PHOENIX — Adam Silver said about 6,200 words in his annual state-of-the-league news conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Here’s one that stood out: Parity.
The NBA commissioner was a more-than-keen observer on Tuesday night, watching the Phoenix Suns win their first finals game in 28 years and the Milwaukee Bucks lose their first finals game in 47 years. The teams combined to use 19 players in the game; 18 were making their finals debuts. It was something new and different, for certain.
Silver says that’s a great thing.
“I see this as, hopefully, the end of a transition for the league,” Silver said. “Not just post-COVID, but just by virtue of the teams that we saw in the conference finals, a real transition in terms of the league of the up-and-coming new stars, up-and-coming franchises, more parity throughout the league.”
Phoenix vs. Milwaukee. This isn’t New York vs. Los Angeles, a marketing dream. It’s not Golden State, a team with an enormous global following. It’s not LeBron James, who has made going to the NBA Finals basically an annual event for the last decade.
But it looked like two teams that certainly belong in the NBA Finals. Phoenix was the second-best team in the NBA during the regular season. Milwaukee had to win a Game 7 in the second round to keep its season alive and no NBA team has had a better regular-season record over the last two, three or four seasons combined than the Bucks.
These aren’t slouches. They’re legit and are built to be legit for a few more years to come.
It might be time to start expecting new teams to start going deep in the NBA playoffs again.
Atlanta made the Eastern Conference finals with a roster relying heavily on guys still in their rookie contracts. Utah had the NBA’s best record this season and has its core locked up for years to come. James and the Los Angeles Lakers could very easily be great again next season and the Warriors expect to contend when Klay Thompson finally reunites with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, but it’s hardly a lock that the same old faces keep coming back to the finals.
“Again, it wouldn’t be true to the data to make too large a point around one season, particularly one that may have been — that was — so aberrational,” Silver said. “But I at least say that it looks like a very positive sign in terms of the competition we’re seeing around the league.”
There will be naysayers about this matchup, and they’ll have sound arguments to make once the television numbers come in. Neither city involved in these finals is a top-10 media market according to Nielsen; Phoenix is No. 11, Milwaukee No. 35, and that — combined with an NBA title series happening in July for the first time — means that ratings won’t be setting any records.
Give them time. Sure, Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have been big names for a while. Suns guard Devin Booker is now a full-fledged star. Phoenix center Deandre Ayton is on his way there, if he hasn’t arrived already. Bucks guards Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are part of the U.S. Olympic team that’s going to Japan later this month, along with Booker.
These aren’t no-names, longshots, guys who pulled off a series of miracles to get here.
These are the best teams in the NBA right now. They earned those crowns. Injuries absolutely played a role in derailing some other teams with legitimate chances of getting to the finals — Utah, the Lakers, Philadelphia, Brooklyn among them — but it’s not like the Suns and Bucks had an easy time or a free pass.
Let’s not forget that Paul hurt his shoulder, tested positive for COVID-19 and has an injured wrist, all of that happening during the playoffs. Antetokounmpo is playing through a hyperextended left knee that would almost certainly have him sidelined if this wasn’t the NBA Finals.
They proved their mettle all year. Proved it again in Game 1, too. The Suns won 118-105, but the lights weren’t too bright for either side.
Parity. Silver might be right. It seems like it has come to the NBA.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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