The NBA Open Season Begins Wide Without Any Overwhelming Favorites


SAN FRANCISCO — Steve Kerr hit a cheery tune in a radio interview in early September, still enjoying a fourth title in his internship for the Golden State Warriors. He said the job to defend a championship was “really fun,” a claim he could make because he won three consecutive quarters as a player with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s before repeating with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018.

Less than a month later, Kerr was singing a completely different tune after a leaked video of Draymond Green punching Jordan Bull during a rehearsal in October. The Blind Warriors held meetings that included executives, coaches, and players to plan their next steps as their star striker stayed away from the team. Kerr eventually announced that Green would be fined but not suspended, and vehemently admitted that the week-long episode was the “biggest crisis” in his nine seasons with Golden State.

Golden State is the latest team to realize that repeating as the NBA champion has become an increasingly complex challenge. In fact, since the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first opponents to face off in four consecutive Finals from 2015 to 2018, the National Basketball Association has swung wildly in a golden era of parity. A league that has been ruled by giant teams and an ambitious family for so long is now unpredictable, as four different champions have been crowned since 2019.

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What’s more, no NBA team has reached the Conference Finals in consecutive seasons since Kevin Durant left the Warriors in 2019, the longest such period since the National Basketball Association announced the Conference Finals as part of the post-season In 1970-1971. This upside-down reality has not been played in other major professional sports: the Houston Astros have reached the MLB Championship Series in six straight years, the Kansas City Chiefs have reached the past four AFC Championship games, and Tampa Bay. Lightning has reached the past three Stanley Cup Finals in the NHL.

The Warriors will attempt to defend their title – and extend their dynasty by adding a fifth championship in nine seasons – amid a competitive landscape that has changed dramatically since Kerr’s arrival in 2014. Stephen Curry remains one of the league’s best players at age 34, but has found MVP talents like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo struggle to maintain post-season success while battling with a deeper field than competitors.

“In the past years, there were probably three or four teams that were in a closed position in the conference finals,” said TNT commentator Reggie Miller, who made the Indiana Pacers a five-time Eastern Finals final between 1994 and 2000.[This year, there are] 10 or 11 teams, under the right conditions and everyone’s health, can win everything.”

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The interpretation of the recent NBA rotation from year to year has to begin with the schedule disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to delays caused by the bubble’s 2019-20 restart, this summer was the first time since 2019 that the finals ended in June. The Warriors have enjoyed 124 days of rest since taking their title, far more than the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks (91) or 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (72).

The Lakers looked and sounded overwhelmed by their quick turnaround, while the Bucks also tackled Chris Middleton and Guru Holiday playing for the US at the Tokyo Olympics. Both teams struggled with injuries and ran out of gas before they could launch serious title defenses. Similarly, the Miami Heat were knocked out in the first round of 2021 after advancing to the 2020 Finals, and the Phoenix Suns collapsed in the second round of last season after reaching the 2021 Finals.

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Contrary to what was expected, the evolution of the era of player empowerment was another major driver of parity. When James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat in 2010, he envisioned a long-term home where he hoped to win “not five, not six, not seven” championships. But James reversed course to the Cavaliers after just four years, and four years later he headed to the Lakers.

Other stars have followed suit: Durant, Kohi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have played for at least three teams since 2016, and the barriers to their movement seem to become less effective with each passing summer. Anthony Davis made his way from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Lakers with over a year remaining on his contract in 2019. Harden was fired from Houston for Brooklyn in 2021 with over two years remaining on his deal. Durant requested a deal this summer before playing one game for four years, and a maximum $198 million contract extension, signed with the Nets in 2021, although that latest effort has so far been unsuccessful.

“I’m getting older,” the 34-year-old explained in September while expressing frustration with Brooklyn’s lack of internal accountability last season. “I want to be in a stable place and try to build a tournament culture. I had some doubts about that.”

