“Why do I care?”

Target Center

“Why do I care?” is the single most hazardous question that a diehard NBA fan can ask himself.

“Junkies” like me, and those I surmise to be a large percentage of this blog’s readership, devote considerable time and energy to a game played by rich men we’ve never met.

Lending more than surface-level thought to the reasons for such devotion is to risk spoiling the fun for ourselves.  After all, there is more “important” news in any edition of the New York Times and there are [hopefully] more pressing personal matters in any of our lives, whether they be professional, romantic, familial, or otherwise. (One of the all-time great pieces from The Onion mocks the professional sports fan accordingly.)

Zach Lowe had an interesting take related to this on a recent Bill Simmons B.S. Report podcast.  Lowe, an expert NBA analyst who writes for Grantland, grew up a fan of the Boston Celtics, just like Simmons.  The Sports Guy asked Lowe how he felt about Ray Allen in a Heat uniform; a potentially sensitive subject for any diehard Celtics fan.  Lowe’s reply was fascinating.  He said:

I admire your quality to maintain very strong fandom, but the longer I do this, honestly, the more my fandom sort of fades.  I still sort of have that in me, and my dad roots for the Celtics and that’s cool.  But even last year when they lost Game 7 I remember being like, ‘I actually don’t care all that much,’ and watching Ray [Allen] in Miami is a more analytical experience…

And, honestly, part of the reason for that…[is] just how crazy Boston fans are…Now every fan base is like that…

The “this” in Lowe’s first sentence presumably means analyzing and writing about professional basketball for a living.  The statement is fascinating not because he draws a line between “fandom” and “analysis,” but because he paints a huge gulf between the two concepts; one that he outwardly admires the ability of Simmons to cross in his coverage of the NBA.

Don’t confuse what Lowe–or my interpretation of him, at least–is saying here.  Lowe is not saying that he does not enjoy watching basketball.  I’d be very surprised if there are many things he enjoys more, even if it’s Raptors-Wizards on DVR over his morning coffee. He enjoys watching basketball, but he’s not cheering for anybody.  Instead, he’s closely observing the strategies used, their effectiveness versus different counterstrategies, and doing so all within a context he’s created for himself by studying piles of data and statistics.  By analyzing the X’s and O’s, Lowe takes a different cognitive path to the same general emotion of enjoyment that Simmons experiences from sweating through a Celtics win.

A third approach to enjoying the NBA is aesthetic appreciation, or an admiration of the skills on display.  Famous movie director, Woody Allen, has attended Madison Square Garden for Knicks games since the late 1960’s.  Contrary to what many think, it isn’t because he cares so deeply about the Knicks winning those games.  As Harvey Araton described in “When the Garden was Eden,”  Allen mostly just enjoys the show:

Allen had grown up a huge fan of the New York Giants…But with basketball he discovered a very different athletic dynamic—sheer performance could actually blunt the power of partisanship…Allen admitted to me, almost sheepishly, that he always preferred to see the opposition win a great game over an insipid Knicks blowout.  “I’m not a must-win kind of person,” he said.  “When Reggie Miller comes in and scores eight points in the last however many seconds–16.4, to be exact–“that’s exciting for me.  If Earl Monroe came in with the Bullets and scored 100 points and the Knicks lost, that also made me happy,” he said.

Allen was one celebrity fan who wanted nothing more from the players than to sit and admire them, legs crossed, watching impassively, never letting loose.

We’ve seen this in Minny. Wolves fans at Target Center gave still-in-Cleveland LeBron James a standing ovation a few years back, after he turned in a brilliant performance that spliced domination with showmanship in a way that opposing fans could not help but reward with cheers.  This type of appreciation is the Woody Allen fan experience.  Only in Woody’s case, he would remain seated, legs crossed.

These three avenues to NBA enjoyment are not an exhaustive list, and rarely is one method perfectly isolated in a single fan’s perspective.

In fact, the intersections and tensions created by them form a separate phenomenon. This is largely thanks to the internet of course.

