I’m not watching the NBA Finals again this year. And, no, it’s not just because I’m out of town working away this week, either. The NBA has become as predictably out-of-rhythm as DMX’s rap lyrics. The game lacks flow and consistency, a chemistry that can only be approximated by today’s best teams. Which is why only a handful of teams – the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder (before Russell Westbrook’s ACL tear), Memphis Grizzles and Indiana Pacers – had a real shot at even making the finals this year.
But let’s be real. The NBA has always had a bit more predictability to it than, say, the Stanley Cup Playoffs or the NFL Playoffs. For as long as I can remember – the past thirty-five years or so – there have been no more than ten teams at any time and for any season who were well stacked and balanced enough to compete for a title. Most years, we’re lucky to see six teams with that kind of rhythm.
But it’s not about teams, right? It’s all about the superstars, the grown men whose talent is literally otherworldly, no? This has been an issue that many a dumb-ass sportswriter has brought up as the David Stern era is about to enter decade number four. Tying the popularity of the game to the elite of the elite basketball stars.
My argument isn’t about the downfall of superstars who can’t carry Michael Jordan’s, Magic Johnson’s or Larry Bird’s jockstrap, much less stand on their mantle. Instead, the lack of rhythm in the game comes down to teams fielding collections of talented (though many are also pampered) athletes, rather than talented and hardworking basketball players. That’s why the argument for a Miami Heat dynasty is ridiculous. Compared to my Knicks of the early-1970s, the Heat of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade might as well be the old San Diego Clippers.
Oh, please call me out for sounding like an old man who doesn’t understand today’s game of tapped-on-the-arm fouls and the need to make threes as critical to today’s NBA. Because the reality is, the team game only works well when a team maximizes the number of easy shots they take and make. Two feet with no one guarding you is easier than any three unguarded. Period.
It’s why I never got excited about my Knicks when they came out in November making nearly sixty percent from three-point range. Those shots aren’t there to be made in the playoffs. You need a team that can guard the ball, get a turnover or a rebound, and then use their athletic skills to get down the court for an easy bucket. Giving the ball to J.R. Smith during a four-on-two fast-break so he can shoot and miss a three has about as much rhythm as a character from Oz being pushed down the stairs and breaking his neck.
My Knicks are just a single case of why the NBA game has the rhythm of a wino playing the drums while drooling on his thighs. Most teams can’t spread the floor, pass the ball around, consistently find the open man, or know when and where to shoot a three. Too many teams have players who try to go one-on-five. Not just in the fourth quarter, but every time they touch the ball.
So when I hear others say how boring the Spurs are, I just think “You don’t know anything about the game.” The Spurs are the closest thing we have right now to the NBA game prior to Michael Jordan’s second retirement in ’98. It’s NBA-light compared to my ’90s bruising Knicks, much less the Lakers and Celtics of the ’80s or the Celtics of the ’60s. Those teams had John Coltrane rhythm with Savion Glover tap-dancing skills.
Maybe it’s just that the league needs to shrink, to maximize talent. I’d get rid of Orlando, Charlotte, New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta in a New York minute. But that would just concentrate more athletic talent on fewer teams. It would do nothing to make these teams play like teams.
Some would say that it’s all part of this era of hip-hop and rap, this selfish and self-centered way of thinking about life and sports. Football players seem to have the sense that they’re part of teams, though. Bottom line: maybe it’s time for the NBA to hire dance instructors and a jazz ensemble.