The NBA contains the best narratives. That’s why I love it so much. It appeals to storytellers and dreamers like me. It has the intricacies of a Steinbeck novel.
The smallest trade, relationship, team chemistry and motivation could lead to glory or disaster. Whereas in football and baseball, it seems like the most well constructed machine wins. Clearly there are exceptions to that. But, the NBA plays out like a book. There’s such clear rising and falling action, amazing character development and a whole lot of suspense.
I was a history major in college. Most of history is understanding context. Why did this lead to that? I love it! It isn't just memorizing dates. You have to understand cause and effect. Like, Theodore Roosevelt was so passionate about conservation because of the way the frontier healed his aching heart in the aftermath of his first wife's death! Seeds are constantly being planted in the NBA too.
There was so much amazing context in the Spurs fifth championship. It was a beautifully, well-constructed machine, much like a great football or soccer team. But, that machine wouldn’t have run smoothly without the context and chemistry. It was a wonderful story, with complex characters who fell and rose together.
The Tim Duncan era is near the end and Spurs fans should expect somewhat of a letdown in the coming years. How could they not? There are still so many reasons to be excited.
As a basketball fan, LeBron James' return to Cleveland makes the NBA a story lovers dream. Then as a Spurs fan, a 23-year-old Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP makes the next 10-12 years pretty exciting. Especially with a Pop extension, a stash of foreign prospects and a great staff of assistants.
So I got to thinking...How will the rest of this decade and 2020 look? I wanted to get a discussion going and predict the next 6 (2015-2020) NBA Champs. I'm a dreamer remember? Dreamers love to predict the endings of great narratives.
2015: A hot iron year
I think this is anybody's year, honestly. A "strike while the iron is hot year."
There are very few teams who could realistically win the title each year. I think that's due to the narrative nature of the NBA. The smallest shift could guarantee or destroy a team's chances at gold.
Since Magic Johnson was drafted in 1980, only nine franchises have won the title. The Dallas Mavericks and Sixers being the solo winner. The Lakers have won 10, the Bulls six, the Spurs five, the Celtics four and then the Heat and Pistons both have three. The Rockets hold two. That's a lot of the same franchises winning over and over. The NFL has had 15 franchises win the Super Bowl since 1980. There’s been 20 franchises that have a World Series ring.
I look at 2015 being a type of year where a random team of veterans could come in and steal a championship. We saw this happen with the 1999 Spurs, the 2004 Pistons, the 2006 Heat and the 2011 Mavericks. None of those teams won another Finals with the same cast. I defined a hot iron team as they only won one championship with that particular squad.
All of those years featured a lot of transition around the league. In 1999, it was the first post-Jordan year and a strike. The 2003-04 season featured a one man Tim act in San Antonio, a crumbling Shaq/Kobe dynamic and a league with no other superstars. Don't tell me Kevin Garnett was a superstar on level with Tim, Shaq, Kobe. Just don't.
2006 saw the Heat with a young superstar and a team of savvy veterans, but that Heat squad never even sniffed Finals air again. 2011 was a mess of a year. Derrick Rose tore his ACL, the Spurs were bounced early, the Lakers fell to pieces, the Thunder were young and LeBron was a head-case.
I don't mean to take anything away from these champions. One could even make the case the 2003 Spurs were one of these teams since The Big Three were not in true form yet. However, the Spurs went onto win more championships with that cast.
Teams have to strike while the iron is hot if they want to sneak a title in amongst the leagues dynasties.
So, the implosion of the Heat, the Cavs being in their first year, along with the Spurs track record in repeating years (more on that in a minute) and everyone else's lack of experience make 2015 a perfect potential hot iron year.
I don't think the Thunder are championship ready. If they had Harden, absolutely. They probably would have won one already. But, when they traded Harden in 2012 they essentially started over. Then when Westbrook got hurt in 2013, they lost a year of getting to gel. 2014 was their first crack at it as currently constructed and I wasn't impressed. The ThunderSonics seem like they've picked up a lot of bad habits. Bad habits that weren't there from 2010-2012. They were a Reggie Jackson miracle from not making the second round and a Clippers collapse from not making the Western Conference Finals.
Scott Brooks is inept at running an offense and Durant still gets too easily pushed to spots on the floor that he doesn't feel comfortable in. All the while, Westbrook tries to take over the game with no help. I cannot say that Westbrook deserves the lion's share of the blame. He is a shooting guard playing point guard, for sure. However, his coach doesn't call plays! I think he could be a fantastic point guard if he was given some direction. With his freakish athleticism, how can you blame him for just going for it?
