Monday, June 16, 2014

Good-Bye NBA; I'll Miss You

If this is the last image we see of Tim Duncan on an NBA court, it will be a fitting one.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

At the end of the 2013 season, I said that the Spurs deserved better.

2014 was what they deserved.

After losing the Finals in the most heartbreaking way possible, losing a series only because the rules say one team has to win and one team has to lose, the Spurs rebounded and claimed their spot atop the NBA world.

The 2014 Finals didn’t elicit the same giggling schoolgirl response that the 2013 Finals did. But the 2014 Finals weren’t about beauty, they were about revenge. It was a brutal assault on the establishment. The Spurs, with all their class and professionalism, would never admit to being motivated by something as dark as revenge. But make no mistake, the Spurs wanted to go through *this* Heat team on their way to the title. That they won so convincingly makes it so much sweeter.

The 2014 Spurs cemented themselves as one the team that can shrug off all adversity. The 2006 Spurs lost a brutal Western Conference Finals to Dallas. They turned around the next year and won the title. In 2012, they fell apart in the Western Finals despite riding a 20-game winning streak. The next year they punched their ticket to the Finals. When they saw the title slip through their fingers, they didn’t throw themselves a pity party, they used the experience to make them stronger – they addressed their weaknesses and turned into one of the most deadly offensive attacks in league history. And they took back the title they thought was rightfully theirs. 

This season felt like a bit of an interlude at times. An ellipsis between 2013 and 2015. The 2013 season was spectacular from start to finish, and closed in the crescendo that was the 2013 Finals. The 2014 season dragged along at times – everyone knew that we were going to end up with Miami versus Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the Finals. Only a spectacular Round 1 with five Game 7’s was able to pull us out of the rut we experienced.

The Summer of 2014 is expected to be legendary. The deepest draft in a generation is going to inject new life into an already flourishing league. Three top-10 players (LeBron, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony) could all change teams. Another top-10 player, Dirk Nowitzki, is also a free agent – he’s not expected to leave, but taking a pay-cut could open up some maneuvering room for Dallas to add another star. And everything will build towards the 2015 Finals – will LeBron (in Miami or elsewhere) and the Spurs have their rubber match? Will Durant finally ascend? Will a new power emerge?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The 2014 season won’t just be a historical footnote. It will be rememberd as the year he Spurs once again established themselves as the class of the NBA. That will never be forgotten. It will be remembered as the year Kevin Durant wrestled the MVP trophy out of LeBron’s arms. If the two of them pass the trophy back and forth for the next five years, then 2014 will always be remembered as the starting point. It will be remembered as the year the Pacers emerged, came, saw, conquered (for two months), and then fell apart, possibly(?) never to be heard from again. And if Miami disbands, it will surely be remembered as the last we saw of the most dynamic, but most polarizing team of its era.

Here’s what we know – LeBron will be back. Maybe not necessarily back in Miami, but back in our lives.  After appearing bulletproof for two years, we finally saw some cracks in the armor. We will remember 2014 for that. We will remember 2014 for the emergence of new powers – the Pacers, Raptors, Wizards, Clippers, Blazers, Rockets, and Suns all experienced their best years in recent memory.

We will remember 2014 for bad reasons, too. Donald Sterling’s racist comments held the league hostage for a weekend until he was banned from the league. His subsequent flip-flopping on whether or not to approve a sale of the team or to sue the league was an unwelcome distraction. That decision is still up in the air.

But even if the 2014 season doesn’t carry the same spark as previous years, it was still a year of basketball. If for nothing else, it will be remembered as the year the Spurs peaked one last time – the highest they’ve ever peaked – and rained hellfire on the league once more. If they continue on, 2014 will be the year of their rebirth. If Duncan and Popovich retire, 2014 will be the bookend year on the greatest 15-year run in modern NBA history. We’ll have to see what happens.

We’ll be here watching.

134 days until basketball season.

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