The 2021 NBA Playoffs: A Requiem for Competition

(Top) Michael McLoone, USA Today; (Bottom) Christian Petersen, Getty Images

For the past decade, we’ve become accustomed to the sheer dominance of manufactured super teams, a phenomena that we’ve never truly seen in past eras.

Yes, the late 2000s Celtics squad unified the talents of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. In this right, they were manufactured. With only 1 chip to show for it, however, that Celtics team never proved to impose a dominant hold over the league. Yes, the 80s Lakers squads boasted an envious core of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy, helping the organization account for half of the decade’s championship teams. In this right, they were dominant. But, Kareem didn’t join the Lakers to team up with Magic or Worthy; Magic and Worthy were each drafted in as teammates of Kareem in ’79 and ’82, respectively. Similar was the case with Shaquille and Kobe’s Laker years. And for the overwhelming grip that Jordan’s Bulls exercised over the ’90s, those teams weren’t manufactured, either. The Bulls drafted Jordan, Pippen, and Grant, serving as the core to the first three-peat squad, with the second three-peat squad sharing that same core minus Grant and plus Hall-of-Fame role player Dennis Rodman.

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Sources (In Order): Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images; NBA.com; Paul Morse, Los Angeles Times; Jeff Haynes, Getty Images

In contrast, we’ve seen a handful of manufactured super teams dominate respective segments of the 2010s.

First, we saw Lebron James and Chris Bosh, both superstars in their own right, join forces with Dwyane Wade in South Beach, Miami. Their Heat squad made a Finals appearance in every year they played together, ultimately with 2 rings to show for their combined efforts. Though they let a couple victories fall through the cracks, they were the best of the best from 2010-2014.

Following his stint with Miami, Lebron James essentially left one super team to make a new one out of his original franchise, which had drafted Kyrie Irving in his absence and would eventually add Timberwolves superstar Kevin Love. Unfortunately, injuries to both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would leave the Cavs relinquished of their superpowers for their first Finals, resulting in a loss to the young up-and-coming Golden State Warriors.

A year later, a healthy Cavs squad would rectify the misfortunes of their first year to slay the historic 73-9 Warriors in equally historic fashion.

In the offseason following this rematch, the super team era would be launched into a new stratosphere, arguably cementing the culture into the league for good.

For the Warriors’ first two Finals appearances, the team’s core was made through the draft: Stephen Curry ’09, Klay Thompson ’11, Draymond Green ’12. They then proceeded to sign superstar free agent, Kevin Durant. Game over.

Kevin Durant was already a top-5 player in the league at this point. With this understanding, it’d feel illegal for a team to go 73-9 and then manage to pick up a player more gifted than anyone on the team. No team could compete. Lebron’s Cavaliers would spend the next two years stomping the Eastern Conference, sure. But, the fact was they couldn’t match up with the historically stacked roster of the Durant-era Warriors. And no one could really blame them. The Warriors would cruise to 2 straight Finals victories, just barely missing the three-peat in the wake of serious postseason injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. This, in my opinion, was the turning point.

The past decade’s super teams. Sources (In Order): Alexander Tamargo, Getty Images; Jason Miller, Getty Images; Rocky Widner, Getty Images; New York Times

From here on out, the top of the NBA would be decided by the number of superstars that could adjoin together in one place. Right or wrong, the decisions made by James and Durant were game-changers. In essence, their actions symbolized two messages, one to the players and the other to the GMs.

For the players, the message proposed that they be more open to teaming up with other great players. Thus, the increased player movement after James and Durant set the tone was, in my opinion, more about staying competitive than it was an issue of loyalty. At the end of the day, the players needed to find a way to adjust and survive in an increasingly imbalanced field and that reality unfortunately came at the expense of player loyalty. With the exception of a couple legitimate upsets by the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs, the 2010s were the introductory age of the super team and the 2020s, I believe, will continue that same legacy.

