NBA 2008-09 Preview
The new NBA season is upon us! Sadly, the previous season was so underwhelming that your official VM NBA correspondents have decided to go with one-liners for our previews! (Plus, we jettisoned all the other part-timers, so this year’s team-by-team preview comes to you courtesy of Tom Spurgeon and me, Gil Roth.)
I wanted to write a short essay/post about why I found the league so boring last year and why I probably won’t watch many games this year. While there were a couple of great playoff games/moments, I managed not to watch a single game of the finals. In part, it was just a lifestyle issue; the finals started at 9:20 p.m. most nights, and I just can’t stay up till 12:30 or 1 a.m. to watch games anymore. But still, a Lakers/Celtics finals managed not to be very compelling to me.
I wanted to explore this more deeply, but my co-writer managed to write a fantastic essay that’s better than anything I could ever write on the subject. So you get Tom’s Where Amazing Flattened.
(If you wanna skip directly to the previews, feel free.)
By Tom Spurgeon
The odd thing about writing these one-liners instead of a preview to the forthcoming NBA season is that it’s the only way I could have managed a preview of any kind. For a long while I’ve had a slight feeling of burnout when it came to professional basketball, a general hunch I had seen it all, multiple times, that there was nothing new the game had to show me. The deeper truth hit me during the 2008 Lakers-Celtics NBA final. That was a series that should have pushed all of my fan buttons: tradition, outsized personalities, great individual players, historical impact and contrasting styles. I spent most of those evenings casting about for the remote. In one instance, I didn’t even remember a game was on. I’m clearly not burnt out. I just don’t like the NBA anymore. I can’t watch its games, have no interest for its players and don’t care about the outcome of its seasons.
This kills me, because I’m a 30-plus-year NBA fan. My first memories of following the NBA are snatches of Rick Barry’s improbable run with the 1976 Golden State Warriors. The Warriors’ playoffs culminated in the defeat of my beloved Washington Bullets. I’m not sure that I saw any of the games, but I followed them in the newspaper in the next day and read about them in a couple of magazines that summer. It seems odd to think of 1976 in terms of scarcity of coverage, but we’re talking about a year that was closer to World War II than today. If the media wasn’t quite up to snuff in terms of saturating my young mind with images and analysis, certainly my interest was a keen as any young fan’s could be today. I can still remember the shape and the taste of my disappointment. I don’t think I could name the last five NBA champions without thinking about it for a minute, let alone how I felt at the exact moment they were crowned.
Were things simply different then? Maybe. Take Rick Barry. I like Rick Barry more than any player playing today, and he wouldn’t have made my top ten while he actually suited up. Personality-wise, Barry was basically every mean dad that ever picked us up from Pizza Hut, but he could play. He was an astounding scorer and relentless athlete that will be able to hold his own on any team of 12 players that might one day suit up in the afterlife. Kids in my neighborhood dug Barry’s underhanded free throws, the lunacy of a grown man adopting the style of a kid who couldn’t get the ball to the basket. Those of us that played some sort of organized basketball appreciated an outside game that at the time was still a little strange for a player over guard size. Many of us practiced the forgivable, little-kid racism of liking someone that maybe looked more like them than the other guys. I hated him, because my guy was Wes Unseld. Unseld looked like the lady that ran the soda shop on What’s Happening. He played basketball with soft hands, big shoulders and a bigger ass. His relentless rebounding and physical presence turned Elvin Hayes, a magnificently talented collegian that as a pro was basically that decade’s Glenn Robinson, into an all-star and eventual world champion.
I’m rambling, I know, but that’s part of the point. I can write for hours on the players from back then, even those I never watched live. I don’t have a similar feeling for any of the players now the way I have for a player as non-essential to my personal pantheon as Rick Barry. I will admit a grudging respect for certain aspects of their talent: Kobe’s pleasure in pounding tired teams, LeBron’s ability to get to the basket, Dwyane Wade’s skill at making nonsensical commercials where he gives SUVs away to Boys’ Club supervisors that probably can’t pay the insurance. (Today’s commercials versus those from years ago is its own discussion, but the basic problem is their underlying message. Jordan’s commercials said “I’m unbelievable, surely the best of all time.” LeBron’s commercials say, “I am one weird dude, perhaps sporting a severe personality disorder.”) Again, that could be age. You don’t look at things the same way when you’re older. You shouldn’t; 30 years is a long enough time to be a fan of anything. I’ve seen my lifetime’s allotment of dunks and people diving into the stands and Ahmad Rashad’s oddly clammy demeanor. I no longer wonder what one player says to another when they pass them on the free throw line. Still, I don’t think simply growing older is the reason I no longer like the NBA.
