The Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets are engaged in a historic battle for the 2023 NBA Championship, complete with record-breaking performances and unlikely comebacks. in the thrill of the action, it’s easy to forget that a couple weeks ago, some observers were lamenting its advent. Denver isn’t a marquee franchise. Miami has no transcendent superstar. Experts feared that, lacking glitz, the series would flop. That didn’t sit well with all of our readers, which is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I hear people complaining about the Nuggets and Heat making it to the finals, saying its better for the NBA if the Lakers and Boston go. Do you believe this? If you do then why do we even play the games? Just let the Lakers make it every year.
This question was submitted before the Finals got underway, but I think it still applies. And hey, I’m enjoying this year’s series. It’s old school, with neither team taking guff from the other for long. Denver is more skilled and polished, but Miami is wiry and sneaky. It’s too bad the Heat don’t have more consistent shooting, or this might be a contest for the ages. But either way, just when you think one team has the momentum, the other finds a way to grab it. It reminds me a little of the Roddy Piper-Keith David fight scene from “They Live”. Trade haymakers until someone is out. That’s not a bad thing.
The teams in the series matter less than the quality of play. If the contest is good, the response will be too. From what I’ve heard, the ratings aren’t bad this year. I think the NBA is going to be ok even without the Lakers in the last round.
The concern has merit, though. It’s possible for championships to become less prominent in popular culture based on who owns them and how they switch hands. We haven’t lived in that world for a while, though. It’s not a major concern at that point.
Since we invoked Roddy Piper, let’s draw from the storytelling techniques of WWE Entertainment. They have a blank canvass on which to spin narratives, with the only goal to draw attention to their “sporting” event. If the NBA were going to script ideal series with perfect participants, WWE booking would be the pattern they’d draw on.
In the modern era, the two biggest wrestling booms have come during the reigns of marquee champions: Hulk Hogan in the 1980’s, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Those dominant figures filled two critical roles. They brought mainstream attention to the product and they established the value of the World Championship. Austin and Hogan battling to keep the belt against all odds—be it roaming giants or evil owners—made the gold worth having.
The effect has not been the same in eras where the championship has passed between relatively anonymous hands. One of the ways to devalue the title—as rival organization WCW discovered in the late 90’s—is to bounce it around like a ping pong ball. If it seems like just anyone can get the belt, the results look random and cheap, and so does the prize.
This exact effect played out in the 1970’s and 1980’s in the NBA. Eight different champions won NBA titles between 1970-1979. The Knicks and Celtics stood among them, but relatively obscure teams like the Bucks, Warriors, and Sonics (and yes, the Blazers) also grabbed the gold as it ricocheted across the league. There was no predicting who would get it next, or why. The public lost interest. By 1979, the NBA Finals were being broadcast on tape delay, late at night.
Resurgence came with David Stern taking over the role of league commissioner just as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rose to prominence with the Lakers and Celtics. Slick marketing of dynasties, led by archetypal players, brought the sport back to the popular consciousness.
Watching Larry and Magic fight for the trophy for the better part of a decade reestablished its value, not just for them, but for the teams who managed to wrest it from them. The 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons would likely be ranked with the 1970 and 1973 Knicks as relatively obscure champions had their back-to-backs not come on the heels of the titanic struggles between Boston and L.A. Instead those Pistons are regarded as a powerhouse. The Chicago Bulls winning a half-dozen titles right after them cemented the impression.
The championship trophy holds prestige and value to this day because it’s the same one Magic, Larry, and Michael battled for. That wouldn’t have happened without those dynasties.
The NBA needed that phenomenon the same way the WWE needed their Hogan and Austin eras. Those differentiated them from all the other wrestling promotions with equal, maybe even superior, talent who couldn’t get people to invest in their product or their title belt in the same way.
Once that value has been established, though, the value of the ongoing dynasty is limited. It can even be counterproductive. Hogan retaining the belt against Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3 in 1987 send shockwaves throughout the world. Him regaining it in 1993 (having held it for the majority of the interim) was like a pile of soggy mashed potatoes hitting a hi-hat cymbal. Dominant figures may establish a title’s worth, but if they’re the only ones who get to hold onto the gold, the value doesn’t translate to anyone beyond themselves.
If you lived through the Steve Austin era, chances are you regard The Rock, Mankind, the Undertaker, and Kurt Angle just as fondly as the Texas Rattlesnake. Once Austin shined up the belt, watching his competitors vie skillfully and passionately for it became more than half the fun. You might not even remember clearly the different occasions Stone Cold won his championships, but I bet you recall exactly when Mankind did.
Teams like Miami and Denver have the same attraction. This series is generating more excitement than the Lakers would if they were participating in their 15th Finals in a row. It’s good for LA and Boston to pop up now and again as a callback to the marquee dynasties. It’s not necessary for them to be there every year, nor is it detrimental for other teams to be. If the basketball is good, the thrill of the contest will spin enough momentum forward from the glory days to keep the train moving.
For this reason, I don’t believe the NBA “needs” Los Angeles, New York, or Boston to advance if they don’t earn it naturally. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there might have been an argument for it. Now, it doesn’t hold.
If the title bounces around to 16 teams over the next 20 years, we may need the next NBA equivalent of the Hulkster or Stone Cold wearing purple and gold. Until then, just root for the best games possible and the rest should take care of itself.
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