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Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard make their postseason debuts, though not against each other.
New Arrivals To The Playoff Party
NEW YORK, April 18-- Raptors forward Chris Bosh and Magic center Dwight Howard finally got their invitations to the postseason party and they both have RSVP-ed "yes." (They also asked if they could bring along a few friends.)
But if recent history is any indication, they will be home by curfew (at least they won't have to worry about waking up their parents).
Bosh and Howard will make their NBA Playoff debuts this week, which is just the next step in their development as franchise players. Bosh, who just turned 23 years old less than a month ago, is finishing up his fourth NBA season while Howard, in his third season, only turned 21 back in December. Yet while neither guy was old enough to vote in the last U.S. Presidential election (though Bosh was in Toronto when Canada swore in its new Prime Minister back in February), both young All-Stars carry the weight of their teams on their back with alacrity and will be looked to as leaders when the postseason begins.
The Raptors last appeared in the Playoffs in 2002 and the Magic's last trip to the NBA's second season came in 2003. Both teams fell short of the playoffs the next season, thus earning the lottery pick that landed them Bosh and Howard. From that day on, the two have been placed at the center of their teams' re-building efforts and deserve the credit for bringing their teams back into contention. This season, the Toronto Raptors won the Atlantic Division and secured the third seed in the Eastern Conference while the Orlando Magic nailed down the eighth and final spot in the East.
But many of the recent younger stars have struggled to lead their teams past the first or second round in their first postseason appearances. So what will they face when they get there (pressure unlike any they have ever experienced in their basketball careers) and how will they respond (they are both All-Stars for a reason)?
Two Roads, One Destination
With home court advantage in the first round, Bosh and the Raptors have a much better chance at advancing past the first round than Howard's Magic. But neither has very much big-game experience.
With only one season at Georgia Tech and no NCAA Tournament experience, Bosh's last meaningful postseason game came more than five years ago while he was still a senior at Lincoln High School in Dallas and led his school to the No. 1 ranking in the country and the USA Today National Championship (a perfect 40-0 season!).
He was selected fourth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2003 NBA Draft, behind future All-Stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony (and Howard's much-improved teammate, Darko Milicic) and one pick ahead of Dwyane Wade. Bosh and the Raptors struggled through his first few years as he learned the ways of the NBA in the shadow of Vince Carter (who wasn't patient enough to wait around as Bosh developed). When Carter was sent to the Nets in December of 2004 (yes, it was that long ago already), Bosh was handed the reins to the franchise and anointed as its new leader. He has matured into a two-time All-Star and was a member of the 2006 U.S. World Championship team that won the bronze medal (one of the more painful turpitudes in recent memory).
Howard was also on that team (both guys only averaged 13 minutes per game), yet has even less experience in big games than Bosh (those FIBA games were his most meaningful a player). As the Magic must go on the road and play the top seeded Detroit Pistons, Howard faces a tougher challenge than Bosh. Though Howard also knows a thing or two about meeting challenges as his road to the NBA stardom took a more direct route.
Winner of the 2004 Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award, the Morgan Wooten High School Player of the Year Award, the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award and the McDonald’s National High School Player of the Year honor (and voted Most Likely To Succeed by his graduating class), Howard was still a bit of a surprise top overall pick in the Draft. He became the first player in NBA history directly out of high school to start all 82 games during his rookie season and the youngest player to average a double-double over the course of a season (not your average teenager).
After two full seasons under his belt, the Atlanta-area native received his first NBA All-Star selection as a reserve on the Eastern Conference squad for the 2007 NBA All-Star Game. (He finished the game with 20 points and 12 rebounds, but the East got badly trounced.)
Bosh and Howard are a part of the new generation of NBA superstars who have already been given a lot of responsibility at a young age and who will ultimately lead the league well into the next decade. But like many of their peers learned (and are still learning), success in the postseason is not guaranteed right away.
In fact, when looking at recent postseason debuts of several comparable young stars of their ilk (What is an ilk, anyway?) and generation, the odds are that both Bosh and Howard will fall short of any immediate playoff glory (and probably a few times at that) before (and if ever) achieving significant success. Most young stars have to pay their dues, endure the downtrodden vicissitudes of losing and learn about playoff heartache before they win (the NBA Playoffs have always been ruled by veterans).
