Reflections on the end of the regular season.
John Havlicek in a trading card for the 1972–3 Celtics, one of many excellent teams all but lost to NBA history.
The last two weeks of the NBA regular season, things get turned on their heads. It’s like someone switches off the gravity, or even the gravitas, and concerns that were once at the bottom float up to the top. At this point, the best teams are what they are. They know they’ll start the playoffs at home against an overwhelmed opponent. They know that the potential for injury or complacency—the secondhand smoke of an excessively long season—is their most dangerous rival. They play these last games competing more against the limits of themselves than anything else.
The Warriors and the Spurs, still by far the two best teams in the league, are chasing records: the Warriors, 69–8 as I write this, have a better-than-even chance of topping the 1995–1996 Chicago Bulls’s record of 72–10; the Spurs are three home victories from having gone the entire season undefeated in their own arena, a feat no NBA team has ever accomplished.
As amazing as these accomplishments would be, their real cultural substance is debatable. For better and for worse, the NBA has long been the ying to baseball’s yang. While the MLB force-feeds its fans the game’s history (the uncomplicated version), its vaulted records and staid codes of conduct, NBA culture is constantly rejuvenating itself in order to stay attractive to the coming-of-age consumer. It skews toward the newish, drinks deeply from the wells of immediacy and forgetfulness. What’s in front of you is always the Greatest of All Time. Fans, tallying inconsequential curios like triple-double and consecutive thirty-point games that the sport shows then put on silver plates for them, like to think they’re always witness to something never done before. They left-swipe the history of the game—they tend to have an obligatory respect for the champions of the past but an open disdain for most everything else. No one seems to think that forty years from now they’ll be trying in vain to remind people of how good Stephen Curry and the Warriors were or how explosive Russell Westbrook was. This is the journey awaiting all of us. Save a coin for Charon.
After all, the Spurs may go undefeated at home this season and then lose multiple games at home in the playoffs. The Warriors may go 73–9 and lose to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Whatever happens, one of the best teams in the history of the league won’t even make this year’s Finals, and I can’t help but wonder what will happen to that team in our collective memory. The season after the 1971–1972 Los Angeles Lakers—led by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian—set what was then the record for regular-season victories with 69, the 1972–1973 Boston Celtics came within one win of equaling them, only to lose to the Knicks in a hard-fought seven-game Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks had finished eleven games behind Boston that season. But they’re now considered an iconic team, one of the best of all time. The starting lineup of that Boston team is, for all intents and purposes, a matter of trivia. Memory in this league doesn’t have much room for runners-up. The NBA is particularly brutal in this way.
Meanwhile, the view from the other end of the standings tells a different story. Dallas, Chicago, Indiana, Utah, Houston, Washington, and Detroit are fighting for their postseason lives. Either they finish in the top eight of their respective conferences or miss the playoffs and hope for good luck in the summer draft. The teams in the west are particularly interesting to watch: they’re battling for a chance to play the Warriors or Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, which brings with it certain doom and a very high risk of repeated embarrassment before a national audience. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but it is what it is.
Those teams that are already out of the playoff hunt are beginning to shut down players with minor injuries—ones who’d be playing if the games were important. And players who control their contract options for next season—those who can stay with their current team or opt out and pursue the riches of a market swelling with cash and trigger-happy executives—have become contemplative and guarded in their comments about their situations. Some have taken to shooting more than ever to bulk up their final statistical profile; some are playing harder than ever to leave a good final impression for potential suitors; and some have tuned out. These aren’t teams and players chasing history, they’re being chased by their futures. Where will they be in a month? Still in the playoffs, by some surprise? Preparing to pick up their lives and move yet again, this time to who knows where, out of contract and untethered from the league? Taking a flyer on a good feeling and staying put for the love of their team or their city or the person they’ve found? And still others, of a certain age and tired of the travel and the pains … what will they do after the love has gone?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published last year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.
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