Once upon a time, not too long ago, we knew what the routine was when it came to the end of an NBA season: the playoffs would come, a champion would be crowned, and—in the scoreboard–über alles style embraced more by basketball than any other sport—the losers would be banished to oblivion. The typical NBA fan can tell you how many championships Kobe Bryant won and yet pauses when asked to name the opponents he faced. No league is dragged along by its front-runner like the NBA is. If the league is, at its best, majestic, it’s also, at its worst, pharaonic.
The end of the season was once an estival balm. Summer would arrive to wash the past season clean. The break was essential. The players need a breather, but so do we, if only to dream a little. In the nineties, I, like most New Yorkers, used to think year after year that the Knicks had a chance against the Bulls. We know now which teams were the dynasties, but in the heat of competition, the outcomes never felt inevitable. Plenty of teams were quite good, and as they licked their wounds in the summer haze, they could reasonably think to themselves: Next year, why not us?
Those days are over. In the weeks following this year’s finals, NBA news has been nonstop. One moment, Golden State had history at their beck and call: a record seventy-three regular-season wins, an inexplicable escape from a 3–1 hole against Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder, and clear domination over the Cleveland Cavaliers over the first four games of the finals. Golden State was headed home, where they were close to unbeatable—and no team had ever overcome a 3–1 deficit in the NBA Finals, anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
When the clock on game 7 had run down to zero and the Cavs stood victorious, I found myself wondering if I’d ever seen the history of a sport sashay away with such mischievous swagger. The Warriors had led 49–42 at the half—not an insurmountable lead, obviously, but an opportunity for the Cavs, with their potent offense and the best defense in the league. They had twenty-four minutes to outscore the Warriors by eight points in Oracle Arena with six-and-a-half games’ worth of mileage on their legs. It took less than three minutes for Cleveland to level the score, thanks to a solitary offensive outburst from J. R. Smith and a few surprisingly slow defensive rotations by the Warriors. Although the idea waves its hand in the face of statistical doctrine, it actually does matter when you score. Some baskets at some moments hurt more than others, influence the ebb and tide of a game more than others. From the moment Smith sank his two three-point shots, the clock was the enemy of both teams—but more so for the Warriors, who suddenly looked like they were channeling their inner David Byrne, asking themselves, Well … how did we get here?
The Warriors’ home support is legendary; their arena has been packed and loud through thick and thin. But the crowd now seems more “Stairway to Heaven” than “Politicians in My Eyes.” And let’s face it: I love Led Zeppelin, but when the shit hits the fan, no one wants to hear “Stairway.” The crowd gave Golden State no lift at all.
Suddenly, the sport became simple again: James and Irving ran ball screens until they found the one-on-one matchups they wanted. Even when they weren’t scoring, they were keeping Golden State from scoring, and rather easily—although the final minutes saw both teams desperately, and rather ineptly, trying to score a measly basket, Cleveland was clear minded. They knew what they were up to. Golden State offered some bizarre impression of themselves: rushed heaves from deep behind the three-point line, no-look passes into the stands, woebegone attempts at dribble penetration. They ended the game on 89 points—truly an incomprehensible total.
Watching Curry shrink was unsettling. He’s not the first MVP to have a bad finals. But after fouling out and getting ejected from game 6, he could reasonably expect to rise to the occasion of his stardom with everything to play for. For a moment I wondered if he was destined to become basketball’s Orlando Bloom.
I watched game 7 of the finals in Aspen, where I was more or less shackled to my hotel-room bed by the walking boot I had to wear for my newly ruptured Achilles tendon. My lack of mobility meant that a bunch of people gathered in my suite to watch the game. As the seconds ticked down, the Coloradans in attendance—Nuggets fans—cleared out first and most indifferently. Next, a Warriors fan from San Francisco got up, more bemused by the loss than bereaved. And then something unexpected happened. We’d forgotten for a moment about a Cleveland fan in our midst; she had been silent the entire time, waiting for the ceiling to collapse on her team again. Now she kneeled in front of the screen speechless but full of life. A Buffalo native who had been pulling for Golden State understood her. Cleveland. Buffalo. The Cavs. The Bills. The rust belt wrapped around their hearts in ways he didn’t realize until then, and he was suddenly filled with joy. Joy for her. Joy for Cleveland. Watching them, I thought of a line from Wallace Stevens: “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.”
A few days later, Kevin Durant signed to the Golden State Warriors—something like Jimi Hendrix joining the Beatles. Many think Durant defiled the prime order of sport, which is to compete. Others think he exercised his right as an employee out of contract to improve his opportunities, and the rest is secondary to that. I side more with the latter. If Durant wants to play with a record-setting team and increase his chances at a title, so be it. He’s earned that right contractually. Certainly, Durant’s exit from Oklahoma City will dim the floodlights of national attention the Thunder had enjoyed for years, since the franchise was ripped from the arms of the people of Seattle. And true, the team’s other star, Russell Westbrook, is all but certain to also leave next year, further exacerbating the talent drain. But none of these are reasons for a Durant to sign a contract he doesn’t want to sign.
Nevertheless, the league has been shaken to its foundation by Durant’s defection. Just as the NBA was supposed to be winding down, projections about next season have already revved up. There’s little question of who will win now. The Warriors are so talent-rich that they could weather an injury from a major contributor and still plan on being the favorite to win the title. People have lamented, reasonably, that the NBA comprises only two teams that have any chance of winning the championship—not only in 2017 but perhaps into the 2020s.
This week, five-time champion Tim Duncan announced his retirement after nineteen years as a player on his one and only team, the Spurs. Duncan was a dying breed in countless ways: from his proficiency as a player near the basket, to his expertise with the angled bank shot, to his selflessness and his deadpan, media-allergic demeanor. He said he came to his decision because basketball had ceased to be fun for him. The Spurs were a juggernaut again last year, finishing the regular season with a 67–15 record. But in four games against the Warriors—the team the Spurs thought they’d have to go through to win it all—Duncan played a total of twenty-seven minutes. There wasn’t much he could do against the Warriors. But more than the advancing years, it was the changes to the game, its current overreliance on space and pace, that drove Duncan from it. We may never see another like him.
Meanwhile, the story of Cleveland’s victory this year was promptly discarded. James’s Cavs enjoyed a week in the limelight before being relegated, once more, to a presumed runner-up status. What does it say about the NBA that one free-agent signing can derail the zeitgeist of a legendary championship? It had been slowly creeping up on us, but now it’s here: the off-season drowns out the season. What are we to do now, when we want to take a summer break from the NBA—when we want to dream a little?
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.