These have not been the playoffs most expected. Both number one seeds are gone, and even the match-ups that turned out as predicted were full of strange moments and winding routes as they ambled towards their eventual destination. An unusual (though too often dispiriting) season is now receiving the postseason it deserves. We are now left with four teams -- each nursing a fifty-plus year title drought -- and a reminder that what matters more than any narrative or concerns about marketability is the basketball itself.
According to the record books, the Atlanta Hawks won a single NBA championship 63 years ago, though that’s not quite right. The Hawks did indeed win the title in 1958, but this was when the team was still in St. Louis and two years away from fielding an integrated team. There’s enough continuity for it to count, but not enough to be felt. It hasn’t been quite that long for the Bucks, though it has been long enough that their best player, the soon-to-be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was still going by his birth name when they hoisted the Walter Brown Trophy, which also had yet to assume its current title.
The Clippers and Suns, the two remaining teams in the Western Conference, have yet to win a championship. The Suns have at least appeared in the Finals twice, though for the Clippers, merely reaching the Conference Finals makes this postseason the high point of the long moribund franchise. Somehow the combined forces of Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson were able to do what Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith or the collected stars of Lob City never could.
Even in light of their embarrassing playoff exits last season, the Bucks and Clippers seemed sure to be title contenders this season. Yet the way both have arrived here has still been unexpected. After falling behind 0-2 for the second round in a row, the Clippers closed out the top-seeded Jazz while missing their best player, led by a second round pick who proved that, at least for one night, they did not need Kawhi. In the East, the Bucks found a resolve that had appeared absent in their defeats to the Raptors and Heat the last two postseasons. They defeated the Nets not exactly by playing better basketball than Brooklyn but through sheer resolve, doing all they could to upset the pristine and effortless efficiency that is the Nets calling card at their best.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have been deep in the postseason fairly recently -- making the Conference Finals in 2015 -- but in such a drastically different configuration that any claim to continuity is specious. Atlanta finished 20-47 just last year and failed to win thirty games for three consecutive years. They were not a good team. Even with a promising handful of young players and a potential franchise cornerstone, the Hawks still seemed a few years away as the season began, starting the year 14-20. Yet since installing Nate McMillan as interim coach following that putrid start the team exceeded all reasonable expectations. This surge has resulted in a Conference Finals berth earned by thoroughly outplaying the top seeded Sixers, including two astounding comebacks and a Game 7 win on the road. Even having watched it happen, it still feels hard to believe. For Phoenix, things have been more straightforward; they’ve just been great.
If you follow a certain sort of basketball fan on Twitter, you’ve likely seen some posts about how this state of affairs is bad for the league. These business-minded pontificators will tell you about the importance of star power and name recognition and how crucial they are to ensuring the continued growth of this enterprise. They will talk about how casual fans just won’t turn in to watch Devin Booker, Trae Young, or a team from Wisconsin. It’s all nonsense of course, an anhedonic way to think about basketball. And even if it weren’t, I am not cynical enough to believe that anyone watches sports because they care about lining the pockets of billionaires.
What matters most is not the teams or the names involved, but the quality of the basketball being played. So far, fans could hardly ask for anything better. There has been nothing perfunctory about the Hawks unexpected progression or the Clippers continually clawing back from ledges they seem to have hurled themselves over just to see if they can recover. The games between the Nets and the Bucks in the last round may not have always been the closest or prettiest match-ups, but they were consistently compelling. Whether it was the beautiful execution by the Nets early in the series or the dual brilliance of Giannis and Durant, the series functioned as a gripping drama as much as it did a playoff series.
For years, the league has relied on the presence of LeBron James, the Akron native who has served as the NBA’s center of gravity for well over a decade. This is not to say that Giannis, Trae, or any of the stars remaining will ever be asked (or able) to bear that same weight, but that even if these are not the final four teams marketers may have hoped for, their presence and continued emergence bodes well for the league’s long-term future. Many of the league’s biggest stars, the players who have defined the NBA for the past decade, are nearing the end of their prime, if not their careers. This postseason then works as a bridge to a new era, one that will not fully blossom for a few more seasons, but one that fans can see a faint outline of now.
It’s not quite a passing of the guards -- at least not yet -- though each Devin Booker isolation bucket and every Trae Young alley-oop, tossed up to his teammates with such casual audacity, brings it a little bit closer. This is not something to bemoan. Rather it is a chance to celebrate the depth and breadth of talent in the league as a new day approaches. There may be a comfort in what is known, but novelty can sometimes bring something wondrous beyond mere newness.