I'm writing this at 9PM PST, after the San Antonio Spurs beat the Miami Heat to win the series, 4-1, and win their fifth NBA Championship. I tell you that because you will read this on Wednesday, and there will have been plenty of analysis about this series and the state of the NBA by then.
I watch Pro Basketball, but I'm not nearly the fan I once was. I'm not going to write an article full of links and statistics to support a position. I will give you my first thoughts on this series, and my opinion of the state of the NBA. It's meant to be provocative, but likely not controversial, and I'll do it in the written form an "oral history.'
I definitely was a huge fan of Pro Basketball from childhood to around ten years ago. What happened then? The Lakers traded Shaq after losing in the Finals to Detroit Pistons. The Lakers had put together a super team including Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Over the summer, Kobe was accused of allegedly raping a woman in a resort in Colorado. Still, the Lakers seemed to soldier on, beating the San Antonio Spurs, with an earlier version of the team that won tonight, on the famous Derek Fisher 0.4 shot. Unfortunately, they ran into something new in Larry Brown's Detroit Pistons - the consummate team that focused on defense. That's so NBA. There's always something new and fresh -- a flavor of the month -- which everyone else tries to copy.
I admit it. I'm shocked that San Antonio won this series. I didn't think anyone could touch the Heat this year, and probably next. That the Spurs had the best record once again didn't faze me. Having watched many games in the arena, I know the players basically don't try until the playoffs - especially on defense. That's why you always hear that it's a half-court game in the playoffs - because an NBA defense is potentially too good to allow transition. There is a paradox there: as old as San Antonio is, they had the legs to have a great regular season and still win it all. My hats off to them. I've said it before, Greg Popovich is the greatest coach ever - after John Wooden. The organization is the best in sports today. No, this year's team is not one of the greatest of all time, and the organization is still not on the same plane with the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls (of the 90's), but they are the best of the last fifteen years especially considering the size of their market.
How did they win it this year? The first game air conditioning fiasco helped - it may have broken the back of the Heat. But the two biggest meta-factors were: the Spurs quick passing and smart play negated the Heat's trap (and this is from three geriatric cases -- so much for the athleticism we hear about all the time now), and even though LeBron James is hands-down, no one is even close, best player in the world right now, it wasn't enough - the rest of the team wasn't there.
So is this the end of an era? Actually, I think this particular era ended two years ago when the NBA signed the last Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Players Association, and David Stern rescinded the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. The Heat couldn't actually put a sustainable five man team together after the "Big Three" and no one else can either now. The multi-billionaires aside (like the owner of the Brooklyn Nets and now the Los Angeles Clippers), the salary cap is almost air-tight restrictive, and the small market owners, perhaps 24 or so (everyone except the Lakers, Clippers, Nets, Knicks, Bulls and Celtics) and their fans, understandably, love it.
So what era are we in now? Let me take you for a stroll down memory lane before I answer that.
I became a Pro Basketball fan upon the drafting of then-called Lew Alcindor by the Milwaukee Bucks. I'm sure I was the only Bucks fan in New York City - especially since the Knicks, with Walt Frazier, Willis Reed , Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett, were to win the championship that year. The Bucks gave it a good run with Alcindor, Lucius Allen (also a Bruin) and Bob Dandridge. They were the second best team in the league with a 56-26 record and pushing the Knicks in the finals of the Eastern Conference. The Knicks ultimately beat the Lakers in a great series that included the return of the hobbled Willis Reed and Jerry West's shot from beyond mid-court. The Bucks would win the next year when they added Oscar Robertson. The Lakers won it all in 1972 after setting the pro sports record for consecutive wins in a season. Until the Showtime Lakers and later the Jordan Chicago Bulls came along, those Lakers team was thought to be the greatest team of all time. That was great basketball: dominated by great centers, solid defense and team first concept.
That era of the beautiful team sport gave way to the 1970's run and gun basketball dominated by the scoring stars like Bob McAdoo, Nate Archibald, George Gervin, and Bernard King. The league almost imploded on itself.
Fortunately, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird and later, Michael Jordan came along to save the league. The Lakers, Celtics and Bulls were great teams, but things had changed. With nicknames like Magic and Showtime, the star system, huge contracts and free agency had irrevocably taken hold.
The Lakers made two more runs in the Kobe Bryant era, but the "Big Three" concept started with the one-time wonders Boston Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to be followed by LeBron James and his "Decision" in Miami. He and Dwight Howard represented the height of the cult of personality in professional basketball.
What's the problem with pro basketball now? The underlying issues are: the decline of the marquis franchises, the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics, bringing poorly coached, too young players into the league, and the vengeance exacted by the majority small market owners via the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
If you assume the Heat are done and San Antonio will have to succumb to age sometime soon, then I submit to you that the NBA may now be on the precipice of being wrecked by one-and-done and AAU style ball. What you see in high school and college had to catch up to the Pros sometime.
I think there are certain bright lights in this - like the ultra-athleticism exemplified by Russell Westbrook. Further, I don't think the league is headed toward a 1970's-like meltdown. The league is too popular internationally this time around, and the talent pool is greater both domestically and internationally. Finally, something always comes along to change the dynamic, like a Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, and maybe even a high team concept geriatric collection like the Spurs.