Without parity, NBA takes a back seat

When I was a seven-year-old kid, I saw my first NBA game and was captivated. It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, between the two best teams in basketball history, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. I was rooting for the men in green, and when the Celtics finished off the Lakers, NBA became one of my favorite sports to watch, behind the almighty NFL.

For a couple years, I followed the NBA closely. A year after watching Paul Pierce and the C’s beat the Lakers, I pledged allegiance to a new team, the Orlando Magic, who behind center Dwight Howard beat the Celtics and Cavaliers before losing in the Finals to the Lakers. Back then, the NBA was fun, because so many teams could win the title. The superstars of the sport seemed to be spread evenly in those years- there were LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, Howard’s Magic, Steve Nash’s Suns, Deron Williams’ Jazz, Dwyane Wade’s Heat, Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Tim Duncan’s Spurs, Kevin Durant’s Thunder, Chris Paul’s Hornets, Yao Ming’s Rockets, and, of course, Kobe’s Lakers. That’s over ten teams that were title contenders entering the season, which is what we sports fans see now in the MLB and NFL. Then, the super teams came and the NBA changed.

Sure, it was fun watching the Miami Heat take on the NBA and come away with two titles in four years. But three years after they disbanded, the NBA continued to move the way of the superteam and entered into a strange state. This season, only two teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, have a realistic shot of winning the NBA title, and given the recent struggles of the Cavaliers and dominance of new Warrior Kevin Durant, the Warriors look like shoo-ins for the title. I didn’t even write an NBA preview as usual this year because the title game seemed so obvious. 

With only two teams in the title hunt, all of the other 28 teams have been relegated to footnotes. That includes my favorite team, the Orlando Magic. Five years after trading Dwight Howard to Los Angeles, the Magic have stunk annually, despite multiple rebuilding years and promises of playoff-worthy teams. There’s only two nights the Magic are relevant the entire year- the Slam Dunk contest (thanks to Aaron Gordon) and the ping-pong ball lottery in May. And with the Cavs and Warriors so far ahead of the rest of the NBA competition, it has become an oft-discussed strategy for the teams out of playoff contention to tank and purposely play deficient rosters in order to land high draft picks. As a result, I haven’t watched a single NBA game this year and probably won’t until the Finals in June.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the dominance of the Warriors, who won a league-record 73 games last year, is great for the NBA. Sure, the narrative of Warriors vs. Cavaliers is interesting, but a whole NBA season can’t be based off one storyline, let alone one that has repeated every year for the past three seasons. We’re headed for a third straight NBA Finals matchup between Cleveland and Golden State and from the way it looks, the teams will probably meet again next year. Maybe they’ll meet enough times to make a best-of-seven series measured in titles and not games and lasts years. And there are no real threats in sight, as the Spurs move forward into the new Kawhi Leonard era, the Raptors and Celtics are still a superstar short of contention and the Pelicans are still learning.

The stale state of the NBA proves a lesson: sports needs parity. Spring training in baseball is thought of as the best time of the year because each team thinks that they can win the title, and given some of the recent champions, underdogs really can win the title. Same goes for football, where teams ask “why not us” and Super Bowl champions rarely return to the title game the following year. NCAA basketball has its powerhouses and dream teams, but the wide scale of the March Madness tournament ensures that chaos will break out. The product of NCAA basketball, even though the players and teams are nowhere near NBA-caliber, is so interesting and engaging that I routinely streamed March Madness games last year during school. That doesn’t happen with the NBA. The intrigue is absent.

In the past, I’d switch to NBA mode during the spring and watch enthralled as the top teams battled it out for the NBA crown. No more. For me, the NBA takes a back seat behind March Madness and MLB in the sporting world. Wake me up in June.

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