Starless NBA playoffs present opportunity

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The casual NBA fan gets a bad name. Their collection of LeBron James jerseys from James’ stints with three different teams, their surprise to hear that Kevin Durant joined the Brooklyn Nets in 2019 and is not still winning championships at Golden State and their overzealous vote of confidence in the No. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers at the beginning of this year’s playoffs are all badges of dishonor in the hardcore fan community.

But casual fans — those who tend to follow the careers of star players instead of a team — play a perfectly valid role in the NBA fan world. What could possibly be wrong with rooting for a particular player instead of a team, or checking out ESPN every once in a while to see if James Harden has returned to playing after an injury? One of the many beautiful things about sports is that people do not follow them for the same reasons; our enjoyment of sports can and should come from myriad different places.

Major media networks and some fans, however, are of the opinion that stars are indispensable, and reactions to the dearth of superstars remaining in this year’s playoffs are telling. When the Milwaukee Bucks eliminated the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals two weeks ago, the majority of NBA superstars had officially been knocked out of the playoffs. Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving joined the unusually long list of elite players who will watch the NBA Finals from the comfort of their couches this year. After the Suns beat the Lakers in the first round, a great fuss was made about the fact that for the first time in a decade, neither LeBron James nor Stephen Curry would appear in the finals. The underlying concern among broadcast networks was that fewer familiar names and faces in the conference finals would cause fewer fans to tune in. TV ratings would plummet and the NBA’s coffers — along with the game of basketball itself — would suffer.

Revenue is always the bottom line in the sports media business, but its dependence on — or, dare I say, addiction to — superstar coverage may be just as worrying to big networks such as ESPN and TNT. Shows such as ESPN’s “The Jump” and “First Take” fill airtime with long-winded, redundant discussions about high-profile players: their legacies, how they rank among the greatest players of all time, who they’re beefing with on Twitter, what they had for breakfast and so on. This is not to say that other subjects are never discussed, only that other storylines are often ignored in favor of yet another “greatest of all time” debate. These networks know exactly what they are doing — catering to the disproportionately large population of casual fans who are more likely to watch if they are familiar with the players in question.

Fans who enjoy these debates are not in the wrong. But those who won’t tune in to the finals this year simply due to the fact that James or Durant won’t be playing should reconsider. Last Wednesday, Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young dropped 48 points in a dramatic away victory over the No. 2 seed Bucks. Young is by no means as well-known as the two aforementioned NBA posterboys. But if you’ve come to watch elite players, they are still on full display.

That said, even if Young does not return from injury this year, or Giannis Antetokounmpo finds himself sidelined, why not at least try to enjoy a different story? Three of the four remaining teams in this year’s playoffs (the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks) are small-market teams. Why not find out what it means to root for the little guy? The Suns, led by an unusually young batch of players including Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker, knocked the Lakers out in the first round and are one win away from reaching their first NBA Finals since 1993. Phoenix has never won an NBA Championship. Why not root for the perpetual loser? I root for myself every day and I never regret it.

“Casuals,” you get a bad name but for the wrong reasons. Keep following King James’ career, and make sure to buy his Cavaliers jersey when he inevitably retires in Cleveland on a 10-day contract. Please, keep enjoying basketball for your own reasons. But recognize that the tired superstar storylines sports networks push are just the tip of the iceberg. Find a new story or two to follow. You’ll be happy you did.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].