Exactly ten years ago, the NBA was a very different place. Kobe Bryant and his Lakers led the Western Conference, LeBron James willed the Cavaliers to a fourth-place finish in the East, and a skinny child named Kevin Durant led the last-place Seattle Supersonics in scoring, one year before drafting Russell Westbrook and moving to Oklahoma City. Houston lost their first-round Playoff series to the Utah Jazz, and Golden State, while finishing above .500, did not make the playoffs.
In an age of sports where dynasties still rule and free agent signings don’t ever seem to turn out as great as we want them to, the amount of change seen in the last decade is remarkable. The Lakers are on the tail end of a swift rebuild led mostly by players who can’t buy their own alcohol. Durant is now public enemy #1 on arguably the best team in NBA history. Perhaps the most surprising is that the San Antonio Spurs, the small-market wonderboys who seem to ALWAYS play through the month of July, are this close (index finger and thumb really close together) to missing the playoffs. Never mind home-court advantage, they might be HOME and IN SWEATPANTS for the Playoffs. What in the hell is happening?
It may seem silly to compare anything this season to how things were ten years ago, but just take a second and think about how much has happened in the last decade. The Warriors emerged from the same compartment in your brain where you keep North and South Dakota and cursive to rival the 1990s Chicago Bulls in greatness, for crying out loud. Ok, maybe look back just ten weeks. San Antonio was in third place, just one game behind Houston for second. You already know who was in first. Utah was five games below .500, they’re now a fifth seed. I wrote this, and I was wrong. The Spurs are falling apart, and Popovich can’t save them.
Without San Antonio in the Playoffs, things just feel off. It’s almost the same as not having the New England Patriots in the NFL Playoffs. People want to see that surly old coach with his darling 40-year-olds, even if it’s just to watch them get beaten down. Golden State, the most despicable of all superteams, isn’t looking so super right now. Sure, they’re missing Durant, Curry, and Thompson, but Houston is putting on an absolute clinic. They’re looking, frankly, like the Warriors in 2015. James Harden and Chris Paul are showing out like the Splash Brothers 2.0, effective three-point shooters who can drive and put grown men on their behinds. It’s still tough to see any team being able to beat a full-strength or even half-strength Golden State team four times in seven games, but Houston might have the best shot out of anyone.
And did anyone see this coming out of Portland? Out of a pile of Voodoo Donuts, Prius parts, and a city-wide skunky haze, Damian Lillard is willing his team to a remarkable season. They’re currently on a thirteen-game winning streak. Portland is still too top-heavy in their scoring load distribution for this to look super sustainable, but it’s both impressive and surprising to see what they’re doing in the northwest.
All of this is leading to what will hopefully be an entertaining Playoffs this year. Last year was like a Nickelback concert with fifteen opening acts; some people paid attention to the opening acts, but mostly paid attention because Bill Murray showed up, threatening to kick Nickelback off the stage. Bill Murray = LeBron. They were the highest rated Finals since 1998, but they were also the least competitive in NBA History. For true sports fans, competition and mystery is truly entertaining. While the West is getting super weird and different, it makes for great basketball and a fun set of Playoff series to watch.