In many ways, the NBA is America's most cutthroat league. It is difficult to pierce into the designated ring of teams that muster the courage to realistically think that they can win a championship, and in one fell swoop, everything can be gone. Due to the nature of the game, star players (emphasis on the plurality of "players") are a necessity to even stand a chance.
Obtaining those players requires a flurry of luck when it comes to injuries, draft position, the economic health of the league (Warriors fans nod accordingly), and geographic fortune (Cavaliers fans nod accordingly). Retaining such players can be an even hairier pursuit, and may often prove to be futile unless you can definitively offer the strongest resources towards chasing an elusive ring.
Winning championships is difficult in the NBA, and even the most likely of dynasties can obliterate in the blink of an eye and fall victim to being celebrated in the next "in memoriam" 30 for 30 documentary rather than fulfilling their destiny in the everlasting hype of championship lore. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the newest casualty to this ideal with the news of Kevin Durant's departure. An upstart organization with three superstars and a universally regarded potential for dynastic reign in 2012 is left in shambles a mere four years later. As is life in the NBA.
Suns fans can relate to a smaller degree with the rise and fall of the beloved "Seven Seconds or Less" teams from 2005 to 2010. Those Suns never earned the label of having the chops to be a dynastic force on the rest of the league -- not with the San Antonio Spurs around at least -- but there was a real feeling that at least one title was in reach. But then Amar'e Stoudemire hurt his knee. And then he got suspended along with Boris Diaw for tip-toeing onto the court in reaction to Steve Nash being scrummed on by Robert Horry.
Before long, the fatigue of falling short in similar fashion to the other Western Conference powers (San Antonio and the Dallas Mavericks) year after year called for a radical shift in team construction from GM Steve Kerr. Out goes Shawn Marion, and in comes Shaquille O'Neal. The Seven Seconds or Less era was rid of, and without a title to show for it.
Sparing a brief renaissance in the 2009-10 season, which was submarined by the most jarring of Ron Artest putbacks, Phoenix has been treading water ever since, searching high and low for the coveted star player or player(s) to bring the franchise back to prominence.
Get a star and you have a chance to nab another one and vault yourself into contention; don't have a star and you are in a league-wide arms race to find one. Rinse and repeat.
This brings me back to the notion that the NBA is the most cutthroat league we have to offer. It is not out of the question that there are only two teams with a realistic path towards hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy next season. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were always on a collision course towards hoarding every game that takes place in June for the next few seasons, but now it feels as if they are legitimately in their own two team universe.
The interest in the league will not falter, yet I can't help but cringe at the sudden inevitability of it all. NFL-style parity never has been (and will never be) the NBA's calling card -- not when this generation's star players are seeking to play with one another and justify their legacy by putting multiple rings on it. You can't rely on the best players failing seven out of ten times like in baseball, either, as basketball is a sport where the stars can take stranglehold of the chessboard and wring it out until it has been manipulated to their liking. LeBron James will be notoriously remembered for doing such a thing on a whim.
Of course, for the teams that do not possess the necessary elite players to compete for a title right now, there is still plenty of value in embarking on a playoff hunt and taking the role of David head-on as they are faced with Goliath. Gate receipt revenues in the playoffs make billionaire owners blush. There is a psychic reward in overstepping your bounds against an elite team in a postseason series; think how others bathed in the Portland Trail Blazer's gumption after they traded punches with Golden State before being KO'd by a flame throwing Stephen Curry. That means something.
With that said, Suns fans should not sulk with the reality of playing beneath the realm of Golden State's super team. Phoenix is not even scratching the surface of being a title contender, and as currently constructed, they are a marginal playoff team ... MAYBE. Everything would have to break right -- much like the out of nowhere 2013-14 season.
Durant's departure does not have an influence on the Suns' timetable, other than the fact that more teams may be in the running for Tankathon 2017. If teams elect to go that route, that may leave a sliver or space for the Suns to slide in an inspired run at the eighth seed and soak in the psychic income of being ousted by Golden State. With so many young guns on the roster, perhaps that journey could strike dividends towards development.
Oklahoma City is feeling the downfall from what success entails -- the meteoric rise to distinction can be so strenuous that you have to fight like hell just to hold your ground. One wrong move -- or onslaught of mitigating circumstances in OKC's case -- and everything can go up in flames. Contending in the NBA is a precious opportunity that does not come around often. When the opportunity presents itself, you must seize it.
Phoenix will assuringly not be a contender for years to come, but there is still a lesson to be had after watching the fallout of the Thunder's dynasty that never was.
Sometimes you have to realize that you are living in the good old days before they pass you by.