|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
For three years, The Decision and its ensuing backlash animated interest in the league. As we exit this All-Star break and enter the homestretch of the 2013-14 season, newer storylines predominate. Oddly, LeBron James' success means his shadow doesn't loom so large over the NBA. Three NBA Finals trips and two titles have sapped the sting of public anger. We've watched the Miami Heat go from imperious upstarts to grizzled veterans, fighting to defend their turf.
In a post-Decision world, other topics can dominate a news cycle. Is Paul George an offensive superstar? Are the Clippers contenders? What about the Rockets? Has Kevin Durant moved beyond needing Russell Westbrook? The discourse has, finally, broadened beyond LeBron.
Has Durant passed LeBron? If so, who dares to say it?
There's often a lag between accomplishment and reputation. LeBron was better than Kobe years before the NBA accepted that as truth. Michael Jordan had probably been playing better than Magic Johnson seasons before a Bulls title forced the basketball world to admit it.
Are we now in this denial moment with Kevin Durant and LeBron James? Most would agree that Durant is the deserving MVP as of today, but few would say he's a better player than LeBron. Such a disconnect is untenable over a long period of time, though. Perhaps this is just a blip, and LeBron will return to being near objectively superior to all. But if Durant continues to outperform him through season's end? The King may soon be deposed.
More scrutiny for the Westbrook-Durant dynamic
Perhaps we shouldn't be so hasty in declaring the MVP race over. Russell Westbrook's return probably means that Durant's production wanes.
Last spring, Westbrook received the redemption of his team failing without him. Oklahoma City's early playoff exit seemed to emphatically validate the contributions of its oft-criticized point guard, and "Durant needs Westbrook" was the popular takeaway.
This season has challenged the notion that KD needs Russ. Durant's performing better than ever, in part because his fellow star isn't there to take shots away. He's averaging 3.8 attempts more than he did when playing alongside Westbrook, and producing more efficiently despite the increased workload. OKC is likely better with Russ, but it's increasingly hard to argue that he makes Durant better.
Westbrook is already a lightning rod for criticism vis-à-vis how he plays with Durant, so this recent development puts him in a tough spot. It might be unfair to a player returning from a knee injury, but the questions about Westbrook's selfishness will resurface if his return coincides with a lull for Durant, the Thunder, or both.
Does the Heat's title defense have a defense?
In past years, LeBron's Heat brought destructive confusion to opposing offenses. Their blitzing style of defense not only scrambled the enemy's sets, but the resulting turnovers doubled as fuel for their devastatingly effective, but rarely forced, fast break.
Right now, Miami isn't playing defense like a championship-caliber club. The Heat are currently ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, as the blitz has looked less than formidable with Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen going through its motions at the speed of yoga.
The Heat are allowing a 51.6 effective field goal percentage, second worst in the NBA. Since the adoption of the 3-point line in 1979, no team has won a title after a season of ceding an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent or higher. Either the Heat fix this, or face overwhelming historical odds.
CP3 and Blake: The next step
Like Durant, Blake Griffin saw his production surge when a co-star went down with an injury (27.5 points, 4.4 assists in the period Paul missed). It would have been logical to assume that Paul is responsible for much of Griffin's output, but it now seems like Blake benefits from controlling his own offense. How do the Clippers proceed, given how domineering Paul can be with the ball?
The Clippers also happen to be very good, which is why the Griffin-Paul dynamic is of some consequence. Despite losing Paul for a month, Los Angeles boasts the second-best point differential out West. Look past the dunks and you might just see the primary challenger to OKC.
Can Dwight Howard and the Rockets be taken seriously?
He's not quite his old, dominant self, but Howard and the Rockets are in third place out West. Thanks to the defense Howard provides, this flawed defensive roster is among the top 10 on that end. It's difficult to take Howard seriously in most contexts, but he's helping Houston just enough to make it fearsome.
The Rockets stand out with their extreme preference toward 3-pointers and equally extreme avoidance of midrange shots. That style gives the Rockets a discordant feel, as though the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts. Despite awkward appearances, this style has powered Houston to a fifth-ranked offense. The Rockets don't look like a traditional title contender, but if they keep winning at this rate, they'll have to be considered one.
Do the Pacers have enough offense?
Indiana boasts a historically great defense, but its offense has slipped to 19th. Paul George was heralded as a sudden offensive superstar, but 2014 has not been kind to his game. In the new year, George is shooting 39.3 percent from the field. On balance, he's still a great two-player, having a career year. It's just that so much of what seemed like a "leap" was really a run of early-season luck on difficult jump shots. Asking him to carry an offense is asking too much.
"Defense wins championships" isn't just an empty aphorism, but the Pacers' offense does leave them vulnerable in a playoff series. If a team can generate points in transition (presumably off Indiana turnovers), it will be hard for the Pacers to keep pace. Can Indiana fix this O in the coming months?
Carmelo Anthony's battle against the Knicks' malaise
As an iso-inclined, defense-optional salary hog, Anthony epitomizes what's wrong with the Knicks. Ironically, he's also one of the team's few bright spots this season. Melo's having his second-best PER season of his career, while getting little help from his teammates. The Knicks are 20-32, but it's hard to pin that on of the few guys producing on a nightly basis.
Much will be made about whether he returns to New York, and whether the Knicks should commit to him long term. Despite this awful Knicks season, Melo's showing that he may well be worth it, despite the flaws.
2014 draft backlash
Among movie lines that explain NBA draft sociology, "As long as you can't see what's in this hand, you'll always want it more," is certainly up there. Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker loomed larger in the imagination before they played weeks of imperfect, nationally televised college games. Now people aren't so keen on what was supposed to be an all-time-great draft.
The one-and-done era has brought with it an emerging pattern. A draft's prospects are hyped in the run up to their quasi-compulsory year of college ball. As freshmen, they underwhelm the massive expectations. After that, the draft is declared either "weak" or "overrated" months before quite a few NBA rookies surprise us with quality play. Andre Drummond is the human embodiment of this whole process.
Some drafts actually are weak, but our collective predictive powers are probably weaker. It's difficult for anyone to account for which relatively obscure players will unexpectedly become famous stars later on. The 2014 draft has great potential to impress us, even though most are currently disappointed in it.
The Jason Collins shadow
The high-character big man is still without a team, which looks worse if the supposedly more oppressively repressed NFL drafts an openly gay player. Perhaps a lack of merit is what keeps Collins out of the league, but the fact remains that no active gay NBA player has ever felt comfortable enough to publicly acknowledge his lifestyle.
Does a team finally allow Collins to break this longstanding barrier? Or does some other player on a roster conjure the courage to drag the NBA forward?
Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Follow him, @SherwoodStrauss