For a sport in supposed disfavor, basketball was everywhere when I was young. Like many kids of that generation growing up in Indiana, I was just as fixated on local high school players as I was on anyone in college or in the pros. Sam Drummer, Jack Moore and Ray McCallum were stars we emulated on the playground after seeing them dominate in a packed, overheated Fieldhouse on a cold winter weeknight. There was nothing better than a local idol that could be all yours, that played for your team, and that bought shoes at your shopping mall. They could play, too, the way that football players in Texas and Pennsylvania played that sport way better than we could hope to; basketball was all we did, all we wanted to do. The quality of play was surprisingly high across the board.
So why the pro game? We didn’t need it. Nobody liked the NBA back then. I mean nobody liked it. I think I was initially drawn to the NBA for the same reason I was drawn to superhero comics. I knew they represented the best at playing basketball the same way that Superman was the best, the Hulk was the strongest and the Flash was the fastest. Like the comics I read, the NBA had a past that was just out of reach. Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor were figures on a par with any forgotten storyline that I learned about in an indicia box at the bottom of the page. The NBA was an ongoing story with discrete chapters that convinced me it was about the life-and-death struggles of the most powerful basketball players in the world. What wasn’t to love?
Once hooked, there was no going back. I just sort of stayed a fan. I fell in line with the appropriate level of Dr. J. worship. I snuck out to the living room past my bedtime to watch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar guest-star on a re-run of Emergency, took in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh at the theater and had a Dr. Dunkenstein poster. I stayed overnight at a friend’s house so we could watch the Finals together (the Lakers over the 76ers), I pretended to be Larry Bird when I snapped off passes to my fellow YBA team members. I listened with amazement as people around me on a church youth retreat actually talked about the Lakers vs. the Celtics, almost as if they were baiting me to admit I was interested at which point they’d start razzing me. I followed Michael Jordan’s rookie year through newspaper stories until the Bulls started to show up on TV. I remember where I was when he schooled Craig Ehlo, and realized that this was one of the two or three athletes my grandchildren might ask me about. I sat by myself in a fraternity bedroom at college watching the Pistons beat the Blazers before rejoining the party downstairs. I switched allegiance from the Bullets to the Pacers, just in time for Steve Stipanovich, Vern Fleming and Wayman Tisdale’s McDonald’s commercial. I enjoyed two citywide celebrations of Chicago Bulls championships. I moved to Seattle and realized that for about four days in 1996 Shawn Kemp may have become the best player on the planet. I watched the Pacers get good, get better and then fail to take that last step. I read Loose Balls and argued over the NBA all-time 50 best and asserted to anyone that cared that the 1982 Lakers was the most underrated team ever. I watched The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh again, this time on DVD.
And somewhere in there. . . I just started to lose it. Because where I am now I have about as much curiosity about the forthcoming NBA season as I have about resolutions to last season’s plotlines on The Unit.
I think part of it â€” most of it â€” is quality of game. I know what the stats say and I know what my eyes tell me: I enjoy watching basketball from 25-30 years ago more than I enjoy watching it now. I like the flow of the game back then, the patterned movement outside of the paint and the way players hustled into position for the best shot, not the one they insisted they could make. The model for today’s teams isn’t the ’60s Celtics or the ’77 Portland Trailblazers or the early ’80s Lakers: it’s the late 1970s Philadelphia 76ers, with World B. Free and Kobe’s dad and Doug Collins, the team that despite their popular appeal drove all of us nuts the exact same way certain teams drive us nuts today. Today’s game is sloppy and frequently boring. There are excruciating lulls in today’s game that I don’t remember back then and don’t see when I watch tape except maybe when Milwaukee and its mid-’80s legion of giant white guys with Polish names played the Clark Kellogg-era Pacers. Apparently, the only jumpers worth taking today are from three-point range or further back. The defenses are mostly awful on an individual basis, and the offenses seem entirely comprised of isolation plays. I preferred short benches and teams that employed match-up advantages to players with vaguely defined roles and energy guys.
