A little more than halfway through this season, while waiting for the heavyweight night to kick off (the LA Lakers throw down with their nemesis the San Antonio Spurs, and the Miami Heat powers into a showdown against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic), a seemingly nonsensical line my non-NBA fan friends like to spout floats through my head.”Pssssh, why watch the NBA? The SAME teams are always winning…”. To which I say…well, I guess, nothing. As fans, we watch NBA games to see the best athletes in the world perform incredible feats on the court, to focus and obsess on the statistical masterpiece and anomalies, and to rage about who’s better than who (MJ! KOBE! DUNCAN! GARNETT!). We follow the subplots (“DANG, Durant said WHAT about Bosh???”), individual talents, and rivalries we know and love (remember’ in the mid 90’s, when Chicago and Cleveland was almost a blood feud?).
In reality, the no-nothing no-fan actually makes a valid point- since the 1979- ’80 season, only 8 of the now 30 NBA teams have taken home the O’Brien trophy. Subtract the “one hit wonders” (the Moses Malone-and-Dr J led ’83 Philadelphia 76ers and the Shaquille O’Neal/Dywane Wade driven ’06 Miami Heat), and it’s shocking to note that the same 6 teams have won 29 of the last 31 championships (it’s INSANE that the Lakers have won 10 ring in those 30 years). HOWEVER- Perusing the top of the standings, where the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and the Lakers rule from their usual roosts, there’s a sense that in the next few years we’ll see a seismic shift in NBA power. The current edition of the Lake Show is the 2nd oldest team in the league, with 32 year old Kobe on the (still productive) downside of his career. The Celtics (4th oldest) are chugging along, but 3 of their 4 tires, 34 year old Kevin Garnett, 33 year old Paul Pierce, and 35 year old Ray Allen, are winding down their time on the road. The Spurs backbone, 2 time MVP and All-Everything Tim Duncan turns 35 this year and is almost at the finish line of his stellar career. Looming on the horizon, the Oklahoma City Thunder are chomping at the bit to start their NBA take-over, LA’s step-franchise, the Clippers, are gearing up to take center stage in Hollywood, and the Sacramento Kings are looking to return to their early ’00s glory years. Let’s look at the teams that will battling for NBA supremacy in 2014:
Los Angeles Clippers
The rumbles that started around Blake Griffin in the preseason has turned into a breathless roar that shows no signs of quieting down anytime soon. Even for a deferred #1 pick (a knee injury shelved him for the entire ’09-’10 season), Blake Griffin has performed beyond the wildest dreams of the most optimistic Clippers fan. Griffin dazzles with astounding dunks, deceptive speed, a more polished than expected offensive repertoire, and a Terminator-like relentless, but it’s the rise of the pieces around him that make the Clips a lock for perennial contention. Eric Gordon is building off of a star turn at the FIBA World Games and proving that he belongs in the Star discussion, putting up 24 points and 5 dimes a night, shooting 36% from deep, and is a perfect ice cold perimeter complement to Griffin’s volcanic interior attack. DeAndre Jordan (6 games with 4+ blocks) is shifting past “potential” to “producing”, catching jaw dropping alley oops, highlight worthy put-back dunks, and emerging as a volleyball spiking shot blocker extraordinaire. Since January 1st, he’s giving a solid 8 pts, 8 rbs, and 2 blocks a night, and is rounding into a capable defender instead of just a pogo stick. With a run of good health and continued development of talented rooks (the long armed Al Farouq Aminu and the ninja athlete Eric Bledsoe),plus a promising bench stocked with lottery picks-turned-productive vets Randy Foye and Ike Diogu and stalwarts Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes, the Clips MIGHT be able to shed the “loser” label and overcome the poison of villainous owner Donald Sterling.
Prediction- By 2014, a trio of Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, and do-it-all Aminu, with Jordan locking down the paint, will have the West on it’s heels and the league on notice. Bledsoe will take advantage of learning from wiley vet Baron Davis and be an x-factor for this video game athletic team.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The “Kevin Durant for Emperor” furor has died down, and I hope that everyone realize all talk of him being better than LeBron James is severely overblown, but KD is obviously one of those elite level players that are a contender’s bedrock. The real reason that OKC will be a Western Conference bully in the foreseeable future is two- fold: the first key is the skyrocketing of Russell Westbrook‘s game. While we laud Derrick Rose as a top 3 guy in the MVP race, I guess we need to make Westbrook option 3A: statistically, he’s Rose’s doppelganger statistically.
I KNOW, stats don’t tell all; Westbrook still struggles with late-game decision making, his three point shooting is despicable, and he just hasn’t become as pointguardish as Rose yet. By 2014, though, the two headed offensive onslaught of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be positively meteoric. The other, more important aspect of future OKC success is the winning basketball culture being ingrained in the franchise. The difference between assembling a collection of talent and building a strong franchise is rarely discussed. The 2000-2001 Portland “Jail” Blazers, for example, were rich with talent while being morally bankrupt. The 2006 Miami Heat scratched out a ‘ship with luck, the Shaq trade, fortuitous calls, and a superhuman Dwyane Wade, but were a middling franchise until last summer. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics, San Antonio, and the post-Rasheed Blazers all share common traits: intelligent GMs, responsible and supportive ownership, and a focus on long term player development and reasonable roster moves as opposed to showy, risky signings in the quest to Win Now. OKC’s GM Sam Presti, either via trade (essentially Ray Allen-for-Jeff Green; Thabo Sefalosha) or draft (Westbrook, James Harden; shrewd moved to stock up on #1s) has methodically has turned the sad story of the uprooted Seattle Supersonics into a athletic, high character team loaded with talent.
Prediction- I don’t know what big man can be signed, so hopefully 6’11” rookie Cole Aldrich develops into a strong inside presence to combat the (dwindling) number of big men around the league. Either way, Durant, Westbrook, jack-of-all-trades Jeff Green, lefty swingman James Harden, and frenetic shotblocker Serge Ibaka are a rock solid foundation, on which multiple championships can be built.
This one is dicey; with the arena situation being what it is, there might not BE a team named Sacramento Kings in 2014, but since the disintegration of the incredible Webber-Stojakovic-Divac-Bibby squad in the early 2000s, the Kings were a franchise spinning their wheels in mediocrity. Ancient Bobby Jackson, Tyronn Lue, Anthony Johnson- the team was a revolving door of middling talent, culminating in a league worst 17-65 record in the 2009 season.
Fast forward to present day: after Sacramento used the #4 pick in ’09 on powerhouse guard Tyreke Evans and the ’10 5th pick on low post demolition man DeMarcus Cousins and are primed to start climbing the ladder of NBA respectability. Omri Casspi is legit as multi-talented wing, Jason Thompson is slowly but surely becoming an interior force. While their 12-36 record looks ugly, this season might be a blessing in disguise; adding another high draft pick to this equation may be just what the doctor ordered. DeMarcus Cousins started slowly, so while his season averages of 13.7 ppg and 7.7 rbg are decent, in his last 10 starts he’s cooking to the tune of 18 and 8. Tyreke Evans going to be a perennial 19-6-6 guy, the combination of him and Cousins, along Casspi and Player X from this years draft will challenge Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon for Pacific Division Dominance.
Prediction- if they could add a point that spaces the floor to get the Kings to quit playing around and get him to slide over to the 2 spot, the Las Vegas Croupiers are going to be NBA beasts.
When John Wall was drafted, the Wiz added him to the potential defensive gem JaVale McGee and offensively multi-talented Andray Bla…
You know what? We’ll wait on that.
Questions? Any teams I’m missing? Need me to pen your memoirs? Follow me on Twitter, @SnottieDrippen