At What Point Does the Most Predictable Sports League Become Too Predictable?

More so than any major American sport, the nature of basketball lends itself to predictable outcomes — only five players a side, fluidly and frequently alternating offense and defense.

For many fans, that’s exactly the sport’s appeal: generally, the best team with the most talented players prevails, and in that way, greatness is rewarded.

But what’s rewarding is seeing greatness tested and, in the process, proven.

Therein lies the paradox of competition: if the exact same Golden State roster defeated the exact same teams, but was more closely challenged, we’d recalibrate because the road was harder than expected, and concede value to the difficulty of the journey.

While top-dogs are undoubtably good for sport, the fastest way to lose suspense in an inherently competitive environment is the perception there isn’t adequate or fair competition.

Each great team of the past has, at some point, encountered legitimate competition, a patch of uncertainty, however brief.

The modern concept of the “superteam” originated in 2008 in Boston, when Celtics management flanked Paul Pierce with two other Hall-of-Fame locks (former MVP Kevin Garnett and preeminent scorer Ray Allen), upping the championship paradigm from two star players to three.

In turn, Vegas tapped them as prohibitive favorites, and the trio scorched to a 29-3 record, appearing to validate predictions that they would coast to titles.

But over the course of the playoffs, those Celtics were pushed to seven games in each of the first two rounds, and securing the 2008 championship ultimately required 26 postseason games, the most of any team ever.

That Larry O’Brien trophy would be the only the trio would hoist in their five years together.

It was harder than expected.

When LeBron James, along with Chris Bosh, formed their superteam in Miami, ushering in the era of player empowerment, the overwhelming sentiment from fans and some teams was disbelief, manifested by the widespread questioning — and attacking — of LeBron.

Like the previous “Big Three,” that team, too, initially thought the championship was a foregone conclusion. Not just one, either — “not five, not six, not seven…

Months after opening their campaign with a pedestrian 9-8 record, and much to the schadenfreude of almost everyone outside the 305 area code, the so-called Heatles were surprisingly upset by the Dallas Mavericks.

Pushed along the way by Boston, Indiana, San Antonio, and, to a lesser extent, Chicago, the Heat claimed consecutive titles before the biggest of their three, out from under the withering micromanagement of Pat Riley, replicated the formula in Cleveland.

Both situations proved harder than expected.

LeBron’s decisions, and the ensuing backlash he bore and still bears, paved the way for Kevin Durant to make the best career decision for him. But, in a zero-sum league, the result in Golden State is entirely new.

Everything — the regular season, playoffs, each possession — for this Warriors team has just looked so easy, perhaps even easier than expected.

It’s tempting to overlook that the narrow upset of last year’s record-setting Warriors — an athletic feat that would headline any greatest-of-all-time résumé — required a hobbled Steph Curry, a serendipitous Draymond Green suspension, not to mention a string of herculean LeBron performances, plus some Kyrie Irving heroics sprinkled in.

A year later, in order to topple LeBron James, that same juggernaut went and added the world’s closest thing to LeBron James.

Their best-ever 16-1 record in the playoffs, when competition is at its supposed peak, will forever attest to how superior they were.

Beyond the ludicrous statistics, this Warriors team is different in that it seems to have no close challenger due, in no small part, to the historic excellence of Durant.

And there’s no sign its reign will cease anytime soon.

Never has a team comprised four players, all comfortably among the 20 best players in the league, under 30 years old and locked into contracts for years to come.

The 1996 Bulls, often esteemed as basketball’s pinnacle of excellence and for which Michael Jordan was 33, started an aging, post-ACL tear Ron Harper and someone named Luc Longley.

The third-best player for the 2001 Lakers, the last team to have two of the league’s undisputed five best players and who tore through the playoffs, winning 15 of 16 games (the first round was best-of-five back then), was probably either Rick Fox or Derek Fisher. Not quite Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.

Even going back a generation, when the Celtics and Lakers nearly monopolized championships, those teams had each other as challengers — and, in the 1980s, the Bucks, Sixers, Pistons and Rockets weren’t exactly slouches, either.

Even the human elements — the protracted adjustment period, play-style compatibility issues, and bedeviling flares of ego — that traditionally emerge from combining elite talents have been seemingly absent in Golden State.

There’s no question that dynasties and runs of greatness have been instrumental to the lure and lore the NBA — dynasties litter the league’s hagiography.

But against a Warriors team that, in its first year, handily dispatched its closest — and most anticipated — challenger and has no signs of breaking up anytime soon, for the other 29 teams, simply reing-up for another go at it leaves them woefully behind.

Some will point to the highest-since-Jordan TV ratings of the 2017 as evidence this level of dominance will lead to similarly high, future ratings.

But the intrigue for these Finals centered on a compelling unknown: how does this team stack up against LeBron James plus two All-Stars?

Now that the Warriors’ level of collective brilliance is known, and known to surpass everything we’ve previously seen, what’s the suspense in the sport?

The response isn’t for ownership to legislate a solution; they tried that post-Decision in 2011.