The worldwide web has done two things to sports fans: 1) It’s made them smarter; and 2) It’s made them think they’re smarter than they actually are.

A great example of basketball-fan ideology colliding to form internet train wreckage is when one Kobe zealot fan fires out the RINGZ argument, and his or her analytical counterpart shoots back a dickish reply, dripping in condescension.  On the one hand, limiting an argument to championship rings is oversimplified and stupid.  On the other, I wonder sometimes if the superfan who basks in his favorite player’s ultimate achievement has professional sports in the more “reasonable” place in his world.  Like, “It’s just sports.  I don’t give a shit about win shares, my guy won a RING.”  Is that such an unreasonable take if the fan (and players he cheers for) spend the entire season obsessing about a championship more than anything else?  It’s better analysis to look at every possession.  It’s more forceful argument to have a ring on your [favorite player's] hand.  How much does any of it matter?  I suppose it depends on whether or not you’re a Laker fan.

Above Twitter battles in NBA-analysis enhancement has been a revolution of sorts in how stats capture effective basketball.  Met with resistance by stubborn types who think they know it all (this could describe me, at times) “advanced stats” do a better job than the old ones of concluding whether Player X is better or worse than Player Y.  But just to keep everyone on their toes, some smart folks have gone about trying to find out if “better” equals “pefect.”  Certain players widely considered to be superstars by “fans” have had their legacies questioned by advanced stats.

With this in mind, Nate Silver of 2012 Election fame took to defending Carmelo Anthony while Kirk Goldsberry did the same for Kobe Bryant.  In explaining his overarching point, Goldsberry writes that, “basketball outcomes exhibit sensitive dependence on previous environmental conditions, yet the analytical ‘baseball-ification’ of our fluid sport too often neglects this basic tenet of basketball ecology. We disregard too much environmental context.”  He’s correct, but only about the purist numerical analysts–those unyielding in their quest to find basketball truth in a single number.  They won’t find it, but if seeking it brings joy, then by all means.  After all, this is supposed to be fun.  But if the fan’s preferences become entirely consumed by probabilities, the “Why do I care?” question rears its ugly head.  (Unless you are gambling on the games.)  Chuck Klosterman explained in a recent piece that examines how sports should and should not entertain fans, in the context of the NBA’s decision to fine the San Antonio Spurs for resting star players for a primetime game:

But if you’re one who believes that this axiom [football teams following statistical advice to go for it on 4th and 4 at midfield] must be embraced for its mathematical veracity, it probably means the reason you’re watching football is because you really care about the outcome. That’s why you’re watching the game. It means you believe offensive and defensive coordinators should make all their decisions based on rational probability, almost like they’re simulating the game on a computer (and if they make these same rational decisions 10,000 times, they will succeed more often than they fail, which should be the ultimate goal). It means you believe that the most important thing about a football game is who wins and who loses, which is fine. Except that it makes the whole endeavor vaguely pointless and a little sad. For sports to matter at all, they have to matter more than that; they have to offer more cultural weight than merely deciding if Team A is better than Team B. If they don’t, we’re collectively making a terrible investment of our time, money, and emotion.

This is why the recent Spurs-Heat situation mattered — it raises real questions over what we’re supposed to care about when we watch 30-year-old millionaires participating in a schoolyard game with made-up rules. What matters is not the outcome of Miami–San Antonio, but how important that outcome was to begin with.

“Cultural weight” seems a little heavy, but his general point is well taken.  If the outcome is all that matters, you’d either better cheer for the right teams (hint: probably not the Timberwolves) or find a new hobby.

