Eight teams remain in the NBA playoffs, but there is one that Charles Barkley doesn’t want to see win the title: the heavily favored Nets.
The superteam led by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and (the currently injured) James Harden has dominated the Bucks in the opening two games of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup. Durant’s otherworldly level of play is even more remarkable considering he isn’t that far removed from a torn Achilles, but Barkley is still disappointed in the league’s insistence on superteams.
“KD is a great player, and I think he’s a great kid,” Barkley said on a conference call for this weekend’s American Century Championship golf tournament. “I don’t know him that well, but I’m not a fan of superteams. So listen, if they win it, they win it, but to be perfectly clear, I’m rooting against those guys. I root against all superteams.
“If I’d known you guys were going to make fun of me for not winning a championship, I would have joined a superteam back in my day—me and Patrick [Ewing] and Karl Malone and John Stockton. But I feel good about my legacy. I’m pretty sure Patrick and John and Karl do, too. LeBron [James] started this superteam thing [in Miami], and hey, it’s the way the game is played now.”
Barkley notes that his concern over the creation of superteams is the way they stunt the growth of franchises, particularly those in smaller markets.
“When Kawhi [Leonard] left Toronto—other than Chicago, that’s my favorite city in the world, [but] I’m never going there again,” Barkley said, noting that the Raptors are no longer a contender since Leonard left in free agency. “When LeBron left Cleveland, I’m never going there again. When James [Harden] left Houston, I’m never going to Houston again. Same thing when LeBron left Miami. Oklahoma City, once KD left, we’re never going back there again. And I don’t think that’s good for the game.
“To go back to my day, even though we didn’t win the championship, the Sixers were worth watching. The Knicks were worth watching. The Pacers were worth watching when Reggie was there, same thing with Atlanta and Dominique. I just don’t think it’s good for business, but these young kids, they all fold to peer pressure and feel like they’ve got to win a championship or their life sucks. I don’t believe that. Listen, there’s not many people I’d trade my life with.”
Promoting the 54-hole golf tournament on NBC, Barkley was equal parts articulate, funny, thoughtful and honest. He’ll join a star-studded lineup that includesPatrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Timberlake. Asked to handicap the tourney, Barkley shows off another signature trademark: his refusal to ever take himself too seriously.
“Clearly, if you’ve been watching me make basketball predictions, you know I have no freakin’ idea on what’s going on,” said Barkley, who was also asked about his own golf game. “To say I’ve been struggling on the golf course is the biggest freakin’ understatement in the history of civilization. I just want to play and have fun.”
Introduced to golf early in his NBA career by Sixers teammate Andrew Toney, the game is an integral part of Barkley’s life. Asked if TNT Inside the NBA broadcast partner Shaquille O’Neal also plays, Barkley could not resist the chance to poke some fun at his Hall of Fame friend.
“Shaq doesn’t play,” Barkley said. “He’s in every crappy commercial on television, so that takes up all his free time. Shout out to Shaq. He’s got some [new] water coming out now. I’ve never seen him drink water, but he’s got a water company now.”
Barkley’s humor complements his knowledge, and he is one of the best ambassadors in the world for the game of basketball. He also touched on the return of fans to games, and the way their relationship with the players can evolve in a post-pandemic world.
“Sports suck without fans,” Barkley said. “If anybody lost a loved one with COVID, my thoughts are with you. Or if you lost your business, or lost your job. This COVID thing has really, really sucked.
“I hope the two sides [fans and players] come together. I think the fans realize that life sucks without sports. If you don’t have sports, all you have is reality, and reality sucks. And the players learned that sports really sucks without fans. I’m hoping this is a turning point where we start having more respect for each other, and my jackass players don’t load-manage and sit out when they’re not hurt and won’t play back-to-back games. And I hope the fans [realize], if they give 110%, whether we win or not, [you] live with that. I’m hoping this is a time of reflection for fans and players to realize we’re much better together than apart.”
The return of full arenas has been marred by the unacceptable behavior of a few fans. Trae Young was spit on in New York, Kyrie Irving had a water bottle thrown at him in Boston, and a fan in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook.
“I’ve been in the NBA for 36 years—16 as a player and 20 on television—most of the fans are awesome,” Barkley said. “There’s always been ass—–, though, but most of the fans have always been fantastic. But I don’t view fans as they’re bad. Most of the fans are fantastic, so I’m not going to overreact.”
