If you’ve watched even one NBA playoff game this year, you’ve probably heard “the end of an era” used in reference to (insert any old team here). The cliche might be warranted, depending on the team.
Should the Celtics big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen dissolve in any fraction during the offseason (win or lose against Miami, or Oklahoma City), “end of an era” would seem appropriate considering the impact those men had on the franchise.
Then we have Boston’s western counterpart in the Lakers, who were there every step of the way as the Celtics established their long-awaited reemergence as a league power.
After a failed attempt at trading Pau Gasol in the offseason, the likelihood of seeing the Lakers nucleus of the Spaniard, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant remain in tact for 2012-2013 is slim. Dismantling the L.A. trio would certainly signify the end of the Lakers latest championship era.
But we’ve seen this act before. When Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., the Lakers were doomed. That was the end of an era. That is, of course until the Lakers acquired Gasol from Memphis for peanuts (thanks again, Jerry West). Then a new era of winning began as the Lakers made three straight NBA Finals appearances bringing home two Championships.
L.A.’s second title in the latest era came against the Celtics, who, after January 1, 2010, were a .500 team. The Big Three was too old and too injured. They weren’t even expected to win a first-round playoff series, much less make it to a Game 7 of the Finals and come within minutes of title No. 18. No, that era had ended with a regular season loss to the 12-win New Jersey Nets.
How ‘about the San Antonio Spurs? How many times have they been “done?” Who would’ve imagined a 36-year-old Tim Duncan would average more than 15 points per game and 9 rebounds per game while the 30-year-old Tony Parker would have the best statistical season of his career? This “old” team was the fastest and most entertaining Spurs team I’ve seen in the last five years. The Thunder are the only team with comparable ball movement and quickness. Who’s to say with good health and a few minor adjustments that the Spurs can’t get right back in the saddle next season?
“Out with the old, in with the new,” is inevitable for any dynasty or successful NBA team. The Chicago Bulls spent plenty of time in the toilet after the Jordan era and have just recently returned to glory in the last few years, thanks to Derrick Rose. After one magical run led by Shaq and Dwayne Wade back in 2006, the Heat needed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to get back to the Championship ranks.
Neither the Bulls nor Heat are that “young,” as the average player’s ages are 27.9 and 28.6, respectively. In fact, when you look at the last ten NBA champions (Mavs, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat and Pistons), most of those teams were comprised of “mature” players with a sprinkle of youth and veteran savvy mixed in.
That’s where the Oklahoma City Thunder enter the equation. The Thunder are the seventh youngest team in the NBA with players on the roster averaging 25.8 years of age. OKC’s nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is barely old enough to get into the club as KD & Westbrook are 23 years old and Harden, a mere 22. That said, we’ve watched this team get to the top the old fashioned way, by working hard and improving every single year, climbing its way up up the mountain.
When a team this young makes it this far (which is extremely rare in general in the NBA), I would usually peg it as an anomaly with few expectations for the future. But the Thunder seem to be the real deal after disposing of the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs -three of the last four NBA championship teams- in one postseason.
Just because the Thunder are legit and likely to stay atop the NBA standings for the foreseeable future doesn’t mean that the torch has been passed for good. I look at it like a game of tug of war. The Celtics, Lakers and Spurs are all on one side of the rope while the Heat and Thunder are pulling from the other end with neither side able to force the other into the mud pit.
Does that mean there is room at the top for all five teams? Nope! Somebody has to give, it’s just a matter of who gets pulled down first.
If two of the Celtics’ Big Three remain on the roster next year and Boston makes it back to the Finals, clearly, they still won’t officially be over the hill, despite our best efforts to put them there. The Lakers can trade Gasol and still end up with a team in title contention. Should Gregg Popovich rest the Spurs elders from time to time throughout next season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Antonio win it all.
For now, we’ve got the Thunder in it to win it, and the possibility of the new Big Three or the old Big Three trying to show those young bucks from OKC how its done.