Monday, April 25, 2005

A Minor League

As hard as it is for myself to believe, I made a decision to give this year’s NBA playoffs more than just a passing glance. I’m not just talking about checking a box score or waiting for highlights. I’m talking about putting on TNT or ESPN or the Cooking Channel or whatever network a given game happens to be on. Not to watch a full game necessarily, but to catch a quarter, a half, maybe a crucial moment in a game.

In case you’ve missed it, the rare instances that I’ve actually mentioned the acronym “NBA” on this site, it’s usually been in a negative way. What was once an important league for me to follow, has slipped further and further off my radar screen over the past five years or so. This season in particular, it barely registered a blip in the midst of a cold winter.

As someone whose formative years as a sports fan took place in that fun space in time when the careers of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan overlapped, the NBA of the late 80s/early 90s felt like a more than adequate complement to the NFL and MLB. In fact, on its best nights it could be just as dynamic and exciting as anything the other professional sports leagues could muster.

Even in the league's finest hour, the NBA regular season always felt a little lethargic and too drawn out. Now, it feels interminable. The playoffs, however, were always a different story.

They were energetic, exciting, intense and filled with star-power. There was always a rivalry-of-the-moment that teetered on the brink of getting out of control. And it was riveting. There were memorable games, great basketball and, of course, a man named Jordan. Somewhere along the way, and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment, all the air came out of the balloon.

It was gradual, like air slowly drifting out of the tiniest of pin leaks. It started with Jordan’s retirement #2, and continued with the ill-timed work stoppage, which cut out half of the 1999 season. There was the run of terrible NBA Finals, the three-peat of the hard-to-watch Lakers and the disintegration of any meaningful and legitimate rivalries.

Through it all, there was an influx of more and more young players into the league as an era began in which an increasing amount of high schoolers opted to forego playing college basketball and entered the NBA draft. Likewise, many players with professional aspirations, if not talent, who had gone to college were leaving before their eligibility was complete.

The effect of the increasing space for younger and more inexperienced players on NBA rosters can debated ad nauseum by better basketball minds than mine. However, from my seat on the couch, the caliber of play in the league has been on a downward slide for at least half a decade. The fact that the Commissioner’s Office is considering implementing a rule that would prevent any player under the age of 20 from entering the league, indicates they don’t think the league is quite as fan-tastic as it used to be.

There are some specific, technical critiques I have of the NBA game, and there are a few aesthetic ones. In no particular order:

The Entertainment:Competition ratio. The way I’ve tried to explain this to a couple of my friends goes like this. I understand that when I’m watching any major sporting event, I’m watching a product. I’m watching something that’s being marketed and sold, and then being continually being positioned to be marketed and sold again. However, I don’t want to be reminded of this when I’m actually watching the games. I want the event to feel as much like a true, pure competition as it can. That means I have to get that sense from the players, the coaches, the announcers, the fans, the setting and the atmosphere. From the players specifically, I want to get the sense that there is nothing they want more in the world, at that moment, than to win the game.
And in all honesty, I get that sense of passion and intensity less from the NBA than I get from the other two major professional leagues. Of course this could be due to the fact that they don’t play the game all that particularly well. (See below.)
The atmosphere is also an issue. With the flashing lights, the continued pumping of loud abrasive music into the arena (while the game is being played!), the boxing announcer wannabe PA guys, the league is veering dangerously close to the same lampoonish and cartoonish vibes that are more appropriate for Globetrotter games.

The games are just not that fun to watch. This is an aesthetic reaction, but I think there are technical aspects that underlie it.
To start with, what makes basketball fun to watch? Among other things: players working well together, i.e. making good passes, finding the open man on offense, playing solid team defense; fast breaks; intensity; energy; smart play; and dynamic moves.
The current brand of basketball has become less interesting to watch because the NBA is lacking in all of these areas to varying degrees. Generally speaking, I don’t think players play “team basketball” as well as they did 10 years ago. There is more of a premium on one-on-one basketball, and less of a propensity to really move the ball around quickly and with a purpose in a given offensive set.
Tied in closely with this is the virtual disappearance of the fast break in professional basketball, which in some ways is a mystery to me. One could make the argument that teams are defending it better than they did 20 years ago. Maybe, but it also seems that teams 1) don’t know how to consistently implement it, or don’t want to, or 2) they’re not skilled enough at the key position, i.e. point guard, to effectively run it.
What I see more and more of in an NBA game today are slow developing offensive sets, which are usually focused on only one or two players. There is not a ton of movement by players with the ball, an over-abundance of dribbling, and not many passes to “work” a defense. Although this is impossible to measure, I sense that there is a lack of feel for the game, in general, that would result in an effective extra pass on the perimeter or a correct pass on a fast break.

I can imagine younger readers who only know the post-Jordan era to scoff at me as a grumpy old man. That’s fine. I know it’s not all about scoring, but you tell me what league looks more exciting to watch:

Team Points/Game League 1

Points/Game League 2

The first group is the NBA this year, 2004-05. Six teams averaged 100 ore more ppg. The second grouping are team averages from the 1989-90 season. Every single team except one averaged over 100 points a game. And the explanation is not solely that the defenses have gotten better. Solid, offensive basketball skills have slowly eroded over the past 15 seasons at the professional level.

After a couple days of tuning into the NBA for the first time in almost a year, the results are mixed with most of the warts still in plain view. I saw a spurt of energy and intensity from the Celtics’ 2nd team on Saturday night, and solid play on both ends of the court by the so-called “Baby Bulls” of Kirk Heinrich and Ben Gordon. I’ve still seen a fair share of bad decisions and bad shooting to make me think there’s a long way to go.

Regardless of how difficult or pointless it might seem, I am going to try and stick with it through the Finals. Probably won’t be watching every night, or even every series. But instead of saying “the NBA stinks now” and be done with it, I almost want to give it one more chance: “Is it really as bad as I think it is?”

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