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What the 2020/21 NBA season tells us about 2021/22

The NBA just finished a fun but atypical season. Will the parity and non-glamour market dominance carry over to 2021/22? The PtR staff discusses.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Did you watch the Finals? Did the fact that the finalists were two non-glamour markets that didn’t have high-profile stars affect your enjoyment in any way?

Marilyn Dubinski: Even though I’m no Suns fan, the Bucks were the team I wanted to see win it all, so my enjoyment wasn’t hampered at all in that regard. And, despite my dislike for the Suns, I was also happy to see two small market, non-superteams “stick it to the man”, for lack of a better term, and show that all the star players in the league don’t have to flock to the big markets and team up to win championships. Maybe that’s just my bias for small markets leaking through, but if the league or big market fans didn’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

Mark Barrington: I think the question is flawed, there’s no way that you could say that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker aren’t high-profile stars. They might be unappreciated by casual fans, but Giannis for sure has been a top player in the league for the last several years. This was the most enjoyable finals in years, and part of the enjoyment was the emergence of new stars and the closeness of the series until the Bucks took over in the final two games. The only way it could have been better for me would have been if the Suns had extended it to a game 7.

Bruno Passos: There’s something cool about the Finals showcasing two non-glamour markets but that has little bearing on my actual enjoyment in-game and night to night. More than anything it was the competitiveness of the series, the various narratives up for grabs (Chris Paul’s first time there, the Bucks getting over the hump, Coach Bud walking a razor’s edge with that perpetual look of William H. Macyan bemusement, etc.). Nets-Lakers would’ve been a blast if both teams made it through in decent health but I’m perfectly happy with the product the NBA put out in the end.

Jesus Gomez: I really enjoyed the Finals. I think there were some concerns about a lack of familiar story lines, the ones that are normally pushed by the league and the big networks, but there were some interesting narratives to get invested on. I think Giannis and Coach Bud proving the doubters wrong was great, and I had someone to root against in Chris Paul. More importantly, the basketball was fantastic. In general I think these Finals proved that the league doesn’t need LeBron or Steph or any of the big names for fans to enjoy themselves, which I was happy about.

J.R. Wilco: Involvement of a glamor markets has zero bearing on my enjoyment of any basketball series. I watch to enjoy exciting games, and that comes from individual talent, team style and how those styles clash — which leads to which team can impose their preferred way to play on the other, or whether a team can play outside its comfort zone and still excel. For these Finals, there was plenty of all that going on for me to have fun, and the team with the most Spurs ties brought it home. What’s not to like?

Do you expect next season to have parity or will superteams return to dominance?

Dubinski: I believe the the West will continue to have a level of parity that the East lacks, and the uncertain roster situations of the Lakers and Clippers (even beyond their aging stars) may leave room for the Suns to run it back, or another “small market” team like the Nuggets or Jazz could finally break through if their top players can stay healthy. As for the East, the superteam Nets still loom large if they can stay healthy, but there’s enough flaws for a team like the Bucks to exploit if they bring their A game.

Barrington: I think the Bucks proved that they are a great team, and I expect them to be even better next year if Giannis stays healthy. They are the super team in the East now.

In the West, LeBron looked old this year, and Anthony Davis looked fragile. If the Lakers are going to compete for a title next year, they are going to have to keep their stars in a glass case until the playoffs, and break the glass in the first round and hope they don’t step on the shards. I just don’t see it happening for them. The Suns could be back, but that’s dependent on Chris Paul returning. The Clippers are an enigma, because their best player is enigmatic. Kawhi Leonard will either save or destroy that franchise. and if he does the latter, I won’t cry as I watch it burn.

Passos: The offseason could change things quite a bit—the Lakers could finesse their way into a third superstar and who knows if the Nets find another upgrade or two through the bargain bin. If so, we could be looking at two prohibitive favorites heading into a season that will hopefully have fewer issues relating to COVID and the schedule crunch. As things stand now, I like the way the playing field feels, with the Bucks looking strong to defend their title and young teams like the Suns and Nuggets poised to give the Lakers trouble in the West.

Gomez: It’s tough to say. There should be parity, even if the Nets get healthy and add some role players and the Lakers or Clippers add a third star, because both conferences have some good teams. The two finalists plus the Nuggets, Jazz, 76ers and potentially the Celtics, if they land Bradley Beal, should be able to not only compete but potentially make the Finals. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brooklyn and whichever LA team has the best offseason simply dominate. Their stars will be rested and hungry and they will have at least a semblance of continuity on their side, which is scary.

Wilco: One of the reasons I enjoyed these playoffs so much is because I expect next season to revert back to the Lakers and Nets hogging the limelight. There’s just too much talent there to ignore. But if there’s a lesson to be learned by the Olympics, it’s that talent doesn’t immediately equal wins, so maybe we’ll get another playoff’s worth of surprises.

What was the moment or situation by which you’ll remember this past season?

Dubinski: My memories about a season will always be centered around the Spurs, and my tendency for seasons that don’t end with them on the top is to think about the “what ifs”. In that regard, I will always look back on this season and wonder what would have been if the COVID delay hadn’t have happened. The strength of schedule still would have been harder in the second half, but would five fewer games have kept the Spurs fresh enough to remain above the play-in and make the playoffs, where they were before it happened? They probably still would have been a first round team, maybe second round if all the cards fell right, but making the playoffs instead of missing it consecutively for the first time in franchise history would have given the immediate future a brighter outlook.

Barrington: I’m a Spurs fan first and foremost, but this year belonged to Giannis and his incredible performance in the playoffs, topped by coming off a seemingly season-ending injury in the conference finals to be the most dominating player in an NBA Finals since Jordan left the Bulls. I’m not going to say since MJ retired, because that would include a few forgettable years when he was with Washington. Giannis didn’t just earn the Bucks a championship, he redeemed a rough season for the league, which had a lot of problems related to the pandemic and suffered through games without fans for much of the season.

This was a transitional year for the Silver and Black, and their best memories [post-Duncan] are in the future. Hopefully, the near future. This season had some fun moments as the young players began to show flashes of entertaining and spectacular play, but the lack of consistency kept that from translating into wins.

Passos: I’ll name a few that come to mind on the Spurs’ side. LaMarcus Aldridge’s buyout and subsequent surprise retirement due to his heart issue. The Spurs’ suddenly sitting pretty at 22-16 having surpassed early expectations (including mine). Drew Eubanks making a three-pointer (he still hasn’t missed one as a Spur!). The Lonnie Walker Dunk. At least two game-cinching poke-aways by Dejounte Murray, the kind that refs often blow a whistle for but the fact they didn’t affirming the kind of respect Murray’s earned as a defender. Not a single one defined their season for me but definitely some high points upon reflection.

Gomez: This is the boring answer, but I think Giannis’ Game 6 domination was memorable. You can put it up there with the best performances in Finals history.

As for the Spurs, that play-in game was fun and showed that while the Silver and Black were not a playoff team this season, they weren’t far off, either. This iteration of the team didn’t have a high ceiling, but it did have a lot of resilience, and that’s commendable. When I remember this season, I think I will remember that a lot more vividly than their play.

Wilco: It all boils down to what might have been if Derrick White had been able to stay healthy. Not that San Antonio would have made a playoff run, but making them would have been nice since the team was built to compete and not tank. Missing the playoffs in that Treadmill of Mediocrity zone is bad, because (barring a big trade, or another draft steal like The Nephew, or players making The Leap) it usually means more of the same the next year.