Monday, June 12, 2017

NBA's competitive balance problem only getting worse

It’s the same teams contending every year. The regular season doesn’t mean anything. Simulate the postseason to the finals.

These are all things certain sports fans say about the National Basketball Association. It’s hard to argue with, but it’s still commendable that certain teams, led by certain superstars, find their way back to the conference finals and NBA Finals most years. Instead of reading Twitter arguments about LeBron James or Michael Jordan, it’s better just to sit back and respect the kind of career James is putting together having been to the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons and eight times total.

Fans that use James’ move from Cleveland to Miami as an example of the beginning of the NBA becoming increasingly more predictable are simply misguided. After all, his Heat teams still lost two of the four NBA Finals they appeared in and had to rally to win a miraculous game 6 in 2013 against San Antonio and then come back and win a seventh game. So which teams played in the finals may have been easy to predict, but who would win was a coin flip more often than not. This carried over when James went back home to Cleveland in 2014 and his Cavaliers did battle with the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 and 2016 NBA Finals. Sure enough, Golden State won in 2015 and Cleveland won last year.

Then, something big happened. That something was Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City and join Golden State. Everyone knows the story by now. Durant’s Thunder held a 3-1 series held in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State only to drop games 5, 6 and 7 and allow the Warriors, who posted a record 73 wins in the regular season to advance to the NBA Finals. While the Warriors then squandered a 3-1 lead of their own in the NBA Finals, it was evident that the Warriors did not need Durant and Durant did not need the Warriors. Golden State still had a title from 2015 and Durant’s Thunder had pushed the Warriors to the precipice of elimination last season.

Now the Warriors have returned to the top with Durant on their side after defeating Cleveland in five games in this year’s NBA Finals. The NBA’s imbalance of power reached a new level this season and while Durant and Stephen Curry could both hit the open market in a matter of weeks, as well as Klay Thompson next summer, it’s highly unlikely that Golden State’s nucleus disintegrates just as its presumptive dynasty begins. With several stars under the age of 30, it’s no secret Golden State figures to be just as good in years to come as it was this season.

                                      Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group
All that said, who can blame the Warriors for assembling what many have called the greatest team ever? As easy as it can be to dislike them, Golden State identified talent in the draft going back to when it drafted Curry 7th overall in 2009, and continued to build organically all the way to a championship in 2015 and then the most wins ever in a regular season in 2016, which ultimately led to acquiring Durant. It’s a model of team building that every team in the NBA should aspire to emulate. The NBA has always been driven by its star players and teams with multiple stars are the ones that win championships often. With the dominance the Warriors are displaying, owners and general managers across the NBA should be happy that the proposed draft lottery reform failed to earn the necessary majority when it was put to a vote prior to the 2014-15 NBA season. Such lottery reform would have made it more difficult for the worst teams to acquire the top picks in the draft, which for many teams is the only way to realistically add stars in hopes of one day contending for a title. Commissioner Adam Silver may not like the fact that it’s in the best interest of certain teams to lose a ton of games, but for those teams, it’s almost certainly the easiest way to obtaining a franchise cornerstone which continues to be paramount in the NBA.

In the end, it all comes back to Durant’s decision to bolt from Oklahoma City. Had Durant stayed put, or opted to go anywhere other than Golden State, the Finals this year could very well have been Golden State and Cleveland again anyway. But it almost certainly would have lasted more than five games, and it’s not rocket science to think Golden State would have at least been challenged and faced some adversity in the Western Conference playoffs as opposed to going 12-0 on the way to another NBA Finals berth. It’s one thing for teams to become dynasties, and win multiple championships in a five-year span. It’s another level of inequality when that team dominates a league’s playoffs the way Golden State just did. For a league that was already looked at as top-heavy, that issue is only amplified now. Therefore, the answer to the question if the Warriors and Durant are a good thing for the NBA is a resounding no.

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