As a Los Angeles Lakers fan for nearly 45 years, I’m disappointed my team failed to make it back to the NBA Finals to defend last season’s championship. But I have to admit that this year’s finals are as exciting as I can remember in a long time.
The NBA has been built on dynasties, whether it was the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, the Lakers in the 1980s, the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s or the Golden State Warriors in the 2010s. Each of those dynasties featured future Hall of Famers, including Bill Russell and Bob Cousy with the Celtics, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls. The Warriors featured future Hall of Famers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, with Kevin Durant along for part of the ride, too.
But this year’s finals are different in that no player for the Milwaukee Bucks or Phoenix Suns has been on a championship team — the first time that has occurred since the Portland Trail Blazers, led by Bill Walton, won it all in 1977.
For a sport that loves to market its superstars, one would be hard pressed to find someone who could name more than one player from each team. Chris Paul would be the first one named for Phoenix and, perhaps, the casual fan could name Giannis Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee.
Despite the lack of name recognition, the series is also exciting because it marks the first time both teams have been in the finals in recent memory. Milwaukee won the NBA title in 1971 — when Abdul-Jabbar was still known as Lew Alcindor — and its last finals appearance resulted in a loss to the Celtics in 1974.
To put that in perspective, I was 13 at the time — I’m now 60 — and was in the seventh grade.
While the Bucks have won one championship, Phoenix has been to the finals twice — in 1976 and 1993 — and came away empty both times. The Suns took the Celtics to six games in an exciting series in 1976 that included a triple-overtime loss in Boston in Game 5, then lost to the Bulls in six games in 1993. The Suns’ last appearance came the same year my son, Gavin, was born, and Game 6 was nearly six months prior to his birth. Gavin is now 27 years old.
Phoenix also set an NBA record by becoming the first team to make the playoffs after experiencing the longest playoff drought. In the Suns’ case, it had been 10 years since the last time they had made the playoffs.
For all the complaints often heard from fans that the same teams play in the finals every year or the same teams win championships, this year is put-up-or-shut-up time. Two franchises that haven’t played on the big stage in years, represented by players who have never won a ring and two head coaches that have never led teams to the NBA title, will vie to see which one can end that distinction. Both teams play an exciting brand of ball and, if injuries don’t derail them significantly, fans will have the opportunity to see two future Hall of Famers — Paul and Antetokounmpo — in action on the biggest stage of their careers.
The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians played in a similar scenario in the 2016 World Series, although each team’s World Series drought was considerably longer. The Cubs hadn’t won it all in 108 years, while Cleveland had been 68 years without a title. The Cubs went on to end their drought by coming out on top in a thrilling seven-game series, while the Indians’ drought has extended to its current 73 years.
While this marks the first finals appearance for both franchises in decades, it may not be the last. Although Paul is now in his mid-30s, he has several productive seasons remaining and a young core of talent surrounding him, as do the Bucks. Although the Lakers, Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers, among others, will certainly have something to say about that, the team that emerges from the finals with the championship could represent the start of another NBA dynasty moving forward.
After all, that’s what this league was built on, and there’s no reason to think there isn’t another dynasty on the horizon.