LeBron James made the playoffs for the first time last season, his third year in the league, and averaged 30.8 ppg and 8.1 rpg in leading the Cavaliers to the second round. Gilbert Arenas did not play in the postseason until the 2005 Playoffs, his fourth season in the NBA, but the Wizards also lost in the second round and followed that up with a first round exit last year.
Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets have not made it past the first round in his first three trips to the playoffs, playing in a total of four, five and five games in each of those years. Anthony has also seen a marked drop-off from his regular season production to his postseason numbers in each season. And last season, his seventh in the NBA, All-Star Elton Brand finally made his playoff debut with the Clippers and took L.A. to the second round. In 12 games, he averaged 25.4 ppg and 10.3 rpg. 4-1 win over Denver in the first round before falling to Phoenix in a memorable (though I had to look it up) 7-game series.
Elsewhere around the league, the Dallas Mavericks did not make the playoffs until Dirk Nowitzki's third season (his first as the go-to guy), and the team lost in the second round in each of his first two playoff appearances. In wasn't until his sixth trip to the postseason that the Mavs were finally ready to go all the way and make the Finals. Tracy McGrady has five playoff appearances in his eight previous seasons, yet despite averaging 30 ppg, his teams (he has been with Toronto, Orlando and Houston) have never made it past the first round. His first trip to the postseason came with the Raptors in his third NBA season, and they struggled. McGrady averaged only 16.7 ppg as Toronto was swept by the Knicks.
There is a learning curve for almost everyone, no matter how talented you are. Young genius still needs to be cultivated no matter the craft.
Rock legend Bruce Springsteen didn't achieve musical genius status until his third album (though his live performances in the early 70's were epic bouts of brilliance, or so I hear), a little collection of songs that became the "Born to Run" album. Vincent Van Gogh languished in poverty for nearly a decade in Belgium, sketching anything he could and learning how to paint before finding success in Holland and France. Tom Hanks spent two years doing "Bosom Buddies" (and a memorable appearance Alex's drifter uncle in "Family Ties") before making a Splash, hitting it Big and taking home Oscars just about every year. (Even the inimitable Tori Spelling was relegated to a supporting role for years in "Saved By The Bell" before achieving superstardom in "Beverly Hills: 90210.) And how many big playoff games did Peyton Manning and John Elway lose before winning the big one? These things take time.
The obvious exceptions are Dwyane Wade, who led the Miami Heat to a title in his third season, and Kobe Bryant. Wade has participated in the Playoffs in each of this three previous seasons, but (suffice it to say), neither Bosh nor Howard has yet played with a veteran cast of supporting characters. (Can you dig it?) The best center of the generation, Shaquille O'Neal, is the sacrosanct thread that Wade and Bryant had in common in winning titles.
But while Bryant made the Playoffs right away in his career, he had not yet emerged as a the star that he is today. In fact, Bryant did not even start in a playoff game until his third season. (He averaged fewer than 10.0 ppg in those first two seasons, but has been at 20 or higher every year since.) Tim Duncan, another top overall pick, won an NBA title in his second season and was the team's leading scorer. But he had plenty of support from veterans in the way of David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson to back him up (Howard has Grant Hill; Bosh has... um... Morris Peterson).
In the past 20 years, four first overall picks (all post players, mind you) have won NBA titles: O'Neal, Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Glenn Robinson (who finally won in his last year in the league as a role player with the Spurs in 2005).
But as younger post players, neither Bosh nor Howard will have the ball in their hands as much as a guard might in a similar situation. Howard is still continuing to improve on his limited shooting range and low free throw conversion percentage (58.7% this season), which begs the question of whether or not he can be a go-to player down the stretch. It is unlikely he would be called on to take a big shot unless he converts a put-back off a miss. Bosh has become a more consistent outside shooter but remains defensively pervious outside the post.
It could still be a few years before Bosh or Howard really become the life of the party, and that's okay. In just a few short seasons, Bosh and Howard have distinguished themselves as exemplary young leaders who will (likely) return to the Playoffs many more times before their careers are over. But while stars are made in the regular season, superstars are born in in the Playoffs. They each have a long way to go before that status is confirmed.