Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: First, the U.S. TV numbers for the current NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors are suffering compared to last year’s. And second, that was always going to be the case.
Never mind the fact that last year’s Finals featured the worst Cleveland Cavaliers team of the second LeBron James era (and that Cleveland isn’t a major market on par with a New York City or Los Angeles). It was still a rematch between the Warriors dynasty and an athlete whose fame and TV draw exceeds that of any individual team in the league.
LeBron James in himself is the NBA’s biggest media market, and his absence will make this series a relative ratings loser — plain and simple.
All that said, however, that doesn’t make this Finals a washout for the NBA. Far from it. In so many other ways, it’s a dream scenario for the league.
The lessons it provides and stories NBA commissioner Adam Silver can spin out of it are immeasurably valuable, and will have far greater impact than a single series of sub-par ratings. Let’s break them down, in the league’s own hypothetical future words:
To fans: “Have hope! Your team can do this. I mean, Toronto did it.”
For much of their history, the Raptors have been at best an afterthought and at worst a punchline to much of NBA fandom. And you could argue that up until this season, they’d just become a different kind of punchline — not a team that anyone feared or respected.
It’s beaten to death, but it’s true: all things being equal, the Raptors are not a sexy free-agent destination for NBA players. They don’t have the great weather or the low state taxes or the big American media market. They have proven more than capable of retaining their own players, but — like many other NBA franchises in the same boat — they don’t attract big outside free-agent fish.
Here’s a list of the franchise’s 10 biggest outside additions by contract size:
Outside of low-key, short-term successes in the Bismack Biyombo mold, or under-the-radar adds like Jose Calderon, the Raptors have not capitalized on free agency basically at all. And when they took big overpay swings, they most often struck out.
But here’s the thing: You can work around free agency, and the Raptors are proving that right now.
The current roster is built on low draft picks (more on that below) and shrewd trades, which are essentially equal-opportunity propositions. So fans of teams in similar situations can dream big knowing that free agency isn’t the impediment pessimists make it out to be.
To teams: “You don’t have to tank.”
This dovetails with the last item. Despite changes to the NBA lottery, the league still has a tanking problem. Had the “Process”-built Philadelphia 76ers and their lottery-fuelled lineup made it to the Finals, that problem might have grown as teams threw up their hands and gave in to the dark side.
But the 76ers didn’t make it. The Raptors beat them, and did it without a single player drafted in the lottery. Here is a breakdown of the roster by where each player was (or wasn’t) drafted:
|OG Anunoby||23rd (2017)|
|Chris Boucher||Undrafted (2017)|
|Marc Gasol||48th (2007)|
|Danny Green||46th (2009)|
|Serge Ibaka||24th (2008)|
|Kawhi Leonard||15th (2011)|
|Jeremy Lin||Undrafted (2010)|
|Kyle Lowry||24th (2006)|
|Jordan Loyd||Undrafted (2016)|
|Patrick McCaw||38th (2016)|
|Jodie Meeks||41st (2009)|
|Malcolm Miller||Undrafted (2015)|
|Eric Moreland||Undrafted (2014)|
|Norman Powell||46th (2015)|
|Pascal Siakam||27th (2016)|
|Fred VanVleet||Undrafted (2016)|
As far as I can tell, this has never happened. The lottery was introduced in 1985, but the draft existed for nearly 40 years before that, and every Finals team I checked had at least one player drafted in the top 14. But superstar Kawhi Leonard — taken 15th overall in 2011 — is currently the highest-drafted player on the team.
Now, in the last year the Raptors traded players chosen fourth (Jonas Valanciunas) and ninth (both DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl), so it’s not like high draft picks haven’t played a part here. But the facts remain: The Raptors aren’t currently relying on a collection of lottery picks, and they didn’t try to lose to get the ones they had. And that amounts to an anti-tanking PR campaign for the league. And if it doesn’t work…
Again to teams: “If you are going to tank, at least consider going all in first.”
Compare the current-era Raptors to the Mike Budenholzer Atlanta Hawks. With a core of Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, they were the best team in the East in 2014–15, winning 60 games. But after two years of flaming out in the playoffs to LeBron James and the Cavs (sound familiar?), they simply let their free agents walk over multiple off-seasons. Now, they’re two years into a rebuild with at least two intriguing pieces in Trae Young and John Collins, but still a ways away from competing.
Meanwhile, the Raptors retained their free agents and made trades after they realized they’d hit a ceiling. And while the DeRozan-for-Leonard deal rubbed some the wrong way at the time partly due to the contract length of the two main pieces, it was a worthy gamble that paid off in a Finals appearance and potentially more.
To fans: “There is value in just getting there. Because at the end of the day, anything can happen.”
This was a talking point early in the NHL post-season. Is it really a good thing if juggernauts like Tampa Bay get swept in the first round? If the playoffs are such a crapshoot that they render the regular season meaningless? For context, check out this Down Goes Brown tweet:
I see that point, but some element of crapshoot is good for any league. You want what the NBA has — big characters and storylines built on the backs of sustained success — but you don’t want the end result to feel pre-ordained. The Warriors building themselves up into a prohibitive favourite and measuring stick? A great thing. The Warriors walking over the league so demonstrably that teams — or their fans — decide it’s not even worth making the Finals? Not a great thing.
But the Raptors are proving the value of getting there.
They were a statistical longshot to get out of the Bucks series after going down 2–0, but they did it.
So far this Finals they’ve jumped out to a 2–1 lead with an unasked-for assist from the short-term injury bug currently affecting the Warriors. That could continue. Or the Warriors could get healthy and run them off the floor. (Or the Warriors could stay unhealthy and run them off the floor. They’re that dangerous.)
To be clear: The NBA wants its players healthy and playing for the long run. But the point is no team knows how the Finals will play out until they get there, so no one should prematurely take themselves out of the running.
To teams: “Hire smart basketball people and get out of the way.”
With their faith in and support for Masai Ujiri, the Raptors franchise is a case in point for this and all of the other lessons above, and the NBA owes them a thank-you card no matter what happens with the Finals — or the ratings — moving forward.