Volatility in the NBA

Alex James
7 min readJul 13, 2021

If you asked me to summarize into a single word what I love most about the NBA it would be narratives. Between the League’s 30 teams and over 400 active players in any season, there are hundreds of storylines at any given moment, always changing, developing, and growing.

For good or for bad, most people who follow the sport have an opinion on each of these narratives, whether it’s a well thought out concept like how Kevin O’Connor thought Killian Hayes was the best prospect in the Draft or a patently dumb concept like a nameless face on Twitter telling the Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer that Giannis is his third-best player.

via twitter

The interesting layer on top of this is that the NBA is so volatile with so many factors involved that it’s impossible to be right on all (if not most) of these opinions. You can have the most elaborate and researched theory in the world, but you can still be wrong about the best overall pick like O’Connor seems to have been about Hayes. You also can be completely out of your mind about how good Giannis is and still be right about some good offensive sets for Milwaukee. The point being is that it is impossible to have the whole truth in almost any circumstance. Being right or wrong about something can come down to pure luck or circumstance in some cases. This is the volatility of the NBA.

Is this not really making sense yet? That’s ok, I’ve re-written this several times and I feel like I’m burying the lead a bit. I think an example might be helpful, so let’s talk about the Milwaukee Bucks. You may have heard of them, they’re in the NBA Finals right now.

Last season the Milwaukee Bucks were a lot of people’s favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference. They were the number one team in the East based on their record during the regular season and they had the repeat MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on their team. Would this be the Bucks first trip to the Finals and a Title? Well, not exactly. They were blitzed by the Miami Heat and were one very slim overtime victory away from being swept out of the series. This soiled the Bucks image League-wide with many people understanding that Giannis may not resign with Milwaukee long-term, that their team wasn’t good enough to compete, that the supporting cast around Giannis wasn’t that good, that Giannis just wasn’t “That Guy”, and that maybe Miami was the new team to beat in the East.

via nba.com

Fast-forward a full season and Milwaukee comes up against the same Miami team in the First Round in this season’s Playoffs. Even though Milwaukee is the better team on paper, they were last year as well. The rumblings began, “Miami might be a sneaky team to beat, here” and, “The Bucks have never really proven themselves in the Playoffs” and this went all the way up till the first game of the Series, where the Bucks beat the Heat on this Khris Middleton game-winner. This shot in and of itself is some combination of skill, luck, rhythm from the game to this point, the crowd, and “the moment”. If Middleton misses this shot, Miami could have won this game, which could snowball into more confidence from Miami, or less confidence from Milwaukee and alter the series.

Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson on Playoff series volatility

Snowball aside, I’m not saying that Middleton missing this less-than-ideal shot would have won Miami the game, much less the series, but I do think it’s a good litmus for the volatility the NBA lends itself to. The narrative could seismically shift based on a single moment, a single decision, a single shot.

Let’s move this further down the tracks to the Bucks second series against what most people agree was one of the most (if not the most) powerful teams in the League this season: the Brooklyn Nets. Had they had been fully healthy, there is a likely chance that the Nets would have beaten the Bucks handily and gone to the Finals, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole right now. Instead, we are dealing with the reality that the Nets were injured and they were riding an ethereal high from Kevin Durant to reach the final moments of a Game 7 where if the Nets hit a three here, the series is over, coach Budenholzer is all but certainly fired, the Jrue Holiday trade was a complete waste of assets, and Giannis is just what all the naysayers said about him: not “That Guy”.

Durant’s final shot to tie Game 7 and OT highlights

But by the grace (or disdain if you’re a Nets fan) of the Basketball gods, Durant’s feet were ever so slightly on the three-point line, so the cosmic shift in powers that would have elevated Durant to unimagined heights, shined brightly on all those in Brooklyn and sank the Bucks as we know it, instead lead us to overtime where a fully diminished Durant just didn’t have any gas left to give and his game-winning prayer in overtime ironically air-balled. The course of the Nets and Bucks and by extension the Hawks and Suns who also have been matched against the Bucks are altered by extension.

via USA Today

We’re now in the Finals and the Phoenix Suns are competing against our battle-tested Bucks. The Suns have dealt with their own volatile storyline on their way here, overcoming a tattered Lakers team and stifling the poster-child for ebbing and flowing in the LA Clippers to get here. The Suns have gone up 2–0 in this series, doing what the home team is supposed to do: win on their home floor. Now the Bucks are basically in a do-or-die situation in Game three where if they don’t win, they will be all but defeated, with no team ever winning a series after being down 3–0.

Within the result of a single game, in a series that is far from decided, we have a substantial adjustment in the narrative. The Suns could have won this game and been all but crowned as Champions. Chris Paul’s parade riding atop a State Farm blimp would already start being planned as Devin Booker was unfairly crowned Kobe 2.0 and DeAndre Ayton would have a well-deserved apology from everyone who thought he was a complete waste of a First overall pick in a Draft class a few years back.

Instead, Milwaukee came out strong with energy and a lot of size inside and overwhelmed Phoenix, putting the series back to a much more manageable 2–1 series score. Accompanying that scoreline, Giannis being lauded as one of the League’s best players (and rightfully so) as he joined elite company including Jordan, LeBron, Shaq, and Durant with the jaw-dropping stats levied on the Suns. The pressure is now back on Phoenix to find an answer for Giannis’ behemoth size and scoring, Devin Booker’s inconsistency to score the basketball, and Jrue Holiday’s effect on the series defensively and offensively in bursts.

via the NBA

If you’ve made it this far, you may still be wondering what my point is. I’ve just spent nearly 1200 words explaining to you that when things happen, the outcome is affected. Gee, thanks!

I suppose my main point is that I love the NBA because of this unfettered opinion soup that is created by each and every update to a storyline. I love that my opinion, along with everyone else's, have radically changed based on this Playoffs on certain players, teams, rules, present narratives, and future events that may or may not occur (like Damian Lillard being traded, or Chris Paul finally getting a ring to cement himself as one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game).

I also think it’s important to have awareness of these opinions changing and treat them for what they are: opinions about volatile events that can be viewed as fully true or false based on an outcome where the truth always lies somewhere within the middle. If the Bucks win the Title, does that make them the best team in the World and crown Giannis the best player in the League? Well, yes and no, right? They will win the Title, and be the last remaining team standing out of 30, and be remembered in the history books as the best team this season, but they also beat some teams missing their full rosters, star players, and on paper are probably not the team most people would choose to win a Title if we ran the whole Playoffs back tomorrow.

If the Bucks win a well-deserved Title, it will shift narratives — fairly or unfairly — around Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, coach Bud, Paul, Booker, and Ayton, as well as Milwaukee and Phoenix as a whole for this season and the next. The same goes for the butterfly effect that ripples out to the 28 other teams that are not here. It’s this volatility that will bring me back to watch Game Four of the Finals. It’s this volatility that will make me listen to days-worth of NBA podcasts, consume hundreds-of-thousands of words in NBA articles and watch an inconceivable amount of games next year, too.

Volatility above all else is what makes the NBA compelling to me. And even that could change.