The State of Sport, Pt. 1
NBA: Will the trends be Bucked?
The top question in this year's NBA season is not the soap operas at big-money collectives in Brooklyn and L.A., but will the Milwaukee Bucks' championship be the signal for rising dominance?
Over its history, there have been those kinds of dominant teams, ones that monopolized their conference titles and won more than their shares of the Finals. Boston Celtics in the early '60's are the archetype, but several have emerged since then. In the 21st Century, things have moved faster, and these periods of stable dominance have been shorter. Still, in recent years there have been the rule of the Golden State Warriors, who won the Western Conference five straight years, with three titles, the Cleveland Cavaliers, their opponents in four of those (winning one of the others), and before that the previous LeBron James collective in Miami and the Kobe/Shaq Los Angeles Lakers, with similar successes.
So, are the Bucks at the peak of their success, or is there more to come? There certainly would seem to be in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo, their star center who has raised the Bucks up from league mediocrity, one level at a time. He is still very young.
If the Bucks renew success this year, winning their Conference finals, that would then suggest that their progression so far is not even complete. But at this time, I am reminded that the critical moment in the Bucks' path to the championship was defeating the Brooklyn Nets by a point in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinals--that early. Their success so far is contingent, and dependent on defeating a host of other valid contenders. More than ever before, I daresay.
Questions 2, 3...n
We start by examining the team chemistry of the Big 3 triangles at Brooklyn (Kevin Durant/James Harden/Kyrie Irving?) and the Lakers (LeBron/Anthony Davis/Russell Westbrook). Both have the challenge, playoff-time, that there will be only one ball and three guys who want to get it and shoot it. More immediate questions are finding the best way to include newcomer Westbrook and getting Kyrie his vaccination at some point before the end of the regular season. Those two teams have the most talent, but that doesn't always decide it.
Some one-line oversimplification for the other championship contenders I see:
Atlanta Hawks - Huge surprise that they reached the Conference finals. Duplicating that would indicate the kind of progression possible with Trae Young, who I'd compare to Stephen Curry.
Phoenix Suns - Just as huge a surprise that they could win the Western Conference last year. The duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker lacks a third and also seems fragile. One more chance, I think.
Miami Heat - A third recent major surprise, when they reached the NBA Finals through the bubble playoffs of 2020. Jimmy Butler is still there and makes the incredible possible.
Los Angeles Clippers - The question is whether their own magic man, Kawhi Leonard, will be available for the playoffs. Paul George without Kawhi was not enough, but the Clippers still reached their own highest level ever by reaching the Western Conference finals.
Utah Jazz - Likely once again to have the best record in the regular season in the West. They oppose the Big 3 approach with a more pure team concept. But can they get past the second round?
Denver Nuggets - They are a dark horse in the Western playoffs. They have the league MVP, talented big man Nikola Jokic, but will lack top scorer Jamal Murray for most of the regular season. If they can catch fire at the end, they could surprise all with a playoff run. It is rare in the NBA for such a team (expect them to be in the middle of the pack of playoff qualifiers) to go so far as the Finals, but it can happen.
The Standard Scenario is the Lakers against either the Bucks or Nets. Personally, I'm looking for a different trend to continue: the last three years have featured six different teams in the NBA finals. I think there's room for two more new ones. The Brooklyn Nets vs. either the Clippers or Jazz. The Nets' superior money should win out. But it's OK!
The College Game - I have no idea--I know the University of Kentucky Wildcats are full of one-year-and-done secondary-school superstars, as they always are--and it really doesn't matter that much until after the New Year. Then we'll see which teams have put it together for the Tournament, which is what it is all about.
I can never watch sports without wondering if it might be better if..... Most of these thoughts will be both logical and also outrageous and beyond consideration. But those who manage the product (commissioners and owners) need to consider the quality of their product, always open to real improvement.
In the case of the NBA, though, there's not so much to suggest. They cleverly caught on to the "more in the playoffs is better" axiom with their Covid improvisation in late 2020 of the Play-in Tournament (to make sure contending teams had a real chance to get in the playoffs in that unevenly truncated season), and then kept a form of it. Now ten teams in each conference get a shot.
One aspect I would correct a bit: the three-point shot--a great innovation for this still-young, still-changing sport--has taken over, more than it should. The answer would be to make the 3 slightly less rewarding, but not by simply moving the arc back: the true gunners can make it at any distance, if left alone. However, if one looks at the arc behind which you get three as it's painted on the court, you can see that it flattens out to a straight line giving access for threes all the way to the baseline. The logic of this is that the corner shot, having no backboard to bounce off, is more difficult to triangulate perfectly, but this is old news now, and there are too many players just hanging out in that corner, "spacing". If the arc continues to the sideline, that corner shot is just worth two. It would change offense, to the benefit of battles in the paint. The would-be spacer is squeezed more into the midrange of the court, where the action is.
As for the college game, my personal view is that college basketball--men's--has subordinated itself excessively to football in the construction of conferences. The NCAA should take over and make the finals tournament a 256-team free-for-all, organized around regional conferences that supersede the crass financial calculations of the Athletic Directors around football revenue. The conferences' cash cow is these conference tournaments that are fun for the little guys, but a nuisance for the top teams in the big conferences. I'd like to see the conference tourneys go, in exchange for more emphasis on conference play itself for seeding the big deal.
That won't happen, so let's focus on the short-term question: how do we keep them down on the farm (the NCAA) when they have seen the big city (NBA)? You can't, really, but the best thing would be to allow a return to college play for some of those who 'go pro' and then find it a level too high. That is, they might only lose half their eligibility if they turn pro, or be offered an inducement to return to complete their degree, for example?
Pyramids of Success
(inversely to number of franchises) Examples
Multi-season dominance old-time Celtics, Lakers, Michael, LeBron and Steph
Just reaching the top Bucks, Hawks, Heat, Toronto (with Kawhi)