A Grand Unified Theory For Achieving Total Basketball Enlightenment
12:28 PM EDT on June 22, 2021
As anyone who’s passively consumed SportsCenter, or half-listened to the play-by-play commentators making small talk between actually exciting court events, or read the creators of this fine website can tell you, there are dozens of reasons why a professional basketball team will—or won’t—win a game. Their three-pointing shooting needs to hit a certain threshold (the Utah Jazz), or their unconventional center needs to establish his passing game (the Denver Nuggets), or their traditional-yet-also-unconventional center needs to establish himself in the paint (the Philadelphia Sixers), or their two-time MVP needs to stop settling for so many threes and drive to the fucking rim!!!!!!!! (the Milwaukee Bucks), or their generationally mercurial point guard needs to stop accurately remembering that sports are pointless (the Brooklyn Nets), or the bench needs to provide valuable minutes when one of their two stars is off the court (the Los Angeles Clippers), or LeBron James needs to be playing every single minute, ha ha, but seriously he’s really got to play every minute (the Los Angeles Lakers).
These reasons, varied and statistically backed and reliably generated by people who love to talk, form the muddy terrain of what nobody has found a better term for than The Discourse: the conversation and argumentation and outright provocation that makes talking about sports such big business, if you are lucky enough to get one of those jobs. Hundreds—thousands?—of people across this country make their living by convincing the thousands—millions?—of sports faithful that they, if not quite alone, can astutely and thoughtfully measure what makes a team or player worthwhile, and this formulated wisdom is accordingly spread throughout the land. Thusly we have a direct pipeline of someone—let’s say it’s Defector’s own Patrick Redford—intelligently writing about how the Sacramento Kings only win when they play Buddy Hield at the small forward position, flowing downstream to your buddy Jeff—himself a Defector subscriber—remarking, right as the game comes on in the bar, that, “You know, the Kings gotta put Hield at the 3 if they want to make the playoffs.”
That’s how all this works, but I believe I have a more direct approach. Here is a theory I’ve casually meditated on all my life that has, during these current NBA playoffs, finally materialized fully formed to shine through the mire and fog like a magical, silvery beacon of insight, truthfulness, worthfulness, etc. Some background, before I blow your mind: Earlier this month, my girlfriend Jen and I were watching Game 6 of the first-round series between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Nuggets led the series 3-2, but the Blazers were winning for most of the game—including a 13-point lead halfway through the third quarter—and it seemed like we were en route for Game 7.
But the Nuggets surged in the third quarter, and suddenly an intense and exciting competition was at hand. Jokic was establishing the passing game; his teammates were knocking down their open shots; the Blazers couldn’t get a stop. And I thought about it for a second: The Blazers are widely appreciated and enjoyed, but even their own fans know their limitations, as bad defense and an over-reliance on Dame Lillard just never missing a shot are only so sustainable at this level of competition. Meanwhile the Nuggets had the presumed MVP—a player whose gyroscopic coordination and sensitive touch and competitive will had mitigated the devastating loss of sidekick Jamal Murray, and pushed his team to a top-4 seed in the crowded West. The Blazers weren’t bad, by any means, but the Nuggets shouldn’t have needed seven games to close out a team with no serious chance at winning the championship.
The way these thoughts manifested was, admittedly, reductive. But this is what I said, out loud: “Well, if the Nuggets are good, they’ll win.” After Jen took a few seconds to laugh at how this sounded, I did try to clarify myself. What I meant is that in a typical NBA playoff series, a team’s strengths and weaknesses are starkly highlighted across a seven-game series. Whatever propelled or limited you through the regular season tends to be what propels or limits you in the postseason, only here a bad game or two means sojourning to Cancun as the better teams duke it out. And so the good teams, generally speaking, win; there are upsets, but very rarely does an obviously superior team lose a series to an obviously inferior team. Given they featured the MVP, the Nuggets should've been capable of definitively closing out this flawed Blazers squad—which they ultimately did in Game 6, serving as conclusive evidence for my theory. In the waning moments of the game I remarked “I guess they’re good,” and felt as smugly and uncomplicatedly proud as a little boy who has gone potty by himself for the first time.
