With the 2011 NBA Season in the books and the Dallas Mavericks crowned champions; it’s never too early to start looking to next year and seeing how this year’s playoff teams look going into the offseason. Is their team stock rising or dropping? Are there best years ahead of them or is their championship window closed?
Part IV: The Top Half of the West
Oklahoma City Thunder: We saw this team go from the 8th seed last year to making the Conference Finals this year. It seems the Thunder are ready to make noise and be taking seriously as a title contender. The crazy thing about them is that Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka are all 22 or younger. Kendrick Perkins is only 26. All but Westbrook are signed until at least 2014. This Thunder team is young, skilled and going nowhere but up. The one thing that seems to stand in there way is Westbrook’s point guard play. I don’t think it is as big of a concern as others do, Westbrook is young and still learning. He showed the ability to defer to Durant in game seven against the Memphis Grizzlies when Westbrook became just the third person to get a triple-double in a game seven. Kevin Durant needs to be more assertive at the end of games because a 6’10 guy who can shoot, attack and score the way he does is hard to stop. We saw last year in the playoffs just why Harden was selected with the number three overall pick a few years ago. He is arguably a better playmaker than Westbrook, and the offense ran better when he was in the game. I expect Harden to finally become the starter next year and I also expect to see the Thunder make the leap yet again and represent the West in the Finals next year.
Stock: Meteoric Rise
Dallas Mavericks: The 2011 NBA Champions. There really isn’t anywhere to go but down once you’re the champ, especially in Dallas’ case. They have a few guys who are question marks going into the off-season, Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea and Caron Butler are all free agents. With Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion as starters this team isn’t really getting any younger. Dirk should be able to maintain his level of play for another season or two, but will his teammates be able to do the same? I know everyone just assumes that Dallas will re-sign Chandler, Barea and Butler, but Dallas had the second highest payroll last year. If you don’t even add anyone to the team they are already close to the salary cap. They might be able to keep one of the guys, but they don’t win last year without Chandler or Barea. All that being said Dallas accomplished something that only 7 other teams can say they have done in the last 28 years and that is to win an NBA Championship.
Stock: Dropping, but still competitive
Los Angeles Lakers: I am not a believer of the sky is falling when it comes to the Lakers. They won the Western Conference three years in a row; odds were they weren’t going to win a fourth one. We saw last year Gasol just fall apart in the playoffs, but Kobe played well. We also saw more glimpses of Andrew Bynums ability to take over games; he has really become a top player for them. All that being said their biggest issue is still PG, and that needs to be addressed either in the draft or free agency. With Phil Jackson gone, and Mike Brown in it will be interesting to see how the team responds to the coaching change. They are going from the winningest head coach in NBA history to a guy who gets blamed for Lebron and Cleveland losing in the playoffs. Brown is a much more defensive oriented coach and with the triangle gone, Steve Blake might be able to play better next year. I don’t think it is time to blow this team up just yet, they still have all the pieces that won them the championship in 2010 and if they could just fix a few holes they are right back at the top.
San Antonio Spurs: Where to begin with the Spurs? It is sad enough to be only the second top seeded team to lose a best of seven series to an eighth seed, but Duncan was just flat out outplayed by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Duncan has been the centerpiece of the Spurs dynasty since coming into the league; however all the years of playing have taken a toll and simply put he just simply isn’t the same old Duncan any more. After Tony Parker made the comment that the Spurs championship winning days are over, he may be out of San Antonio soon. Manu is their best player, but he is just so injury prone that I don’t know if he can really be considered as a guy who can win them a championship. Depending on the piece the Spurs can get for Parker, I don’t see much youth other than George Hill and Tiago Splitter. Both of those guys are simply role players and while I hate to doubt the Spurs, the future isn’t looking too bright. Their franchise guy is merely a spot up guy, their point guard doesn’t believe in the team, and their shooting guard can’t stay healthy enough to stay on the court.
Stock: Falling fast