David vs David – The Fall of the NBA’s Giants
The NBA Championship Finals tipped off this week, but with neither of the tournament favourites competing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Calum Muldoon investigates why neither the LA Lakers nor the Brooklyn Nets made it this far.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns went head-to-head in the first game of the NBA Finals series, as they embark on a journey to decide who will take home the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Both franchises have been building towards this shot at the title for many years, boasting some of the finest talent in the sport between their rosters – the fact that not one of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul or Devin Booker is in possession of a championship ring is astounding.
However, while these teams deserve their chance at basketball’s top prize, there can me an argument made that neither team should have been there at all this season. At the beginning of the NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets were earmarked as championship favourites, but inconsistency and fluctuating performance levels have plagued both teams. It was all set up for a cataclysmic battle: LeBron James and his loyal Lakers would take on the NBA’s version of The Avengers, with Steve Nash and Sean Marks assembling an all-star cast to end LeBron’s reign over basketball.
However, the Lakers crashed out to the Suns in a first round upset, while the Nets were simply outplayed by the Bucks in the conference semi-finals. But what caused this collapse? It seemed meant to be and yet neither even made it to their respective conference finals. Maybe it was expectation itself that killed these giants.
Think about the greats of basketball. Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal probably spring to mind and while envisioning these players, I can imagine you saw all of them wearing a Lakers jersey. Perhaps the most influential basketball team in history, on and off the court, it is hard to find a team in any sport that can rival the commercial success of the Lakers. They are up there with the New York Yankees and Manchester United in terms of value. When you throw a legend like LeBron James into that jersey, you increase that value significantly. But what happens when that valuable player does not maintain that value? Well, fans will split right down the middle; one half will say he is a fraud, while the other half will blame his team for his errors. Honestly, neither is right.
Basketball, funnily enough, is a team game. While players can take the wrap for errors in a match, you cannot blame an entire team to protect one player. Yes, the team was poor but so was LeBron for his astronomically high standards. In the first-round matchup with the Suns, LeBron averaged 23.3 points in the series, his fourth-lowest scoring output for a series in his career and his lowest amount since averaging 22.8 in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals. While this is still rather good, it is clear that something was stopping one of the greatest players in the history of the game from reaching his usual peak of excellence and that will be the expectation. The Lakers took home the title in the previous season, and they did not look like they were about to slow down. With the likes of LeBron and Anthony Davis working together in the same team, it is hard to see how anyone could stop this side from becoming the 13th side in history to win back-to-back NBA titles. That and the pressure on James to prove himself as the greatest player in history would surely be a lot to handle. With his right-hand man Anthony Davis being sidelined for 30 matches, it must have been a big blow to LeBron who knows as he gets older, he cannot carry a team as much as he used to be able to do. He needs that support from Davis and without it, he has to push himself harder than he normally has to do.
Being told by the media and fans you have the chance to go down as one of the greatest sides in history will provide an added pressure to LeBron and his teammates. Some sides have embraced that challenge, but the Lakers arguably are not in a place to do that. With players like Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schröder still not up to the standard required to properly back him up, you cannot place all that pressure on a side because they have LeBron. The man is 36. When his main partner is side-lined, you will see him perform worse than you would expect. He is still a great player, but he and the rest of the team need to be given a break and let them approach those standards the way they want to.
The Nets should have walked the rest of the league after the Lakers were eliminated and that is a fact. With Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving on your side it is hard to excuse a poor performance. But maybe that is why they lost. Being told you are the only side to stop the Lakers will be a big thing weighing on those players’ minds. The Lakers and the Nets suffered the same problem and that is why neither could go the distance.
When the Nets formed their super team, people on the east coast got excited. Finally, a side good enough to take on the best. While they looked good throughout the regular season, ending it with a 48-24 record, the Nets did not work together as well as people initially thought. With a side like that, you would expect domination across the board. Any loss would have an impact on their mindset. Why did they lose? They are meant to be a super team! When it came down to the playoffs, you could see cracks beginning to appear and it all came tumbling down when the Bucks beat them in seven in a thrilling semi-final matchup that saw the final game go into overtime.
Will the Nets come back from this? Definitely. Look at their roster. What they need to work on is using these elite players and seeing which attributes work cohesively. It is all fine and dandy to have a side of some of the best players in the league – you will get pretty far – but what makes you a champion is the chemistry. Look at past teams, in particular, the greatest side to play the game, the 90s Chicago Bulls. You could see the chemistry on the court when they played. They did not play to end the success of one team. They played to achieve glory for themselves. Their attitude and resilience was on display every game. Sure, they were all incredible players in their own right but they were not signed purely based on reputation, but for how well they could work with the current squad. The Nets will probably bounce back quicker than the Lakers, but they have to work on their chemistry and not just see retiring LeBron as their one objective.
This will probably be one of the better NBA Finals in the last few years. We have not seen two underdogs go head-to-head for a long time. Both sides massively deserve to be here, both dumping a tournament favourite out to get here. While this will be a great number of games, it does make you wonder what could have been. The narrative of LeBron taking on the NBA’s finest to win another championship ring to add to his collection, cementing himself as the best there ever was is compelling, sure, but that narrative caused the demise of not just the Lakers, but for the Nets too. With the end goal being focused on too much, both sides forgot that they have to play some other quality teams along the way, and it will be interesting to see if these sides will learn to block out the noise and do what they do best: win.