The 71st NBA season started just last week, but most of the league’s followers already feel pretty confident about how it will end. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have met in the last two Finals matchups, and judging by everything from advertising campaigns to betting odds to preseason rankings, a third installment seems a mortal lock. The Cavaliers still have LeBron James, whose teams have reached the championship round six years in a row, and the Warriors added the superstar forward Kevin Durant to a team that won a record 73 games last season. In his season preview piece, ESPN’s Zach Lowe summed up the prevalent thinking: “We’ve never seen an NBA Finals trilogy, but as things stand today, any other outcome would be shocking.”
The seven months between now and the Finals, then, take on the air of a drawn-out prologue. Twenty-eight other teams may make modest gains and mount little charges in the standings, but reasonable observers will see through the distractions. With James stringing passes to all corners of the court and tearing to the rim for dunks, Cleveland will almost certainly emerge from the Eastern Conference, and with Stephen Curry tossing in audacious three-pointers and Durant applying his own scoring prowess, Golden State will do the same from the West. Those who prefer their high-level basketball with a dash of doubt have two options: Convince themselves a hiccup from the Cavs or Warriors in November matters, or wait for the championship in June.
This top-heavy state has prompted some concern. Segments dedicated to the NBA’s competitive imbalance have become staples of sports-talk television shows, and after Durant’s signing in Golden State, the commissioner Adam Silver weighed in, saying, “I don’t think having two ‘superteams’ is good for the league,” and suggesting that future bargaining agreements may be designed to prevent such teams from forming. For the near future, though, the age of the superteam holds, presenting fans with a challenge. Why, and how, do you follow a season-long story when you know the final chapter?
For starters, you cherish the twists, even if they might ultimately prove inconsequential. Last Tuesday’s opening slate of games held to protocol at first, with the Cavs collecting their championship rings and then rolling over the New York Knicks, but a showdown between the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs held some surprises later in the evening. In front of their rejoicing home fans, the Warriors started sluggishly and wore down as the game went on, eventually losing by 29. Durant and Curry played up to their standards, combining for 53 points, but the veteran Spurs bothered the rest of Golden State’s stars on defense and outworked them for rebounds, and the opener in Oakland ended up a dud.
It was a small stumble, by definition—one loss in an 82-game schedule—but in a modern sports-media landscape that runs on crisis, no problem is too minor to go remarked on. “I’m sure the story tomorrow will be, ‘[Durant] broke up the chemistry and we can’t win with KD,’” the Warriors forward Draymond Green predicted after the loss, and the real responses ranged from superteam schadenfreude to analytical deep dives. “So, The Warriors Got Their Asses Kicked,” read the headline of one delighted Deadspin recap, while The Ringer declared, “The Warriors Have 81 Games to Address Their Achilles’ Heel.” Both articles proposed well-considered causes for the ignominious opener, but each also seemed inspired by the fan’s fundamental thirst for drama. The conclusion of the latter—“An NBA season that was supposed to be a coronation from the very beginning just got a lot more interesting”—seemed more of a wish than anything, quietly tempered by a phrase a few sentences earlier: “It’s easy to overstate things.”
Overstating, after all, is one way fans have of getting by when the ultimate outcome seems a matter of course. No team will be perfect, and so imperfections are seized upon as evidence that things might not be as set as they seem. It’s an old and well-honed drill, applicable to everything from an early-season upset loss to reports of tension within the locker room. In this way, the year is presented as a series of vital challenges, instead of a long wait for a probable ending.
There’s another, less practiced method of dealing with championship predictability: Don’t focus so much on the championship. The major American leagues tend to share a “title or bust” ethos—ask the four-time Super Bowl loser Buffalo Bills or all the teams that lost to Michael Jordan in the Finals how beloved they are for falling short—but other sports in the U.S. and abroad have discovered the appeal of celebrating various tiered accomplishments. Teams incapable of championship contention in college football can still challenge for conference titles, and those unable to do that can win regional rivalry games; depending on circumstances, either of those can render a season an absolute success. European soccer clubs, meanwhile, have all manner of major and minor ambitions to pursue: In domestic leagues, the international Champions League, various scattered short tournaments, and nicknamed games against certain hated opponents.
The NBA has no tradition of celebrating non-champions in any official capacity, but the league’s current climate may make doing so unofficially a matter of course. The divide between the haves (Golden State and Cleveland) and the have-nots (everyone else) is so clearly marked as to create, in essence, separate realms of competition. While the Warriors and Cavs wait for their eventual matchup, more subtly intriguing squads fill a vast lower tier. The Los Angeles Clippers—who feature a Mozart of a point guard in Chris Paul and a cannonball of a power forward in Blake Griffin but who have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs due to ill-timed injuries and occasional infighting—have a chance to secure the second-best record in the Western Conference and reach the Conference Finals for the first time, where a loss to the Warriors would still have to be considered a sort of victory. The Boston Celtics, unique among the NBA’s better teams in their relative lack of star power, could continue their bit-by-bit climb and meet the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, and could feel the same sort of pride at the accomplishment. Neither team has much chance at winning the ultimate prize, but in a league with the odds this stacked, losing well is almost as good.
There’s a refreshingly everyday appeal to this, a sense of the artificial world of pro sports more closely mirroring the tamer victories of regular life. The explosive guard left behind to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder on his own after Durant’s departure, Russell Westbrook, won’t have a shot at a championship this year, but he will have four chances at some measure of payback when the Thunder and Warriors meet. Winning one or two of those games wouldn’t make the year end any differently but it would surely feel great, to Westbrook and Oklahoma City fans alike. The young Detroit Pistons, who played the Cavs close in every game of a sweep in the first round of last year’s playoffs, have no chance at closing the gap between the teams, but they might register a win or two in this year’s go-round, making the defending champions work for it a little.
Come summer, the main story of the 2016-17 season will be written during a seven-game Finals series, most likely involving Cleveland and Golden State. Between now and then, though, a more enduring legacy could emerge. While the two best teams wait out the technicality of the regular season, basketball fans have a chance to gain new appreciation for smaller accomplishments, all the more admirable for not producing trophies.