This was supposed to be the year everything changed. The Brooklyn Nets were poised to challenge the Heat in the East, and the Clippers, Warriors and maybe even the Rockets were going to turn the West upside down.
True, the Portland Trail Blazers have emerged out of nowhere as the feel-good story of the first quarter of the NBA season. The Nets (not to mention the Knicks) have emerged out of their own hubris to become punch lines instead of contenders.
But for the most part? It's status quo in both halves of the basketball nation. In the East, it's Miami and Indiana and then it's a ghastly collection of everyone else. And out West, look who's still threatening to extend their co-rulership: the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
After the Heat held off the Pacers on Wednesday night, we emerged with more than a sincere hope that there will be a seven-game encore in the Eastern Conference finals in May. We also emerged with the Oklahoma City Thunder as sole owners of the best record in the NBA. The 2012 Western Conference champs are 20-4, a game in the loss column ahead of Portland (22-5), Indiana (20-5) and San Antonio (20-5) as we soon embark on 2014.
So amid all the noise, the two quietest, most reliable teams in a loaded West remain fully capable of advancing to the conference finals and beyond.
The Thunder host the Bulls and the Spurs visit Golden State on Thursday night, a TNT doubleheader that will showcase two teams that have done it right in a sport filled with teams perpetually doing it wrong. From the laughable largesse in both basketball boroughs in New York, to the uncertainty over how far the Clippers and Rockets can go, to the participants in Tank-a-Palooza 2014, there's a lot wrong with the state of pro basketball. But you won't find any of it in San Antonio or Oklahoma City.
Unlike teams that were supposed to have been better than both of them by now, the Spurs and Thunder haven't squandered their first-round picks. OKC, in fact, still stands to receive a 1-20 protected pick (from Dallas via the Lakers) from the James Harden trade. In this past draft, the Thunder used the 12th pick, from Toronto via Houston, to select Steven Adams, as well as the third pick of the second round to take Spanish guard Alex Abrines. Both picks were from the Harden trade.
Like all teams regardless of market size, the Spurs and Thunder have a day of reckoning coming. The Spurs' day of reckoning, it should be noted, has been coming for seven years and still isn't here. But if Tim Duncan decides to retire after this season, rather than pick up his $10.3 million player option, the Spurs will have to start over. But they'll do so with a manageable payroll, with Tony Parker guaranteed only $3.5 million in 2014-15 and with most of the same key people making the tough decisions -- and usually, making them correctly.
Other than developing the young players they've drafted and acquired and perhaps using the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins (due $9.4 million next season), the Thunder really don't have anything to worry about until July 1, 2016, when Kevin Durant finally becomes a free agent. The Thunder got a raw deal when Durant's 2010 extension was retroactively bumped up by about $15 million under the 30-percent max provision (i.e. Derrick Rose rule) in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. (OKC subsequently was reimbursed a portion of those funds, but the refund didn't restore any cap or tax flexibility.) On the bright side, A) Durant is worth every penny, and B) his extension included no opt-outs, no player options and thus, no drama until he literally hits free agency after the 2015-16 season.
Would the Thunder have preferred not to trade Harden? In a perfect world, would they have kept Eric Maynor as an insurance policy in case Russell Westbrook got hurt instead of trading him at last season's deadline? Sure; nobody's perfect, and you have to play the cards you're dealt. (Note: Presti has the $2.4 million exception from the Maynor trade available to acquire a player through the Feb. 20 trade deadline.)
But while teams all around them on the NBA landscape spin their wheels, squander future assets for a quick fix and unravel the mistakes of regimes that have changed many times over, the Spurs and Thunder just keep getting it right. Not all the time, but enough to keep winning. Which is more than a lot of teams with more assets and options can say.