The NBA: A Game of Misconceptions

I was out for dinner earlier this week with some of my dad’s friends, all white men of a certain age. We were going to that night’s Dallas Stars – Detroit Red Wings game and a couple of the guys were Detroit fans. As tends to happen when I’m present, the conversation turned to pro basketball. I asked if they were fans of the Pistons, and the answers were predictable. Though being die-hard Red Wings, Tigers and even Lions fans, both guys didn’t follow the Pistons much anymore. Back when the Pistons were the Bad Boys, now that was a greater time, I was told. Here are some excerpts from the conversation that followed:

Bill Laimbeer was just misunderstood.” Hmm. Interesting take.

“Don’t get me started on how the league changed the rules to help Jordan and the Bulls.” I’m from Chicago. This sentiment made my skin crawl.

“When it comes to basketball, I’m more interested in the college game.” Nails on the proverbial chalkboard.

“Nobody after the Bad Boy Pistons has ever played any defense in the NBA.” There it is. The clincher.

Do I eviscerate this guy with more empirical evidence of the falsity of his statement than he’s prepared for? Do I stand up at the table and give a 10-minute dissertation on the complexity of modern NBA defense and the variety of looks an offense imposes on any given night, contrasted with the one-dimensional attacks of the late-1980s? No, I remain polite and go home to write about it on the Internet like a good Millennial. Plus, that’s 10 minutes of my life I’d never have gotten back.

Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if a person would rather subject themselves to the slog that is college basketball than watch the NBA that is their prerogative. It’s beyond my ability to comprehend what’s attractive about a game based on swinging the ball around the perimeter for 25 seconds before launching an ill-advised brick; used car salesman in a suit presiding over the sideline shouting out the next long, drawn-out play that results in a low percentage shot, while a lackey arranges the next gaggle of escorts for the high school recruits watching in the stands. Hey, some people enjoy bird-watching. No judgment (OK, a little).

But when your opinions are rooted in bald-faced lies and misconceptions, that’s where I take issue. For one reason or another, men my dad’s age and race seem to have largely abandoned the NBA after the Jordan era, or earlier. This really isn’t all that significant to the game’s growth and popularity, which is at an all-time high, but I’m interested in tackling some of the factors – real and imagined – that led to this white flight. My intuition tells me much of it is based in misconception. Being that he is my dad, I’ve already worked this narrative pretty hard with him and he seems to get it. So there’s hope!

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Modern pro basketball is a young man’s game. It’s also a young fan’s game. Nielsen reports that 43% of the NBA’s audience is under 35, leaps and bounds more percentage-wise than the NFL or MLB. It’s also the most multicultural of the big four North American professional sports leagues. The NBA’s fan base is dominated by African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic audiences, according to that same Nielsen report. White audiences came in fourth among racial groups with an average of 290 minutes of NBA games watched in 2013-14, with a majority of that time watched by white people under the age of 35.

This hasn’t always been the case to this extent – so why is it that this specific American league has become championed by youth and minority audiences, while white guys over 40 gravitate to the NFL, college football, baseball, hockey and (shudder) college basketball? It’s certainly true that NBA rosters have gotten less white since the days of Larry Bird and even MJ. Remember the 90s Bulls could throw out a whitewash lineup with regularity – Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, Toni Kukoc, Jud Buechler. Few teams in today’s NBA, especially contenders, can match that feat. It’s also true that there is a lack of white American stars in the game. You have Kevin Love, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick, Kyle Korver. Nice players, but you can count the list on two hands. In the changing American landscape, where white males are the traditional (and to be sure, current) powers that be, there’s an insecurity about things slipping from their grasp. Like it or not, the vile Donald Trump is the mouthpiece for much of our society – perhaps the no longer silent majority – which is evident in his Super Tuesday results. You would be right to point out that the NFL consists of mostly black players and it’s the most popular league around. But the all-important quarterback position is mostly white, and the Cam-Peyton Super Bowl this year was a two-week microcosm of the nation’s larger white insecurity in action.

I want to be clear that my intention is not to hate-bash old white men, as I’m going to be one in less time than I’d like to admit. But I have a healthy curiosity here, and I’d like to help my elders realize what they’re missing. So I’m going to tackle some of the more common sentiments I’ve heard over the years from the older generation of white dudes, and why they’re wrong.

Misconception #1 – Nobody plays defense in the NBA anymore

I’ll start by admitting that, yes, there are terrible defenders in the NBA that are bad simply because of a lack of effort, which is horrible and appalling. James Harden is the captain of that group. But Harden and his ilk are the exception that proves the rule.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the statement on its face. It would seem to strongly suggest that defenses of the past were better, and this is a debate that rages on in NBA Reddit and other mediums. Was it better? Well, it was extremely different and thus difficult to compare apples to apples. It was certainly less complex in the 80s and 90s than it is today. Back then hand-checking was allowed on the perimeter and it was generally more physical in the paint. This is what folks that worship Laimbeer and Co. will always point to as proof that defense has disappeared. Incidentally, it’s the old white guys at the rec center that play defense exclusively by hacking. Even more impactful was the illegal defense rule that was put in place in the early 80s, which dictated that players had to guard a man and not a zone. Weak side defenders couldn’t come across the lane except to double team, and they couldn’t then go back to their original man. This rule was axed in 2001-02, the only restriction now being that a defender can’t be in the paint without guarding a specific man for three seconds or more.