Come on, you know it’s true: Not only couldn’t the Redeem Team beat the Dream Team, a team of pros from 16 years before the Dream Team would beat the pants off of today’s stars, too. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in his prime would score 78 points on Chris Bosh, and a Dr. J in the full flower of his talent would match LeBron and Kobe highlight for highlight and dominate them outright hair-wise. Carlos Boozer takes a swing at Rick Barry after the fifth Jack Davis-drawn rainbow jumper. He doesn’t connect.
Anything I do end up liking about the game since the mid-’90s fades as quickly as a world financial market indicator. The Lakers/Pacers Finals had moments of strong, consistent basketball. I’ve enjoyed several of the Phoenix games I’ve seen over the last few years. I still might if they had decided not to trade for Shaq, Grant Hill and Curly Neal. The Kidd/Kenyon/Jefferson Nets had their moments. I like watching a few individual players currently playing, such as Chris Paul and (sue me) Carmelo Anthony. I enjoy watching other players under certain conditions, like Luol Deng when he’s in the offensive flow of a game or Tayshaun Prince when he’s guarding someone perfectly suited to his defensive skills.Â Even the greatest players going right now seem to disappoint as frequently as they delight. I don’t remember Magic Johnson disappearing in playoff games for quarters at a time, and when his play was only awesome instead of super-awesome in the 1984 Finals it was a huge deal. I can’t imagine Michael Jordan making a claim to be the greatest player in the world without having dominated every single game in a championship run, and never after failing to lead a team to the playoffs a year earlier. Of course, Jordan wouldn’t make such a claim in public anyway. He wouldn’t have to, and he just wouldn’t.
I actually think David Stern did the right thing by taking the emphasis of his game’s exposure through television away from the networks and onto cable. Greater and more relentless exposure better mirrors the actual season, and an ongoing, winter-long sprawl of contests should be a great way to enjoy a year in basketball in much the same way I think baseball is the most fun to experience as a constant presence in your home through your hometown squad’s appearances on TV and radio and in person. The NBA’s problem is that the product isn’t worth putting on every night. In fact, it is specifically at its least attractive when viewed more than once a week. I can’t be the only who tunes in to watch Charles Barkley and then flips it over to Gary Sinise’s strangely rictus-like face when the Rockets and Blazers come back on. I’d trade exciting, precise, sustained basketball for every wider storyline shoved down my throat. I can’t be the only who doesn’t care about Kobe Bryant’s endless trip into full adulthood. I can’t be the only one who treasured Brandon Roy last year in part because I knew fuck-all about him one step away from the court.
Without passionate, furious gameplay on a regular basis, without a convincing consistency on the court, the playoffs and the drama that should come with them always arrives with an element of suspicion. If they’re bad, you’re not surprised; if they’re good, you become angry about all the lousy play in the ramp-up. What nearly killed the NBA in the late 1970s wasn’t players doing drugs, it was listless play caused by that massive drug ingestion. And those games were still more fun to watch. Forget rigging by the referees; winning in today’s NBA is capricious because it favors those teams with the most players on their up cycle, who’s on rather than who’s best. That’s a performance measurement for your booth team at the big trade show, not the most freakish athletes in the world playing this century’s sport of choice. There was a time in the Eastern Conference finals last year when PJ Brown was the best player on the floor. PJ Brown! This is like Tree Rollins dominating a key game in the 1987 Hawks/Celtics series, only if it took place in 1995. This is like Kool Moe Dee roaring back up the charts by inserting himself into someone’s brand-new rap feud via YouTube. This is like Gabe Kaplan becoming the hot new doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s absurd, and it’s disheartening.
The NBA’s biggest star sometimes looks like he might not ribbon in a skills contest at a high school basketball camp. A serious MVP candidate from last year’s best team avoids the ball in crunch time like it’s going to serve him papers. We were asked to cheer the game’s most compelling personality when he managed not to make a group of same-age peers hate his guts so bad they couldn’t play with him, a life skill most of us learned in kindergarten.
