For the first time in more than a decade, the NBA has achieved true parity. There are no favorites to win the NBA title this season, or maybe there are seven favorites, depending on the outlook.
The Milwaukee Bucks could run away in the Eastern Conference and coast to the Finals, but remember how prognosticators said that about the Celtics last season? The Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis could rampage through the West to the Finals, or maybe they don’t because of the Clippers or the Jazz or the Nuggets or even the Rockets.
Not since the mid-2000s has the NBA season begun with no prohibitive favorite to win the championship. When the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, they became the favorites for two seasons, then it was the Lakers, and once James and Chris Bosh arrived in South Beach it became the Heat.
It was the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan for a hot minute until Golden State ramped up and dominated the past five years. Well, the Warriors are dramatically different with Kevin Durant gone, Andre Iguodala in Memphis, Shaun Livingston retired, and Klay Thompson hurt.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t the same, either, without Leonard, so they took several steps back.
There are legitimately eight or nine teams that honestly claim they have title hopes, and the NBA has never been more unpredictable in this generation.
“It’s fantastic,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “I love parity. There might be 10 teams, if they stay healthy, the chemistry is there, things all their way, have a chance to go on a run and get to the NBA Finals in June.
“I love parity. I think it’s great for the league. In years past, it was great to have dominant teams. You knew the Lakers and their Threepeat. You knew the Bulls and their six-peat, Miami, the Spurs, Golden State.
“But when you have parity, it gives these teams hope. And it gives the Clippers fans hopes. It gives teams like Philadelphia, like Denver, who have a young nucleus and young core, hope that they’re being mentioned. I’m glad it’s like this now. Let them fight it out in the end.”
What has occurred over the past several years is astute roster management by some smaller or medium market teams. While the Lakers and Clippers used free agency to suddenly become relevant, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz have been slow cooking rosters for years to get to this position.
And it would be no surprise if the Nuggets and Jazz unseated the Clippers and Lakers in the conference finals. As the Kansas City Royals’ winning the 2015 World Series proved, strong management can catapult a small market team to success. It may not lead to a dynasty, but it could lead to short-term success. Same with the Bucks, who have built their franchise around former 15th overall pick Giannis Antetokounmpo, fortunate that the skinny kid from Greece turned into the most physically gifted player of this generation.
The NBA is proving that it’s not ruled by large markets but well-managed clubs that make sound financial decisions and draft intelligently. So this is the season that a Utah, Milwaukee, Denver, or even Portland has a chance to reach the Finals.
Meanwhile, the Lakers and Clippers rose through free agency. The Knicks tried but failed. Miami hasn’t been a significant contender since James left, while Chicago hasn’t even come close to the Finals since Michael Jordan retired the second time.
This is the NBA that commissioner Adam Silver sought after small market owners were concerned they would be hijacked by players seeking to sign in large markets. The fear was the league’s elite players would sign with about six different teams, leaving the other 24 to merely compete for respectability.
Market size, however, has diminished as an issue, because smaller market teams like Portland (Damian Lillard) and Oklahoma City (Russell Westbrook and Paul George) decided to offer mega contracts to their star players, enticing them to choose comfort over market. The Knicks have used New York and a rather ancient history of success (last title: 1973) to lure free agents, and it’s floundered miserably.
Teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the New Orleans Pelicans are building through draft picks and trades, hoping to accomplish long-term sustainability with lottery choices as the centerpieces.
“You have players going to nontraditional big-market teams, and I think we want to be a league where strong management is rewarded and that every team has the opportunity to compete,” Silver said in July. “So I think at the end of the day, it’s positive for the league. I will say, though, I’m mindful of this notion of balance of power, and I think it applies in many different ways. An appropriate balance of power between the teams and the players, an appropriate balance of power I’d say among all our 30 teams, big markets, small markets, some markets that are perceived as being more attractive than others, tax issues, climate issues. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you have a league where every team is in a position to compete.”
The Celtics are on that list of teams that could reach the conference finals or even the NBA Finals with the right fortune. And Boston has spent the past five years building to that point, using free agency, the Kyrie Irving trade, and draft picks to rise in the Eastern Conference.
“Every year we’re all a couple of injuries or whatever the case may be away from having a chance,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Our goal here from the time I got here with talking to [president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] and our ownership group was to try to be sustainable so even on a down year you’re in the conversation, so we’ve been lucky to be that for the last couple of years. There’s a lot of teams in the conversation.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.