I first saw pro basketball at the end of the Bill Russell era. Every year it seemed that some team, usually the Knicks, Lakers or 76ers, were better over the course of the regular season; but the Celtics would pull it all together and have just enough mettle and savvy to eek by everyone else and raise another banner to the rafters at Boston Garden.
After Russell retired, the teams that celebrated titles, the glory era Knicks, the Oscar Robertson-Kareem Abdul Jabbar Bucks, and the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West Lakers, were all led by experienced players who could triumph over the athleticism of their younger counterparts. That sense was reinforced in the decades that followed as the Lakers, Bulls, Celtics, Pistons and Rockets won multiple titles. There was a hegemony at the top; even the cast of runners up rarely changed. It was the sense that winning required the moxie of experience that led me and most basketball fans to tolerate the lack of change.
Consider the contrast between basketball and other sports. Let's take 2002 as a random example. Six years ago, the baseball fan is looking at a world in which the Yankees would be fixtures in many World Series to come, towering over the likes of Minnesota and Oakland, and destined to do battle with the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants. The football fan in fall 2002 probably thought that the champion New England Patriots were a fluke and that the real power rested in places like Oakland, Baltimore and Tennessee. In 2002, Roger Federer had yet to win a Grand Slam title and the tennis world seemed on the verge of dominance in both play and style by Serena Williams. In most sports, six years is a lifetime or two.
In contrast, six years ago, the top NBA teams were the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. Six years later, only a little has changed. Yet, in these playoffs we are only beginning to see the future elite of the NBA starting to emerge. The Mavericks have been eliminated and fired their coach. A summer of re-tooling awaits them. San Antonio, the defending champion, is still in the mix, but with the exception of Eva Langoria's spouse, they are a very old team, relying on players in their 30s for what is likely to be one last run at a title. During this time the Lakers bottomed out, feuded and rebuilt their team. Aside from Kobe Bryant, L.A. fields a much younger and more athletic team than their title era units.
The story of the first round of the NBA playoffs, which conclude this weekend has been the rise of the next set of elite teams. The New Orleans Hornets led by 22 year-old Chris Paul, 25 year-old Tyson Chandler and 27 year-old David West quickly dispatched the Mavericks in five games and hold home court advantage in their upcoming series against the Spurs.
Utah, led by 23 year-old Deron Williams, 26 year-old Carlos Boozer and 27 year old Andrei Kirilenko, have a lead on Houston and should they advance, they stand an excellent chance against the Lakers. In the East, very few observers thought that Atlanta, led by 22 year-old Josh Smith, 26 year-old Joe Johnson, and 21 year-old Al Horford was ready to challenge the mighty, 66-win Boston Celtics, but their series is going six games and possibly the distance. Also few folks expected the Philadelphia 76ers, a team with a nucleus that includes 19 year-old Thaddeus Young, 21 year-old Louis Williams, and 24 year-old Andre Igoudala, to give the 59-win Pistons a stiff challenge, yet that series went deep.
There's a fine line between savvy veteran and old. A lot of veteran NBA stars have spent the first round looking like they crossed the border. Thirty-four-year-old Steve Nash committed two turnovers in the final minute of the Suns series ending loss to the Spurs on Tuesday night. Shaquille O'Neal, 36, looked miserable shooting free throws and he just didn't bother to rotate to the perimeter when his defensive assignments required it as he knew he lacked the speed to get back to the middle. Thirty-five-year-old Jason Kidd, the leader among active players in triple doubles (ten or more points, rebounds, and assists in a single game), struggled to tally a single double in his team's five games against New Orleans.
Although the Cleveland-Washington series has been entertaining, and game one of the Phoenix-San Antonio series was one for the ages, the first round has mostly lacked the kind nail-biting, down-to-the-wire excitement that was expected. But it has more than made up for it in big picture development.
It's given us a glimpse of the future. Next season, Philadelphia and Atlanta will be much better than the seventh and eighth best teams in the Eastern Conference. And in the West, New Orleans and Utah figure to be joined at the top by Portland, the youngest team in the league this year. The Trail Blazers went 40-42 and will improve markedly with the arrival of Greg Oden, a center whose skill set reminds many of Hall of Fame-bound pivotman David Robinson.
I chose 2002 earlier as it was the last time an overhaul occurred at the top of an NBA conference. That year the old powers of the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia, Miami, Milwaukee, and the NY Knicks went down in a heap, replaced by Detroit, New Jersey and Boston. When it happened it was a shock; no one saw it coming. A change of the same magnitude is coming next season, but this time, thanks to the early rounds of the playoffs, we've had advance warning.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.