The 2017 NBA Finals are finally here.
Because of many lopsided victories and a couple teams breezing through every their opponnnts,the 2017 NBA playoffs so far have been lackluster to say the least.
There are many reasons why the NBA product is not as exciting as it could be.
Much of this has to do with the lack of team & league depth- especially when compared to years past. This lack of competition can be traced to a decline in overall NBA talent – which by itself can be linked to selfishly managed AAU programs,as well as a decrease in attention to post play, footwork, defensive schemes and defensive intensity at the pro-level.
But perhaps the biggest culprit for the lack of intriguing basketball matchups is the building of super-teams in an era of competitive mediocrity.
In today’s NBA, there seems to be only 2 teams that matter.
The Golden State Warriors and The Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Spurs definitely deserve much love for their consistency but Kawhi Leonard’s injury proves just how vulnerable even the great Spurs are to injury in the era of 2 juggernaut teams.
Meanwhile,the Cavs and Dubs are so stacked
(and the rest of the league is so “meh..”)that both teams could lose one of their best players due to injury and would still be guaranteed to reach the Finals. Is that the evidence of well run organizations? Absolutely. But it is even more telling of just how pathetic the field of competition is.
When the league is full of talent and competitive teams, the league is at it’s best.
I’m so grateful that my formative years of basketball watching and fandom was the 90s and early 2000s. As a Chicagoan, I was spoiled. My hometown Bulls were the squad of the greatest pro-athlete of all time and the host of some of the greatest teams of all time.
Yet despite MJ’s dominance, I never felt as though as though the Bulls path to the NBA championship was a cake-walk. Their many battles against, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem The Dream, Karl Malone, Dominique, Shaq, Penny, Grant Hill, Kobe, A.I., The Knicks, The Pistons and so on made every game and every series must-see TV. Of course, the smart money was always on The Bulls to win it all, but there was so much competition in the league that they didn’t carry the same aura of Finals inevitability that Golden State and Cleveland carry today.
It is because of this absence of competition and compelling rivalries in today’s game that I’m not as hard on certain Hall of Famers who didn’t win a title and why I’m not as hasty to catapult Lebron (as incredible as he is) into the Magic, MJ, Kobe echelon as others are.
For the record, I know that Lebron is a supremely gifted athlete, a very wise student of the game and more importantly, I believe him to be an even greater human being than he is a small forward. However, just speaking from a basketball perspective, I believe that even Lebron’s well-deserved all-time greatness can be overrated because of the dearth of competition that his constant quest for super-teams has created.
But as critical as I am of Lebron, part of me completely understands why he and today’s athletes feel the pressure to win a championship by any means necessary.
It’s because we’ve made them that way.
Our current sports debate climate loves hyperbole, hates looking through the foggy haze of yesterday and disregards nuanced analysis.
Forgetful, fickle fans along with sports tv/radio personalities who depend on hot-takes and controversy as a source of income and click-bait have created a world in which championships are the end-all be-all credentials for discussing greatness. Any great player or hall of famer who falls short is judged harshly, no matter the circumstance of their loss.
Don’t get it twisted.
Championships are the pinnacle of competition.
They are the payoff for years and years of sweat,focus and sacrifice. Championships should ABSOLUTELY be considered when discussing where players fit in the pantheon of all-time greatness.
But without the appropriate amount of nuance and context, end-of-the-year bling can become an intellectually lazy way to disregard those who still deserve to be part the GOAT conversation.
Take Allen Iverson for example.
Through his unprecedented abilities and the will of Hercules, A.I. led an otherwise pedestrian team to eastern conference relevance and an NBA finals appearance. Yet, because he didn’t win a championship in the Jordan, Duncan ,Shaq and Kobe eras, we foolishly remove him from his rightful place in all-time great discussions.
We lie to ourselves and pretend that it was selfishness that prevented him from winning it all, when judging by today’s standards, his only basketball crime was simply having the audacity not to run and align himself with 2 or 3 other top 20 players.
The same applies to Charles Barkley.
As an undersized power forward, Sir Charles was a force unlike any other seen in basketball at that time. Much like Lebron, he was an impressive combination of strength and athleticism who would play with incredible energy. But instead of recognizing him as one of the 3 or 4 greatest power-forwards of all-time, he doesn’t get his deserved respect simply because he chose to played against Michael and Scottie and not along side them.
How about Russell Westbrook?
Right now, the sports world claims to love his Mamba mentality; his tenacity and relentlessness. We celebrate his valor based on the assumption that he will decide to stay in OKC.
But if he does re-sign with the Thunder and continues to fall short of championship acclaim, those same fickle sports media and fans won’t remember that he was an elite player that played on sub-par teams.
They will instead dust off their tried and true lazy narrative that he didn’t win because he was too selfish or because he didn’t make his teammates better.
Basketball fanatics and talking heads seem to be poised to judge Carmelo Anthony by the same harsh criticisms despite the fact that he has played honorably for one of the most dishonorable and dysfunctional organizations in sports; the New York Knicks.
