Over the weekend, as I was thinking about the situation in Denver where Carmelo Anthony is apparently still determined to leave sooner rather than later, a thought occurred to me. There have been a lot of Western Conference teams in recent years whose windows of opportunity have closed almost as soon as they opened.
With Chauncey Billups providing desperately needed leadership to a team of hotheads, the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, only to lose in the first round of last season's playoffs. Suddenly, facing the reality of a disgruntled superstar and an aging roster, they're everyone's favorite pick to drop like a stone in the standings.
But it's not just the Nuggets. Aside from the Lakers and to a lesser extent the Spurs, many of the top Western Conference teams have been watching their fortunes decline in recent years.
The Suns defied the odds last season when everyone predicted they'd be the team to fall off (so I guess that means you should take these sorts of predictions with a grain of salt). Despite everyone's best guesses, Phoenix actually replaced the Nuggets as the WC Finalist (you know, the last West team to lose to the Lakers). But many of those reasons people thought the Suns were in decline are still there and worse than ever (Nash and Hill are now even older, and Amare Stoudemire is now even more gone) and the Suns can't hold on forever.
Before the Nuggets and the Suns, it was the Jazz who were the darlings of the West. Like Phoenix, they lost an all star power forward this summer when Carlos Boozer signed in Chicago. Utah tried to reload quickly trading for Al Jefferson, and perhaps Deron Willians and Jefferson will combine to form yet another potent 1-4 screen/roll in Salt Lake City - but we'll have to wait and see on that.
Or perhaps you remember the New Orleans Hornets? In 07-08 they won 56 games and appeared destined to take another step, with the game's best point guard and a young core. But those 56 wins were followed by 49 and 37 (the last largely due to injuries to Chris Paul), setting a bad trend. Now, like Anthony, Paul has let it be known that he's not happy, and has openly discussed forming his own big three since the Super Friends joined forces at the Palace of Justice (aka American Airlines Arena). If New Orleans can't keep Paul happy, it will be back to square one for the Hornets.
Even the mighty Lakers, who seem impervious in the West for at least a couple more seasons, have some serious issues waiting not too far down the road. The Lakers' top five players in terms of minutes played last season are ALL over 30 years old now - ancient by NBA standards. The sixth is a nice young 22 year old - who also happens to spend large parts of every season injured.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are spring chickens compared to the Spurs. Manu Ginobili is 33, Tim Duncan is 34 and Antonio McDyess is 36. Tiago Splitter had better be pretty good if San Antonio hopes to stave off an inevitable decline. Of course, in keeping with the Spurs' seniority policy, Splitter is a 25 year old rookie.
Right down the line, when you look at key players on Western Conference rosters, they're either in their 30s, or troubled in some other way. Just look at last season's Western Conference All Star team:
- Amare Stoudemire - Gone
- Carmelo Anthony - Good as gone
- Jason Kidd - 37
- Steve Nash - 36
- Tim Duncan - 34
- Chauncey Billups - 34
- Dirk Nowitzki - 32
- Pau Gasol - 30
Zach Randolph - 29
- Chris Kaman - 28
- Deron Williams - 26
Kevin Durant - 22
- (Kobe Bryant, 32, missed the All Star Game with an injury)
Of the four players without question marks who are under 30, one of them is a Clipper - and he's arguably the fourth best player on the team!
In the competitive landscape of the NBA, this could be very good news for the Clippers - if not for Clipper fans who are also fans of immediate gratification. While it's possible that 2 or 3 teams will have relatively steep declines this season, it's more likely that the drop off will be gradual. Which should be fine, as a presumed Clippers' rise may take a couple seasons as well. Half of the LAC roster, including two presumed stars in Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon and at least two presumed future starters in Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, are 21 years of age or younger. So if these former Western powers want to continue their decline for another couple seasons, that would be just fine.
Of course the Clippers aren't the only 'young' team out there waiting to take their place at the table. Look no further than last season's youngest all star, and the MVP of the World Championships this month, to see the young team most likely to fill any power vacuum.
When predictions started circulating that had the Thunder as the second best team in the West, my immediate reaction was to think, no way, it's too soon. How could a team that only won 23 games in 08-09 be second in the mighty west in 10-11 with more or less the same personnel? The seemingly limitless headroom of Durant and Russell Westbrook certainly has a lot to do with that, but so does the decline of a bunch of other teams. And when you take it all into account, it's not that far-fetched.
In addition to the Thunder, you've also got the Trailblazers who made the playoffs last season, and have a young and improving core as opposed to an old and declining core. Then there are the Grizzlies, who won 11 more games than the Clippers last season and are also very young. It's pretty easy to dismiss Memphis as irrelevant - but then again, that's what everyone else does with the Clippers.
The point is that there is an opportunity looming out there, but it's up to the Clippers have to take advantage of it. DeAndre Jordan may or may not be a real player some day, but even if he is, he'll have to be re-signed for big boy dollars after this season. Then it's Gordon's turn to get paid; then Griffin's. Will Donald Sterling be willing to pay the money necessary to keep this group together? And for how long? Is 2012 the Clippers time? Or is it 2013? Hell, Gordon and Griffin will only be 26 during the 15-16 season, right in their primes, and Aminu and Bledsoe will be younger still. But five year plans aren't really an option in the NBA. Too many things will change. The odds that all those guys will be Clippers five years from now are slim and none.
So there's a door opening in the Western Conference, that much seems clear. But whether the Clippers will be among the teams to slip through is far less certain.