Where to begin….where to begin….where to begin….
I was in a bar just prior to Game 6. I wasn't there to watch the game. I was there with friends, and it just so happened that the game was on every TV in the place (which might soon count in the ratings, meaning that sports' ratings may soon get even higher and further dominate your televisions). The bartender, whom I didn't know, looked up at the TV while handing me the next round of drinks and said, "You know the Cavs will win this. The league wants a Game 7."
And that, in a nutshell, is the way today's NBA is viewed. In many ways, my job is done. People are seeing through this charade, yet....
It started when the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors led by MVP Steph Curry won a league-record 73 games this season. Four of the nine games they lost were to non-playoff teams, but they didn’t lose a home game until April 1st when the Boston Celtics handed the Warriors its eighth loss of the season.
Once the Warriors won their 73rd game, I knew one thing: there was no way the Warriors would repeat as champions. That’s right. I believed that. I tweeted it, and I responded to every fan who asked my opinion with that same answer: the Warriors would not win it all.
Why? My argument was consistently the same. It boiled down to the reason I never thought the Carolina Panthers would go undefeated or beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. By doing so, the argument of which team was the “best ever” would be over. The 72-win Chicago Bulls would no longer be the answer to that question; the 73-win Warriors would always be the response. The league didn’t want that, nor did the pundits. Both want that answer to remain open-ended because then there’s something to go after next season, and the season after that, and so on.
And now, after the ratings bonanza that was Game 7 of the Warriors-Cavaliers 2016 NBA Finals (the most watched NBA game in 20 years), I was proven correct.
But how’d we even get to a Game 7? How’d this record setting team fail? How did the Warriors manage to make a dramatic comeback themselves, rallying from being down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder (a series itself that begs being broken down given the epic fail of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), and then allow the Cleveland Cavaliers to do the same to them?
Perhaps the fix was in.
Game 1 and Game 2 were lopsided Warriors’ blow-outs, almost as expected. At home, Golden State beat LeBron James and Co. by 15 points and then by 33. Would the Warriors sweep? Was LeBron finished?
These two teams knew each other well. They played each other in last year’s Finals…with the Warriors winning it in six. In fact, at this point over the course of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, these two squads had faced off 10 times with the Warriors winning seven of those contests, including both regular season games in 2015-16 and now both playoff games.
Again, up to this point.
Then, back home for Game 3, the Cavs blew the Warriors out of the water, winning by 30. No sweep. At least five games now guaranteed. But after the Warriors rallied for Game 4 and won by 11, it appeared that going home—where the team was 78-4 over the last two (regular) seasons—Golden State was ready to be crowned NBA champions yet again.
One problem. The Warriors Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. Why? For hitting LeBron James in the groin during a bit of a tussle late in Game 4. This is about the best image of that event:
I saw this moment live. The two definitely had an MMA-like incident on the court. But for supposedly getting hit in the groin, "King Flop," I mean "King James" didn’t react. This is the same LeBron who routinely flops in regular season games and who, very late in Game 7, acted as if his wrist had snapped after a missed/blocked dunk, where he writhed on the floor then moments later got up to promptly sink the game clinching free throw, never to speak of the wrist again.
Another take-away from the Green’s groin punch on LeBron: television’s complete lack of pointing it out. The announcers never mentioned the low-blow. There was no repeated replays of the cheap shot. The entire event was blown over. Probably because there was no "event" to actually discuss.
Until Green was suspended. Then it was broken down like the Zapruder film, and it needed to be in order to see when/where the low-blow took place.
In reality, Green should’ve been suspended back in the OKC series for kicking Steven Adams in the groin late in Game 4. But he wasn’t. He was fined, not suspended, because, well, no one could really say. The sports world just trusted the NBA’s decision on the matter.
Yet when Green finally did get that one game suspension for the mystery shot on LeBron, it was all made sense. Suspending Green for Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals could’ve meant the premature end of the Warriors as they were down 3-1 to OKC. The league couldn’t afford to weaken the Warriors at that time. But now, leading 3-1 over the Cavs, it was the perfect moment to play that pocketed trump card.
Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy then came out and said what most people believed: the NBA’s suspension of Green was pure manipulation. (By the way, check out how one writer for Yahoo covered this. Talk about a biased media. Wow. It led to even more "think pieces" that basically deny any such "conspiracy" is possible). It was a sign that the league didn’t want this series to end in five games. They wanted a Game 6, and probably, a Game 7.
