Organized Sports is a recurring sports column named for a seminal DC avant-hardcore song by the equally stupid and brilliant (to me, “equally stupid and brilliant” pretty much just means “brilliant”) band Void. Take from that what you will.
The NBA is an interesting proposition. Because of the exorbitant amount of money paid to the Association’s top stars, as well as many of its thoroughly unremarkable role players, a broad swath of the sports-watching populace has turned its back on the NBA, especially during the regular season. “These thugs make too much money,” say many people, most of whom are white and old.
For a long time, I had little interest in the NBA, being white and old at heart. I grew up in a city (St. Louis) whose only NBA team had left when my parents had yet to meet. To date, I’ve been to only one regular season NBA game live, and that was when I was around ten years old, visiting a family friend in Washington, DC, seeing the Bullets play a team whose identity I don’t remember, because nascent pubescent thoughts had me far more interested in the timeout and halftime break antics of the Bullettes. My major memories of the NBA other than that as early impressions are the interruption of the Knicks-Rockets Finals matchup for the OJ Simpson chase and Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement, with watching dunk contest highlight videos in my friend Adam’s basement in between Double Dragon adventures coming in a close second.
All of that changed a few short years ago.
As a sports fan, I’d always paid attention to the playoffs, as I did in any sport, but in regular season circulation my interest had run through baseball in my early days (Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee-era Cardinals), hockey through the junior high and high school years (Brett Hull! Brendan Shanahan! Al MacInnis! Mike Keenan 😦 Wayne Gretzky 😦 ) to the NFL (Kurt Warner wins the Super Bowl yay! Kurt Warner says “This team is meant for a special mission” and gets a little too into the whole sports+G-d thing and the Rams lose to the Patriots boo!). When I moved to Los Angeles, though, it was hard not to get into basketball. There were games on all the time, the Lakers were the only local team anyone cared about, and having briefly lived in Boston I could even pretend to be a Celtics fan if I wanted to be a dick about things. And when I started watching it, I realized that it was a sport that could be watched and enjoyed completely separate from team allegiances or even the very nature of winning and losing: NBA basketball offered the pure spectacle of awesome things done by incredible athletes, with any moment a potential highlight. I found myself becoming a fan not of any team, or even rooting for any particular outcome, but just wanting to watch certain players.
I realize now that my choices in players to watch were pretty unoriginal and unsophisticated: I became addicted to the strange mix of three-point daggers and awkward but powerful dunks of Durant; the showy passing of Rondo; the sudden explosion of Rose; the isolation chess matches of pre-Knicks Melo; the languid lulling-to-sleep-and-then-striking of my favorite NBA diva, Paul Pierce. If I had a “team,” it was the hometown Lakers, because that was who I saw the most of, and I actually knew all the players on the roster and what they could and could not do, but I was still a dilettante, an indie rocker at his first kvlt metal show.
Anyone who’s ever seen my music collection will know I’m a completist, though, and so I couldn’t stop there. After reading Rip it Up and Start Again I obtained multiple Dexy’s Midnight Runners albums, after all. Most people are happy enough with Joy Division; I can tell you about A Certain Ratio. I go too far. So now, at this point, I know way too much about the NBA, or at least about players to watch, and storylines to follow, and teams that can make an impact. So, after this too-lengthy preamble, here comes an NBA midseason report on teams and players to watch at the NBA All-Star break.
Much as no one needs to own this A Certain Ratio single, no one needs to know who Brian Scalabrine is.
I’ll be splitting things up into three groups: the Contenders, teams that could conceivably make a title run or at least be interesting in the playoffs; Persons of Interest, teams featuring players to keep an eye on as they either sneak into the bottom rungs of the playoff picture or just miss out while remaining interesting; and Sean O’Neal’s Big Red NO, teams that deserve no consideration at all moving forward, named in honor of the AV Club’s resident snarkster and his favorite device.
The pre-NBA fanatic sports fan in me wants to hate the Heat for the same reasons that many others do, and in many instances I can’t help it. LeBron is a pretty annoying, cloying, approval-seeking wiener (who, yes, has yet to prove himself in a situation where it really counts), D-Wade seems like the less-talented yet dominant older brother keeping the younger brother (Bron-Bron) down through sheer force of will and a greater level of irrational confidence, and Chris Bosh looks like a dinosaur. But the truth of the matter is that all three of the Big Three should be starting on the All-Star team for the East, their long, athletic defense has the potential to ruin title runs for any number of other teams, and when they play up to their potential they are the most thoroughly radical team in history, demolishing the hierarchy of position and showing the beauty of athleticism and creativity. The Heat winning it all would be a defeat for “doing things the right way,” sure, but it would be a victory for everyone who’s sick the fuck of Ecksteins and Tebows scrappy-scrap-scrapping their way to the top, too.
