Friday, May 18, 2012

What is this Sport...Basketball?: The Ignant NBA Fan

Just like the Georgetown days, huh Roy? (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
The allure of NBA basketball escapes me. I feel that the idea of the NBA as a major sports entity is one more conjured up by ABC and ESPN who have millions upon millions of dollars invested in it because it provides a lot of live sports for them to fill up their airwaves. I don't know any die hard NBA fans or anyone that would invite me over to watch the Sixers play the Bucks in January. It's a sport as lost upon me as NASCAR is in that I see the popularity, I hear the ratings, but I have no personal evidence to back up that if the NBA disappeared tomorrow anyone would care.

It's a sport that has built up some of the most marketable figures of our lifetime. Michael Jordan is the most famous athlete on the planet even years after he's retired and taken ownership of the worst NBA team ever assembled (seriously, when the team's own site is "hoping things work out at the draft" you know things are embarrassing). Kobe Bryant is a mega star in the biggest media market. LeBron James was a multi-millionaire before he even laced up his custom Nike's for his first NBA game. So there is an impression that the players leave, but unlike the game itself, I'll pass.

The reason these individuals are so easily marketed is that they appeal to a wide demographic (white, suburban, urban, country, Jewish, Asian, et al.) as virtually everyone plays basketball around the world in any economic environment, the players are in tank tops and shorts so they are easily recognizable, and their immense athleticism and ability to run, jump, and dunk is the perfect action to...ahem...jam into a 30 second commercial spot for shoes that can make you run, jump, and dunk better.

When I watch an NBA game (for the 3 minutes I can stand it, or for the last 2 minutes because that's all that matters) I don't see ballin' Baryshnikovs (reference: his ballet dancing, not his guest spot on Sex and The City) so agile and fleet a foot that all you can do is watch in awe. A sport that has spawned a million internet sites and 700 page books that was poetic about the sport like it's baseball. I see a sport that has all the makings of a team game, but is very much an individualized sport.

Now, I just so happened to read that 700 page book because I love sports and it was written by one of my favorite writers, Bill Simmons. So perhaps my title of Ignorant NBA Fan is a little misleading. I'm perhaps not ignorant as the word is defined, but maybe more ignant as the girls in grade school used to use it; "stupid" or "lame" or "rude" about my approach to the NBA.

The thing is, I don't dislike basketball. I enjoy some pick up hoops when everyone is as bad as I am. And I wildly enjoy college basketball. Going back to my ignance about the NBA, it's not that I'm just writing the sport off, but I have a rather clear explanation as to why I don't enjoy the NBA nearly as much as college. The reason is that while there is no doubt the skill level in the NBA is far superior, what makes interesting basketball is the teamwork involved.

In the NBA, my interpretation of the sport over the past 20 years is that you get one to two superstars and  a solid supporting cast and you win the championship. You don't have at least one superstar, you don't have a chance. The reason is that in this world where everyone in the NBA is crazy athletic and gifted, individuals can take over the game. Individuals can make things happen by themselves so long as the team can hustle on defense and make an occasional shot then you'd be in it.

College doesn't work that way. Not everyone is as talented. Less than 10% of the people on the floor at any given time in any given D-1 game will not be an NBA player. Individuals can alter a game, but they cannot take over a game. In college, teamwork is needed to set up shots, win the battles on defense, and have a continued success in the regular season and through the NCAA tournament.

The comparison between the two styles of basketball is important because basketball as a sport is more fun and exciting when it is a team sport. When Kobe has the ball and everyone clears out for him, hey that's fun in the dwindling seconds of a half, but when that is the offense, it's dull.

What has emerged through the first couple of rounds of these 2012 NBA Playoffs is that team sport has reemerged from the shackles of super teams and pure athletic greatness. As much as marketing firms, shoe companies, and the NBA want to highlight individuals, its the teams that are making an impact. These NBA playoffs have been won by teams that are more college and a collective than pro and apart a part.

Two teams in particular are the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers.

The Spurs are in the midst of demolishing the Los Angeles Clippers after sweeping the Utah Jazz on a march to another championship that no one wants to see them in. In a strike shortened season it takes a great coach like Gregg Popovich to have the assertiveness to bench the likes of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan in order to see the long-term vision for how this season would play out.

It's not terribly surprising to see the Spurs in this position as they are the top seed in the West and they have a lot of veteran guys with playoff experience. Of course, they are also doing their Spurs thing. Getting what they need out of their proven vets and roll players, but also turning late round picks and castoffs into integral rotation guys. Thiago Splitter (1-Top 5 best name in basketball), Gary Neal (1), Kawhi Leonard (R), DeJuan Blair (2) and Danny Green (2) have a grand total of 6 completed season under their belt. Or less than one half of a Duncan (14). Yet they all played key minutes and fit perfectly into what the Spurs want to do.

The are able to be a veteran team, but still have the athleticism and energy to keep up with the gunners. Now, that's not their game, but what they have mastered is ball movement. The ball will be flying all over the court, with relatively little running by players without the ball. It's all positional. What you see a younger, less experienced, and less coached team like the Clippers do is run all over the place trying to stop the ball, when all they are doing is playing right into the Spurs strategy.

In the East, the Pacers have gained more notoriety, especially after last night. They hold a 2-1 lead over the Heat and appear to be yet another out of nowhere hurdle in the path of LeBron James' first championship.

The Pacers quietly won the third seed and came on late after acquiring Leandro Barbosa. The team defense was always in play this season, and like most younger teams the Pacers were able to take advantage of the strike shortened schedule more than most.

Where they have been able to come out as more than just a grind it out defense is through Barbosa and George Hill (former Spur!) being more productive on the offensive end. While the team has their defensive anchors in the front court, the offense really moves through the gang of talented guards they have. None of which are over powering, but they are all able to function together.

With hardly anyone that could be considered a superstar, although maybe Roy Hibbert is on his way, the Pacers certainly don't have the chops the Spurs do, but they are able be a sum greater than their individual parts. Based on why I used to think about the NBA, where a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were all you needed to win, this very concept of team is winning out.

There's still more basketball to play. The Spurs will most likely have to deal with one of those crazy athletic teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder in the next round and should the Pacers upend the Heat, they'll take on the East version of the Spurs in the Celtics. It's a tough road, but it's good to see teams that play hard and play together still have a shot in today's NBA.

I'll be watching...a little.

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