Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Sun Sets on the West

After the recent relocation of several of the NBA’s bigger names, there has been some rumblings that the balance of power has shifted from the always-strong West to a seemingly suddenly- stacked East.  With big name power forwards such as Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer shipping East, as well as the most prized free agent of all, LeBron James, remaining in the Conference, albeit on a different team, it seems that such speculations may actually have some merit. 

The Eastern Cojordannference has only produced three champions since Michael’s shot over Byron Russell, as the League has been largely dominated by Western Conference dynasties like the Spurs and the Lakers.  However, this summer’s shuffling of stars provides hope to many itching for Conference equality.  Not only does the East finally have a team that may be able to challenge the Lakers (both on the court and in off court media appeal) in Miami, but it retains the core of each of the past two Conference champions, and also appears to contain a couple other up-and-coming contenders, like Charlotte and Chicago.   

The West on the other hand, lost some star power, and the sun is beginning to set on several of its other aging attractions, forcing one to wonder if we are about to see the end of an era.  Sure the Lakers are still the NBA’s strongest team, but the Conference caliber drops significantly after the defending champs. 

The once-imposing Nuggets seem to have plateaued, and no other squad seems willing to stepkobe wade up and snag the spot of second best.  You have to wonder if the championship window has closed on once-promising squads such as the Suns and Mavericks, whose extreme regular season success throughout the past decade never equated to a championship banner.  A quick glance up and down each of these team’s rosters shows that neither is in position to make that deep playoff push.  If Nash couldn’t do it with Amare and Joe Johnson, he’s not going to do it with Jason Richardson and Channing Frye.  The same can be said for Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs (In fact, you could spot the Mavericks an 11-quarter NBA Finals lead and they may still come away empty-handed. Oh, wait..). 

The super-successful Spurs squad remains largely unchanged, but with age and injury issues it is questionable whether the team has enough in the tank to miami3make another run at the title.  Although I would never count out a Duncan/Popavich-led team, but after being swept by the Suns in the Playoffs last season it doesn’t seem as though they have the tools to compete with the League’s top teams any longer.  The Blazers are putting the pieces in place, but are still a year or two away from being a true contender, and the same can be said for the Thunder, although they have progressed quicker than anyone initially imagined, helped in large part by Kevin Durant’s development into a bona fide superstar. 

And just as the sun sets in the West, it shines on the East, which now boasts three legitimate contenders in Miami, Orlando and Boston,a second-tier team who is a personnel change or two away from contention (Atlanta), and a Chicago team with the ascension of Derrick Rose to superstar status and the acquisition of Carlos Boozer, who look to be a prominent fixture in the future of the Conference.  So although the supposed “shift” may not be as obvious or sudden as some are suggesting, the days of Western domination are numbered, as a new day is about to dawn.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Starving for Success

It is difficult to define a “successful” season in sports.  The very definition of the term seems to vary from team to team on a seasonal basis, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact characteristics that come to define a successful season.  For some long-suffering fans a successful season may simply mean a winning record.  If you don’t believe me ask any Pittsburgh Pirates fan if finishing the regular season with a higher number in the win column than the loss column would qualify as a success and I bet most would salivate strictly at the thought.  However for others, anything short of hanging a championship banner falls to failure (Lakers anyone?).  Which is truly success? 

Since sport is largely based on winning, championships seems to be a suitable measure of success.  After all, a championship is the ultimate goal and for many in the hyper-competitive world of sports, anything less is a disappointment.  Sadly, if this is the case, then all but a handful of teams can be eliminated for contention of success in the upcoming season already.  It seems almost kobe trophiestaboo to so drastically trim the number of true contenders, especially months before the start of the season, but the truth is that for a League where the number of total champions of the past thirty years can be counted on two hands,  the pool of potential winners is smaller than ever.  Only a handful of teams will truly compete for a title this season (Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs, Heat, Magic, Celtics, give or take a couple), leaving the rest of the fan base wondering what exactly they have to be excited for.  Pardon the pessimism, but fans of a squad outside of this pack of powers have either already accepted their franchise's fate or are in denial. 

The NBA playoffs, more so than other sports’ postseasons, are a true test of the talent of a team.  The outcome cannot be blamed on a computer system, nor can a single game in bad weather alter the outcome an an entire season.  To take home the title, a team must survive four best-of-seven series against the League’s toughest teams; a feat that most often leaves little doubt of who the year’s best team truly was.  This is why there is often very little debate surrounding the merit of a championship NBA team as opposed to other sports ( ‘07 Giants anyone?).  So, although the system is adept at allowing the strongest team to emerge victorious, it also eliminates some of the excitement of the chase, and leaves Toronto Raptors fans wondering when they are going to get theirs. 

Last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder team was a great surprise to the NBA world; a young, enthusiastic team led by an emerging superstar who pushed their way into the Playoffs in a packed Western Conference; a great story all around.  However, did this team have a legitimate shot at beating the Lakers in a seven game series?  Of course not.  Maybe in one game, but a series, no way, and that’s just how the League is structured.  Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.   LeBron James had a chance to push parity in the League this summer, as did lwbthe rest of the free agent class, and many thought that this summer of 2010 would shake up the landscape of the NBA to an extent not previously seen.  However, as all of the pieces begin to fall into place the picture is starting to look extremely similar; a few familiar teams sitting at the top, looking down  upon the rest.  Sure some players got moved around, and LeBron and wade are going to form arguably the most talented twosome of all time, but the rest of the landscape looks largely unchanged.  So while the rest of the world prepares for an epic Finals battle Kobe and the Lakers and Miami’s new super-trio, I’ll just sit back and hope for a winning season from the Sixers.