Living Through The NBA Renaissance: David Roth's Weak In Review

In 2016, the NBA cemented its status as both the happiest and healthiest league in professional sports. Basketball has never been more beautiful, or more joyful.

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Dec 30 2016, 3:55pm

Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

People have been imagining the future for as long as we have been imagining anything, but none of that has done much to prepare us for the stresses and discontents of actually having to live in it. There always has been the question of where exactly people would fit into a world without inefficiency, given what stubborn and sloppy waste-machines humans are, individually but especially in aggregate. Some considerations of this have led into darker corners than others, but it was generally taken for granted that we would at least be there, and that the future we made would serve us in some way or another. The cars would drive themselves, maybe, but whatever was weird or worrying about the displacements inherent in that was softened by the assumption that those cars would also drive us wherever we wanted to go.

The question, right up until the moment it stopped being abstract, was always sort of whimsical, and so it makes sense that assuming the future would just Make Things Easier somehowis so wishful. The implied question of what exactly we would do with all this zipless, robot-served convenience was less fun to imagine than the specifics of all those zipless, robot-served conveniences. As those omnipresent conveniences squeeze us harder and harder—robots do not know how to hug, or when to stop—we are increasingly stuck for an answer to what we should do with all the extra time these new efficiencies provide. It feels less like freedom than being at loose ends; it turns out that a popular use for all that extra time is pondering our own superfluousness. You can also watch sports, which is a nice distraction from that, if not remotely independent from it.

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You don't have to go back very far in any sports league to find some moments of hilarious inefficiency, and from the perspective of our slack-free present, those flubby dark ages seem even stranger and more colorful. The games present the same basic and basically unsolveable questions, but the course of progress in sports means that we understand things more fully than ever before. That's not the same thing as knowing how to put all that understanding to work, though, or having the willingness to do it. The data can be compelling, but also we are people, and people are goofy, farting, messy, sentimental creatures. As such we tend to stay loyal to the old truths of our games even as all this new knowledge makes them look more old than truthful.

As a general rule we have a better idea of what is more likely to work than not, and yet we live in a world full of bunts and punts and post-up offense. Knowing what we know about how relatively inefficient those are doesn't make it any easier to stop doing them, because they are what we grew up with, and because in some fundamental sense it just feels right to do things like save the closer for the ninth inning or dump the ball in to the tall guy. That sort of received wisdom doesn't have to be wise, really; at this point, we know that a lot of it really isn't. It just needs to be received. This is one of the things that sucks about living in the future, and which is not convenient at all—there are all these bad habits to break, which is a grind, especially when they only even started to seem like bad habits a few years ago. Before that, they were just how things got done.

The question of how to get unreliable and imperfect people to more reliably and perfectly do very difficult things is not abstract and not fun at all when it comes to daily life, but it's all a lot more fun to consider when it's turned to old sports-y vexations like defending the pick-and-roll. Because basketball is difficult, and because people are the only ones that know how to play or coach it, the course of progress has a lot of push and pull in it. This is true in every sport, but what sets basketball apart—and what has made the NBA's ongoing renaissance such a happy blast to watch—amounts to a happy accident. Every sport is trying to take the slack and slippage out of the game, but only in basketball has that work resulted in a game that is consistently and increasingly more beautiful and fun than any version of it that came before.

It's fan-tastic. Not being sarcastic, it is actually quite good. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Football, as a game, is more open and innovative than it was a generation ago, but it is culturally so self-regarding and tethered to its ancient grunting cro-magnon values—and NFL owners are so self-thwarting and vicious and deeply cheap—that it can't quite accept the grace that progress is trying to force upon it. Baseball, as it is played, is tighter and cleaner and smarter than before, and becoming more so, but insufficient tightness was never really baseball's problem. Basketball, though, is mature enough to look its future in the face—whether it's your favorite or not, the NBA is pretty much inarguably the only big pro sports league that doesn't have its head up its ass—and also very lucky that the game, when played most efficiently and most effectively, happens to be precisely the game that people most want to watch and play.

The NBA is blessed with a pair of dazzling superteams in the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, and also a credible and reliably entertaining cruiserweight division battling away a tier beneath them; a little less distance between those two dominant teams and everyone else might be nice, but also I dare you to care about that shit while watching, say, a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. The league is almost certainly not quite as inevitable as it seems right now, but the NBA is in a very good place even if this season winds up being a long and eventful preamble to another Warriors/Cavaliers pairing in the Finals. The great teams are historically great, the very good teams are excellent, and there are good reasons to watch even mediocre teams; the most interesting fan culture in any sport has grown up around the NBA's most willfully and impossibly lousy team. There are a dozen players who will be left off this year's NBA All-Star rosters who are distinctive enough to qualify as appointment viewing. What I'm saying is that the NBA isn't hurting for #content, even before you consider how weird Elfrid Payton is or the transcendent grumpiness of DeMarcus Cousins.

All that competitive balance ensures that the average weeknight will deliver a game or two worth watching, and that's good. More important, though, is the way that those teams play. You can see what works about basketball in its present state-of-the-art by reading the high, squeaking criticisms of it that leak and blurt from the previous generation's emeritus windbags; everything that Charles Barkley decries as sissified and limp in modern basketball doubles as a compelling reason to tune in. The game is more open than ever before, and has shrugged off the grim, shove-y macho vanities of previous generations in favor of ... well, not enlightenment, because this is still sports, but at the very least for a much more enlightened set of macho vanities. Individual geniuses routinely do things that no one has ever seen before, but also the game is both faster and more liquid than at any point in recent memory; on the league's best teams, the resident superstars do their work in stream, in harmony, and in context, and seem happy to do it. The resulting basketball is frictionless and protean and futuristic, but it is also clearly a delight to play. One of the oldest and most stubborn problems in pro sports has effectively solved itself—it is not difficult for coaches to steer and manage the towering wills of great and greatly stubborn players when everyone involved is so happy and so ready to do it.

As a result of all this, the horizon of possibilities in the league is both broader and brighter. It helps that the efficiencies in the game happen to run the right way, but also it's not an accident that ceaseless ball movement and positionless pliability and three-point shooting make for a more beautiful and more efficient game. The future that we are getting is not quite what anyone dreamed about, or is at least the stuff of darker and more skeptical fantasies; it is governed by an efficiency that approaches mercilessness, and the paroxysms of panic and shame presently shaking the world can mostly be traced back to the realization that this future is cold and not necessarily for us, and may not be willing to make much room for us in it. The NBA, in its current renaissance, offers a thrilling escape from that, but it also offers something else—a dream of a future in which the individual and the collective are symbiotic and complementary, and where efficiency somehow tracks perfectly with beauty and joy and fulfillment. It's the future people used to dream about, and it has never felt more vital or inspiring or welcome than it does now, from our place here in the future that we got instead.

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