Decline of Celtics, Lakers, ascendancy of Heat marks beginning of new NBA era

Doug Benc

In the West, Kobe Bryant is old and injured. Los Angeles begs Dwight Howard to stay, even as he flirts with Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. In the East, the Celtics traded their head coach and two long-time superstars. The Miami Heat have just won their second NBA title in three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. The modern NBA landscape has changed.

$76,867,372.00. That is how much money the Los Angeles Lakers have committed to a roster of Kobe Bryant (won't play until December, at the earliest), Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, and Jodie Meeks (notwithstanding Robert Sacre's $988,872 qualifying offer or any potential amnesty moves). On top of that, the only player signed through 2014-2015 is the geriatric Nash. While the Lakers organization has embarked on a series of embarrassing promotional billboards begging Dwight Howard to "#stay" - since removed - it's pretty clear that Dwight would prefer to go to place where the lights don't burn as hot and the locker room fart jokes go over better.

Flip to the other coast, and the Boston Celtics just executed one of the most shocking sequences of trades in NBA history - not only letting Doc Rivers go to the Los Angeles Clippers for an unprotected first round pick in 2015, but then turning around and trading longtime Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for three first round picks and some filler. While GM Danny Ainge pretty clearly saw the writing on the wall for the current Celtics group, there doesn't appear to be any cohesive plan if Dwight doesn't choose to stay in La-La Land. ESPN writer and Celtics homer extraordinaire Bill Simmons looked on the verge of tears (and vomit) when told of the trade rumors on draft day last week, later to be confirmed (though not official until July 12th).

The Lakers and Celtics, two of the most storied franchises in the history of the NBA, are both hitting their modern nadir at the same time. With the third consecutive trip to the Finals - and second consecutive championship - we have entered the LeBron James-Miami Heat era. The Heat are the team to beat for the foreseeable future, and will probably remain so for as long as James' talents remain in South Beach. So what about the rest of the league?

In the East, the playoff landscape is on track to feature a few new teams, but the familiar faces will largely remain - the Heat are far and away the best team and could likely sleepwalk to a first seed. A nascent Pacers team featuring Roy Hibbert and Paul George took them to a seven game series, but it's not clear what else they can do to improve their odds against the Heat. The Knicks recently mortgaged a little more of their future to add Andrea Bargnani, which might improve their offense a little bit (did they really need any more?) and will definitely make their defense substantially worse. The Nets addition of KG and Pierce (alongside Deron Williams, Jason Terry, Joe Johnson and...wait hold on now I have to figure out who's actually on the Nets roster now) should give them a solid spot in the top 4 for some time. Other than that, the Bulls have an enormous question mark looming over the head of Derrick Rose and his ability to be as effective as he was when he returns, Masai "Batman" Ujiri has a big rebuilding project in front of him, and frankly, the rest of the East is an ongoing trainwreck full of burning garbage and old truck tires. Will Andrew Bynum ever play again? Who knows! Does Joe Dumars finally stop sniffing glue and bring the Pistons back to relevance? Maybe! Will Cody Zeller make an impact in Charlotte? These people don't think so!

In the West, however... things are wide open.

Since the Lakers have slipped from their perch as the most dominant squad in the West, the race for the top seeds in the conference have seemed more like a rugby scrum than the upper crust horse polo of the East. While you won't ever be able to count out the Spurs while R.C. Buford, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan still draw breath, there really is no clear favorite to take the first seed. Although Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are phenomenal talents, Westbrook's untimely meniscus injury in the playoffs showed definitively that KD will need more help. The problem for the Thunder is that they traded that help - in the form of James Harden - to the Houston Rockets, who are now attempting to woo the coy Dwight Howard. Kevin Martin, received in that trade, has now opted out and is an unrestricted free agent (and having just been made an offer from Minnesota). With $67,315,965 of committed salary already, it's difficult to envision how the Thunder manage to improve their squad enough to put them over the top. That James Harden trade looks worse and worse.

Just behind the Spurs and the Thunder are our Nuggets. With George Karl gone fishing and Batman flown to another coop, Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly must build off a roster full of eager young talent that managed to reach the third seed last year as the fifth-youngest squad in the league, and that's if you include Andre Miller (37), Andre Iguodala (29) and Corey Brewer (27). It's sorta scary - but exciting - to think that Timofey Mozgov and Wilson Chandler would be the elder statesmen of the team were Miller, Iguodala and Brewer to not return to the Nuggets. The other four younger teams? The Utah Jazz (missed playoffs), Houston Rockets (made playoffs, 8th seed), Detroit Pistons (11th seed in the East), New Orleans Pelicans (14th in West) and Cleveland Cavaliers (13th in East). Although it remains to be seen whether or not Shaw can replicate Karl's regular season success, the fact that the Nuggets were able to perform at such a high level with such a young group of players speaks volumes to their potential - and that's without seeing how recently drafted NCAA leading scorer Erick Green impacts the team. Can the Nuggets continue to develop their young talent over the course of next season?

With the Clippers picking up Doc Rivers and Chris Paul re-signing a long term megadeal, the big test will be whether or not Doc can guide Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to a second-round playoff berth. While CP3 and Blake Griffin are truly forces in their own right, I question the team surrounding them. Although picking up J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley from Milwaukee and Phoenix respectively was an epic coup, that team must prove that it is capable of executing defensively against the top talents in the conference.

The Golden State Warriors, just recently having shot the Nuggets out of the first round of the playoffs, could also present another potential Western Conference contender. If Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut can remain healthy - and this has been the question for most of their respective NBA careers - their collection of young talent that can shoot the lights out and a solid inside presence in David Lee, Festus Ezeli and the aforementioned Bogut will present a difficult test for any team they match up with.

The Grizzlies will probably bang and break their way through to the West playoffs with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr., with the recently-signed journeyman Kosta Koufos backing them up. If Houston lands Dwight, they could potentially "rocket" (hurrr) up the standings. A healthy Minnesota Timberwolves squad purged of the corruption of David Kahn and having acquired potential talent Shabazz Muhammad may finally reach the playoffs. Portland, Dallas, Utah, Sacramento, New Orleans and Phoenix still have a long ways to go.

Ultimately, seeing the familiar franchises bow out to make way for new contenders (especially in the West) is a good thing. Even though the NBA is the most dynastic of all major professional American sports and looks to remain so, seeing franchises like our Nuggets or the Memphis Grizzlies - and even the long-suffering now-insufferable L.A. Clippers - make waves as possible contenders is great for the league. As we enter into the always-tumultuous free agency period during the NBA offseason, the fortunes of teams will be made and broken by the decisions of a few big names - like Andre Iguodala, Dwight Howard, Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith, Tony Allen and Manu Ginobili, to name a few - on where they'll ink their next deal.

Departing NBA commissioner Stern once joked (?) that his fantasy NBA Finals would be Lakers vs. Lakers - but incoming commission Adam Silver will find an NBA presided over by King James, bereft of the other familiar franchises faces of the last decade, yet one that is arguably more exciting and more competitive than ever before.

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