Listener Blog Submission
To overarchingly sum up the pre-All Star break chunk of the current NBA season: the league is firmly in the era of a hyper-focus on players as individuals. Looking ahead to when play gets more serious and the long playoff run begins, the shift, in a quest for a ‘chip, will turn to team ball. The drama and hype of individuals wanting (and getting, but not after more drama…) out of their current situation can’t change the essence, at all levels, of the game: it’s the ultimate team sport. It’s five players running offensive sets, or gliding downhill in transition, or switching up and playing defense, together in close proximity at all times, when time’s ticking, almost always moving at high bodily speeds. For a team to win it all, the extra pass for an open layup has to be something every player on the floor wants more than anything on the offensive end.
One undercurrent running through the 2021-22 (...below the heavy current of hyper-individual actions by star players perhaps feeling their careers will be defined by their drama and not ‘chips and want a new team/city instead of honing their basketball fundamentals, so what’s their prerogative, after all?), is the sheer talent of Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Darius Garland’s hot on the heels of that pack. This isn’t necessarily a new undercurrent. However, they all seem to keep getting better, as individual players, which is great for them, but just one step in winning it all. Their teams are decent but definitely not ready this year. They’ll have their shots in years ahead, you’d think. It’ll come down to which of them can tightrope in the decision department just this: when do I take over, when do I dish, can I, perhaps most pertinently, be a, like 7-time all-NBA 1st team defender? (Kobe Bryant was a 12-time member of the All-Defensive team.)
But winning the title will not happen for these four gentleman's’ teams this year. Probably just one, maybe two, of these four wildly talented players will ever win a title. Weird. It’s just how the NBA works. You have to be such a complete player, with maybe even your emphasis switching to defense in crunch time. (Remember Jordan stripping Karl Malone in the last minute of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals?) And then refuse to lose. So who will win, then, this year? Miami Heat.
Oddly, from a purist’s view, the championship talk has taken a back seat to the players as individuals in recent years. Those players, who play as individuals, couldn’t design it any better. Their basketball IQ hasn’t changed (I’m talking specifically here about James Harden and Ben Simmons, but, damn, the list goes on.) since they were, like, in 11th grade. They seem utterly confused about how to compete on a level they thought would come easily, a championship level. This culture of self as a brand, teams be damned, so much a part of the 2021-22 season, likely isn’t going anywhere. I could, for sure, see both Simmons and Harden signing TV deals that would put them as the stars of a Housewives type show at the tail end of their careers, chip-less, and unable to give up the attention. They’re already more Hollywood than hardwood purists. They want the cameras. But they need to work their ass off, off camera, and here’s the kicker, with their teammates. You gotta gel with the squad, to win. (Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper, for example, as they were winning championships, met up at Jordan’s Chicago mansion at 6:30 a.m. most mornings to lift together before practice.)
It could be a rapid on the court decline for Harden and Simmons. The recent trade could be the highlight of their careers. The game will pass them by, if they don’t evolve. They’ve shown no desire to want to evolve thus far. The game of basketball, beautifully, tends to pass over those selfish players come winning time. Without getting too mystical, the game will even this “me first” mess out. Harden and Simmons will get their attention in the interim, and people will buy their jerseys. But Harden still won’t play D. And Simmons won’t/can’t shoot. Meanwhile, down in South Beach, they play team ball. Pat Riley expertly selects players that want to win. Spo executes that vision. UD is the locker room coach. Jimmy Butler’s your 1A option. Kyle Lowry may be the most tenacious player the league has left. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson can flat out fucking shoot the rock. And Bam Adebayo gets the job done in the middle. Solid foundation. P.J. Tucker is the quintessential role player who saves his individual side for the sneakers. That’s fine. Have nine side businesses and 14,000 pairs of shoes and shorts that are a slightly different yellow than the yellow on your feet. Whatever.
But when it’s time to play ball, you play as one. Period