The National Basketball Association is in tremendous shape. If you could buy stock in one professional league in the world right now, it would be the NBA. Their commissioner is the best in the world; their worldwide expansion is what the NFL always strived to do; and, more importantly, their domestic product is deeper than it has been in years.
On the surface, there shouldn’t be a problem. And, depending on your perspective, there may not be.
In the NBA today, on any single day, there stand about 9 to 12 teams who could conceivably win the championship. That’s 9 to 12 teams who go into the weight room every single day with the very realistic expectation that it could be them who raises the O’Brien Trophy this summer. That’s 9 to 12 fan-bases who get excited for each and every game because they are already preparing their Championship Season memories.
The problem is this: it is very, very boring.
Let me rephrase: it is not boring, because great basketball is never boring. There always exists in this world a place for great basketball.
The problem is the storyline, and here is where you are free to disagree. The two most powerful things in sports are the underdog and perpetual greatness; it is Villanova beating Georgetown and it is Michael Jordan’s ghost haunting Kobe’s entire career. It is the Kansas City Royals getting 90 feet from winning the World Series and it is the polarizing nature of the Miami Heat. Everyone loves the underdog, while the greatness is continually polarizing. The point, though, is there is always a conversation.
There is no conversation in the NBA today. Steph Curry’s Warriors are fun to watch; so are the Hawks. The Cavaliers have seemed to turn the corner, making it the closest thing to a good story in the NBA, but the problem is this: except for South Florida and the other 8 to 11 teams, everyone in the country is rooting for them, and they haven’t won anything yet. They don’t fall into either the underdog or perpetual greatness camp.
The league is deeper than ever, with 9 to 12 teams realistically vying for a title. That means there are 18 to 21 other teams, fan-bases, and cities that have no real incentive to watch the league. Many of them, like me, may be fans of great basketball, and get excited when a matchup like Hawks-Warriors or Cavs-Rockets are on national TV, but at a certain point the game becomes regionalized.
If you want an easy solution, one that some may call a cop-out, I’ll give you one: we’re hitting the homestretch of the season, which is another way of saying the league is emerging from the doldrums of their season. There is talk every year that the season is too long, and because of that, a large chunk of the season—particularly the months before and after the All-Star Break—are overlooked, and sort of boring.
If you want a number, I’ll give you one: 27, the number of games the Miami Heat won during their win-streak in the 2012-13 season. This single team was one of the all-time greats, and this era of the Miami Heat, from their inception, was polarized and hated, a national talking point every day of the year. Their winning streak lasted from February 3rd to March 27th. It energized the entire season, keeping interest in the NBA from the season’s opening tip-off to the last game of the Finals.
Throughout the streak, people tuned in, either to see the greatness continue (it ended as the second-longest winning streak in NBA history) or to finally see the villains lose.
That doesn’t exist this year, that storyline, that polarization. In the NBA Finals, the only true matchup that could yield any kind of storyline that wouldn’t be arbitrary would be Cavs-Spurs. That would be the one matchup that would bring real and true interest. Sure, people will tune in to any matchup, because basketball at its best is better than anything else. But Hawks-Rockets? Warriors-Wizards? Who honestly will care?
This problem—if you can call an incredible talent pool a problem—is unlikely to continue. The recent trend for NBA players is to sign your contracts in accordance with the next big class of free agency. First 2010, then 2014, and the next one will be 2016. Name a player, and I guarantee he’s a free agent: LeBron; Durant; Kevin Love; Dwyane Wade; Joakim Noah; Al Horford; Goran Dragic; Arron Afflalo; Anthony Davis; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; Bradley Beal; Dion Waiters; Damian Lillard; Harrison Barnes; Andre Drummond; Hassan Whiteside.
That’s 16 players out of 128 total. If half of those 16 players were free agents at the same time, it would be the most exciting free agency in league history. If a quarter of those 16 players were free agents at the same time, it would be the most exciting free agency in league history. The odds that none of those 16 sign with each other—or that none of those 16 sign with any of the other 128—is, I’m willing to bet, mathematically impossible. We could have a repeat of a Miami Heat-style get-together, possibly in Washington, with Durant teaming up with Beal and John Wall.