These have not been the most anticipated NBA playoffs. The two No. 1 seeds are gone, and even the encounters that turned out to be as planned were full of strange moments and winding paths as they headed towards their eventual destination. An unusual (but too often despairing) season now gets the postseason it deserves. We are now left with four teams – each nursing a title team of more than 50 years – and a reminder that what counts more than any narrative or concern about marketing is the basketball itself.
According to record books, the Atlanta Hawks won a single NBA championship 63 years ago, but it’s not good. The Falcons actually won the title in 1958, but that was when the team was still in St. Louis and two years away from presenting an integrated team. There is enough continuity for it to count, but not enough to be heard. It hasn’t been that long for the Bucks, but it’s been long enough that their best player, future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was still going by his birth name when they won the Walter Brown Trophy, which he had yet to take on. their current title.
The Clippers and Suns, the two teams remaining in the Western Conference, are also set to win a championship. The Suns have at least appeared in the finals twice, but for the Clippers, only reaching the conference finale makes this postseason the culmination of the dying long franchise. In a way the combined forces of Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson have been able to do what Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith and Lob City star collectors have never been able to do.
Even in light of their embarrassing exit from the playoffs last season, the Bucks and Clippers seemed confident of being contenders for the title this season. Yet the way they both came here has always been unexpected. After falling back to 0-2 for the second round in a row, the Clippers closed out the first-round Jazz while missing their best player, led by a selection from the second round that showed that, at least for one night, they didn’t need Kawhi. In the East, the Bucks have found a decision that appeared absent in their defeats to the Raptors and Heat the last two postseason. They defeated the Nets not exactly by playing better basketball than Brooklyn but by pure decision, doing everything they could to shake up the pristine and effortless efficiency that is the Nets ’calling card at its best.
Meanwhile, the Falcons have been deep into the fairly recent post-season – making the conference finale in 2015 – but in such a drastically different configuration that any claim to continuity is speculative. The Falcons finished 20-47 just last year and have failed to win 30 games for three consecutive years. They were not a good team. Even with a promising handful of young players and a potential franchise cornerstone, the Falcons still look a few years away when the season begins, starting at age 14-20. However, since the installation of Nate McMillan as interim coach after that putative start, the team has exceeded all reasonable expectations. This spring led to a conference finale win earned by the complete overtaking of the top Sixers, including two stunning rebounds and a Game 7 victory on the road. Even having seen it, it still feels hard to believe. For the Suns, things were simpler; they’ve just been great.
If you follow a certain type of basketball fan on Twitter, you’ve probably seen some posts about how this state of affairs is bad for the league. These business-minded pontiffs will tell you about the importance of stellar power and the recognition of names and how crucial they are to ensuring the continued growth of this enterprise. They talk about how casual fans don’t go back to watching Devin Booker, Trae Young or a Wisconsin team. It’s all an absurdity, of course, an anecdotal way of thinking about basketball. And even if it weren’t, I’m not cynical enough to believe that someone watches the sport because they’re interested in lining up the pockets of billionaires.
What matters most is not the teams or names involved, but the quality of the basketball that is played. So far, fans have been unable to ask for anything better. There has been nothing to perfume in the unexpected progression of the Hawks or Clippers continually retreating from the corners that seem to be thrown just to see if they can recover. The games between the Nets and the Bucks in the last round might not always have been the closest or the most beautiful encounters, but they were convincing. Whether it was the beautiful execution by the Nets at the beginning of the series or the double brilliance of Giannis and Durant, the series functions as a fascinating drama as a playoff series.
For years, the league has relied on the presence of LeBron James, the Akron native who has served as the NBA’s center of gravity for more than a decade. This is not to say that Giannis, Young or one of the remaining stars will always be asked (or able) to bear the same weight, but that even if they are not the last four teams that marketers have hoped for, their presence and continued emergence bodes well for the long-term future of the league. Many of the league’s biggest stars, players who have defined the NBA for the past decade, are nearing the end of their first, if not their careers. This post-season then serves as a bridge to a new era, one that won’t fully emerge for a few more seasons, but that fans can see a weak outline today.
It’s not really a passing guard – at least not yet – but every bucket of Booker isolation and every Young alley-oop, thrown at his teammates with such casual audacity, brings him a little closer. This is not something to complain about. Rather it’s an opportunity to celebrate the depth and breadth of talent in the league as a new day approaches. There might be a comfort in what is known, but novelty can sometimes bring something wonderful beyond a simple novelty.