Obviously the biggest story on the planet NBA-wise right now is how our friends the Warriors vanquished the mighty Mavericks. A lot of people are making a lot of hay on post-series analysis. Among that is speculation about what this could mean for other underdog teams. That would include us.
Golden State's success is a double-edged sword for the Blazers in my estimation. On the one hand it does show that a team can improve its fortunes (at least its short-term fortunes) fairly quickly. It gives you that little spark of hope that we could be next. On the other hand it also shows that teams are improving around us which puts more pressure on us not to get lapped while we're rebuilding. Obviously this is one more team in the West that we're looking up at now and the general idea is to gain ground and not lose it. Everybody assumes that the Blazers will see a renaissance in the next few years and I think there's reason for optimism on that front. But that renaissance doesn't do much good if everybody else's is quicker and better.
I think the Warriors' victory also shows there's a difference between very good teams and championship teams. Dallas is a very good team. You have to be to win 60+. But even with the tidal wave of victories they never seemed that cohesive to me. They've always had a lot of good parts but they've never really displayed the machine-like precision that San Antonio, Detroit, or many of the great teams of the past showed in their heyday. This too is a cautionary tale. I've said this before and I'll say it again: we should not add odd parts--especially big-name offensive parts--just to get better immediately. Dallas is absolutely the best-case example of what can happen and they still ended up losing their last game of the season the last two years. And most examples end up far worse. (Ironically this is what, in the end, may also doom the Warriors.) Portland needs to be careful about the people they bring in, be that Rashard Lewis, Desmond Mason, or anyone else. If you don't have a focus, harmony, and a bankable style of play night in and night out--meaning if you don't have the players that give you those things--you're not going to end up winning.
I'm not among those who find this a huge vindication for the "new NBA" style that Phoenix and Golden State play. For one thing neither team has gotten to the Promised Land yet. For another Dallas plays pretty close to that style also and they lost with it. I don't believe you have to mold the Blazers into a shape that doesn't match our talent. Trends change every 6-7 years in this league. You want to be the next trend that everybody copies, not a pale imitation of the current one. If we're runners, that's fine. If we play solid defense and rebound and play a more halfcourt style that's fine too. Either one can win a championship. It all depends how reliably well you execute, how much dedication you have, and whether your talent fits the system.
Since we started out talking about teams rising and falling in the West, let's end by taking a little closer look at all the Western teams and where their fortunes might lead in the next couple of years. Obviously this is somewhat slapdash since we don't know where half of these teams will draft or what any of them will look like next fall, let alone down the road. But just using a little intuition and reasoning we might be able to anticipate how easy or difficult the road to the playoffs might be.
Dallas Mavericks: After this debacle people are likely to do to Dallas what they did to San Antonio last year when the Mavericks beat them, namely write them off for dead and suggest wholesale changes. Don't buy into it. Dallas is fine and is going to remain so for the next few years. Barring catastrophic injury there's no way they aren't contending through the end of the decade.
Phoenix Suns: Phoenix is at the apex of their game right now. I doubt their arc will carry them much higher but I doubt it'll descend quickly either. They too will be in contention for a championship the next couple years. After that it gets more iffy.
San Antonio Spurs: They're on the way down but even their graceful arc down is higher than most teams' ups. As long as they have Tim Duncan they're going to be a playoff team.
Utah Jazz: They need to make some changes but Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer will keep them in the playoffs for the next couple of years also.
Houston Rockets: They are up and down and very hard to predict. They'll need to re-tool around their two stars and then pray that McGrady's back holds up. If Tracy goes down they're contending for the lowest level playoff seed at best. And Tracy's health hasn't been great.
Denver Nuggets: I doubt they'll miss the playoffs with those two stars.
L.A. Lakers: This team is in total disarray and will need to be blown up and started over. Whether that process begins this summer or next is the only question. I assume Kobe will be a Laker for life and that always gives them a chance, but he is 29 and has a ton of mileage on him. There's reason to think they might struggle in the next couple of years.
Golden State Warriors: They're the Cinderella story to end all of them and I could easily see them getting to the conference finals this year. But they still have a lot of players who are shaky...emotionally if not physically. This feels a lot like a Minnesota situation to me, where they have one spectacular year and then the mental game breaks down amid all of those agendas. Nevertheless they have enough veterans to be a playoff team for the immediate future.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clips had a disastrous season but I look for them to get a little more point guard help this off-season. That's about all they need to be right back in it. With Elton Brand and either Corey Maggette or whatever they get in return for Corey Maggette playing alongside those veterans I see them returning to the playoffs soon.
New Orleans Hornets: This team has more talent than people think. They got destroyed by injuries this year and still managed to be in the hunt for the eighth spot. I could see them being in the low-seed hunt for a while.
Sacramento Kings: This was the swan song for the crew we've known. Not only is the window closed, it's locked and boarded over. They're going to have to start again and I expect them to be in the lottery the next couple of years.
Minnesota Timberwolves: They're in even more disarray than the Lakers. Their two choices seem to be keep Garnett and stink or lose Garnett and stink monumentally. Ricky Davis is the poster child for what I said about not adding offensive players for a short boost. Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell are the poster children for the perils of depending on people with odd agendas. Basically the lesser teams want to avoid the path that the `Wolves have taken. They're not coming back soon.
Seattle Supersonics Where Seattle goes will depend on whether they retain Rashard Lewis or what they get for him. Ray Allen has a couple good years left but he's in the coda of his career. They have some decent young big men. They desperately need something for Lewis (or to keep Lewis) and some point guard help. If they get it, they'll be in the hunt for a low playoff seed as well and may contend stronger than we do next year. If not they're toast even with Allen.
Memphis Grizzlies: If this team gets one of the top two picks look for them to rebound so fast it gives you whiplash. Unless they tumble in the lottery (heck, even if they do) I bet they'll be back in the playoff hunt next year or the year after.
So that's Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, and Denver definitely in. Houston, Golden State, and the Clippers are strong probabilities. That pretty much accounts for every available slot in the next two years. Which of those teams do you think is going to be vulnerable? And even if you think one is, the Blazers would have to leapfrog the Lakers and the Hornets and hope that Seattle and Memphis aren't outpacing our recovery rate. That's a really tall order from where I'm sitting.
My best guess is that even though the Warriors have opened up a ray of hope for all of us also-rans, the Blazers will need some time to follow in their footsteps. A lot of things would have to go right for us to even make the playoffs. I see virtually no chance of us succeeding there in the next couple of years. The trick will be not to let what should be a 5-6 year playoff absence become a double digit one like the Warriors did, and that will be determined by who we bring in as much as anything. Forget the quick fix and make sure you make those decisions right and the rest will take care of itself. THAT'S the lesson we should be learning from Golden State's body of work.