Guest Post: By J. Will
In a first, we have a guest contribution by J. Will, a brother of mine. Please enjoy his thoughts on the beautiful sport of basketball.
To consider the Fall of basketball, we should first consider its Garden of Eden. It isn’t difficult to imagine what the game looked like circa 1891 when the boys of Springfield College, in all their innocence, lofted upwards a leather ball—perhaps underhanded, perhaps with two hands, likely off one leg with arched back in a grand jeté—toward a peach basket nailed some distance up a gym wall. Can’t you see them laughing? Aren’t they dashing all about, bodies leaping and lunging in constant motion like a mix of rugby and quidditch and Last of the Mohicans lacrosse, like trout leaping for a fly out of a river swirling in an eddy? Isn’t it joyous and spontaneous and simple?
The 2019-2020 NBA rule book, under Rule No. 12: Fouls and Penalties, Category B: Personal Fouls, Section 1–Types, Subsection (b), explains that “contact initiated by the defensive player guarding a player with the ball is not legal. This contact includes, but is not limited to, forearms, hands, or body check.” Sub-subsection (a) under Subsection (b) allows for several exceptions, however, such as the part of the arm of the defensive player that can be applied to the part of the body of the offensive player given the spacial direction and court location of the offensive player. Enforcement of these rules and exceptions to them also needs to be weighted against the rules laid out in the sections below, e.g., Section II—By Dribbler, which explain in Sub-subsection (b) that “if a defender is able to establish a legal position…the dribbler must avoid contact”, and in Sub-subsection (c) that “the dribbler must be in control of his body at all times…” and Sub-sections (d) and (e) and in Section III—By Screening, etc etc. The people doing the weighing out of whether contact on a given play is legal, given all the variables of context and circumstance and order of events, are, of course, the three officials (Crew Chief, Referee, Umpire), who make those decisions in split-second real-time, as they run up and down the court, from whatever vantage point they happen to be in when contact occurs.
Difficult job? Well, compared to other officiating jobs in professional sports, sure seems like it. Take, for example, a baseball umpire, who has a fixed and ideal vantage point to make only one binary judgment call on repeated and isolated events: whether a pitch travels through the strike zone. There’s no nuance, no need to weight competing rules by the context of the situation, just latitude and longitude and did it or did it not. An umpire will make that call 150+ times a game on average. Apparently they get it right about 130 of those times. While there are certainly consequential misses, statistically they are spread out across all batters and innings; it would be difficult to say very many games—to say nothing of every game—are significantly impacted by umpire indiscretion.
And yet isn’t that the reality of the NBA? First, by definition the application of the rulebook varies by context that requires discretion. Would it even be possible to land on a universal “right call” on every play? Assuming it was, what would be the average accuracy of an NBA referee making those calls? Certainly much lower than the calling of balls and strikes. And yet every competitive NBA game hangs in the balance: in an average game referees will call 50+ fouls, resulting in 25+ free throws per team, resulting in nearly 20 points to each team’s total, in a league where the average margin of victory is less than 10.
In summation then: there are a lot of rules in the NBA; enforcement of those rules is both difficult and subjective; rule enforcement is highly consequential to the game’s outcome.
Which summation leads to the following therefore, among others: there are therefore powerful incentives for players to try to influence how the game is called.
Which therefore leads to the following ergo, among others: there is ergo flopping, feigning a shot attempt when the actual attempt is to draw a foul, running headlong into an opposing player in order to draw contact, etc etc.
And also: every player acting absolutely gobsmacked hurt offended and treated unfairly on literally every play where a foul call doesn’t go their way.
And why not? Points, after all, are the point. And getting foul shots is an efficient way to get them. Might as well manipulate a manipulatable path to points.
But for spectators, the result is not a game of motion and energy but of angry men standing around bickering with refs during yet another set of foul shots. It’s basketball by the sweat of its brow, banished to live on its belly.
Before their retirement this year, identical twin brothers and tennis teammates Bob and Mike Bryan won 119 Men’s Doubles titles, 39 Master’s Men’s Doubles titles, and 16 Grand Slams, the most successful doubles team in history. Being mirror twins—one right handed, one left handed—worked to their advantage as they could each cover their half of the court with their dominant hand. They were a perfectly symmetrical team of two.
Basketball, ostensibly a team sport of five, is increasingly looking like doubles tennis. In an imagined world of basketball symmetry, a team would have equal contributions from each of its five players. But we know that usage rates statistics—the number of possessions a player uses—tell a different story. The most recent league MVPs Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and James Harden had usage rates near or over 40%. Championship teams like last year’s Lakers have Bob-and-Mike-like court coverage, with their two star players combining for usage rates upwards of 60%.
