Sports

The path to an NBA championship is increasingly volatile


They did set Brooklyn on fire.

They did set Brooklyn on fire.
Illustration: Getty Images

Neil Young gets credit for the line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” but Kurt Cobain made it infamous. That dichotomy stuck with me, and it’s impossible not to see it in sports.

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The Shaq O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers are one of the best examples of a team burning so fucking hot that there was no way it was going to play out like a San Antonio Spurs dynasty. The Heatles predicted seven titles, but the run, Dwyane Wade’s body, and Chris Bosh’s career were all spent in four years.

Credit to Golden State for being able to revert to their pre-Kevin Durant championship form, but the Warriors will never be as good or as interesting as they were with him. Those Michael Jordan Bulls teams were a shooting star, screaming across the night sky along the lines of The Beatles, Nirvana, Biggie, or Tupac. Jordan retired twice because sustaining that level of greatness is exhausting. Look at how tired Baby Yoda is any time he uses the Force.

The argument against this very important take that is certain to ruin your day is what about Tom Brady or Nick Saban and Alabama or those San Antonio Spurs? The consistency is what makes them great. However, I’d argue that the most entertaining version of the Patriots — the one with Randy Moss — didn’t last very long.

You can’t fade away in college football because of eligibility restrictions, but what was the most fun iteration of those Bama teams? I’d say the one with Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonota Smith, and Henry Ruggs. Tagovailoa won a national title his freshman year, and it looked like he was going to run off a couple more, but injuries caught up with him.

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the next cornerstone of the Spurs until he wasn’t. We thought the Clippers were going to saunter to a title when they got him and Paul George the way we thought the Nets were going to a season ago.

Brooklyn looked like an untamable inferno at the beginning of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, and they were extinguished faster than a load of lump charcoal when you’re trying to put a four-hour smoke on a few racks of ribs. (I was going to use the briquettes/lump charcoal analogy to start the column, but not everyone is aware that lump charcoal burns hotter and faster, and briquettes burn lower and slower. See? You learn something every day, and you didn’t even have to piss off your girlfriend because dinner wasn’t ready until 9 p.m. to figure it out.)

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Durant was a big toe away from knocking off the eventual champs, and now they’re 30-27, facing a play-in game, and a first-round series with Miami or Chicago… if they make it. The team with James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Durant won more games in NBA 2K than it did in real life. I’m not comparing them to squads that won titles; I’m comparing them to examples of ungodly collections of talent that went off like a Fourth of July fireworks finale, with onlookers saying, “This is great, but it can’t possibly keep going.”

Ben Simmons is really good, but Steve Nash and Co. will have to implement him into the offense. That brief stretch when Harden, Irving, and Durant were all taking turns on the court at the Barclays Center like it was Rucker Park isn’t going to happen with Simmons because you can double and sag off him. Whenever Durant gets back, the spacing is not going to be as open as it was when Harden was one of his spot-up outlets. Also, they may not even reach their full potential because Irving’s availability issues and Durant’s health are bigger liabilities than Simmons’ jump shot.

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The modern concept of a super team — a bunch of All-Stars joining together via trade or free agency — can win titles, but we have yet to see one sustain the test of time. Organizational stability is now secondary. You must risk everything to compete for a title because the majority of contenders are in win-now mode.

The first version of this, the one that led LeBron to take his talents to South Beach, only won one championship. Even though James didn’t wait until the twilight of his career to combine forces, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen proved a title can be had if you have the right players. They also proved that injuries, personalities, and increased competition/spotlight can end a run short of the expectations that came with it.

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James and Anthony Davis took the Bubble title, and a few years later they’re five games below .500 and facing a couple play-in games. It seems like if you want to be good enough to attain dynasty status in this highly competitive age of the NBA, you have to be prepared to burn through your resources, players, and personnel.

Occasionally, it pays off — Toronto, the KD Warriors, and Bubble Lakers all scorched the league. If it doesn’t, you have situations like the Nets, the Leonard-George Clippers, and the Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook-Harden Rockets.

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The Bucks spent a ton to acquire Jrue Holiday, and they still needed luck to advance. Phoenix must cash in this year, because Deandre Ayton is going to cash in elsewhere when he becomes a free agent. The only option in this era of the NBA is to cook with Neapolitan pizza levels of heat.

So, good luck to the few remaining organizations trying to be successful while not embracing the flames, because if you’re not one of the teams playing with fire, chances are you’re fading away.

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