LeBron’s entire pro career has fallen in the post-illegal defense era. Can you imagine trying to contain him with just one on-ball defender? Had he played in the 90s he’d score 40 points a game. Sure they could hand-check him, but that’d be like trying to get a good grip on a moving bullet train.

The removal of illegal defense has led to more intricate scheming and a warp-speed evolutionary cycle. Tom Thibodeau is widely credited with deriving the greatest value of this rule change, with a particular style of defense called “ball-side box” in his time as a Celtics assistant and Bulls head coach. The strategy calls for multiple weak side defenders to cross the lane and pack the paint to close driving windows. Thibs used this time and again against LeBron, who would hold the ball on the wing and could beat any on-ball Bulls defender one-on-one. So the Bulls would shade two or even three weak side defenders in as reinforcements behind the on-ball defender. Take a look at this video presentation from The Real Deal Sports to get more of an idea. This tactic would have been illegal before 2001, meaning nowadays offenses need to get a lot more creative to get their points. Thus LeBron’s Heat abandoned the repetitive LeBron-Bosh-Wade pick-and-rolls and built an offense that relied heavily on deception and quick passing to leave a roving defense confused. Here’s what Zach Lowe wrote in a 2013 piece for Grantland:

The Heat are the most obvious example of a team that has torn down and rebuilt its entire offense over 18 months to counter defenses committed to clogging the lane, sending an extra defender toward the ball, and forcing offenses into second, third, and fourth options. It’s no coincidence Miami plays in the same conference as Boston and Chicago the two teams most associated, via Tom Thibodeau, with that strangling defense. Thibodeau didn’t invent this system, and he’s loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA’€™s newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses. Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons and especially this season have had to adapt.

One way offenses have figured out to beat that suffocating defense is by placing a premium on shooting. Weak-side defenders are not going to stray too far from their man if he’s a knockdown three-point shooter. Shooters create more space on a basketball court, and space is a defense’s kryptonite. So with shooters like Curry, Korver, Redick and countless others, NBA defenses are again having to adjust and evolve. Part of that evolution is the rise of switching on screens. NBA players now have to be able to guard multiple positions, or risk allowing wide open threes. A slow-footed big man can be easily picked on and put on an island with a simple pick-and-roll. Golden State did this mercilessly to Kevin Love earlier this year, helping them eviscerate Cleveland. Back in the 90s, you basically were assigned your man and stuck to him. Now you may have to guard three or four different guys on a single possession. How would Wennington or even Karl Malone fare in that situation?

There are two other huge factors that players in the 80s and 90s didn’t have to contend with on a daily basis. The first is the stretch four and stretch five revolution. Tall guys can shoot now! Aside from injuries, what makes a guy like Omer Asik unplayable just five years after being a promising young, big rebounder? The fact that he can’t guard anyone outside the paint. This means his man can get a good mid-range or three-point shot against him every time down the court, and he’ll never be a threat to switch on a screen. Power forwards and centers stayed near the block in the old days, which made the game more physical but infinitely more predictable and easier to gameplan for. The second factor is the desperate need for defensive versatility due to the many various looks an NBA offense can attack with. You look at the 90s Bulls, they had Jordan as the alpha, Pippen as the second scoring option, Rodman hunting for offensive rebounds, a distributor point guard and a big stiff playing center. You knew what you were going to get. Jordan and Pippen were so transcendent that you couldn’t stop it anyway. But it was predictable. The best NBA offenses in the modern era will roll out small-ball lineups and then go big on the next whistle. The Warriors will throw out the death lineup (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Iggy) to put shooters, passers and ball handlers at every position, but can hit you with a bigger group like Shaun Livingston, Klay, Barnes or Draymond, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. An ideal defender now has to be more swiss-army knife than sledgehammer. So defense became less physical, but more brainy, with a higher degree of difficulty and overall more interesting to watch.

Hand in hand with the influx of more complex schemes and styles, teams’ Analytics departments are constantly crunching numbers and looking at player movement data to figure out more efficient ways to score. Coaches spend more time than ever before on deception, i.e. fake actions designed to get a defense moving one direction while the real attack plays out on the other side of the court. Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Brad Stevens, Terry Stotts and a select few others operate like masterminds. They’re always looking for an edge via quick substitution, the latest analytics, corner threes, backdoor passes or switching every screen. It’s a chess game now. Basketball IQ is top of mind for every coach, GM and talent scout – the game done changed. So yes, NBA teams do play defense now and, in fact, spend more time working on that end than ever before.

