Since Shaq left La-La-Land for South Beach and Nash left Big D for the Valley of the Sun, the top of the Western Conference has looked pretty much the same. The Spurs, Mavs and Suns have finished 1, 2 and 3 (not always in that order) in regular season record and with the exception of the Mavs meltdown against the Warriors, they've also represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals and the Western Conference Finals in each of the last 3 seasons. And let's face it - Wade and Shaq and Bennett Salvatore notwithstanding, these have been the three best teams in the NBA each season for three years.
But a strange thing has been happening to the next Western Conference teams.
Quick - what team had the fourth best record in the Western Conference in 04-05? That's correct, the mighty Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics had the fourth best record in 04-05, and also advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals. The next season, they missed the playoffs, and another season after that they started over.
In 05-06, the Memphis Grizzlies had the fourth best regular season record in the Western Conference. The Clippers were fifth in the regular season, and had the honor of advancing to the conference semis. So one of them was the fourth best team, after the Spurs, Mavs and Suns. The following season, both teams missed the playoffs, the Grizz with the worst record in the NBA. And while not all of the promise of 05-06 has disappeared from ClipsNation, one bad season followed by a disastrous string of injuries has clouded the team's future considerably. Here's hoping it won't be time to start over a la the Sonics in another season, because there probably won't be a Kevin Durant waiting.
Last season it was the Utah Jazz bidding to join the Western elite. Thanks to the Warriors dominance of the Mavs in the first round, the Jazz actually advanced to the Conference Finals without having to beat the Suns or Mavs - but the Spurs put them back in their place. And now, the Jazz seem to be following the path of recent upstart Western Conference teams - they've lost 8 out of their last 10 and simply aren't the same team they were a year ago. In Utah's case it's particularly puzzling - Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are as good or better than ever, and Ronnie Brewer has seemingly grown into the shooting guard role that was their biggest problem. It's still very early in the season, and my guess is that Boozer and Williams and Sloan will have the Jazz back on track before the playoffs, but there are at least signs that the 'fourth place' curse could be afflicting the Jazz as well.
More than anything, this is a testament to the excellence of the Spurs, Mavs and Suns. While other teams have experienced peaks and valleys, those three have remained at a high plateau for three seasons (and much longer than that in the case of the Spurs). They're all getting a little longer in the tooth - and the reality of the luxury tax makes it very difficult to maintain a high level indefinitely (although Dallas ignores the tax while San Antonio seems to have found a formula for beating it), but so far it's been the young, up-and-coming teams that have faded first, leaving the Big Three to battle each other in May.