The catchy slogan, “The NBA. It’s fantastic!”, was created in the early ‘80s to punctuate TV ads showcasing the excitement of the Magic/Bird era being ushered in.
But today’s NBA mirrors in spirit the 1998 version of the slogan, which was used sarcastically in a series of commercials that brought attention to the ongoing NBA lockout.
Criticism of the current NBA may come across as curmudgeonly, but there are too many eye-rolling phenomena to ignore.
Kudos to Russell Westbrook for becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season (it was actually refreshing to hear The Big O praise a modern-day player without any “back in my day” condescension), but Westbrook’s unabashed rebound-vulturing and assist-hunting started to get ugly.
The stat-chasing wasn’t as bad as Anthony Bowie calling a timeout with seconds to go in a blowout to draw up a play for his 10th assist, or Bobby Sura intentionally missing a lay-up in a blowout to get his 10th rebound (it was disallowed), or Ricky Davis intentionally missing a shot on his own goal to get his 10th rebound (also disallowed), but it was close. And prolonged.
Westbrook routinely lost his man on both ends of the floor to crash the boards. His teammates also made a concerted effort to let him grab uncontested defensive rebounds on missed free throws. Westbrook dominated the ball on offense, fishing for assists.
The Phoenix Suns made note of it in a late-season game when Westbrook was one triple-double shy of tying Robertson’s record. The Suns’ Jared Dudley said,
“Fourth quarter, we had such a big lead and the only thing he needed was assists, so the whole game plan changed. He was still in the game down 20, 25, and you could see he was being real passive, so we just stayed home.”
Due to Westbrook’s ball dominance, he averaged an eye-popping 5.5 turnovers per game and a sub-2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. Advanced stats-nerds will exclaim his usage rate was approaching a zillion, but the high turnovers can’t be summarily dismissed.
Westbrook is a fantastic player and he had a great season, but the shameless stats obsession puts a patina on his eventual MVP trophy (although James Harden will win it if there’s any justice).
Speaking of James Harden, he’s not without video-game cheesiness, either. Harden is the poster boy for parades to the free throw line. In his five seasons as an NBA starter, he’s had four seasons where he averaged 10+ free throw attempts per game.
For comparison, Michael Jordan was a relentless slasher and he only had two such seasons in his entire career. In today’s pace-and-space NBA, there are bigger lanes to the basket, more possessions, and a glaring dearth of rim-protectors like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo.
It’s created video-game statistics, thus middling all-stars like DeMar DeRozan are posting prime-Kobe Bryant numbers.
A list of players to score 70+ points in a game: Wilt Chamberlain (multiple times), Kobe Brant (2006), David Thompson (1978), Elgin Baylor (1960), David Robinson (1994), Devin Booker (2017). One of these things is not like the others.
The way people understand NBA stats needs to change, similar to the way people now interpret NFL passing numbers; 5,000 yards is no longer a Herculean feat.
Watching Isaiah Thomas get ticky-tack calls the way his namesake Zeke never did for the ‘Bad Boy Pistons’ is a bit grating, but at least Thomas suits up.
The ubiquitous maintenance programs of the modern game have gotten silly. It’s not unusual for a healthy player in his 20’s to get a DNP (Did Not Play) on the second night of a back-to-back.
Two years ago, LeBron James took a two-week vacation in the middle of a season. It’s frustrating for an NBA fan to gear up for a primetime Thursday matchup between the Warriors and Spurs only to find out both are playing their B-teams with a month left in the season.
The cherry on top to a diluted NBA product is the lack of competitiveness at the top of each conference. Kevin Durant joining the 73-win Warriors essentially ensured their supremacy in the West for the foreseeable future.
The San Antionio Spurs are a great team, but their style has proven to match up poorly against the Golden State Warriors. Nobody else in the West measures up at all.
Westbrook’s unbridled fury against his former teammate is commendable, but the Thunder didn’t play a single competitive game against the Warriors this year. And forget about the East.
LeBron will undoubtedly be making his seventh consecutive appearance in the finals. Even the ‘80s Lakers and Celtics tripped up occasionally. Perhaps LeBron could take a hiatus and try out for the Cleveland Indians.
The NBA is not fantastic. It could be again. For now, just take a nap until the Finals.