The Finals Are a Preview of a Better NBA Future
OAKLAND — It's entirely possible that Golden State will win Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant will return in Game 4, and the Warriors will roll from there. All of this could be over within six days. Nevertheless, and at the risk of jinxing things, I can't help but notice that we're two games into the Finals and no one is sure how this will end. The Warriors look thin and vulnerable, but they also just reminded everyone why they are the champions. The Raptors, meanwhile, have been mostly great on defense and the offense should improve after Game 2. Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard have been very good, but each one's performance has been uneven, and it feels like either one could show up and go nuts to take control of the series Wednesday night.
"Either team could win this championship series" probably shouldn't feel particularly novel, but after the past few years, it kind of does. Think about where we've been the last two seasons. At this point last year we were entering the second leg of the Finals wondering whether the Warriors would sweep, or whether maybe boredom would prevail and they’d eventually finish in five games instead. That was as far as the drama went. It was fine, but it was never very much fun. The past two Finals were so aggressively boring that somehow arguing about Finals MVP became something the whole world cares about now.
More than anything, what I like most about these Finals is that they've reminded me to be excited about the next few seasons in the NBA. The first half of this series has been good and fun on its own, but it’s been particularly effective as a testament to how well the NBA can work when there’s actually drama on the court.
The stakes here are pretty significant for everyone involved. If Curry and the Warriors can finish this series they will go down in history as one of the best teams the league has ever seen. If Kawhi can somehow get Toronto the win, we’ll spend the next 25 years talking about his playoff run with the same mythic tones we use to remember Dirk in 2011 and LeBron in 2016. In between the stars at the top, you also have killer role players like Fred VanVleet, DeMarcus Cousins thrown into an impossible situation coming off an injury and responding in Game 2, Draymond Green playing for his own place in history after a stunning six-week run through the playoffs, and then everyone else on the Raptors—Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka—fighting for titles at the end of long and distinguished careers, knowing this is almost definitely going to be their last shot.
Maybe Curry and the Warriors will be the ‘90s Bulls for a new generation, or maybe the Raptors are the new 2011 Mavs and the Golden State legacy is destined to be more complicated. I don’t know. What’s important is that there's a plausible path to either outcome and we’ll all have to watch and find out which direction we go.
There have been times over the past few years when the NBA has looked like a caricature of itself, or at least a caricature of what critics say pro basketball has always been—unhappy superstars, trade rumors that overshadow actual games, doomed small markets, laughably predictable championships, etc. Not all of those generalizations were totally fair, of course, and most of the people who complained about those problems would never have been watching the NBA regardless. But that’s part of what made the most recent era so frustrating. There is nothing worse than enduring predictable complaints from bad faith critics and knowing that on a basic level they have a point.
To that end, some obvious caveats to add when celebrating this year's level playing field: Durant is injured. So is Kevon Looney, out for the series as of Tuesday, a development that will seriously test DeMarcus Cousins and the rest of the Warriors’ depth. If the Warriors were healthy this series probably wouldn’t be as close as it has been, and if Durant returns at full strength it may not look nearly as close by the end. Also, if Durant stays in Golden State this summer, we could just as easily return to the sweep-heavy status quo next June.
That’s fine. What we’ve seen over the past month in the NBA is closer to an ideal balance between meta-games off the court and genuine drama on the court. It’s not that I don’t care about where Kawhi Leonard is buying property or where Brooklyn's future stands after Kyrie Irving’s trip to Gov Ball—all that stuff is still weird and great and part of why the NBA works. But the NBA works best when there are great games at the end of all this, too. It works best when the biggest superstars on the planet are playing on shorthanded teams, with unfair expectations, on huge stages, and we all get to stand back and see how they respond.
Game 2 was a perfect example. For a few minutes on Sunday night it looked like the Warriors were not only going down 2-0 in the Finals, but they would be blown out as it happened. They were down double-digits in the second quarter and it felt like they were lucky to be as close they were. That test forced them to respond with all-time clutch moments up and down the roster. Curry, Klay, Iguodala, Draymond, even Cousins—everyone stepped up. It was the type of win that fans will remember for years. It's also the type of win that probably never happens if Golden State enters this series at full strength and spends the entire time toying with the Raptors on the way to an easy five or six-game win.
I’m not asking for league-wide parity, but parity at the very top of the league is how all of this becomes twice as exhilarating. And if Durant leaves this summer, depending on how free agency shakes out, there could be at least seven credible title contenders among this group: Warriors, Bucks, Rockets, Raptors, Knicks, Sixers, Clippers, Lakers, Celtics, Nets, Nuggets. Not all of those teams will have a shot, but most will.
All those teams will have flaws, too. The Raptors and Warriors are instructive on that front—both teams have been pairing All-Stars with journeymen and former G-Leaguers and trying to make the formula look seamless. Soon, that's how every contender will look. Teams will be top-heavy and incredibly expensive, or perhaps deeper but short on starpower. The new financial landscape in the NBA is going to make it hard for teams to thread the needle between those extremes, and on a basic level, every team will be coming to the table with its own red flags. That's probably healthy, though.
If there's one lesson to take from the first two games of the Finals, it's that flaws are important. Flaws force teams to turn to unexpected places for help (VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, Cousins and Quinn Cook) and flaws demand that stars take their games to another level to compensate for everything that's not working. In this series and beyond, flawed teams carried by a bunch of great players is the ideal formula. That's when the NBA can look perfect.