Contrasted with the joy in Toronto on Sunday night, one can imagine how things were going down at NBA headquarters in New York.
Would despair be too strong a word? How about resignation?
The Milwaukee Bucks vs. the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference final is an imminent TV ratings natural disaster. The ground will first start buckling on Fifth Avenue.
These two teams are mirror images – second or third cities (by NBA standards), small television markets, no recent history of real success, very little pull on the imagination 10 feet outside town limits.
Both are gifted with mononym superstars, but the sort who don’t demand your attention. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks is too nice. Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors is too quiet.
People will warm to a nice or quiet sports celebrity after several years. But to create the urgency that sends them running to a screen, you’re better off with an ill-mannered loudmouth or a frothing wild man. You know, the Charles Barkley/Dennis Rodman type.
Beyond their top men, neither team has any sort of identity outside of being good. Good offence, good defence, well organized. Different from everyone else in some way? Not really. They don’t beat other teams down (such as the Golden State Warriors) or beat them up (all those great Detroit teams). Just good.
No, Milwaukee and Toronto doesn’t work for most people. These are the sort of cities NBA stars leave rather than go to. That’s the reputation.
What’s in Milwaukee? I don’t know. Beer?
And if you asked someone from Milwaukee what’s in Toronto, they might say, “Snow.” Or, if they were an NBA player, “Substandard cable options.”
Beyond the matchups and on-court stuff, that’s what makes this series so great. It’s the one no one in charge wanted.
Of course, they’d never say that out loud. But if the NBA marketing hacks could wave a wand and turn this into Boston-Philadelphia instead, they’d buy a chain of magician supply stores.
Unless there is some elevating incident – a major controversy of some sort – this series will be a matter largely between two metropolitan areas. The rest of Canada may get on board, but that won’t mean anything to ESPN or TNT’s bottom line.
The rest of the United States will give it a pass and expect the winner to serve as a stomping board for Golden State.
(We won’t even get started on the idea of a Toronto/Milwaukee-Portland final. We don’t want to send anyone in the NBA to the communal fainting couch.)
So this stuff is more mano a mano than usual at this time of year. It’s two isolated fan bases with a lot of outsider angst staring across at each other and seeing themselves looking back.
It also means a potential reordering of the NBA’s hierarchy.
Despite the salary cap, parity isn’t really a thing for this league. Going back a decade, only a few teams have really mattered – the Warriors, the Spurs, the Lakers, the Celtics and whatever team LeBron James happens to be on.
That’s been good for the NBA. No league has done a better job of making people its product. When you know who’s going to win, you also know which people you should be concentrating on.
If Golden State’s Steph Curry played in Sacramento, nobody would care what he thinks, what his wife says or what his kid does. But because he is the best-known player on the league’s best team, the NBA star ladder has turned Curry and his family into postsports brands. And they’re good at it.
It’s a little-discussed matter that the NBA seems to have enormous good luck in the personality of its biggest stars – Curry, James, James Harden and, soon, Zion Williamson. They all look at ease in front of a camera (unlike, say, the average hockey player).
They are the reason the NBA is the North American league most ambitiously pursuing becoming a global concern and the only one with a viable shot at it. That’s possible not because basketball is so great, but because its top salespeople are so likeable. Since they just happen to be enormous, they’re also easy to spot.
In a perfect marketing world, the NBA would tap an international player from some populous foreign country, give him charisma and elite talent, put him on the New York Knicks, pay a fortune teller to remove whatever curse the Knicks are currently under and watch the ad dollars roll in.
Milwaukee-Toronto is a small blip in that plan. But maybe it’s got more legs than that.
Antetokounmpo is a star, but one who seems reticent to embrace the trappings. Perhaps he’ll grow into it. The NBA would probably prefer he grew into it in Los Angeles.
But Antetokounmpo has also shown little desire to inflate his personal brand. He may even feel some loyalty to the team that drafted him when he was an interesting project rather than a guaranteed, in-the-paint monster.
Leonard may sell shoes by being extremely good at basketball while wearing them, but he’s never going to be the host on Saturday Night Live. He’s not going to publish a book. He’s not even going to do an interview if it’s anything more substantive than three questions being screamed at him postgame on the baseline.
Kawhi Leonard – not a salesperson. Not even a mail-order salesperson.
What if Leonard stays in Toronto? What if Antetokounmpo does the same in Milwaukee? Is it possible this pair is the Eastern Conference’s New World Order?
What a delicious idea. Two nobody teams become big-time somebodies overnight, while retaining the resentment of nobodies because they know everyone only likes them now because they’re winning.
The NBA would figure out how to turn that into a positive. It is smart that way. But it would be a shift away from the more recent plan – stack a few traditional markets with your best products and lean on them to drive interest.
In hindsight, this series may be more than a basketball encounter. Maybe it will force a reconsideration – at least in the medium term – of how an entire league does its business.