Changing of the Guard

by Paul Knepper

Basketball is a young man’s game. That’s never more evident than during the playoffs after a grueling 82 game season. A basketball player’s prime is typically between the ages of 25-27 and 30-33, so when superstars on the top teams hit their early to mid thirties their teams drop from the ranks of the championship contenders and young stars rise to take their place. The transition of power is usually gradual, but this NBA post-season has seen the most abrupt changing of the guard in a long time.

Since the 1990’s the Lakers and Spurs have been the dominant franchises in the NBA, with the Celtics joining them over the past four seasons. Led by Shaquille O’Neal and later Kobe Bryant, the Lakers won 5 championships between 2000 and 2010, including back-to-back titles as recently as 2009 and 2010. Tim Duncan’s Spurs won four titles over that span and the Celtics big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce carried the Celtics to two NBA Finals, winning the championship in 2008.

The Celtics knew they had a small window when they acquired Allen and Garnett in the summer of 2007. Garnett was 31, Allen 32 and Pierce about to turn 30. The “Big Three” won a championship in their first season together, then Garnett injured his knee the following year and they were bounced in the second round by the Magic. Garnett recovered and Boston pushed the Lakers to Game 7 in the NBA Finals last season.

The Big Three and coach Doc Rivers returned for one final run, but a younger, more athletic Heat team ran them off the court in the second round this year. The Celtics may have extended the series beyond five games if Rajon Rondo had been healthy, but it was obvious Boston’s time had passed. Garnett especially looked old and tired throughout the series, with the exception of Game 3. Allen’s decline has been minimal and Pierce’s game was never built on speed to begin with, but Garnett was the linchpin of their trademark defense. He turns 35 this week, Allen 36 this summer and Pierce 34 in October. GM Danny Ainge will try and add a more athletic supporting cast next season, but realistically, the Celtics championship window has closed.

San Antonio won their last ring in 2007, when they swept LeBron’s Cavaliers, though they’ve remained one of the elite teams in the league since. Just when most people wrote them off as a serious title contender, coach Gregg Popovich installed a new offense, which propelled the Spurs to the number one seed in the Western Conference this season. However, come playoff time, all of Manu Ginobili’s crafty moves and Tony Parker’s quickness couldn’t hide the fact that the anchor of the interior defense that led them to four championships, Tim Duncan, looked like a dinosaur. He may be the greatest power forward of all-time, but the 35-year-old was embarrassed in the first round by the Grizzlies big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Perhaps the most surprising turn of events in the playoffs has been the two-time defending champion Lakers being swept in the second round by the Mavericks. With Phil Jackson on the bench, Kobe Byrant and three talented big men in Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers seemed a near lock to return to the NBA Finals. Sure, they looked sluggish at times during the regular season, but they’ve turned it on in the post-season before.

Kobe had a typical Kobe season, averaging 25 points per game, but he appeared to age before our eyes in the Mavs series. The greatest player of the past decade turns 33 this summer and he has a lot of mileage on those legs. Don’t forget, he entered the NBA straight out of high school at the age of 18 and with the Lakers advancing to the finals seven times over his 15-year career, he’s played 208 playoff games.

It was evident during the Mavs series that he didn’t have the same lift on his jump shot and wasn’t able to get to the rim. He’s still one of the best players in the league, but he’s no longer the best and his days of being the primary threat on a championship team are likely over. You can be sure that was a factor in Phil’s decision to call it quits.

Among the three teams, the Lakers have the best chance to regroup, shake up the roster and make another run at a ring. The Spurs and Celtics have their money locked up in aging stars and lack the pieces to acquire an additional great player. The Lakers on the other hand have a few things going for them. One, their early exit appeared to be due as much to chemistry issues as fatigue and that can be fixed. Two, because they have three talented big men who are either in or entering their prime, they will be in the running to acquire one of three potential stud free agents next summer, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. Three athletes like to live and play in L.A. There’s already speculation that Howard wants to be a Laker as well as Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.

With the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics out of the way, the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat advanced to the conference finals. The Mavs are a part of the old guard. Led by 10-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, they’ve won 50 games in each of the past 11 seasons and made it to the 2006 NBA Finals. They’re not a great team, but there’s no great team in the league this year. They may be good enough to steal championship in this transitional season if the new guard isn’t quite ready to grab the torch. However, Dirk will be the 33 this summer and the majority of their nucleus is in their early and in Jason Kidd’s case, late 30’s. If they do win a championship this year, don’t expect them to repeat.

The Thunder, Bulls and Heat are the new elite, the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics of the next five to seven years. The Heat are the most celebrated of the new superpowers, with the two best players in the world in James and Dwyane Wade. The two stars dominated the perimeter against Boston like nobody since Jordan and Pippen. At 29, Wade is in his prime and the 26-year-old James has several stupendous seasons ahead of him. Let’s not forget their other perennial All-Star, Chris Bosh. Even if they don’t break through this season it’s a safe bet that they’ll win multiple rings over the next five years.

The Bulls took the league by storm this season under new coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive instruction, winning a league high 62 games. MVP Derrick Rose may be the greatest athlete to ever play the point guard position and at 22-years-old has plenty of room to improve on the accuracy and range of his jump shot, as well as his defensive. He and double-double machine Joakim Noah set the tone with their scrappy play and will be the cornerstones of the franchise for the next decade.

Small forward Luol Deng is extremely versatile and is still just 26-years-old. Last summer’s free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer has been a bit of a disappointment, though he’s struggled with a toe injury in the playoffs. The Bulls have other solid young role players in Taj Gibson and Omer “Asik and destroy.” They may be a shooter away from a championship, though they’ll be a beast in the East for many years to come.

The last of the new super powers is Oklahoma City, with their two-headed monster of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant led the league in scoring for the second consecutive season and it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22-years-old. Westbrook benefited tremendously from his time with the U.S. National Team last summer and much like Rose, brings astonishing athleticism to the point. The Thunder locked up Durant with a long term contract last summer and if they can do the same with Westbrook the dynamic duo will take carry the Thunder to great heights.

The Thunder aren’t just a two man show either. General Manager Sam Presti has done an excellent job of adding complimentary parts around his two stars. Power forward Serge Ibaka is a superb athlete and has developed into one of the best shot blockers in the league. At 21, he’ll to continue to improve. James Harden can fill it up off the bench and the mid-season acquisition of Kendrick Perkins brought the Thunder much needed toughness and a veteran presence with championship experience in the locker room.

The Lakers, Spurs and Celtics will continue to put up a fight in the early rounds of the playoffs. They’re too proud not to. But their championship window has closed. Kobe, Garnett and Duncan are growing old. The transition to the new masters of the NBA universe is under way. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Blake Griffin, a young Grizzlies team and the revamped Knicks are among those who will look to put their stamp on the league. However, barring drastic player movement or injuries, it’s Rose, Durant and James’ league now. These conference finals are a preview of years to come.

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