The San Antonio Spurs have won four NBA Championships since 1999. They have put together one of the greatest decades by a team in history.
In David Robinson and Tim Duncan, they have featured two of the greatest post players of all-time. They have given Spurs fans everything that they could possibly have hoped for, and then some.
And it's all coming to an end.
No one expects a franchise to maintain its dominance forever. Inevitably, the team will hit a dry spell in the draft (think the recent drafts of the New England Patriots), or will succumb to Father Time's influence on an athlete's body.
Every great team is eventually forced to go through The Season. It is the year in which the dominance is officially over, the year where no fan nor expert can reasonably predict another magical playoff run or one more special game. It is The Season in which we bid our final farewells to the dynasty, and welcome in a new era in a sport.
While San Antonio has not yet reached that point, it is approaching quickly. For the 1960s Celtics, it was the 1970 season, in which a team that had won 11 out of 13 titles finished with a losing record. The 1970s Miami Dolphins, following a run of 67-16, fell to 6-8 in 1976. For the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, it was 1994, when the team missed the postseason for the first time since 1976. The great Bulls of the 1990s failed in 1999, albeit a bit predictably.
While each of these great teams dominated to different degrees, the common theme among them is eventual failure. This failure is brought about in different manners; for the '60s Celtics, it was the retirements of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy; for the '70s Dolphins, it was the departures of running backs Mercury Morris, Jim Kiick, and Larry Csonka; for the '80s Lakers, it was the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson; for the '90s Bulls, it would be the exits of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson.
While the common theme among each of these dynasties is the departure of great players, another major factor in the dissolution of a dynasty is age. The 1980s Celtics declined with the aging of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. The New England Patriots of the previous decade suffered defensively as Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Ted Johnson reached into their mid-30s. And the current San Antonio Spurs have begun the same process.
Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have begun to reach into sports prehistory. Before them, it was Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, and Michael Finley. Age has begun to break up one of the NBA's great teams. While Spurs fans have undoubtedly begun to cope with this fact, Lakers fans have not yet reached that point. But make no mistake; that point is approaching. Fast.
Ron Artest is 30 years old. Derek Fisher is 35. Pau Gasol will be 30 during the 2010-2011 season. Phil Jackson is 65, and entering his final season as an NBA coach.
While these players may not seem to be aging that fast, with Gasol and Artest arguably at the tops of their respective games, age comes faster than anyone expects. Three seasons ago, when Tim Duncan was devastating teams throughout the NBA Playoffs on the way to a title at the age of 31, it looked like he could play forever. Three seasons later, we are beginning to witness the end of another great.
The aging of Artest, Fisher, and Gasol, as well as the pending retirement of Jackson, has not overshadowed the biggest elephant in the room: Kobe Bryant's massive career workload.
Kobe Bryant will retire as one of the five greatest players in NBA history. He is the last great player from the previous generation. He remains one of the most irresistible forces in all of sports. Despite this undeniable greatness (and it is undeniable, even for his biggest detractors), he will begin the down slope sooner than later.
While he may only be 31 years of age, Kobe Bryant is one of two NBA players who is presently travelling in uncharted territory.
He and Kevin Garnett are the first two players in the modern NBA to enter the league directly out of high school. As a result, they are the first of a long-term experiment about how games played as a teenager effect play late in a career.
Garnett, at 34 years of age, began his decline in 2009. After carrying the Minnesota Timberwolves from the age of 19, his body had broken down early.
While Duncan remains a feared player at age 34, his contemporary rival has declined rapidly. The two players are actually from the same high school class (1994) and are the same age. The difference: Duncan spent four years in college, while Garnett went through the grind of the NBA season.
Kobe Bryant faces this same situation today. He has played in upwards of 1,000 regular season games. His postseason total is the sixth highest in NBA history at 198 total games. He has played through numerous injuries. He has played in more playoff games than Michael Jordan, and more postseason games than the greatest of all-time. It is truly amazing that he has maintained his level of play through this grueling run.
The implications of this massive workload are obvious: Bryant, despite being just 31 years old, will begin to falter before the Lakers are ready.
As unbelievable as it may seem as we watch him today, there will come a time that Kobe Bryant can not carry the Lakers anymore. He will be a jump-shooting, 20-point per game scorer, much like Michael Jordan as a Wizard.
When that time comes, and it is coming faster than we realize, the Laker's supporting cast will be called upon to win games. However, as it stands today, that supporting cast will be made up of players who are aged themselves. It is at this point that the Lakers will find themselves faced with The Season.
L.A. has a window of opportunity as good as any team in NBA history; they bring back a two-time defending championship team with its entire core intact, with the greatest coach of all-time at the helm, and the eventual second-greatest player of all-time on the court. If they win one or two more titles with this group of players, it will surprise no one.
What the Lakers need to realize, however, is that the window is closing fast. In 2013, Kobe Bryant will be turning 35, Pau Gasol will be turning 33, and Ron Artest will be 34. Phil Jackson will have been gone for two years.
L.A. will likely be watching the NBA's most recent dynasty ride off into the sunset. The window will be shut, and a new team will take over. And the newly-opened window will begin to slide shut on that team.