Ja Morant leads #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors in the second half of Game Three of the NBA Playoffs Semifinals Game at Chase Center on May 7, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Theron W. Henderson | Getty Images

The NBA is in a strong position as it recovers from the pandemic and prepares for the next media rights cycle in the next few years. The viewership of the final matches without much participation from the teams increased in the huge markets of New York and Los Angeles. The league’s biggest star, LeBron James, didn’t make the playoffs either.

Audiences keep watching the Golden State Warriors, who are back in contention for the title after missing out on the playoffs last year. The Boston Celtics are drawing big numbers, too, with the franchise looking to add their 18th title logo to the rafters in the ring. Young electric stars Ja Morant and Luka Doncic also helped restore the NBA rankings after two years of relegation due to the pandemic.

“The NBA is no longer dependent on one or two teams,” said sports media executive Neil Bilson. “They are no longer dependent on major market teams. This is a testament to strength.”

The NBA Conference Finals kicked off earlier this week on Warner Bros. Discovery is the property of Turner Sports and Disney-owned networks ABC and ESPN. By early Conference Finals games, post-season games averaged 3.7 million viewers on networks, a 14% increase over 2021.

Over 6 million people watched the first game of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. ESPN also reported that nearly 6 million viewers watched the first and second game of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses metrics from benchmarking company Nielsen for viewing statistics.

The NBA’s $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner expires after the 2024-25 campaign. Speculation about whether the NBA will adopt the streaming services in the next round of deals.

The league will have a strong hand to play in large part because of its young stars.

Bilson, the former president of CBS Sports, cited the NBA’s team balance and the promotion of young stars as a reason for fans to show interest. Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Doncic in Dallas put the NBA in a “healthy position” for a lucrative rights deal, said Morant.

The popularity of the 22-year-old Morant helped lead the Memphis Grizzlies to the most-watched match series of all time. The Grizzlies vs Warriors series averaged 5.9 million viewers over the course of six matches. This included 7.7 million viewers who watched the first match – the highest-rated game in the playoffs to date.

Morant missed the last three games of the series due to injury. But he is expected to return next season, so expect the national networks to show more Grizzlies matches.

Luka Doncic of the 77th Dallas Mavericks deals with the ball during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

Doncic, 23, led the Mavericks to seven wins over top seed Phoenix Suns on Sunday. This game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth most watched match of the playoffs this year.

“You can put in Memphis and Dallas and have an audience,” Bilson said, adding that the NBA “doesn’t depend on the Lakers and certainly doesn’t depend on the Knicks.”

The league will be tested during the NBA Finals in June.

The NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers in 2021, when the Milwaukee Bucks and their star Giannis Antetokounmo, defeated The Suns. That’s up from the 7.5 million average viewers for the 2020 NBA Finals, which featured James, now 37, and the Lakers playing in front of an empty arena in the Orlando Covid bubble. But it also lags far behind the 15.1 million viewers who watched the 2019 NBA Finals featuring the Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

Of the remaining teams, the Heat-Mavs Final may not attract the highest viewership as the Celtics-Warriors or Celtics-Mavs series. But Bilson said the remaining star players, including Warriors star Stephen Curry, would still be enough to attract a large audience. The profile of 24-year-old Celtics star Jason Tatum has developed this post-season.

“There are more NBA teams now that can support the Finals in terms of athletes and ratings than they were 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a beachfront property – sports are driving the TV economy. That’s why the rights fees are so expensive, and sponsors have to pay the most dollar.”

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart was fouled by Miami Heat forward PJ Tucker (17) during the first quarter. The Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics during Game Two of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at the FTX Arena in Miami, Florida on May 19, 2022.

Matthew J. Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

At the NBA Board of Governors meeting in April in New York, league commissioner Adam Silver said it was “too early” to consider adding new partners in the next rights deal. Tech giant Apple is now spending to display sports on the Apple TV + service.

“The discussions we’re having now are more about predictions and where the media market is going,” Silver said. “I think we’ll continue to see a lot of these rights that have historically been on traditional streaming services. And frankly, that’s where consumers are headed as well.”

But how the NBA packages these rights is still up in the air. Apple showed its interest in getting into the sports media business when it struck a deal this spring to acquire the MLB rights. Amazon is already working with the NBA, streaming WNBA games.

“I think that’s the direction the media is going in this country,” Silver said. “People want personalization. They want personalization.”

He added that broadcasting platforms provide sports fans with “flexibility and features that you might not find through traditional connectivity, satellite and cable.”