In the early 90’s Magic and Bird tossed the keys to NBA dominance to Michael Jordan. About ten years later, Jordan tossed them to Kobe and Duncan. Today, in the 2011 post season, we are again seeing the keys be handed down. The 2000’s were dominated by the Lakers and Spurs, with the Celtics having a nice run toward the end, but if this post season has taught us anything, it’s that we are on the verge of change.
With the loss of the Lakers and Spurs, Denver, and Utah, the West is wide open for the next ten years. Many thought that OKC would quickly step into the contender roll, but they have some glaring alpha dog issues and have yet to prove their playoff pedigree. As much as Westbrook helped them in the regular season, he is doing his best to bring them down in the post season with his refusal to pass the ball. Even worse, Scott Brooks and Durant seemed too sheepish to step in, and have let their post season turn into a Russell Westbrook brickfest. He finally had an efficient triple double in game seven (weird how you can rack up the assists when you pass to Durant), but I have a feeling that we will again see robin masquerading as Batman in the Western Conference Finals.
Aside from the Thunder, there aren’t any teams that even come close to looking like future contenders in the west. Dallas is playing fantastic ball, but they are very old and nearing a rebuilding process. Portland has some great pieces, but seriously lacks future depth at the center and point guard positions. A healthy Oden could be a huge factor, but the chances of that seem pretty slim. Memphis looks composed and tough, but most of that is due to Randolph, who decided to get serious toward the tail end of his career. I know there is a lot of speculation of the Lakers netting Dwight Howard next year, but I don’t see that happening. Signing him as a free agent in 2012 is impossible due to their lack of cap flexibility, and a trade seems unlikely. They have far less to offer Orlando than other teams on Howard’s short list and most likely any possible trade would involve the Lakers taking on Gilbert Arenas’ contract. I don’t see how that is feasible for a team with a 92 million dollar salary next year. Even if Kobe could get used to playing second fiddle (a stretch), Arenas would be an enormous chemistry killer.
One team that could be on the verge is the Clippers. I know that sounds like ridiculous and Blake Griffin will probably blow out his knee and they will become lottery bound for the next ten years, but if he can stay healthy and doesn’t bolt to a more sane team they have a good shot at contending in the coming years. They have a fantastic young scoring guard in Eric Gordon and some good role players. They are a big free agent away from being a top team in the west, and are already the sexiest team in LA. If they could get Howard, Chris Paul, or Deron Williams through trade or free agency, their future will be extremely bright.
The East seems a bit more set in stone. Boston is too old and Orlando was a failed experiment. That leaves two realistic contenders in Chicago and Miami, who both have several years of dominance ahead of them. I know Atlanta has been surprising in these playoffs, but they are going to get rid of Josh Smith and I can’t see a move that will keep them in the top 3 Eastern Conference teams. I think Philly will move up to that 3rd spot within the next two years once their young players get more experience.
Chicago right now can do the things defensibly that made Boston the champs. They stop transition defense, they get offensive boards, and they will foul hard. Offensively, Rose will prevent you from ever getting off your heels. If he doesn’t have to take 30+ shots that team is unbeatable, all this was obvious in game one.
What wasn’t as apparent is that Miami is also a great defensive team and is 3rd in rebounding. They will make adjustments, most likely running James at point for long stretches. This is great for fans because we get to watch as an undoubtedly strong future rivalry forms. These teams will be trying to figure out how to beat each other for the next 8 years, most likely with each winning multiple titles.
These playoffs are very special. We are now in the conference finals without LA, San Antonio, or Boston. Dallas is the most experienced, but they are also the most experienced at playoff chokes. The title is up for grabs, and whoever wants it most can take it and stake their claim as the team that the NBA championship will go through for the next decade.