I don't think they're mentally ready to be champions yet. I find no evidence that suggests they will take the myserious "leap" next year. My prediction is that the Thunder won't win a championship at all. Bill Simmons had a great article during the second round that compared the Thunder to the 2002 Kings. He asked if we were witnessing the Thunder's last shot? I think we are. To be examined further in the 2016 section.
Why I think the Spurs will repeat: The Spurs stumbled through their other big three championship runs. Definitely in 2003 and 2005. Not so much in 2007, but the Robert Horry hip-check thing happened.
Then, the 2014 Spurs played the best basketball I've ever witnessed. They dominated the two best teams that had the two best players in the league. This wasn't a road that featured the Spurs struggling against the Stephon Marbury-led Suns and then beating Jason Kidd & Kenyon Martin in The Finals. These Spurs beat Dirk, then an amazing Portland duo, followed by the Durant and Westbrook tandem. Oh yeah, then they dismantled the back-to-back Finals champs.
And that same team is bringing everyone back! The Spurs have been in the process of becoming a symphony since 2011. Doesn't that mean this year they can just strap up the instruments and play?
My worthless opinion says that this was the best basketball that we've seen since the 2001 Lakers. And they repeated. I’ll go ahead and apply the transitive property that I learned in sophomore Geometry to the Spurs now. AKA Spurs repeat.
Leonard will be an All-Star. He'll have plays called for him. He'll be on a mission and have sky-high confidence. Pop will also bust out the best minute management ever.
Maybe an irrelevant point: but, Danny Green, contract year. Come on Icy/Hot!
Why I think the Spurs won't repeat: Because they just played the best basketball I have ever seen. "Wait, I thought you just said...?" I know what I said.
And it's hard to imagine that being replicated. If they do win, I can't see it being as pretty. The injury bug could bite hard next year (yes, even harder than 13-14, which was actually pretty average), because luck has been tremendously on the Spurs side in the playoffs ever since the 2011 Memphis breakdown. They've also played in June three straight seasons. That's a lot of basketball, even for a well-managed team.
Though bringing everyone back was the best decision the front office could have made, I am afraid it could lead to stagnancy. They were in such a unique position in 2014 to have everyone back that played a role in the Finals loss (Minus Gary Neal). Which meant that everyone went through the heartache together and were simultaneously furious together.
That insatiable hunger we saw the Spurs demonstrate in 2014 will be extremely hard to muster. Is the motivation to win another enough?
I can see them letting their foot up off the gas. To win next year would have to come from an enormous growth in Leonard's game. He'd have to be the Finals MVP on most nights.
MVP: LeBron James
Western Conference Finals: Spurs over Clippers (Clippers are my dark horse to win the Finals. They are a perfect hot-iron candidate. I also think next year is their last shot. I think we will see Dwyane Wade-like deterioration of CP3 after 2015.)
Eastern Conference Finals: Bulls over Cavaliers
The Finals: Spurs over Bulls in San Antonio, Game 6.
I am basing my prediction off the fact that I believe Leonard will be the Finals MVP on most nights. I think Tim and Manu are aware the end is near and they won't want to go down quietly. If they can play close to the way they played from game 7 against Dallas on, how can I not pick them? The rest of my prediction has to do with the fact that I don't think anyone else is championship ready.
I only think five teams could realistically win the championship next year. Though it might be a hot iron year, there just aren't many teams resembling a 2011 Mavericks and the like.
The Spurs, Clippers, Mavericks, Cavaliers and Thunder are the only teams I can see winning it. The Clippers and Mavericks are the hot iron teams. Maybe, just maybe I can see a fairy tale where the Bulls win it.
The Mavs might put together another 2011 run, but I think losing Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Jose Calderon will hurt their chances, even though the signing of Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler look great on paper.
As for the other Texas team? It seems unlikely the Rockets will make the Finals. They've gotten worse, losing their third best player and a lot of depth. They still can’t play D and Kevin McHale is still their coach. The Warriors, Blazers and Wizards are still too young and are pieces away completing the puzzle. I won't get into the Pacers.
If the Cavs get Kevin Love they will have an extremely convincing case to hang their first banner. However, even if they do get him, we know they will have a lot of growing up to do. Besides the 2008 Celtics, super teams don't win in their first year together.
All of these factors will create the context the Spurs need to win their sixth championship. Manu Ginobili will retire, Tim Duncan won't. Tim wouldn't give the media the satisfaction of going out with a storybook ending.
2016: The Thunder's Last Stand
The media circus in Oklahoma City will be ridiculous in 2015-2016. With LeBron firmly in Cleveland, the media and fans (like myself) will have to harp over something. It’s what we do. The story of 2016 will be whether or not Kevin Durant walks out on Russell Westbrook and the only team he's ever known.
