Over the years, the NBA has been defined by its superstars and the bitter rivalries they produce.
As of 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls combined for 20 of the previous 30 championships. Each dynasty was defined by its superstar leader, and each small-market contender built around stopping that superstar.
Aside from becoming bitter rivals, the small-market teams often paved the way for the emergence of the elite teams.
For example, in the '80s and early '90s, the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons ended the era of Bird and Magic with back-to-back championships. Meanwhile, Midwestern rival Chicago had a burgeoning superstar in Michael Jordan.
En route to six championships, the Bulls were spoiled by the play of Jordan, as well as their supporting stars Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and even former Piston Dennis Rodman.
Before those Bulls championships, the champion Pistons were meticulously built over the course of a decade. Led by wunderkind Isiah Thomas, they added pieces that fit a system based on toughness and a downright frustrating style of play. Players like Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer rose to prominence through scrappy, physical defense and a team-first attitude where everyone knew their role.
The Pistons beat Jordan in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989 and 1990 thanks to the infamous and aptly named Jordan rules, which they created in order to physically and psychologically wear down Jordan and limit him offensively.
Those Conference Finals losses pushed Jordan to become bigger and tougher than ever.
The Bulls-Pistons rivalry became a must-see event, boosting the popularity of the NBA and producing some of the most entertaining playoff matchups ever. After finally beating the Pistons to reach the Finals in 1991, Jordan and the Bulls never looked back.
Jordan was already a phenomenal player, but the presence of the Pistons in his annual championship run pushed Jordan to become even better, eventually solidifying his place among the all-time greats.
After the Jordan era, the San Antonio Spurs proved that another blue-collar market could field a team to contend with the storied franchises.
While the quiet, classy Spurs could not be more different on the court than the feisty Pistons of the '80s, both teams proved that greatness could be achieved through an unpopular style of play.
Gregg Popovich has coached a ruthlessly efficient, fundamentally sound Spurs team to almost two decades of unprecedented success. In the beginning, the team struck gold by drafting Hall of Famer David Robinson, only to strike gold again a decade later with Tim Duncan.
Similarly, the Pistons’ run of success began when they drafted Isiah Thomas.
After the turn of the century, the Spurs withstood two separate Laker dynasties, the resurgence of the Celtics and the Miami Heat's Big Three. Despite the obstacles, Popovich’s post-2000 Spurs have yet to win fewer than 50 games in a season.
The Spurs deserve all the praise in the world for defeating Father Time and competing with the Heat in 2014, but the run of Popovich, Duncan and Tony Parker is in its final stages.
More importantly, those three are too close to the end of their careers to begin a long-term rivalry with James and the Heat.
Therefore, the NBA has the room today for a small-market team to step up, build an identity and collect championship pieces. However, with the advancing age of the Spurs, the league currently does not possess a sustainable David to its Goliath.
Playing the role of Goliath, of course, is the Heat. The face of the Heat, as well as the NBA as a whole, is undoubtedly LeBron James.
A four-time MVP, the 29-year-old James is already one of the best of all time even with a decade left in his career. He has led the Heat to the Finals in all four of his seasons there, winning two championships.
But James is alone at the top of the NBA superstar pedestal right now.
Kobe has finally become mortal, and Kevin Durant was overmatched in his lone Finals appearance. The Lakers, Celtics and Bulls are all not nearly as successful as they were in the previous era, although no one knows how far a healthy Derrick Rose could have led these scrappy Bulls teams. And while the last two Finals matchups have been incredible, the Spurs’ days are numbered.
History says that another team will emerge in the coming years to bring down the mighty King James. But who?
The most logical choice may be the Indiana Pacers. Indiana has acquired a number of solid contributors to complement their newfound star, Paul George. Players like Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West played key roles in recent years, and tough but hot-headed guard Lance Stephenson looks like a future star.
However, the Pacers have lost to the Heat in two straight Conference Finals matchups. There’s no questioning the depth and talent of the Pacers, but they need to beat the Heat when it counts before a rivalry can truly emerge.
At the same time, there are plenty of upstart teams to watch for in the coming years.
The Washington Wizards are an electrifying team, with superb pieces such as John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat. Also, the Phoenix Suns are still growing but already have plenty of young, perhaps overlooked talent in Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins.
But just as the Spurs and Pistons were able to do, the upstart teams need to build an identity and gather the role players that fit best. The Pistons accomplished this with the Bad Boys and their singular goal of defeating Jordan, while the Spurs have relied on selfless, hyper-efficient play.
In time, another team will emerge with the formula for defeating the Heat.
The NBA is entering an exciting new period. We get to watch one of the greatest players ever try to solidify his legacy, as well as one of the greatest teams of this era play one of the greatest teams of the previous era in back-to-back Finals. And a third straight Finals matchup next season is certainly not out of the question.
In addition, there is the opportunity for a small-market team to build the right pieces and challenge the Heat in the long run. When a team does emerge, the NBA may have a new big-name rivalry to spur the league's growth.
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