In the annals of history, it may not be hard to interpret the 2021 NBA playoffs as an aberration. Upsets aren’t entirely rare in the NBA playoffs, but entire brackets tend to be a bit more predictable than what we’ve seen over the past couple of months, where only five All-Stars played in the conference finals. And now Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the only top 10 player who will have a direct hand in deciding the championship.
The Suns, a team that just missed 10 post-seasons in a row, are currently up one game in the Finals. To get here, they defeated three teams that suffered three disastrous injuries. Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard either missed every game in their matchup or, in Davis’s case, all but five doddering minutes after the Lakers relinquished a 2–1 series lead.
On the other side are the Bucks, a woebegone title contender that exorcised their bubble demons against the Heat before barely surviving an Ali-Foreman–esque main event versus a Brooklyn team that was down at least one of its All-Stars in every game. Despite losing Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended knee in Game 4 of the conference finals, Milwaukee rallied back to defeat the fifth-seeded Hawks, which didn’t have Trae Young for all (or anywhere near 100%) of their last three games.
Traditional, star-studded favourites like the Lakers, Clippers and Nets fell way earlier than they might have if healthy, while those who’ve yet to be hardened by post-season intensity—like Devin Booker and Young—stoically slid into the void as if it were their birthright.
Even though the Suns and Bucks were a combined 97–47 during the regular season, with the third- and fourth-best net ratings, respectively, no one actually pictured them confronting one another for all the marbles. Said with the utmost respect for both teams, regardless of who wins or how they do it, this is a jarring way to end the strangest season in NBA history.
This leads us back to the word aberration: everything that led us to this point—where unprecedentedly harsh, exhausting conditions took a toll on the minds and bodies of virtually every player who competed before these playoffs even began—can’t be overlooked.
First there was a brisk/endless off-season that blunted integral preludes (like training camp and the pre-season) that normally exist to ensure players are in shape and able to manufacture a competent product.
Then came a truncated schedule that induced physical and mental strain, increased load management and lessened practice time was endured. On top of which, games were played in empty arenas during a raging pandemic, with daily COVID-19 tests, alarming infections, isolation and anxiety. This was the backdrop for a regular season that presaged these chaotic playoffs. Take it all into account and it’s easy to believe next season’s results will be more conventional.
But what if our current reality is actually just a new normal, where unpredictability reigns? For so long the league has been defined by dynastic runs, most recently propagated by one player (LeBron James, who appeared in nine of the last 10 Finals) and one organization (the Warriors). The player turns 37 in December. The organization has not made the playoffs in two years, but, more relevant in this context, was built in 2016 thanks to a cap spike that allowed Kevin Durant to team up with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
In 2017 the new collective bargaining agreement responded with the supermax, which seemingly incentivized homegrown stars to stay with the team that drafted them instead of fleeing for greener pastures in free agency. The desired effect of this rule change gets debated every time a superstar stays, leaves or gets traded. Its effect has cut both ways—not quite the superteam deterrent it was designed as, while convincing Giannis that Milwaukee isn’t a bad place to spend his prime.
But—along with a few other changes made in that CBA—there’s been a gradual flattening of the league’s upper echelon, where hoarding several maximum contracts in their prime for an extended period is incredibly difficult. The result is an NBA mountaintop that’s covered in grease.
Without LeBron or any obvious Goliath, from this point forward what we may have is a sport that’s closer to parity, with a much flimsier barrier between elite contenders, formidable also-rans and brooding up-and-comers who feel deserving of a seat at the table. In other words, establishing consistency is quite difficult when the gap between each tier is narrower than it used to be.
Those who’ve recently gone all-in by bundling max-contract-caliber talent should generally be pleased with what they’ve seen. The Lakers are the defending champions, the Nets are generally absurd, and the Clippers recently discovered, in heartbreak, that they have what it takes to win it all. But each team has (or will soon run into) a worrisome depth issue, something the Sixers, Bucks, Celtics and Warriors can all relate to.
(The fundamental difference between the 2017 Warriors and the 2021 Nets is that Brooklyn traded Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and a bunch of draft picks for James Harden. Golden State didn’t need to part with any significant role players from its 73-win team except Harrison Barnes, who was being replaced by Durant. The Warriors kept Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Kevon Looney, who eventually contributed to their 2018 title.)
For several reasons, largely related to the league’s postpandemic financial state (including every whisper about the billionaire ownership groups that had their separate, nonbasketball revenue streams stifled), there’s never been a more urgent need to hit on veteran reclamation projects, second-round draft picks, and midlevel signees.
It’s impossible to provide solid answers to trend-related questions about the NBA’s future, especially when the current CBA can be altered as early as 2023. But it’s not hard to identify the momentousness of this time, how the ground moves beneath the feet of every player and team less predictably than it once did due to reasons that combine finances and on-court strategy.
There’s a growing divide between players who primarily function in the regular season and those more useful in the playoffs, where, for example, any one individual’s vulnerability on defence can diminish an entire unit’s ability to get stops. It’s an interesting shift that underlines the growth of homogeneous playing styles and a climbing three-point rate, two factors that give underdogs a greater chance than they once had. Every team can’t have two top 15 players, but how many can still build an exceptional team around one who’s either there or close (offensively) by investing in versatile defenders who shoot? Take the Mavericks as an example: what if instead of Kristaps Porziņģis, they had two stout 6’ 7” wings who made 40% of their open threes amplifying Luka Dončić s impact? Could that team not have won this year’s championship?
And, since top-notch shooters who can also defend multiple positions aren’t cheap or inexhaustible, teams (and their cap sheets) that possess top 15 talent have an increasingly difficult time obtaining such coveted role players. It’s an ongoing evolution that might not directly contribute to a conceivable future where the NBA champion is a season-to-season crapshoot, but it certainly helps even the playing field.
This theory may be a reach. Talent could dictate results as predictably in the next 10 years as it has for the previous 50 (i.e., don’t be stunned if Brooklyn wins the next three). But it’s also worth considering that we are at the dawn of a new day, where accelerated player movement, spurred mostly by shortened contracts and deteriorating attention spans, sows more volatility into every year. Throw in the play-in tournament—which emboldens an in-season drive to win—and a competitive team like Atlanta, who might’ve otherwise folded, is still around to wreak havoc. It allows a team like Phoenix to suddenly feel confident enough in its nucleus to speed up its timeline by trading for a 36-year-old point guard who clearly still had excellent basketball left to offer. Winning at the highest level isn’t easier, but it may be more accessible—which is what happens when no single player or team is seen as unbeatable.
It’s still too soon to claim with any type of confidence that the Pistons, Timberwolves or Hornets will make the conference finals before 2025, but any of those outcomes do not feel impossible. Very bad teams will always exist, but at the same we may be entering a league where the hope that’s traditionally held by only a few at the start of every season is more widely spread.
Maybe teams like the Hawks and Suns are anomalies that were thrust upon us by strange working conditions. Maybe the Nets and Clippers will romp through next year’s post-season, healthy as ever, on their way to a classic Finals clash. Or maybe, in a league that looks nothing today as it did five years ago, the threshold for being considered a legitimate title contender has changed in a way that broadens the conversation, allowing more possibility and optimism to be felt by teams and fan bases that rarely, if ever, get to believe.
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