The NBA has a growing problem on its hands
Now that the dust has settled on NBA free agency and the league as a whole has mostly taken shape after a flurry of moves in the last week, it’s time for me to address something that has been bothering me since Christmas, and that’s the growing problem in the NBA of super teams, throwing the league out of balance.
Dating back to Independence Day last summer when Kevin Durant ripped the hearts out of Oklahoma City fans with his decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, there seems to be this growing sensation for superstars to almost take the easy way out and team up with fellow star players in hopes of chasing a ring.
That bothers me.
Sure, Durant accomplished what he wanted by winning a ring and an NBA Finals MVP award in his first season in Golden State after averaging 35 points per game in a 4-1 series win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has officially shut up any naysayer now that he has a ring, but I can’t help but think that ring comes with an asterisk, considering a top 3 player in the game — and arguably the best pure scorer in league history — signed with the league’s best team in regular season history after winning 73 games last season.
At its basic level, one can’t fault Durant for chasing a ring, since most talking heads and writers tend to place such a ridiculous emphasis on rings when it comes to judging a player’s career in a team sport, but this is the NBA’s problem, and one that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.
Just take a look at free agency in the last week.
Former Los Angeles Clippers star point guard Chris Paul orchestrated a trade to the Houston Rockets, essentially forcing the Clippers to trade him, allowing him to pair up with league MVP runner-up James Harden. That move by Paul took one championship-caliber team in the Clippers and basically reduced them to after-thoughts in the championship window.
What about Paul George being traded to Oklahoma City to run alongside league MVP Russell Westbrook? Disclaimer: I’m a big Thunder fan, so I was happy with this, but I can’t help but think it ruined one small market team (Indiana Pacers) to maybe help out another small-market team for one year in the Thunder.
Then, you have the mass exodus of high-level players from the Eastern Conference making the trek to the Western Conference, as Paul Millsap left the Atlanta Hawks to sign with the Denver Nuggets, Jimmy Butler being traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves, or point guard Jeff Teague leaving Indiana to sign with Minnesota.
Granted, Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz to sign with the Boston Celtics and J.J. Redick left the Clippers to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers, but as of now, the Western Conference is clearly so much better top to bottom than the Eastern Conference, and that’s a problem for the league itself.
All of this circles back to Durant’s decision last summer. With the Warriors being nearly unbeatable (they went 30-2 to close the season, including the playoffs, dropping just one game in the Finals to Cleveland and one regular season game to Jazz at the end of the season), players not on Golden State’s roster are trying to align with other great players to try and slay the beast that are the Dubs, but in return all that’s doing is condensing the league into a few meaningful teams while rendering others — namely small-market teams — moot.
Personally, I can’t see how that’s a successful business model, for the league itself, let alone small-market teams like Utah, Orlando, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
Alas, the NBA had the highest ratings for a Finals series every in May and June even though most assumed Golden State would roll, and rightfully so.
Golden State’s reign at the top will most likely continue for at least the next three years with all of their key players locked up for the foreseeable future, but the big domino that could fall, and almost guaranteed to at this point, is the departure for the Western Conference — Lakers? Clippers? — of one LeBron James. Heading west would give the King the chance to build his own super team from the ground up to try and knock off the Warriors.
That can’t possibly be good for the league as a whole, especially when the face of basketball heads to the best conference in the league, leaving the Eastern Conference in shambles.
However, I’m sure this might not be anything new to older generations of NBA fans, considering the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, Lakers of the late ’90s-early ’00s, the Pistons of the early ’00s and the Heat of the ’10s were super teams that seemed to leave the league unbalanced and interesting, but those are some of the fondest memories of basketball that I have, considering the game was gaining steam in popularity.
But right now I’m just having a hard time coming to grips with stars teaming up with other stars, almost taking the easy way out. Almost.
That alone seems to be the growing problem, and one that the NBA itself doesn’t seem to have an answer for when it comes to slowing it down.
Maybe we’ll never see the old days of stars sticking it out with the same club over a 15- to 20-year career in the NBA.
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