>More Questions Than Answers Left Behind After the Finals

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Photoshop by Payton Wales

This NBA season was brilliant, seriously, just brilliant. It couldn’t have played out better, and not because the Whore of Akron lost in the Finals. Honestly, I would have preferred he lose to the Sixers but that’s just me.

This season was about more than LeBron James and the disgusting amount of media coverage that followed him. It was a great coming-of-age story for players such as Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

For others, the year was a taste of bitter sweet reality. Tracy McGrady, Richard Hamilton, Derek Fisher, Yao Ming and Vince Carter are drawing near the end of their careers, seemingly making way for a new generation of talent to take their rightful place.

But that didn’t happen. See I, like most of the world, thought three things were going to happen.

1. The Lakers or the Celtics, the old guard for discussion sake, would win the title and maintain their hold on the league for another year.
2. If not the old guard, then definitely someone from the new. (I’m referring to Miami, Oklahoma City, Chicago or Portland. All very capable of winning it and ushering in a new era.)
3. Ke$ha would, hopefully, fade into oblivion.

I, like the rest of the word, obviously struck out on those assumptions.

None of that happened. Instead, a new champion from the old guard was crowned. And that champion left with more questions than answers when it comes to the future of the NBA.

It was thought this would be the year James solidified his position as the best player in the NBA. Instead, he shied away from the title, disappearing in the Finals. Maybe he cracked under the pressure, maybe he isn’t the player everyone thought he could be, maybe this just wasn’t his year, maybe, to hear LeBron tell it, God just didn’t want him to win this year.

Without James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose managing to place an imprint on the league during the Finals, fans are left wondering who will be the dominant team and players of the future. It’s not that the Mavericks can’t repeat as champions, but somehow I don’t see a dynasty coming out of a team who’s two or three years away from pudding time, at least by NBA standards.

Compile that with the looming lockout, and the wonder begins on where the league is headed in the near future.

It’s obvious the generation of James, Durant and Rose will be the future. But when will they pry it from the dying grip of Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Kevin Garnett (Celtics), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas) and Tim Duncan’s (Spurs) dying hands.

Or maybe the better question is who will pry it from their hands?

The Miami Heat would seem most likely to become the team of the future, even with this year’s failure. Although it could be said this year wasn’t a failure at all. Many pundits did not pick them to reach the Finals, let alone get past the Celtics. But the Heat overcame lofty expectations, overcame the large amount of scrutiny and pulled it together by the end of the season to make a rather superb run to the Finals.

Doing it again is a whole separate affair. Teams in the East have gotten a taste of what the Heat are serving and they now have some idea of what it will take to stop them. That’s not to say Miami can’t get better as well, but their cap space is minimal and they still have a few holes to plug.

Miami will have to make sure they stay ahead of the pack. The Bulls, Knicks and even the aging Celtics are only one player or two away from giving the Heat massive problems next year. Top that off with the upcoming CBA and what limitations it may put on maxed-out teams like the Heat, and you will be sure to find some financially smart teams keeping pace with Miami’s super team.

While on the subject of the Heat, Lebron James’ name is inevitable to come up. The subject may be worn out, but the questions are still there. Who will James become?  He hasn’t shown to be the player everyone labeled him: the next MJ, the next Big O, half Magic-half Michael. Maybe everyone had it wrong. Maybe he is more like Dominique Wilkins. Maybe we shouldn’t label him at all until he establishes himself in some way.

The Heat will not win a title. At least not in the next two years, if at all. It’s going to take a lot of work and there is just too much that can happen while they are trying to put it together. Dwyane Wade has a lot of miles on his body, the team has limited cap space and Chris Bosh seems lost, even when he is putting in work. The league and its players are just as pissed about the super union as the rest of America. If the Heat can embrace that bad guy role and Riley makes some magic happen with their salary cap, they may have a chance.

With all that said, who is next to step up to the proverbial challenge?

As much as I want to say the Lakers will regain their dominance, I really think it’s Oklahoma City. They have the nucleus in place and are a bench player or two away from cementing their place in history. The Thunder have the cap space and and trade pieces to make some moves, and on top of that, they are versatile. They are getting stronger year by year and noticeably learning on the fly.

What could knock them out of contention? Injuries would be a major cause and the possible bad apple in the famously family-oriented locker room. There are already rumors Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have some co-existence issues. But, on a team like this, that can be easily fixed.

If the Thunder have a good draft/offseason, a championship could be on the horizon for the Oklahoma Skyline in the near future.

The Lakers will have something to say about this though. LA is not young, but they are not old, despite the stories. Derek Fisher may look old, but that’s because he is a bench player in a starting role. It has been time for him to take a backseat for awhile and this upcoming year may be that time.

This middle-aged — at least by NBA standards — group of misfits will need to get younger at the point guard position rather quickly. They have done a good job of drafting some size at the power forward and small forward positions for the future and, baring injury, Andrew Bynum should be a dominate center for the next decade.

Drafting a point guard with athleticism and good defensive ability will be important. (This actually happened as this column was being written.) The second part of returning to form will either be getting Shannon Brown to become a consistent producer or trading him for someone who will produce.

The third factor that could help the Lakers is a lockout. A lockout will help the Lakers as well as the Spurs and Celtics. An extra month or two to rest, get treatment on ailing injuries and rehab will help the aging and injured stars on these teams. The Lakers, who are younger than the Celtics and Spurs, would stand to reap the most benifit from this time off.

But why will the lockout serve the older teams more than younger teams. Young teams need offseason mini camps, instruction and guidance. Whether it’s learning new plays, a new defense or just adding more weapons to the team’s general arsenal, a young team needs extra time to implement this things. Older teams with veteran players find it easier to implement these changes, if they need any changes at all.

The Lakers don’t have many holes, and they are very capable of returning to the throne. The question is will they make the right moves to do so? With a new coach in tow and more rest this summer than any of these players has seen in the last two years combined, the Lakers should make a solid run at it. Add in a small lockout and that road will become a little bit easier.

The questions for the Celtics this offseason are many. They are obviously old. KG and Paul Pierce seemingly ran out of steam in the playoffs, and whether Celtics fans want to admit it or not, something happened to the team’s chemistry when they traded Kendrick Perkins. Can they get it back? Sure. It’s a new season on the horizon, but they will have plenty of holes to fill.

Jeff Green was not the answer they thought he might be, and Troy Murphy is, well, he is stiff when it comes to production. Add the free agency of Glenn Davis, who virtually disappeared (virtually because physically you can’t hide a man that size) and you will have some serious gaps to close.

Getting rid of Davis may be an option, and they will surely need to find someone better than Troy Murphy to help out in the paint. But make no mistake, the Celtics will be competitive, and in a title hunt, so long as the Fabulous Four are playing together, and after what the Miami Heat did to them, this year they will have plenty to play for.

The rest of the league still has questions, too. How will the lockout play out? Will the CBA force teams like the Heat to get rid of a player like Chris Bosh? Will the Heat ever sell out a game and stop pumping in crowd noise? Can the Grizzlies find a way to keep Marc Gasol and keep their team on its meteoric rise? Will James become the player we expected him to? Will we see another dynasty in the upcoming decade? And, of course, who will be the next player to step up to the challenge of being considered the greatest ever?

One thing is for sure, there will be plenty to argue about and look forward to this upcoming year. Lockout pending, of course. If any questions were answered this year about the direction the league is headed, it’s this one: The NBA has once again risen to must-see TV, a league where almost anything is possible and the days of claiming things are watered down are long gone.

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