Mad About the NBA Playoffs’ Lack of Marquee Talent? Blame the Greedy Owners.
The compressed 2020-21 NBA season has been marred by injuries, and the result is four teams vying for the title that likely wouldn’t be there in a regular year.
When COVID-19 hit last year, the stream of major video game releases wasn’t really affected. All the big planned releases hit stores: Animal Crossing, The Last of Us Part II, Cyberpunk 2077 (and its rogue penises), ready to soothe the boredom of a quarantined nation. Then the wave broke and the entire industry experienced a massive production glut. The releases of the PS5 and new Xbox consoles were marred by production line shortages and nagging supply issues that continue to this day. The shortages have made them hot commodities on the secondary market, with internet-scrubbing weirdos flipping them for hundreds in profits on sneaker-resale sites like StockX. Today, there are a grand total of five games designed for the PS5’s new tech, and delays have left the game-release schedule in a state of flux.
This brings me to the NBA. As COVID-19 began infecting NBA players, the league thought on its feet, partnered with Disney’s ailing resort wing, and salvaged the end of the 2019-20 season by staging the “Bubble”—a series of regular season games topped off by a full four-round NBA Playoffs, played over the course of three months in an isolated made-for-TV environment. Aside from the damn Lakers winning the title—boo hiss—the bubble was a logistical success. None of the players (that we know of) caught the virus, the season wrapped up in a competitive and exciting manner, and, with the help of former president Barack Obama, managed to avoid a massive strike. All in all, a beautiful—if slightly amoral—success in the swamps of sun-kissed Florida.
But time, of course, marches on. After the Bubble, the NBA needed to decide on what it was going to do for its next season, and it fumbled the bag.
While the Bubble was designed primarily with safety in mind, the 2020-21 NBA was a product of making sure teams fulfilled their content obligations to regional sports networks who pay top dollar for TV rights while still wrapping things up before the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (An even bigger planning catastrophe.) Another, even lengthier Bubble was clearly out of the question, so teams resumed their strenuous travel schedules, even as the pandemic made regular travel deeply unadvisable.
The season started late, on Dec. 22, and stuffed as many regular-season games—72 in 145 days, with pro athletes playing an average of one game every two days—as possible in the small window available to them. Teams were constantly playing back-to-back nights, making for tired legs, the scourge of a watchable NBA game. The league insisted on having the All-Star Game in lieu of granting its stars some well-earned rest, for some reason. The schedule was not modified to reduce travel, even as a deadly virus continued to rage on in the background. Every team faced every other team at least twice for the bulk of the regular season, even though there were no crowds to impress with visiting stars traveling from across the country.
The league had the union over a barrel, informing it that the only way its members would make full salaries was if everyone buckled down and accommodated a “normal” season in as little time as possible. Players, whose careers are only so long—the average NBA career lasts just 4.8 years—were forced to acquiesce. It’s been a total mess.
Before play even started, the Toronto Raptors were exiled to Florida on account of the Canadian government, possessed of a better sense than their neighbors to the south in declining to allow a bunch of traveling COVID-19 circuses to cross the border over and over again. The early months of play were marred by a string of COVID-19 cases in players, hitting Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (who lost multiple family members to the disease), Indiana wing Victor Oladipo, and the Warriors’ Draymond Green.
The catastrophically short time window and lack of rest have led to a huge spike in player injuries. One of those sidelined players was the face of the NBA, LeBron James, who missed 20 games and looked a little slow in the playoffs on account of a high ankle sprain. James recently aired out the league on Twitter for the lack of rest built into the ’20-21 schedule. “These injuries isn’t just ‘PART OF THE GAME’. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST rest before starting back up.”
But he wasn’t even close to the only one. The Portland Trail Blazers played by the skin of their teeth all year long without No. 2 option CJ McCollum. The Denver Nuggets, who looked like title contenders with league MVP Nikola Jokic, were downgraded to also-ran status when Jamal Murray, their best guard, tore his ACL. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden, the trifecta of stars who light up the sky in Brooklyn, were in and out of the lineup all year, nursing nagging injuries and playing it safe (Durant, arguably the league’s best player, logged just 35 regular season games). As the playoffs have progressed, the season’s war of attrition on the joints of its players has continued: the Clippers, currently playing the first Conference Finals in the 51-year history of their franchise, are doing so without their best player, Kawhi Leonard. For the Suns’ part, Chris Paul’s missed the first two games of their series after a positive COVID-19 test.
The results have reflected this chaos. The Utah Jazz, a middle-seeded mediocrity in any rational season, managed the league’s best record behind the defense of the NBA’s Typhoid Mary, French center Rudy Gobert. They were exposed as frauds and exiled in the second round by a short-staffed Clippers squad. The Phoenix Suns, having missed the playoffs for more than a decade, leapt into the second seed. Part of their success was attributable to the work of Chris Paul, the NBA’s Napoleon, but a lot of it had to do with their disproportionately young roster being able to navigate a brutally short season relatively injury-free (the same goes for one of the league’s youngest teams, the Atlanta Hawks). The playoff bracket, as it currently stands in the Conference Finals, features one team that has been there before in the last five years: The Milwaukee Bucks, led by all-world Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo, seen here:
On some level, it’s not so bad: the NBA’s competitive picture changes at a snail’s place, and there’s something nice about seeing a different batch of teams in the Conference Finals all of a sudden, like if the NFL invaded the league out of nowhere. Kevin Durant, for one, thinks the lack of established stars in the Conference Finals is A-OK (or maybe he just wanted to dunk on Toure… hard to say, he’s a complicated man):
But any analysis of this season shows that it’s been tainted by the product of the environment where it is happening. No one believes the Clippers, the Suns, the Bucks, and the Hawks are among the best teams in basketball—maybe, maybe the Bucks—but here we are, watching them duke it out for a title that could end up seeming very strange in time. This isn’t baseball. Random-ass teams don’t win the NBA title, but the chaos of this messed-up cash-grab clusterfuck has made exactly that happen.
At a time when a lot of reasonable people are pointing to the efficacy of a remade NBA season structure that prioritizes more rest and fewer games, the league chose to double down on overworking its players in service to the needs of their TV overlords. The future isn’t looking so good, either: the league’s proposal for a “shortened” season would only take four games off the regular schedule and replace them with a gimmicky mid-season tournament. Ownership refuses to change anything that might threaten the bottom line, even when it’s clearly degrading the product and damaging the bodies of its players. These billionaires’ greed at the expense of everything else caught up with them, and made for a season like no other. In a bad way.