Another example, from just last year: In the bubble, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed much better than the Denver Nuggets, but their stars hadn’t meshed and their bench was bad and their coaching was ineffectual. All of these legitimate issues are why they fell apart against a Nuggets team with chemistry, speed, and two uber-talented stars catching fire at the right time. Which is to say the Clippers were not good, because if they were good, they would not have given up a 3-1 series lead. They would have won, in other words.
But now? Now, their stars have meshed, and their bench is worthwhile, and their coaching is effective. All this has allowed them to, surprisingly, survive the loss of Kawhi Leonard, and overcome successive 2-0 deficits to reach the Western Conference finals—which is to say that the Clippers are good, because they have faced a modicum of adversity, and this adversity has actually pushed them to solve their problems, and even a bonafide Clippers hater would watch this team and think, “Well, shit, maybe it’s their year.”
Some clarifying details. Not being good is not the same as being bad, because this is the NBA playoffs and these are the best players in the world. It’s just that they don’t have it—“it” being the nebulous constellation of talent, grit, cohesion, tactical acumen, leadership, and mental fortitude identifiable in every champion, ever. Good teams take care of business, or at least put themselves in a position to take care of business, while teams that aren’t good … don’t, and never do. This is why the Brooklyn Nets are good, despite losing in the second round; they just played a team that was a little better. The Milwaukee Bucks seem good, finally, after hinting at goodness over the last few years. The Utah Jazz were good in the first round, but not good in the second round. The Lakers were not good, once the injuries set in. The Celtics are not good, period, though they’re not bad. (The Detroit Pistons have many talented parts, but talent is relative to one’s surroundings—within the NBA, they are bad.) The Phoenix Suns are definitely good. The Sixers, once Joel Embiid got injured, were flatly not good. The Hawks may be overachieving, but they are good—the Bucks may just be more … good. But we’ll see.
Possibly you get what I’m saying, as I realize these observations are not entirely specific, or scientific. At first sight, this theory falls into the “men WIN and losers LOSE” platitudes that, for most of the last century, has formed the conventional wisdom of how sports are theorized and discussed across the country. The encroaching influence of analytics has built better teams, but it’s also repudiated such sloppy logic and allowed new, more open-minded ways of thinking to flourish. Thirty years ago, someone like Nikola Jokic might’ve been dumbly derided as a soft European—in the modern NBA, his ability is rightly perceived and appreciated.
But this largely necessary course correction has some downsides, too. Right now The Discourse is at increased risk of unnecessary atomization, as every single facet of the game has been identified as a potentially positive or negative factor feeding into a collectively perfect (and, at the moment, overwhelmingly white) theory of how the game should be played. General managers and media members need a specific conception of what animates a team’s success, sure, but trickling down to the layperson, I believe such observations obscure what makes the game compelling in the first place.
Whether the Jazz live or die by Rudy Gobert’s screen assists and ability to hedge on the pick and roll … all of that’s useful, and I don’t want to sound like some Luddite resisting enlightenment. But what if instead of reading 1,000 blog posts and agonizing over whether Gobert's inability to hedge on pick and rolls singlehandedly undid what would have otherwise been a championship season for the Jazz, we collapse the distance between cause and effect, and simply accept that this inability to hedge means that the Jazz are only so good? Same for driving ourselves crazy trying to figure out precisely what sort of team needs to be constructed around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, when more obviously having a point guard who can’t shoot and a big man who gets injured a lot means you top out at a certain level.
I am talking about trust, and the gut feeling that comes with following a team and thinking, “ooo-wee.” This is the stuff of cranks and drunks, possibly, but I think it’s closer to the real heart of all this than high-grade analysis. We are talking about sports, after all—not love, or politics, or what it means to be a human being, but a pastime that tops out as “a particularly compelling entertainment.” So when I watch them, and love them, I’m not always trying to think about the myriad reasons that might add up to a win or a loss. I want to know: Is my time being valued? Are these teams worthwhile? Am I watching good basketball, rather than bad basketball?
These are spiritual concerns that gesture at why we pay attention to any of this in the first place, which necessitates a rigorous ability to discern between what is important and what is not. The screen assists may mean something, but we can go bigger, which is why I return to this overriding, singular truth: If the team is good, they’ll win. And if they’re good, then that’s the only reason you need to keep watching.