NBA Hate, Boredom, and the San Antonio Spurs

I have admittedly watched very little of the San Antonio Spurs this season.  For a team that won 50 games (out of 66), they were given little attention on the national scene, as has been the case with them for the last several years.  Now that the Playoffs are in full swing and I've gotten a chance to watch them a fair bit (and I'm watching them play the Clippers in Game 2 as I type this), my opinions about them are starting to crystallize a bit.  Additionally, their hyper-efficient brand of basketball has me thinking about the way NBA basketball is viewed and digested, both by casual and the most hardcore of fans.  They, along with the Heat, are quickly becoming the microcosms of all the things that fans (both the enlightened and the, well, not so much) love and hate about the Association. 


The manner in which people hate the NBA is both shockingly simple and extremely nuanced.  There is a classic archetype of the "NBA Hater," and they will always present the same arguments:
1. NBA players are thugs and/or prima donnas.
2. NBA players don't play defense.
3. NBA teams use too much isolation ("1-on-1," they like to call it).

These same people will tell you that they "love" NCAA basketball and much prefer it to the NBA game, for reasons that they are never quite able to articulate.  Well, allow me to explain.  The people who claim that they prefer the NCAA game don't really like the sport of basketball.  They like games, and they like gambling.  They like the idea that everyone on the court/field/ice/whatever is getting the absolute most out of his abilities at all times, and NCAA basketball embodies this strange ideal because it reeeaaaally looks like everyone out there is trying super-hard all the time, and that's because they are.  However, as any NBA fan knows all-too-well, there is a big difference between effort and skill.  Many NBA players are so skilled at the game that they make excellence look effortless, and this offends the sensibilities of non-hoopheads who really want sports to equate to struggle.  NBA basketball, however, played at its highest level, often looks (for lack of a better word) "easy."  And this is where the Spurs come into the discussion.

A lot of what I've seen in the NBA Playoffs so far (particularly in the Eastern Conference) has been ugly basketball.  The style and flow of the games might remind one of NCAA basketball a little bit, except that the skill level of the players is much higher and the defense is much more intense and physical.  There is a slow, choppy aspect to the games that brings to mind (and not in a good way) the mid-90's New York Knicks "thugball" style, where games were slugfests played in the high 70's and low 80's for an entire series.

 The Spurs are the absolute antithesis of this style.  This is a team that is all about proper floor spacing, understanding of the system, and crisp ball movement.  They can all score the ball (unlike a lot of one-dimensional NBA teams nowadays, which we'll get to in a bit), and they will pass up good shots for great ones.  Everyone understands his role, and they play fairly strong team defense (even though they don't have a ton of truly exceptional individual defenders).  So basically, they are the polar opposite of everything the Hater hates about NBA ball.  Yet no one seems to care about them or give them the proper credit as the bastion of basketball excellence that they are.  Why?


I won't spend any more time pandering to the haters.  You can't explain to them why their views are unfounded any more than you can explain to a hardcore Catholic why gay people should be able to get married.  Idiocy tends to come with an unpalatable side of stubbornness, so the best thing we can do is ignore it and hope it goes away. 

But among actual NBA fans, there is still a general disdain for the Spurs, and it's weird and anachronistic.  I'm watching this team play now, and I'm here to tell you that they should be celebrated for the style that they play: team-first, unselfish, basketball with an emphasis on execution and accountability.  It's refreshing basketball, and it looks a lot like how Dallas was playing during the Playoffs last year when everything was clicking.  Championship basketball, AKA the opposite of the Miami Heat.

Regardless of how you feel about the team, it's been painful to watch Miami play in the Playoffs thus far.  Outside of a couple LeBron/D-Wade highlights each game, they play a really sluggish, (dare I say) boring brand of basketball.  Their role players are cover-your-eyes awful, and apparently Chris Bosh is a lot more important than many realized (but not your esteemed columnist, who covered his value in the USA Basketball column, prior to his injury).  They play too much isolation ball (rather than running pick and rolls and other sets just for the combo of LeBron and Wade) and are really only competitive most of the time because of their rugged defense (and the defensive advantage that having two all-world superstars on the wings grants them).  They most definitely don't play the sort of Championship ball described above, and I'm pretty certain that even if they make it to the Finals, the Spurs (if they beat OKC) will expose them as frauds. 

Despite the stylistic differences between the two teams and the relative level of enjoyment derived from those disparate styles, all anyone talks about is Miami, and everyone ignores the Spurs.  It's a function of our tendency as a culture to celebrate spectacular failure and ignore consistent, unremarkable success.  Schadenfreude might be a German word, but it's become as American as apple pie.  Our level of happiness when Miami plays poorly is much higher than when San Antonio plays well.  If you love the game (and not just storylines), this shouldn't be the case.  We all just want to see the highest level of basketball possible, and San Antonio is providing that right now.  I mean come on, they even turned Boris Diaw (and his boobs) into a useful player.  That's an accomplishment in and of itself. 

If you really want to watch ugly, sloppy, unskilled basketball, then don't fret, because the NCAA will be back in a few months.  But you're better than that.  Watch the best play, and appreciate what you're seeing.  Miami will be back next year to ugly things up some more, but you may not get to see this group do something so beautiful again.