Misconception #2 – The game is dominated by thugs and punks

Racially-coded language alert…this is patently false and borne of ignorance. The Ron Artest fight with the fans in Detroit was 12 years ago. Allen Iverson – a brilliant but polarizing player for his hip-hop swagger and aversion to practice – was at his apex 15 years ago. (Side note, I’m willing to bet that the same Detroit guy claiming Laimbeer was misunderstood wouldn’t extend the same concession to a guy like Iverson. You see, Laimbeer didn’t have cornrows. Though he should have, that would have been awesome.)

By and large, the biggest stars of the NBA today are good guys and (sorry, Chuck) role models. LeBron James, a family man. Curry seemingly never stops smiling, is generous with his time and seems to be a great dad and husband. Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, the Gasol brothers, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard – all tremendous talents that set good examples off the court. Even Zach Randolph has cleaned up his image and became a pillar of the Memphis community.

I believe social media has something to do with it. The bigger stars have been managing their own brands since high school, always aware of public perception: what’s a good look and what isn’t. I think most of these guys are generally more aware of social issues (“I Can’t Breathe” shirts in warm-ups just one example) than the previous generation and realize they have an opportunity to use their tremendous influence for good.

Sure, Blake Griffin punched a trainer and Rajon Rondo used an awful gay slur toward a gay official. There will always be some incidents. But compared to the NFL, this league is full of choir boys.

Misconception #3 – “It’s just one guy dribbling while everyone else stands around.”

The problem with virtuoso Jazz music is the otherworldly talent of one musician isolates his or her performance, which kills all rhythm and harmony. This leaves the other band members on stage trapped in limbo and the audience disinterested. The NBA fell into this trap for a while. Players like Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady were so transcendent on their own, that ironically they could make the game less fun to watch (for the fans) and play (for their teammates). In some ways Jordan started this trend, hero-ball or whatever you want to call it. The game suffered due to the Be Like Mike edict of the 90s that bled into the early 2000s. But there have always been and will always be ball-dominant players in pro basketball. Yet in recent years there’s been a sea change. Teams figured out that the way to beat a team led by an All-World player is to build a team-oriented passing attack mixed with smart helping and trapping defense. See the Spurs in 2014 vs. the Heat.

As mentioned earlier, most teams now force the opposing defense to worry about multiple options on every possession. An iso-heavy offense is easier to shut down, thus it’s becoming a relic of the past.

Misconception #4 – Today’s players are soft

Like Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley before him, Oscar Robertson recently waved the flag for the past and how much better/tougher the game was “in my day.” Some rallied to Oscar’s side, others hastened to discredit him as a bitter, washed-up, out of touch former athlete. If I can offer my two cents, both to Oscar and the modern NBA fan….can’t both be good? I love Oscar Robertson – the guy averaged a triple double and admirably dealt with a lot of bullshit in an era when black players were still treated like second-class citizens. Let’s appreciate Big O always. But here’s the great part about sports – there’s no cap on our admiration. We can praise Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar AND Steph Curry. We can even appreciate Iverson. It’s a different game now, an evolved form of what the legends started. It’s all good people.

Were the players of the 60s and 70s tougher? Heck, probably. They made considerably less money, there was a fair to middling chance they’d catch a fist in any given game and road trips were much harder. But none of those statements makes modern guys soft. I’m sure Oscar wouldn’t have turned down first class travel had it been offered.

Bottom line is it’s hard to become a professional athlete if you are soft or weak. It’s hard to grind out 82 basketball games (and playoffs if you’re lucky) against other world-class athletes while traveling thousands of miles and playing through “minor” injuries. I banged my knee last week and can barely make it down the stairs. I ain’t calling anyone soft.

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As I finish this blog post, I’m sitting here watching the second half of Thunder-Warriors on TNT with I imagine a couple million others across the nation. Recently I finished Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls about the history of the ABA and its eventual merger with the NBA in 1976. One of the things that struck me from that book was how difficult it was for pro basketball to get games televised, which led to a lot of cash-strapped teams. I’m just grateful for all the magnetic personalities and great talents that entered the league in the years that followed (Bird, Magic, Dr J, Moses, MJ, Barkley, Dominique, etc.). They brought the league into the public eye like it never had been before and made it possible for me to watch a game being played in Oakland at 11:15 Central time on a Thursday. Jordan of course made the NBA a global phenomenon, and suddenly we had stars from all over the world entering the league. Now it’s normal to have half the guys on the court at any given time from places outside the U.S., bringing in new playing styles and fans from New Zealand, Turkey, Germany, China, Australia, Brazil and on and on.

Like I said, the game doesn’t really need the over-40 white demographic to thrive. I just love pro basketball – past and present – and want to share it with as many people as possible. As a 31-year old white male living in North Texas, naturally a lot of my social interactions are with middle-aged white men. My aim is to educate, disprove these misconceptions and, ultimately, be able to monopolize more dinner conversations with NBA talk. With that in mind, I need to wrap this up and text my dad to make sure he’s watching the end of this Warriors game.

2 thoughts on “The NBA: A Game of Misconceptions

  1. The rare well written, well thought out piece that passes for journalism these days – As someone who thinks basketball at a high level, I thoroughly enjoyed it

    Keep up the good work

    Liked by 1 person

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