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The Case for ... Peak NBA


YOU KNOW who had a weird, uneven go of it this NBA season? The NBA itself, that's who.

To quote Charles Dickens—not to be confused with former Jazz draft pick Kaniel Dickens—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

First, the worst: A superteam rolled to the title, dominating the season the way the color red dominates a stop sign, depriving the public of anything resembling drama. For the third straight year, the Warriors faced the Cavaliers in the Finals. The losers were left parting ways with their GM and straining to upgrade their roster. If this is how the second-best team in the league reacts—rebuilding—what hope is there for, say, the Magic or the Suns?

In today's NBA, parity is a concept as quaint as constructing a team around a back-to-the-basket center.

And yet, it didn't much matter. The best of times: Ratings surged. Interest spiked. The week after the Finals, we were captivated by the NBA draft. (Quick: Name two players chosen in the MLB and NHL drafts, also held in June. At least we think they were.)

After the draft came the MVP announcement, then the start of free agency, which has dominated the sports conversation for the last few weeks. Would Gordon Hayward leave Utah? (He did, for Boston.) What would Blake Griffin do? (He re-signed with the Clippers.) Would Paul George finally be traded, would Carmelo Anthony? (George went to the Thunder; Anthony remains a Knick, for the moment.) If it weren't for the Yankees' Aaron Judge, would we even know baseball was in midseason?

By accident or design, the NBA has reached the same peak as the NFL, becoming a 12-month sport. What's more, the NBA seems to have achieved this organically, avoiding the backlash that football suffered. The NBA, in striking contrast to the NFL, has become a league remarkably free of criticism.

Technology has provided an assist. Nonleague websites and media outlets want to post GIFs of NBA action? The league says O.K., and sure enough the clips become ubiquitous. The players, celebrities in part thanks to their mingling with actors, rappers and various Kardashians, have embraced Twitter, connecting directly with their fans.

The story lines are endless and endlessly intriguing. Crazy Uncle Phil. Javale versus Shaq. And yes, the dad whose name we dare not speak. The actual basketball? Often it's the least of the NBA's entertainment propositions.

The league has even waded into territory that risks offending some of its customers. In June, for the second year in a row, the NBA sponsored a float at a gay pride parade in New York City. The league's reaction to anyone who didn't like it: We're allowed to take stands. And much like the float, the success rolls on.

The NBA is a reminder that sports are played by athletes, and that those athletes are humans. And in the end, sports are supposed to be fun. That leads to a delicious paradox: The league that seems least like a business, might be running the best business of them all.

Like the NFL, the NBA has become a 12-month sport. Unlike the NFL, the NBA is remarkably free from criticism.