There is a long list of reasons why NBA basketball is The Greatest Game. It has the best athletes and viewing experience, the coolest personalities and fans, the most thoughtful writers, and the funniest Twitter accounts. It is culturally and ethnically diverse. It is relatively safe from bad injuries.
The NBA is also, in my super-biased opinion, the most thought-provoking sport. Its genius rulebook created tensions between core concepts like size and speed, athleticism and skill, aggression and control, and intellect and instincts. Its playing venue allows close observation of the actions and reactions. It’s all pretty fucking brilliant.
But the NBA faces a real threat that it will become uninteresting. Or less interesting, anyway. Data collection and analysis becomes more thorough and sophisticated by the day. We’re learning what works best, what works worst, and everything in between. In today’s rules, the tenets include high ball screen offense, mobile pick-and-roll defenders, four out/one in, three-pointers & layups, two-for-one’s, Hack-A-[Raw Young Center X/Y/Z], and some others.
The list is longer and more nuanced than in the past — in the 1990’s it could probably be summed up as, “You need a go-to guy.” — but it is decidedly finite and susceptible to imitation and regimented thinking. If I were in charge, I’d eliminate all restrictions on zone defense and narrow the lane to where it is in college and where it was in the post-Mikan/pre-Wilt’s 100 NBA. I think these tweaks would largely eradicate my fears that every NBA offense and defense will look exactly the same. An obvious counter would be that this would clog up the lane and remove the highlight plays that make the NBA so exciting. My counter to that counter is that it insults the offensive talent of pro ballers and coaches. More freedom to develop team strategy would mean more innovation which would mean more interesting basketball.
I repeat this concern of mine today, ironically enough, because it was eased last night; to a degree, anyway. Carmelo Anthony eased it by playing such a magnificent game in ways totally distinct from the mantras dominating Modern NBA Thought. If you don’t already know, Melo is a one-on-one scorer. He catches a pass with his back to the basket, pivots around, assesses the defense, and attacks. He shoots more than he passes. His basic statistics are usually great. He scores a lot of points. His advanced statistics are usually *just* good. That disparity makes Melo a polarizing figure among folks who watch and study this game. He’s a throwback to the 1990’s NBA that was defined by isolation scoring. I don’t miss the 90’s NBA, but I’m also glad that it isn’t extinct.
Melo abused poor Derrick Williams (who, to be fair, played a good offensive game) during all of Winning Time, snatching a victory that looked much in doubt when the Wolves led the Knicks by 11 with 7 minutes to go. There were no high ball screens or corner treys, like we saw from Tony Parker and Danny Green on Wednesday. That’s the latest NBA Textbook, authored by Popovich. Last night Melo was working off an old edition; one that some loved, some hated, but everyone recognizes as distinct. His square-ups, jab steps, and lefty step-back dribble left his defender a sculpture of ice, frozen in mind and body as Melo cruised by for an easy two. Usually it was Williams, who probably should have adjusted to Melo going left so many times, but he was scoring on everybody. He had 36 points.
There are others in the NBA uniquely skilled enough to buck the statistical trends. Steph Curry makes three-pointers off the dribble at a disproportionate rate. Memphis uses a power lineup that includes more muscle and less perimeter shooting. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are nothing if not unconventionally great. Ricky Rubio is not like anybody else. The list goes on. I guess it boils down to whether talent diversity can keep up in a race with data analysis. Last night, Carmelo gave me hope that it can.