Have we witnessed the end of NBA dynasties?
With a wide open race to the title, is the NBA more democratic and less dynastic these days? And is that good for fans and the league?
In this edition of FLANNS & ZILLZ, we discuss the 2014-15 NBA season as a transition year between eras and wonder if the era of eras has ended. Enjoy.
ZILLER: We’ve arrived at the New Year, and unlike most seasons, there are no clear favorites for the championship or even Finals bids. With the breakup of the Heat, the Pacers‘ troubles and the Spurs‘ struggles, we’re in the midst of what you’ve called a “transition season.” It’s kind of awesome, right?
FLANNERY: It’s phenomenal and let’s give credit to old friend Bethlehem Shoals who said the words “transition year” out loud before anyone else, by my reckoning. I can’t remember a season that was this wide open — with this many quality teams — ever?
If you look back at history, these odd years have popped up from time to time, mostly in the ’70s when you had random champs like the Warriors, Bullets, Sonics, even the Bill Walton Blazers, who blazed across the sky and burned out just as quickly. Those teams had an ephemeral quality about them. There was a moment and then the moment was gone.
But think about the really good teams in the league right now. It feels like they’re just beginning something, rather than trying to catch lightning. Houston, Golden State, Portland … these teams have staying power, no?
ZILLER: They do. The West is a strong mix of traditional powers from the past few years (Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder, Grizzlies to a degree) and this new influx of awesome. Plus the Clippers, which, yeah, I don’t know. Any of eight teams in the West could easily make the Finals. I think we have to give all top five teams in the East that possibility as well. That creates a huge number of possibilities as to what will happen. Last year we were focused on the Pacers, Heat, Spurs and Thunder.
The question I have is whether this type of, uh, competitive balance is desired or not. Because while we laud the unpredictability of this season, the ’70s are considered the NBA dark age. (I’ve written favorably about the era, but I also wasn’t around to witness it.) Folks like us can embrace the manic race, but it seems like the general populace might prefer superpowers and dynasties, based on the ebb and flow of the league’s status and how that has correlated with well-defined eras (Bird vs. Magic, MJ, the Heatles).
I think we both acknowledge that “competitive balance” was code for “lower payrolls” during the lockout. But for better or worse, it seems to be here.
FLANNERY: The thing that worked against the NBA in the ’70s was a rival league that siphoned off players and an absence of compelling stars. That’s not the case these days. One only has to look at the MVP race, where there are a half-dozen or so legitimate candidates before we even get around to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The NBA is swimming in stars and interesting teams. If that’s competitive balance, then I’m all for it.
As you say, we’ve seen pretty clearly over the years that what the general public wants come playoff time is defined superstars playing for megateams. So, the big question is this: is what’s good for the hardcore NBA fan good for the league? My feeling is it’s great for the regular season. These games have been incredible, but there’s a small world with League Pass and a much broader one who won’t be swayed by the hard-working Raptors or the Hawks playing the beautiful game.
The big issue for me is the East. There are more good teams than I thought there would be, but unless LeBron and the Cavaliers get their act together or the Bulls make it through the spring in one piece, we may have a lackluster Finals matchup and that’s very bad for the league in general.
ZILLER: That’s true, as it was true in the early ’00s, when the Western Conference Finals were the de facto NBA Finals. (That’s part of what made 2002 so crushing for my kin.) But it was also the case last year, though we didn’t know it until it’d happened. Perhaps in any year a highly competitive Finals is a bonus.
Back to the ’70s briefly: I regard the post-merger tumult that resulted in titles for the Blazers, Bullets and Sonics as a very strange era. We’ve had these non-dynasty titles elsewhere (Sixers, Mavericks, Heat in 2006) but always as one-offs between or wedged into eras. 1977-79 was its own era of transition. That’s something I think I want as a fan. I prefer serendipity over narrative.
As for the health of the league, I think having a greater number of serious contenders is good for business. Lakers-Knicks would be a TV goldmine, sure, but that’s only one piece of revenue. Having strong gate receipts and lots of merchandise to sell to proud fans is big, too. In the end the global sport is local, and nothing gets folks in team colors like wins. Bandwagons are real and profitable.
Besides, the Knicks will still always sell out.
FLANNERY: To some extent I think the NBA is forever chasing a pair of ghosts: Jordan, first and foremost, but also the Celtics-Lakers Finals of the ’80s. We’ve been waiting for Durant and LeBron to recapture that spirit and their only Finals matchup was anticlimactic at best. Could it be that time has already passed that one by?
I could talk about the ’70s all day, but the thing that made that late period so crazy was that Walton got hurt. If he stayed healthy, the Blazers would have repeated and they would have had their own pre-Bird/Magic era. As it was, you had two voids: no dominant player and no dominant team.
The ’83 Sixers were a culmination for Dr. J, Moses and a really fantastic Philly team. They were so close for so long and Malone was a two-time MVP who was stuck on mediocre teams. Same could be said kind of for Dirk’s Mavs, although they fit that right place/right time model most accurately. D-Wade’s ’06 Heat team is the closest approximation of what we’re talking about in terms of a transitional champ.
I feel like this is different, and I suspect you do too. Maybe it’s not so much a transitional period as it is a signifier of an entirely new era that’s less dynastic and more democratic. All that said, I’m feeling better about my preseason OKC pick and I haven’t given up on Russell Westbrook winning the MVP either. Could be that we’re right back where we started, but with a far more compelling regular season arc.
ZILLER: Ironic that we haven’t much discussed the Warriors’ 1975 championship given their status as one of the interlopers this season. I agree that this still may come down to the two best players of this era (LeBron and Durant), but the uncertainty of that result is really exciting. I think it’s good for basketball.
It’d be even better if more of these games were available to more casual fans. Instead we still get a lot of Knicks and Lakers on national TV, which is the opposite of what’s exciting about the league right now. It’d be nice if in figuring out what to put on ESPN and TNT during the summer, the networks looked at the long-range upside of the league and promoted the less famous teams a bit more. You’ve written about how Anthony Davis’s incredible rise is going untelevised for the most part; that’s going to keep happening to other young stars unless the networks take a longer view.
FLANNERY: The ’75 Warriors are arguably the most random champions in league history. You’d have a hard time figuring out the second-best player on that team after Rick Barry.
At the end of the day, winning changes everything. It may even save us from the Knicks and Lakers.
ZILLER: Basketball Gods willing.