Sure enough, the near-impossible-to-beat-at-home Warriors, with the NBA title within easy reach, dropped Game 5 without NBA All-Defensive teamer Green. Without Green to contend with, the Cavs won by 15.
Green was back for Game 6, but center Andrew Bogut injured his knee and left the game (and was out for the remainder of the Finals) and Steph Curry couldn't last the entire contest either. Remarkably—shockingly—Curry fouled out. Seriously. The league MVP fouled out of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. When’s the last time that ever happened? Never mind Curry’s frustration at the final call which caused him to chuck his heavily-chewed up mouth guard at the son of one of the Cavs’ minority owners (which perhaps should've led to his own suspension). He freakin’ fouled out!
And then came the tweet.
There’s a couple of takeaways from Ayesha Curry’s tweet (which was quickly deleted, but not nearly quick enough in this day and age). One, she didn’t make a peep after her hubby won the title last year. No, “the fix is in” seems to usually be the cry of someone who feels as if they’ve been screwed (usually, the loser). But, two, this is the wife of the league’s MVP calling out the league for its open manipulation of its games. And not just any old regular season contest. This was a championship game.
And she had a reason to complain. In the Warriors three Finals wins, Curry averaged three personal fouls a game (2, 4, and 3 PFs). In their four losses, he averaged four a game (4, 2, 6, and 4). Were the refs intentionally hyper-focused on Curry in those games? They weren't on LeBron's case (in order, starting with Game 1, LeBron was charged with 2, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3, and 1 fouls in the series. Five fouls in the final three Cavs' victories). Although that's no surprise. Stan Van Gundy told everyone months ago that LeBron gets his own set of rules.
But mostly, Curry’s tweet struck a serious chord with many NBA fans and followers because, let’s be honest, she’s not alone in thinking/believing/knowing the NBA isn’t a legit league. You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you, too, didn’t believe that the league does manipulate games, even playoff games, for its own reasons. And those reasons are the exact ones she mentioned in her tweet: ratings and money.
How much money? One estimate put the value of a Game 7 at around $45-50 million which, in this case, I believe was an underestimate. Regardless, that’s one heck of an incentive.
But it doesn’t directly benefit the league…now. The benefit of a Game 7 goes mainly to the league’s broadcast partners, in this case ABC/ESPN/Disney. The benefit to the NBA will really come down the line when the league’s broadcast rights are up for negotiation because the league will then point to these ratings to prove what it can deliver. And then the league gets paid.
So Game 7 gave the NBA a win-win. If the Warriors won, the story was a repeat champion, the “greatest team ever,” and the further deification of Steph Curry. But if the Cavs won, the stories were perhaps even better: the first ever Finals comeback from being down three games to one, the first championship for the city of Cleveland in decades, and the further coronation of "King James."
Despite every game in the Finals being decided by more than 10 points, and in fact, being anything close to nail-biters, of course Game 7 came down to the final moments of play. Eleven lead changes will do that (because you can’t let all those advertising dollars go to waste).
The Cavs ultimately won, on the road, 93-89. They only committed 15 personal fouls all game….well, they were only called for 15 (which was the fewest fouls called all series). The Warriors, the home team which usually gets a supposed “subconscious” edge from officials, committed 23 personal fouls. Yet the Cavs were awarded 25 free throws to Golden State’s 13, and by sinking 11 more of those attempts (which the Warriors didn’t even have a chance to match), LeBron won his third, tear-soaked championship. (Maybe. Was he really crying? Or sorta faking it?)
Look, I won’t take anything away from LeBron. He led the series in every major category, and he is one hell of an athlete. He does what few other human beings are capable of doing. But I thought basketball was a team sport. I thought one player could make a difference, but without a complete team, one player was incapable of altering a game, much less an entire series.
But that is not what modern basketball, or at least NBA basketball, actually is. The modern NBA is just single athletes: LeBron, Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Curry, and if you want to go back just a step further, Magic and Bird. That’s it. Seriously, 30 years of NBA history is wrapped up in a handful of superstars. This should not be, but once NBA Commissioner David Stern made the corporate decision to trumpet the league’s stars over and above its teams, this is what transpired. Is what followed then a coincidence? Or good business?
So what does it take to build a winner? Clearly it's not a good team. It's just one difference-making player. Hit the jackpot in the draft with a talent that tickles America’s fancy, and your team’s ticket is basically punched to titletown. “Believeland” just got their’s. What’s your favorite team waiting for?