About every four or five years since the departing of Michael Jordan, the NBA has experienced some much needed injections of life. Iverson, Bryant, Garnett and Duncan helped rejuvenate the league in the early 2000's. By 2005 and 2006, we were realizing that players like James, Wade and Anthony would have a profound effect on the league. That brings us to 2011, and with a look at the game, it's hard not to judge this time as the biggest turning point for the NBA since MJ retired in 1998.
Personally, it is the talent and future of two teams in particular that peak my interest. At the outset of the 2010-11 season, I felt that the Lakers and Heat were destined to meet in the finals this year and that the Lakers would win. Alas, things never quite work out the way we expect. Another prediction I made at the outset of the season is that the Thunder and Heat would meet multiple times in the finals throughout the next decade. Without being able to fully know if we'll see this, I believe the results of the playoffs have pointed towards a similar outlook for the future.
The prospect of these two teams forming a rivalry could be outstanding for the league. As an Orlando fan, I have no choice but to dislike the Heat. As a basketball fan, I have no choice but to appreciate their raw athleticism and potential as a team. On the other hand, Oklahoma City is a team that has made me wish I was from the heartland of America, just so that I wouldn't feel guilty rooting for them. I view these two teams as polar opposites.
The Heat are the spotlight starving players in their prime desperate for winning at all costs. The Thunder are the mellow, low-key newcomers with the same potential that the Heat's stars had four or five years ago. It's rivalries that transcend sports, that make for the most fun. Duke and Carolina have developed a rivalry not just on location, but on the basis of private vs. public, for example. Oklahoma City vs. Miami would provide a culture opposite rivalry in the same vain.
For me, the prospect of seeing these two teams play in a couple finals series in the next decade really excites me as a basketball fan. Who knows, maybe these teams will never play a finals series against each other. Maybe neither will make a finals after this year at all, but that's what makes the NBA so much fun. Outside of these two squads, It's hard to lock down the rest of the NBA's contenders for the coming years.
The Bulls look like they'll hang around with their developed young talent, but something tells me that unless they get the right pieces, they may just end up like LeBron's Cavaliers did for the past three or four years—close, but not quite good enough. The Spurs and Lakers seem to be heading the wrong way, and as much as it pains me to say, the Magic seem to be doing the same thing. The Knicks remain an enigma, but they certainly possess the firepower to make it deep into the playoffs once they've gained some experience playing together.
As always, the west is loaded with young teams that have potential, but what will the Warriors, Clippers and Grizzlies do with it? It seems all three reload with young players every three or four years, but get no further than the first round for a few years straight. It was refreshing to see Memphis move out of the first round, as that could end up being just as big a playoff step as the Thunder took by making it to the conference finals.
The thing about the last decade of the NBA was that we never could've totally expected what was to come. Sure, the Lakers and Spurs got a couple titles that may have been predicted in the early 2000's, but we saw some surprises as well. Who would've predicted that two of the Lakers' titles would come without Shaq? The Pistons played in two finals series with a cast of team players and no true superstars. The trade market allowed the Celtics to arise as a power in the latter half of the decade.
In the near future, I'm expecting this same mixture of surprises and expectations to mix in the NBA. I expect the Heat to be around, but I also expect free agency to shake things up in 2012. Does Dwight leave? Of course, I hope he doesn't as a Magic fan, but right now I have no idea what to expect. Does Chris Paul stay in New Orleans? Does Deron Williams stay in New Jersey/Brooklyn? If one of these players moves, so does the power balance of the NBA. Unlike the NFL, NHL and MLB, one player switching teams can effectively take a team from a bottom feeder to a playoff contender or an average team to a championship contender.
The most frightening thing to me is the perspective of a lockout. I am a diehard basketball fan, big football fan and I care very little about baseball. After enduring a half lockout in 1999, it's something I never want to experience again. Lets hope that league officials and the players union are able to work things out after seeing the public relations nightmare that is the current NFL situation.
Aside from the guarantee of the unexpected to occur, it's hard to predict what the NBA will be like 10 or even five years from now. Since the second retirement of Jordan, it has always felt that the league was trying to climb back up the mountain, but I think we may be getting closer than ever to the peak. In the end, superstars winning championships brings more attention, and this year's ratings has shown that. Even though the masses tune in to the stars in the finals, I look forward to the unpredictability of the league as well. Given the ratings that the league has enjoyed with this year's finals series, things are looking very good for the NBA's near future.