It was just three years ago, lest we forget, that the San Antonio Spurs reigned supreme over the NBA, needing just 20 games to breeze through the entire postseason and win their fourth championship. But the Spurs have faded fast in the three seasons since, to the point that even mustering another a division title will be a challenge in 2011. So, who wins the Southwest Division?
In eight of the 12 seasons since Tim Duncan rose to power as an elite big man in the NBA, it's been the Spurs. But as Duncan has declined with age — he turned 34 at the end of last season — so, too, have the Spurs declined.
From 63 victories, to 58, to 56, 54 and then 50, the Spurs' win total has dropped off in each of the last four seasons. But they aren't dead yet, and as long as Duncan is alive and kicking, they'll still be a threat to return to the promised land of the NBA Finals.
Last year, their 50-32 record landed them five games behind the Mavericks, well out of the running for another Southwest crown. And the Mavs, who earned a No. 2 seed in the West playoffs last year and return a veteran nucleus of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Caron Butler and Jason Terry, aren't going anywhere. They're going to be a force again next season, and if the Spurs want to return to the top of the divisional heap, they can't do it without a fight.
But Duncan and his cohorts have that fight within them. Like an old man Rocky Balboa climbing into the ring one last time, the Spurs have one last bout in them. The spring of 2011, when Duncan turns 35 and the supporting cast around him starts to crumble, could be the Spurs' last stand.
The Texan revolutionaries fighting Santa Anna vowed to "Remember the Alamo." The Spurs will remember the three premature playoff exits they've suffered since 2007.
Yes, the Mavs are the favorites on paper to repeat as Southwest champions. They've got that core group back for another year, and they could make a run at a championship if they get hot. But can you really trust them to hold off a Spurs team dying to give it one more shot?
Can you trust Dirk to be the leader of a title contender? He's started down that road before, and he's come up short. He's not a top-notch defender, he's not the rebounder he once was, and he doesn't play the versatile game he did in his prime.
Can you trust Kidd? He'll be turning 38 next season.
Can you trust Caron Butler? He's now in his 30s and has never sniffed a conference final.
But if there's one thing you know for sure, it's that you can trust the Spurs. You can trust Duncan and Gregg Popovich, who have won four titles together and aren't ready to stop now. You can trust a supporting cast of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill. You know the Spurs have what it takes, because you've seen them get the job done all too many times before.
You can also trust that among the rest of the Southwest ranks, you'll find a couple spoilers. The Rockets are getting a somewhat healthy Yao Ming back, adding some strength in the middle to a young guard duo of Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin. The Grizzlies just re-signed Rudy Gay to be the centerpiece of a young team that's going places within the next couple years. And as long as the Hornets still have Chris Paul, they'll always be relevant.
But more than anything, you can believe in the Spurs to give everything they've got next season. If you write them off now, you'll see the error of your ways come next spring.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 19: Who wins the Northwest Division?
Sept. 21: Who wins the Central Division?