The unlikely foursome that makes up the final leg of the NBA Playoffs is the least-predictable, most surprising conclusion to the season — and it’s wonderful. For all the wringing or hands and gnashing of teeth over “down ratings” without Stephen Curry or LeBron James, the numbers aren’t bearing that out. Instead we’re seeing two of the most captivating conference finals in recent memory, and people are taking notice.
Early ratings returns aren’t just showing that interest is overwhelming at the end of this season, but they might eclipse anything we’ve seen in recent years. A deep dive into NBA ratings by Ben Rohrbach Yahoo Sports shows that the young stars of the NBA like Trae Young and Devin Booker are as compelling as anything we’ve seen in the last 20 years.
“The viewership share for this year’s playoffs — the percentage of people with TVs in use that are watching the NBA — is at its highest since the league first began logging that data during the 2002-03 season.”
These swelling market share numbers better reflect the changing ways people watch TV, and that those choosing to watch live programming are tuning in. However, the raw numbers support the idea that the NBA is succeeding this season.
Game 7 of the Hawks and Sixers pulled in a 6.1 rating, beating the U.S. Open on the day, while Game 1 of Suns vs. Clippers had a 4.5. Those numbers exceed the 2020 Finals between the Lakers and Heat, and rival the 2007 Finals between the Spurs and Cavaliers. Obviously last year deserves as asterisk, because people weren’t really interested in the bubble finals in the middle of a pandemic.
The jokes on Twitter about Adam Silver sweating a small market final four (aside from the Clippers, who let’s face it, are the Clippers) are falling on deaf ears. There’s fun and excitement, especially from lapsed NBA fans who have felt the game has become too predictable.
We don’t need to relitigate super teams. The concept has been discussed and debated to death for over a decade, ever since LeBron James joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and formed the first modern super team. The formation of star teams has both led to some of the most exciting matchups in NBA history, and also turned some fans away, feeling they’re against the spirit of parity — especially for small markets that can’t sway the sport’s biggest stars.
This year it’s different. Sure, you can technically call the Clippers a super team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but it’s not nearly as pronounced as past teams. Couple that with Devin Booker and Chris Paul-led Suns, Giannis and Jrue Holiday in Milwaukee, and the Hawks with Trae Young and John Collins, and there are a lot of names lapsed NBA fans aren’t used to seeing this late in the playoffs, if they’re familiar with them at all. That’s incredibly fun.
Of course, it also helps when these players are living up to their billing and Trae is dropping damn-near 50 points with swagger. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the new generation, even if you’ve become jaded towards the product overall in the past.
Preseason odds never saw these four teams going this deep. While the Bucks and Clippers were 2nd and 4th respectively in Vegas betting, the Hawks and Suns were 17th and 14th. And yes, if you’ve been following along, it’s Atlanta and Phoenix who are up 1-0 right now.
This is the ideal, the craved parity in sports that tells us any team has a shot. In the past it hasn’t necessarily felt that way, but the Hawks and Suns in particular are proving that everyone had a chance in the NBA in 2020-21, and it’s turning heads. You can keep calling this a “nightmare” if you want, and you’d be wrong — because it turns out these small-market finals might be the turning point at winning back millions of lapsed NBA fans.