You won't be ready if you're waiting

I have been trying to wrestle down this idea for the past two days (hence, again, no McSweeney's), despite its likely being one of the stupider things I've ever become convinced of. It goes something like this: the Playoffs pare down the Association to the essentials, the teams and players worth mentioning. Classic addition by subtraction for those who want nothing more than for the NBA to bristle with moral clarity and easy answers. Plenty of people would like nothing more than for half of the league to disappear from the face of the earth; elimination from or failure to reach the postseason offers a convenient, empirical mechanism to make this happen. The fewer teams remain, the better the Associations gets, since many of the more problematic elements can then be written off as illegitimate.

As in no other sport, the risk of being "exposed" runs through the narrative of any series. Losing doesn't just mean you're out of the running for the championship, but that, on some level, you never belonged there in the first place. There is so much ill will toward the NBA that glory is meted out judiciously; runners-up might as well not even exist, since giving too many competing factions credit would rule out the possibility of decisiveness. Or, rather, to sort out who's right and who's wrong in the league's internal battles of the spirit, winners have to rule and losers have to get vanquished, no matter how far along it happens. When the Spurs beat the Suns last season, the repudiation was all the more absolute for having taken place in the Conference Finals; a first-round upset is nice and all, but locking horns late in the process means that something essential about the league's identity is really on the line. And, as a result, the loser's failure is all the more crushing.

We all knew what it meant for the Lakers to win, or the Pistons, or the Spurs, as well as what it meant when the Lakers, Sixers, Nets, or Kings lost. Part of what makes this currently underway Playoffs at once vexing, confusing, and intoxicating is that no one knows what the fuck the possible outcomes would stand for. It still doesn't feel like the Spurs are gone, while the once-hallowed Pistons have looked as sluggish and ragged as the Heat team they seem primed to fall to. There's been a ton of talk about whether a Suns victory could augur a new era of small ball, but is it that simple? Isn't that team so chock-full of singular weirdos that any attempt to replicate would most likely end in discourteous mayhem? The Heat are simply proving that, until the end of days, pairing one of history's great centers with as purely dominant a guard as you'll ever see gets some results; the Mavericks, should they walk away with the prize of martyrs, will underscore the importance of surrounding a freakish All-Star with a ton of potent veterans and outrageous youngsters, all of whom buy into a central concept of skilled, scorched-earth effort.

Which is all a long way of saying that, for those looking to figure out the Association's gooey center (no Blount), you'll find nothing this year by watching the season, and league, dwindle way to one ephemeral victor. If anything, I'd advise these sickly souls to look toward the early rounds, when it was proven that many kinds of faith could prosper, or the coming storm on the horizon represented by the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and all the other imminent superstars a little too green to plunge ahead. In the piece I stubbornly refused to finish for McSweeney's, I likened this to political junkies' love and admiration for the primaries, as opposed to the somewhat arbitrary deliverance unto and slog through the general elections. Without discounting the ultimate in winning and losing, I humbly suggest that jockeying for position is just as potent a proof of future validity. Otherwise, one might as well judge the nation's leaders on the strength of over-moderated debates, shapeless interviews, and untimely news items.


At 6/01/2006 6:07 PM, Anonymous xxx said...

not even one mention of gil's arrest?!?!!!!!

i thoought his comments were amazing.

At 6/01/2006 6:13 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

wilbon's piece pretty much says it all. arenas is a young black man who got mistreated by the cops and had his good name smeared to cover their asses. as much as we'd all like arenas to constantly wow us with his oddity, here the same old song is just too obvious to ignore.

wv: urhoq (ur-hawk, "u-r-ho, q!!!")

At 6/01/2006 6:31 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

"Hero Zero"!

Made my day.

At 6/01/2006 7:12 PM, Anonymous Uncle Ted said...

I think there is something pretty astute going on here. In the NBA more than in any other major sport, the playoffs really do seem to count as empirical evidence for claims about which players are good and what combinations of players work (and even who the best coach is). Contrast the "any given sunday" nature of football, and the fact that in baseball, players and teams take months (or even years) to accumulate enough data to propose a statistically meaningful hypothesis about who is best (and of course that team will only win a seven game series about 55% of the time). Hell, baseball, because of it's simplicity, because managers could be replaced by computers, and because really it is a game of individual matchups more than a team sport actually lends itself towards a "the real action is in the offseason" mentality. The season is just grounds for better refinement of the empirical data used to outwit your oponents in the offseason.

Now basketball is seemingly different. Teams aren't reducible to a sum of their parts, as in baseball, and individual performances aren't simply subsumed by the sheer weight of everything built around them as in football. Coaching and creativity matter, but it simply can't be regimented. So, while basketball playoffs are evidence for something, i'm not sure they can render decisive conclusions like the west coast offense has in american football, and this is all for the best. Basketball playoff results yield inspiration for future modification of teams and style of play, not decisive conclusions about what works and what doesn't.

