Ten pressing questions about today’s (and tomorrow’s) NBA

1… Was the Toronto Raptors winning the title good for the league?

In a word, yes.  Just as Golden State three-peating would have been good for the league, introducing new blood is never a bad thing.  The league and its lengthy collection of critics engage in never-ending conversations about the greatest players to never win a championship.  It consumes the airwaves when there is nothing better to talk about.  For the longest time, title-holders like Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe, Duncan, and even LeBron and Steph Curry cast a huge shadow over the Finals not allowing others in the league to get theirs.  That’s no longer the case.  Change is good.  There’s nothing wrong with no longer having the conversation of the best players, i.e., Barkley, Ewing, Iverson, Stockton, Malone, Baylor, to go ringless.  The more players that win even a single championship helps gets that monkey off their backs and by that monkey, I’m referring specifically to the media and those pointless conversations.

2 … Who is the best player in the NBA?

In the 1980s, this was an easy answer.  It boiled down to two guys.  In the nineties, we narrowed it down to one.  Then, Kobe Bryant, arguably, took the baton and ultimately handed it to LeBron.  This is the first time in as long as I can remember where you can legitimately make a case for up to six players being the best in the league.  Now that Kawhi Leonard has won not only a title in his first year in Toronto but Finals MVP with two different teams, it’s hard to argue he’s not the best player in the league.  But if you’re drafting a team right now and you have LeBron, Curry, Giannis, James Harden, Anthony Davis and even Zion Williamson to choose from, is Kawhi the first player you’re taking?  If so, that’s okay.  I’d perfectly understand.  If not, that’s okay too.  If that’s the case, then…

3… Is Kawhi being the best player good for the league?

I’ll be the first to admit that seeing Chris Paul on TV every thirty second is roundly annoying.  LeBron James has made more headlines by producing his HBO Shop series and filming Space Jam 2 than he has on the court unless you include the drama he’s brought to L.A.  Even Steph Curry has become executive producer for some miniature golf series soon to air on ABC.  I am all for athletes using the league as a platform to further their careers.  Professional sports are a tough racket.  Players in multiple leagues going down like flies should tell you the sacrifices these athletes make.  Sure, they make enough to feed their families’ families but does it preclude them the opportunity to walk without a limp in their forties?  Kawhi Leonard is sports’ least marketable superstar; he simply cannot be bothered.  The man barely says a word.   He is today’s NBA anomaly.  He won’t be guest-starring in your favorite sitcom and most certainly won’t be pimping your latest brand of aerosol.  The man simply wants to play basketball and be left alone.  Would it surprise you if you heard that hours after winning an NBA championship, he was not out clubbing but rather at home in bed curled up with a good book?  The NBA knows how to market itself through good and bad.  There’s nothing wrong with the league’s marquis player being a shut-in.  Tim Duncan was for years and it worked out pretty well for him.  Ultimately, we judge players by championships won and not by commercials aired.  And ultimately, the only one who can judge Kawhi Leonard is himself.

4… Playing Time

This year, Kawhi Leonard played in 60 games.  There are 82 games in an NBA season.  By most published accounts, the main reason Kawhi left San Antonio is that the organization didn’t believe he was injured when he claimed to be.  By most accounts, the main reason Toronto won these Finals is that they were healthier.  Much of that included luck.  Much more of that included a relatively-rested Kawhi Leonard.  The Golden State Warriors had played five straight seasons of 100+ games.  They ran into debilitating injuries to Kevin Durant and ultimately Klay Thompson.  They were tired and far more prone to injury.  There’s no denying that fresh, or at least fresher, legs helped a far healthier (and again luckier) Toronto team to a title.  Much has been made about teams’ stars, the ones fans pay top dollar to see, sitting out regular season games.  Heck, if I drive to Orlando and pay a few hundred dollars to see the Toronto Raptors, I was to see Kawhi Leonard and I could care less whether the Raptors feel they can with that game without him.  The argument against resting stars will be much tougher to counter when a man who played in only 75% of his team’s games finished the season healthy and with a championship.  I’m not sure shortening the regular season is on the league’s radar but it’s an issue that most certainly will be addressed, as will teams giving their superstars a well-needed night off.

5… Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Nets

This is the summer of the free agency’s content.  Headlines about who signs where will dominate the airwaves.  Heck, they already have.  Kyrie, Durant, AD, Kawhi are only a handful of players that will once again tilt the league’s balance of power for better or for worse.  It will take some shrewd GMing to build a team the way Toronto built theirs.  To be fair, Toronto was never that far away from a title, having fared pretty well in the Eastern Conference the past few years but key acquisitions finally pushed them over the edge.  We can argue about how close, or more likely how far, the four teams in the country’s two largest markets are from winning a championship and what that will take.  I’ve heard rumors that Kyrie Irving could end up on all four of the aforementioned teams.  But piecing these teams into contenders will take more than a single superstar.  Just ask LeBron.  Contending will depend on luck, skill, chemistry and perhaps even a little… collusion.

