The Best We Ever Had?
The best show in sports has gotten even better this year.
by Allen Powell II
Today’s sports media landscape is filled with hyperbolic writers attempting to carve out a niche by creating the definitive list on some hotly debated topic like “Who is the greatest defender ever?” or “Who is the most clutch?” (Hakeem and Jordan in case you were wondering.) While these exercises can be tiring, sometimes they are necessary.
There is very little that sports fans enjoy more than a good, esoteric debate, and these wildly subjective lists can provide the perfect jumping off point for those debates. As the opening ceremonies of this year’s NBA Playoffs draw to a close it feels like the perfect time to discuss why they are easily the best Playoffs in recent memory, and quite possibly the best ever. And by “ever” I mean the past 20 years since nobody really cares what happened before that, right?
1. A Little Parity Goes a Long Way
The National Football League’s claim to fame is that almost any team can be the Super Bowl Champion in a given year, and thus every team’s fans enter the regular season high on the opiate of hope. Unfortunately, one of the persistent knocks on the NBA, well besides the always lovely “too many thugs” complaint, is that it is a league of dynasties. Critics note that the same small carousel of teams takes turns receiving the Larry O’Brien trophy, and given the fact that the Lakers and Celtics have won half of all league championships, there is some truth to that complaint.
But, this year feels different. The Lakers are still the clear favorites, but they don’t feel like an unstoppable juggernaut. Instead, they seem like an overconfident bully, content to toy with defenseless peers until the new kid who trains in MMA shockingly chokes them into submission.
Besides the expected powerhouses like Miami, Dallas and Boston, young upstarts like Chicago and Oklahoma City seem primed to make a serious title run this year. That doesn’t even account for a team like Memphis that is just balanced and athletic enough to strike fear into any coach with good sense. (Sorry Atlanta, you and your paint-by-numbers offense cannot be taken seriously.)
While the NBA will never be the NFL, and thank God for that, it has benefited from a belief by fans that this is truly the year any Playoff team could make some noise. For some fans that hope has been fleeting, but for many others it remains viable, and that has only added to the drama of the tournament.
2. Redemption Songs Even Bob Marley Would Love
As a fan of the NBA, I have a weakness for “knuckleheads.” My favorite player was Allen Iverson, and over the years I’ve collected a menagerie of misfits who I openly root for even as they are reviled by others. These Playoffs have allowed two of those misfits to shine.
Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph have long been maligned for shoddy shot selection and disappearing defense. Both attained the dubious label of players good teams can’t win with. Yet, if these Playoffs have shown anything, it is that if you have talent redemption is only an attitude change away. (Maybe Isiah Thomas wasn’t an idiot after all?) Both Crawford and Randolph have finally gotten out of their own way, discovered their niches and are arguably the most important players on their respective teams right now.
Z-Bo has always been an indomitable beast on the block, but thanks a recent decision to shelve a crappy attitude and pass the ball, he is probably a top-5 power forward in the League. Go ahead and try to figure out five players who are clearly better. I could only come up with Pau, Dirk and KG. With his new attitude, Z-Bo has helped the Grizzlies put the Spurs on the ropes, and if the team can complete its “upset,” it will be an amazing achievement for man who was once the face of the Jail Blazers.
Jamal Crawford still plays the same way. He still jacks jumpers, he still rips crossovers and he still gets more four-point plays than should be humanly possible. All of those traits were entertaining, but futile on teams like the New York Knicks and Baby Bulls. But, on Atlanta, they are crucial to the success of a flawed, but competitive team that shocked most NBA watchers by pulling a first round upset over a team that absolutely owned them for two years. Crawford isn’t better than Joe Johnson, but he’s just as dangerous particularly in the clutch.
And I haven’t even discussed Brandon Roy.
3. The Lakers and Celtics Still Reign
As much as some NBA fans complain about the frequency with which the teams in Los Angeles and Boston end up squaring off in the Finals, it is still the League’s most interesting rivalry. The season began with many fans hoping for a rubber match between Boston and L.A. to determine which team is truly better, and even though Danny Ainge has done his best to thwart that, it’s still possible.
Or course, to get there both teams will have to leap some serious hurdles, as the Lakers will have to beat a Dallas team far tougher than any of its recent incarnations, and handle either the young and talented Thunder, or the young and rugged Grizzlies. The key word there is “young.”
Boston will have to vanquish Miami and probably Chicago, both teams which are more athletic and hungrier than a Celtics team that at times has appeared as bored as the Lakers with the regular season. In Miami they will have to face two of their most dreaded foes only now on the same squad. Chicago features a coach who knows their flaws inside and out, and a young superstar eager to shock the world.
A rematch is clearly not guaranteed, but its possibility still thrills fans of well-executed team play, and long-running feuds. Yes, it would have been better if Boston’s original Big Five was still intact and could finally prove that they are untouchable in the Playoffs, but even without that subplot, Lakers vs Celtics is still a battle of the League’s royalty.
And as William and Kate just proved, royalty still matters.