The NBA Playoffs Have Belonged To The Losers
- Are NBA fans more interested in failures than successes? The 2017 NBA playoffs have shown there's arguably more interest in what happens during July than June.
The losers have been more interesting than the winners in the NBA playoffs. This sounds crazy, but it's true.
I'm not sure what it means for the league's bigger picture. Maybe nothing? The NBA's in the middle of a stretch of extreme competitive imbalance, and if there's any real problem, it should be cured by the system that already exists. But with that qualifier out of the way, let's consider what we've seen over the past six weeks.
When the Cavs swept the Pacers in the first round, it was pointless to talk about Cleveland. Even LeBron James couldn't pretend the series really mattered. His most memorable commentary from that series was about Kendrick Lamar's new album. The intrigue centered around Paul George. Would he stay in Indy? Would he force his way out? Who could trade for him? Would Gatorade keep running that commercial for the rest of the playoffs even after George's bricked game-winner? (Yes.)
Elsewhere, the Raptors averted disaster when they survived the Bucks, but the most indelible memory from that series was Giannis going Godzilla on everyone in Game 1. The Raptors' win was a footnote even as it happened. It's only become more irrelevant as the weeks passed. Do you want to talk about Norm Powell lineup tweaks or the 6'11" monster who looks like he might own the league in five years? Of course, Giannis was more interesting.
In the West, the end of the Clippers-Jazz series might have signaled a breakthrough for Utah, but it didn't really feel like it. The story was the Clippers. After years of "Is this it?" Clippers speculation, that first round loss felt like it really might have been the end. And what does that mean for the rest of the league? CP3 to the Spurs? Blake to the East? Doc Rivers to retirement? All of it made for more entertaining discussion than a Jazz team limping over to the Bay Area.
Ten days later, the script was flipped. Utah lost to Golden State, and suddenly Gordon Hayward's free agency upstaged any discussion of how the Warriors won.
This has been the pattern in almost every series we've seen. The Cavs were always expected to beat the Raptors, but when they dominated them like that, it sent Toronto into an existential tailspin that could very well end with Kyle Lowry playing somewhere else next year. On the other hand, the Spurs-Rockets series was a toss-up almost the entire time. When Harden's disappearing act turned the end of it into a blowout, his failure overshadowed any Game 6 success by San Antonio. And then when the Spurs lost to the Warriors in the conference finals, the most interesting reactions to Game 4 were either eulogizing Manu or wondering what might have been if Kawhi Leonard had played.
Even Celtics-Wizards, probably the best series of the playoffs, left us with more questions about the loser than answers about the winner. What the hell happened to John Wall? Were the Wizards actually the better team? How do they improve from here? Wait, they're paying Mahinmi how much?
Then the Celtics went and won the No. 1 pick, and debates about their future became twice as interesting as anything that happened to them in the East finals.
You get the point. It's been a strange six weeks.
The simple explanation for this trend would be that NBA fans are more interested in failures than success, and/or that loving basketball in 2017 means looking ahead to July as much as June. Maybe both explanations are true. But I also think the focus on Harden and Wall and the Clippers—or the summers of Hayward, George, and the Celtics—has been exaggerated this year. In that case, there are two conclusions before we hit the Finals.
First, if there's a difference in the way people follow the NBA after the KD decision, this is it. Losers are more interesting, because there's a vacuum of intrigue elsewhere. The Cavs and Warriors have lapped the field, and it's redundant to focus on two teams that are obviously miles ahead. It's more entertaining to wonder whether anyone else might close the gap.
Second, if we're sticking with this theme, the Warriors will probably win the title, and they'll probably make it look fairly easy. But that won't be the that generates the most interest.
This is the 2017 playoffs. The NBA is upside down right now. And if the Warriors dominate the NBA Finals, all anyone will want to talk about is what it means for LeBron.