says. "Now there is more flow to it, and the game has become special again. That is good to see."