To some basketball fans, there’s a thought that the league is rigged to benefit the league and the owners so they can line up their pockets with all the cash that comes in from great TV ratings that come from the success of the teams in their biggest media markets and their biggest stars killing it in the playoffs. To supporters of this theory, they point toward the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals where the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Milwaukee Bucks, the 2002 Western Conference Finals where the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings (ESPECIALLY Game 6), and the testimony of Tim Donaghy. As a result, the NBA Draft Lottery has become the sports equivalent of the Kennedy Assassination, with everyone looking forward to seeing how the lottery proves the conspiracy, particularly the 1985, 2003, 2008, 2011, and 2012 editions.
Do I think the league is rigged? No, I don’t. Every time I hear about this, I feel like I’m listening to an angry fan bitching that their team lost. Being around sports my entire life at various levels have rendered me unable to see a fix without hard evidence. And no, shitty refs don’t count.
But the idea is too fun to just leave alone. There’s a guy I follow on Twitter named Chris Lee Moore. He has a show called TV Trash where he reviews bad TV shows and he sometimes talks about sports. Like me, he doesn’t believe that the NBA (or any type of sport) is rigged or booked like pro wrestling, though he’ll admit that boxing doesn’t help his argument, and that the 2011 NBA Finals which saw the Dallas Mavericks beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat is Exhibit A because there would be no way at that time that anyone other than LeBron would be organized to win the title if fixers had their way. I want to take that line of thinking further using LeBron’s Finals appearances this decade, because if there’s any proof that the dynamics and forecast for the NBA can change with one player and his offseason moves and where he plays, it’s LeBron James.
- 2011: LeBron joins the Miami Heat with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in an introduction that would make Gene Simmons proud if he played basketball. This only serves to make people hate him even more following The Decision, and following his finals loss, LeBron James is cemented as the league’s villain. An arrogant prick that everyone wants to see fail at everything he does.
- 2012: LeBron beats Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder for his first title. Over this year, the hate died down over admiration for his skills, and the narrative is that LeBron has FINALLY won his title. The fact that 2011 happened, along with the chemistry that Lebron has with the rest of the Heat roster makes me feel like this wasn’t the coronation you’d think of it to be. How would you fix this to make it feel like a coronation? I can’t see the fix here.
- 2013: The Heat are in a league of their own. They go on a 27 game winning streak and they beat the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. The sky is the limit for the Heat, and we’re not just talking about a 3-peat, we’re talking about a dynasty like the Bulls of the 1990s and maybe even the Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s. You just feel you’re looking at something historic. Also, that Ray Allen three.
- 2014: The Heat and the Spurs make it back to the Finals. However, the Spurs win it in 5 and LeBron opts out of his contract. If there was a plan to fix the league for a Heat dynasty, the plan has officially blown up and is in tatters. And isn’t it fitting that it was the Spurs that ended the Heat’s run? I’m not sure how big of a market San Antonio is, but the 5-time champion Spurs are the antithesis of the NBA trend of individual popularity and the building the team around one guy. Watching the Spurs, you really see how Gregg Popovich has managed to get every player to buy into a “Team First” mentality you probably learned playing for a rec team or for your high school which may lead some to not recognize individual greatness. I mean look at Tim Duncan. Dude’s said to be one of the best at his position ever, and one of the best players of the 2000s, but I never thought of that because he played in the same time as Kobe Bryant…and LeBron.
- 2015: LeBron James has returned to Cleveland and promises to deliver a championship to the part of America that runs in his blood. And he makes the finals. One thing though: he loses to the Golden State Warriors who are led by this guy who’s really good at shooting 3-pointers named Stephen Curry. No storybook ending for you, LeBron. And once again, if you were a fixing guy, you look at this and see another golden opportunity to line your pockets and kill it in ratings and create another moment that’ll go down in basketball history…wasted.
- 2016: He did it! LeBron brings a title to Cleveland, and he beats the Warriors. And he comes back from 3-1 down which will bring about the most overused Twitter joke in sports. Now the Warriors had won 73 games in the regular season, breaking the once thought to be unbreakable record held by the ’95-’96 Bulls. And with this Finals loss, this Warriors team lose their chance to be called “the greatest team in NBA history”. Now, there were claims that the Finals were rigged to go seven games after Draymond Green’s flagrant foul suspension. I just say that you have to learn how to close the deal. And that Draymond Green needs to stop hitting people in the nuts.
- 2017: The Warriors beat the Cavs in five games, and LeBron isn’t the best player in the series. And neither is Stephen Curry. Nope, it’s Kevin Durant, who made his way to Northern California and spent this season proving why he should be called the basketball player in the world.
So, where does this leave Lebron? And where does this leave the hypothetical fixers? Well, sometime after Lebron returned to Cleveland, the comparisons to Michael Jordan came in and people got into heated debates about who’s the better debate and who’s the one that’s truly worthy to sit on the throne of “greatest player in NBA History”. I’ve heard that with the 2017 Finals, LeBron’s resume is pretty much complete. So now you see the Cavs going all in this year to get LeBron another ring, mainly because most people won’t look past how many Larry O’Brien Trophies you’ve won. Along with this, you can see the rumors that he’s going to Los Angeles to win a ring with the Lakers next year alongside Paul George and Lonzo Ball.
On the other hand, you have something special with the Warriors. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant are like the 2013 Heat. Nobody can touch them, and Kevin Durant is making his claim for best in the world, and I don’t see him stopping anytime soon.
I think that these two conflicting narratives will go down as my reasoning as to why the NBA is not fixed. You have two different directions, and people will say that the league is rigged against whatever direction you want to see happen, depending on what team you’re a fan of.
So, what’s going to happen? Will the Warriors continue to rack up the titles throughout the latter half of the 2010s? Will LeBron reach six rings, and where will those victories happen? All I know is, the league isn’t fixed to make any one thing happen, because I think the unpredictability of sports makes it fun.
Besides, if the league was rigged in some way, Lavar Ball would have probably blabbed about it by now because I don’t think he can keep his mouth shut for five minutes. Something about being a Lakers fan seems to suck me into these kinds of conversations.