The NBA’s first-ever play-in tournament starts tomorrow — eight teams, six games, four playoff spots up for grabs. But if you turned on SportsCenter at any point in the last two days, you’d think only one game was happening tomorrow — Warriors at Lakers.
That game has a lot of great storylines around it, don’t get me wrong. The Lakers were supposed to be one of the top seeds in the West, now they’re fighting for their playoff lives. The Warriors weren’t supposed to do any damage, but Curry is riding one of the hottest streaks ever seen, so nobody wants to face them. But the most compelling storyline of all is LeBron vs. Steph.
That’s a narrative that thousands of NBA fans claimed they were tired of just three years ago. People were clamoring for a different NBA Finals matchup than Warriors-Cavs. Something, anything to give the NBA some parity. Yet, just three years later, those same fans are salivating at the prospect of one game between Curry and LeBron, and it’s not anywhere near the top of the Western Conference standings. It’s almost like the NBA was more fun when those two were dominating the league year in, year out.
Here’s the thing. Everybody says they hate dynasties, but those are always the teams that everyone looks back on fondly the most. Which decade of NBA basketball do you reminisce about more often: the 90's or the 70's? The 90's? But that doesn’t make any sense. MJ and his Bulls dominated the 90's. There was zero parity in the league. The 70's saw eight different teams win at least one championship. Why isn’t that more appealing?
Everybody loves to hate dynasties. I’m not just talking about basketball. The Patriots, Cowboys, Yankees, and Dodgers are all widely considered to be some of the most hated teams in all of sports. Why? Because they win... a lot. That being said, which teams always draw the biggest crowds? Which teams always grab the viewers’ attention? Those same guys. We say we hate them, but we consistently turn on our TVs to watch them play.
In the NBA, things are slightly different. We don’t care about individual teams. We care about individual players. The ‘80s are referred to more often as the “Bird vs. Magic” era more often than the “Celtics vs. Lakers” era. The ‘90s belonged to Jordan, while the aughts belonged to Kobe, Shaq, and Tim Duncan. The past 10 years have revolved around James and Curry. They are who everyone wants to see. Don’t believe me? Look no further than the NBA Finals TV ratings over the last decade. 2020 saw the fewest viewers of any Finals in history. During a time when the entire world was starving for live sports, the NBA Finals didn’t offer up an entertaining matchup. Everyone knew LeBron and the Lakers were going to wipe the floor with the Miami Heat. There was no storyline to follow between the two teams, aside from “LeBron played here a decade ago and won two titles with players that aren’t on the team anymore”. That’s boring. One year prior, the Warriors and Raptors drew the least amount of viewers in a decade. Because it didn’t feature LeBron James. Meanwhile, the highest-rated NBA Finals of all time was in 1998, when the Bulls beat the Jazz in six games. It was the second Finals in a row featuring that exact matchup. Looking back on it now, it makes total sense. It was round two for the GOAT, Michael Jordan, against two legends in their own right, Karl Malone and John Stockton, desperately reaching for their first championship. There was so much to look out for packed into one matchup, and that’s something that the NBA has been missing over the last few seasons.
Warriors-Lakers gives fans everything they’ve been missing over the last two years. LeBron has the tools to win a championship, but has to go against the hottest player in the world right now. Stephen Curry showed that he can succeed on an individual level without being surrounded by All-Star teammates, but is he a player who can carry a team on a deep playoff run on his own? And those storylines are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still Curry’s MVP case, LeBron’s quote-digging at the idea of the play-in tournament, the Lakers’ health problems, and many more. I’d be willing to bet that tomorrow’s Warriors-Cavs game will draw more viewers than the NBA Finals will this year. You can call me crazy, but I doubt I’ll be proven wrong.