The 2021-22 NBA campaign has been a Battle Royale-esque affair
through the first third of the season, with seemingly 90% of the
league jostling for postseason positioning. The Cleveland Cavaliers
have popped, Indiana is potentially hitting reset, Memphis has been
on a tear without Ja Morant (7-1) and DeMar DeRozan is making
off-ball rotations on defense. Very little has been certain or
expected in an inspiring start to the year.
Every game I watch, I seem to simultaneously understand more,
but know less. So much is changing and evolving each game on a
macro- and micro-scale. While my opinions on franchises and players
continuously blossom, one thought has constantly reverberated in my
mind: Greatness is fleeting.
I’ve mostly found myself contemplating this with each passing
Los Angeles Lakers game I watch. Anthony Davis is having a good
year and will undoubtedly be an All-Star barring health, and all I
can think about is how he’s not AD. He is in body and person, but
not in essence. Those rotations at the rim, a half-step later. His
feet on the perimeter, not quite as nimble. He seems tired and
fatigued, and is just moving slower in general.
Davis is having his lowest impact season defensively since his
second year in the league, per Dunks and Threes’ EPM. It’s worth
noting, as well, that the surrounding talent in Los Angeles does
him no favors, but that’s only part of the equation.
Flashback to 2019-20 season, the Orlando Bubble and an NBA title
for the Lakers. Davis was getting mentioned as potentially the best
player in the world. He’d hit his stride and then some offensively,
and was rivaled only by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid as
bigs with the highest level of two-way impact.
A slew of injuries and an onslaught of games over the past two
years have seemingly taken a toll. At the expense of sounding
pessimistic, it genuinely raises concerns about whether or not
Davis will hit that level again, and that’s what’s so wild to me.
AD is still one of the very best players in the world, and all the
basketball world can talk about is how he’s underperforming. It’s
not necessarily unwarranted considering the standard he’s built for
himself in his play throughout his career. The starkness in change
is just hard to cast aside. He hit that very pinnacle for a few
brief months and there was an immediate, “He’s here!” crowning
(that was deserved), but was unable to maintain that mantle.
What makes the matter more disheartening is that it’s nobody's
fault, it just *is*. There’s a defeating resonance in the notion
that Davis may never reach those heights again as a player despite
his best efforts.
Injuries and time are equally damning. I never reached remotely
similar heights as an athlete, and dealing with recurring injuries
and their fallout was the most trying time in my life. I don’t
intend to make a comparison, but applying my own experience to
those on a grander scale is startling in looking at how these
scenarios play out. It’s one thing to have everything derailed
before the train even departs on your career; it’s another to be in
the throes of your everyday life as a professional.
You go from spending all of your time focused on what’s ahead
and preparing for tomorrow, to hoping you will be able to do what
was once status quo at the same level after six months of rehab.
That everyday grind and repetition that built you and was your
daily engine screeches to a halt because the transmission is
You’re not prepared for it, it just happens. When you finally do
get back, you’re not really back. You’re scrambling to
regain your condition, you’re lagging in workouts. You might start
working overtime to see if you can cut down recovery time. Maybe
you have a setback. And even if you do everything right, you might
never move your feet with quite the same speed, or regain that
quarter-second of timing that made you a Defensive Player of the
Year candidate — not because you don’t see the drive, but because
your body can’t move and react in the same way it once did.
(And for the record, Kevin Durant returning to MVP level form
after his Achilles injury is an impressive abnormality that should
not be expected.)
Michael Porter Jr. signed a max contract after a career year
last season. His year ended abruptly, and his future is possibly
altered due to a back injury that was clearly hampering him in the
nine games he played this year (the infamous missed dunk in
transition). The potential of suffering a significant injury has
loomed over his career as darkly as his budding potential has been
bright. Porter had back surgery during his sole season at Missouri
prior to the draft and missed his entire rookie year. Hopefully,
with time and rehab, he can return to who he’s blossomed into as a
Kemba Walker was an All-Star two seasons ago and now is fully
out of the rotation in New York. Once one of the great paint-touch
artists in the league, Walker’s knees have degraded to the point
where consistent dribble penetration isn’t in the cards. His
percentage of shots taken at the rim has dropped by 10% since his
All-NBA campaign in 2018-19 per Cleaning the Glass.
So often it takes injuries or inopportune events unfolding to
remember that athletes are human. It’s a necessary reminder that
perfection is an impossible achievement. Greatness is fleeting, and
reminiscing on recent history and the evolution of timelines pushes
me to admire those apex moments with greater appreciation.
As much as we desire and long for the promise of potential and
growth, it’s worth stopping to breathe in the amazing things these
players are doing presently, because the context of the present
could be drastically different in the intermediate future.