The NBA playoffs force teams to face their own mortality. Winning four consecutive seven-game series is much harder than racking up wins in the regular season, and any weakness in a team’s roster will get exposed in the pressure cooker of playoff basketball. It’s not like the MLB or NFL, where the goal is to get into the playoffs and make a run. The best team almost always wins in the NBA, which is why the Cavs and the Warriors are the overwhelming favorites to meet in the Finals for the third consecutive year. They have combined to go 16–0 in this year’s postseason, treating 50-win teams like speed bumps in the process. It’s enough to make the rest of the league want to hoard assets like a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter and wait out this era of the NBA.
Most of the league’s middle class has already been eliminated from the playoffs, and those teams have some difficult choices ahead of them in the offseason. The Raptors just spent the last 12 months adding pieces for a rematch with the Cavs only to get swept out of the second round. The Clippers and the Grizzlies have been playoff fixtures out West for half a decade, and they have one conference finals appearance between them. Do the Pacers trade Paul George with one year left on his contract or risk losing him for nothing? Have the Hawks done enough to convince Paul Millsap to re-sign? What can the Bulls do to raise the ceiling of their team while Jimmy Butler is still in his prime? The odds of any of these teams beating the Cavs and the Warriors are slim at best, which makes the prospect of forking out huge sums of money in luxury-tax penalties to keep them together seem unappealing.
Toronto is the perfect example of a team on a precipice. After four seasons of flaming out in the playoffs, there’s a growing consensus that it’s time to blow the team up, especially with Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, and P.J. Tucker entering free agency. However, if this is it for the Lowry era of Raptors basketball, it would be absurd to call it a failure. The last four seasons have been the most successful in the 22-year history of the franchise. Winning three playoff series in two years doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize they won one in the previous 20. Building a pretender in the NBA is nearly as difficult as building an actual champion. Just ask Kings or Wolves fans who have spent the last decade wandering in the wilderness of annual trips to the lottery. Neither franchise was able to get over the hump against the Lakers in the early 2000s, but just getting back to the point where there is even a hump to get over has been a nearly impossible climb.
Taking one step back to make two steps forward makes sense in theory, but few franchises can retool that quickly. In 2011 the Mavs blew up a team that just won a title to maintain payroll flexibility in future years, letting Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea walk for essentially nothing. They have played in four playoff series since, and only one (a seven-game series against the Spurs in 2014) was competitive. If Dallas had kept its team together, it almost certainly wouldn’t have won another championship, but the team would at least have been relevant in the final years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career. Just because you’re not first doesn’t mean you’re last. As Reese Bobby told his son at the end of Talladega Nights, you could be second, third, or fourth; you could even be fifth.
Here’s the secret about your favorite team winning a championship: The exhilaration doesn’t last. I grew up in Dallas and I spent my childhood living and dying with the Mavs in the playoffs. Defending Dirk’s legacy on internet message boards as a teenager got me interested in writing about basketball in the first place. Carrying a team to a championship solidified his place as one of the best players in NBA history, but it didn’t make me any less upset when the Mavs lost Chandler six months after winning a ring. After the Heat lost in 2011, LeBron James said his haters would wake up tomorrow with the same problems they had today. It was an incredibly tacky thing to say, but he wasn’t wrong. While flags may fly forever, they are just pieces of embroidered cloth hanging from a pole. They have only the meaning you chose to give it.
From my perspective as a fan, the journey was just as much fun as the destination. I remember the 2003 team with Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel and the 2004 team with Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker almost as fondly as I do the championship team. Dirk’s and-1 over the Spurs in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference finals to take the game to overtime (and later, a victory) was as impressive an accomplishment as anything he did in 2011. The Mavs’ trip to the Finals that season, which ended under an avalanche of Dwyane Wade free throws, was special to me because it gave me something to do with my dad when he was confined to a hospital bed all summer. He died in 2009 without seeing the Mavs win it all, but that’s OK. It was never really about that anyway. Even when playoff runs come up short, they can help to bring a community together and give fans memories that last a lifetime. That is meaningful.
You don’t want to bring the same team back over and over again when it consistently falls apart in the playoffs, but there’s a big difference between trying something different and blowing the whole thing up and starting from scratch. The Clippers might want to try building around either Blake Griffin or Chris Paul instead of both, while the Raptors could try to get younger around DeMar DeRozan this offseason. They could start tanking in order to find a player who can carry them to a championship, but there’s no guarantee a player like that is in a given draft. Even if they are, you have to win the lottery to get them, and the team with the worst record still has only a 25 percent chance of winning. The Clippers and the Raptors would be lucky just to get back to where they are now at the end of a slash-and-burn rebuild, much less get better.
It’s hard to appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Toronto is Sisyphus and LeBron is the boulder, and the prospect of pushing that rock all the way back up the mountain never looks more daunting than when you have to start the whole process over again. Winning a championship is the ultimate goal for every NBA franchise, but making that the sole benchmark for success is setting up the other 29 teams for heartbreak every year. Only 10 franchises have won an NBA title since 1984. The odds are that your favorite team isn’t going to win a championship. There has to be a middle ground. Life is too short to live any other way.