Wednesday Lunch: Out with a Whimper–The Fall of the Lakers and Spurs Dynasties

Posted: May 11, 2011 in basketball, nba, sports
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By Dylan Jamaal Davis

Let’s travel back to June 25th, 1997. On this date, the San Antonio Spurs had the first overall pick in the NBA Draft and used that selection on Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan. Duncan was the reigning college player of the year and one of the best prospects of the decade to join the professional ranks. As a member of the Spurs, he joined future hall of famer David Robinson in a loaded frontcourt that looked poised to bring multiple NBA championships to the Alamo City.


The Twin Towers brought a championship almost immediately following the strike shortened 1999 season. Robinson was reaching the tail end of his storied career, but with smart drafting and a patient front office, the Spurs were able to add point guard Tony Parker in 2001 and shooting guard Manu Ginobili for the 2002 season. Alongside Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were able to capture NBA crowns in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Duncan fostered a defense-first, unselfish mentality that was embraced by the entire Spurs organization as they dominated for over a decade. Two thousand eleven was seen as the final hurrah for the Spurs as the core three had all moved past their prime and been robbed of much of their athleticism. Left with only their basketball IQ’s and a few promising role players, the Spurs grabbed the number one seed in the Western Conference playoffs and looked poised for a long playoff run.

The 1996 NBA draft is now considered one of the deepest and most talented collection of players who have ever joined the pro ranks together. Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Raheem, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas were selected in the first round and Ben Wallace was among the players that entered the league as an undrafted free agent. The Charlotte Hornets held the 13th pick in the first round and with that pick, they drafted a high schooler from Lower Merion, PA named Kobe Bryant. The Hornets believed they needed help in the frontcourt so they turned around and immediately traded Bryant for (future King) Vlade Divac straight up. While Divac is widely considered one of the best passing big men ever, Bryant quickly went to work making that trade one of the most lopsided in NBA history.


Kobe became the youngest starter in NBA history during his rookie season and won the Slam Dunk championship at age 18. The next year, he became the youngest All-Star game starter in league history and won the 6th man of the year award. During the same year that Kobe was drafted, the Lakers also added the best young center in basketball: Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq and Kobe led the Lakers to the playoffs for three years but never made any noise until Phil Jackson joined the Lakers as head coach prior to the 1999 season. Los Angeles morphed into the premier team in the NBA and won three straight titles from 2000-2002 with Shaq getting Finals MVP all three years. Although they seemed poised to win titles for the next decade, the Lakers slowly feel apart because of an ever-worsening relationship between Shaq and Kobe that led to O’Neal being traded after the Lakers blew the 2004 Finals to the Detroit Pistons in five games, despite being heavy favorites.

Los Angeles fell off as a contender for a few years but came on strong during the 2007-08 season after adding Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom to their starting five. The Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals but were able capture two more titles in a row the following two seasons and looked primed to finish off another three-peat heading into the 2011 season. The Lakers struggled slightly to begin the year, but rolled off a 17-1 run after the All-Star break to position themselves as the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs.


This brings us to April 16th, 2011, the day the NBA playoffs began. Since the 2003 draft, which included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (and Darko Milicic as the 2nd pick!), the NBA has enjoyed a surge of new talent into the league, but the Spurs and Lakers were able to remain at or near the top of the NBA because of their star players, fabulous coaches, and shrewd front-offices. The two franchises have combined for 11 out of the last 12 Western Conference Championships and have won nine NBA titles in that time span. Even though many pundits seem to agree that all sports have reached a high level of parity, both of these franchises have kept the rest of the league at bay by playing the salary cap well and getting lucky.


While nobody expects any team to keep winning forever, it has gotten increasingly difficult to imagine a Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals without a representative from San Antonio or Los Angeles; those teams are just too ingrained into NBA fans minds as winners. It has gotten to the point where it is never safe to consider either of these teams dead until there are four zeroes on the clock in their fourth loss of a playoff series, they have just won too many times. That’s why, even through a myriad of question marks appeared on both sides, it appeared as if the Lakers and Spurs would once again meet to decide who would play for the NBA title. So what if the Lakers stumbled down the stretch or that they couldn’t play their best five players at once? So what if Kobe could no longer beat players off the dribble and was sulking even more? They were the Lakers, they would figure it out. It was much the same for the Spurs, so what if Manu Ginobili was injured and Duncan couldn’t do what he once could? So what if they didn’t match up well with the Grizzlies who were their first round opponent? They were the Spurs, and Duncan and crew would find a way.


Looking back now, it’s easy to see that both the Lakers and the Spurs were fatally flawed teams that were badly outplayed by teams that wanted it more. It’s always easy to second guess and wonder why teams were picked to win, but that’s what dynasties do: They suck you in. Until you see the team officially knocked out of the playoff series, it’s never safe. Until their key players retire or get too old to continue winning, it’s never over. That’s why the end seemed to come so swiftly for the Lakers and the Spurs, it was because they had made fans believe they always had one more game or one more gear to go.


Gazing into the crystal ball does not bode well for these two teams. The Spurs aren’t getting any younger and it’s debatable how many more seasons Tim Duncan can survive. While they are getting older, teams like the Thunder, Blazers, Grizzlies, and even Clippers are getting better and better. This was probably their final stand, and they don’t have enough cap room to make a major move to overhaul their roster. Things look a little brighter for the Lakers. They still have Kobe, who is a top five player despite his advancing age. They have multiple trading chips in Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom, but if they keep their same nucleus, they will most likely be without the Zen Master, Phil Jackson at head coach. The lineup and combinations of players have gotten stale, and Kobe doesn’t seem too far away from blowing up at his teammates in the public forum.


Expansion of the NBA and a wave of talent have slowly made parity more and more realistic for the league, and although it has been great for ratings and for overall competitiveness, it may have just killed off the last of the dynasties. Sure, the Miami Heat could win a few championships in a row, but their big 2 ½ (sorry Chris Bosh) has to stay healthy. The Bulls look set for the future, but with Derrick Rose as their only offensive weapon, they can’t win every year. The Thunder are full of young, exciting talent, but Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant may not be able to share the big shots forever. The point is that even though their will always be good teams in the league, we may have just seen the passing of the last modern dynasties. RIP Lakers and Spurs.

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