Most NBA fans are approaching the start of the regular season next week with the same inevitable truth in mind—in all likelihood, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will take the floor in early June battling for the NBA title once again.
The third iteration of the matchup would feature a Warriors team that took advantage of a massive cap spike to assemble a roster with four All-Stars and a Cavaliers squad that was set to pay an exorbitant $54 million in luxury taxes even before signing guard J.R. Smith to a four-year, $57 million contract last week.
After working to increase parity and competitive balance across the league during the 2011 lockout, the current NBA picture is one many didn’t envision.
But fans who think the regular season has been ruined by the creation of superteams might be surprised when they find themselves glued to their television sets starting Tuesday.
Although there may be only two legitimate championship contenders, the mesmerizing potential of the Warriors is enough to attract eyes around the globe. The moment The Players Tribune published Kevin Durant’s decision to head to the Bay Area, the Warriors became more than just a team that wins a lot of games and likes to shoot 3-pointers—they became a spectacle that’s almost larger than the sport itself.
Just wait until the Warriors find themselves in a tight fourth quarter battle on the road against a far inferior opponent and the masses start rooting for the upset. Whether it’s the first game of the season or an end-of-year battle, fans will be captivated by the idea that such a juggernaut could be toppled.
As a lifelong Miami Heat fan, I’ve lived through the same scenario after watching the league’s bottom-feeders elevate their play and throw their best punches at the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. For Warriors fans, the close contests will be stressful and a reminder that their team is not a lock to win the championship. For fans of the 29 other teams, they will be exciting.
In the rare times that the Warriors don’t find themselves on national television, viewers will get a glimpse of other fascinating storylines in the NBA. Maybe this is the year that we find out just how close young upstarts like the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves are to legitimate contention. Maybe this is the year we find out how many shots Russell Westbrook can take in a game as a team’s lone superstar. Hint—a lot.
Although the 2017 NBA Draft will likely be the strongest in recent memory, this NBA season appears to be the first without a team that will clearly tank from opening night. Sure, the 76ers will be bad even if Joel Embiid continues to hit 3-pointers and the Nets will stink unless a magical fairy grants them a wish to undo the horrible trade they made with the Celtics. But Philadelphia’s management has pushed to make its team more competitive and the Nets don’t have much of a reason to tank without a draft pick.
Outside of a few outliers, a vast majority of the league’s teams can realistically enter this season thinking a playoff berth is possible. Behind the Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference continues to be a jumbled mess with no clear pecking order, and out West, the playoff picture is murky after second-tier contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.
During an era in which championships have become the only way to measure success, the incremental improvements of franchises are often forgotten. Forget about trying to beat the Warriors for just a second and consider how a playoff appearance for any of the league’s perennial cellar-dwellers could attract new fans locally and show off some of the game’s underrated superstars.
And before jumping ahead to June, let’s not forget how quickly things can change.
After all, the trio of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard was supposed to be a super team with the Lakers before it became apparent that the pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit. As of publishing of this column, basketball remains a game that only uses one ball, meaning only one of the Warriors vaunted Big Four will be the one taking a particular shot. Although chemistry doesn’t seem to be an issue for this superteam right now, there is no real way of knowing until the group goes through a full season together.
Injuries are a whole different part of the story.
The fragility of the NBA manifests itself every year with a handful of superstars always banged up, and there’s no telling what would happen if either of the NBA’s top two teams suffered a key injury. It is for this reason that teams outside of the top tier of championship contenders continue to push for improvement—one injury could open the door for a whole different group of teams.
Come June, it’s almost inevitable that fans will be treated to the third chapter between the Warriors and Cavaliers.
But let’s not hastily dismiss this regular season as a waste of time. The road to the Finals will still be filled with the drama and memorable moments that make the NBA as popular as ever.
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