Barkley, whose podcast with Ernie Johnson, The Steam Room, was recently nominated for a Webby award, also shared his feelings on the resurgence of the Knicks.
“I want to see the Knicks do good,” he said. “What they learned in the playoffs is you can’t just work hard. They’re one of the hardest working teams in the league, that’s how they got the No. 4 seed. But as you saw when the playoffs started, they don’t have enough talent. So this is a really, really big summer for them.”
Despite bowing out in five games to the Hawks, the Knicks received a thunderous ovation from fans at Madison Square Garden, who were clearly hungry for playoff basketball.
“The energy those fans were showing during the playoffs, man, that’s what the playoffs are all about,” Barkley said. “That place was on fire. I was telling Kenny and Shaq this [three] nights ago—the Brooklyn Nets got a much better team. But when they play, it’s like a mausoleum. So I hope [New York] keeps getting better.”
Barkley also spoke at length about his former team, the Suns, who knocked out the defending champion Lakers in rather convincing fashion, and now lead the Nuggets, 2–0, in the Western Conference semifinals.
“It’s great to see good basketball,” Barkley said. “Some of the stuff I’ve been watching for the last few years, that’s not a lot of fun. So I’m happy for those fans [in Phoenix] because they deserve it. They’re amazing fans.
“I’m glad to see the Suns doing well. The food is better now. When they weren’t winning, they were selling cold nachos. They weren’t even putting jalapenos on it. You could park right beside the court, there were no fans. Now we’re back to being sold out every night. I love it.”
As for the Suns’ chances against the Nuggets, Barkley believes the key to the series is centered around the Deandre Ayton–Nikola Jokić matchup.
“If Deandre plays evenly with Joker, they’re going to win the series,” Barkley said. “He outscored him and had just as many rebounds in game one. If that happens [two] more times, the Suns have a great chance of winning.”
Suns point guard Chris Paul has had an outstanding playoffs thus far and played a critical role in the team’s success all season. Paul has a player option for $44.2 million to extend his stay another season in Phoenix, and Barkley it would be absurd to pass up that kind of money.
“You know I like to drink, right?” Barkley said. “I’ve never been drunk enough to say no to $45 million dollars. Not even in my wildest drunken stupor. He’s going to make $45 million dollars. I’ve never been drunk enough to say, ‘Nah, I don’t need the $45 million, I’m good.’
“Chris is the best leader we got in the NBA. I’m a big Chris Paul fan. I don’t know if the Suns are going to win a championship, [but] Chris Paul is going to the Hall of Fame. The grass might not be greener somewhere else, and nothing is ever guaranteed to you, but man, it would take some stones to say, ‘I don’t want $45 million dollars.’ I think that’s more money than I made my entire career.”
If the eventual champion is going to come from the Western Conference, its representative will likely have to get past the Nets. And anyone doubting Brooklyn’s dominance need only watch their first two games against the Bucks.
“People are starting to lean toward Brooklyn because they stomped Milwaukee in the mud hole for the last two games,” Barkley said. “I never want to be one of those ass—– on TV that think they know everything. I’ve got zero idea who is going to win the championship coming into the playoffs, and I said this is going to be the craziest playoffs ever. And that series is not over, but it looks like Brooklyn is going to win the East, but I was so disgusted in Milwaukee.
“Number one, I picked them, but [it’s] the way they’re playing. I can handle losing, but I can’t handle not competing. What Milwaukee did those first two games, that was not competing. What I’m seeing from my Suns and the Nuggets and the Jazz and the Clippers, that’s competition. That game [Tuesday], the Clippers and the Jazz, it was amazing.”
There has been so much to celebrate this season in the NBA, including the play of Jokić, the league’s MVP. But Barkley notes that the contributions of Stephen Curry should not be overlooked.
“It was really great what he did for the NBA this year,” Barkley said. “The success he had was really awesome. He’s such a good kid, too. I like him a lot as a person, and I always liked his dad, Dell, too. It was great for the NBA that he got a lot of shine this year.
“The Joker deserved MVP this year. Embiid missed too many games. But I don’t think you can say anybody played better basketball than Steph this year.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.