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David West of the Golden State Warriors goes up with the ball against Kevin Love and J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of the NBA finals on June 7, 2017. (Kyle Terada/Pool/Getty Images)
David West of the Golden State Warriors goes up with the ball against Kevin Love and J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of the NBA finals on June 7, 2017. (Kyle Terada/Pool/Getty Images)

opinion

Kelly: The NBA has developed a terrible case of stasis Add to ...

For the first time in NBA history, they’ve decided to call a final series after only three games. The Golden State Warriors are champions. They’ll still play a fourth, but all proceeds go to charity and the Cleveland Cavaliers will be staked a 15-point lead. Just to make it interesting.

That would be the smart way to go. But rules are rules. They’ll grind this one to the finish, although it’s already over. Cleveland’s J.R. Smith admitted as much after Game 3 when he claimed that a Tweet emanating from his account – “Cavs in 7” – was the result of a hack.

“I’m smarter than that,” Smith said.

Put another way, no one’s that stupid.

Game 4 in the best-of-seven series is Friday night in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers are a great basketball team featuring the top player in the game (although that crown has been knocked askew over the past week). On Wednesday, they got bravura performances from their stars – one assist shy of another triple-double from LeBron James, a scorching second half from Kyrie Irving. It didn’t matter. The Warriors offence is a chemical hose. It douses all fires, while burning you at the same time.

The result has been largely unwatchable basketball. You can talk all the day about the majesty of witnessing a once-in-a-generation team purring along in third gear, but if the only point of sport viewership were to see the very best jogging through their paces, there would be a larger audience for Usain Bolt’s training sessions.

Competitive balance is the key requirement for interest, especially in June. The Warriors have become the real-life equivalent of a superhero film franchise – it doesn’t matter how many explosions there are in the last 20 minutes, or who gets thrown through what skyscraper, you know who will win in the end. The result is an awful dullness to proceedings.

(Parenthetically, this is why Batman will always be more popular than Superman. One guy is a judo expert with a cool car, and the other guy cannot be killed. All Superman movies are the entertainment equivalent of watching someone punch a boulder for three hours.)

One imagines that this is what it must have felt like to be a fan in the 1960s as Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics won year after year after year. It’d have been one thing to root for a loser. There’s a sort of twisted heroism in that. But if you pulled for a decent squad? What was the point of getting worked up?

The lifeblood of fandom – hope – was drained from the sport. Red Auerbach was the vampire.

Unsurprisingly, the NBA didn’t do so well in its “golden age.” By the 1970s, the sport was in terminal decline. Nobody cared very much, including the players, many of whom decamped for a rival league. The American sports landscape grew so arid, even hockey had its moment. There, at least you couldn’t be sure who would win season to season (hint: probably the Montreal Canadiens).

It took an event of immense improbability – the simultaneous arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – to inject an element of chaos into the NBA.

Protagonist and antagonist – every good story needs both, and all sports seasons are meant to be a story. If there is only a hero absent an equally vibrant villain or any obstacles to be overcome, no unforeseen events or sudden disasters, that’s called a character sketch. In this current scenario, the Warriors are Don Quixote. The Cavaliers are Sancho Panza. Everyone else is the donkey.

So while the NBA has never been fatter in revenue terms, it has a serious structural problem.

Take the up-north perspective. If you ran the Toronto Raptors, what would you do now? You have a very good team, but nowhere near good enough. Owing to salary constraints and the way business is done in the NBA, you can’t get much better.

You can either stand pat (i.e. re-signing Kyle Lowry, maxing out your cap for several years, as well as your aspiration) or give up (i.e. let Lowry go, trade DeMar DeRozan, get suddenly terrible, and try to draft your way back up).

Before you make any decision, you must first accept this as your basic principle: “Whatever we do, all things being equal, we cannot win.”

I suppose it’s possible that LeBron James eats a bad oyster in April and takes to his bed for a month and that the Warriors have a team-building game of Twister go awry, resulting in a half-dozen sprained ankles, but it’s not likely.

Hoping for the one black swan to appear among the many white ones is certainly no way to plan.

What all team-management groups fear more than losing is being seen to be behind the trend. When things are chaotic, they are encouraged to take chances. When the system falls into stasis – what the Warriors are imposing on the league now and in the near future – there is pressure to conform.

Choosing the latter route reduces the possibility that you will look like the odd-man out. You’re down there muddling with 28 other teams, none of whom have any better shot than you do. Better to get small and stay very still.

I wasn’t convinced the Raptors wanted to re-sign Lowry after they were shoved aside by James, but I am now. Because what would be the point in trying to do something creative when you know that, whatever you do, it will produce the same result? And especially so when you believe the other six or eight teams in your boat will be doing the same thing. Doing nothing is the safest play.

Of course, that reinforces the equilibrium the Warriors have established. If they lose a player, another of equal ability will rush to sign there at a discount. They’re the new 1960s Celtics – their eminence is self-reinforcing.

So while the Warriors may be the best team ever, they are also bad for the NBA. People want a jousting tournament in the playoffs. Instead, basketball is back to giving them coronations.

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Raptors president on Kyle Lowry: ‘We want him back’ (The Canadian Press)

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