The NBA is changing.
For one, there is an imminent lockout. Owners want to find ways to make even more money. Players are quite happy with the current collective-bargaining agreement, and who can blame them for wanting to keep a system that can net Travis Outlaw a four-year, $28 million contract and Amir Johnson $34 million over five years?
That’s highway robbery.
But the association is also seeing a changing of the guard in terms of its upper echelon of teams. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, who have combined to win 10 of the past 12 NBA titles, are officially in decline. Their championship dreams have been locked out.
The No. 1-seeded Spurs were stunned by the upstart No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round. The wheels on their Tim-Duncan-Manu-Ginobili-Tony-Parker machine have significant wear and tear. Rarely are all three healthy at once, and their roster lacks young talent.
The Lakers were embarrassed in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Kobe Bryant, L.A.’s fading superstar, must find away to reinvigorate himself, his team and the organization, especially considering the Lakers’ legendary coach, Phil Jackson, appears to have paced the sidelines for the last time.
Boston’s loss at home to the Heat in Game 4 sealed its fate, as this was its last legitimate shot at another ring. Its bench has been transformed into an infirmary and it, too, probably will lose its title-winning coach, Doc Rivers, after the season.
Of course, everything is cyclical in the NBA. Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics gave way to Isiah’s Pistons, who were eventually topped by Jordan’s Bulls. The Spurs started their run the year after Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, ironically after a lockout shortened the regular season to 50 games.
So, who are the teams next in line to carry the NBA’s mantle?
I give you the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Heat, spearheaded by their 2 1/2 superstars, will continue to attract other talented teammates to South Beach. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are just hitting their peak years and should be even better in the future, after going through mutual struggles in year one of their grand experiment.
Derrick Rose, the MVP, will continue his ascent to stardom and attempt to lead his defensive-minded Bulls back to their former glory, reached under His Airness.
And finally, the Thunder, who not only play as if they love one another but perform in a town that loves them back. The parts are all there for a title run, but one question remains: Can Kevin Durant, the NBA’s scoring champ and the anti-LeBron, coexist with his headstrong, ultra-athletic point guard, Russell Westbrook?
Fans may have to wait to see all of this unfold. It’s virtually certain there will be a lockout. Let’s hope it doesn’t last long enough to rob fans of seeing a new era of great basketball teams.