In 2020, the season’s narrative followed the prospects of two newly manufactured super teams in the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. Lebron and AD (Anthony Davis) vs. Kawhi and PG13 (Paul George), duking it out for the city of LA. Unfortunately, that storyline never panned out as the Clippers observed an early postseason exit, leaving the road clear for the Lakers to take the crown by default, defeating a cinderella Heat squad in 6 games.

Just like that, the start to the 2020s saw its first Finals series come and go in the hands of yet another manufactured super team, continuing to manifest the culture set in the previous decade.

Coming into this year’s 2020-2021 season, the Lakers would return with Lebron and AD, maintaining their status as the pride of the league and the favorites to repeat. The Clippers retained both Kawhi and George, but an underwhelming performance in the Bubble left them as a mere afterthought in Hollywood. And though the Western Conference was loaded with prime, individual talent, such talent was too evenly distributed across the Conference’s other teams to really put up a fight.

Out east, there was only one group with the requisite talent to dethrone the Lakers’ super squad. That group was the Brooklyn Nets. A manufactured group themselves, the Brooklyn Nets would at last have a “healthy” Kevin Durant to compliment Kyrie Irving and the host of other solid role players they accumulated. The biggest question mark for the Nets, though, was Kevin Durant’s achilles injury, unsure what semblance of his former self he’d return as. In response, Durant would come to display the greatest recovery from the injury type in the history of the league, priming his loaded squad for a deep run into the postseason. Then came the James Harden trade.

Source: Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Just like that, the 2021 NBA Finals was set. Lakers-Nets, super team vs. super team. Anyone who told you otherwise was probably trolling. They each were classes above the rest of the field. And while upsets happen, we’re talking about a best-of-7 format; the talent imbalance would be too much for any competitor to take down these two Goliaths.

Today, we find ourselves in the Conference Finals round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs and neither the Lakers nor the Nets remain in contention. And why? Injuries and upsets. After Davis’ groin injury, the Lakers were toast in 6 by the Phoenix Suns. With Kyrie Irving’s series-ending injury in game 4 and James Harden’s hamstrung return for the series’ final three contests, the Nets fell in an unbelievable game 7 to the Milwaukee Bucks despite Kevin Durant’s best efforts.

Source: MLG Highlights, YouTube

Let’s be honest with ourselves. A healthy Lakers team takes a healthy Suns team out in 6 at the very most. The same goes for the Nets against Milwaukee. The Suns and Bucks are two great teams, each with a strong core and supporting cast, but neither has the talent to measure up with the Lakers and Nets in a 7-game series.

With all that said, I actually don’t mean to discount the Suns and Bucks’ series wins. The most prominent kryptonite to the utter dominance of super teams is the chance reality of injuries. All series matchups, even ones where the future victor seems clear, are played out in acknowledgement of this reality. The KD-era Warriors would’ve broke the breaks off Toronto in 2019 at full health, but they couldn’t stay healthy and a healthy Toronto team beat them. The Warriors’ health plagues wasn’t Toronto’s problem. They showed up, competed and outlasted the Warriors for the NBA title. There’s nothing that can take that accomplishment away from Toronto. The same can be said for the Suns and Bucks; they showed up, played the games, avoided major injuries, and advanced past their wounded counterparts in the end. Case closed, moving on.

As of the moment, we’re currently left with a Western Conference Finals pitting the Phoenix Suns against the Los Angeles Clippers and an Eastern Conference Finals of the Milwaukee Bucks vs. the Atlanta Hawks. For the first time in a long time, I believe we can agree that all 4 remaining teams have a real shot of taking home the chip. The field is just so balanced. The only team that some may consider not having respectable odds to win the title is the Atlanta Hawks, riding out what most see as a cinderella run. However, for what it’s worth, the Hawks did take game 1 on the road behind a memorable performance from point guard Trae Young, teasing the potential for yet another long, gritty series this postseason.

