Last Thursday night, the Los Angeles Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs after losing Game 6 of their first round series to the Phoenix Suns. Earlier that evening, the Denver Nuggets advanced to the second round, setting up a Western Conference semifinal against the Suns.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the Western Conference bracket, the Utah Jazz will be taking on a Los Angeles Clippers team in the second round that trailed 2-0 in its first round series and needed to force and win a Game 7 to advance past the Dallas Mavericks.
With the LeBron-led Lakers out of playoff contention, the likelihood of a small-market team making it to the Finals increased. As if on cue, as soon as the final buzzer in that elimination game sounded, multiple notable people took to social media with their thoughts about the big names and big markets not competing for a championship.
Former Warriors and Lakers player Nick Young was one of the first to make his feelings known.
Weakest playoffs ever nobody wanna see Utah vs nets or suns vs bucks lol— Nick Young (@NickSwagyPYoung) June 4, 2021
Max Kellerman, co-host of First Take on ESPN, also chimed in with some tongue-in-cheek commentary.
So instead of a Lakers-Clippers Conference Finals we’re going to get Denver-Utah? And instead of a NY-LA Finals, maybe Utah-Milwaukee? League’s gotta be happy about that— Max Kellerman (@maxkellerman) June 4, 2021
I suppose that as an NBA reporter and analyst and someone with an opinion on the subject, I might as well put in my two cents.
Consistency is not what makes the NBA fun. Surprises, shakeups, drama, stories — that’s why the NBA is the most entertaining professional sports league.
The NBA offseason has become one of the most anticipated parts of the year, not because everyone expects more of the same, but because there’s always something explosive and shocking that happens.
The NBA is no longer a sport that can only reach those in the big cities or that destines a person to become a fan of a team based on geography. A kid in Pittsburg, Kansas, or Leachville, Arkansas, or Paradise, California, can stream games on their phone and keep up with stats in real time. You can be a fan of one team, many teams, or just the players and the game in general.
The NBA’s audience is getting younger and younger, and a lot of the most exciting players in the league who draw in young fans are young players on small-market teams.
If the Jazz make it to the Finals with Donovan Mitchell leading the way or the Suns make it with Devin Booker scoring at historic levels, there will be lifelong fans forged in those runs.
Trae Young just led the Atlanta Hawks past the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, then led the Hawks to a second-round Game 1 win over the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. That’s not bad for the league, it’s good.
The Hawks haven’t been to the Finals since 1961 when they were based out of St. Louis. Infusing that fan base with something to cheer for, something to be excited about, is good for the league.
If the Jazz make it to the Finals, it will be the first time since John Stockton and Karl Malone took them there only to watch Michael Jordan earn his sixth Larry O’Brien Trophy. The stories alone are worth some parity in the league, and if you don’t believe me, listen to Rudy Gobert.
“I think the beauty of this game is that you can tell stories,” Gobert said, “and the beauty is always in the journey more than in the profit, and at the end of the day, when you tell beautiful stories, it brings profits.”
As someone in the business of turning stories into profit, I couldn’t agree more.
It might not be the Jazz that make it out of the West and into the Finals, but if it is, the Jazz have a plethora of exciting players from all over the world, and their story is pretty good.
“It’s the story of resiliency, it’s a story of overcoming adversity,” Gobert said. “I think it should be inspiring for everybody out there that pays attention. I mean, with everything that has happened, we could have just broke apart, and we didn’t. We got stronger.”
The Jazz are a very good team and could very well make a run to the NBA Finals, but even if they don’t, there are other small market teams that have a shot, and even if it ends up being Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers vs. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets battling for a championship, that’s something different and exciting.
This year, NBA fans are guaranteed a championship series between teams that haven’t been to the Finals in at least 15 seasons. The most recent Finals appearance by one of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs was when the Nets (back when they were based in New Jersey) faced the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. For the first time in 10 years, the Finals will not feature LeBron James or Stephen Curry.
The reigning champion Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, and their 2020 Finals opponent, the Miami Heat, was also sent packing early. The Golden State Warriors didn’t even make the playoffs.
Just because some of the big markets aren’t competing doesn’t mean that the NBA isn’t great or isn’t a draw. The Knicks haven’t competed for a title since 1999 and the NBA has still been amazing.
Turner Sports announced on Monday that the first round of this year’s playoff games that aired on TNT produced its largest viewing audience since 2018, up 42% over last year’s. People love basketball and they haven’t stopped watching just because the Warriors aren’t playing. They didn’t stop watching when the Knicks were horrible and they won’t stop watching now.
The NBA is bouncing back from a pandemic year that threatened to ruin sports altogether. Parity, excitement and things being shaken up is exactly what this league needs right now.