Mike Prada of SB Nation delved into the question of Durant going home to Washington. Much to your surprise, I don't personally know Durant. Though I did stand next to him during his freshman year of college while I was interviewing AJ Abrams (the greatest McNeil Maverick ever) for our high school paper.
So I have no idea what KD is going to do. I don't know his affinity for the D.C. area versus OKC. But, I was a history major. And I think I can spot trends.
The trend in this scenario is the one that followed LeBron James up to The Decision Part One.
In 2009 it looked like the Cavs would win the Finals. They won 66 games and played the best basketball any LBJ team had ever played.
Then LeBron's supporting cast failed him against Dwight Howard and the Magic, despite a heroic performance by LeBron. They were the No. 1 seed in 2010, but something was different. He wasn't taking fake pictures of his team and he clearly fell apart against the Celtics. He was a mental wreck. He seemed bitter at the front office for thinking Shaq and Antawn Jamison were the answers.
Then he was gone.
I compare the 2009 season in Cleveland to what Kevin Durant will have experienced in OKC up to 2015-2016. A lot of bad breaks and bad front office decisions. The media is already asking him questions about Washington. And we have two seasons to play before it even happens.
Kevin Durant seems to be an emotional guy and I think he will crack in 2016, the same way LeBron did in Cleveland. I don’t think it’s a character flaw, it would happen to anybody.
I think he'll be bitter at OKC management for trading James Harden for Kevin Martin and not developing young players. There is a good chance Brooks won't be the coach in this season, but would one season be enough for KD and his new coach to really gel?
We'll see LeBron versus Kevin Durant in the Finals again. But, this will be the last time we see Kevin Durant wear a Thunder jersey.
It will be hard for him to walk away from a team with Westbrook, but how will their relationship hold up if they keep failing? Westbrook is so passionate and I don’t know how he’ll deal with two years of questions about Durant bolting. Durant could see LeBron's move to go home and realize the PR potential. He won't go to LA or New York, he won't want to appear a villain like LeBron did in going to Miami. Ultimately the weight of not having a ring will push him to Washington if John Wall and Bradley Beal keep on developing.
MVP: LeBron James
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavs over Wizards
Western Conference Finals: Thunder over Rockets
The Finals: Cavaliers over Thunder. And Cleveland burns with joy. While OKC floods with sadness.
As for the Spurs? Well, it's Tim Duncan's last year. He will be turning 40 in the playoffs. Ultimately the magic will finally end and the Spurs will have a first- or second-round exit. I can't imagine what Tim's last walk off the court in San Antonio will be like. I will weep.
2017-2018: The LeBron Domination
I'm reading a book by David Halberstam called Playing For Keeps. It's a fantastic book about Michael Jordan. It does a great job of explaining the context of Michael Jordan’s NBA and the factors that made Michael into MJ. He has a great point about the 1990's Bulls and says that they were an "Ali without a Frazier."
They lacked a truly great rival. Though they had the Jazz, the Bulls never had what the Celtics and Lakers had in the 1980s.
LeBron (an Ali) is walking into an amazing situation in Cleveland because the Fraziers are disappearing out west. The Spurs will be finally done, well, slowed down significantly. I predict OKC will be no more. Dirk and Kobe should be retired too. While Carmelo Anthony put himself in a situation in New York that doesn't scream championships and at the time this piece is being written, I can't trust the Bulls.
This period will be a unique situation where the older superstars are fading out. Durant will be on a new team and the young guys will still be, well, young. The first four Bulls finals opponents in the 90s had a sense of randomness to them. I expect the Cavs to threepeat against a random bunch of opponents from the West.
We will get the beginning of some amazing Eastern Conference Finals match-ups with Durant and LeBron. That will be epic, especially coming off their 2016 Finals matchup. The nine of you who read this are asking, why would Durant go East? Well, he has to beat LeBron for a ring anyway and doing it before the Finals might actually be easier.
If for some reason the Cavs don't gel, LeBron quits to play baseball, or the Cleveland curse strikes in a very cruel way, then these years will be perfect hot iron years. Though I don't see that being the case. These will be the years that every tear is wiped from poor Cleveland’s eyes.
MVP: LeBron wins one, Durant wins one
2017 & 2018 Champs: The Cavs
Runners Up: These are the four teams from the West that I can see in the Finals. I am ranking them in order of the likelihood that they get to the Finals in at least one of these years.
Keep in mind, this article does not predict formations of super teams, except Durant going to the Wizards. I am mostly trying to judge trends.
1) Blazers (assuming they keep Aldridge, but I maybe believe in Damian Lillard too much)
4) Whatever team Westbrook is on. If he goes home to LA and joins Blake Griffin on the Clips...forget what I said about there not being contenders in the West. Then move this team to number one.
