Every time there's a seismic shift, things feel more important. And this year in the NBA, things feel important—like something is happening. Like a changing of the guard.
When the San Antonio Spurs were taken out by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, it was clear that the times they are a'changing. The Boston Celtics are still clinging to life— thanks to a one-armed Rajon Rondo—but their title window has been limited to "only this year" regardless of what year it is, and despite the fact that the pundits said the same thing last year. Finally, with the sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers by the Dallas Mavericks, the icing's on the cake and the writing's on the wall.
There can be no doubt about playoffs where the Atlanta Hawks refuse to bow to the best-record-in-the-league Chicago Bulls. And when those Grizzlies, who never seemed to doubt that they'd triumph over the Spurs, are challenging the Oklahoma City Thunder in ways that no one predicted, it's time to realize that a movement has already overtaken the league. It's not creeping up. It's not approaching. It's here, it's now and it's too late for anyone to say they saw it coming.
The coronation of Derrick Rose as MVP was a nice nod to the coming youth movement. But Rose has already been acknowledged as a high school prospect and as an elite college player who took his team to the promised land—even if they fell short, and that run has since been negated. When he said that he wanted MVP his rookie year, people looked at him like he was crazy. No one is now. But Rose has never been the ringleader of this movement—that honor falls to Kevin Durant. As the youngest scoring champion in the history of the league—and the fresh, smiling face of the Thunder—he was supposed to be the one. And he still might be.
But he'll have to get past Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and—most of all—Zach Randolph if he wants to continue his assault on the league. With the Grizz taking the fight right to the jaws of the Thunder and the Hawks battling the Bulls like no one expected, it's clear that the league is shifting right from under the feet of those who were privileged to come before, and even more quickly from those who just assumed they got next.
"Who got next?" is a persistent question in basketball. If you keep winning, you get to keep playing. You see the faces across from you shift, and you don't really care—you don't take time to honestly evaluate the opposition because it doesn't matter. All that matters is the fact that you're winning. Your time is now. But sooner, rather than later—because time bows to no man, woman or team—you will slip. The Spurs, Lakers and maybe the Celtics are learning that lesson now. And when you do slip, as they have (or will), it can be disorienting to look at the face of the team that beat you. You might find yourself wondering, "Who is this? How did they get here? How did they get me?"
But by that point, it's too late.