This year will mark the first time since 1998 that the NBA Finals will not feature Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dwayne Wade or Steph Curry.
None of the final eight teams this year has won an NBA title since 1983, when the 76ers with Moses Malone did so.
There is a chance we could have, say, a Milwaukee-Utah or Atlanta-Suns Finals, as opposed to the preseason expectations of a Brooklyn-Lakers Finals that would set Twitter and both US coasts a blaze.
Would you watch that?
Are you going to be interested in a potential championship series bereft of easily recognizable storylines?
Judging from social media posts and barbershop talk of the past decade calling for parity, one would think NBA ratings would be through the roof.
But the reality of the past few weeks signals no not really. Twitter, the platform which the sports world is heard, has enjoyed the singular performances of Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, and Devin Booker. But in the next tweet will complain that this is only happening because LeBron and Curry are eliminated.
“I see it, I’m not going to lie,” Mitchell continued. “I see the tweets (about the new blood in these playoffs). We all do. The best thing about it is, that’s what makes these games so competitive. The Clippers – correct me if I’m wrong – have never won a championship. We’ve never won one. Phoenix has never won one. You look at how competitive these games are, I think that’s what makes this playoffs so intense, so exciting.”
The thing about these playoffs, minus LeBron, Curry, possibly Durant and Leonard, is the storylines are thrown out the window. The drama filled narratives fueled by there media to carryout ratings are possibly not in the hands this year.
This is fully a playoff run to watch if you’re simply a basketball fan. Diehards are back, the casuals have hopped onto the next wave for the summer.
You have to know your basketball to know why Mike Conley, Jr., is such an effective point guard, even though he rarely leaves the ground or scores 40 on a given night – or how Rudy Gobert is such an impactful player, even though he doesn’t score a ton.
Young certainly took a star turn as Atlanta took down the Knicks in the first round; like Reggie Miller a generation ago. He’s got the game and the flair for the dramatic to become more of a household name. But he isn’t there yet.
If Young is in the Finals, against Mitchell’s Jazz … will you watch?
Ratings without context are just numbers. But the NBA doesn’t think like that. Neither does ESPN-ABC and TNT. These are billion dollar corporations, selling expensive air time on what they want and need to be compelling basketball AND entertainment.
This year’s remaining playoff numbers will be a compelling test case of a post-LeBron landscape. They are now not only without LeBron and Curry; they’re short of Luka Dončić, the Mavs’ superstar. And the NBA has yet to have the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, who’s been marketed up to the moon and back since his one college season at Duke in 2018-19, in its postseason.
The NBA and its partners understand the reality that is the current generation of its fan base and the world we live in.
Their top consumers are in the 18-34 year old demographic. A group which is historic in the sense that they will be less likely to be willing to sit through 2 1/2 hours of a broadcast than any generation prior to them. The reason isn’t lack of interest, just that they know they can watch the best parts on YouTube or Instagram, or their phones, within an hour of the game’s completion.
The NBA and ABC/TNT also know that to thrive in traditional ratings, they have to put the players and teams on the most that viewers watch the most. LeBron moves the needle. Curry moves the needle.
Does Utah and Mitchell move the needle? Atlanta and Young?
At this point I’m not sure the Clippers with Leonard and George moves the needle.
The NBA’s saving grace in this season is the Brooklyn Nets with their big 3.
The Nets have the storyline, the drama, and the needle movers. 3 in fact.
But those storylines for the small market teams do exist. These media outlets need to do a better job story telling and introducing the viewers to the new blood.
Sure, it’s easier to hype a storied rivalry like Lakers-Celtics, LeBron vs Steph, and super teams.
But it’s incumbent upon the networks today to help explain to viewers why a Jokic or an Antetokounmpo are worth you investing two hours of your time to watch. They both have great origin stories. Jokic had an unconventional path, to be sure, from being an out of shape teen in Serbia to this year’s MVP award. Giannis’ story remains an incredible, inspirational one, even though this is his eighth year in the league. You can’t repeat enough how a young immigrant boy whose Nigerian family had next to nothing growing up in the Sepolia neighborhood of Athens has, somehow, grown up to be a two-time MVP.
Trae Young’s Hawks? How about the new villain of New York, and possibly the conquer of Philadelphia, having the entire east coast hating him like the second coming of Reggie Miller. You can’t sell that narrative?
Mitchell’s Jazz are fascinating too. A completely home grown team of underdogs rising to the pinnacle of the sport, possibly capturing the franchises first title.
But piquing interest in smaller markets isn’t as simple as branding someone or a team with a nickname.
Almost all of the remaining superstars in this year’s postseason have readily and well-known monikers. Joel Embiid gave himself the nickname “The Process.”
Kawhi Leonard is “the Klaw.” Paul George goes by “PG-13.” Who doesn’t know Antetokounmpo is “the Greek Freak,” or that Jokic is “the Joker?” Gobert is “the Stifle Tower;” Young is “Ice Trae,” Mitchell is “Spida,” and on and on.
But, you – the fan – have to buy in, too. This is your moment. You will have any number of amazing players from which to choose and for whom to root in the Finals. What better story of redemption could there be than Atlanta’s coach, Nate McMillan? How incredible is Utah’s passing and selflessness? Can Leonard become just the fifth player ever and second mainstay of a team, along with James, to win a championship with three different teams? Can Embiid and Simmons make all that suffering Philly fans endured last decade worth it? Will Chris Paul, at 36, finally get a ring? Or will Brooklyn just bulldoze everyone with its collection of unguardables?
It’s fully on you the NBA fan to lead the way of buying in on the next generation. The days of LeBron being the NBA are not unlimited. The day will come when he walks away from the sport and the sport will continue on without him. The way it did when Jordan retired, when Kobe retired, when every great retired.
So watch these games, buy in and enjoy the next generation no matter how it comes to the spotlight.