*But sometimes it sure feels like it is.
Most conspiracy theories are not true. Most are, in fact, complete garbage. Some stick around though, gaining a kind of begrudging cultural acceptance. And make no mistake: plenty of people believe that some kind of fix is on with the NBA. Ayesha Curry said it. Adam Silver denied it. Most amusingly, The Sporting News devoted an article to saying you’re an idiot if you believe it.
Former commissioner David Stern supposedly rigged the NBA draft lottery to give the Knicks Patrick Ewing. Former referee Tim Donaghy really did bet on games that he reffed. The league didn’t help itself when Dikembe Mutombo appeared to know the results of this year’s draft lottery before it happened. And some believe that the suspension of Draymond Green for Game 5 was strategic, designed to extend the series, just as the decision not to suspend him after he dropkicked Steven Adams in the balls was supposedly designed to extend that series as well.
Well, if it was, it worked. The league and ESPN have gotten their wish as we head into a seventh game of what has turned into an unexpectedly great series. The Warriors have executed spectacularly all year, sprinting out to a 24-0 start and never looking back on the way to 88 wins and counting. The Cavs, though, have found their best selves in the Finals. Kyrie Irving has put on a show, and LeBron has demanded that we not take his greatness for granted.
For the next two and a half days, Game 7 is either team’s for the taking, at least in theory. Except, I have another theory: the Cavs will come out hard and make it a game for a while. LeBron and Kyrie will wow us some more. But as the game goes on, the Warriors will be too much to take. We have seen this movie before.
The Warriors have every conceivable championship ingredient. Led by multiple superstars, one of whom followed up a title and an MVP by getting dramatically better, they boast as many as seven NBA starter-caliber players as well as a contingent of bench contributors who embrace their roles. They play tough and selflessly, with excellent perimeter defense and rim protection to go with their incredible shooting. Their levelheaded coach oversees a team with the invaluable experience of having already won a title last year. Quite simply, Golden State is the better team. It won’t be that the game is rigged, just that upsets don’t usually happen in the NBA, and that’s why it feels rigged. In the NBA, the better team always wins.
At the very least, you could be forgiven for believing that. The first round of this year’s playoffs saw seven of the eight higher seeds win, with only the injury-decimated Clippers the exception (and even that was a 4 seed losing to a 5). Three of the four higher seeds remaining then advanced to the conference finals, and both 1 seeds moved on to the finals.
It wasn’t that there was no drama. The Heat played two memorable seven game series in a row. The Thunder shocked the superior Spurs then took the Warriors to the brink of elimination. It was more that the drama felt superficial. As exciting as it was to see the Thunder almost beat the Warriors, anyone who had watched the NBA for longer than the first four games of that series would have believed the upset when they saw it.
The NBA really does see unusually few playoff upsets. Over the last 20 seasons, the average NFL and NHL champion had a seed of 2.45 and the average seed of a World Series winner was 2.6. In the NBA, it was 1.6. Even though the NBA has more playoff teams than the NFL or MLB, only three times in twenty years did a seed lower than 3 make the NBA Finals. Over that time span, 4 seeds or lower won 13 Super Bowls and World Series. In the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, the 8 seed Kings beat the 6 seed Devils, a matchup whose unimaginable NBA Finals equivalent would be the hapless Rockets beating the irrelevant Hornets.
So why is the NBA different? For one thing, the NBA has the least deceptive seeds of any of the four major sports leagues, meaning the seeds are the least related to a relatively meaningless divisional record. (This year, the NBA playoff seeds moved almost entirely away from divisions factoring in at all.) In the World Series, for example, a 4 seed may be a wild card that actually had the second best record in their league but was stuck behind a better team in their division.
More importantly, though, the game of basketball is inherently hostile to upsets, especially over a seven game series. Compared to just about any other team sport, basketball has the fewest number of players in the game at once, giving the few stars an unparalleled ability to affect the game. It also has the most points scored, drastically reducing the chance that luck could produce a fluky score.
The NBA is not rigged. But still, as a fan on the outside of the Warriors bandwagon looking in, it is hard not to be frustrated by the NBA playoffs. What should be a great climax to a record season too often feels anticlimactic. Game 6 was anything but that. But whether true or not, it feels like Games 5 and 6 were just teasing us, that when it all comes down to Game 7, the Cavs won’t really have a chance.
One of the best things about sports is the belief that any given night can yield a surprise outcome. That one team can be inspired to overcome the odds through a lot of effort and a little luck. Most of all, sports are compelling as a fan primarily because the outcome is in doubt. As impressive as it was to watch the Warriors roll to a 73 win season, if we wanted to see a performance where we knew the ending, we would watch a movie or a play.
Game 7 could end up forcing millions of people to say the odd word pairing “Cleveland champions” for the first time in a very long time. It will probably instead end up a coronation of one of greatest teams we have ever seen. The game doesn’t deserve to be a referendum on the NBA’s fairness. For a lot of fans like me, though, some part of it surely will be.