The 2016-17 NBA season has been a basketball nirvana for fans of top-flight performances. Through half the season there have been 45 triple doubles (46 if Russell Westbrook is playing while you read this), which equates to one triple double every day of the NBA calendar so far. On top of the triple double madness, there have been a myriad of 50 point performances, tying an NBA record without the likes of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kevin Durant joining the NBA’s 50 point barrage.
Yes, the NBA is flourishing with individual talent, but when you throw away the smoke and mirrors of these stat-stuffing performances an inevitable truth remains. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are on track to meet for a third consecutive year in the NBA Finals. (They play tonight and the usual talking point of a Finals preview is being repeated continually).
If you’re a basketball fan, you want to see the two best professional basketball teams duel it out for a world championship, but if you’re an NBA fan, this matchup reeks of redundancy.
By the end of the season, Russell Westbrook could average a triple-double, James Harden could win the MVP playing point guard, and Isaiah Thomas could be the shortest player ever to lead the league in scoring, but none of them would be showcased on the NBA’s grandest stage, The NBA Finals. It’s almost as if the NBA regular season has become a drug that NBA fans can get high off of to escape the reality of the Cavs and Warriors facing in the Finals again.
Last year, when the Raptors tied the Conference Finals with the Cavs and the Thunder looked like world beaters against the Warriors, the thought of a Raptors-Thunder NBA Finals sounded refreshing. The NBA had the chance to play a Finals game in Canada for the first time and see one of their most recognizable players, Kevin Durant, have the superstar stage to himself. Then, reality kicked in and the Cavs dismantled the Raptors and the Warriors steamrolled the Thunder, and just like that we were back to telling the same Finals story with the same Finals teams and the same Finals players.
Every NBA Finals since 2007 has involved either Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, or Tim Duncan. In the past 10 years, only three teams have not played in multiple NBA Finals series over that span of time. In that span, there have been six teams alternating positions in the Finals year after year (Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers, Lakers, Celtics, Heat). With the Finals being on such a large platform, the NBA should be showcasing more than just 20% of their markets to their highest audience.
In Major League Baseball, 14 different teams have played over the past 10 years in the World Series and there has not been a case of the same two teams meeting in back to back years since 1978. In the NBA, the past four matchups in the Finals have been with teams facing each other in back to back years. Even the NFL, the league built on having elite quarterbacks produce championships, much like the NBA relies on elite big men to do the same, maintains variety in championship clashes.
Over the past 10 years, there have been 12 different starting quarterbacks and 13 different teams that have played in Super Bowls. The NFL does not revolve around the same players and teams and does not rely on the history of two teams repeatedly playing each other for the championship to build excitement.
Instead, a new rising star player has a chance to showcase his talents in front of the highest viewing audience. Their exceptional play on the highest level makes them into a star overnight. Athletes like Malcolm Butler, Eli Manning, and Madison Bumgarner have not only made money, but have gained national recognition in the sports world and among everyday people because of their play at the highest level.
The NBA lacks variety in their championship showdowns and that’s limiting how much their brightest stars are being showcased. The NBA would benefit greatly if players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Damian Lillard had the chance to expand their brands even further in front of a worldwide audience, instead of falling victim to the Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the conference playoffs every year. There would no longer be small markets if year after year, different cities are hosting Finals games, adding exponential revenue and excitement for their team and for potential free agents.
The lack of stars willing to challenge Steph and LeBron come playoff time is due to the fact that the NBA has become a game of battleship. The more money and excitement teams build during extended playoff runs the more likely they are to keep retooling their team instead of blowing it up. That’s why the Hawks have fallen off since 2015. They couldn’t build any excitement in Atlanta for free agents and couldn’t afford to retain DeMarre Carroll after the franchise’s best season.
In order to win in today’s NBA you need a trio of superstar caliber players, a culture players want to play in, and a coach that can manage both those aspects. Surveying the NBA there are 28 teams still trying to find that mix and they will need a lot more than great individual talent to postpone the third act of the Warriors-Cavs Finals drama.
photo via llananba