So much attention has been paid over the past weeks to the free agency bonanza. Thousands of words will be written on how good the Heat will be next year, and whether they stack up against the Lakers, the Celtics, or the Magic. But the huge spotlight that has been focused on the top-dollar franchises pursuing the “big three” has cast a shadow just as large. And in this shadow a few NBA teams have been quietly assembling teams that could make a run at contender status.
Let’s start with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It can’t be fairly claimed that the Thunder are under appreciated or anything like that, they have Kevin Durant, a very strong supporting cast, and did admirably in the postseason. But I think they’re going to take a lot of people by surprise.
While LeBron was busy orchestrating a massive media-circus and putting on shows in his new Heat gear, Durant sent a single Twitter message, telling Oklahoma City and the world that he’s back for the foreseeable future (If only LeBron had shown that kind of class).
And it’s not just that in the midst of one of the more distasteful free agencies in professional sports history. Durant was putting on a clinic on professionalism, it’s the fact that they have, with Durant’s help, been putting together an elite, young team.
A more unheralded possible competitor in the future is the Minnesota Timberwolves. While many teams were busy dumping draft picks like candy on Halloween to clear up cap space. The T-wolves were happily scooping those picks up, accumulating three first-round selections (which they turned into four in the first 35 overall selections via a trade with Washington).
Minnesota may have had a deplorable 15-67 record last season, but they’ve set the foundations for a strong team in the future. They picked up Wesley Johnson with the fourth selection in the draft, and then traded their next pick, sixteenth overall, to Portland for Martell Webster, a swingman who lines up nicely with Johnson on the wing.
They also nabbed Michael Beasley, who was the second overall draft pick just two years ago, in exchange for a second round pick. They managed this steal because the Heat frantically needed to loosen up their fiscal belts after securing “LeBoshAde.” Could there be a more fitting metaphor for this free agency? The Heat frantically maneuvering to secure their superstars, while the smaller teams in smaller markets pick up the scraps they leave behind. Except Beasley is far from scraps. He’s an ubertalented guard with the potential to develop alongside other young stars, like Johnson and Jonny Flynn.
Do I think the Timberwolves are going to go from winning less than a fifth of their games to being title contenders in a single year? No. In fact, I don't even think they did a great job at this year's draft-they skipped Damarcus Cousins and may overvalue Webster. Yet, they’re one of many teams heading in the right direction, and their doing it in a hurry. The Lakers are aging, and when the time comes for Kobe to finally step aside, they’ll have a difficult rebuilding phase ahead of them. The Celtics are also in danger finding themselves on the decline, as their own once-formidable big three has faded into Rajon Rondo carrying the injury-prone team.
The past decade and more has been dominated by the Lakers, Spurs, and Celtics to an almost absurd degree, but I think the time is coming for a changing of the guard in the NBA. The Miami Heat will be a big part of this revolution, as they are sure to get their rings with such a ridiculous pool of talent, but so will other young teams like the Thunder and the Timberwolves, who have stealthily been amassing talent of their own.
Any thoughts of your own on the new-age NBA?