Predictability is poison in the sports world. And despite a few significant offseason transactions, the NBA has become a 30-team barrel of arsenic. LeBron James has played in the NBA Finals seven years in a row. This will become an eight-year streak next June unless King James suffers a calamitous injury. (James has played 14 years and only once missed more than eight games in a season.) The Golden State Warriors have reached the NBA Finals three years in a row and feature two former MVPs still shy of their 30th birthdays. They’ll be the team in the way of LeBron and his current band of merry men, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There have been precisely two NBA champions this century that, in historical terms, were surprises. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat an L.A. Laker “super team” that featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton in addition to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. And the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks upset James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a few other Miami Heat, before that more-recent “super team” had fully formed. Sure, it can be said the Cavs upset the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals, but they did so with LeBron James, so come on.
This isn’t new, of course. We likely would have seen eight straight Chicago Bull championships in the 1990s had Michael Jordan not wanted to prove he could hit a curve ball. We knew Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics would win the title in the 1980s, but that was a fun coin to flip every spring. You have to go back four decades, to the 1970s, to find an NBA that was truly anyone’s guess. Eight different franchises raised the trophy in the disco decade. Raise a glass to healthy living if you remember the 1974-75 Warriors or the 1977-78 Washington Bullets.
There are fan bases today that are certain their team can crack the Finals code this season. Oklahoma City has filled Durant’s one-year void with a pair of perennial All-Stars: Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. If reigning MVP Russell Westbrook again averages a triple-double — did that really happen? — he’ll do so with more assists and fewer points. Last year’s assist leader — Houston’s James Harden — will now share a backcourt with former Clipper Chris Paul, a man who has led the league in assists four times himself. Will this dynamic duo vault the Rockets into the Warriors’ stratosphere, or will Paul and Harden just keep passing the ball to each other one night after the next?
One predictable component of the modern NBA has actually played right here in Memphis. The Grizzlies are one of only three franchises to make the playoffs each of the last seven seasons (along with the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks). If the Griz are to make it eight in a row, it will be without two players whose jerseys are now bound for the FedExForum rafters. With Zach Randolph in Sacramento and Tony Allen in New Orleans, the local franchise will be, in many ways, discovering itself for the first time in almost a decade.
With Anthony, George, and Jimmy Butler (now a Minnesota Timberwolf) having fled the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference playoff race has never been more top-heavy. If you consider Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota locks for the postseason, the west has ten teams each playing 82 games to secure three dance tickets to the playoffs. This will boil down to which teams can win the most games when not being knocked around by the conference’s “big five.”
Mike Conley still wears Beale Street Blue. So does Marc Gasol. Few NBA teams have as talented a tandem atop the roster. However familiar — however predictable — it may seem at times, the NBA season is here. In Memphis, that means one thing: grind time.