I have no idea what the Spurs will be doing. I hope Tony Parker will still be a Spur and I assume Kawhi Leonard will be amazing. I would also bet that Kawhi STILL has cornrows. I will bet my life on the fact he still has big hands.
I think they will be Pop's last years and the Spurs will no longer have Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. They might not have Danny Green and Tiago Splitter either. It'll be different in San Antonio, I just hope everyone doesn't become Raiders fans. San Antonio Raiders? Yuck.
2019 Finals: The Durant breakthrough
Kevin Durant will be 31 years old in 2019. John Wall will be 28. Bradley Beal will be 26. Making their average age 28. In the post Jordan era, the average age on championship teams has been roughly 29. The Washington basketball team's third year with KD seems like the right time for them to break through.
So many people judge players for not winning championships when they're young. Though Michael Jordan won three titles after turning 30. Tim Duncan has had two in reality and three by this articles Miss Cleo-esque crystal ball reading. But, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson didn't win any post 30 titles. Shaq had two pre-30 and two post-30. LeBron James could have six Finals appearances and three championships by the time he turns 30. All of those players, plus Kobe Bryant had titles in their 20s.
Then you see Julius Erving, David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett all won championships after they crossed the 30 bridge. So I ask, which tier does Kevin Durant fall in? I'm sorry, but I have to believe he's on the outside of the upper echelon that Michael, LeBron, Magic, Tim, Bird, Kobe and Shaq are clearly in. Those guys, along with Kareem, The Big O and Bill Russell are a different level. The post-30 champs are all legends, but not to the same degree.
Kevin Durant will win a championship, but it coming post 30 will show that he's not quite on the shelf with Michael and the gang. He's on the next shelf.
Durant will win two or three championships. All in Washington, on great teams. Reggie Miller, Sir Charles, Karl Malone and Steve Nash would be pretty jealous.
MVP: Anthony Davis. The Pelicans will have made the playoffs a few times at this point, but by now they're knocking on the Finals door if not getting there and falling to Durant's Wizards.
Did I say that? Durant's Wizards?
Who is in as a contender this season? I think that the really young guys in the league RIGHT now make a big splash. The Sixers, Bucks and Magic are now big time contenders. Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jabari Parker and maybe Dante Exum are now consistent all stars. Obviously the Cavs are still great, but nobody four peats.
Players that I want to monitor during these years: Melo, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Boogie Cousins, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe and Andre Drummond. If a combination of them somehow joined on one super team, this whole article could look really stupid.
I obviously cannot predict what they're going to do. Though my knowledge of the NBA tells me this, not very many different teams win titles. A lot of superstars go ringless until they're 30 and then they join up with other veterans.
I am just betting on the fact the house always wins and the next six years will be dominated by LeBron and Durant. I'd say that's pretty safe. They’re too young for anyone else to truly challenge their dominance in the next six years.
If no true superstars emerge to take up LeBron and Durant's mantle, then look for 2020-2025 to be more interesting and have more parity.
Spurs? No clue. Kawhi will have big hands and the Spurs will have made the playoffs every year since 1998.
2020 Champions: New Orleans Pelicans or whoever Anthony Davis plays for
MVP: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is the only player in the league right now that I think has the chance to get to the Durant tier of NBA greats. He might even be better than that. In 2020 he will be 27 and a champion. Pre 30 championships bode well!
As for the Wizards? They’re not repeat caliber champions. They'll be back soon though. The Cavs will still be great and I expect LeBron to win one or two post 35 rings, but these will be the years that the baton is being passed off. Much like Tim had to pass the baton to a younger Tony and Kawhi, The King will have to as well. Who? I have no idea who he’ll pass it to if they trade for Love. That’s the danger in letting Wiggins go.
Spurs? They've now made the playoffs 20 years in a row! They're also gearing up for a serious run. Kawhi Leonard will be 30 and a veteran on a team of great young players that have names we cannot pronounce. I’m going to make my boldest prediction and say by 2020, Kawhi will no longer drive his Malibu, live with his mom, nor will he have cornrows. I look for at least one Spurs championship with Kawhi as the captain.
I almost started predicting the 2021-2025 championships.
But, I'll spare you. You can bet that you'll be able to look at trends in the NBA and get a pretty good idea on who the champions will be.
I did the best I could in this write up at predicting what I think the context will be. I don't have Biff's coveted sports almanac from Back to the Future II and if I did, I'd be at the casino and not writing this.
The NBA is full of amazing stories that shape champions. I'm sure we'll see some incredible things in the next six years of this wonderful league. If I'm right about any of this, I expect serious props.
Calling it now. San Antonio Spurs, 2021 Champs.