The defending champion Golden State Warriors are 8-10, outside the playoff picture nearly a quarter of the way through the 2022-23 NBA season, and their coach conceded they are “in the final stages” of a dynasty.
The Utah Jazz, who traded three of their best players during the offseason in an apparent effort to enter the Victor Wembanyama lottery sweepstakes, are 12-7, owners of the best record in the Western Conference.
A glance around the league reveals a bevy of surprises every night. The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Boston Celtics have lost just twice in regulation, both by double digits to the sub-.500 Chicago Bulls. The Sacramento Kings own the highest offensive rating in NBA history. The Indiana Pacers, preseason picks to finish dead last in the East, are riding a five-game winning streak. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a legitimate MVP candidate. The Washington Wizards lead the Southeast Division. A single loss separates the No. 1-seeded Jazz from the 10th and final play-in tournament spot in the West.
We are entrenched in an era of NBA parity. Eventually, the void will be filled by an undeniable superstar or super-team or both at once. How long it will take for someone to assume the reins of dominance remains a question, but we get to watch some of the most skilled athletes the game has ever seen try to grab them.
The NBA’s torch-bearing title favorites
Last season’s Phoenix Suns are the only team to win 60 games (or the equivalent in a shortened campaign) over the last two years. They narrowly escaped the first round of the playoffs against a 36-win New Orleans Pelicans team and lost in seven games to the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals.
The last time the NBA saw one 60-win team over a two-year stretch was the aftermath of Michael Jordan’s 1998 retirement from the Chicago Bulls. Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were establishing themselves as the league’s driving forces, and the trio ultimately divided 10 of the next 12 championships.
That era, which also saw all-time greats Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki win their lone titles, gave way to another dominated by LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. James reached nine NBA Finals in the 10 years after Bryant’s last ring, winning four of them. Curry’s Warriors emerged as a worthy challenger, added Durant, and turned the title into a foregone conclusion. Kawhi Leonard filled the gaps in between.
Thirty-one teams won 60 games (or the equivalent) from 2000-2020. Sixteen boasted some combination of Bryant, O’Neal, Duncan, Leonard, James, Curry and Durant, and eight of the remaining 15 teams lost to a team featuring one or more of those seven players. Exceptions were few and far between, including Nowitzki’s 2007 Mavericks, and only one of them — Garnett’s 2008 Celtics — won 60 games and a ring.
Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Milwaukee Bucks are one of those seven exceptions. They were 53-14, on pace to win 65 games, when the coronavirus pandemic halted the 2019-20 season. When they reconvened in the bubble, the Bucks lost to the fifth-seeded Miami Heat in the conference semifinals. Milwaukee won the title the following season, and they are one of two teams on pace to win 60 games in the early going this year.
All of that is an indication that Antetokounmpo, the 27-year-old two-time MVP and one-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the leading candidate to fill the void in a post-LeBron era. There were similarly obvious signs that O’Neal would be a torchbearer for the post-Jordan era. He had led the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers to 60-win seasons before breaking through for the first of his four rings at age 27 in 2000.
Similar indicators point to 24-year-old Jayson Tatum as another candidate for dominance of the NBA’s next era. His Celtics eliminated another one of the seven aforementioned exceptions, the 2020 Toronto Raptors (53-19, a 60-win pace in an 82-game season), reached last year’s Finals and are the other team on pace to win 60 games this season. He and Antetokounmpo are both among the leading MVP candidates right now.
You could make an argument that 26-year-old Devin Booker belongs in that conversation, too. His Suns made the 2021 Finals and won 64 games last season, when he joined Tatum and Antetokounmpo on the All-NBA first team. They currently trail the Jazz by half a game for first place in the Western Conference.
The last era of NBA parity looked nothing like this one
The Bucks and Celtics are clinging to a 60-win pace this season, and no other team is winning better than 65% of its games. It would not be surprising if every team falls short of the 60-win threshold for a second straight season in the variance of an era governed by load management and high-volume 3-point shooting.
