Welcome to the NBA's Age of Chaos
The early stages of the NBA playoffs have been so wild, so whimsical, that the story arc now sounds like the setup for a joke: An underachiever, an overachiever, and a GOAT walk into a bar… The underachiever being the Golden State Warriors, the overachiever the Miami Heat and the GOAT (duh) LeBron James. OK, so the “bar” isn’t actually a bar, but the conference semifinals, and the joke needs some workshopping, but the premise is undeniable: We are witnessing a postseason like no other—and perhaps a sign of things to come.
After a decade dominated by superteams and a numbing predictability, the NBA has reached some sort of equilibrium. It’s not parity, exactly; this doesn’t feel like the NFL. But the league is awash in something approximating competitive balance and, at minimum, a real sense of suspense. To wit: Anything can happen. And has!
The first round featured an eight seed upsetting a one seed (Heat over Bucks), a seven ousting a two (LeBron’s Lakers over the Memphis Grizzlies) and a six ejecting a three (Warriors over Kings). It’s the first time that’s happened in the same postseason since the NBA adopted the 16-team format in 1984. The average winning percentage of the second-round teams is .590, tied for the lowest all time (with 1984), per league officials. The aggregate seed? 4.5, by far the lowest in the modern era.
We’ve also seen a two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic) tussle with a team owner (Phoenix’s Mat Ishbia), and enough ejections, suspensions, nut shots, and officiating controversies to keep NBA discipline czar Joe Dumars up all night. Welcome to the NBA’s Age of Chaos, where anything can, and probably will, happen.
Let’s recap where things stand. The Lakers, left for dead at midseason, are one win from the Western Conference Finals. (They’d be the first seven seed to accomplish the feat since the 1987 Seattle SuperSonics.) The Heat, who finished seventh in the regular season, then lost a play-in game to drop to eighth, are on the verge of the Eastern Conference Finals. (They’d be the first eighth seed to go that deep since the 1999 New York Knicks.) Meanwhile, the Celtics—crowned as championship favorites after the Bucks’ demise—can’t stop gagging away big leads and late-game possessions.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished third in the MVP race this year, has already gone fishin’—his Bucks becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round since 2012, and just the sixth in the last 40 years. Also on vacation: a full two-thirds (18 of 27) of the players who made the 2023 All-Star team, including several luminaries—Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard—who didn’t even make the playoffs. The count of nine remaining All-Stars matches the lowest number to make the second round in the last 27 years. (The average during that span: 12.4. The difference is a whole superteam on its own.)
The Bucks’ dramatic implosion cost coach Mike Budenholzer his job, making him just the fourth coach in 50 years to be replaced after winning at least 58 games. His firing came just two years after winning a title—and on the heels of the Raptors firing coach Nick Nurse, who won the title two years before that. The coach who won the title in between those two, Frank Vogel, was fired by the Lakers a year ago, leaving the Warriors’ Steve Kerr as the only championship coach in the last four years to still have his job.
The tidal wave of volatility is striking, though perhaps not entirely shocking. We did, after all, just witness one of the most parity-laden regular seasons in modern times. No team won 60 games. Only six—and just two in the West—topped the 50-win mark. Six games separated the West’s third best team (Sacramento) from the ninth (New Orleans). Injuries to stars, load management, and massive in-season trades scrambled the division of power and obscured perceptions.
To wit: The great teams aren’t as great as usual, the bottom playoff seeds aren’t as weak as usual, and the regular season means a lot less than it used to. Which means maybe we have to adjust our perceptions and terminology.
“I don't know how many of these series were upsets—where you looked at who was on the floor, and said, 'Wow, that's an upset!'” says TNT’s Stan Van Gundy, and his point is undeniable: In truth, none of the victorious underdogs profiled as, well, underdogs.
Take the Lakers, who finished seventh in the West, at 43-39. Their winning percentage was depressed by injuries to James (27 missed games) and Anthony Davis (26 games), and by a deeply flawed opening-night roster—a problem they fixed with a series of mid-February trades. They actually had the NBA’s second-best record (16-7) after the All-Star break, and the fourth-best defensive rating. Was it really an “upset” when they knocked off the injury-riddled (and, sure, second-seeded) Grizzlies in a feisty six-game series?
Or take the Warriors, who finished one game better than the Lakers. Their regular season was warped by multiple factors: extended absences by Stephen Curry (26 games missed) and Andrew Wiggins (45 games); an ill-fated effort to give major roles to their youngest players, and a wonky road record (11-30) that remains inexplicable. But they eventually got healthy, abandoned the youth movement, reacquired a key veteran (Gary Payton II), and found their footing in time for the playoffs. They were a different team by the time they “upset” the third-seeded Sacramento Kings—a team with almost zero playoff experience on the roster.
