Published June 10, 2017
The bar has been lowered for 29 teams in the NBA.
For 29 teams, gratification will have to be found in other ways.
Maybe a gritty road win over a division rival in January. Perhaps setting some team attendance records. Hey, it could even be an unexpected albeit short appearance in the playoffs.
Gratification is going to have to come from other, more creative ways, because it’s certainly not about winning championships, not as long as the Golden State Warriors are in the league.
It’s kind of cute, actually, how teams like the Pistons speak bravely about improving and “taking the next step.”
The next step to what, exactly?
Even the Cleveland Cavaliers, who ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference in this sham of a postseason, are proving to be no match for the Warriors in the Finals—Game 4’s 137-116 win over Golden State notwithstanding.
The Warriors will be champs, that’s obvious. And they will be champs for the next several years. That too, is obvious.
So what are the other 29 teams playing for?
This spring’s NBA playoffs were devoid of any drama. There’s been nothing compelling. Even a Warriors fan might be bored to tears.
Locally, when the Red Wings and Pistons were winning championships, there was never that fait accompli feeling about any of the titles.
Every one of those Detroit teams faced peril in every postseason in which they appeared.
Both teams would occasionally fall behind in series in which they were favorites. Both teams would have to win a critical game or two, or three, on the road. There was always a roller coaster of emotions that fans had to endure.
Remember the 2002 Red Wings—one of the best NHL teams ever assembled—falling behind 0-2 to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round? Fans worth their salt will tell you without solicitation that the turning point of that series was Nick Lidstrom’s goal from center ice in Game 3.
How about the 1989 Pistons, winners of 63 games in the regular season, falling behind 1-2 to the inferior though improving Chicago Bulls in the Conference Finals? The Bad Boys had to gut out a win in the hostile Chicago Stadium in Game 4, which they did.
Examples of these moments of playoff stress for our champions are plenty.
Even the 1984 Tigers came home for Game 3 of the World Series in a 1-1 deadlock with the San Diego Padres, who weren’t even in existence when the Tigers won their last championship in 1968.
The 2004 Pistons, that Going to Work championship bunch, lost a memorable Game 5 in triple overtime to the New Jersey Nets—at home—to fall behind 2-3 in the Conference Semi-Finals. The Pistons would have to win in New Jersey to save their season, which they did. But not without causing some heartburn for their fans.
Tell me, even as a Warriors fan, where’s the drama? Where’s the fun?
Where’s the “turning point” in their run to the title? What has been their “gut check” moment?
Would the Red Wings or Pistons championships been as gratifying if they stormed through the playoffs like a steamroller?
Where would the defining moments come from? What stories would we be left with to recall with fondness?
Remember Brendan Shanahan’s goal off Patrick Roy’s arrogant “Statue of Liberty” move? Of course you do, because it came in Game 6 of the Western Finals in 2002, with the Red Wings facing elimination on the road. Shanny’s goal was huge because of the moment.
You don’t get those memories if every playoff game is like the other: a win.
What was the Warriors’ turning point in this championship run?
Tip-off of Game 1 of the first round?
The opening of training camp last October?
When they signed Kevin Durant last July?
Where’s the fun in that?
Golden State is now 15-1 in the postseason after Friday night’s loss. Their opponents in the Finals entered the series with a 12-1 playoff record.
But even the Cavs, with their singular playoff loss—suffered in Game 3 of the ECF—aren’t much of an opponent for the Warriors.
The San Antonio Spurs aren’t slouches, but their margin for error vs. the Warriors was such that an injury to Kawhi Leonard proved devastating—not that the Spurs would have won the series anyway.
There’s nothing sinister going on here, let’s be clear. The Warriors have assembled their team fair and square, and within the rules. You can deride Durant’s decision to flee Oklahoma City all you want, but he didn’t pull a fast one. He didn’t exploit some obscure loophole.
Closer to home, the Pistons’ bar is so low that I believe the fan base would be thrilled with a playoff appearance and a first round series win. That is the new championship around these parts for pro basketball. The Pistons haven’t gotten out of the first round since 2008, which means a full ten years will have gone by since that milestone, come next spring.
Of the 30 NBA teams that will gather around their coaches for the start of training camp this fall, about 20 of them stand absolutely no chance of winning anything of note. Eight more will think they have a shot at a title but will ultimately prove to be pretenders. One other will advance to the ECF by default.
The Warriors will pillage and plunder their way through the 82-game season, laughing and high-fiving. Come next April, they’ll flip the turbo switch and zoom away, leaving the league light years behind them.
It’s not against the rules. It’s not gaming the system. But it’s a problem. And it’s not going to go away soon, because the Warriors are far from being long in the tooth. They’re not the 1988 Celtics.
Sooner rather than later, NBA fans in cities other than Oakland are going to tire of Adam Silver’s carnival midway game.
“Step right up! Five dollars for ten tosses at the milk bottles!”
But in the end, as usual, the Warriors will be the ones walking around, chomping on an elephant’s ear and carrying the huge stuffed animal.