Greatness is fleeting, so enjoy stars in their prime while you can

Greatness is fleeting, so enjoy stars in their prime while you can

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 busted. 

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 player.

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.

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