The Bulls are the best or second-best team in the East, depending upon the day and upon Derrick Rose’s health. They are far less fun to watch, but far more likable, than the Heat. They are also sadly far more dependent upon one player to carry them. Luol Deng is a great second option, to be sure, but he is just that, a second option. When the Heat have three first options, it’s hard to think the Bulls will be able to get out of the East, unless Rose puts on a performance for the ages. Also, Tom Thibodeau seems like the kind of taskmaster who will have his best players run suicides on the day of the big game and make them lose their wind when it really counts.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This is the team I’d really like to win it all, and not just because I may or may not have dropped a bill on them to do so when the NBA future bets were released last time I was in Lost Wages. The Thunder appeal to both sides of my sports fandom, meaning: they are a “team,” playing for a “coach,” and “everyone matters”; and, they have two players, in Durant and Westbrook, who can make me stand up from my couch, wishing I were one of those benchwarmers they always show after a sick dunk being pretend-angry and having to be pretend-held back from rushing the floor by another benchwarmer. Also, enough already with the whole Durant and Westbrook hate each other and they are Avon and Stringer from The Wire nonsense. They may not be ideal teammates because they both explode to the hoop like I did when I saw the Kate Upton SI cover, but when it comes down to it they’ll figure it out.
Philadelphia 76ers/Indiana Pacers/Denver Nuggets
For those out there who prefer college basketball to the NBA, these are the teams to root for. In a normal season, none of these teams would have a chance since NBA teams need at least one superstar to win, but in the lockout-shortened season these deep, fundamentally sound teams all have a chance at least to contend because they all remain well-rested, well-coached, and in contention. Think of all these teams as the 11-seeds that challenge in the Sweet Sixteen. If I lived somewhere these were among the home teams I’d be pretty psyched, but since I don’t, I’m only kinda hoping they make it deep into the playoffs.
Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers/San Antonio Spurs
All of these teams have their strengths and all of them have their weaknesses, and all are currently in playoff positions, but they all have one thing very much in common: they old. That is no reason to count them out, though; it’s a short, strange, fluky season, and all it really takes is to get in. Do you really want to count Rondo/Pierce/Allen/Garnett, Kobe/Gasol, or Duncan/Ginobili/Parker out completely in a seven-game series? I don’t either.
Los Angeles Clippers
If you were looking at my column to have logic, you might have assumed I’d have all the individual team entries before the combo entries like the “we play as a team, we can succeed” group of the 76ers/Pacers/Nuggets and the “veterans get buckets, old wins in the NBA” Celtics/Lakers/Spurs in my title contender group. By doing so, you made an ass of u and med. The Clippers are an interesting case, and I feel I might be unable to actually rate their abilities, because I’m thoroughly engrossed in wanting them to make this shit happen. Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending, possibly career-ending Achilles injury, and while I understand this may hurt the locker room as far as leadership goes, I’m not sure it hurts them as far as their actual play goes. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are at this point still very young dudes who don’t quite know how to really play basketball yet, but it almost seems like Chris Paul knows how to play basketball well enough for everyone. Seriously, watching Chris Paul regularly this year, which I haven’t done before since I’ve only become NBA-obsessed in the past couple of years, is like watching one of those athletes who just sees everything as it’s about to happen a few milliseconds before everyone else, whatever amount of time is enough to make it noticeable to an outside observer. You watch him dribble in, then back out and can tell that the opposition’s reactions to his moves are just shy of his own, Gretzky behind the net in his prime or Barry Sanders surveying the linebackers before making a cut. With the lob potential and Paul’s ability to drive if need be (not to mention his full willingness to straight up play dirty on defense against another point guard that attempts to approach his ability controlling the ball) all this team needs are wings to shoot the J and they could be unstoppable. That said, they’re young as hell and they are the Clippers (a franchise as doomed as Bill Walton’s feet), and Vinny Del Negro is their coach.
Persons of Interest
Conventional wisdom would say the title defenders should be in the conversation for contender status, but a slow start combined with lackluster play, up to this point, from their marquee player (Dirk!) and the loss to free agency of their main defensive presence, Tyson Chandler, puts them firmly in the second tier. Add to that the loss of their scrappy basketball-Eckstein fireplug JJ Barea and the addition of a troubled Lamar Odom (maybe my favorite Laker, so I’m sad to see him struggling) in his place, and they’re a playoff team who’d take a miracle to get out of the second round.