At 6/02/2006 12:07 AM, Anonymous griffin said...

This post reads like sour grapes to me. Shoals doesn't love any of the four remaining teams, hence the creation of this post.

The NBA is great because it means something to win the championship. It means legitimacy. You can't use gimmicks and expect to win, and you can't fluke your way to the top. There is an art to surviving the playoffs that only a handful of teams and coaches have solved over the past 25 years.

I'm not saying we should deny the existence of the 29 losing teams (who is saying that, btw?). But let's continue to give credit where credit is due.

At 6/02/2006 1:04 AM, Blogger bobduck said...

Basketball is great because a denial of the 29 other teams is never the case. Every single year, a team will play uptempo or slowed down, using superstars or role players to accomplish their goal. Contrast this with the NFL, which sees a new trend go into vogue with the Super Bowl champion. Observe a few years ago, when everyone thought that running the ball for 3 yards and locking down on D was the key.

In the Lig, there is constant room for experimentation, even to the point of ignorance of certain trends. GMs continually turn a blind eye to what seems to work the best: defense, defense, defense.

Not to criticize the Suns--their brand of ball is second to none in terms of creativity and entertainment--but the acceptance of the 29 other teams seems to doom folks to oblivion more and more each year.

In my recollection, the last championship winner than ran and gunned was the Magic-led Lakers of the 1980s. Maybe the Suns herald a return to that era, or maybe they're just an interesting blip in a long, straight line of defense-first, star-powered champions.

kgrtdxp: Kevin Garnett rips Tom Delay across Perdition.

At 6/02/2006 1:06 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

uh, no. championships are fine and good, but they can't be read as the last word on what's for real in the league, what everyone else need take heed of, or the absolute eternal quality of any and all teams involved. i don't know if you noticed, but the playoffs can be violently contingent, and match-ups determined as much by chance as anything else. so to say that "legit basketball" is "championship teams" is a little hysterical, at least on a year-by-year basis.

i would love to see the mavs win, even though it would be hard to extrapolate from them a model that the entire association would have to then imitate or react to. i would hate to have seen the spurs slump away with the title, despite the fact that they and the pistons have the clearest set of implications for the nba.

winning a championship means you won a championship, no more and no less. granted, it's not as suspect as college ball, and more often than not the better team wins the series (even if who this is only becomes clear over the course of seven games). supposing that the postseason can and always should put everyone on notice, though, is at best circular.

and saying that the team that wins gains "legitimacy" is dangerously close to saying that others are "illegitimate," even if they came in a close second and opened a lot of eyes around the league as to how things could be done.

At 6/02/2006 1:09 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

bd--experimentation is always permitted, but it's exactly the kind of dissent and heterogenity i'm saying some people despise. it's confusing and brings out too many unsavory ghosts from the future. better to come up with a single answer each season, usually in a fairly conservative, timeless mode, and let everyone else shift slightly in their seats to acknowledge it--on both a practical, "they stand in our way" level and as the latest absolute solution to a sport that can be almost exasperatingly flexible.

At 6/02/2006 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The title means something to the team that wins it but I think it's pretty clear that you're not coming away from this finals with the formula for sucess in the new NBA like you might have in previous years. Just look at the four teams left, could they have gotten here in any more different ways?

At 6/02/2006 10:03 AM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...

Yeah, I think this is where Shoals sees the Finals winner as a philosophical system and not a group of individual players. However, anon2:02 is right in that the champions don't really set the tone of play for the rest of the league. Each team must adjust to its strengths and weaknesses. Plus, since a winner of the playoffs receives the dominant narrative for that year and shrouds the rest of the season's micronarratives (i.e. Kirilenko, Chris Paul, Arenas, etc), BS becomes nervous that what is discarded from the discourse will be forgotten.

If only instead of a trophy presentation ceremony, Stern could give shoutouts to all those who were subjugated to the "ruling class" hegemony of the playoffs. Perhaps roll off some highlights of Ray Allen nailing 3-balls, a Hawks fastbreak, T-Mac at the All-Star Game, and a Paul Pierce 40pt game. Then the winner of the 25-game playoffs will concede that the Playoffs were a diversion from the true glory of the NBA: The mediocre, expansion-ridden regular season. Only then will hoops purists be able to sleep well at night, knowing that winning means nothing compared to the league's greatest assets: hype and potential.

