NBA’s only parity problems are perception, LeBron James

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When LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Miami in 2010, many bemoaned the end of competitive balance, complaining LeBron had guaranteed himself a title that year. When LeBron return to Cleveland in 2014, similar angst emerged: LeBron again worked the system to guarantee himself a championship.

Of course, neither the 2010-11 Heat nor 2014-15 Cavaliers won a title.

But the same hysteria took hold when Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors last summer, and maybe this time, the hand-wringers will be right. Golden State enters the 2017 NBA Finals as heavy favorites over the Cavaliers in a widely expected matchup.

Has parity suddenly ended, or did the handwringers just finally happen to get one right?

This is the first time in the last dozen years, as far back as Sports Odds History records go, where the preseason conference favorites actually met in the Finals:

Season Expected Actual
2016-17 Cavaliers-Warriors Cavaliers-Warriors
2015-16 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2014-15 Cavaliers-Spurs Cavaliers-Warriors
2013-14 Heat-Thunder Heat-Spurs
2012-13 Heat-Lakers Heat-Spurs
2011-12 Heat-Lakers Heat-Thunder
2010-11 Heat-Lakers Heat-Mavericks
2009-10 Cavaliers-Lakers Celtics-Lakers
2008-09 Celtics-Lakers Magic-Lakers
2007-08 Celtics-Spurs* Celtics-Lakers
2006-07 Heat-Mavericks* Cavaliers-Spurs
2005-06 Heat-Spurs* Heat-Mavericks

*Conference favorites weren’t available, but I used the top team in the title odds from each conference.

None of the biggest preseason title favorites in this era – 2010-11 Heat, 2005-06 Spurs and 2013-14 Heat – have won titles. (The 2016-17 Warriors, favored over the field, could change that).

You can’t call that a fair die will land on 2, watch it land 4-3-6-4-2 then claim to be all-knowing after the last roll. Or at least you shouldn’t be taken seriously if you do.

But, to a degree, that’s what’s happening here.

The perception of a predictable outcome is sweeping over the actual predictability. This season was never guaranteed to end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals. Both teams had to earn their way here. They were favored against the field for good reason, but they still had to avoid injury, chemistry issues and upstart challengers. Play out this season 100 times, and it doesn’t always end with a Warriors-Cavs Finals.

But it feels that way, because it’s an unprecedented third straight Finals matchup between the same teams.

Yet, is feeling clouding reality? These other three- or four-year periods featured just three different teams in the Finals:

  • 2012-14 (Heat, Spurs, Thunder)
  • 2008-10 (Lakers, Celtics, Magic)
  • 1996-98 (Bulls, Jazz, SuperSonics)
  • 1988-90 (Pistons, Lakers, Trail Blazers)
  • 1984-87 (Celtics, Lakers, Rockets)
  • 1982-84 (Lakers, 76ers, Celtics)

Is that really so different than the two teams we’ve gotten in the last three years?

Again, it feels way different, and I get that.

I’m just not sure how the NBA can reconcile the issue.

LeBron’s teams have been favored to win the East the last eight years. Once he got good enough to actually carry them that far annually, nobody has touched them. As long as he remains elite, his teams will be favored in most regards.

The West has been far less predictable, though Golden State looks poised for a lengthy run. As much as fans wants parity, they also want teams to have the inside track for retaining their own players. Now that they have so many good players – Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – the Warriors can keep their core together (as long as they’re willing to spend).

But it’s hard to stay on top. LeBron is 32, destined to decline eventually. Golden State’s payroll and egos could become too outsized to manage.

Just because the Warriors and Cavaliers feel inevitable doesn’t make it so. They have both been favored to win their conference and actually won their conferences precisely one year – this year. Don’t let recency bias trick you into believing it has always been and will always be this way.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.

Celtics to retire Paul Pierce’s number after Cavaliers game in February

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The Celtics already said they’d retire Paul Pierce’s No. 34.

Now, we know when.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics announced today that they will retire Paul Pierce’s No. 34 after a mid-season game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, Feb. 11

After? That’s apparently in response to a new rule that penalizes teams not ready to play after a 15-minute halftime. These ceremonies can drag on, and nobody wants to cut Pierce short. I wonder whether this will start a trend of number retirements coming after games.