I don’t like the NBA because I don’t trust the games will ever again unfold in that particular way that sport satisfies, where it’s both the contest you’re watching and the culmination of all the games that came before it that decides the day. I no longer need the athletes in the sports I follow to be the strongest, the fastest or even the best. I do need some of them to become better, more improved versions of themselves each and every year until injury or old age takes that away from both of us. That’s the thrill of sport, that through a limited purview you can see people that are really, really good at what they do perform at a high level and compete against one another. It’s not seeing who gets their shit together long enough to make a run, who hides their deficiencies the most effectively so as not to damage their team’s best foot forward. Today’s NBA is a worst-to-first league, and I can’t shake my memory that some of these teams were so recently the worst. The NBA and I are officially broken up. I’ll check in from time to time and maybe even sit through a game once a while, and I’ll certainly remember the good old days, but I can’t see us ever getting together again.
TOM: Learning Mike Bibby is the veteran leader of anything is sort of like catching a current photo of Haley Joel Osment.
GIL: Josh Childress should be discovering that the Euro is collapsing and foreign teams don’t always pay up … just … about … NOW!
TOM: Worrying that missing James Posey might cost them a repeat championship should end any and all talk that this is an all-time team â€” would the original big three have worried over losing Greg Kite?
GIL: I’m sure the racist locals argue that the team wouldn’t have won the championship without the invaluable contributions of Brian Scalabrine and Scot Pollard.
TOM: I have no idea who’s on this team or what they’re like other than that they’re too young for Larry Brown to be a good coach for them, but I’ll never root against a team whose owner puts his name in the team name.
GIL: You could combine their roster with the roster of the Grizzlies, and not only would they still suck, they STILL wouldn’t have a deep bench.
TOM: Joakim Noah’s a cute kid and everything, but shouldn’t the NBA-playing son of Yannick Noah and a Swedish beauty queen be living Magic Johnson’s 1980s sex life to the Magic Johnson’s 1980s sex life power?
TOM: Drew Carey moved for work, too.
GIL: Don’t worry, Delonte; I’d be depressed if Wally Szczerbiak was working in my office and making almost 4 times more than I make, too.
TOM: I was trying to describe last year’s Rambo IV to someone, and the first thing that popped to mind was that Sly Stallone in this film as compared to Stallone from the original Rambo movies is basically the second-time-around Dallas Mavericks-era Jason Kidd compared to the Jersey Kidd â€” although I’m thinking Stallone might move better.
GIL: A few weeks ago, my dad told me how great the U.S. Olympic basketball team was, esp. with that one white guy who was starting; it took me a while to figure out that he was talking about Jason Kidd.
TOM: No matter how distinguished a veteran Ruben Patterson may become, you can never say you’re bringing him in to babysit. [BEST JOKE OF THE NIGHT--Gil]
TOM: Does anyone else think of Rasheed Wallace in terms of him basically being Bizarro Sam Perkins?
GIL: I keep thinking they’re like the Philadelphia Eagles team that kept getting to the NFC championship game earlier this decade, but at least the Pistons won a title.
Golden State Warriors
TOM: I always imagine Chris Mullin showing up for work wearing an ill-fitting jacket over jeans and a ratty, cloth tie.
GIL: My money’s on Corey Maggette over Stephon Jackson in the locker-room fight that will ensue when this team is 4-15.
TOM: When experts predicted that Yao Ming might be no better than a slightly more effective Rik Smits, who knew that this would be true of leg injuries as well?
GIL: Over/Under on how many games Yao, McGrady and Artest play together before Yao breaks a leg, McGrady’s back goes out, or Artest gets suspended: 22 games.
TOM: Watching Mike Dunleavy, Jr. play professional basketball is like watching Kelsey Grammer try to put together a feature film career — it doesn’t matter how good an individual game here and there might be, the enterprise is doomed from the start.
GIL: They always say that no player is untradeable, but they never met Jamaal Tinsley.
TOM: I would so be mourning the Elton Brand era if I or anyone I know had ever seen a single game.
GIL: The Clippers have three players named “Davis”; unfortunately, they also have one player named “Tim Thomas.”
TOM: Please, Andrew Bynum, please be as good as you were maybe thought to be from projecting certain elements of your incomplete but developing game as put on partial display during a few minutes a game in a severely truncated 2007-2008 season.
GIL: Dan Ackroyd and Daniel Stern were going to kidnap Lamar Odom before last year’s finals, but then they realized the Celtics had a better chance to win if Odom was on the court.
TOM: Apparently, there’s a team in Memphis.
GIL: Apparently, Antoine Walker is finishing his career in Memphis.
TOM: If you want the experience of feeling like battered, broken-down Dwyane Wade does in the morning, make your first thought that Michael Beasley was born two years after Magic Johnson won his last NBA championship.
