Now, they must be celebrated as survivors.
Here they are, the last teams remaining in a deleterious NBA season. No matter who wins, the league will be crowning a roster full of first-time champions. A league of dynasties and superstar coalitions bows this time to the persistence of a few elite players who did it the hardest way possible — and two organizations that overcame their meager reputations.
It’s the proper championship series to end the agony of a year defined by injuries, bad luck and haggling over how best to schedule around a pandemic. This season made everyone vulnerable. No superstar was too great; no roster was too stacked. Those difficult circumstances did more than level the playing field. They redefined, at least for now, how we judge stars and franchises that can’t easily lure marquee free agents. They forced you to respect the grind as much as the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
And so you must look differently at the Bucks and Suns. You must look differently at front-facing stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul. The triumph isn’t that they averted the hazards. Antetokounmpo couldn’t play in the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals because of a knee injury, and he’s still fighting to get healthy. But the Bucks are here anyway, providing emphatic answers to questions about whether they had a good enough roster around the Greek Freak.
Paul has a bum right shoulder and ailing right hand, and he missed the first two games of the Western Conference finals while recovering from covid-19. But the Suns are here anyway, smiling and looking good even with Devin Booker’s busted nose.
The 2021 Finals are a story of fresh superstars getting an opportunity to play for a long-coveted championship. But winning at the highest level requires a solid marriage of individual greatness and organizational competence. Over the past decade, players have preferred to cut out some of the interference by convincing organizations to build super teams, on which multiple franchise-caliber players can combine their greatness to cover up any holes. The existence of these teams — and the pressure on stray stars to abandon their independence and join the movement — has come at the expense of an old NBA favorite: the team that builds gradually into a winner, learns hard lessons in the playoffs and keeps coming back stronger until it reaches the pinnacle.
The Bucks get to be an exception now. They have been on their current journey since drafting Antetokounmpo in 2013. They’ve been able to develop him into the league’s best and most original power forward: a big man who dominates in the paint but does so off the dribble; a point guard in a 6-foot-11 body; a top-level defender capable of guarding all five positions. They’ve been able to retain him for three contracts. They’ve been able to build, fail and revise. They’ve been able to linger as a contender for several seasons and learn from experience.
In the NBA, it doesn’t happen like that much anymore. But the Bucks’ patience has been rewarded in a remarkable way. Antetokounmpo was left to watch, cheer and absorb his teammates’ greatness. Even if Milwaukee doesn’t beat Phoenix, the experience will enrich the Bucks’ relationships and deepen trust.
Attrition chopped down powerhouses such as the Los Angeles Lakers and limited mighty rosters such as Kevin Durant’s crew in Brooklyn. But the Bucks, who aren’t top-heavy but full of substance throughout the roster, made it.
The Suns acquired Paul and seemingly came out of nowhere. But they’re a different version of organic team building. The franchise fell apart after the 2010 playoffs and missed the postseason for 10 straight years. Owner Robert Sarver earned a bad reputation. But the Suns are finally doing something right again, and Paul is not their savior. He was brought in to be their finisher, the ideal leader and floor general for a young team. They’re winning big now with a 36-year-old point guard, but they are set up to be competitive long after he is gone.
The grueling 2021 playoffs may have a fortifying effect for the league. We’ve been able to see young stars such as Booker, his teammate Deandre Ayton and Atlanta’s Trae Young in a new light. Veteran all-star-caliber players such as Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and even Los Angeles Clippers co-star Paul George, have shown the range of their talent. And it’s not as if the defining superstars of this era performed poorly. They did their thing, but they couldn’t lift their incomplete teams. Through all the aches and bruises and sprains, a new story demanded to be heard.
While it seems unfamiliar, there’s enough familiarity, star power and intrigue left for an entertaining Finals. Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, doesn’t need to show ID to enter Club Relevance. Paul, a Hall of Fame-bound maestro, has had his own VIP table for 16 seasons. The distrust of them and their teams is gone. They have a legacy-cementing opportunity, one that can’t be taken for granted. But neither should exit the Finals feeling cursed.
This isn’t so much about who will fail as who will join an exclusive club of champions. Paul, as a charter member of this era of basketball, allows us to consider then and now. His long journey to the Finals allows us to reflect not on his shortcomings but on the reasons for his difficulty. He has had to navigate one of the greatest periods in NBA history. In his 16 seasons, he has fought through the Spurs dynasty, Part 2 of the Kobe Bryant/Lakers dynasty, the LeBron dynasty and the Warriors dynasty. He has remained a steady influence as point guards throughout the league have accessed a higher level of power.
And in his twilight years, he’s here, at last. But on the other side are Giannis and the Bucks, a player and team that could represent both the NBA’s present and future.
No matter who wins, the NBA moves into next season as a more interesting league, with more contenders that deserve respect. At the end of all the agony, there is possibility.