Since the 2015–2016 season in the NBA, when the Golden State Warriors — the reigning champions — passed Michael Jordan’s 1995–1996 Chicago Bulls for a seemingly unbreakable record of 73 wins and nine losses in a single season, the NBA regular season has largely been considered boring and predictable. While finals duels between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are always entertaining, fans of the league often prefer following player’s Instagram accounts or pre-game outfits during the regular season, and then only tune in for LeBron James’ yearly championship cameo. However, if this past regular season has proven anything, it’s that the Warriors and Cavaliers matchup we’ve grown accustomed to isn’t going to last much longer.
First and foremost, the Warriors and Cavaliers didn’t even come in first place in their conferences this year. In the Western Conference, the Houston Rocket’s James Harden not only did enough to earn the MVP award, which he will undoubtedly receive on June 25, but also led his team to an NBA-best 65–17 record. While the Warriors — who ended up in second place — battled injuries throughout a large part of the year between Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, they still finished seven games behind Harden’s Rockets. The Rockets have a history of floundering in the playoffs, especially against the Warriors, but this year, with another season under his belt and superstar point guard Chris Paul joining him in the back court, Harden may have enough to take the conference.
Although the Western Conference has been a two-team race, there have been several teams at the heels of the Warriors and Rockets that can only get better. The Utah Jazz, led by rookie Donovan Mitchell and potential Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, were expected to fold after their star player Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics last offseason, but they finished fifth in the stacked conference. In fact, just one game separated them and third-place Portland Trailblazers, whose star, Damian Lillard, has been one of the best players in the league this year. With Anthony Davis leading the New Orleans Pelicans to the sixth seed without DeMarcus Cousins, and the Oklahoma City Thunder having a full season of reigning MVP Russell Westbrook gelling with superstars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the West is full of teams just one or two pieces away from taking the top spot next season.
In the Eastern Conference, James has made it clear several times over his 15-year career that seeding isn’t important to him, and in all fairness, it shouldn’t be. As the all-time postseason scoring leader, James’ legendary playoff performances, including eight finals appearances and three victories, speak for themselves. Even this year, when his team underwent a complete midseason roster overhaul, his game has been strong enough to make his team a perennial threat. If anything, this has been his best year yet, as he set his career records in both rebounds and assists.
Cleveland fans shouldn’t be worried about the Cavaliers’ fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference this year, but it is definitely a sign of things to come. Finishing ahead of them were the first-place Toronto Raptors, whose stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have finally matured into legitimate threats.
The Celtics are sure to pose a threat next season, as they locked up the second seed without their two best players. Kyrie Irving missed most of the end of the year with knee injuries, and Hayward — who broke his ankle in the season-opener — did not even play a full game. Despite this, second-year Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum didn’t just keep the team afloat, but allowed them to thrive. While the 76ers don’t quite have a player like Irving, they are also a team full of young stars in the making. Whenver Joel Embiid, the electrifying second-year center who missed his first two full years to injury, is healthy, the 76ers instantly become a contender. However, even when he went down with an eye injury in the final month this season, the 76ers were able to finish on a sixteen-game winning streak in which they beat top teams like the Cavaliers and clinched the third seed. During this stretch, Ben Simmons, their 6’10” point guard who is a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year, averaged a triple-double. In just his first year in the league, he has drawn comparisons to the likes of James and Magic Johnson, and is sure to be one of the league’s premier talents for years to come.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the fourth-year forward who finds himself playing all five positions for the Milwaukee Bucks, earned the moniker “The Greek Freak” with his preternatural abilities on all areas of the floor. While the Bucks haven’t been able to surround him with enough great players, at 23 years old, he will likely be battling Simmons and Irving for the Eastern Conference soon enough. Also rounding out the conference are likely Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers, who shocked everyone by locking up the fifth seed despite trading away Paul George this summer. In other words, the Eastern Conference isn’t the cake-walk it once was, and James won’t have such an easy path to the finals in years to come.
The NBA has always taken on WWE tactics to attract fans. While the MLB and NFL strive to have parity amongst all of their teams, the NBA’s appeal has always been rooted in its superstars. Between 30-foot three point shots, reverse slam dunks, and some of the best Twitter beefs in the sports world, the NBA is a big-personality league. Over the course of an 82-game season, the league has had to rely on these qualities a bit too much in the past four years. But with so many young players on the verge of dominating the league, the next regular season might just be exciting again.