6… Speaking of Tampering and Collusion

This season, ESPN asked Doc Rivers onto the set of one of their broadcasts to offer up some insight.  A former analyst, Doc has always been a great soundbite.  The man knows the game of basketball.  When asked whether Kawhi was the closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan, Rivers complimented the player Leonard has become.  Rivers, the current coach of the Clippers, a team that’s been rumored to be recruiting Kawhi, was subsequently fined $25,000 for his comments.  Magic Johnson resigned from his position as Lakers consiglieri in part because he felt he was backstabbed by people within the organization but also because he still wanted to openly comment about the players in today’s game without being accused of tampering.  The league is a brotherhood among those who have played it in the past and those who still play it today.  If collusion was such a big deal, Toronto wouldn’t be holding up a trophy and the Knicks and Lakers would be perennial champions.  Instead, LeBron missed the playoffs, Golden State finished in second place and the Knicks continue to suck.  Adam Silver has continued to rule with the iron fist his predecessor handed him.  Fans may resent super teams but this post-season and others before it proved that nothing is guaranteed.  LeBron fled to Miami but only won two of four possible championships.  Kevin Durant went to Golden State and ultimately lost to Toronto.  In a salary-capped league, despite players befriending one another and front office people talking about others, there are still rules that don’t necessarily need to be enforced so empathically.  It’s unlikely that the league eases its stance on collusion and tampering but rest assured it will still happen behind closed doors and there is little the league can do to prevent it.

7…. Will Nick Nurse’s success in Toronto open the door for other coaches we’ve never heard of before?

Absolutely!  This is also a good thing.  Make no bones about it.  Nick Nurse is no newbie.  He’s 51 years old and while not a household name before the season started, he is now.  The guy coached in college, Europe, the D-League and ultimately the NBA where he now wears some pretty exclusive jewelry.  He’s got to be pretty happy for paying those dues.  His hire was controversial.  Last year, when the Raptors let go of Dwayne Casey after a successful regular season yet unsuccessful playoffs, people wondered what the hell they were doing.  Who the hell is this Nurse character and can he stop the bleeding?  They’re wondering that no more.  The NBA has made great strides in no longer re-hiring retreads and giving other well-deserving individuals opportunities.  At the end of every season, only one head coach can call himself an NBA champion.  Nurse’s path to that blessing will inevitably lead other franchises on their search to find the right man, or woman, for the job.  Toronto did their due diligence in finding Nurse.  We’ll see how many other franchises can follow suit.

8… Is defense a lost art in the NBA?

Lost in all the hoopla of the Raptors winning their championship is a) how they were the ones to finally stop Golden State’s offense and b) how Golden State was unable to stop theirs.  Over/Under totals in today’s NBA far exceeded that of previous years.  Scoring is up; defense is non-existent.  Gone are the bruising forearm shivers of the Knicks, Bulls and Pistons.  Such physicality is no longer allowed.  What is allowed, however, is strategic game-planning to force opponents into bad shots.  Golden State has redefined the modern game from the perimeter, making fans question whether any ball that ever leaves Klay Thompson’s or Steph Curry’s hands is a bad shot.  For five years, they could rely on outscoring their opponents but this year’s defense against the Toronto Raptors was matadoric.  There were few moments in these Finals where Toronto was unable to get shots they wanted.  A team not known for its scoring was never held to less than 104 points.  Over the last five seasons, the Golden State Warriors brought into question the old mantra of defense winning championships.  This year, they proved that not playing defense definitely does not.

9… Is the Golden State dynasty done and where does this team rank all-time?

Far be it from me to question whether this team’s run is over.  Steph appears to be a Golden State, er Oakland lifer.  Klay Thompson will also likely be re-signed and they’d be little without their triple-double dirty work machine, Draymond Green.  Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles leaves a looming question mark but it’s quite likely he’ll have another, albeit shortened season in Golden State.  That means that this team could vie for another title next year.  I was ready to crown this team an all-time great, with a fourth title in five seasons, putting them among the top-five all-time teams ever assembled, along with the 60s Celtics, the 80s Lakers and Celtics and the 90s Bulls.  Three titles in five years, however, is a little different.  This team didn’t three-peat, which Kobe’s and Shaq’s Lakers did.  There’s also Tim Duncan’s Spurs, Hakeem’s Rockets and Isiah’s Pistons to name only a recent few.  I can say with the utmost confidence that, health permitting, we have not seen the last of Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors.  If this year proved anything, however, it’s that winning an NBA championship is never easy.  It never has been and it never will be.  A continued run will ultimately determine how this team is remembered.

10… Can Kevin Durant again?

It’s hard to imagine an NBA where Kevin Durant is not dropping 35 points a game.  But Achilles tears can require up to a full year to recuperate.  If these playoffs taught us anything, it’s that these injuries are those athletes don’t want to hurry back from.  That means Kevin Durant could be pushing 32 years old before he scores his next NBA basket.  While that’s not ancient, his lanky body already carries a lot of NBA miles.  Durant is one of the league’s most polarizing figures.  He is also one of its most special talents.  Regardless of where he suits up next, we can’t help but assume that Kevin Durant has some unfinished business, whether that’s winning another title in Golden State or proving he can win somewhere else.  Whichever of those two occurs, it’s just unfortunate that it will be a while before we see it.