If that happens, it would mark the first time the NBA went consecutive seasons without a 60-win team since the years before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered as rookies in 1979. Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers accounted for 12 of the 16 60-win seasons and eight of the 10 championships in the 1980s. Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers and Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons were responsible for three more 60-win campaigns and the two remaining titles in the decade. The 1981 Milwaukee Bucks, who lost a first-round playoff series to Erving’s Sixers, were the only team to win 60 games in the 1980s and never win a ring.
In other words, it hasn’t been all that hard to determine who will finish at the top of the regular season standings and who will be left standing at the end of each playoff run for the better part of four decades.
The late 1970s were a different story. As pioneering players Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson all retired between 1969 and 1974, they gave way to the NBA’s last true era of parity — watered down by the establishment of the ABA and the availability of cocaine. Champions were far from predictable. No team won 60 games for four straight seasons from 1975-79, when five different franchises won the title — the only time either of those occurrences has ever happened in the NBA’s 76-year history.
Rick Barry’s 48-win Golden State Warriors won the championship in 1975, and the 54-win Celtics squeezed one more title out of a fading dynasty in 1976. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the most dominant player of the decade, but his Lakers couldn’t win more than 53 regular season games and a single second-round playoff game until Magic’s arrival. Bill Walton led the 49-win Portland Trail Blazers to the 1978 championship and was poised to grab the reins of the league in 1979, only to break his foot as his team was on a 68-win pace. The Blazers stumbled, and the 52-win Seattle SuperSonics snuck in their title before the Magic/Bird era.
Filling the void in a post-LeBron era
With Golden State struggling out of the gate, the chances that the NBA will experience a fifth different champion in five years for the first time since the late 1970s have increased. Boston entered this season with the best odds of winning the title (+500, per BetMGM) and the worst of any preseason championship favorite since Sports Odds History began tracking the data in 1984, according to Basketball Reference.
Only, now the NBA is no longer facing financial ruin or airing the Finals on tape delay. Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron and Curry have elevated the game to historic heights. Gone are concerns about the ABA threat or rampant drug use, replaced by an influx of international talent and advancements in sports science. The skill level is deeper than ever before, and the talent at the top runs nearly 10 deep with MVP candidates.
Even the league’s bottom feeders are loaded for bear. The Detroit Pistons (3-15), Houston Rockets (3-14) and Orlando Magic (5-13) have some of the best young rosters in the NBA, and the 14th-place Lakers (5-10) feature future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The Charlotte Hornets (4-14) are in a free fall, but they will soon return LaMelo Ball, one of the game’s most exciting playmakers.
Anyone can beat anyone on any given night. The MVP and championship races are wide open. That the NBA has inched closer to “parity of opportunity” so soon after super-teams led by LeBron and Curry met in four straight Finals is a win for commissioner Adam Silver’s vision of competitive balance fueled by stars.
“Anybody running a league wants to see not necessarily in my mind parity on the floor every year but parity of opportunity,” Silver said in his annual media availability at the Finals in June. “You also want a system where the best players, the best-managed teams can also excel. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing unto itself if you have repeat teams in the Finals or champions, frankly, like the Golden State Warriors, who are back here in the Finals for the sixth time in eight years. We do, though, focus a lot on ensuring through a salary-cap system that teams have the same fair opportunity to compete, and that is something we’re always looking at as part of our system, something we are constantly talking to the players’ association about. That should be not just a concern shared by fans of all 30 teams but for all players in the league. All 450 players presumably want an equal chance to win championships and be part of championship teams.
“I’m pleased where we are. I’m thrilled with the teams that are here in the Finals,” added Silver. “But it’s something, at least in my time in the league, I think we have incrementally improved the system every time along the way so that we can have more and more top-tier teams and competition throughout the league.”
History tells us the pendulum will swing back to a singular force or a short list of them. Maybe recent NBA Finalists and MVPs Tatum, Booker, Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic seize the reins from LeBron, Curry and Leonard, each of whom may have won his final championship in recent years. Maybe Luka Doncic wins a handful of rings in the next decade. Or maybe this era of parity lasts longer than any other in league history.
Either way, we get to watch without feeling the outcome is inevitable, and what could be better than that.
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