December 7, 2021

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What ‘The Last Dance’ tells us about the flaws of today’s NBA

Watching Michael Jordan’s maniacal struggle to eclipse the NBA dynasties of the 1980s is a reminder of what the player empowerment era has all but eliminated: the hero’s journey, a story arc rich with rivalries and villains, and the resulting bond between superstar and city forged over time by battles lost and won.

From 1980-87, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers duked it out for the crown, with at least one beating another every year but ’86, when a young Hakeem Olajuwon prevented another Lakers-Celtics epic. He too would get his due nearly a decade later with the same Houston Rockets. The characters, their styles and conflicts all bred familiarity as the plot unfolded toward an annual resolution.

It was a rich storyline even casual fans in those cities could not help but follow with bated breath, and it was something entertainment folks everywhere else could join midstream and understand like a film franchise. You do not have to see every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to know the superheroes, alliances and enemies. So, when the Detroit Pistons finally defeated the Celtics in 1987, and then the Lakers in 1989, everyone could appreciate what Isiah Thomas had gone through to beat Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

It took four years for Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to slay the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. (Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

The heroic rise of Michael Jordan

Same goes for Jordan’s Bulls, who survived three straight playoff losses to the Pistons before first declaring victory in 1991. The torch is passed, and the story continues. And when Chicago slayed every would-be challenger — Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers and Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz — we had a full appreciation of Jordan’s greatness. (It would have been nice to see him face Hakeem’s Rockets, though.)

The dismantling of the Bulls before Jordan could be slayed, combined with the 1999 lockout, reworked the plot, and then the increased flow of player movement abandoned it altogether. The Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs split the next five straight titles, but with the ultimate hero out of the picture, it never felt the same. Duncan’s personality and a competitive imbalance in the Eastern Conference did not help matters when it came to rebranding the league’s rivalries, and the transient nature of the modern superstar eliminated the familiarity that bred contempt and mass intrigue.

In “The Last Dance,” Jordan said he wanted the opportunity to defend the title until Chicago no longer could. He never got the chance, and we never saw the story through. Who can say how our appreciation of dynasties built by O’Neal, Bryant and Duncan might have changed had either defeated Jordan’s Bulls?

What was lost when Jordan left Chicago

The 2004 Pistons were a superstar-less team that reveled in low-scoring games and served as a fitting transition from familiar star-laden rivalries to ephemeral superteams. The feud between Shaq and Kobe birthed the 2006 champion Miami Heat, the first hired-gun title in recent memory. Having battled Jordan’s Bulls in Orlando and Duncan’s Spurs in L.A., O’Neal never belonged to Miami the way superstars before him were ingrained in their franchises. That team also launched Dwyane Wade, but we will get to him.

The 2008 Celtics broke the mold, turning a 24-win team into a champion overnight with the trade acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. That of course made Bryant’s back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 all the more impressive, since we had followed his journey through the muddled mid-2000s to emerge a champion again. It is also what we love about Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 Dallas Mavericks — the slow build of a franchise around a solitary superstar who we had seen rise and fall together before.

Sure, Boston appreciates Paul Pierce’s arc, but the majority of NBA fans see that ring as a gift Kevin McHale gave to the city in the form of Garnett. Same goes for last season. Toronto reveled in its lone championship run, but most observers saw Kawhi Leonard as the story. Players always deserved most of the credit — Jordan reminds us of that — but fans tend to follow teams, and it is more fun to follow one that returns the same characters every season. “The Office” was no good when Michael Scott left.

Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James joined forces to take down a super Boston Celtics team. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

The rise of LeBron James as an antihero

If the 2008 Celtics broke the mold, LeBron James perfected an art form not everyone appreciates. Rather than rebound from playoff losses to Boston and continue his hero’s journey with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James joined Wade’s Heat, and the rest is history. Fair or not, the perception is that James — the natural heir to Jordan’s throne — chased rings rather than earned them. Where once he may have slayed Boston in Cleveland and treated us to years of battles between his Cavaliers and Wade’s Heat, we instead came to understand that championships could come prefabricated rather than built brick by brick over time.

It is what we loved about the 2014 Spurs, whose once stale story arc became endearing in our nostalgia for an aging Duncan, and the 2015 Golden State Warriors, a homegrown champion who previously took their playoff lumps from San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers. We tired of the Warriors when Kevin Durant joined them rather than return with the Thunder for another crack at it and the chance to forge lasting rivalries between Oklahoma City, Golden State and the L.A. Clippers. Having watched him lose battles to Duncan’s Spurs, James’ Heat and Stephen Curry’s Warriors, we would have seen Durant in the same competitive mold as those superstars of the 1980s instead of the cupcake he was made out to be.

James has penned some fascinating stories of his own, ridding himself of the burden Boston had become by 2012, and even then it took returning to a Cavs team reconstructed to fit his championship mold and upsetting the 73-win Warriors in 2016 for us to appreciate his hero’s journey. He rewrote the script, and I am not so sure this version is as entertaining. Gone are the bonds between superstar and city, the familiarity of rivalries, and the through lines casual fans can trace from year to year. It’s like the old neighborhood is being bought up, hastily reconstructed to all look the same and sold off for a profit.

It was a slow build to a championship crescendo back in the day, and now everything is a quick fix.

Should the season resume and the Lakers win the title this year or next, is there any chance Los Angeles will revere that ring the same way fans did when Bryant returned to the mountaintop a decade ago? Take Leonard’s travels over the past several seasons. He has become a rogue assassin who belongs to no team. There is no history to appreciate with him on the Clippers. Same with Durant and the Brooklyn Nets now. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks may be our last hope for traditional NBA heroics.

I know I sound like an old man. Good for superstars for leveraging their power into a work-life balance that suits their personal preferences, but that does not mean the result is appreciated as much. If the Jordan doc has taught us anything, it is that stories are best when told over time. Maybe one day we will look back on James’ journey as the NBA glory days, but right now it sure feels like Jordan’s arc is better.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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