But for all the promise of something balanced and different, the Brooklyn Nets lurk alongside this hope, growing stronger even without James Harden, dominating with the most top-heavy roster in the league and wearing a charming mask as one of five franchises still alive this postseason that hasn’t won an NBA title.
In the NBA, parity isn’t as much a standard as it is a distraction. Just when a free-for-all looks possible, it usually turns out to be an intermission before the next superstar-laden team materializes.
The Milwaukee Bucks seemed like an ideal team to oppose the Nets’ bid for instant greatness. Instead, they are shriveling in the playoffs again. If their home court can’t rescue them from a 2-0 series deficit, if they can’t recover from the embarrassment of a 39-point loss in Game 2, they will squander another season of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s brilliance. What was supposed to be a rare Finals-caliber matchup in the second round now feels like an exhibition of desperation. And the Bucks can’t be the only ones experiencing it. What if this series is more a preview of Brooklyn’s burgeoning superiority than a referendum on Milwaukee’s deficiencies?
The blue-collar Bucks have made five straight playoff appearances and been considered a prime contender for three years because their front office has done masterful work drafting post-lottery (including Khris Middleton as a second-rounder in 2012 and Antetokounmpo No. 15 overall in 2013), developing players and making solid trades. They have built a team around a two-time MVP in Antetokounmpo that, even in challenging seasons, is likely to win a minimum of 60 percent of its games.
After much speculation, Antetokounmpo signed a supermax extension in December, which keeps him under team control through the 2024-25 season (he has a player option for 2025-26). Unless he forces a trade, the 26-year-old forward will be in Milwaukee for his prime years.
Still, for all the good the Bucks have done, the playoffs are making them look inadequate again. More specifically, another team specializing in inorganic, superstar-wooing team building has made them look inadequate.
Two years ago, the Bucks couldn’t beat a Toronto squad that had acquired Kawhi Leonard for one year. Last season, they lost to a Miami team that had acquired Jimmy Butler. They improved their talent by trading for Jrue Holiday in the offseason, but now they’re facing the most gifted collection of stars they have encountered.
In the past two years, the Nets have added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency, and they traded for Harden in the regular season. Even though Harden hurt his hamstring in the first minute of this series, even though Brooklyn has barely played with its Big Three because of injuries, the Nets are still a formidable, historic offensive ensemble. And so far in the postseason, their weakness — defense — has been manageable because their unstoppable offense actually applies pressure that can force teams to play faster and wilder to try to keep pace.
The Bucks have become a model for organic team building, but in the championship-or-bust NBA culture, their playoff struggles make their influence debatable. They represent a best practice that may not be appreciated fully if they don’t hoist a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
These playoffs are offering a glimpse of what parity could look like if elite talent would stay scattered across the league. Of the eight remaining teams, Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Clippers are outliers because they went the superstar free agent route. The other six — Utah, Phoenix, Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee — are all anchored by big-time stars that they drafted and developed and rosters that utilized every tool rather than going heavy on the tear-down, cap-space approach.
Even the Nets and Clippers leveraged some good draft picks and player development to make smart trades or clear cap room to build their super-ish teams. And as the less-glamorous teams in their big markets, they had to do more than show the bright lights to persuade the likes of Durant and Leonard to join them.
Much has been made of the newness of this final eight. The last time one of them won a championship was 1983, when Moses Malone set a fo’ fo’ fo’ goal for Philadelphia. Five of them have never tasted the champagne: Denver, Utah, Phoenix and the Nets and Clippers. You could add Atlanta as a sixth if you’re talking cities and not franchises because, when the Hawks won in 1958, they played in St. Louis.
In the dynasty-driven NBA, this odd pandemic season will end up being special. Since Philadelphia won in 1983, only 11 franchises have accounted for the 37 championships. Seven of those teams have won at least three titles. There is just a trio of one-off winners: Dallas in 2011, Cleveland in 2016 and Toronto in 2019.
For 75 years, the NBA has been a best-superstar-wins league. Individual greatness is measured, often unfairly, by a player’s ability to crack the championship code and linger at the top for a good while. And in this era of transience, stars are alleviating that pressure by collaborating with others who feel the same burden. A rival is now an ally in training.
If you prefer parity of opportunity — stars not always desiring big markets, glamour franchises and alluring destinations — the league needs a Milwaukee, Denver or Utah to be the standard. And this is the year for one of those organic contenders to win it all. LeBron is sitting at home. The Nets, as good as they look right now, are a new house in need of more furniture. The Clippers are the Clippers, even with Leonard and Paul George. This is the time for a mortal team with a solo superstar to enjoy a moment.
Yet there is Milwaukee, gasping, getting crushed. If the Bucks don’t get back in this series, Coach Mike Budenholzer could be out of a job, and the franchise player’s patience will be a concern again.
In this angsty environment, that’s how a best practice becomes a cautionary tale. By extension, it becomes a concern for Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker if they can’t reach the Finals quickly.
The game needs a shift in player motivation. For that to happen, it normally takes a new kind of champion to admire. Even in a postseason full of change, that might be asking too much.