With LeBron James finishing his eight-year era of dominance in the east and packing up to head to the other side, who will be crowned the next champions of the conference?
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The Golden State Warriors have been basketball magic over the past four seasons. They’ve had 320 wins (including postseason), two titles and three finals appearances, with a chance to win another title next month.
Stephen Curry has emerged as the greatest shooter the game has ever seen, and arguably the most influential player since Michael Jordan. General manager Bob Myers hit the jackpot in 2016 by signing Kevin Durant.
And while their core of Curry, Klay Thomspon, Durant and Draymond Green will remain intact and in its prime, the gap between their best and the next best team is narrowing. They managed 67 wins last season en route to a 16-1 record in the playoffs. This season, albeit interrupted by injuries at different stages, they managed just 58 wins, and have already lost two games en route to the Western Conference Finals.
A shift in power may be on its way in the Eastern Conference, which has been dominated by LeBron James for the last eight years. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in particularly have emerged as young playoff teams, while the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference are the emerging team, and could acquire two big name free agents this offseason.
The near future of the league will be shaped, again, by where LeBron decides to play. He can opt out of his contract at the end of this season, and has been linked to the 76ers, Rockets, Lakers and his current team, Cleveland.
Each of these options are intriguing and would solidify an already terrific team. He could team with James Harden and Chris Paul, or with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, or potentially join the Lakers young core with another superstar, such as Paul George. So until we know the fate of LeBron James, it is difficult to accurately predict the future of the league.
What does seem evident though is that the gap continues to narrow. The Boston Celtics are the experts’ tip to challenge for the title next season, as Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving join the Celtics incredible young core and elite head coach Brad Stevens.
They have been built similarly to the Warriors in a sense; they rely on having multiple ball-handlers on the court at all times, and the ability to switch everything on defence. They don’t have the same elite shooting, but who does?
The Celtics will have the option of using a line-up of Irving-Brown-Hayward-Tatum-Horford next season, which closely mirrors the Warriors ‘death line-up’ of Curry-Thompson-Igoudala-Durant-Green.
Multiple trips to the NBA finals has its toll on players and teams, with LeBron James seemingly the lone exception. Already, many injuries have occurred to Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Draymond Green this season, who have all played in three consecutive finals.
As the Warriors aim to make it a fourth, and potentially a fifth next season, the wave of youthful teams could start to really make its mark. Young talent in the NBA is as good as it has ever been, and the line-up of players waiting to pounce on a Warriors dynasty entering its twilight years is growing.
I give it one more season before this all-time team comes back to earth, after five all-time dominant seasons, as the teams coming through the ranks over the past few years suggests we are in for some incredible rivalries, and the renewal of many old rivalries, over the next decade.