But short of more elite players combining forces — of whom supply is scarce and could require top talents to swallow unrealistic pay cuts in their prime earning years — or LeBron bolting cap-strapped Cleveland in 2018, there’s not much roster change on the horizon to challenge these Warriors. And further star clustering may metastasize tanking, as teams know they can’t compete.

Of course, stuff happens, and things turn on a trifle. And noise, even if manufactured, around the NBA won’t disappear — ESPN and Turner are still on the hook for the $24 billion TV deal.

And eventually the salary cap will force difficult choices about whether Golden State can retain the likes of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. And maybe perennial dominance will placate professional competitors, who may opt for difficulty over winning and apparent fun.

Or maybe casual eyeballs will prize years of unmatched greatness over all else.

But, as of today, it appears the Warriors will be together for as long as the players want to be, and as long as team owner Joe “Light-Years Ahead” Lacob — who netted $305 million in 2014-15 revenue alone (the most recent data available) — is willing to sign luxury tax checks.

For a league whose appeal is based around its stars, these Warriors will test if there’s such a thing as a team’s being too great, or, to put it more cynically, the league’s being too predictable.

Unless, of course, there’s actually truth to the long-held conspiracy that the NBA is rigged.

Where’s David Stern when you need him?

The price of free expression in the NFL

Yesterday, the head of the FBI testified before Congress, in large part, to controvert slanderous accusations against a former president by the current president, who is under federal investigation for possible electoral collusion with a foreign nation-state and faces scrutiny for unseemly nepotism, constitutional violations, selective contempt for the First Amendment, and indifference — or worse — to the voices of racial and religious minorities.

Also yesterday — at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, in a style usually confined to the campaign trail — the president appeared to take credit for the apparent blackballing of an NFL player.

It’s hard to believe Donald Trump, a man who once tried — and failed — to set up a football league to rival the NFL, has sway over NFL teams’ decision-making. Furthermore, although one general manager has cited concern about incurring a nasty Trump tweet as a potential deterrent to signing Colin Kaepernick, that explanation still feels more like a feeble pretense concealing something more sinister.

As talking about Trump is inescapable in politics’ current discourse, talking about the dearth of quarterbacks is inescapable in the NFL’s. That scarcity is why quarterbacks with starting experience or upside make so much money and so rarely become available.

However, one 29-year-old quarterback, with a Super Bowl appearance and no criminal record or significant injuries, remains a free agent.

In a world where teams scrambled to acquire Mike Glennon at a $14.5 million price tag next season, there is not a merit-based reason for Kaepernick’s phone to stay silent.

The cardinal sin in the NFL is not getting hurt, getting arrested, or even playing poorly; it is to be perceived as a distraction.

After initial fuss that Kaepernick would become such a distraction, there was no evidence from within the 49ers locker room that he did. In fact, quite the opposite: His teammates awarded him the team’s most prestigious honor players can vote on, for his “inspirational and courageous play.”

And Kaepernick has already come out and said that next season, he won’t continue kneeling during the anthem, the action that ostensibly incited distraction.

Players with less NFL success than Kaepernick, even those who have committed real crimes, tend to at least get called for workouts.

Tim Tebow, a walking ESPN headline who was inept as a pro, still received chances from four different teams, despite reportedly refusing to consider switching positions — what some might call “sacrificing for what’s best for the team.”

And, just last year, New York Giants owner John Mara strongly defended kicker Josh Brown, whom the organization knew to have been involved in 20-plus domestic violence incidents with his wife, and said the organization was “comfortable” re-signing him. And that was for a kicker.

It’s disingenuous to believe that Kaepernick is being knocked for making a political statement; rather, it’s that NFL teams don’t tolerate the political statement he made: in his words, that “this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now.”

To underscore the point here, just yesterday, former Denver Broncos quarterback and current general manager John Elway sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee — on letterhead prominently displaying his NFL team’s logo — urging the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. There has been little outrage towards Elway labeling him a distraction worthy of widespread disdain.

Though acting under the auspices of preserving team unity, when the general managers and head coaches who make personnel decisions (of whom 17 percent are black) actively discourage basic civil liberties of their subordinates (of whom 70 percent are black), it feels more like imposing obedience.

Why is a player’s peaceful protest more threatening to team unity than a team executive’s public endorsement of a political appointee on company letterhead?

While not a de jure ban, the threat of blacklisting players who fall outside of football conformity effectively silences them. In a political climate sharply divided along racial lines, a culture that actively thwarts diversity of thought is oppressive, toxic, and kindles the real distraction.

Let’s face it, the NFL is an entertainment industry that profits from making a violent sport in which mostly young black men trade on their bodies comfortable for a mostly white audience.

And nothing — not even criminal activity — seems to stir the pot quite like pointing out racial inequality. The criminality reinforces the stereotypical narrative, while Kaepernick’s protest challenges it.

In the last five months, Kaepernick has donated $500,000 to myriad charities, including veterans organizations, and kicked off a social media campaign to raise $2 million for food and water for starving Somalians. While those things alone don’t qualify one to play in the NFL, they do make vitriol and ostracism, especially from the president, feel a bit off-key.

