The Shape of Basketball to Come?

NBA Playoff Update

Chris Paul and Luka Doncic.

What happened this winter? Why, despite us all catching Covid twice, did the schools carry on in their pauperized way, half the world remain unvaccinated, the government purse stay tight-lipped, or spilled open only delinquently? And why, despite ten of the fifteen Chicago Bulls being too sick or exposed to play for a couple weeks in mid-December, did basketball continue? There was no telling. My social life in those blustery months dwindled to taking the Pink Line train to Ashland, walking three or four blocks south and two or three west, and lining up outside the United Center. There, I would pull from my wallet vaccination card and ID and overhear, say, a family inquire prayerfully about religious exemptions, or a hatted, stiff-bearded man express sadness about Chicago Bulls guard Demar DeRozan, who wouldn’t be playing—did he test positive? I would walk up gray, gray stairs, stairs out of the cavernous underbelly of some enormous museum, leading to the 300 section, where I would find my seat, head grazing the rafters, and sit among the masked and the maskless. One night I saw glorious Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, the tragic figure of the otherwise merely stupid triptych of world-famous unvaccinated athletes (Irving, the Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the bratty prince of men’s tennis Novak Djokovic), score not very many points but win, crushingly, against my Chicago Bulls. At home I watched games while my antigen tests washed into focus. I listened to three different basketball podcasts on my drives to school. On weekends a friend would sneak me into the University of Illinois Chicago’s gym to play mask-on pick up. In my experience people like to say ball is life mockingly, to indicate the mantra’s self-evident mindlessness. They laugh afterwards. And yet at some point this omicron winter the phrase became a straight-faced description of my life.

Then spring came, in its dithering, carbon-deformed way. The breeze blew through my windows. In a tiny patch of grass cornering an intersection a few streets down from my mine, I saw tulips. And I knew: it was time for the playoffs.

The last few seasons come to us, in retrospect, as a kind of allegorical laboratory, their provisional, nervous, half-botched and flaw-pocked results only now clarifying into view. These seasons tell a story of fresh-formed, spectacular super teams whose self-aggrandizement funds a forever river of ESPN rants—the Nets, the Lakers, to some vague degree the Sixers—waging world-historical battle against teams that have built themselves slowly, evenly, at scale with their often “small-market” cities, and in rhythm with their stars: Giannis and Milwaukee, Luka and Dallas, Ja Morant and Memphis, Devin Booker and Phoenix, Jayson Tatum and Boston, Steph and Golden State.

For a moment last season, when James Harden suited up alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie in their jaunty, graffiti-ish Brooklyn grays, it seemed as if the allegory had culminated. Through some free-floating, referent-less magic, you could apparently just invent a championship team, really in a matter of days. You needed extravagant reserves of capital (Joseph Tsai, Nets owner and founder of Alibaba), an alluring market gentrifying itself into de-realization anyway (Brooklyn), and, rather than a team, a small shopping cart of superstars. Fans? Those, too, could be invented. But then by mere inches—if Durant’s toe hadn’t been on the line, in that game-tying Game 7 shot against Milwaukee!—the fantasy faded. The super teams tottered. Rather than a breathlessly anticipated Lakers–Nets showdown, in which the media could fly with comfort between LA and NY, last year’s Finals gave us the Suns versus the Bucks, grounding a baffled sports world on the far eastern edge of Wisconsin. This season, things only got worse. The Lakers? They made for melancholic daytime TV, giving up all their role players—the only ones willing to play defense—for an incoherent, feverish superstar (the much-maligned Russell Westbrook) who plays basketball like Buster Keaton. The Nets? For now at least, they’ve turned out a faux-tragedy, less a team than an indictment of our whole era, swept out of the first round by Boston.

But meanwhile we had caught a glimpse of something more interesting happening elsewhere, somewhere out in the great plains, or in the South, or deep in the earth-cracked Sun Belt. There were, it dawned on us, other teams in the league, playing in places like Memphis, and Dallas, and New Orleans, and Minneapolis, and Phoenix, and Milwaukee. And these teams were good! They played like teams. They had multiple players who reserved energy for defense. They had been built up over time, and seemed always to be playing to defend their very existence, and so they were at home, in a meaningful representational way, in their cities. Watching the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant dance through the tunnel after a win, or the Pelicans’ Jose Alvarado force yet another backcourt violation, or the Wolves’ Patrick Beverley contort his face into slight derangement and bother entire backcourts, it seemed as if the allegory had reversed course. The future didn’t involve emptying out entire rosters for a shot at a title with two or three random stars, brought together more by hype than basketball logic. It didn’t involve nervous fans having to purchase “jersey assurance,” the new co-invention of the NBA and American Express, to ensure that even if your favorite star all of a sudden leaves town and your newly bought jersey melts into air, you can still return it for the jersey of whichever new star just helicoptered in. Instead, the future tilted in a populist direction, or at least it gave me a sort of populist hope—a vision of a league led by cities in the provincial interior, often smallish and working class, their emotional lives bound to media-neglected teams buoyed more often than not by foreign stars, revealing a fugitive alliance between the vernacular and the international, like when Raymond Williams wrote of the “common history” shared between the imperial world’s countryside and the newly liberating nations of the Third World, or when the Midwest butter burger chain Culver’s offered Giannis a lifetime of free food. . . .

