The three guys on the right have controlled the West for well over a decade, but now that's all over.
As I was watching the Thunder finish driving the knife into our collective hearts last night, I began to think about how strange it was to see this young upstart team going to the Finals, and how their road to get there closed the door on a fascinating chapter of NBA history. Let's take a look at what they accomplished by storming through the Western Conference playoffs, and the fallen hoops empires they've left in their wake.
For the last 13 years, there have been 3 teams that have consistently dominated the league, all of them from the Western Conference: The Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks. Since 1999, those 3 teams represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals every single year. That's 13 consecutive seasons that one of three was in the Finals, and they won 10 championships between them. The rivalries developed during this extended period of inter-dynastic war led to some of my favorite moments as a Spurs fan, and I'm sure Mavericks and Lakers fans can probably agree to having some great memories of the Age of Tim, Kobe, and Dirk. As those teams have grown longer in the tooth with each passing season, sports media have alternately declared each of them "done". But, the Western triumvurate just kept coming back, kept winning and kept all outside competitors at bay.
It was a good ride, but even great things must come to an end. The old order has fallen away, and a new order is being established. This new order is the dominance of a single team over the rest of the Western Conference (if not the entire league). Whether new challengers will rise to threaten them is unclear, but none of the members of the old order are in much of a position to challenge them.
The Lakers are in luxury tax hell for the next couple of years, and won't get out unless they amnesty Kobe (which they won't do, because their savings would be outweighed by the loss of merchandise sales). They do have a great young player to build around in Andrew Bynum, but they're probably going to keep declining until Kobe's current contract comes off the books. There are also a lot of rumors going around about the franchise being in turmoil because of the transition to Jim Buss as the guy who makes the final decisions. The younger Buss, by most accounts, wants to aggressively cut salary, and doesn't particularly care for Kupchak. It Kupchak leaves, the Lakers could be bad for a while. But, if there's one franchise that doesn't stay down long (besides the Spurs), it's the Lakers. They'll be back, the only question is how long it will take.
The Spurs, as we all know, are currently the best of the 3, but with the oldest franchise player. Like the Lakers, the Spurs have a very talented young player to build around in Kawhi Leonard, but he's probably never going to be a first option on a championship team, so they'll need more great pieces to compete in this new era. Unlike the Lakers, the Spurs built their with an eye on the luxury tax, and will have some big contracts coming off the books in the summer of 2013. However, where the Spurs truly excel is in drafting great talent, and with no 2012 first-rounder, they're going to have to wait a while to get more good young pieces to go with Kawhi. To get an infusion of talent for next year, they would have to make a trade, and to truly set up a good core for the future, they would likely have to break up the Big 3. If there are two guys who have to make tough decisions over the next few months, they are Gregg Popovich and RC Buford. I don't envy them at the moment, but I do trust them to do what's best for the team.
The Mavericks are in the least enviable position of the bunch. After finally breaking through to win a title in 2011, they decided to forego re-signing two of the most important role players that contributed to their run. However, with Lamar Odom gone, they will have somewhere around $18M in cap space this summer, enough to sign a franchise player like Deron Williams. But the reason they have so much cap space is that Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and a slew of bench players are coming off the books. Dallas has only 8 players under contract for next year, and that's only IF they decide to keep Vince Carter and Brandan Wright. The #17 pick in this year's draft is the only tool besides that cap space they have available, and they've got a lot to replace. Maybe they get lucky and find their next great young player, but it's hard to imagine the Mavs being in contention next season.
And maybe it's for the best that none of the three look like contenders for next season. The Thunder, the young upstarts that knocked all three off on their way to the Finals, are in great shape for next season. The staggering amount of young talent on their roster right now is not going to take a big hit in the offseason. They'll likely lose Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher and Royal Ivey this summer, but with only $62M commited for next season, they could easily add another good piece with the MLE. They've also got the rights to a young German center named Tibor Pleiss, who did a good job as a post scorer and rebounder in Euroleague (which is the only thing they're missing!) this season. If that weren't enough, Eric Maynor will be coming back from his injury to provide them with a solid backup at the point gaurd spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't going away next year, and the frightening thing is, they're nowhere near their peak. With Spurs-graduate Sam Presti at the controls, OKC will probably be the favorites to win the West for the next several years. I'm in awe at what he's already accomplished, and I don't think he's done yet.
We here at PtR will have a lot more to say about the Spurs offseason, and what they can do to improve, over the next few months. But let's take a moment to remember the greatest era of the Spurs, and the great rivals they had along the way.