The Hawks, as always, are going nowhere, but they’re in this tier only because of their person of interest, Josh Smith, who should have been an All-Star and should be on a better team. Yeah, his shot selection may be a little haphazard, and his discipline is nonexistent, but come on. Were he on a less mediocre team (either way better or way worse) he’d be on highlight reels nightly.
Dwight Howard may be the greatest combination of size and athleticism ever. That was said before of Shaq, wasn’t it? Shaq won four titles, dominated the NBA for half a decade, and is still considered a disappointment. Sounds about Dwight. (If I ruled the world, I’d put Dwight Howard on the Bulls with Derrick Rose and it would work out, turning them into a Jordan/Pippen with a different dynamic for a new generation. Probably won’t happen, though.)
New York Knicks
Persons of Linterest? Sorry about the pun. They still won’t be good enough, and since everyone’s heard quite enough about the Knicks (and we already covered the story) that’s all you get.
Houston Rockets/Portland Trail Blazers/Utah Jazz
These three fully-capable teams will likely make the playoffs, each of them doing so with players deserving more attention than they get. LaMarcus Aldridge deserves special attention for being one of the best power forwards in the league, in a city that devotes its sport attention to basketball like few others. It’s pretty dope he’s an All-Star this year.
The Lobos get their own entry because they may make the playoffs and, because of rookie Ricky Rubio (Rookie Rubio?) they are one of the most exciting mediocre teams to watch play. Rubio’s Harlem Globetrotter-like passing and instant star looks combined with Kevin Love’s consistent double-doubling have what would otherwise be a thoroughly unremarkable possible playoff team on everyone’s mind. Before Jeremy Lin, Ricky Rubio was going to be the story of the year this year in the NBA, no matter who ended up winning the title.
Last year, the Grizzlies were the upset story, knocking off the top-seeded Spurs and challenging the Thunder for a spot in the Western Conference finals. This year, injuries have stopped them from following up on that potential, but there’s still a chance for them to sneak in and be the sort of team no one wants to play in the first round. I hope they make that happen, if only because I have peoples in Memphis I’d never seen get behind a sports team before and that was pretty awesome.
The Suns have no chance to contend, but they do have one of the most prominent persons of interest in the entire league, that being 38-year-old Steve Nash. Nash, in what may be the most misguided sense of loyalty in professional sports, has no desire to be traded from the terrible Suns. Hopefully, he’ll realize the error of his ways and help himself (by getting to a contender) and his franchise (by providing them draft picks at the deadline). Until Jeremy Lin I figured the Knicks might be a great place for Nash to land, with his old coach podna Mike D’Antoni, but there are many places he could contribute on a playoff run with the possibility of signing for a year or two afterwards, contender-wise: would Nash throwing lobs to LeBron, Wade and Bosh make the Heat more likable?
Sean O’Neal’s Big Red NO
Brandon Jennings is a legitimate star, and a reason to watch the games. They are still in the playoff hunt in the East, but are so far down in the hunt they should probably, the NBA being what it is, stop hunting in order to get Jennings some help in the upcoming draft.
At least the Cavs made the most of their latest number one: Kyrie Irving is the real muffuckin deal y’all.
Golden State Warriors/Sacramento Kings
These two Norcal teams may not contend for anything, but they are entertaining to watch from time to time with bunches of ballhogs who look good on the YouTubes. Monta Ellis is decent trade bait, and hey, Jimmer!
Canada still has a basketball team!
I honestly know nothing about the Detroit Pistons at this point, other than that they still have Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace. But unlike all these other teams, they’ve won titles, and one of them was within the past ten years.
New Jersey Nets
Unless Dwight Howard comes to the Nets for their move to Brooklyn, which is becoming less and less likely by the minute, Deron Williams is going to go to the Mavericks and the Nets are going to be completely screwed.
At least they have those dope Bullets-like retro jerseys this year. And John Wall is really good. Hopefully playing for the Wizards doesn’t make him not want to play basketball anymore ever. You know what would make those Bullets-like jerseys even more cool? If they said “Bullets” on the front, because the team name was the Washington Bullets.
The Bobcats would be the worst franchise in the league if the Hornets didn’t exist without an owner.
New Orleans Hornets
Thus concludes the Organized Sports NBA midseason report.