No matter the composition of your “why I watch,” there’s reason to believe the Timberwolves are enjoyable to watch, and will be even more so when Ricky Rubio returns to action (hopefully later this week).  For analysts there is plenty to chew on; both quantitative and qualitative.  Kevin Love is a stats god, racking up his NUMB#RS at rates unmatched around the league.  My brother, a math major and accomplished hoops player who has rarely taken to NBA fandom in the past, has become a regular Timberwolves viewer and I think he’d admit that K-Love’s shocking stats were an initial hook for getting him to watch the games. On the numbers front, there is also Andrei Kirilenko, an energetic “jack of all trades,” whose aggregate measures and seeming impact on team success will be fun for some to monitor and measure.  Also, there is Ricky Rubio, a guard who can’t shoot but just seems to have “winner” in his blood.  Can it be quantified?  Qualitatively, there is Rick Adelman, innovator of effective NBA schemes.  The schemes employed by Adelman and his staff will provide plenty of chalk talk for rubes to mull over.  Wolves color announcer, Jim Peterson explained best why the Wolves’ x’s and o’s will be fun to watch in his great interview with Britt Robson/MinnPost:

[I]n this next four-to-five-year window, you’ve got one of the best overall rosters this team has ever had. Except for that team with Kevin Garnett that went to the conference finals; you’d have to say that was the best roster because it produced the best results. But I don’t know, man. This team, if you put it all together, I think it is a really tough team to cover and I just hope they can put it all together. If everybody is healthy at the same time, I really like this team and what it means for basketball enthusiasts — all the strategy we are going to be able to talk about. We have a great coach in Rick Adelman, and some of our stars are coming into alignment for a special thing to happen. Maybe not championship-level stuff, but really fun stuff to watch on a regular basis.

Along with interesting analysis these Timberwolves present a brand of basketball that is impossible not to appreciate, even if the game’s outcome doesn’t interest you.  They have become a League Pass favorite.  Adelman now has players of his choosing.  Guys who understand passing and guys who understand cutting.  Alexey Shved and Andrei Kirilenko have the same understanding of timing and teammate locations that they showed off last summer in London.  The team plays together which, with limited exceptions (read: Kobe or LeBron on a hot night) is more pleasing to watch than a single player taking over the game.

But even more than Adelman and the Russians, Ricky Rubio is ridiculously-fun to watch.  After his injury last year, Bethlehem Shoals wrote that, “Rubio was a tonic, that spark that reminded us that the game could be pure, unadulterated fun.”   Britt Robson recently wrote of Rubio:

Precious few players can anticipate plays and deliver passes with the prescient geometry Rubio brings to the art of the assist. His ability to engender scoring opportunities for his teammates results from an exceedingly rare marriage of spectacular showmanship and smart basketball fundamentals, and if you’re not in thrall when you watch it, you might as well switch to the croquet channel.

On a summer B.S. Report podcast, Chuck Klosterman interrupted the early moments of an Olympics-preview discussion to get out of the way how incredibly disappointed he was that Ricky Rubio would not be able to participate.  Like, it was the first thing on his mind when discussing the upcoming Olympic Games.  In an earlier one with Larry Bird, the Hall of Famer (and then president of the Pacers basketball ops) admitted he watches every game that Rubio plays and, in as many words, said that Ricky Rubio is saving NBA basketball.

He’s that fun to watch.  Soon, the Timberwolves will have not only him, but also Adelman, this new offense and team-first players around him.

Finally, and probably most important to Minnesotans that enjoy watching the Timberwolves play, the team has the look of a playoff team.  Currently 9-9 and hovering around the 8-Seed cutoff point, the Wolves have kept their head above water without Ricky Rubio for all 18 games and other key players for different stretches of time.  Nothing is taken for granted, especially in the always-tough Western Conference, but it seems likely that the Wolves will win more games than they lose from here on out, which would be positively unlike anything we’ve seen at Target Center in almost a decade.  Wolves watchers interested in the game result above all else should have plenty to enjoy this season.

Well, that was long reaction to hearing Zach Lowe tell Bill Simmons that he didn’t care about the Celtics losing Game 7 of the conference finals.  The next time you’re asking yourself why you care about the Minnesota Timberwolves maybe you’ll draw on some of the above-listed reasons.  Personally, I recommend avoiding the question altogether.

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