How to buy a championship
In case you’ve been waiting, now Is officially the time of the year to start caring about the NBA. I know a lot of people watch all year long, the whole regular season and the preseason that comes before it. And the draft that comes before that. But that’s really the prelude to the real thing, the part of the year that decides champions and bragging rights and the faint hope that your roster won’t be completely overhauled in the off-season. The NBA is basically an 82-game warmup followed by three months of do or die basketball, when we finally get to see what happens when the best athletes in the world give their all every night. All of that makes the regular season, which is where teams make the lion’s share of their money on exorbitant ticket sales and television and sponsorships, something of an entertainment product based on sports. Which also means that where you finish in the regular season, assuming you’re in the now 20 teams that make the NBA postseason, doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter is that you’ve stocked your roster with elite talent that’s ideally well rested and committed to winning 16 games.
With that, I bring you the Philadelphia 76ers, the number four seed in the Eastern Conference but possibly the most feared. Philly has a 1-0 lead over Toronto, and few people think it’s likely to get closer than that. In fact, most fans are already looking towards a second-round matchup with top seeded Miami, who despite having the best record in the East seem to have built little confidence that they’ll make it to the Conference Finals much the NBA Finals. Some of that comes the constitution of Miami’s roster – whether Jimmy Butler can play team ball, or whether Tyler Hero can keep a hot hand – and some of it comes because of what you find on other suitors to the throne. Like the 76ers.
Philadelphia traded for former Nets former Rockets star James Harden, who largely pouted his way out of Brooklyn after building the League’s most recent super group with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who’s spend the lion’s share of this year refuting science and flipping off fans. For that, the Nets got equally disgruntled star – and I use that term loosely – Ben Simmons, plus a few draft picks that may or may not be worth much. Which meant that the 76ers went from a highly dysfunctional team headed for a likely early exit from the playoffs to one of two likely conference favorites in the stroke of a pen. It doesn’t matter that Harden is the ultimate carpet bagger or that Philly underperformed all year. All that matters is come April, the team is locked and loaded and has maybe more firepower than anyone outside of Phoenix – a team in the Western Conference that did perform quite well all season.
This is essentially the state of the modern NBA. You don’t build a franchise, or a team built for the long run. You try to maneuver around time and dollars to win something of a game of musical chairs. That’s why Philadelphia’s more deliberate method, knows as the Process, finally gave way to this more direct route – the big mid-season trade. And the vast majority of all this is driven less by owners than players, who have long taken the lead role in the NBA’s hierarchy.
So, what does this all mean for us, basketball fans, who may have a favorite team. I suppose it all depends on your perspective. Old people like myself are likely to opine about how it used to be, where players stuck around for decades to chase a title. That’s what I say about my favorite team Houston who won two titles in the 90’s, ignoring the fact that they traded for Clyde Drexler to win the second one. I just spoke to a bunch of college students about the NBA playoffs, and none of the Sixers fans seemed to care one bit about their shortcut to greatness. Perhaps it’s no different than the evolution of the American workplace. You parents may have stayed with IBM for 40 years. Your kids have three jobs in a year.
Either way, I’m still rooting against Philly and their cascade of talent, all whom I assume chose to rent instead of setting down. But love or hate them, now is definitely time to pay attention to the NBA.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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