Trophies: Winning Erases All
Pro athletes care deeply about how they are perceived. Both their financial safety net and the legacies that they’ve trained so hard to establish can depend on how they are viewed by their peers. Not winning a ring in today’s society means losing respect and millions of dollars. Winning multiple titles also places an almost permanent halo over one’s head.
Over the past decade, has there been a more controversy filled player and organization than Tom Brady and the New England Patriots? The Patriots have been supposed to interfere with opposing coaches headsets, were caught illegaly filming other teams’ practices and of course there was that whole deflated football thing.
But when the Patriots win, their sins are forgiven.
Condemnation turns to coronation.
The more championships they win, the less willing we seem to be to question the legitimacy of those wins.
In basketball, one of my favorite athletes of all time, Kobe Bryant has both suffered and benefited the pendulum swing that comes with winning.
Kobe has always been a polarizing figure. Off the court, it was the allegations made against him by a Denver hotel worker that sunk him lower into the depths of hated status.
Being found innocent in a court of law and his wife’s decision to forgive him of his steeping outside of their marriage vows should have been enough to make the public get past what are now believed to have been false allegations against him.
But sadly that wasn’t the case. It was his his elite play.
Winning his 4th and 5th championships not only helped him to establish a
Shaq-less legcay of his own but it was unfortunately what was needed to endear him to the public again.
Our tendency to deify or crucify athletes based on how many championships they win is off balance.
Will you be remembered as an average joe or an immortal?
Are you a saint or a sinner?
The answer apparently is in how many rings you have.
It’s no wonder why today’s NBA stars feel so equally enticed and pressured by championship glory – even if they play in an easier era to attain it.
Don’t Hate The Durant. Hate The Game
Many may find it interesting to hear that while I’m disappointed in Lebron’s Miami decision and to a certain degree, dismayed by the team stacking in Cleveland, I am not nearly as angered by Kevin Durant’s addition to the Warriors as other seem to be.In my opinion, Kevin Durant’s move was a reaction to a the blueprint that Lebron made succesful.
It’s also important to remember the context of Durant’s free agent decision making.
In the 2016 offseason,
Dwayne Wade was reported to be planning a reunion with LBJ in Cleveland.
For years and even now still- the possibility of some combination of Carmelo, Wade, Chris Paul joining Lebron’s already juggernaut of a team continues to gain traction.
Durant’s options were simple:
Door Number 1: Re-sign with the Thunder
Prize Package Includes-
– Earn unneeded cool points for staying loyal to OKC
– Waste the prime years of his basketball life (a la Kobe during the Smush Parker, Kwame years)
-watch as Lebron and the Cavs continue to shamelessly assemble the Justice League in Akron (Cleveland)
– Run the risk of not winning a ring during his relevant years and be criticized by
sports-talk big mouths for not getting “it” done.
Door number 2: Join The Warriors
-Keep pace with Lebron and possibly best Lebron at his own plan for league obliteration.
– Greater chance to win a ring
– It’s California
The Difference Between Back Then & Today
Many who defend Lebron and modern-day super teams do so by making the point that virtually every championship team of the past 30 years has had 2 all-star players on the roster. They say that Lebron isn’t necessarily a pioneer in team stacking but rather just following a blueprint that’s been around for years.
Magic & Kareem
Zeke & Dumars
MJ & Scottie
Olajuwon and Drexler
MJ & Scottie & Dennis
Shaq & Kobe
Duncan & Robinson & Parker & Ginobli
Billups & Rip & Wallace
Garnett & Pierce & Allen
But there is big difference between those teams and the state of the league today.
The main difference is that the NBA talent pool in the late 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s was so much deeper than it is today. This means more all star and Hall of Famers playing in their prime than today. With more high-level players, it was almost inevitable and necessary for 2 or 3 great players to be on a team that had any chance of contending in the playoffs, let alone for a title.
That is not the same as players in the current era of less team depth, relaxed defensive rules and intensity choosing to align with multiple superstars and all but guaranteeing themselves a spot in the finals.
When players landed on new teams, the attitude seemed to be “ok, cool. Now I can compete not “ok, cool. Now we can obliterate the competition.”
Why do we underrate and dishonor the legacies of all-time great players without taking into context the time in which they played?
Can you imagine MJ, Pippen, Barkley and Gary Payton conspiring to join forces as free agents in their prime and then boasting that the quest for dominance was to win “not 6, not 7, not 8” ? Can you imagine if an understadibly frustrated and championship starved Reggie Miller and Shawn Kemp joined Patrick Ewings’ Knicks?
Lebron James is a special, special athlete. He is a once in a generation athlete who should be respected and celebrated. The same is true of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. But to borrow a quote that I heard from Chris Rock recently, “history is unkind”. The cruelty and forgetfulness of history becomes very apparent when it comes to greatest of all-time discussions. Despite their hard work, incredible skills and the toughness of their competition, we callously write ringless hall of famers into the “who cares” category. We’ve taken the bait set by talk radio blabber mouths and have bought into the champion or chump theory. Until there is a more balanced assessment of retired and future hall of famers, we should continue to expect to see exceptional players partnering with their rivals in a desperate attempt to save their legacies.