It's the Lakers and the Celtics in the NBA Finals, and the world is rejoicing.
We'll get into all that starting tomorrow. But for now, let's have some words for the losers.
Both San Antonio and Detroit find themselves in similar straights today, coming off disappointing conference finals defeats and staring down Father Time in the mirror. It promises to be an interesting offseason for each team.
For the past six seasons, these have been the two most successful franchises in basketball. Detroit made the conference finals every one of those years ponder for a second how consistently good a team must be to pull that feat off and won the title in 2004. San Antonio won three championships in that time; in each of the other three, they lost to the eventual conference champ.
Yet, each has to be questioning whether they'll make it back to this point anytime soon. Both clubs are rife with age issues. If they stand pat, each will enter 2008-09 with only one starter under the age of 30 (oddly, they have the same initials). San Antonio's Tony Parker (26) and Detroit's Tayshaun Prince (28) are what passes for youth on these two clubs, while the other eight starters are almost certain to decline in the coming seasons.
To hear most people tell it, the Spurs are the ones more likely to stand pat, while the Pistons are the ones who need to perform major surgery. Alas, this has everything to do with the halo of being a recent champion and nothing to do with the facts of the two teams. The way I see it, the exact opposite is true.
The consternation in Detroit is understandable. This is the third straight year they've lost in the conference finals, and in two of these three they were overwhelming favorites entering the series. Additionally, the Pistons haven't achieved the ultimate goal of winning the title since 2004, while San Antonio has tasted glory twice since then.
It seems, then, that all options are on the table. For starters, speculation is rampant that Detroit will fire head coach Flip Saunders. At the very least, he's unlikely to get an extension and will enter next year as a lame duck.
That's unfortunate, because Saunders appeared to do one of his best coaching jobs this season. He guided the club to 59 wins while bending over backward to keep his vets fresh for the postseason no player averaged more than 34 minutes per game. He also played the kids and developed the bench much more than in past seasons, with the result that youngsters such as Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell were huge contributors come playoff time.
If you really wanted to quibble, you could point to his use of decrepit vet Theo Ratliff ahead of rising star Amir Johnson in the postseason, but given the small number of minutes that were at stake, it's hard to see how this altered Detroit's destiny much. And his other moves such as benching the ineffective Jarvis Hayes and reinstating Antonio McDyess as a starter were spot-on.
Beyond that, the sentiment in Motown is that they have to make some kind of move something, anything-- as a result of falling short three straight years. Within 48 hours, I read different opinion pieces in Detroit papers advocating trading Prince, Richard Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace. In no case was it made clear what the Pistons would gain by such a move.
This is when it's useful to take a step back and remind people that only one of the league's 30 teams wins a title each year, and that Detroit was in as good as position as anyone to claim it before Chauncey Billups hurt his hamstring. Yes, it's frustrating, but that's the league.
Undoubtedly, there are age concerns. When next season tips off, Billups will be 32, Hamilton will be 30, and Wallace and McDyess will both be 34. But Pistons general manager Joe Dumars has done an outstanding job of managing his cap and bringing in younger players.
As a result, Maxiell (25), Stuckey (22), Johnson (21), and Arron Afflalo (who will be 23 next season) are ready to ride in to the rescue. Stuckey and Johnson in particular appear to be stars in the making, and within a year or two could be pushing their older mates for starting gigs. Moreover, Dumars will have his cap exceptions ready to wield because he's kept the Pistons well below the league's luxury tax threshold.
The alternative is to focus on the unhappy ending rather than the process of building a team. There's another word for that, and it's called panic. If Dumars wants a couple examples to dissuade him from that course, he need only look at Phoenix and Dallas. Each thought they had to do something after a series of near-misses, and each made foolish gambles on fading superstars that only hastened their demise.
The Spurs, on the other hand, stand on much shakier ground. Like Dumars, general manager R.C. Buford has managed his cap extremely well and heads into the summer ready to use his exceptions and remember, these are powerful weapons for strong teams because most quality vets want to play for a winner.
But the rest of the picture is much bleaker. Like the Pistons, the Spurs have serious age problems among the starters. When the 2008-09 season begins, Tim Duncan will be 32, Manu Ginobili 31, Bruce Bowen 37, and Fabricio Oberto 33.
Unlike the Pistons, however, the Spurs have virtually no youth in reserve. In fact, the bench is even older than the starters. Michael Finley (35), Kurt Thomas (35), Brent Barry (36), Ime Udoka (who will be 31), and Jacque Vaughn (33) all are likely to decline rapidly, while Robert Horry (who will be 38) is likely to retire and no longer good enough to help if he doesn't.
Moreover, San Antonio's strategy of stockpiling players in Europe until they are needed has hit a snag thanks to the dollar's decline against the euro, all but eliminating the financial incentive to cross the pond. 2006 first-round pick Tiago Splitter reportedly decided to rebuff their advances to sign in Spain for two more years, where he can make a lot more money than under the NBA's rookie salary scale. Other than Parker, the only player under 27 is 2005 first-rounder Ian Mahinmi, a raw big man who spent most of the year in the D-League.
So when you look at the futures of these two incredibly successful teams, don't let the champions' halo fool you. Looking backward, it may seem as if Detroit is the team in need of urgent action. But looking forward, it's the Spurs who require much more radical surgery to stay at the league's forefront.