At 6/02/2006 10:58 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

when shaq was winning titles, everyone had to figure out how to get past shaq/get a shaq of their own. the pistons laid down a new law, stating "no bullshit, balance, humility." the spurs stand for discipline and veterans who can step up, with a little bit of that euro pizzaz thrown in. the assumption is that to beat them, you have to acknowledge their model. at the same time, a team with a clear meaning behind it winning a championship can be taken as a sign that theirs is "the way," at least for the next few months.

i am not sure if the perception of the "legitimacy" of winners is part of the same story as how teams will adapt to what they see as the big dogs on the block, but you can't accept one and throw the validity of the other out the window.

this has to do with the desire of people to perceive LEGIT teams like the league had in the eighties, and their eagerness to think that making the rest of the league LEGIT is as easy as everyone copying a winning formula. except none of this year's final four could ever pass for LEGIT.

and notice i didn't say the regular season was dope, i stressed the usefulness of the early rounds IN THE ABSENCE OF A CLEAR JUGGERNAUT.

if it's so sincerely troublesome to have me suggest that these playoffs are different than in years past, and perhaps tell us something about the typical neurotic crabs that usually scamper around these postseasonal shores, i don't know why reading my posts could possibly bring any joy into your life. there's a little of middle ground between my crying because arenas is out and putting on special pants each night to see who will be crowned master of the league; any challenging of the latter doesn't automatically reduce to gerald wallace-jocking.

At 6/02/2006 10:59 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

and anon2:02 was agreeing with me: THIS YEAR there will be no tone-setting from above

At 6/02/2006 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this year seems somewhat confusing b/c it now seems like the pistons may not make it, which means there's no real validation of the first pistons win. point being, we've had 2 dominant teams for a long, long time. the bulls for 6, with 2 rockets in between, and then the lakers and the spurs effectively splitting the next 6, with detroit thrown in as the disrupter. and before the bulls, it was LA or celtics or pistons. so we really don't know how to handle a champion who isn't likely to dominate for a long time. e.g., if PHX or DAL wins, do you really expect them to contend for years? it's like when the NFC east lost it's dominance in football after accounting for something like 10 of 12 superbowls -- we're not used to a world where a seemingly flukey teams wins it all only to disappear (marlins anyone?). so everyone should root for the east to win so we have some sense of narrative -- if detroit, they can claim to be a team robbed of a threepeat (pun not intended, but now recognized), if miami, shaq can claim to be most dominant ever.

At 6/02/2006 11:37 AM, Anonymous spider said...

Anon11:26 writs: "e.g., if PHX or DAL wins, do you really expect them to contend for years?"

Well, yeah, actually. Who in the West has a brighter future? Tracy McGrady can barely stand up straight.

At 6/02/2006 12:55 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

Pessimism about T-Mac's back makes Big Baby Jesus (RIP) cry.

wv: eatpi

At 6/02/2006 1:00 PM, Anonymous griffin said...

It seems like Shoals and I view "legitimacy" to mean different things. I don't view the 2005 Spurs as legit because of the formula they used. They're legit because they learned how to win on the highest platform. That, for me, is the most respectable thing about an NBA champion. They all have to gradually learn how to win at increasingly difficult levels. It has nothing to do with formulas. That's why we see the same cycle of teams reaching the semis and conference finals year after year.

That's what drove me crazy/was fascinating about last year's Sonics. Talk about a fluke. They were disrupting the order of things more than Dallas or PHX can ever hope to this season. They threw the learning curve out the window, taking SAS to six. However, getting knocked out in the semis, World Order was left mostly intact. And Seattle drifted right back to the lottery.

If Mirabeau is speaking for Shoals, and he's right about Shoals's fear that the losers will be forgotten, my question is what game from these playoffs is most likely to be replayed on ESPN Classic? Probably game four of LAL vs. PHX. Maybe that's not enough consolation since it denies Arenas his due, or Bonzi and Kevin Martin and Reef of there's, or Michael Redd, Hinrich and Gordon, or even the Hawks and Magic who both played inspired ball the last few months.

You know, when the Pistons won in 04, Larry Brown said something I'll never forget after the final game. He gave credit to Chucky Atkins, Cliff Robinson, John Barry, Michael Curry and Rick Carlisle and all those guys who helped make the Pistons what they had become. That gave me real calm inside because it was the two years leading up to the championship that the Pistons were truly amazing to watch. They were changing the culture of Grant Hill Teal HorsePower basketball that drove Detroiters to basketball apathy during the mid-to-late 90s. And they happened to be winning games as they did it. It was amazing to behold (and it was hideous ball to everyone outside of Michigan), and when they won it in 04 I was afraid the guys that helped build the foundation would be forgotten.

So I think I know what you're talking about Shoals, if Mirabeau speaks for you correctly.

At 6/02/2006 3:12 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"legitimacy" means "players, coaching staff, and a brand of basketball that has proven they can win on the highest level." it has practical and ideological implications, especially in an era in which the nature of the league and the definition of the game are in dispute.

winning has never been asked to mean more, while at the same time being less indicative than ever of general trends and decisive conclusions about what works, who works, and why we should respect them for it.


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