As the world’s premier basketball league closes in on the end of its 77th season, unprecedented parity should have created unprecedented interest. Why hasn’t it?
As the NBA trudges steadily toward the end of the season, the association’s parity has become a hot topic of conversation. Compared to leagues like the NFL or MLB, this season’s pro basketball world has suffered from a lack of a genuinely standout team or truly dominant player.
As of the writing of this article, there are teams in both the NBA’s Western and Eastern Conferences who stand to make the playoffs with a losing record. It’s hard to find a villain or a hero in a given matchup when both options feature more Davids than Goliaths.
The Celtics are solid, but no one outside of Boston cares.
Giannis is still a force of nature, but we’ve all gotten used to it, so no one outside of Milwaukee really cares.
This lack of a team or player for more casual fans to root for or against has hurt overall interest in the professional game and could potentially cause long-term harm to the league.
It’s amusing to have these sorts of conversations just a few short years after it seemed like we were destined for a straight decade of Lebron and Steph duking it out. It seems strange to be having these sorts of discussions while Nikola Jokic mounts what may be a successful campaign for his third straight MVP. It seems odd to lament the days of dynastic runs when Lebron breaks records in his twentieth season.
But, here we are. Just a few short years after YouTubers joked about seeing Lebron v Steph and Cavs v Warriors in cyborg form in the 2050s, the top of the League is all but empty of superstars and super teams.
Lebron’s Lakers might barely make the play-in, and the player who was supposed to take the torch from him in Anthony Davis has spent more time in street clothes than on the floor over the last two seasons. His status as of the writing of this article was Doubtful.
Steph’s Warriors are a mishmash of mismatched double vision, trying to win with their aging core of him, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, while simultaneously developing the next generation of talent in the likes of Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga, both of whom look to be talented by nowhere near disciplined enough to be significant contributors to a title run.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the supposed super team assembled in Phoenix, featuring Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant, could save us from this malaise. Still, the roster is unlikely to play more than a handful of games together before the postseason begins, and it will be a miracle if they can stay healthy.
Instead of a spring and summer headlined by the star players of dynasties that every sports fan will recognize, we’re headed for a postseason that could easily see the Sacramento Kings match up with the Milwaukee Bucks in a battle for the championship.
We are seeing the ascendance of the small market teams who, as the NBA wanted, built through the draft and careful management of free agency until they happened on a superstar or two.
Milwaukee’s success in recent years is built entirely on having been right in gambling on Giannis. The affable Greek Freak has already rewarded Milwaukee’s fans and front office for their faith by bringing them a title. So, like the good midwesterners they are, they’re likely to let others eat at the table while they wait their turn again.
Denver’s rise has been completely due to the inexplicable and mystifying mastery of Jokic. Jokic’s Nuggets have yet to prove that they can get over the hump to reach the Finals, and no one on the roster has proven to be a great partner for the generational big man. It’s why there’s generally very little public interest in his campaign for another MVP because they’re barely fourth in odds to win the title.
While some teams try to short-circuit the system by snatching top-tier talent in free agency, they sacrifice depth and longevity. We’ve seen the bubble Lakers of 2020 wholly disassembled, with Lebron and AD the only survivors. We’ve seen the KD-to-Phoenix experiment completely fall apart in the early days, as has its Kyrie-to-Dallas counterpart.
The question for the league will eventually be, “was it worth it?”
TV ratings have been largely down across the board for much of the season, with the All- Star Game suffering major losses.
When the ratings are in at the end of the season, will fans have tuned in for a deep run by a team they’ve barely heard of, featuring players they can’t name in cities they’ve never been to?
What sort of storylines can the league craft without its big names in the mix?
Time will tell.