Every week, the NBA gets closer and closer to the playoffs, at which point whatever team has LeBron James will win the championship. Just kidding! It's like way more exciting and complicated than that (we hope). Here are the five most fascinating stories of basketball season as it currently stands.
Tony Parker Puts Kyrie Irving In His Place
The way we talk about Kyrie Irving now — What We Talk About When We Talk About Kyrie Irving — is as though he's already reached the heights of basketball ascendancy. And this isn't wrong! He has. On most nights, Irving plays like one of the league's five best point guards, and he snagged a spot in the All-Star Game on his own legitimate merits. That being said, sometimes we need to be reminded that Irving, only 20 years old, has not reached his full potential and is not the league's best point guard. Wednesday night, Tony Parker did that reminding. It took all of the game's minutes for Parker's Spurs to take and hold a lead against Irving's Cavs, but in terms of the one-on-one battle between the two point guards, Irving got beat. Parker, one of the leading candidates for this year's MVP award — and by leading, I mean, one of the guys who we'll pat on the back heartily when either Durant or LeBron wins — dropped 24 points on only 14 shots, plus seven assists and six rebounds. Irving, meanwhile, need 15 shots to get six points, and couldn't even get off a last-second attempt to win while being covered by Parker.
So, yeah. Not Irving's league yet.
LeBron And The Heat Are Still The Kings
Not literally the Kings — that's a team in Sacramento. For now. MAYBE. No, I mean that LeBron and the Heat are still the NBA's ruling monarchs, presiding through divine provenance over the league and its inhabitants. What made this the case this week? Well:
1) LeBron had six games in a row where he shot over 60% and scored more than 30 points.
2) The Heat won all six of those games.
And 3) The Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, who they also beat in last year's NBA Finals.
So far through the 2012-13 season, the Thunder have been the slightly better team, with the same number of losses and three more wins in the superior Western Conference. However, as the Heat demonstrated last night, it's their reign until proven otherwise, and the Thunder have yet to prove that. As best as anyone can tell, Miami's ability to shift into another gear — that elusive, ascendant playoff God Mode that tends to differentiate champions from regular-season win-hoarders — is unmatched by the league's other teams. The playoffs are not 82 games long, and when the Heat, and LeBron James in particular, want to win one two-minute stretch, nobody's shown that they can stop them.
The NBA's Prized Youth Prepare To Show Off
There's something intoxicating about the Rising Stars Challenge, aka the Rookie-Sophomore Game, which takes place on All-Star weekend. Comprised of two teams of hand-picked first- and second-year players, one chosen by Shaq and one by Charles Barkley, facing off in a junior All-Star game, the Challenge serves as a basketball nerd's fantasy come true: take the best, most exciting young players in the game and then PICK 'EM OUT. Choosing teams rules — it's like school, but with guys who can actually dribble. And in this game, you have some legitimately exciting dudes: Damian Lillard, pending Rookie of the Year and the game's #1 overall pick; Anthony Davis, still just beginning to manifest some of the extraordinary potential, both offensive and defensive, that he has; Kyrie Irving, who wasn't the game's FIRST PICK (?!?!?!); Kenneth Faried, who tries harder than anyone else ever in the world; and like, RICKY RUBIO AND BRAD BEAL AND MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST AND ALL THESE OTHER DUDES. These are the guys you get League Pass for.
Derrick Rose Remains Basketball's Biggest Question Mark
Derrick Rose could be playing 5-on-5 after the All-Star break! Derrick Rose could sit out the remainder of the season! Nobody really knows what Derrick Rose could do! I mean, it's weird — it's weird watching the only player not named LeBron James to win an MVP in the last four years become a sort of footnote in the NBA narrative, a shadowy figure whose return has been promised but the time of which is not known. And the closer we get to a potential return, the greater Rose looms over the league. Now that we're going on 8 months since his injury, that time when Rose was arguably the most exciting player in the NBA and a threat to the Heat's hegemony seems translucent and strange, and it's left a bit of a power vacuum in the East in terms of the most exciting-non LeBron individual. You can see the desire for his return in the rampant, pretty clueless speculation and prognosticating on a subject that clearly no one other than Rose and his doctors knows anything about. One day, Derrick Rose will return, and it will be great, but until he does, expect it to keep obsessing the league as a whole.
Michael Jordan Turns 50
The greatest basketball player in the history of the game is 50, and he's still full of ire for anyone not named Michael Jordan, not to mention a world-class ability to troll. If you have any doubts about his continuing importance and looming presence over the game, look no further than the fact that his birthday has dominated the week's conversation, even with the All-Star break, which usually functions as a time for everyone to reflect on the season so far. Instead, we're letting Jordan make us feel things again. Will there ever be a more fascinating athlete than him? Probably not. Particularly because if there was Jordan would almost certainly have him killed.