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Abe Beame doesn’t wish a dinner with Jonathan Isaac and Kyrie Irving on his worst enemies.
At the end of last season, the Bucks and Suns, two teams few had on their betting slips — even at the outset of the playoffs — were left standing to compete for an NBA championship. It was one of the least likely Finals we’ve seen in some time.
On one side, there was Chris Paul and his upstart young Phoenix squad, the latest fixer upper in Chris Paul’s late career role as basketball’s Jon Taffer, turning young, talented, unproven teams into regular season forces in a tight Western Conference.
On the other side was Giannis and the Bucks, who had gone all in for this season by mortgaging their draft capital and depth for Jrue Holiday, a risky move with the super Nets looming in the Eastern Conference Finals. Up to this point, the Bucks were seen as damaged goods, putting out a product weaker than the one that had been embarrassed the season before by an underdog Miami squad that ate their lunch, a squad mis-coached by a non-strategic mechanic without the grace or creativity a long series in the postseason demands.
Giannis was as good last season as his previous two MVP years. Yet he finished fourth in 2021 voting, well behind Jokic, Embiid, and Steph Curry, whose Warriors barely made the play-in game. The consensus was Giannis had been solved by Miami and the league. He was a regular season curio, the Mike Trout of basketball. And then Durant hit a Game 7 series ender with his toe on the three point line, and the fates shifted.
Over the course of 35 years, between 1980 and 2015, 10 teams won the NBA Championship. This run included a single 76ers title in 1983, a Mavericks upset in 2011, and the beginning of the Warriors dynasty in 2015. So of those 35 years, 91% of the championships were won by seven teams: the Lakers, the Celtics, the Pistons, the Bulls, the Rockets, the Spurs, and the Heat. This success was generational for some franchises. The Lakers had two dynasties during this run. The Spurs never won back to back, but took five rings over the course of 15 years. Many believe the Rockets “stole” theirs in the two years Jordan took off on his way to double three peats. But it’s an astounding run of success for less than a third of the league.
Each of these teams had a front-facing superstar, or superstars: Magic and Kareem, Bird, Moses Malone, Isaiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe, Dwayne Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Steph Curry. These players defined their teams, and in turn were defined as generational talents. They were players who were allowed to define their teams, and their eras for us.
In America, we believe in fate and destiny. Christianity, with its morality and much of Christ’s message leaning Socialist, has been long perverted by free market Christian hucksters like Joel Osteen, who tell us God decides the market, that we rise and fall in this country because of our orthodox adherence to God’s law, that failure is a rendered judgement. We didn’t take this country from New York to California, it was given to us, our Manifest Destiny, we were chosen people, worthy of our bounty due to spiritual purity and moral clarity.
For as long as I’ve been following the NBA, writers, talking heads, men and women of all ages in bars and barbershops around the country, have followed the very same logic when explaining the narrative history of individual seasons, or of the NBA itself. It is defined by personalities, by talents fulfilling their destinies. Each season is a story of pulling the sword from the stone, or Luke Skywalker assuming the light saber. It’s a story we tell ourselves about ascension and coronation.
The details get muddy, lost to time. People get hurt, calls are missed, bad judgements affect series, weird shit happens. But we always come back to the idea that greatness won out, and the right team took the trophy home. Again, in America, success is divine reward. Loss is a moral failing.
But last season, something was different. It was the culmination of something that had been gestating for a longtime. In each corner, we had “lesser” teams competing for a ring. Survivors dragged to the finish line. I am perhaps the greatest Chris Paul fan on Earth not related to him or invested in State Farm. What I noticed is suddenly, especially when the Suns went up 2-0, the way he was being discussed was different. The narrative suggested, was being carefully constructed, that at last, he had earned the Point God nickname. This would solidify him as one of the greatest little man point guards of all time. All the years of regular season success, the incredible late career renaissance, it was all building up to this, but first he had to win two games, with his entire legacy hanging in the balance. And I call bullshit. The four subsequent games Chris Paul lost didn’t diminish all he’s accomplished one bit, and winning two more wouldn’t have meant all that much. It was nine days of basketball. Nothing more.
When LeBron left Cleveland for Miami, he changed the world. It upended a history of players at least feigning fealty to laundry and state, and of course, it upended the balance of power. But power, or competitive advantage, had already been in a state of flux for a generation. Savvy GMs and owners once were able to build their rosters off the stupidity and incompetence of other bad owners and GMs. When the league was ramshackle and cash strapped, you saw the Celtics and Red Auerbach take advantage of this all the time. Same for Jerry Buss, and Jerry Krause, and Jerry West. Does that mean brain and dollar inequalities still exist today? Of course, in wildly diminished capacities.
This is because of expansion, and an influx of money, and crucially, smart money. It’s because of a revolution in the way we analyze sports and what we value when we build teams. What the NBA has slowly, and quietly been building towards, is parity. You see them in the little EKG spikes that have occurred on the timeline the last two decades. But the changes were hiding in plain sight because of the familiar franchises accomplishing them. The Pistons win a one off with a starless complete squad in 2004 we attribute to Larry Brown’s hard nosed genius and Shaq/Kobe dysfunction. Two ringless squads, the Heat and the Mavs, meet in 2006. We attribute the outcome to a rookie’s ascendence, the last gasp of Shaq’s dominance, the Mavs choking. The Mavs eventually steal one back. The Celtics pull together the last gasps of the careers of three all time greats. From a distance, it appears continuity stands, but the plates are shifting.
