By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The NBA’s regular season is a drag – a six-month, 82-game yawner offering few surprises. The absurdly long odyssey is marred with scheduled off days for stars, tanking by bottom feeders and lackadaisical effort that would make the pending retiree buried in a cubical village look like an aspiring intern.
At the root of what ails regular season basketball is this: there is no drama. Oh sure, it is marketed as something significant, but it’s a manufactured marathon to pay the bills. We all know what’s going to happen. Mostly anyway. At the start of every season, only a half dozen or so teams are in the championship conversation; in reality, the list of true contenders is even shorter.
And yet, the NBA and the networks that spew regular season coverage expect consumers to take the product seriously. Why? Because there’s some burning desire to see what teams eke out the eighth playoff seeds in each conference? Come on. Even the best teams have only a passing interest in home court throughout the playoffs; now a top-four seed and home court in the first round suffices – and the (lack of) game-to-game exertion proves it.
There are exceptions. Russell Westbrook is a relentless competitor. He would race you up the stairs. LeBron James, to his credit, played all 82 games this year. There are also many players fighting tooth and nail every night to stay on an NBA roster. But mostly, the NBA’s regular season is charade.
Dislike the brutal honesty and cynicism if you want, but was a half of a year of basketball necessary to validate Houston and Golden State, and Cleveland and Boston, as the Western and Eastern Conference Finals participants? No…it just wasn’t.
Pulling the string further, the preseason/October versions of ourselves would have declared Golden State, as the defending champs and with its Avengers-like cast of All-Stars, the overwhelming favorites to repeat. Maybe Houston, with its notable duo of Chris Paul and James Harden, could offer some resistance in the Western Conference, but not enough to actually threaten Golden State. Similarly, James’s Cavaliers and the rebuilt Celtics would be worthy adversaries in a Finals showdown with the Warriors, but this was Golden State’s title to win since Halloween. It was fait accompli. All other contemplated outcomes were just wishful, manufacture noise.
Then the season happened. The destination followed the Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Boston final four script, but the journey swerved way off the expected track. The Celtics lost prized free agent addition Gordon Hayward for the season after he broke his leg in in the first game and G Kyrie Irving for the playoffs after the All-Star had knee surgery. A struggling Cleveland squad flipped nearly half its roster in multiple moves before the trade deadline. Warriors’ G Stephen Curry missed 31 games. Houston often played man down too, with Paul and Harden missing 24 and 10 games, respectively. No one was spared the fury of The Regular Season Monster.
Whatever sins the NBA regular season commits against basketball fans, the playoffs are the penance – a fabulous display of intensity and desperation. It is basketball at its best. Once things got real in this year’s second season, the Fantastic Four of the preseason – Golden State, Houston, Boston and Cleveland – waved off the adversity, refused the ready-made excuses and arrived where everyone thought they would be – the Conference Finals.
Of the four, Houston and Boston impressed the most. Boston lost its two best players and still came within one game of slaying King James’s Cavs and reaching The Finals. In the west, Houston has, as of my submission deadline, pushed the juggernaut Warriors to seven games, something that on paper they had no business doing. The easy play for both teams would have been to accept conventional wisdom – that Boston, sans Irving and Haywood, couldn’t threaten in the east and that Houston couldn’t actually push Golden State. But neither team was buying the imposed limitations of outsiders. Good for them and fortunate for anyone facing doubters in their lives. Sometimes the only person in your corner is you; sometimes that’s all you need.
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