The first NBA game I remember watching was a Sixers game in the spring of 1986. I forgot exactly who they were playing, but I recall (well, I think I recall) Dr. J hitting a buzzer beater to win. I also recall getting a spanking (my last ever, btw) that day for peeing in the front yard. It was a memorable day, I guess.
In the 26 years since, I’ve watched thousands of NBA games. If you include the playoffs, that number is probably somewhere between 2000 and 2500. Basically, I’ve been a diehard NBA fan longer than many of you reading this have been alive.
I’m bringing this up to provide background and credibleness (I know I could have used “credibility” there, but credibleness just felt better) to make my (eventual) point.
We enter the 2012-2013 NBA season with each of the following things being true:
—More than any other recent season, 2012-2013 should serve as an example of why the competitive dynamics unique to basketball in general and the NBA in particular work.
Due to the length of the season, the amount of possession in each game, the series format of the playoffs, and (most importantly) the fact that it’s the only major sport where your best player can affect the entire game for the entire game — each things that increase the probability that the best team will eventually win — the NBA is a true meritocracy. It’s not that the best players are usually on the best teams. The best teams are the best teams because they just happen to have one (or more) of the best players. This means that you have a general idea in November of who will be the four or five best teams in May. Actually, “general idea” isn’t strong enough. You just f*cking know who is going to be good and who won’t.Â Because of this, it does not have the “any-given-Sunday-ness” of the NFL or the perceived anarchy of the NCAA tournament.
As you’ve probably guessed, I love the fact that it’s split into clearly defined tiers of “legitimate shot,” “competitive, but no legitimate shot this year,” and “no f*cking chance.” Thing is…you love it too. Yes, you do. Stop trying to deny it.
As much as (some) people gripe about the NBA having no parity, more people are interested in it when there are “super” teams with narratives and superstars with story arcs. Aside from diehard fans (read: people like me) no one is interested in the NBA when it has an NFL-esque competitive balance.
How do I know this? Well, in the few seasons when you did have legitimate parity (ie; 2005 when the Spurs beat the Pistons in the Finals or the entire 70’s — 10 years, 9 different champions), nobody f*cking watched or cared! Nobody! But, when you have teams like Jordan’s Bulls or Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics or even Shaq’s Lakers, you motherf*ckers watch. And, in a year where you have four “super” teams with a legitimate shot at a title (Heat, Lakers, Thunder, and Celtics), you’re going to see another interest/ratings boon.
—There’s a fifth team (Spurs) that was the best team in the league last season until the last three weeks of the playoffs. They’re returning their entire team, btw.
—Aside from the six teams already mentioned, there are at least 15 others that could either be considered “legitimately good” or “legitimately interesting.” The Knicks are neither, and that’s a legitimately interesting fact in itself.
—Speaking of the Knicks, they enter the season as the oldest team in NBA history, a fact that’s almost as interesting as the fact that the Timberwolves enter the season as the Whitest NBA team in 30 years. I think this matters.
—There is a NBA basketball team in Brooklyn. A basketball team that might actually not be not good. I think this matters too.
—Between Lebron, Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Kobe, Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Garnett, Rondo, Paul Pierce, Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, Derrick Rose, Dirk, Melo, Jason Kidd, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Jeremy Lin, the season begins with more “name” players (in this sense, a “name” player is someone who can appear in a commercial without the commercial’s script needing to say “Hey, professional basketball player Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, what are you doing in my car?“) than every other major sports league combined.
***This list doesn’t even include fringe name people (Amare, Gasol, etc), perennial all-stars who lack the status/charisma to ever be a name person (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Al Horford, etc), average NBA players who are fringe name people in pop culture circles because of women they’ve f*cked (Matt Barnes, Kris Humphries, Daniel Gibson, etc), soon-to-be name people (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Davis, etc), and people who everyone assumed would be a name person by now (John Wall, John Wall, John Wall, etc)***
—Speaking of “soon-to-be name” people, this season will give me the chance to continue to gloat about the fact that I purchased, assembled, and manned the wheel of the “Kyrie Irving will be a superstar” bandwagon two years ago. (No, I will never tire of reminding everyone that I called that shit was he was still in high school. Thanks for asking, though.)
—One top 10 all-time player (Kobe) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to move into the “Best career of all-time” conversation, while another top 15 all-time player (Lebron) has a chance — if everything goes the way it could potentially go for him — to continue his path towards being included in the “Best player of all-time” conversation.
(The difference between the “Best career” and “Best player” conversations? If you look at his total career — rings, records, longevity, etc — Kobe is already one of the four or five most accomplished NBA players of all-time, and will continue to climb up that chart. But, I’ve seen Magic, Bird, Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, and Lebron at their absolute apexes. And, a peak/prime Kobe just wasn’t better than any of those guys. This is not an insult, btw. There are worst things in the world than being the 7th or 8th best basketball player the Earth has seen in the last 30 years. If you disagree, fine. But, just know that you’re wrong. )
—Lastly, this season will allow me to continue to develop my theory about the main difference between a peak Lebron James and a peak Michael Jordan. (Not interested in making a career comparison between these two. Jordan is unquestionably the greatest player of all-time, and in order for Lebron to be in that conversation, he needs to accomplish much, much more. Just interested in comparing these two at their absolute best and figuring out whose best was/is better and why. For Jordan, this was around 1992/1993. For Lebron, this is now.)
Anyway, Michael Jordan was as close to a perfect basketball player as we’ll ever see. He had the perfect body, build, and temperament. Was extremely fundamentally sound while also being a perfect basketball athlete. He even had close to perfect form and follow through on his jumpshot. From a basketball standpoint, he was basically flawless.
Yet, despite the fact that he was a “perfect” basketball player, he did not play perfect basketball. There were times when you’d watch Jordan play and you’d think to yourself “Hmmm. I know he just dunked on like seven guys, but he probably should have passed it there.” Obviously, the result would still be favorable, but just because a decision turned out well doesn’t mean that it was the right one.
Lebron, on the other hand, is not a perfect basketball player. He is extremely skilled, but he has some conspicuous flaws. His jumpshot — although improved — remains erratic, and his footwork — although also improved — will never be as fluid as someone like Jordan or even Kobe. Also, from an aesthetic standpoint, there are parts of his game that will always leave some fans dry. He doesn’t trick or shake people as much as he overpowers or “outdecisions” them.
But, like Magic and Bird before him, he’s capable of playing perfect basketball. There were entire games in last year’s playoffs where he made the right decision every single time he had the ball. And, while Magic and Bird each had athletic limitations, Lebron has none, allowing him to control the entire game in a way that, really, no one has ever done.
Michael Jordan is still the best basketball player I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen anyone play better basketball than what Lebron did last summer. Basically, choosing between who you think is better at their best depends on whether you prefer a perfect basketball player or someone who plays consistently perfect basketball. All things considered, I’d choose Lebron, and I’m looking forward to this season helping to show why.
When you take all of this into account, I have to say that this has the potential to be the single best NBA season I’ve ever seen. And, if you’re my age or younger, it may be the best season you’ve ever seen, too. It’s ok to disagree with me, btw. I won’t hold it against you. Some people seem to enjoy being wrong.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)