Let it be known I’m a parity freak. I enjoyed this entire regular season’s worth of NBA basketball because right up until the Play-In, it seemed like — and turned out to be! — anyone’s game.
Did the sudden onset of conference-wide equilibrium make it a little overwhelming to follow along and predict what the end of the season was going to look like? Yes. Did it seem to make some of my colleagues in the industry uncomfortable not knowing, for the first time in years, what was going to happen? Yes, and it was great!
The chaos of parity was a great leveler in the league, and it wasn’t by accident. The NBA has a tendency to correct itself, to balance when something tips too far in one direction. Part of this past season’s parity was a shift away from super teams, the last of which in the Durant-Harden-Irving Nets failed in spectacular fashion, but another reason for parity has been brewing for years now: the talent and skill level of the NBA is the highest it’s ever been. Not just in its superstars, but in its regular, everyday rotational players, its walking Swiss Army knife end of bench guys, in everyone. Middle-of-the-road teams this season would’ve been top-seeded contenders less than 10 years ago, and we’re so happily spoiled that half the time we hardly notice.
On the note of levelers, there are layers there too. Because we can’t see a surfeit of skill as in this past season and expect, suddenly, the playing field to become less challenging. For all these new would-be contenders to find the postseason as open to them as the regular season, by virtue of skill alone.
Each series becomes its own unique and individualized climate, whipped up by the elements of the two teams meeting there, and within the series, each game becomes its own treacherous environment. Game-planning is paramount while simultaneously useless — any good coach isn’t going to rely on what worked in the last matchup — and learning to ride the highs and lows of each game, in-game, is a unique ability that athletes don’t master until they’ve had plenty of experience.
Watching the first round of the playoffs come to a gripping close in two of its closest series showed proof of that experience.
For the Warriors, against the energetic and flourishing Kings, there were plenty of times when it looked as if Golden State may have finally met its match. The Warriors and Kings were ranked first and second (respectively) in pace this season, but there were stretches in the series when Golden State seemed downright slow in comparison to Sacramento’s relentless pushing of pace. So often it was revealed that Mike Brown’s message to his team at the half — any half — was to “play faster”, and the Kings responded by finding another gear. Draymond Green looked frustrated, Steph Curry seemed gassed, Kevon Looney lost and Jordan Poole let all that speed get under his skin, whipping passes to no one and committing sloppy turnovers.
Where Sacramento played their most compelling basketball was where they controlled the pace and pushed the Warriors within it, making Golden State overextend to nab any offensive possession they could and capitalizing on the Dubs’ comfort zones — like their reluctance to get back in transition (Curry tends to act as an equalizer) and initial lack of sharpness on the floor out of the gate.
It was when Sacramento started to flag that the staying power of playoff experience shone through for Golden State. Curry and Klay Thompson lend patience to Green, and younger players on the roster like Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole, and Steve Kerr is nothing if not a pragmatist, coaching in the moment and ready to put a bad play or missed call immediately behind him. Curry is a lot of things, but we can forget what a difference maker he is not only in his 3-point shooting, but his cutting speed and defensive reads. Where the Kings tried their best to bend time for the Warriors, Curry always knows exactly where he is in a game. He’s able to slow things down when the team needs it most.
It was reported that Curry led a players meeting before Game 7 — a rare thing in that it’s usually Green firing the locker room up. Curry said he was embarrassed by the way the Warriors let Game 6 slip and called his teammates out, alluding to complaints from younger players about their playoff minutes when he asked for everyone to commit equally, regardless of how much or little they’d be impacting the game directly. Without reading too much into it, it isn’t a stretch to think that the necessity Curry felt in addressing the team came from how close of a series it was, which bodes well for the Kings — they’ll be back here in no time, and with more experience.
The inverse of the Warriors is in the Lakers, specifically LeBron James. The Lakers themselves aren’t a team, as currently constructed, with all that much playoff experience combined. There were reasons to wonder if, as driven and convinced of themselves as the Grizzlies seemed, that experience would be enough to outlast Memphis. In the Lakers' decisive Game 6 win, we got just one more reason to never doubt James.
As the second round of the NBA playoff gets underway without the Kings and Grizzlies, with the “old guard” contenders of Golden State and the Lakers (specifically, James) advancing, it might seem like parity’s gone out of the postseason. Not so. The teams remaining in either conference are the perfect mix of challenger and defender.
The Knicks, Heat, Sixers and Celtics in the East, Nuggets and Suns in the West — these are the teams ready to prove parity in action along with (for all but the Knicks) necessary postseason experience is enough to turn the tables. While the Warriors and Lakers seem perfectly warmed-up and ready to send that new class packing, at least for one more season.