Kobe Bryant’s 20th and likely final NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers is a storyline that will rightfully command attention all season long. The Black Mamba will be remembered as one of the most gifted scorers the game has ever seen, and the five-time champion commands a cult-like following that, at times, can rival Michael Jordan’s iconic status.
And he’s only going to be a part of our potentially historic story.
Tim Duncan, who took the franchise torch from David Robinson in San Antonio and became synonymous with success in the process, is entering his 19th season with the Spurs, and it may very well be the last time we see him on the floor despite signing a two-year deal this offseason.
The exact same thing can be said for Kevin Garnett, better known as The Big Ticket or K.G. by those in Minnesota, especially after tragically losing Flip Saunders—someone Garnett very clearly shared a special relationship with—to cancer at the tender age of 60 just days before the season is set to begin. If Duncan and K.G. both walk away, the NBA will lose (arguably) the two best to ever do it at the power forward position in the same offseason. Add in Bryant to the retirement mix, and suddenly you have a trio of legends that could all simultaneously wave goodbye.
Paul Pierce, who just turned 38 a couple weeks ago, is chasing his third ring in as many years with yet another team. And although his latest stop in Los Angeles with the Clippers offers more championship upside than Brooklyn or Washington ever did, Pierce’s three-year deal doesn’t guarantee he returns after his reunion tour with Doc Rivers runs its first course. Should the Clippers push deep into another postseason and come up short yet again, it’s only going to get more difficult for an aging Pierce to reignite the internal fire.
Dirk Nowitzki has made no secret about his intention to play out the entirety of his contract—and for what it’s worth I believe he will—but Dallas’ unbelievable commitment to mediocrity for too much of Dirk’s career may force those plans to change.
In a young man’s game, it’s the old guys who will provide a different perspective during the upcoming season. We’re going to hear about nights where Kobe shoots too much, when Pierce fails to come up clutch, Nowitzki gets outplayed by a backup and Duncan still wearing the same cargo shorts he did as a rookie, and maybe it’s just me, but those numbers and statistics will long exist after these guys are done playing. Appreciating greatness is done in different ways, but picking apart a stat sheet for the purpose of evaluating a fading superstar in the context of his previous glory isn’t in my personal definition.
As much as those transcendent players have meant and continue to mean to the game of basketball, the next wave of young superstars are here to crash upon the shore. This could very well be the season Anthony Davis joins Stephen Curry atop the NBA. Despite a constant cry about the decline of quality big men, players like Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond are regularly dominating the conversation. The Golden State Warriors, a championship team that drafted and developed four of its five starters—led by the MVP in Curry—are being overlooked routinely despite complete dominance on both ends of the floor all of last season en route to hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, skeptics of Philadelphia’s plan are wondering when Sam Hinkie’s roster will begin to resemble a capable 76ers team. Returning with the same core for yet another stab at it, there have to be questions about the Memphis Grizzlies’ ability to take the next step in a Western Conference that has only gotten better. LeBron James’ old team in Miami looks to be Cleveland’s strongest challenger so long as everyone remains healthy and Paul George’s (true) return from a gruesome leg injury presents a chance to witness the rebirth of a superstar still very much in the making.
With so many reasons to watch a game we already love regardless of its participants, this season could shape up to be one of the most memorable in recent history. We watch professional sports for our chance to see greatness, for the moment we see the unbelievable and for the chance to live through an experience that previously seemed like fantasy. Given what’s at stake and the elements in play around the league for 2015-16, the NBA promises to give like it never has prior.