Kaepernick’s societal impact far transcends anything he’s ever done on a football field. That some NFL fans and teams can’t bring themselves to see that makes him all the more principled and courageous, and makes them look all the more influenced by race.

Patriotism, division, and the “stick to sports” illusion

On Aug. 14, 2016, a backup football player went unnoticed before a meaningless exhibition.

More specifically, Colin Kaepernick sat, alone, during the national anthem before a preseason game.

The next week, he did it again. Again, no one noticed.

After the third week, enough people noticed to prompt reporters to ask him about it. And Kaepernick patiently, deftly, and unapologetically explained his civil non-conformity as a stand against a symbol of inclusion and equality that didn’t extend to everyone.

The ensuing reaction was well-publicized. Americans diverged on whether to support or oppose his decision, but anyone with an opinion shared the same sentiment: their side was the patriotic one.

Interestingly, little discussion concerned that the national anthem is even played before sporting events, surreptitiously inserting a political element into entertainment that highlights that the separation between sport and state is illusory.

From the time Kaepernick put a knee on the ground to the time Donald Trump put a hand on the Bible — a single football season — America has found itself facing an identity crisis. Of course, injustices did not begin with Kaepernick; he merely amplified their existence.

Sports, in many ways, has been a microphone for underheard voices, and has preceded the broader society on inclusion and opportunity. Jackie Robinson participated in professional sports well before public schools integrated. Title IX gave women equal access to funding for activities in educational settings (e.g., college sports), despite the Equal Rights Amendment of 1923 still not being ratified nationally.

Dating back to Ancient Greece, organized athletics have had spectator appeal, and thus, a platform. This platform promotes the values we believe to represent the best of our society — discipline, teamwork, self-sacrifice, fitness, inclusiveness, and merit-based success, to name a few.

Through sports, these values are impressed upon members of society, and their resonance transcends cultural identifiers. We see this every Olympics and World Cup — little-known athletes become heroes just because they’re wearing our colors. It’s as nationalist as it gets.

Football is the most powerful non-military display of American might, and the Super Bowl is its zenith. The words “Super Bowl” evoke American strength, in a decidedly American game, wrapped in patriotic coding — even the NFL logo is red, white, and blue, and festooned with stars.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the seven most-watched broadcasts in U.S. history are the seven most recent Super Bowls. When 100 million Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this weekend, the patriotic pageantry will be on full display — the anthem, the automatic ovation its singer will receive, the field-sized flag, the flyover, the camera shots of military personnel in attendance, and football framed as epic battle.

As you take all this in, ask yourself: what is it we celebrate about America?

America is an experiment based on ideals of freedom and fairness, despite a history that sometimes contradicts them. But those ideals, set forth by the country’s founders, at least give us values to strive for, and serve as the basis for how we identify — and project — ourselves.

Yet, to many, of late, America has felt unfamiliar.

Two weeks into a new administration, and it’s taken only one plutocrat without respect for democratic norms and values to highlight the fragility of these ideals.

Faith in cable news has eroded, political leaders seem merely self-interested, and, for the first time since its inception, America told seven countries, “no, you can’t come here.”

For those who may be unclear: in his first week on the job, the President of the United States issued — with all the haste, subterfuge, and showmanship his audience has come to expect — a 90-day freeze on all entries from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, all Muslim-majority nations. The order also imposes a suspension of general refugee admissions into the U.S. for 120 days, and an indefinite one on those from Syria.

What this looks like in practice: all visitors, business travelers, students, temporary workers, and relatives and fiancées of U.S. citizens from these countries are barred from entry. New immigrants, barred. All refugees, barred.

Green card holders — lawful, permanent U.S. residents — were initially barred, but that stance has been amended to case-by-case consideration.

This corresponds with the administration’s attempts to control information the public receives, by vilifying legitimate journalists tasked with holding political officers accountable, and promoting the “alternative facts” spun by sycophantic public relations.

That religious prejudices, dubiously chalked up to national security measures, have been repeated into the mainstream does not make them true. That the man repeating them now occupies the Oval Office and found a way to codify those prejudices adds precisely zero morality to the message itself.

One problem with the way we learn history is implicit: it positions and conditions us to look backwards at social strife. It’s easy to point to Rome’s fall, the declines of Great Britain, Mongolia, Russia, Spain, and other infamous descents. History is replete with these examples, and so often students of the past would like to believe that “if I was alive then, I would’ve…”

The response to leadership that shifts the values of a culture is never as obvious in the moment as it is in retrospect. That’s the rub, because the markers of change are incremental, and the naive belief that ______ “could never happen here” keeps people from seeing when it already is.

As discrimination based on race, religion, and gender persists and the preliminary actions of this new administration ripple internationally, America is gearing up for a public spectacle, a grand display of the cultural values that sports are supposed to represent. At the end of the football season and the election cycle, it seems fitting to make sure those two still align.

So, on Sunday, if you want to partake in the flag-waving and patriotic vainglory, do. That’s well within your rights. What’s wrong is to use that flag — moreover, what it is claimed to symbolize — to divide.

America’s not great because any one person or type of person lives in it. It’s great because we all do — and, above all else, because we allow others to.