Remember when Roger Ebert summed up the longtime appeal of the NBA by panning a classic American movie? Of course you don’t. But he did. In the Dec. 11, 1992, editions of the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert, the finest and most famous film critic of all, wrote this:
Hey, even the best of the best has a bad day once in a while. The reason that A Few Good Men is great and consuming, the reason that you can’t tear yourself away from it once you happen upon it while channel surfing, isn’t the plot. It’s Nicholson’s ham-it-up acting and Cruise’s perfect casting, the contrasting and complementary nature of their characters, and Aaron Sorkin’s gift for writing snappy dialogue and memorable monologues. It doesn’t matter that you know how the movie is likely to end. The talent is just that good. The talent draws you in.
For much of its recent history, the NBA has followed that same formula. In fact, the league has been at its most successful when it has adhered to that formula as closely as possible. What suspense was there throughout the early-to-mid 1980s about which teams would reach the Finals? Precious little. From the East, it would be the Celtics, maybe the Sixers. In the West, it would be the Lakers, maybe the Rockets.
With the exception of some occasional interludes, the pattern has held since. Everyone generally has had a pretty good idea of which teams will vie for the championship each year, and the results have borne out those expectations: the Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls, Hakeem’s Rockets, Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Lebron’s teams in Miami and Cleveland, the Warriors’ dominance. In the NBA, championships are won in bunches. Cinderellas and surprises really don’t exist. It’s the talent — from Magic/Bird/Michael to LeBron/Steph/KD and everyone between those poles — that has drawn people in.
» READ MORE: Sixers-Hawks Game 3 notebook | 12 things to know
Except now, in this postseason, the NBA has reached an inflection point, a moment that might redefine its recent past and chart the course of its future. Steph? He had arguably the best season of his incredible career, and the Warriors still bowed out in the play-in. That dynasty is dead. LeBron? He and the Lakers got bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Suns, and the one-sidedness of that series whenever Anthony Davis was in street clothes affirmed that James is past the point that he can carry a team single-handedly to the Finals. And given that the Lakers missed the playoffs in his first, injury-riddled season with them, it appears more and more that, to lead them to another title, he would need the five-month runway of rest that the pandemic provided last year.
These NBA Finals will be the first without either James or Curry since 2010, which sets up these playoffs as an indicator of which players and teams will make up the league’s elite for the next few years and how we will view this era years from now. If the Brooklyn Nets keep rolling to the championship, then Kevin Durant will have his third ring as part of the league’s latest breed of “super teams.” If the Los Angeles Clippers win, it will elevate Kawhi Leonard to a higher plane of superstar: three championships with three franchises, two of which had never smelled a title until his arrival.
The league’s last two MVPs — the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo — are caught in the midst of fairly humiliating second-round performances from their teams. The Suns are playing crisp, cohesive, beautiful basketball. Joel Embiid is delivering a measure of dominance — statistically at least, tangibly at best — that matches or surpasses anything any player has accomplished in an NBA postseason.
Perhaps this is merely the beginning of a long stretch of greatness for Embiid and the Sixers. Perhaps Jokic and Antetokounmpo are destined to remain trapped in that same non-championship netherworld that Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Karl Malone occupy. Perhaps the league is starting a stretch similar to the one it had in the late 1970s, when the crown was up for grabs every year, even among teams in smaller markets. For once, the NBA’s world is wide open. This is a rare and unfamiliar place for the sport, and it will be fascinating to see how long it takes for the league to settle back into the suspenseless story with the inevitable ending that no one can stop watching.