Or take the Heat, who looked like colossal underachievers when they won just 44 games this season—a nine-game dropoff from their (conference-best) record the prior season. Their underwhelming season was due in part to the long absences of Jimmy Butler (18 games), Tyler Herro (15 games) and Kyle Lowry (27 games). And Miami, too, added a key player midseason: the veteran Kevin Love, who was signed in late February (after being cut by Cleveland) and is now entrenched as a starter.
Miami was a much sounder team by mid-April. Still, the Heat lost their first play-in game (to Atlanta), dropping them to the eighth seed, where they were expected to get rolled by the Bucks. True, Milwaukee lost Antetokounmpo for two games in the series (to a back injury), but the already-thin Heat lost their second-best scorer (Herro) and a key playmaker (Victor Oladipo) in the series, and beat the Bucks in five games—with Antetokounmpo on the court for the finale.
Still, these apparent underdogs just aren’t the same teams that meandered through the regular season. Nor are the Phoenix Suns, who made a blockbuster trade for superstar Kevin Durant in early February…then got just eight regular-season games out of him due to injury. The Suns have found their stride in the postseason, ousting the Clippers in five games, then rebounding from a 2-0 deficit to tie their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets in the second round. (Until chaos agent Nikola Jokic gave his Nuggets a 3-2 lead.)
In an alternate universe—where the Lakers fix their roster in October, the Suns have Durant all season, the Heat stay healthy and the Warriors stay whole—these teams almost certainly finish in the top four of their conferences. (You could say the same for the injury-riddled Clippers, who played much of the season without Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George.) Which would make them all favorites, not scrappy upstarts.
Oh, and how about this: How different would these playoffs look had the Brooklyn Nets, a plausible title contender, not been forced to trade their two superstars (Durant to Phoenix, Irving to Dallas) at midseason?
Why, exactly, is all this happening right now? Start with the play-in tournament, a recent innovation that, among other things, has muddled the postseason. Without it, the Heat would have been the seventh seed, pitting them against a deeper, tougher Celtics team, and the Hawks would have been first-round fodder for the Bucks, who would almost certainly still be playing now. Budenholzer would still be coaching. Giannis would not, as of yet, have been moved to philosophize about the meaning of “failure.”
Injuries have also influenced things. Among the stars who have missed key playoff games so far: Antetokounmpo, Herro, Leonard, George, Jimmy Butler, Ja Morant, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and Chris Paul.
“There's always going to be injuries, but it's been an inordinate amount this year of the All-Stars, the best players,” says Van Gundy. “That's taken a little bit of the fun out of it. It's probably added to the parity and the sense that anybody can win.”
Van Gundy sees another insidious influence at work in this new Era of Chaos, too: the scourge of “load management.” With teams so frequently resting their stars, regular-season win totals are artificially suppressed. Elite teams, especially those with older vets, aren’t going all out from November through March, believing they’re better off saving their strength for April, May, and June. That leads to more compressed standings—and it allows younger teams like the Kings and Cavaliers to leapfrog their more seasoned (and less motivated) rivals.
“It's just indicative of the regular season maybe not meaning as much to players and teams,” Van Gundy says. “The story of this season is injuries and games missed by All-Star level players. It's affected seedings, it's affected playoff series, and it's rendered almost everything not being upset.”
And it’s spurred a growing sense among fans and pundits—that “the regular season doesn’t matter,” a phrase that grates on and infuriates NBA executives, who have spent the last few years devising ways to make the season more meaningful: the play-in tournament, flatter lottery odds, a new in-season tournament set to debut in November. In the league’s view, the newly compressed standings are actually an argument for trying hard in the regular season, because a few losses might be the difference between finishing sixth (a guaranteed playoff berth) and finishing 10th (the last play-in spot)—or even 11th (out of the postseason entirely).
After a decade-plus stretch in which teams preferred to tank than chase fringe playoff spots, a growing number of teams are now content to compete from the once-dreaded middle. Who’s to say they’re not that far off from upending a more talented rival? And the possibility of a wide-open race has arguably spurred many of the win-now trades in recent years: it may not have worked, but the Mavericks traded for Kyrie not to seal a conference finals berth, but merely to snag a spot from which to wreak havoc.
So, is this the new normal? A league with no superteams, no superpowers? Where seventh place is as good as second? Where every team, with a little good fortune, can make a run?
No one can say for sure, but the trendlines seem to point that way. The league’s new labor deal, which will make it even harder for big spenders like the Warriors to retain or add talent, could even make superteams extinct.
So brace yourself, NBA fans, for a future of unparalleled parity, perpetually flatter standings, and wildly volatile playoffs. But, lets hope, without all the injuries, or any owner-MVP dustups. And definitely, definitely without all the nut shots.
Originally Appeared on GQ