It's time to welcome some much-needed parity in the NBA playoffs
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There will soon be a special celebration somewhere, the really good kind. Not a party for a party’s sake, but the sort of civic outpouring that happens when something not just sportively joyful but also intrinsically rare takes place.
For what the NBA playoffs lost in star power and blue-blood stock (and perhaps upcoming television ratings) in a wild opening round, they gained in the welcome reality that a comprehensive shakeup is happening before our eyes.
The opening round of the NBA playoffs saw several big-name teams and players make early exits while leaving behind eight franchises whose fan bases either don’t remember what it’s like to win the big prize or have never experienced it at all.
It has gotten some long-deprived fan groups dreaming. It has even gotten Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert feeling downright poetic.
"I think the beauty of this game is that you can tell stories," Gobert told the Deseret News. "And the beauty is always in the journey more than in the profit."
The message behind the message? The benefit the NBA will receive from having an unfamiliar name on its honor roll will be worth more to its overall health than the lost money bump that would've come from yet another victory for one of the usual, big-market suspects.
We don’t know what the status of triumphant city parades is in these still-testing times, but we know there has never been one to memorialize an NBA championship for the Jazz in downtown Salt Lake City. There’s never been one to pay homage to the Nuggets in Denver, nor in Phoenix to hail the Suns. No NBA championship parade has run through the brown-stoned streets of Brooklyn (or New Jersey) for the Nets. There have been plenty of championships celebrated on the streets of Los Angeles — but none in honor of the Clippers.
Each of those five teams is still alive in the bracket, and with four of them hailing from the West side of the country, at the very least there will be an NBA Finals participant bidding to etch its name onto the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy for the first time.
Yet it runs deeper than that. When LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers could not keep up with their own injury headaches or the fast-moving, effervescent young Suns led by Devin Booker’s sparkle, a ton of winning history went with them.
James, with his four titles and 10 NBA Finals appearances, plus the Lakers and their 17 banners, headed into the offseason. So too did Steph Curry and his three rings, plus the Golden State Warriors’ all-time haul of six. The Boston Celtics, who have totaled 17 titles, never got going, and the Miami Heat, three-time champs and six-time finalists since the turn of the century, fell away, too.
It all signifies new blood, and it is a positive boost for the game, not just in the markets where hope now rises but also across a league in which the status quo was beginning to get stuck in place.
"I don’t think it matters one way or the other," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said. "I think people love great NBA basketball, and that’s what they want to see."
It’s unusual in this column that we disagree with Rivers, a man who is an outstanding coach and even better company. But it does matter. It matters for the perception of things and in real market factors, too.
Leagues that produce the same champions time and time again get boring, and over time that trend becomes more difficult to reverse. Pending free agents might use a different process of analysis if it becomes clear this year that heading to Phoenix or Denver or even Atlanta could bring them some fancy, new, victorious jewelry.
Even in the East, where three of the four semifinalists have won an NBA championship, there is an entirely different look. The Hawks, believe it or not, have tasted overall success, but no worries if that slipped your mind, given that it took place in 1958 (when they were the St. Louis Hawks), several generations before Trae Young and the exciting team he leads.
In Milwaukee, the Bucks once got over the line as well, but that was a full half-century ago, under the steam of young center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would soon rise to the status of one of history’s greatest players. If the Bucks are to do that again, it will require Giannis Antetokounmpo to be similarly transcendent.
And then there are the 76ers, the most recent champ of the remaining teams, but even then, modern memories lean far more into the infamous (and ultimately productive) tanking "Process" of the 2010s than the Dr. J-inspired glory of the 1983 Finals.
The look of the teams still contending in the postseason is interesting, and it is important. There is nothing wrong with a league built around superstars, and the NBA’s decision to do so has led to monumental global success. But some parity was needed, and here it is.
Name recognition had come to be greater than the sum of its parts. As a result, with a field such as this, it seemed like there were a bunch of first-round surprises. Maybe according to the bookies, but consider this: The semifinal lineup in the Western Conference features the 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds. In the East, it is 1, 2, 3 and 5.
There are disparities, of course. The Nets, now +110 title favorites at FOX Bet, have the championship-clinching experience of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to propel them, even with James Harden’s prognosis uncertain.
But if this season has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t assume, not based on how a team looks on paper and certainly not with deference to what has come before.
With six weeks to go before a winner is crowned, the outcome is shrouded in more doubt than at any time most of us can remember.
Just as it should be. Whether it lasts or not, for now, the top tier of the NBA has a new look. It’s keeping us guessing. And the league is better for it.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.