New kids rising on playoff block - NBC Sports

New kids rising on playoff block
With young guns eager to dominate in playoffs, it may be curtains on a generation of stars
AP and Getty Images
Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Rajon Rondo top a list of youthful talent that figures to dominate the playoffs for years to come, writes NBCSports.com contributor Ira Winderman.
April 25, 2012, 9:04 pm

During those frantic days with the league's marquee franchises sequestered in Chicago, the great divide, or at least division of premium free-agent talent, seemingly was conquered, albeit with a few shuttle flights to Cleveland as part of the process.

It essentially was the NBA's Potsdam Conference, the power players of the league partitioned.

The Heat would get LeBron James and Chris Bosh, while also keeping Dwyane Wade. The Knicks would get Amare Stoudemire. The Bulls would land Carlos Boozer.

Those would be the faces of the NBA Finals for years to come.

Or not.

When the NBA playoffs open, it will be a story about more than traditional powers and traditional players.

The kids are coming, and they might be staying in the championship mix for a while.

Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden aren't going anywhere any time soon.

Rudy Gay and Mike Conley could have Memphis opponents singing the blues for a while.

Ty Lawson has the Nuggets playing at pace.

Roy Hibbert, figuratively, is the next big thing in Indiana.

Blake Griffin has the Clippers at heretofore unrealized heights.

And it's not just the individual new blood.

It's the perennial contenders infused with the possibilities of youth.

It's Rajon Rondo emerging as the definitive leader in Boston, after playing mostly as afterthought during the Celtics' most recent championship run.

It's Kawhi Leonard providing the youth that kept Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan fresh during the regular season in San Antonio.

It's Andrew Bynum proving every bit as essential for the Lakers as Kobe.

The kids? They're all right, having taken flight.

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For now the playoff promos remain Wade, LeBron, Bosh, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki. And that's fine, too.

Every star, after all, deserves a curtain call.

But the question is whether it's curtains for a generation of stars, whether this already has come to be viewed as LeBron's last chance, Kobe's last legs, Duncan's last hurrah.

"Every young player goes through it," Rockets coach and former playoff mainstay Kevin McHale says. "I don't know if it's the changing of the guard.

"It just so happens that a lot of young players are playing and playing well, and their teams are doing well. And the playoffs are when you get your exposure in this league."

That, to a degree, makes this somewhat of a coming out for the likes of Conley, Hibbert and, to a degree, even Leonard.

"That's what you play for," McHale says of getting to the postseason stage. "And I don't care how old you are, if you've got a main role on a good team, you've got to go perform, and they are."

To McHale, who eventually ceded his own playoff stage, it merely is part of NBA evolution, and not necessarily any type of youth revolution.

"Bill Russell still isn't playing, the last time I looked," he says. "So I assume someone new is going to start playing in the playoffs."

Yet much of the new playoff blood find themselves part of ensemble teams, not the superstar-driven teams expected to dominate the next generation, be it what the Celtics did with their Big Three, what the Heat were anticipating to do with their Big Three or even what Kobe, Dirk or Derrick Rose were expected to continue doing.

While Griffin is the hype with the Clippers, he's not necessarily their best player. With the Grizzlies, there essentially are five best players in the starting lineup, similar to what Lawson plays alongside of in Denver. Then there are the Pacers, where Hibbert stands in the middle of Frank Vogel's wonderful ensemble approach.

And that's the thing about these playoff neophytes: They're not only coming in droves, but they're coming in superbly constructed packages, to a degree the young front-office blood of Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Masai Ujiri in Denver, Neil Olshey with the Clippers putting team first.

For those who thought they had it figured out during those fateful days in Chicago in July 2010, and for those who opted to sign on as complementary pieces with the Heat, Bulls and Knicks following that free-agency free-for-all, it's all about holding on, forestalling the youth movement.

"I don't think it's the last hurrah for teams like us, teams with perhaps closing windows," Heat swingman Mike Miller says. "But I think you realize you only have a few opportunities when it's your turn.

"Definitely, for guys that have been in the league for a long period of time, you realize the talent level is stacked with a bunch of young talent, so you've got to get it now."

Because the kids are coming. And the playoffs are here. And youth just might about to be served.

"I mean, you knew it's got to happen at some point," Miller says. "There's a lot of young talent, which means the NBA's in good hands. Hopefully, at the end of the day, the Finals don't have new blood in it, at least in the East."

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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