The National Basketball Association is having one it’s best seasons ever. Ratings are up, the players are as good as they’ve ever been and league popularity is at an all-time high. Despite LeBron James‘ decision to take his talents to South Beach, thus forming a powerhouse in Miami with two other superstars (though calling Chris Bosh a superstar is a stretch at this point), the league seems to have as much parity as it has in some time. It’s not just that the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat will be fighting for a title this year after none of those teams made it past the second round last season (sorry Boston, I just can’t see you winning your series), it’s also that the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Hornets refused to go down without a fight in the first round of the post-season, showing the world that there is no dominant team around that can coast through the early rounds of the playoffs.
Basketball is just plain funner to watch now than ever. These second round playoff games are extremely competitive (excluding yesterday’s Lakers-Mavs game, of course) which is a big difference from last season when the Lakers swept the Jazz, the Suns swept the Spurs and the Magic swept the Atlanta Hawks. The athletes are better, the teams seem to be more fairly matched than they were at any point last decade and there are hundreds of different, interesting and compelling narratives that go along with every team left in the playoffs.
Will Dirk Nowitzki finally put himself in a class with the likes of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan as one of the greatest big men of this generation by capturing a title? Will LeBron James capture that elusive first career title, even if he does it with help? Will the Memphis Grizzlies shock the world by even making it to the NBA Finals with their throwback brand of basketball? Will Oklahoma City take the first step in creating their dynasty by winning a championship with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2011 ala Kobe and Shaq in 2001? Will Derrick Rose follow up his MVP campaign in the regular season by giving his hometown of Chicago their first NBA Championship since Michael Jordan retired? After years of being stuck in the sand as a good but not great team with the Hawks soar to new heights by winning a title?
Before yesterday there were three other major storyline that were still alive: Will Kobe Bryant win his sixth NBA title, matching his total with that of MJ’s? Will Phil Jackson win his 12th NBA championship as a head coach with his third three-peat? Will the Lakers tie their archrival Boston Celtics’ NBA record for most championships for a franchise?
Those three narratives were brought to a screeching halt yesterday as the Lakers came out flat against the Dallas Mavericks in an elimination game, sending Phil Jackson back to Montana with a sour taste of a 122-86 loss in his mouth and Kobe home one title short of MJ. If there was any storyline I have been rooting for over the past few years it would be for Bryant to catch Jordan. Bryant has been my favorite player for years now (I really started liking him when he tore the hearts out of Spurs’ fans, the fanbase closest to where I live, in the 2008 post-season) and I think that if Kobe is able to tie Jordan’s number of championships, the two would be forever paired as the greatest basketball players ever. You can argue with that all you’d like but that’s how I interpret the situation.
So I’ve been rooting for Bryant to get to six over the past three seasons and the joy I felt when Bryant was able to get titles number four and five was unparallelled. To see someone that had worked as hard as Kobe achieve his goal was a fulfilling experience. But it was also a draining one. The Lakers did not have an easy road to either of their past two championships and rooting for Kobe to take home the gold at the end of the year prevented me from fully enjoying and experiencing some of the other brilliant performances that occurred in the last three post-seasons.
I would have much rather have had the Lakers win the NBA championship this season. As a fan of Bryant I realized this year was his best shot to get to six and to see the Lakers pull off all three of those narratives (Kobe, Phil and LAL/BOS) would have been a truly historic event to watch. Those three goals represent the pantheon at every level of the sport: individual player, coaches and team. If Kobe would have tied Michael he would have had himself quite a case to be considered to the best player of all-time. If Phil had captured his fourth three-peat and his 12th NBA title he would go down as the best head coach not only in basketball but possibly in all of professional sports – and he would have done it in his last season ever, adding to it’s special feeling. And if the Lakers would have tied the Celtics for most championships ever fans of the franchise could call their team the greatest in NBA history without qualms.
Sadly, Bryant, Jackson and the Lakers were unable to put a fitting end to their storybook run. But there is a silver lining: For the first time in a few years, I have the chance to truly enjoy the NBA playoffs. To watch basketball be played at it’s highest level, with it’s best players in decades going at it, with compelling storylines following every team around, without having a deep emotional attachment with any of the players left. For once, I won’t have to be nervous when a team is down 13 in the fourth quarter of game seven of the NBA Finals or be angry when somebody hits an NBA Finals record eight three-pointer or miss out on greatness.
I have confidence that Bryant will have his crack at his sixth title sometime in the future, whether or not it he’s the leader of the team or not. But for now, I’m all about the uncertainty of these playoffs. Will the Grizzlies be able to hold on to their 2-1 lead over the Thunder and advance to the Western Conference Finals as an eighth seed? Will the Heat get started on fulfilling their promise of multiple NBA Championships? Will Dirk transcend into the greatest non-American born player to ever play in the NBA?
And that’s what makes the Lakers’ early exit a blessing in disguise.