TOM: I would download every single week an Andrew Bogut podcast where he did nothing but make vague, superficial and largely true assertions that managed to piss off every African-American player in the NBA.
GIL: Over/Under on Scott Skiles’ head blowing off because of his team’s awful defense, followed by his hanging out on Latrell Sprewell’s boat with some weed and blow: 10 games.
TOM: Kevin Love: Behold the Super-Madsen!
GIL: I stopped following them when they got rid of Marko Jaric.
New Jersey Nets
TOM: That one guy looks just like what’s-his-face from the old NBA, Vince Carter.
GIL: Five years from now, when they’re playing at the Devils’ arena in Newark, and not that boondoggle in Brooklyn, I will laugh and laugh.
New Orleans Hornets
TOM: Shouldn’t they allow NBA players in New Orleans to freak out, give up and move to another city?
GIL: They should invite Katrina & the Waves to perform at halftime, just to show there’s no hard feelings.
New York Knicks
TOM: How cool would it be if they cut Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph, Jerome James, and Nate Robinson but allowed them to form their own nameless, shadow team that occasionally stormed NBA courts in all black, wearing Marbury’s $1.98 shoes and knocking out the visitors to play five to ten minutes of EVIL BASKETBALL against the home team before running off into the night?
GIL: Isiah Thomas needed those sleeping pills because his diurnal rhythms have been thrown off now that he no longer has Knicks’ practices to sleep through.
Oklahoma City Thunder
TOM: Why couldn’t they have sent the Sonics to Oklahoma City before the Paul Westphal era?
GIL: Wait, the whozit now?
TOM: Jameer Nelson is also having Mateen Cleaves’ career.
GIL: WWJD? – Tap that cheerleader!
TOM: If you don’t think our culture has changed in the last five years, ask yourself if there was any way Maurice Cheeks would have avoided guest-hosting The View if he had saved a little girl during the national anthem in 2008 rather than 2003.
GIL: I goofed on the last east coast team that reunited players from a bad west coast team (the Wizards with Arenas, Jamison and Larry Hughes), so I’m gonna give Philly the benefit of the doubt on reuniting Andre Miller and Elton Brand, but only because they signed a guy who grew up in Harlem with the name of Royal Ivey.
TOM: Phoenix is right this very moment sitting across from Shaq at brunch, smiling, watching him eat, and dying, slightly, on the inside.
GIL: Ownership is treating this team like Jenga!; they just keep taking away pieces â€” selling every draft pick and trading for age â€” so they can cheer when Steve Nash finally falls over.
TOM: Is it a sign there are no more “he looks really old” jokes to tell about Greg Oden that I just spent 20 minutes wondering if anyone would remember that Mork & Mindy’s baby Mearth aged backwards, or is that more an indication of the thorough, debilitating, media-soaked sadness that was my childhood?
GIL: Their highest-paid player is Raef La Frentz, who will be paid more money this year to sit in a suit on the bench ($12.7 million) than I will make in my life.
TOM: Kevin Martin is the only professional sports star that sounds like a Big and Tall clothing chain.
GIL: In his playing days, their coach was known around the league as “pencildick,” according to a sportswriter friend of mine.
San Antonio Spurs
TOM: I’m not saying the Spurs are boring, but the first thing that came to mind when in trying to write a one-sentence summary of the year ahead is curiosity over the status of Manu Ginobli’s bald spot.
GIL: I like to think that Ian Mahinmi and Ime Udoka spend time together after practice, crying about all the abuse they took as kids because of their names.
TOM: With the financial markets in such lousy shape, do players want to play in Canada now?
GIL: Will Jermaine O’Neal’s first 15-game injury come before or after his first arrest for an altercation in a nightclub?
TOM: The good news is that Deron Williams continues to develop and the bad news is that Mehmet Okur has been replaced by Jeff Goldblum on this year’s squad.
GIL: Carlos Boozer is waiting for Jazz owner Larry Miller to be on a respirator before he tells him that he wants a trade.
TOM: If they made a reality show out of Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas going to the rehab center from Never Say Never Again where everyone tried to kill or have sex with middle-aged James Bond, I would totally never watch that show.
GIL: Gil Arenas may have had 3 surgeries in a year, but I thought it was in poor taste when ESPN magazine referred to him as “Patient Zero.”