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Young Star

Meet NBA's giant killers

DEFINITELY MAYBE - Carl Francis M. Ramirez -

It used to be that the NBA playoffs was where established superstars and the old guard ruled. It was where the grizzled veterans and the NBA’s marquee names threw their weight around.

In this year’s playoffs, though, it’s the young guns, the hungry stars of tomorrow, who seem to be the ones ready to pounce on the old guard and lay their claim on NBA hardware. Teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Portland Trailblazers and Oklahoma City Thunder look incredibly dangerous, especially to a top seed that’s already standing on shaky ground (like the Lakers, Nuggets and Celtics, to name a few).

So how did these former cellar-dwellers and perpetual losers reinvent themselves into potential giant-killers? Here’s a breakdown:

Charlotte Bobcats

The ‘cats are appearing in their very first playoffs in franchise history. After failing to strike gold with young prospects like Emeka Okafor (second overall pick; never played in an All-Star game) and Adam Morrison (third overall pick; blew out his knee), Charlotte found the winning formula from an old face, legendary coach Larry Brown. Under Brown, the Bobcats reinvented themselves from what seemed like a team of collegiate stars who never seemed to fit in with the pros to a tough, gritty and fearless basketball team. Lead by their signature combo of Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, the no-nonsense approach of this team has made it one of the league’s most dangerous opponents. The Bobcats have already shown that they can beat the likes of the LA Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is one team that will give any of the East’s top seeds problems come the first round. 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks do not have an All-Star this season. They are the only team in the 2010 playoffs that can claim that. What they do have, though, is a rookie point guard (Brandon Jennings) who is already one of the most dangerous with his dribble, a big Aussie (Andrew Bogut) who can board and score as good as any center in the league, and a coach (Scott Skiles) who constantly preaches the importance of hustle and hard work. The starless, all-heart, no-frills approach of this Bucks team is refreshing to watch. Backed by rabid fans, this team is clearly the surprise team in the East, having already notched 45 wins despite losing their best player in Michael Redd for the entire season. 

Chicago Bulls

It has been an up-and-down season for the young Bulls. Hampered by constant injuries to their best players (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah) and the trade of swingman John Salmons to the Bucks, the Bulls have had to deal with change all season. Despite that, and despite their much-maligned coach Vinny Del Negro (who was nearly fired early into this season), the Bulls have managed to put up a decent record and have shown the ability to rise above their limitations. Of any other team in the league, the Chicago Bulls arguably have the brightest future ahead of them. With a bonafide superstar point guard in Rose, and with Deng and Noah to flank him, the Bulls have a young core that can rival all others in terms of talent. Add that to the cap room they’ll have this offseason, in which they can sign a marquee name (like LeBron James or Chris Bosh, for example), and you have one heck of a future. But even if you just look at the present, Rose, Deng and Noah — if healthy — can lead this Bulls team to a very competitive series against their budding rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Portland Trailblazers

When you lose more than 300 man-games due to injury, chances are your team isn’t doing so well. Also consider that these injuries have sidelined your best player, Brandon Roy, your only two centers at the time, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, and three of your best swingmen in Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and Nicolas Batum. Even your coach Nate McMillan wasn’t spared, rupturing his Achilles tendon during an intense practice. You add all that lost time, you’re headed for a disastrous season. 

Wrong.

The Blazers have found a way to keep winning, despite all the men they’ve lost to injury. Led by crafty old vet Andre Miller and young big man LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have not only managed to stay afloat, they’ve managed to put together a season where you’d think nobody was hurt. This is a testament to the coaching of Nate McMillan, who has historically always done more with less, especially with young teams, and the roster assembled by GM Kevin Pritchard. The Blazers’ young, deep core of players allowed prospects like Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster to step up in the absence of others. Portland was able to reinvent themselves on the fly, even dragging Juwan Howard out of semi-retirement and trading for Marcus Camby to bolster their thinning frontcourt. As it stands, the Blazers face more injury woes with Brandon Roy tearing his meniscus just before the playoffs. But if any team can succeed without their injured star, the Blazers have proven that it’s them. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant is the league’s Most Valuable Player not named LeBron James. Durant, who is barely 22, has almost singlehandedly led the team to the playoffs despite being the only dependable scoring option. He leads the league in scoring, at 30, a game and looks like he barely even breaks a sweat while doing it. If you want to talk reinvention, the transformation from the Ray Allen/Rashard Lewis-led Seattle Supersonics to the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder is right up there with Madonna suddenly developing a British accent. This team looks nothing like the old team who jacked threes all game long. This is a team built on length, athleticism and youth, and head coach Scott Brooks has used those things to deploy a defensive gameplan that’s one of the best in the league. 

The Thunder is set to face the LA Lakers in the first round, where the dominant scorer of old, Kobe Bryant, will face off with the dominant scorer of the future, Kevin Durant. That will be the first-round playoff series to watch. It’s a classic battle between the old guard and the new school, the giant and the giant-killer. 

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For questions, comments or corrections, please email me at carlfrancisramirez@gmail.com.

ADAM MORRISON ANDRE MILLER ANDREW BOGUT BRANDON ROY BULLS CHICAGO BULLS DENG AND NOAH KEVIN DURANT TEAM
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