Youth is coming in the NBA, and not waiting for LeBron James and Co. to pass the torch

You never know when it will happen: the moment where young legs gain enough wisdom and the experienced rely too much on guile and muscle memory instead of a full tank.

We’d like to think we know it when we see it — when LeBron James announced to the NBA at age 22 he was carrying a less-than-stellar team to the Finals, or when Kobe Bryant sent his idol Michael Jordan off into the sunset with a 50-ball on his ledger.

Those seminal moments stand out so much, it’s hard to pinpoint until it’s well past the point. But it feels like we’re in the middle of a cyclone in the NBA, the mantle not being passed respectfully but snatched forcefully, the way it should be.

It’s early, and matters can certainly turn on its head. However, it feels like a sea change is occurring, finally. We’ve been marveling so much at the individual greatness of James, some 21 years into a storybook career, that other star players of his era are aging gracefully without the fanfare.

Grace, though, only accounts for so much. Grading Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry on a curve relative to the ghosts of previous generations is all well and good. But to this new crop of teams and players popping up, it’s James, Durant and Curry who are the ghosts — ghosts with big targets on their backs.

The respect is there, but the fear has seemingly faded, at least for the teams who employ them. Predicting which team will emerge year to year is educated guessing. It’s hard to project which players will go from having star talent to being superstars, those who produce like stars and then suddenly, winning like stars with an ability to recognize a game is on the line, then taking it.

And never letting go.

It shows more in the expectations of the veterans who’ve won and risen to the occasion more times than we can count, without paying much mind to their ages, the tread on those tires. It shows when looking at James Harden in year 15 (!) and believing he should be able to summon the player who scored 30 in 32 straight games way back in 2019 — the second-longest streak in NBA history.

It shows when seeing Klay Thompson and wondering what’s wrong, pondering when he’ll emerge from this puzzling shooting slump to start the season. The injuries and atrophy is acknowledged, but it’s more lip service than true understanding that playing this long and having so many playoff runs come with a price.

And the bill is coming due.

The standings look familiar enough, and the teams who are surprising feel like they have staying power. There's Minnesota — yes, the Timberwolves of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, atop the Western Conference a half-game ahead of the champion Denver Nuggets.

It's jokes when Gobert gets put in a sleeper hold by Draymond Green, and an eyebrow raise when Anthony Edwards chomps at Green a couple days before, taking exception to a fast break foul.

But lost in the theater was the basketball, when Edwards scored the next 10 points to break open a close game in the fourth quarter to allow the Timberwolves to win comfortably on the road.

It was obvious to point to Ja Morant and Zion Williamson as the players with the game and charisma to lead the next generation, but their own respectiveissues have prevented that promise from fulfillment.

There haven't been any other reports of new trouble from Morant while on his 25-game suspension, but you can't assume anything with him unfortunately. And every game Williamson is on the floor for the Pelicans feels like a pleasant surprise while waiting for the inevitable anvil to drop.

Edwards, to this point, has no such drawbacks. He's just a swaggering ball of moxie and hops who puts 26-6-5 on the stat sheet nearly every night and has doubled his win shares per 48 minutes this year from last.

And he’s someone the NBA should feel safe marketing and building around, even if he plays in Minnesota.

Right underneath them, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder we kept joking were two years away from being two years away, the timeshare presentation people kept paying into but nobody actually saw.

In the shadow of the Warriors squeezing one more run when the West was disjointed and Nuggets finally being healthy enough to make it to June, the Thunder endured just two straight losing seasons before being back to relevancy.

It’s Curry chuckling when the Thunder’s version of Stretch Armstrong, Chet Holmgren, swats Curry’s layup out of bounds unexpectedly Saturday night. But was it a laughing matter when Holmgren interrupted an Andrew Wiggins revival with a contested triple to send the game into overtime?

Probably not.

That's not to say the old guard won't be heard from, or that they'll simply allow the new jacks to take over Pride Rock. That's not how this works at all. There will be winning streaks and battles won, alignment all over the standings between now and April.

James putting up another magnificent performance against the surprising Houston Rockets is both a reminder of how formidable the Rockets are turning into that it requires James summoning his finite greatness, but also the finite greatness James has — that body only has so many more nights left in it.

The more he does it now, the less he’ll have when the Lakers truly need it. And then, the youth will pounce.

Durant’s production (31.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists) looks like it did during his lone MVP season in 2013-14, except he’s more efficient on offense, shooting 49% from 3 and still defending at a high level — blocking Utah forward Lauri Markkanen’s shot at the two-overtime buzzer Sunday night.

But it's to keep Phoenix afloat while Bradley Beal rests his aching back as opposed to buoying the Suns to the top of the West. And it's worth noting Durant just turned 35 — not 25 in his MVP season.

It’s just a reminder that nothing lasts forever. All the training and medicine, load managing and knowledge can only hold off the inevitable for so long. The old guys may very well be the last ones standing come May and June, but it’s no longer a certainty — which adds to the intrigue of the league.

The so-called talent boon that has many calling for expansion will suffer some unintended consequences soon after. It’s not so much that there’s more talent than ever; the talent is just hanging around longer than it did in modern NBA history.

But there’s a clear difference between the respected players who are still effective and the ones who are coming for the throne, and doing so mercilessly.

It’s the way it should be.

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