With still 3 series’ left to finish, this year’s NBA playoffs has already gifted us with three exciting game 7s. The record for the most game 7s in a given postseason was 5 in 1994, 2014 (MISLEADING: ALL IN ROUND ONE), and 2016 (ANOMALY + PREFACED KD-ERA WARRIORS). With both Conference Finals’ as tight as they are, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for the record to be broken or, at the very least, tied in 2021.

The heightened competitiveness has seemed to be refreshing and increasingly appealing to groups of NBA fans that may have grown bored and disinterested with the dominance of overpowered super teams. Though correlational, the data on the 2021 NBA playoffs show the ratings for TNT, ABC, and ESPN are up 39 percent from 2020 through the Conference Semifinals. And so, as it’s turning out, the injuries that kicked out the Lakers and the Nets have been good for the league. Note that it’s not the injuries themselves that are a good thing; I’m far from saying that. Rather, it’s the valuable unpredictability that has been injected back into the game as a result of what the injuries caused (Lakers and Nets eliminations) that are a good thing.

But, you see, the unfamiliar feel of this postseason is not just that it’s more competitive. That certainly plays a role, but there’s something else, isn’t there? Outside of the Clippers, each of the three other teams hold something in common: a young, loyal, and motivated franchise player.

2021 marks Devin Booker’s 6th year with the Phoenix Suns, the one and only year that his Suns have made the playoffs. For 5 straight years, Booker has dealt with the pain of constantly missing the cut. And despite all that, he remains a Sun 6 years removed from the moment they drafted him, ready to finally lead his team, his franchise to the promised land.

2021 marks Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 8th year with the Bucks and though he’s tasted the Conference Finals before, he’s never been able to carry his team over that hump. Plus, with all the flack Giannis has received for the limitations in his game and how that has impacted his ability to bring a championship to Milwaukee, he has his best chance this year to show that his strengths are dominant enough to get the job done.

2021 only marks Trae Young’s 3rd year with Atlanta, but the dude already has massive pride for the team that he’s rocking with. Commenting on the astounding playoff run his Hawks are currently on following their recent game 1 victory against the Bucks, Young explained that “when you have a group that really believes in each other and really is fighting on the court for each other, anything can happen. I think our team really believes that, and it’s been working.” As far as I can tell, he really is aware of the many that have doubted and continue to doubt his Hawks’ potential to win it all, something that has likely bonded he, his teammates, and Coach McMillan together to conduct the success they’ve warranted thus far. Not to mention, he’s leading the underdogs with an already massive chip on his own shoulder from the many now-disproven criticisms he’s had to endure in his young career; let’s just say that’ll make for more impassioned entertainment from Trae Young and the Hawks as they look to continue their run.

Source: The Ringer/The Mismatch Podcast, Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon/YouTube

Overall, there’s a certain sense of passion, pride and loyalty behind the increasingly competitive battles that we’ve been privy to enjoy through just 4 Conference Finals games thus far. Unfortunately, if the past decade is any indication of what’s to come, the 2021 NBA playoffs as we know it now is merely a chance anomaly.

Think about it. Next year, everything will return back to normal. Barring injury complications, the Los Angeles Lakers will be the heavy favorites to make it out of the Western Conference and the Brooklyn Nets will be the heavy favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference. And if, for whatever reason, one of them comes up short, the other will likely clean up shop and cruise to the title. Make no mistake, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets present the same overwhelming imbalance of talent witnessed under the Warriors-Cavs era in the 2010s. These two teams are set up to be the runaway superiors of the league for the next 3-4 years. And when their window expires, a new super team or two is bound to take shape in their place. Don’t get me wrong, dominant repeats and three-peats have been witnessed many times throughout the history of the league, but the league’s handful of dominant stints observed in the modern-day just seems unnatural and unearned to a degree.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I just wish we could have every playoffs like this year’s playoffs, where the playing field was leveled, where every team would be tasked to scrap, claw and compete, where we could watch a superstar’s gutsy loyalty to the team who drafted them finally pay dividends. There’s just an edge that the league has been missing that is utterly present right now and I just don’t want it to go.

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