The more things change, the more they remain the same. This is the grand, unofficial law of the universe. We as a human race never seem to be able to escape this law. The NBA as a league has especially never been able to. That is to say that, for all of the buzz and drama that NBA free agency breeds – players switching teams, wonderfully horrendous trades and signings going down, and oh my god is that Tom Brady at the Celtics sales pitch meeting? – little to nothing has changed in the league. 28 teams are pawns in a heavyweight chess game being played between two grand masters.
Players move around, sure; some teams improve slightly because of it, of course; headlines are grabbed, obviously; free agency additions are dissected to the bone, yes. But just think about it for a second. How big was this year’s free agency supposed to be – because of the crazy jump in the league’s salary cap and because Kevin Durant was an unrestricted free agent? Yet, for all of the white noise, where does the NBA currently stand? The league is heading into a 2016-17 season that is surely to end the same as the last two have: with the Warriors and Cavaliers facing off yet again in the NBA Finals.
The Eastern Conference is like your little brother who has been staying up until 2:30 am for the past week playing Super Smash Bros (after you’ve been laughing in his face endlessly for beating him silly 20+ straight times) in hopes of refining his skills and learning deadly combos he can use against you next time the two of you face each other. The effort they invested in getting better is cute. It’s amusing, even, and maybe now they’ll be able to land a striking blow here and there that makes you sit up a little straighter in your seat like, “okay, now you’re showing me something.” But, ultimately, it’s not enough. It’s not even close to enough. So you still kick their butt 30+ straight times after all the work they put in while you sat back enjoying your summer break. You still have peace of mind knowing you’re far better than they are. They still feel as helpless as ever.
The East, as a whole, is just about as identical as they were last season. Acquiring Al Horford was a head turner, no doubt about it. Boston immediately improves their winning percentage and will climb up the standings with their new big man, but they’re still not anywhere near the level of elitism that is desperately required to dethrone King James. I mean, the 73-win Warriors, with two time, back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, still needed to go out and get another reigning MVP in Kevin Durant just to take down James in their inevitable Finals rematch.
Are we seriously entertaining the thought that a team being lead by Horford, Isaiah Thomas, and Jae Crowder is going to take down James and Kyrie Irving? Stop me when I start making too much sense. Yeah, it’s not happening. The Cavs are still undoubtedly the best team in the East by a mile – or five. Toronto, Miami, and Atlanta — the number two, three, and four seeds in the East last year, have virtually done nothing to improve their rosters. Atlanta had the biggest free agency moves, but even then all they did was switch Horford and Jeff Teague for wild card locker room characters in Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder.
James Jones, save a devastating injury to his semi-important but overrated sidekick LeBron James, is on his way to seven consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Amazing.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference is like your older sister. Your parents admire them and favor them over you and your siblings. They’re smarter, they do well in school, they’re competitive, and they have a balanced life. Overall, they have more depth to them and they have more to offer than you do, sitting there playing Super Smash Bros. The West is all things the league could have hoped for in a conference. Multiple title-contending teams who have a legitimate shot at the NBA Finals, because every year three or four of them are that good that it’s a toss-up between who is the best team in the West. The West is a representation of the NBA’s ideal system working. There is no one dominant team who trumps over all, there truly is a competitive balance from seeds one to eight. At least, there used to be. This upcoming season might change that.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were minutes away, literally, from beating the Golden State Warriors to advance to the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were pre-maturely envisioning it, before it slipped through their fingers. They were one of the league’s most dynamic duo’s and they gave the Warriors more of a challenge than any other team in West. Had Durant and Westbrook both stayed in Oklahoma City, the Thunder and the Warriors were destined to become Western Conference Finals regulars for years to come. Now, the NBA has been robbed of one of its most potentially greatest rivalries in recent memory.
The Warriors were already going to be automatic favorites next year. It seemed almost impossible that they could become better and more talented after winning 73 regular season games, but they just did. And they did it by getting Kevin Durant (by the way, that actually happened, right? I wake up everyday feeling like I’m still dreaming that). Durant, the one player who could have lead the one team that looked primed to beat them, and now he cloaks the same blue and yellow uniform they do. If there was one move the NBA couldn’t afford, it was Durant going to the Bay area and ruining the four-team race to the Finals that Western conference had. That’s yesterday’s news now. On paper, the Warriors might be the most talented team in NBA history and there is zero reason to doubt that we’ll see them in next year’s Finals. Durant and Curry and Thompson and Green. I think I’m going to faint just thinking about it.
Historical Imbalance in the NBA
The irony of it all is that this two party-like system is a cycle fans should be familiar with. There has always been imbalance in the NBA; no statistic is more evident of this than the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics alone own 47% of all NBA championships since 1947. Nine teams, out of the 30 teams in the league, have won 85% of all championships. And since 2000, only eight teams have shared 16 Larry O’Brien trophies. Competitive balance has never truly existed in the NBA. There are the elites of the league and then there is every other team. The difference lies in whose turn it is to subdue to league to their colonization.
Systems are difficult to tear down because they never really fade away into oblivion, they only disguise themselves as something new. But if you look in between the lines and pay attention to the small discrepancies that make up the puzzle, you’ll notice the facade. You’ll find that few things have changed, because few things ever do.