The NBA has the market cornered on drama right now.
The lottery is Tuesday night, and the fortunes of whichever lowly team earns the right to draft Zion Williamson with the first pick figure to change forever. Victories, sold-out games and overflowing coffers will follow for the lucky winner. The Bulls, with the fourth-best chance of nabbing the top pick, have so many fingers and toes crossed, they look like they’re having an arthritic episode.
The lottery provides all you need in the way of drama, but, wait, there’s more!
Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot against the 76ers hit the rim four times Sunday night before going in. Four freakin’ times. It was the first time in NBA history that a player had made a buzzer beater in a Game 7. It sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals. That means – HERESY ALERT! – it was better than Michael Jordan’s hang-time game-winner when the Bulls beat the Cavaliers in the series-deciding Game 5 of a 1989 first-round matchup. That’s a fact by any definition, but especially because of the way the ball went in Sunday. The rims are so tight in the NBA that you can suspend a minivan and a family of seven from one and it looks bored. Shooters rarely get favorable bounces. For Leonard’s attempt to bounce four times and go in for the Raptors, especially on a shot from the corner, it defies the laws of NBA physics.
Unless … you believe the league wanted Toronto to win and somehow had that particular rim tuned down like a slack guitar string. You can bet that’s what a dark corner of fandom believes. Nobody does conspiracy theories better than the NBA.
It’s why many people are braced for a Knicks’ ping-pong ball to rise to the top first during Tuesday’s lottery, giving the NBA what it really wants – Williamson in the Big Apple. If that happens, all the emails I’ve received from conspiracy theorists over the years will finally be right.
The drama of Leonard’s shot meant that the 76ers died a dramatic death. As the players stood shocked afterward, one couldn’t help but think of Othello and blood and dying upon a kiss. Or of “Alien,’’ when the creature emerges from a crewmember’s chest cavity. Yeah, probably the latter. How could a team with so much talent not get to the NBA Finals? Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler together? Are you kidding? Butler, entrusted with The Process, was supposed to teach everyone how to win. Apparently not yet.
Now we wait to see whether Jimmy stays or goes to another team. And whether Philadelphia fires coach Brett Brown. Because NBA drama never sleeps.
The Cavs grabbed the spotlight Monday morning, when news broke that they were luring John Beilein away from the University of Michigan. Cleveland gets a coach who led the Wolverines to two NCAA championship games. Beilein gets a five-year contract worth a ton of money and, if his prayers are answered, Williamson. The Cavaliers, along with the Knicks and the Suns, have a 14 percent chance of landing the first pick in the lottery.
Cleveland and Beilein hope this plays out the way it did in 2003, when the Cavs won the lottery and chose a high school kid named LeBron James.
Speaking of LeBron, who seems to be in the eye of every NBA storm, he finally has a new head coach. Actually, two. The Lakers hired Frank Vogel to replace Luke Walton, who never was going to last in the job, and brought in Jason Kidd, a former head coach who still wants to be a head coach, as a top Vogel assistant.
I foresee no drama here! But Vogel might want to have a side mirror attached to his shoulder. He’ll find it so much easier to watch his back.
All of this is good for the game. The NBA sells theatrics as much as it does basketball. In a very appropriate way, Houston’s James Harden, one of the league’s biggest stars, is a mix of both. The best drama of the 2018-19 season occurred whenever he shot a three-pointer. He’d flop like a soccer player at the faintest suggestion of contact, and mesmerized refs, tissues dabbing at tears, thought they were watching Marlon Brando yell, “Stella!’’
I’m fascinated and appalled by Harden’s game. Few players in NBA history have been able to make shots under defensive pressure the way he can. And few teams have been beholden to one player as much as the Rockets are. I don’t find it very interesting, and I’m guessing the rest of the Supremes, the Pips and the Rockets don’t either.
But that opinion automatically puts me on an electric mobility scooter and ushers me over to the old-white-guy discussion group. I’m OK with that … until the conversation turns to the massive conspiracy that led Jordan to “roll the dice,’’ give up hoops and play professional baseball.
There’s enough drama in the NBA that myth isn’t necessary. I eagerly await your emails telling me otherwise.