5 Contenders That Will Be Afterthoughts Within Three Years

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2012

5 Contenders That Will Be Afterthoughts Within Three Years

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    Ah, the good times.

    They don't last forever.

    The NBA changes somewhat radically from one year to the next, and it's pretty amazing that teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs have remained so good for so long. Those winning formulas should ensure some measure of stability even as aging superstars decline and eventually move on.

    But, that stability won't come without a few bumps in the road. 

    Today's elite teams won't necessarily suffer through long-term rebuilding projects. With savvy front offices and cultures that draw (and foster) top-notch talent, we're more likely looking at transition projects than anything too severe.

    The Lakers won't be the next Cavaliers, and the Spurs won't be doing their best impression of the Bobcats. Nor will they be entirely recognizable though.

    Here's a look at five contenders who are coming to an end–even if it's just a temporary end.

New York Knicks

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    Whether the New York Knicks qualify as contenders remains entirely debatable. Until this club actually does something worth mentioning in the postseason, it will be a contender in theory alone.

    Nevertheless, this roster was built to win a title, and a full year under head coach Mike Woodson could do wonders for a squad that certainly showed some signs toward the end of last season.

    The "contender or pretender" question aside, New York's window of opportunity to do whatever it's capable of doing is smaller than you might think. While Carmelo Anthony can anchor this team for a while, the bigger concern is what becomes of 29-year-olds Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler.

    Stoudemire's shelf life may be shorter than others his age given his injury history and the extent to which he's relied on his explosiveness as a scorer. Unless his post tutorials with Hakeem Olajuwon pay some serious dividends, Amar'e might not be all that effective for that much longer.

    It goes without saying that veteran contributors like Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby won't even be playing three years from now.

    But, the Knicks' biggest problem has less to do with who's on the roster and more to do with who isn't, namely talented youth. Iman Shumpert will have an outstanding career, but New York will need to do better than that.

    That's easier said than done for an organization that's consistently mortgaged its future in order to win ASAP.

    The future will have its revenge.

San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs as we know them won't last forever.

    Yes, this team has proven naysayers wrong time and time again, but Tim Duncan (age 36) and Manu Ginobili (age 35) probably only have a couple more years left in them, and there's no telling how effective 30-year-old Tony Parker will remain when he begins to lose a step.

    That said, San Antonio's rebuilding process should be brief.

    Second-year forward Kawhi Leonard has the makings of a potential star, and some of the Spurs' young role players (Gary Neal, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter) should stick around for a while.

    More importantly, general manager R.C. Buford is arguably the very best in the business. The organization drafts well and maneuvers the trade market shrewdly, ensuring that the Spurs could be contending again before you know it.

    If this franchise can land Manu Ginobili in the second round and Tony Parker at the end of the first, it's always scary to think about what they can do with a lottery pick or two. And, that may be all it takes to return the team to prominence once Duncan and Ginobili call it quits.

    Finding another Duncan won't be easy, but that doesn't mean the Spurs are set to become a long-term rebuilding project. They always find a way.

Boston Celtics

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    Rajon Rondo should ensure that the Boston Celtics remain relevant for a long time to come, but even he won't prevent the inevitable lull that accompanies the decline and retirement of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

    Like the San Antonio Spurs, Boston has withstood year after year of scrutiny, and chances are it won't have to endure a protracted rebuilding process.

    So long as Rondo is a Celtic, premium free agents will come Boston's way. And, we're talking about the Celtics after all. This is a franchise that can draw star talent with its history alone.

    It doesn't hurt that rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo will do their parts to usher in the post-KG era as painlessly as possible.

    But, let's be honest. There will still be some pain. Pierce (34) probably won't retire as soon as Garnett (36), but how long he remains effective is another question altogether. Unless younger role players like Brandon Bass and Jeff Green become legitimate go-to players, Boston will need to look outside the organization in order to replace its aging stars.

    Unless that happens immediately, expect Boston to have a year or two of transition before Rondo's second chapter can begin in earnest.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Acquiring Dwight Howard may make the Los Angeles Lakers favorites for now, but it won't do anything to make this roster any younger.

    Kobe Bryant is 34, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are both 32, and that's the good news. With Steve Nash 38 and Antawn Jamison 36, the supporting cast that makes this team so special is even older. 

    If the Lakers don't win it all in the next two years, it may be a while before we see them get another crack at it.

    Could Kobe play until he's 40? Sure. So could Gasol for that matter.

    But, at some point, the Lakers will have to start thinking about life after Bryant. That might mean cutting Gasol loose a bit early, and it will almost certainly mean general manager Mitch Kupchak doing everything within his power to bring in some younger talent.

    The good news for Lakers fans is that Dwight Howard will be quite the magnet for other stars (assuming he sticks around of course). And, it's not like the Lakers weren't already a preferred destination for big names and big talent.

    The bad news for Lakers fans is that nothing is automatic here.

    Remember life after Shaq? No, it didn't last long, but it wasn't pleasant. Expect to see a similar gap when Bryant rides off into the sunset. That may be more than three years away, but that will be a mixed blessing for this roster.

    A 37-year-old Bryant may be making more money and taking more shots than he rightfully should. The bigger problem for Los Angeles could be Kobe holding on for too long.

Miami Heat

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    Not one, not two, not three...

    OK, well maybe three.

    The Miami Heat aren't going anywhere this year or next, but expecting this unit to become a decade-long dynasty is pure nonsense. The concern isn't LeBron James, obviously. He could probably put up MVP numbers into his 80s.

    The concern is Dwyane Wade, the 30-year-old who's always relied so heavily on his athleticism and never quite developed a consistent perimeter game. That probably means he's going to keep taking the ball into the paint, and that means he'll be at increased risk for injury for the remainder of his career.

    Usually, players compensate for their passing primes by spending more time on the perimeter, where foot speed is less essential and injuries are less common. Thus far, that hasn't been Wade's strategy. Unless something changes, he could be the first of Miami's Big Three to decline.

    The bigger fear, though, is everyone else. The Heat rely upon a pretty old supporting cast, and you can't feel especially good about the injury risks associated with Ray Allen, Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis.

    It shouldn't be too hard for Miami to continue plucking bargains from the waiver wire and serving as a haven for ring-chasers. But, chances are there will be a younger flavor of the month in three years that could make that strategy a bit more difficult.

    That will become a problem given Miami's woeful lack of youth. Norris Cole had some nice moments as a rookie, but he'll hardly constitute adequate depth three years from now.

    Heat fans will naively believe that another Ray Allen will save the day every summer, at least so long as LeBron James is around.

    But, that hasn't been the case for the Los Angeles Lakers. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't. As Miami's superstars move toward the end of their prime years, there's a much better chance it won't.