LeBron’s revolution also mortally wounded this concept of individual greatness and on court Manifest Destiny. And ironically, there is no clearer victim of this shift, or beneficiary, than LeBron himself. His first two championships are the result of his machinations, but so too are the Durant Warriors, and now the Durant Nets. In the way we would never think about a basketball player with a losing record in the NBA Finals, in the way we view Mike Trout, some of us now understand LeBron as a victim of history. Faced with an impossible foe like the Warriors, we look instead at his incredible, DiMaggio like Finals streak, which I can’t see as ever being broken given the climate and future I’m laying out here, and many of us believe he’s the GOAT regardless. This is, again, is a paradigm shift. LeBron is an affront, and potentially a malignant tumor, on NBA Rings culture’s brainstem. None of this fairytale crap works when you take a long look at the greatest player of all time, and tally his championships.
I have not, and never will write about advanced stats in an informed and nuanced way because I don’t really have the capacity for it. But I like to peruse them, and the arguments based on these stats smarter people than me produce. Because what analytics can show us is the obvious and once intangible fact that winning and losing is the product of a number of both large and small confluences of events. It disrupts the very American folk hero narrative that “MJ is the GOAT because he wanted it more than anyone else.”
I remember when the Raptors won with Kawhi. Of course we acknowledged the extreme disadvantage the Warriors were playing from, but it was also a coronation. I actually heard people say, or write, “Is Kawhi the best player in the league? Is he the guy you’d want over all other guys with a game on the line in the fourth quarter?” And I know Kawhi hasn’t exactly been 100% since, and even marginally healthy Kawhi is still a truly great player, but he wasn’t 100% healthy then.
He won a championship due to a number of extremely random circumstances, landing on a team that was perfectly constructed around him, and getting every literal and figurative bounce. Then the last two years happened. He lost a historic upset in the bubble to the Nuggets, and sat out a majority of the playoffs last season with a mystery injury he addressed later than he had to, as his team succeeded without him. You don’t hear much of that chatter anymore.
What we know, but can’t really say because it upsets the entire myth making enterprise, is basketball seasons, and series, and games, and moments are stuffed with these tiny but seismic moments our Hollywood diseased brains attribute this outsized narrative weight to.
And now it’s Giannis’ turn. We were lectured about how Giannis had finally “found his extra gear” and “realized his potential”, and “now has attained that championship swag”, and a few other well worn aphorisms of sportswriterese, and perhaps it’s all true. But is he really so different than the athletic but unskilled Freak who you could build a wall around, who couldn’t hit pressure free throws in 2020?
So he figured out pulling up just before the wall, so he hit his free throws and dominated a severely thin and undermanned Suns frontline after getting washed in games 1 and 2. He shit on Frank Kaminsky. In the event smart coaches adjust this season, in the event those playoff free throw demons reappear, will this take the luster off his accomplishment as well? Is there a breaking point to this, when we begin to acknowledge the random assignment in how this shit all breaks down and we can say “Welp, it was just Milwaukee’s year” without anointing the team’s best player with a tin crown and throne?
In the last four years, four different teams have won the championship. It’s a feat which has occurred a handful of times in NBA history (and even then, they often bookended dynasties). But this time, it feels like less of a disruption and more of a dawning of new normals.
I can’t go back and tell you who won the last five World Series and Super Bowls off the top of my head. I don’t follow those leagues as closely as this one, but that wasn’t always the case. It’s because parity has gotten so extreme, because rosters are so fluid, because an NFL GM structures his lineup just right and ducks the injury bug for a few playoff weeks, or because so much rests on a hot pitcher and/or bat in October. Perhaps that will be the future of the NBA. As player movement accelerates, and the gap between good and bad teams narrow, along with what at least feels like an increased injury risk to our stars in this new, more intense and overlong NBA season year after year, perhaps the league will move on from the province of dynasties and sustained successes, to a place where any given year, teams can rise and fall, fail and succeed, forever unmooring the shackles of The One Ring and its all consuming importance.
There are some untalented sportswriters who may look at this as a grim future. As a place where the nerds win and we don’t get to update our lists every season because Jrue Holiday makes a sudden, very random, and incredible defensive play that tips the balance of a single series, but doesn’t necessarily determine the ultimate lifetime worth of the careers of Giannis Antentekumpo, or Chris Paul. As someone who grew up watching the cruelty of the bounce, and knowing with my eyes, in my mind, and in my heart, that this “Rings Or Nothing” evaluation isn’t a fair or accurate measure of men, I believe, if I’m right, it is nothing less than the game correcting itself.
The question is, will this theoretical shift be able to remake generations of broken discourse? Will this lack of object permanence root itself in our discussion of basketball greatness forever? Or are we just going to continue to be slaves to recency bias, even as current events continue to undermine our past narratives? However many years from now, will we be able to wake up collectively with our brains, at long last, liberated from this Marvel superhero of destiny bullshit?
What I believe, what I hope, is, as random annual coronations like Giannis’ become commonplace, then erased the following year, a kind of awareness sets in. That chaos is now simply baked into the theory. And perhaps, we will finally be able to look back at history, and realize it always has been.