Ant is the newest writer here at NBAMate. When he’s not over-loading the server with his long, rambling, over-hyphenated posts, he’s fighting for the revival of the fedora as a mainstream fashion item or bluffing his way through a cricket conversation with work mates. He is the thinking man’s NBA blogger, so lock-in and enjoy.

I wasn’t going to write anything about the decade past. Really, I wasn’t. For starters, I’m always half expecting one of the Calendar Experts to jump out and lambast me about the unforgivably incorrect definition of decade we’re all employing – it’s not a decade til next year, there was no year zero. THERE WAS NO YEAR ZERO!!! – before scurrying back down the sewer from whence they came. And frankly, there’s little else that makes me feel quite so downtrodden about the whole of human existence like grown men having sincere arguments over calendar definitions.

On top of that, the idea that NBA history should be recorded and stored in neat little decade-sized packages is inane. So it’s no wonder the majority of writing that comes out regarding said decade is cheap nostalgic rubbish. In amongst all that rubbish, I’ve seen little about what, for me, are two of the most crucial bits of the decade. And so, I have decided to add my own two bob to the steaming pile, which I will be blurting out in two parts.

Very few people would disagree with the basic premise that the latter half (’05-’09) of the decade was better than the earlier half (’00-’04). Namely, Lakers fans along with a spattering of Kings fans who don’t know how to hold a grudge. For the majority of basketball fans, the last five years is where it’s at. Nodding in agreement? Excellent.

Now, people will naturally tell you that this is due to things like better drafts, rule changes, the banishment of Isiah Thomas, and so on and so forth. And while those sorts of factors were undoubtedly necessary, we seem to lack an easily identifiable nexus; the point at which the destiny of the NBA was nudged from one set of tracks to the next. If we are to put this NBA decade into the history books, we need to find our own Battle of…

(OK, confession time. I’ve never had even a passing interest in war history, and had always considered it a pointless pursuit, even as far back as primary school. There will be no wars in the future, thought I. You’re wasting my time, teacher-man. Tell me the one about the dish and the spoon again, that shit was deep.

Anyhow – as a result, dear readers, you will have to insert your own analogically sensible battle into my previous paragraph. I’m sure you’re more than capable. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Of course, the very idea that we can pinpoint the exact moment of seachange may seem a little bit too convenient. Granted, that would indeed be a tall order. But I propose no such thing. We simply need to find our Symbol – that early indicator that foretold much of what was to come. And in the case of the NBA, that symbolic event occurred in 2004, in two fractured parts.

The previous couple of seasons had been brutal. We were staring down the barrel of a future dominated by Steve Francis, Paul Pierce, Marbury and their like. In fact, I remember watching a Lakers-Rockets game in 2002 or so, and thinking that Stevie Franchise had the power to single-handedly kill basketball. Athleticism out the arse, but everything else in his game was the exact opposite of what any basketball purist looks for in a player: incessant ball-pounding; no jumper but plenty of bad shots; no understanding of the game; and worst of all no heart. He wasn’t alone. A couple of years earlier the NBA climate had turned Tracy McGrady from an elite all-round talent into an elite pure scorer. Why play defense or rebound when it only drains your energy on the money end?

Fortunately, soon enough the rain came. It came in the form of a surprising Pistons team that systematically dismantled a Lakers team replete with stars. Going into the series, few gave the Pistons even a puncher’s chance. In fact, the overwhelming sentiment was that we were in for a disappointing Finals after the excellent Lakers-Spurs and Lakers-Wolves series. What we got was altogether different.

The Pistons played as one. One goal, one heart. Stifling defense. The Lakers, meanwhile, played exactly as they had for much of the season – always expecting an eventual individual bail-out. And the public were right there with them in that expectation. After all, who could blame them? Fisher’s “0.4” moment had happened just two weeks prior, and when Kobe nailed that long three in Game 2, even Pistons fans were resigned to an eventual Lakers victory.

