Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
What an interesting playoff experience we have had as fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers these last few seasons. Six sweeps in the last three seasons, two each year. What that means for us as fans is a lot of one-week-on, one-week-off of watching the Cavs play. It can be a somewhat disorienting experience, exerting our energy rooting for the team in the playoffs one week, and then not seeing or hearing from them for the next week.
But if we think it’s disorienting for us as fans, it’s nothing compared to what the experience must be like for these opposing teams. Remember the 2015 Atlanta Hawks? They were the surprise team in the NBA, winning 60 games and taking the top seed in the Eastern Conference by seven games over the Cavaliers. The Hawks had to feel pretty good having home court advantage and the Cavaliers being without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving being bothered by a sore knee.
Instead, it was the Cavaliers who ended up feeling pretty good as they swept the Hawks en route to their first NBA Finals appearance since 2007. For the Hawks, it was a devastating loss. Atlanta felt like a team on the rise, perhaps looking to sustain a place in the top tier of the Eastern Conference. But they never really recovered from that series and they are now a shell of that 2015 team, forced to watch from home as one of the key members of that team, Kyle Korver, is now helping the Cavaliers continue their reign of terror on the East in the playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors are now forced to make some hard decisions of their own. It’s entirely possible that LeBron James and the Cavaliers just destroyed another team with a once promising future. LeBron James is become death, destroyer of franchises.
Sweeps aren’t supposed to be easy. They’re not supposed to happen with regularity. When the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers swept their way to the Finals before dropping their only loss of the entire postseason to the 76ers before ultimately finishing off an incredible 15-1 run, it was jaw-dropping. It was staggering to see a team run through the postseason like that. Now, there are two teams with a chance to do it this season.
It has never been more clear that we are seemingly destined for our own Thrilla in Manila, the Last Stand in Oakland with a Helping Hand from Cleveland. For a while in the regular season, it didn’t always seem so clear that the Cavaliers would be in this position, but here they sit, waiting for Boston and Washington to finish up their series. On the other side of the aisle, the Warriors are doing the same, waiting for the inevitable.
Sure, the Cavaliers could lose in the next round. It’s not impossible. Injuries can always happen, fluke plays can happen, overconfidence could set in, bad habits could return. Same with Golden State in their series. They could lose as well. It’s possible. It’s just not all that likely. It feels pretty certain at this point in time that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will face each other in the NBA Finals for the third season in a row.
But is this good for basketball? It’s a question that has been going around the media airwaves lately, but I feel like it’s a question that is impossible for us, as Cleveland fans, to answer. I mean, it’s great for us. Sure, I’d love to see the Cavaliers not have to play the Warriors again. I’d much prefer a shot at the San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets. But I don’t really care who the opponent is. In the NBA Finals, you’re going to have to play a good team no matter what.
But if I wasn’t a fan of one of the teams involved, would I still be enjoying this so much? If I’m being honest with myself, the answer is probably no. I’ve watched far fewer non-Cavs playoff games this season than usual. Why? They kind of feel anti-climactic. Like, what’s the point? The Warriors are going to win the West. The Cavaliers are going to win the East. Does anything else before then even matter?
To a certain degree, I can see why this might be problematic for the Association. Sure, the NBA Finals will almost certainly bring in massive ratings. A rubber match between these two giant teams loaded with superstars is going to generate a massive amount of interest, publicity, and talking points. But is that a means to an end? Does the NBA care that people are saying the rest of the playoffs are boring, pointless, and inevitable?
I’m not sure. The NBA has always sort of been this way. The team with the best players tend to win. It’s far easier to predict the outcome of NBA playoff series than MLB or NHL series. Maybe the degree of certainty wasn’t always quite as strong as this year, but it’s been there. Whether it was Bill Russell’s Celtics teams in the 60s, Magic’s Lakers teams of the 90s, or MJ’s Bulls teams in the 90s, there’s always been some feeling of inevitability to the NBA playoffs. Fans would hope different teams could win, and sometimes it would happen, but most of the time it went to script.
Here’s a little secret, though. This is precisely why the NBA markets itself as a superstar league. No professional sports league in the US does a better job of marketing its stars and getting people to want to tune in for one player as opposed to watching for certain teams. It’s not that the NBA doesn’t market its franchises at all. It’s just that they are careful to make sure people want to tune in to watch certain players because the team outcome isn’t always all that up in the air.
The NBA made some incremental changes in the last collective bargaining agreement to try to further allow teams to keep their own stars and to ideally prevent mega-teams from forming in the same way. We’ll see how effective it is, but the NBA is trying something, which indicates it might feel that these playoffs are less than ideal for them.
I just don’t know how I would feel if I was a neutral fan. I watched every single NBA Finals that Jordan and the Bulls were in. I watched most of their playoff games. They were fun to root against. And when they inevitably won, I felt satisfied knowing I was watching greatness, even if I desperately rooted against Jordan every chance I got. Would I be watching the Cavs and Warriors the same way? Rooting against one or both, hoping for a different outcome?
I’d like to think I would, but I just don’t know. There just might not be quite enough intrigue to keep these playoffs interesting to casual and neutral fans. But here’s the rub….this might not be the finale. Both the Warriors and the Cavaliers are positioned to be able to compete for several more years. It’s possible we could have four or even five straight NBA Finals with these teams. If that happens, is that even more of a problem for the NBA?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I’m fortunate enough to be a Cavs fan and I’ve been loving these playoffs. It’s impossible for me to objectively look at this any other way. But the question is out there, is this a problem for the NBA in the bigger picture?