Yes, DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins going to the world champion Warriors is an intriguing development for the NBA.
No, the NBA sky is not falling. The league will survive, and so will you.
The rich getting richer is not a new story in the World’s Greatest Basketball League. Good players wish to play with other good players. This is a normal human impulse. The difference now is that players can, in the right circumstance, make it happen. This option was not available to George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and even Michael Jordan. Can you imagine what the 28-year-old Bill Russell would have been worth on the open market in 1962?
Please understand that the NBA has been based on dominance from the very beginning. The league as we know it was formed, not in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, whose roots were in the East (Boston, New York, Philly, etc.), but rather in 1949 thanks to a merger of the BAA and the National Basketball League, a group centered on teams located in the Midwest. One of those teams was the Minneapolis Lakers, featuring the then-unstoppable, 6-foot-10-inch Mikan. The Lakers proceeded to wipe the floor with the competition for most of the next six seasons, winning the championship in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954.
The tyranny resumed in 1957 when the Russell-led Celtics defeated St. Louis for the first Celtics title. Pettit and St. Louis prevailed in St. Louis in 1958 (hate to remind folks in St. Looie that Russell was injured), whereupon the Celtics kept winning and winning and winning and winning and winning and winning and winning and winning — are you getting the point? — before, yes, losing to Wilt & Co. in ’67, and then winning and, yes, winning again. At this point Russell retired. This allowed the Knicks to win one, 24 years after they began play, although I’m not sure New York fans look at it quite that way. The 1969-70 Knicks are actually the most single important thing in the history of the league in terms of broadening the NBA appeal. Thank God Red Auerbach isn’t around to read that statement. This has to do with Madison Ave, and all that, not necessarily the basketball on display, as crowd-pleasing as it was.
Parity only has been a significant story in one decade of the league’s existence. That would be the 1970s, when eight different teams won championships. The Knicks and Celtics won two titles each, and they were certainly fierce rivals in the beginning of the decade. Among my fondest memories as a beat man were the great Saturday night/Sunday afternoon weekend games, with the Knicks home at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, both teams hopping on the same late-evening plane at LaGuardia back to Boston (the Knicks in first class and the poorer Celtics in coach) with the two resuming on Sunday afternoon at Boston Garden, where, in those pre-sellout days, the local NYC-based college kids could purchase enough tickets to occupy at least 25 percent of the seats, thus creating a true collegiate atmosphere. We have never had anything like that here since.
But Boston and New York shared the wealth. Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Golden State, Portland, Washington, and Seattle all won titles, and in the case of Milwaukee, Portland, Washington, and Seattle, it remains their greatest moments of NBA glory.
All this connotes the much-desired parity. The wealth was shared, right? And what did this get the league in general? The answer is a tape-delayed Finals between Bird’s Celtics and Moses Malone’s Rockets in 1981. So much for your parity.
Fast-forward to 2018. It is my understanding that the 2018 Finals between the mighty Golden State Warriors and the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers were significantly higher-rated than the more competitive 2017 Finals between the same two teams. And this one was a foregone-conclusion sweep.
I can’t say for sure what this tells you, but what it tells me is that people tune in because they are infatuated with the Warriors. Perhaps they love them because of their oft-exquisite style of play. Perhaps they loathe them because they resent the presence of Kevin Durant, who glommed onto what was already a championship-level team in quest of a ring of his own. But it really doesn’t matter. The TV screen is non-judgmental. All it knows is that someone is watching. Period. The reason is immaterial.
The discussion about the value of dominant teams in any sport, as opposed to a situation where many teams have a chance to win it all, has been with us for a long time. The Yankees were a focal part of this discussion for decades, and all I know is that if as many people hate you as love you, and the total is a very large number, that cannot be all bad. The Celtics were one such team. Then came the Jordan Bulls, who, I must admit, were not hated as much as they were viewed as very, very frustrating to play or root against. But more than any great sports team we’ve ever known, they were all about one man. With all due respect to Scottie Pippen and the others, the general public regarded the Bulls during their run in the ’90s as Michael and the Jordanaires. Larry had Kevin, Robert, and DJ, Hall of Famers all. It wasn’t the same.
During the past four decades the NBA has been about dominance. Consider the fact that the Celtics and Lakers won 33 of the first 63 titles. By the time Lakers won the 33d of those titles in 2010, the league had grown and prospered beyond measure. It was an international conglomerate, despite their mutual tyranny. And now it’s about the Warriors, winners of three of the last four championships, a team that has now added a formidable player in a four-time All-Star who last season just happened to score 25 points a game for the New Orleans Pelicans before being sidelined by injury. Oops, almost forgot. The Anthony Davis-fueled Pelicans did play much better in Boogie’s absence. File that away.
In theory, Cousins fills a void. He is someone the Warriors could throw the ball to inside and ask to score. Had they had such a person all along they might have won four in a row, since all they needed to stop the bleeding in the final three minutes of the 2016 Game 7 against Cleveland was one lousy little two. Now don’t forget that Cousins is coming off an Achilles’ tendon injury and won’t be available right away. And are they really prepared to exploit his talents, which would mean fewer threes taken? We shall see.
OK, so what if he turns out to be a major asset and the Warriors win again? The ratings will probably go up. There will be more love and more annoyance in equal measure. You know what George Patton said: The American public loves a winner. What he could have added is that they also hate one. Either way, they’ll watch to see what happens.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.