And that of course is by design. Basketball strategy today can be defined by one word: reduction. The question is not how to move the ball, get everyone involved, score and win as a team. Rather, the question is how to get less people involved, isolate the best player in a favorable matchup, reduce the game to one-on-one. Which is why the Lakers were on the right side of a trade that sent Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks and additional pick swaps in exchange for…one player, in the final year of his contract. If basketball were like other team sports, say baseball or football, where a single player’s contribution is constrained by game design, that trade wouldn’t make sense. But basketball is doubles tennis, and in doubles tennis all you need is Bob and Mike, aka Magic and Kareem, Jordan and Pippen, Bird and McHale, Shaq and Kobe, LeBron and Wade, or, no surprise, LeBron and AD. In the past 10, 20, 30, pick-your-timeframe number of seasons, how many teams have won the championship without a Bob and Mike combo? Whatever the answer is, it’s a small number, the exceptions that prove the rule. And it is a rule solidified in the NBA playoff format. On any given Sunday, Bam and Butler and company could upset LBJ and AD and their supporting cast of castoffs. But over a seven game series? Any chance of variability in outcome is all but eliminated.
The upshot of all this is that basketball is a game won by players, not teams, and the NBA has set up a system where the best players always win. We’ve always known this, actually. It was obvious with Jordan. But even Jordan played along with the team script. LeBron, on the other hand, has not. LeBron was the generational talent who recognized the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and decided to take a bite out of it, right in front of sweet Jim Gray on national TV, in the presence of the children of the Boys and Girls Club, and witnessed by 10 million people watching live on ESPN. In the ensuing decade he’s kept chomping at that apple, and sharing it with others, ushering in a new era of Player Empowerment in the process.
And the upshot of all that is the NBA is now a league where the best players wield all the power. They pick for themselves where they want to play, when they want to be traded irrespective of contract status, who from what team should join them, and on what nights it will be appropriate to suit up. The team owners and fans can only hope they get picked by the new NBA team captains.
And the upshot of all that is if you’re a team like, say, the Utah Jazz, you’re the knock-kneed kid in the pick up line. Given the choice, where have the best players taken their talents? South Beach. The Bay. LA. Brooklyn. A mid market team might draft well, but it’s now more likely it will just be playing the role of farm team than it is they will be adding a building block to a championship contender. Even an all-time great player like LeBron still needed years to develop into a superstar player capable of winning a championship. It took him nine years, in fact, which was two years beyond the rookie contract that kept him with the team that drafted him, and of course one year after he’d teamed up with another top 5 player.
And so for fans of the Jazz or Grizzlies or Hornets or Kings or Thunder etc etc etc, the result is not a game we can win but a game controlled by the forces of the Matthew effect: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Can basketball be redeemed? Can it be restored to its paradisical glory?
In the opening moments of the 2020 NBA Finals, the Heat leading the Lakers 3 points to none, LeBron James held the ball a step outside the elbow. He was isolated against Duncan Robinson, a favorable matchup LeBron created by sprinting from the other side of the floor and asking for the ball next to Robinson’s zone assignment. To compensate for the mismatch, Goran Dragic came to help with the double, and Jae Crowder shifted to the middle of the floor to help cover Dragic’s assignment. LeBron, one of the best passers in the game—he trails only Magic Johnson in all-time assists in the playoffs—fired a pass cross-court through the seam created in the defense to Anthony Davis, who was standing behind the three point line, 25 feet from the basket. Jimmy Butler sprinted from the opposite block to close out on Davis, and then jumped past him on a head fake. But that had given Bam Adebayo time to also shift to Davis. But Adebayo, at only 6’9” with a 7’1” wingspan, couldn’t do much to defend a high-arcing shot from Davis, who is 6’10” with a 7’6” wingspan. Bang.
Let’s be honest. Basketball has never had it so good. The size, the athleticism, the shooting, the passing, the dribbling, the dunks and the deep threes—what was born in Springfield has fulfilled and surpassed the full measure of its creation. What we have is the design of basketball carried to its best possible conclusion. And that has given us all the therefores and ergos and upshots and furthermores of the above irrefutable explanation of its irredeemable flaws. The truth is there is no Eden to be redeemed. What we have today is the best basketball has to offer.
And that, my reader, is the point.