The 2017-18 regular season wasn’t supposed to be exciting. It was supposed to be an exercise in boredom, 82 games devoid of drama, everything academic, especially by April.
But even in this window of certainty in the NBA–where Cleveland and Golden State have faced off in the Finals in three consecutive seasons–the regular season has been the wild card.
A wild card dealt to both contenders, with the Cavaliers navigating through a mid-season identity crisis thanks to the unyielding shoulders of 15-year veteran LeBron James, and the Warriors limping to the finish line, almost literally.
The result of it all is that the result of it all is no longer such a sure thing.
In the Western Conference, even considering the 65 wins by the Houston Rockets, the physical toll of another regular season may be Golden State’s biggest obstacle after all. After winning 11 out of 12 playoff series in the last 3 seasons, the Warriors’ core of Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green have all missed time with injuries in 2017-18.
None is more crucial than Curry. His absences have spotlighted the fact that Steph is undoubtedly Golden State’s biggest difference-maker. His superteammates–Green, Thompson and Durant–all perform better with Curry on the floor. He runs the offense, controls the pace, and stretches the defense further than any player in NBA history.
But Curry has had trouble shaking off a first-half ankle sprain, and now is out with a knee injury, certain to miss the first round of the postseason. Warriors fans may be looking to the second round and Curry’s return, but teams in the West are hungry, and with the wrong matchup in the first round, there is an underappreciated chance that they may not see Steph until next season.
A deep playoff run is hard work, requiring an incredible amount of stamina, focus, perseverance, and tough-mindedness that has to be dug for. After making that run to the Finals three years in a row, winning two championships, will the Warriors still want to dig deep for it after struggling so mightily to make it through 82 games?
A situation has been created in the West, with the injuries and subsequent shakiness of the Golden State Warriors, where it seems that the sea is parting for the Houston Rockets. James Harden resembles Moses without the staff, now can he lead his people to the promised land?
Across the aisle, LeBron’s quest for an eighth straight run through the Eastern Conference is also in doubt.
And for Cleveland, the turbulence has been multi-faceted. A near-complete degradation of team chemistry led to a trade-deadline makeover that has LeBron surrounded by a new set of teammates.
The new team was forced to gel on the fly and with LeBron’s favorite teammate, Kevin Love, sidelined with a hand injury. Coach Tyronn Lue even missed time due to illness.
At the start of the season, the Celtics were assumed to be Cleveland’s most worthy opponent, but that was because they led by King James’s most worthy opponent, Kyrie Irving. Without Irving, the Celtics inspire far less confidence, and a first round series between Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks may be a toss-up.
And 82 games has been long enough for confidence to swell in teams brimming with young talent. The Philadelphia 76ers, led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, have hit a stride late and have rocketed to the third spot in the Eastern Conference, behind only Toronto and Boston, and just ahead of LeBron and the Cavs.
But is Philadelphia really a threat? Regardless of the answer, the 76ers’ ascent is not by mistake. It is the result of a peculiar NBA process that began by losing as many games as possible and is reaching fruition before our eyes. Simmons and Embiid are generational talents who have a profound effect on the entire game when they’re on the floor.
But in the NBA Playoffs, to be the best is more complicated than just showing up hot. You must always lose before you can win. The Bad Boy Pistons couldn’t get past the Celtics, until finally they could. Then, Jordan’s Bulls couldn’t beat those Pistons, until they could. Even LeBron lost to the Celtics, and the Spurs, before getting the better of both teams.
The Sixers aren’t going anywhere, but before they can win it all, they have to lose.
And if they are the 3rd seed and Cleveland 4th, the collision course would be set for the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now that the season is finally over, and now that Russell Westbrook has bested his 2016-17 MVP season by averaging a triple-double again, this time doing so under-the-radar, one question remains.
Does 2017-18 have any surprises left?