This rushing ring star has had his share of successes—James and Davis led the Lakers to the 2020 title, and Leonard and George Clippers landed the Western Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2021—but the sheer volume of activity has produced plenty of instability, too. The Nets’ outstanding trio of Durant, Harden and Irving played only 10 games in the regular season before they split up; The rockets were in a state of collapse due to the departure of Paul, Harden, and Westbrook; And the Toronto Raptors didn’t get a chance to defend their 2019 title because Leonard left for the Clippers just 23 years old. Days after their procession.

Patience, which is often a key component of a title team, has never been understated among the star class. Their preferred method of movement has changed, too: Instead of waiting to become free agents to join a team like The 2010 Heat, the stars get their cake and eat it too by signing long-term extensions and then tapping into their teams for their trade.

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The shift toward trading for superstars removed the cumbersome need for suitors to clear huge sums of salary cap space, but it also drained organizations like the Lakers, Nets, and Clippers from the financial flexibility and future capital draft needed to keep the championship window open for the long haul. When a superstar gets disgruntled, like Harden with the Nets or Westbrook with the Lakers, his team can find it hard to pivot.

“We will do everything we can, including selections, to make deals that give us a chance to help LeBron get to the finish,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said last month, after a summer of trade rumors in Westbrook. If you include 2027 and 2029 [first-round picks in a trade]All your choices are gone. If you make this trade…it must be the right trade. You have one chance.”

As the superstars go for every advantage, their organizations have also felt the pain of the stronger luxury tax system that was included in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. That deal added heavier fines to teams as their salaries increased to exceed the luxury tax limit and tax repeats for teams that exceed the season limit. multiple in a row. These rules, which are meant to help level the playing field by making it financially costly for teams to keep an expensive slate for years, have succeeded in forcing some tough choices.

Looming luxury tax bills were a factor in the Lakers’ decision not to re-sign Alex Caruso in 2021, the Bucks’ parting with PJ Tucker in 2021 and the Warriors’ inability to keep second Gary Payton this summer. Caruso, Tucker and Payton have been valuable defensive-minded contributors to their title teams, but their organizations concluded that something had to be provided.

Golden State gross payroll and luxury tax payrolls totaled $346 million last season and are expected to reach $359 million this year. After the Warriors signed four-year Poole worth as much as $140 million and Andrew Wiggins for four years for $109 million in recent days, Golden State’s total player salaries and luxury tax payments could reach $500 million in 2023-24, bringing the player’s total salary and luxury tax payments to $500 million in 2023-24. It means more cuts on the menu will be necessary next summer.

After receiving opposition over the unprecedented spending spree, Warriors owner Joe Lacob responded by calling the luxury tax system “incredibly punitive” and “extremely unfair” in a podcast hosted by Andre Iguodala. This resulted in a $500,000 fine from the NBA.

“The hardest thing of all is dealing with this luxury tax, unfortunately,” Lacob said. “The league wants everyone to have a chance.”

The NBA title hunt in the era of the pandemic has become a multi-layered maze, requiring teams to negotiate schedule disruptions, choppy superstars, a fast-paced trading market and onerous salary cap rules designed to break giant teams. A single untimely injury can spoil carefully crafted plans, and disagreements can surface out of court with little notice. As the Warriors pick up the pieces from a Green punch, the Boston Celtics deal without head coach Em Odoka, who has been suspended for a season after having had an inappropriate affair with a co-worker, and the Suns play through fallout from a lengthy investigation with disgraced owner Robert Sarver’s unearthed history A wide range of racist and anti-women comments.

The Warriors’ main advantage, besides their deep pockets, is that they’ve already been through a lot together. They recovered from a painful defeat in the 2016 Finals to win in 2017 and 2018. They reclaimed themselves after the departure of Durant and a pair of lottery trips to win again last season. Now, Carey and his company will see if they can do it again.

“If there was any team that was built for her, I would definitely say it’s the Warriors,” said TNT analyst Jamal Crawford, a 20-year NBA veteran. “They are the new generation of Spurs. The Spurs of the 2000s and 2010s were rock-solid stability and the gold standard of culture. I think that’s what the Warriors took advantage of now.”

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