Political science types like describing the world in terms of polarity. In late 1990, as the Soviet Union began flatlining for good, Charles Krauthammer described the United States as having reached a "Unipolar Moment," or state of preeminence in which it wielded influence well above and beyond what could be brought to bear by any number of puny second-tier powers (Germany, China, England and so on). The Cold War that had just ended, by contrast, was one long bipolar moment, in which spheres of influence magnetized around a pair of competing superpowers. That 1990 changeover from bipolarity to unipolarity was astoundingly rapid by geopolitical standards, but it was nothing compared to what we saw happen to the NBA's balance of power last week.
When they woke up Thursday morning, the Los Angeles Lakers were more or less secure in their position as the league's sole hegemon. They'd recently won their second straight championship, Phil Jackson had announced his intention to return for another go, and there was no obviously credible challenger to their throne. Their opponent in the Finals, the Boston Celtics, seemed like a dying force that had just missed its last, best shot at a title in the Big Three era. Other Eastern Conference heavyweights -- the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks -- all appeared to be fatally limited in one respect or another. Two Western Conference contenders, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, had each lost an All-Star power forward in free agency. The Oklahoma City Thunder seemed a year or two away from a permanent seat at the grown-ups' table. The field, in other words, looked clear for another Lakers title, and maybe more than one.
On Thursday night, that threat assessment instantly became obsolete. When LeBron James declared (oh so clumsily) that he'd be "taking his talents to South Beach," a second NBA superpower was conjured into being. Say what you will about the creepy, cynical theatrics of "The Decision," but there's no question that its result -- LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all on one team in the primes of their careers -- is impressive, in the same brutish way that ICBMs paraded by the Red Army through the streets of Leningrad were once impressive. What the event lacked in graciousness it made up for as a raw show of force.
In the immediate aftermath of LeBron's bombshell, the conventional wisdom went something like this: ESPN's handling of "The Decision" was a grotesquerie; Dan Gilbert is fairly insane; Comic Sans is a hilarious font; and in terms of the on-court product, the Heat will need a year or two to build up a complete team around the new Big Three. After trading (read: giving) away Michael Beasley, Miami had literally one other player under contract, point guard Mario Chalmers. The balance of the roster would need to be filled with the sort of free-talent flotsam that's available for the league minimum. The Heat seemed like that half-constructed Death Star in Return of the Jedi.
(Take note, aspiring lotharios: women dig guys who can move seamlessly between sports talk and Star Wars analogies.)
Five days later, it appear that Pat Riley's battle station may be more operational than we originally thought. The Heat have re-signed center Udonis Haslem and agreed to terms with free-agent shooting guard Mike Miller. Neither has any All-Star appearances in his future, but both are perfectly respectable. Chalmers, for that matter, isn't much worse than some of the reserve guards the Lakers have been trotting out in recent years. More depth is needed, and some of the names that Riles will be forced to sew onto jerseys will be of the bargain-bin variety, but there's already enough talent here to compete for a championship right away.
Back here in Los Angeles, the Lakers are working under a simple operational strategy: max out the number of titles the franchise wins while Kobe Bryant is still in his prime. The time horizon is three to four years. That's how long the core talent is under contract. In the 2014 offseason, Kobe will turn 35 years old, and it'll be time to transition into the next epoch of Lakers history.
The lightning ascent of the Heat endangers this timeline. Granted, in the very short term, it could have a galvanizing effect on the Lakers by supplying a convenient, easily identified enemy. The issue of motivation, always a dicey one for teams that have scaled championship heights multiple times, shouldn't be a problem in the 2010-11 campaign. Phil and Kobe will have less than zero interest in ceding the title to Riles and LeBron. The challenge of maintaining their grip on the league in the face of an arrogant upstart will provide a compelling and helpful season-long narrative.
Vegas has blessed the Heat as odds-on favorites for next season, but that seems misguided. In Kobe and Ron Artest, the Lakers have a pair of elite perimeter defenders to throw against LeBron and Wade. In Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, they have mobile, long-armed forwards to bother Bosh on both ends. They have a definitive advantage at center and superior bench depth. They'll have the better coach and the advantage of continuity in their offensive and defensive systems. The gap between the Lakers and the most dangerous contender has narrowed dramatically, but there is indeed still a gap.
The medium-term outlook for the Lakers is a bit trickier. Two years from now, the Heat will be even more loaded. They'll have had two shots to add quality rotation players with their mid-level exception (assuming it's not eradicated in the new collective bargaining agreement), they'll have had opportunities to add talent in the draft, and LeBron, Wade and Bosh will have had two seasons of playing alongside each other. The Lakers, meanwhile, will be straight-up old. Kobe will be 33, Derek Fisher will be 37, and Odom, Artest and Steve Blake will be 32. In all likelihood, Phil Jackson will no longer be the coach.
At that point, the Laker front office will have a decision to make. They'll be sitting on $14 million of contracts (Odom's and Luke Walton's) that expire after the 2012-13 season. One option will be to flip those expiring deals for an injection of talent. Doing so could bring reinforcements for Kobe and Pau and give them a fighting chance to stave off the Heat a little longer. It could also, however, hamstring the team's cap situation for years afterward. Letting the Odom and Walton deals expire and roll off the books could mean overdependence on a decrepitating roster -- as, for example, befell the Bad Boy Pistons in the early 1990s. But as well, it could set the franchise up to rebuild rapidly in the middle of the decade, when the likes of Tyreke Evans and John Wall might come available on the open market.
As my colleague C.A. Clark wrote at Silver Screen and Roll the other day, "only a colossal failure to co-exist" will prevent LeBron, Wade and Bosh from achieving NBA dominance in two to three years' time. At that point, it'll be clear that the Lakers are fighting a rearguard action, and the franchise, one way or another, will need to restrategize. Until then, they remain our best hope for keeping the world safe from LeBrocracy.
Follow Dex on Twitter here.