Could this be the shape of basketball to come? Maybe someday—but not yet. My populist fantasies deflated throughout the playoffs’ second round. Their death knell sounded on Sunday, May 15, around 8 PM central time, while I was sitting in a nautical-themed bar called the California Clipper, home to zero televisions. Two days before, in an all-too-expected denouement that left a handful of tech overlords joyous and the rest of us depleted, Memphis had lost to Golden State. Earlier that afternoon, Milwaukee fell to Boston. Now two cities representing enormous depopulated stretches of the country, finance-hub Dallas and military-industrial Phoenix, faced off in a Game 7. All year long, Phoenix had dominated the league. They had smooth Devin Booker, smoother than anyone save Kevin Durant, who reinvented himself over the past few seasons into a compelling defender. And they had tiny, plotting Chris Paul, who seemed finally destined, as much as these things can be, to win an NBA championship after playing seventeen victorious but cursed NBA seasons, perennially on championship contenders and yet perennially, come May or June, injuring his shoulder or hand or hamstring, watching his team self-destruct, falling on a general spell of obscene lucklessness, or looking on with disbelief as the ball slipped fatefully out of his hands. This season felt different.

Watching the Suns this year was like reading Trotsky extol the virtues of the military. The opposing team stood a chance for three quarters. But then discipline, economy, attritional ingenuity, ruthless cunning, the fitful suspicion of virtue, Chris Paul’s generalissimo style—these qualities won out. It’s one of the great mysteries of basketball, how you could stay apace with a team for nearly an entire game, and then, in the final pulsing twelve minutes, realize they existed all along on a whole other plane of distinction. You’d find yourself unable to score, while Chris Paul would slow the pace down and slip around you time and again, dancing to the edge of the paint and rising up for a laconic jumper, or sticking his butt out and holding you on his back while he surveyed the scene, in time lobbing the ball to Ayton or McGee, or snapping off a pass to Booker or Cam Johnson or Jae Crowder for a three. Or—his most notorious move—he would hold the ball to his left side, poised on the three-point line, waiting for your star rookie or your hothead defender to reach before swiping through in a shooting motion, tangling himself in their arm and going to the line for three free throws. You’d blink and realize you’d lost by ten points. The Suns were the cleverest team, and they were the most clutch. Until, that is, that day at the California Clipper, when, surrounded by bottles and boats, I checked my phone in the third quarter of the Game 7 match against the Mavericks and saw that the Suns were down 61-27. There would be no coming back from that. In the postgame presser, Booker and Paul appeared dazzled, boyishly daunted and uncertain, adrift in some inexplicably plotted story. “It was a loss,” they said, over and over. “It was a tough game.” The Suns season blurred to meaninglessness, and so did my populist hopes. The Finals would take place in San Francisco, or Boston, or Miami, and involve two storied franchises who’d won many times before. Dallas? They’d overachieved enough.

There remain, however, things to be excited about. I wish I didn’t love the Warriors, but it’s hard not to, at least if you’re any kind of aesthete. They’re a wonder. They play beautifully, formlessly, with the sharp cuts and fleeting resets, the generous spacing and sudden eruptions of soccer and hockey rather than the grinding, programmatic pageantry of interminable ball screens and two-man games. Yet their beauty brings recklessness. It’s hard to watch shrewd, volatile, chattering Draymond Green—brilliant enough to be a power forward serving more truthfully as the team’s point guard—barrel the ball up the floor with his head swiveling 180 degrees, frantic for a place to pass, and not think that this team, supremely talented, stocked with shooters, profoundly schooled by experience, appears all too often on the verge of implosion.

Will they win it all? Their problem is Boston’s defense. Sadly, Boston will beat the Heat, an impressive team of underdog try-hards, led by two Miami-tanned gurus, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, renowned for preaching the idealist tenet of cultural revolution. Most teams strive to find the precise personnel to pave their way to the championship; Miami alone places its faith not at the level of stars, role players, or system, but at the airy level of superstructure. “Heat culture,” as the meme goes, implies a kind of Maoist boot camp of preseason conditioning drills and detailed game-day preparation, and it’s this culture, the team claims (culture being today perhaps the most overused, but also most mocked, of all sports media platitudes) that has brought them twice in three years to the Eastern Conference finals. But as the great feminist organizer and writer Jo Freeman used to say of consciousness-raising groups, culture can accomplish some things—it can, for instance, provide a space, a world in which people can gather—but this doesn’t mean it will turn into a political program, or determine whether Duncan Robinson makes a three or Bam Adebayo dominates a game.

You need more than culture. You need a couple of star scorers (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown), a do-everything veteran with the patience and piety of a youth pastor (Al Horford), and a positionless assortment of long, tall, muscular wings who can play bruising, breath-stopping defense. Only Boston has this. It will be enough to dispatch Miami, but the Finals against Steph and the Warriors appear less certain. Will Boston’s size and length shut the Dubs down? Will Curry and Poole shimmy around Boston’s imposing defense and splash fantastical threes, and then somehow resist being overpowered while guarding these same imposing players on the other end of the court? It will be close; it gives me no great joy to pick Boston in seven. The Warriors are marvelous, the Celtics formidable if unlovely, and both teams remain inconsistent and eminently beatable. We’ve reached a moment of league-wide parity in which super teams have flared temporarily out of sight and the chip is up for grabs—a happy time for basketball.

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