Actually, the basketball was good

June 14, 2017

Do you like basketball? By which I mean - do you enjoy watching the sport of basketball be played?

 

Can you watch a January Timberwolves-Kings game and find something interesting in it? Can you watch a Euroleague game? How bout college? High school?

 

Does basketball, for you, have value in its very playing?

 

Or do you need a rooting interest? Do you need competitiveness?

 

A lot of people did not like the 2017 NBA Finals, or the 2017 playoffs, or the 2016-17 season generally. The Warriors signed Kevin Durant and then marched to the title. This, to many people, was bad.

 

And, hey, that's fine. If you hate the Warriors, or Warriors fans, or the Bay Area, or the tech industry, or really anything else you want to have Golden State serve as an avatar for, that is completely fine. If you wanted to see them lose because you find them obnoxious and instead this happened and, for you, it totally sucks? Fine. 

 

But if you found it boring, if you were not compelled by the Finals or your interest in this season was negligible, because you knew the Warriors were in the end going to win, I would question whether it is basketball you actually like.

 

And, to be clear, that's also fine. There's no point putting a moral value on this, this is simply about the ways in which basketball is enjoyed. As a sport, or as a spectacle, or as a competition.

 

It is true that the playoffs were not competitive, and that the Finals were not as competitive as they might ideally be, and that by extension the season was not a very competitive one. If this is why you watch basketball, then it very obviously must have been disappointing.

 

But if you like basketball - dribbling, passing, shooting, running, jumping, the intermingling of five people to a side doing these things in concert over the course of 48 minutes to produce a game of basketball - I would submit this season was not boring and was in fact very good, and the Finals too very good.

 

It's an important distinction, because as this Deadspin comment perceptively noted, there was a lot "performative boredom" these playoffs. (Tidily and conveniently summed up by this Deadspin article and also this one.)

 

Which is to say - there was a lot of misanthropic hemming and hawing about how crappy the NBA is now, how bad this season was, and to submit such an opinion you should at least have to acknowledge that what you primarily like about basketball is not the playing of basketball. 

 

Which is, again, fine. If you like, say, the chaos and unpredictability of the baseball postseason, you are well-entitled to liking that and not liking the NBA. 

 

But to watch the 2016-17 NBA season - to watch a historically gifted and creative team like Kevin Durant's Golden State, to watch LeBron James and Kyrie Irving play out of their minds in gladiatorial defeat, to watch the emergence of a unique force like Giannis Antetokounmpo or the unparalleled force of Russell Westbrook unleashed, to say nothing of what players like James Harden and Isaiah Thomas on teams like the Rockets and Celtics did night in and night out - and furrow your brow at all of it in unimpressed disapproval because the end wasn't a surprise, is to say a lot about what you think of the sport of basketball as a self-sufficient mode of entertainment. 

 

If what you want is competitiveness and unpredictability, first and foremost, with the dribbling and passing and shooting and running and jumping of basketball also included, then I would direct you to college ball or Europe (try Israel!) or any number of levels of the game that offer the uncertainty you crave. The NBA is notoriously dynastic - Michael Jordan's Bulls won six titles in one decade, and would have won eight if MJ hadn't been struck by the idea of giving baseball a try. 

 

We are a half-decade away from these Warriors approaching that, and they very well may, in which case now would be a good time to clear the NBA out of your life's clutter if the playing of very good basketball itself cannot sustain your interest. The NBA is not and never will be the NCAA Tournament.

 

Like I said earlier, this is not about assigning moral values or establishing what embodies the "truer" fan of basketball. There is no such thing as better or worse or truer or phonier fandom. Everyone is allowed to like whatever they want on their terms. 

 

But it should be clear that if your terms for basketball include competitiveness and unpredictability, what you like is not exactly basketball per se and is instead sports generally. Basketball was bad sports in 2016-17: little if any drama, a coronation of a postseason, all because a team that was already among the two best added a player among the two best. That is objectively bad sports, I will grant you.

 

But the basketball was still good basketball.

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