The NBA playoffs have featured excellent basketball as players who have been on the rise as stars in the league have battled to grab the spotlight.
For a lot of the public, this is the first time getting a really good look at Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Trae Young, and even though the Nuggets were in the conference finals last year, newly-minted MVP Nikola Jokić. And without LeBron James and Steph Curry in the picture, there’s a lot more room for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and even a previous Finals MVP like Kawhi Leonard to attract eyeballs. With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and, when healthy, James Harden, the Nets are the only team with faces that have been part of the postseason year in and year out, and even Brooklyn has an air of newness about it because of how little the Big 3 have played together.
It’s fantastic, must-watch stuff on a nightly basis, yet it still feels like something is missing.
For everything that you tune into the playoffs wanting to see, the problem if you’re not a fan of a specific team is that there really isn’t anyone to root against. There isn’t a well-defined heel.
It’s not just about the players in this case, but the teams themselves. Every club remaining in the playoffs is trying to end a generations-long drought.
- Jazz: Never won an NBA title, last went to conference finals in 2007, last went to NBA Finals in 1998.
- Suns: Never won an NBA title, in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, last went to NBA Finals in 1993.
- Nuggets: Never won a championship, only Finals appearance was in the ABA in 1976.
- Clippers: Never been past the second round of the playoffs. Not in Los Angeles. Not in San Diego. Not in Buffalo. Never.
- 76ers: Last went to conference finals in 2001, last won a title in 1983.
- Nets: Never won an NBA title, last went to conference finals in 2003, only championships were in the ABA in 1974 and 1976.
- Bucks: Last went to the NBA Finals in 1974, only title was in 1971.
- Hawks: Only three conference finals appearances since moving to Atlanta in 1968, never been to the NBA Finals in that time, only title in franchise history was in 1958 in St. Louis.
How are you supposed to root against any of those teams? Maybe the Sixers annoy you because of all the years of “trust the process,” or maybe the Nets do because of how they crammed together a superteam, or maybe the Hawks because you’re a Knicks fan bitter about the first round and want to see someone shut Young up.
Perennial villains ain’t here
But there’s nothing here like wanting to see the Celtics or Lakers lose because they’re the Celtics or Lakers, or rooting for long-suffering Golden State against ring-collecting LeBron, or rooting for long-suffering Cleveland or upstart Toronto against ring-collecting Golden State in the years that followed that first Dubs title.
The underrated thing about seeing the same teams fighting for the title regularly is that they get bandwagon fans, but also rack up a bunch of haters along the way. In these playoffs, it’s just — “just” — great basketball, and laying the groundwork for the rivalries that will define this decade.
On some level, though, as a basketball fan, you can know that Jazz-Clippers is a heck of a matchup, because it’s Mitchell and Leonard, Rudy Gobert and Paul George… but there’s a big part of your mind that still goes, “Meh, it’s Jazz-Clippers,” because you’re so accustomed to those teams being borderline relevant at best.
That will change with time, of course, as the rivalries and storylines develop. For now, though, it doesn’t have the feel of a normal postseason. There are plenty of basketball superheroes doing incredible things on TV every night, but without anyone in the role of the villain, there’s an emptiness to it that is making it struggle to capture the imagination.