I recall speaking to another serious NBA fan right after Game 4, with the Pistons holding a 3-1 lead. You know what he said? Damn, those Pistons sure are pesky. Pesky? As much as that undersold them, that was the pervading view at the time. It was as if we were watching a father playing against his 12-year-old son, and the son had managed to rush out to a sneaky lead. No matter how big that lead is, we always expect the father to be able to clamp down on D, or to get into the post and dominate. Until, of course, the day that the son finally gets over the line and claims his manhood. But that day seemed far, far away in the NBA. Team play may get the job done in Europe, but the NBA had always been about star power. Isiah, Jordan, Dream, Timmy, Shaq…you needed that one guy.

Not this time. But NBA fans (led by the ever-intelligent big media) were slow to realise the consequences. We were led to believe that the result was all about the self-destruction of the Lakers: how they missed Karl Malone; how Shaq and Kobe couldn’t work it out; how Fisher and Fox should have been back in the starting line-up…the result was viewed almost as a failure of the NBA as a whole. How could we let this happen!

I firmly believe the lesson would have been lost on the NBA fraternity if not for the Olympic result re-enforcing it so strongly just two-and-a-half months later. The world championship debacle 2 years earlier, you’ll recall, was written off as a complete fluke. After all, the US sent a second-rate squad, coached by a second-rate coach, and finished a laughable 7th. Seventh, of course, was very easy for the US to laugh off; the idea that there were six teams better was preposterous. The one loss they were handed in Athens hurt far more.

Coached by that man Larry Brown, the USA was dismantled by the Argentineans in a manner not dissimilar to the way the Pistons had handled the Lakers weeks earlier. There was no dramatic finish; no last-minute heroics. Only this time the concept of team and the camaraderie was even stronger. Where the Pistons relied on Rasheed’s voice, on Wallace’s blocks and on Chauncey’s big threes to get themselves going, the unity on the Argentine squad was something more innate. Certainly, the fact that they were playing for an entire country helped. But the professionalism, the sacrifice and the heart displayed by every single member of the squad was later to carry over just as well to their NBA careers. They were inherent winners, a concept that had for several years been lost in the NBA.

And although the team was not without talent (Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni), perhaps the player that best personified the lesson learnt from the Argentineans was future Spurs big man Fabricio Oberto. Aside from having a fairly cool name, Fabricio had no identifiable skills. He was not athletic, he was not particularly tall, he was a terrible shooter, an average rebounder etc…the list goes on. Seriously, watch his “highlight reel” below. Yet Fabricio was integral to both the 2004 Gold medal and later the 2007 Spurs title because he was happy to screen and cut all game long, without ever asking for post touches, or shots, or whatever else. By 2007, Oberto was probably the best big man cutter I’d seen this decade, which is no surprise given how much practise he’d had at it. He was the personification of ‘role player’, a player type that became more and more important as the decade wore on.

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Now faced with two confronting defeats in the space of three months, NBA decision-makers began to change the way they looked at the game; the way they developed players. Not only did the role player become ever-important, but the superstars themselves morphed into something entirely different, or faced being left behind. Paul Pierce is perhaps the best example of it. He transformed from a selfish but talented scorer into one of the most complete players in the league. His priorities changed, largely because the league’s priorities were changing.

Winning was being rewarded more and more through all-star game births to good players on great teams over great players on shit teams. Jerry Colangelo was brought in to oversee the transformation of the USA national team into a cohesive unit, and the experiences those players shared on the USA team bled back out into the whole NBA. Young stars spoke more and more about being leaders and teammates rather than simply being happy stuffing the box score. Certainly, the influx of unselfish stars since 2003 has helped the cause. But it’s presumptuous to believe that this course was inevitable. It required two entirely unexpected results, two triumphs of team over talent just months apart, to jolt the NBA from its streetballish ways.

Part 2: You say it best when you say nothing at all, will be up in a couple of days.

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