If there was an obvious theme in these 2011 NBA playoffs, it would be out with the old, and in with the new. The defending champion Lakers were dismissed early, getting swept convincingly in four games by the Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs were also sent home, looking old and tired against the upstart Grizzlies in a first round upset. The Celtics' Big Three showed their age as they scraped past the Knicks, only to get thoroughly dominated in five games by Miami's new Big Three.
The 2011 NBA Playoffs signaled the potential end of three NBA dynasties and perhaps the start of new powerhouse franchises, led by the league's young stars. The four teams that are currently in the conference semifinals have only 11 finals appearances between them. The following is a prediction for five teams that are on the rise and may play a significant role in defining the league for the next 10 years.
How they got here: The Heat have arguably the biggest free-agent haul in the history of the NBA. Love them or hate them, there is no doubt that the new Big Three in Miami, also known as the Superfriends, are the most talented trio on one team that the league has to offer. The questions about whether the three All-Stars would be able to co-exist have been answered. The bigger question now is, how many championships can the Heat win without a real supporting cast?
Needs: A serviceable point guard and a true center to protect the paint, as well as more bench depth. SF Mike Miller, the presumed perfect sidekick for the Big Three, has been a disappointment for the Heat, although he may still have time to prove his worth in the playoffs. Without a lot of financial flexibility, the Heat should look to add more pieces through the draft, targeting mature, team-oriented players. Unfortunately, the Heat only have one selection in the upcoming June draft, the 31st pick.
10-year outlook: After pulling off a seemingly impossible coup, team president Pat Riley has positioned the Miami Heat to win multiple championships. James, Wade, and Bosh are aged 26, 29, and 27, respectively and in the prime of their careers. As long as the three young superstars stay healthy and keep their egos in check, the future is very bright for Miami.
How they got here: The emergence of Derrick Rose, coupled with the brilliance of first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau. We knew before the season started that Rose was good, but the dedication that he put into improving his game in the offseason really started to show dividends in 2010-11. He added a much more consistent three-point shot to his arsenal, got to the line more often, and fully embraced his role as the Bulls' unquestioned leader. Thibodeau has managed to get the most out of the Rose and his supporting cast, and is also a big reason why the Bulls ranked second in team defense during the regular season.
Needs: A true starter at shooting guard. Right now, the Bulls are employing a platoon of Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and Keith Bogans at shooting guard. Korver can't defend, Brewer can't shoot, and Bogans is already 31. The Bulls should look to target a talented young shooting guard via trade, i.e. O.J. Mayo of the Memphis Grizzlies. Most importantly, they need a consistent second scoring option after Derrick Rose. As has been proven in the playoffs, the Bulls have relied too much on Rose as a scorer and the results haven't always been good. The reigning MVP is shooting an alarming 40 percent from the field on more than 23 attempts per game in the 2011 playoffs thus far.
10-year outlook: As the Bulls go further into the playoffs, their flaws have been increasingly exposed. As of right now, Chicago is a strong defensive team that ultimately lacks the offensive punch to go all the way. However, the Bulls have a very young roster, so there is room for improvement. One solid acquisition may be all that is needed to put the Bulls over the top as a championship team.
How they got here: Great drafting. A solid case could be made that Kevin Durant (second overall pick, 2007) will go down as the best second pick of all time. PG Russell Westbrook (fourth overall pick, 2008) has improved by leaps and bounds each year he has been in the league, culminating in his first All-Star selection in his third year. PF Serge Ibaka (24th overall pick, 2008) and SG James Harden (third overall pick, 2009) emerged as key pieces for the team after the trade that sent Jeff Green to the Celtics. Aside from building through the draft, GM Sam Presti has also made a number of shrewd transactions, including nabbing solid backup PG Eric Maynor from the Utah Jazz in 2009 through a trade.
Needs: More playoff experience, and continued growth from their young superstars. The Thunder have collapsed in a number of late-game situations in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, but these tough losses will ultimately make the Thunder a stronger, more resilient team. Although Westbrook has made great progress as a PG, he has shown questionable decision-making at times. This will also improve with more experience.
10-year outlook: The league has only gotten a glimpse of what this young team is capable of. Oklahoma City is the perfect example of a roster that was built from the ground up, and ultimately the many years that their young players have had playing together will pay off. Look for the Thunder to consistently challenge for the championship in the next ten years behind their All-Star duo.
How they got here: Solid front office personnel that got the most out of trading Carmelo Anthony. As a previously Carmelo-centric team, the Nuggets were perennial playoff contenders but never seemed to have quite enough juice to go all the way. Now that Carmelo is gone, the Nuggets have a talented young core to build a team around including incumbents Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, as well as newcomers Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, via the New York trade.
Needs: If Nene decides to decline his $11 million option for next year, the Nuggets are going to have to scramble to find a serviceable replacement for the big man. Their only current backup options are young 7-footers Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov, both unproven at the NBA level. The second priority after keeping Nene should be finding a taker for PG Raymond Felton. His presence is hindering the growth of newly-anointed starter PG Ty Lawson, who clearly is the Nuggets' preferred point guard of the future. Trading Felton while his stock is still high could allow the Nuggets to add another quality piece to the team while also resolving the logjam at point guard.
10-year outlook: The Nuggets' success hinges on their ability to keep Nene, one of the more underrated centers in the league. The 28-year-old is the anchor of their defense and also a solid contributor on the offensive end. If the Nuggets can keep their core group intact, look for them to make deeper playoff runs in the years to come.
How they got here: Years and years of steady team-building around veteran superstar Dirk Nowitzki. The addition of C Tyson Chandler in the offseason has made an incredible difference in the team's defensive mindset, and in turn playing for a legitimate playoff contender has rejuvenated the 28-year-old center. The team's veteran core of Kidd, Terry, and Nowitzki has stepped up big in the playoffs, playing as if it's their last chance to win a ring. The front office has built a team as deep as any in the league, with a strong supporting cast including diminutive spark plug J.J. Barea and defensive stopper Shawn Marion.
Needs: The time to start looking towards the future is now. Many of Dallas' veterans are nearing retirement age, and pretty soon the team will have to get young guys such as Rodrigue Beaubois and J.J. Barea to step into larger roles. Luckily for the Mavs, Dirk's game does not rely solely on athleticism, so he should continue to be effective for several more years.
10-year outlook: The Mavs have proven in the offseason that their regular season success was no fluke, rolling over tough teams such as the Blazers and Lakers. Now, they are on the brink of eliminating the young Thunder and returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2006. Ironically, it will in all likelihood be a rematch of that 2006 NBA Finals against the Heat, and both teams are much improved this time around. Look for the Mavs to constantly be in the hunt for the championship in the next few years, but they will probably have to find a capable replacement for Kidd, who is already 38.