Fewer than 4,500 people have successfully climbed the 29,029 feet to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Even those who have scaled the peak multiple times face challenges, tribulations and misfortunes. It is undeniably one of the hardest tasks in the world.

Winning a professional sports championship might be even harder, which makes what the Pittsburgh Penguins did Sunday night all the more impressive — the NHL has not seen a team repeat as champions in 19 years. Furthermore, the roster of Stanley Cup participants since the 1999-00 season looks more like a geography bee study guide than a list of teams, which again makes Pittsburgh’s run that more impressive.

Compare that to the NBA, where three teams, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, and one player, LeBron James, account for 68 percent of all NBA Finals participants since the 1999-00 season.

Today, the two sports stand at the edge of their own crossroads. The NHL has a gleaming future ahead of it: This budding narrative of giant slaying. Sidney Crosby is far and away the best player in the NHL, and Evgeni Malkin is a legitimate top-10 force right beside him. Phil Kessel is growing, and arguably has grown, into a bonafide third star, and the Pens are committed to retain their championship-winning core.

In a sport where the playoffs are a grab bag, where the eight-seed Nashville Predators made a dominant run through the Western Conference and where, five years ago, the eight-seed Los Angeles Kings did the same and took home the Cup, Pittsburgh has felt like a sure thing. While the Washington Capitals and other teams consistently perform at high levels during the regular season, the Penguins always feel like the best team in the league.

The Pens care not for home ice advantage, seemingly taking the foot gas off the pedal  and saving energy for the playoffs, because why would they? They have the stars to take over regardless of where the game is being played, and they have the experience to win under pressure. The rest of the NHL is now playing catchup. Just when it seemed as though the Ottawa Senators had them beaten in the Eastern Conference Finals and just when it seemed the Predators had the momentum in the Stanley Cup, the Pens responded with 7-0 and 6-0 blitzkriegs, demoralizing the very thought of an upset — all after losing first line defender Kris Letang to injury prior to the postseason.

The Penguins, in a sport where the playoffs are wildly unpredictable, are as close to mainstays on the Everest-esque summit of championships. The mantle has been claimed, and the rest of the NHL is playing catchup.

But playoff hockey has a way of lending itself to extreme variance, a natural maelstrom of chaos that could very well give us a Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs final next season. The question lingers: Crosby and company may be at the top now, but for how long? Dominance in hockey is at once deified and fleeting; absolute monarchy is never a thought.

If only the same could be said for the NBA.

LeBron James is a transcendent figure in all of sports. He is, at this point, an inarguable top-five basketball player of all time, with many pundits and critics ranking him as high as second — right behind Michael Jordan. He has been the best player on the planet for the better part of the last decade, and he recently notched seven straight Finals’ appearances. The entire Eastern Conference has been playing for second since 2011.

But, James, for all his greatness, has nearly destroyed the allure of the Everest climb, polarizing the competitive balance of the entire sport. Ponder this: Last year, the greatest regular season team of all-time, the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, could not best James, even with a 3-1 lead.

They retooled by signing Kevin Durant, a move that sent the rest of the Western Conference into a LeBroninan state. It was not just that one team was demonstrably stronger than the rest; it was that every other team was so outclassed and so outmatched that the mere idea of beating the Warriors in a seven-game series was folly. Not only did the Warriors add the best player in the West to their already-impressive team, but they also took him from their primary challenger, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Even ignoring the salary cap gymnastics that make moves like this impossible in the NHL, two teams having unparalleled reign over competitive balance detracts from the greatness of a championship’s inherent achievement. Barring catastrophic injuries or an unprecedented move by another superstar, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors are set to square off in the Finals for years to come.

What the Penguins have done, like it or not, means something. Thirty other teams are striving to summit their own Everest.

In the NBA, however, the media has churned out thinkpieces or long-form articles galore, desperately trying to build a narrative reminiscent of David and Goliath, all just to keep interest fresh. While 28 other teams sit at home, coping with a lost future, these articles act as smoke and mirrors, for climbing Everest is no real feat when you start at 29,028.

 

 

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