The NBA playoffs, in theory if not always in practice, is the best postseason system in all of sports. After a bloated and distended regular season, the playoffs come around and pit the great teams against the merely good ones, the former whittling down the latter until all that’s left is the very best of the very best. Yet here we are, nearing the climax of what should’ve been an already thrilling playoffs, and the basketball has been uniformly terrible. This isn’t the fault of the playoff bracket as a system, which remains good. It’s the NBA itself that’s fucking everything up.
The problem with the playoffs this season is that all the teams are bad. Like, painfully, unwatchably bad. Now, saying all the teams are bad is of course a slight exaggeration, but only a small one. The Warriors are truly great, the Spurs (when healthy) probably aren’t too far back from that, and the Cavaliers are miles better than all their opponents in the East. The Finals rubber match that everyone has expected for a year will almost certainly be fun to watch because of the quality of the top two. But everyone beneath those two (the Spurs included, thanks to the Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard injuries) sucks ass, and that’s exactly how the NBA has designed it.
If there’s one good thing about this year’s playoffs and the Cavs’ steamrolling of the Eastern Conference, it’s how they have finally allowed LeBron James to bask in the fulsome praise he has long deserved. In a single month, James has swooped in and rendered meaningless the season-long MVP debate by summarily crushing all comers, thereby demonstrating without a doubt that he remains the best player on the planet. Basketball blowouts are the least entertaining blowouts to watch in any of the major sports, but there’s still fun to be had in watching a transcendent player and team illustrate the extent of their superiority by destroying all comers. Yet this Cavs-Celtics series is devoid of even that level of enjoyment because Cleveland isn’t even really being tested.
Boston has a single player anyone is even a little afraid of, and that player is already out for the rest of the series due to injury. And not only is it no fun to watch the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics make a convincing case for implementation of a mercy rule, it’s not even impressive on the other side because the Cavs aren’t all that great either. James is amazing, yes, and Kyrie Irving is really good, but it’s not for nothing that the Cavaliers couldn’t even hold onto the best regular season record in the East, and that they will be big underdogs for their Finals re-rematch against the Warriors. The Cavs sweeping the Pacers and the Raptors and beating the Celtics in five games (as they will) testifies more to the sorry nature of the East and the NBA as a whole than it does to any purported Cavaliers dominance.
What’s worse, and what makes the Eastern Conference finals so indicative of the league’s larger problem of team-building, is that the Celtics could, should, and do want to be better. The Celtics are a big-market, historically important team that wants to compete for titles right now. It’s why they pushed at the trade deadline to add another star to their roster, knowing that as currently constituted they have no realistic hope of standing up to the Cavaliers. Yet because of American sports’ elevation of parity as the primary virtue to which all other values are subservient, the NBA—in which you need only a couple of megastars to be dominant—doesn’t actually give most teams the ability to realistically compete.
Imagine a hypothetical NBA without the bullshit restrictions on roster construction that get sold to fans as rules ensuring every team has a chance to win but in reality serve primarily to protect owners’ economic interests. (If there were no salary cap and no max contracts, some teams would undoubtedly spend more, and then all teams would have to spend more, increasing both the potential risk and reward of building a team.)
With no cap or luxury tax penalties, without having to match incoming and outgoing salaries when making trades, the Celtics could quite realistically have this exact same team but with Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins beefing up their starting lineup. Maybe the Thunder fill their Kevin Durant void by rescuing Paul George from the Pacers and OKC is giving the Warriors another run for their money. These hypotheticals are a lot of fun to think about, but nearly impossible to pull off. The league has made player transactions as difficult as possible. The result is that ambitious teams that would love nothing more than to pay good players lots of money are forced to stand pat while the one or two teams that have lucked into a few stars decimate the rest of the league.
In turn, all these rules do is place the onus of team-building onto the players themselves. Great players want to win and know that the way to win is by playing with other great players, so the kinds of superteams the league is so afraid of will never go away. But under the rules currently in place, instead of teams going out and paying an assortment of great players what they’re worth, it becomes the players’ job to create an environment conducive to amassing a couple stars, usually accomplished by the players deciding to take less money than they’re entitled to. This leads to our bizarre world where billionaires request austerity from millionaires, and if the millionaires refuse, then they run the risk of being stuck in an unfulfilling job. For the NBA’s best, their own personal value directly limits their prospects for career success. Maybe you’re not inclined to weep for Carmelo Anthony and his enormous contract, but you should grasp how the hesitance or inability of teams to assume his onerous cap hit leads to the parade of mediocrities marring this season’s playoffs.
The postseason isn’t always this unexciting, mind, though this year’s edition suffers from needing six weeks to set up the only series anyone wants to see. And by the end of it all, it’s quite possible that we won’t have seen a single great series. Untimely injuries have played their part, but the underlying culprit is the league’s insistence on making it nearly impossible for good teams to make the leap to truly great.
The NBA thinks superteams are bad for business, and has specifically drawn up rules to prevent their creation. All this has done is to functionally limit the number of superteams to two (or, more accurately, one-and-a-half, since these Cavs are a superteam only insofar any team with peak LeBron qualifies as a superteam) and made it even harder for anyone else to compete with them. The NHL has a similar problem: lots of pretty okay teams, no great ones, and thus not much interest. “Parity” in the NBA apparently means feeding an indistinguishable array of overmatched teams into the Cavs’ and Warriors’ wood chippers. Sounds like it might be time to try something different for a change.