As this year’s NBA Finals approach, I thought I’d get some thoughts down on some of the things that have started to irk me as a longtime NBA fan. TLDR: if you’re not into the NBA, this article might not be for you. And if you are an NBA fan, you’re probably still better off heading over to The Ringer for in-depth analysis from people who actually know what they’re talking about. I promise I’ll get back to the normal stuff soon, I just needed to get this off my chest.
I’m in my early 40s now, and have never played a game of professional basketball. I’ve played amateur basketball for about 25 years. I still play competitively, but I’m “rec league” level at best. Sure, we have uniforms, and there are scorers and referees involved, but it’s not at a level that anyone would willingly watch. Sometimes I apologise to the referees because it’s so ugly. It’s very much pay to play, not the other way around. Like a number of amateurs, I’m a big fan of the professional leagues, and enjoy watching basketball from all over the world. I particularly enjoy watching NBA games. If there’s a game on League Pass, and I have some free time, I’ll invariably watch it. I’m a Lakers lifer, but I’ve happily jumped on the Warriors bandwagon for the last five years (and I’ll be there until at least the LeBron thing is done). But that’s not why I’ve burst into print today.
I’m really just an out of shape couch potato with a lot of opinions that don’t mean anything to anyone. But I’m sharing this with you because I want to know if it’s just me, or are other people feeling this way? There are 15 things here that make me cranky about the NBA fan experience at the moment. Give yourself a score between 1 and 5 for each one and see how you go. I’m coming in pretty hot at 75. And before you get too worked up about some of my hot takes, I’m just having a little fun. And keep in mind that most of this would probably be better debated over a beer rather than the Internet.
Offensive Shove Off
As you move up the levels in competitive basketball, you’ll start to notice that the defence is a lot more physical. Hand-checking has been a problem for years, but it was heavily curtailed by the NBA in the early 2000s. A lot of the defence played at high levels is man-to-man, and screens are an important part of getting a player free to get off shots. As a result of various rule changes and the NBA’s focus on freedom of movement, players on offence have experienced some improved scoring conditions. But there are still plenty of times where a defensive player is close enough to the offensive player that the offensive player feels the use of a push off is warranted to introduce some separation between themselves and the defender. I can’t help but feel that these shoves are overlooked by the referees more often than not, but like a lot of lazy pundits, I have little empirical data to back that up. It’s usually hard to see when two players are so close to each other, but there have been a few times when I’ve seen a player dribbling the ball with one hand while his other hand is pushing the defensive player out of the way. I’ve played in a few pickup games where players were doing this, and it becomes really hard to stop them from getting to their spot. Did Michael Jordan push off Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? I don’t think so, but plenty of people in Utah think he did. It’s so hard to tell. But I’m more perturbed by the more obvious stuff that seems to get missed.
The NBA (and basketball associations in general) have been pretty clear about what constitutes a travelling violation for some time, but it feels like the NBA referees don’t call them very often. How many times have you seen LeBron or Giannis take 3 steps to launch for a fan-pleasing dunk? James Harden has taken the use of the gathering step to a whole other level though, and uses it to ridiculous effect on his step back 3-point shots. The Houston Chronicle published an article on why it’s a legal move (of course they did), but I still like to think of it as a travel. Mainly because I have twenty year old referees telling me my jump stop and pivot is a travel. And I’m just generally curmudgeonly when the rules of the game are changed to appeal to the casual fan. But it is worth keeping in mind that the NBA is a bit different to the rest of the world. There’s also a really good video by some NBA referees that attempts to explain the “Euro step” (and travelling in general) that’s worth watching. In the NBA the golden rule is two steps after the gather.
A screen is pretty useful thing in basketball that can enable an offensive player to get an advantage by using a team mate to screen off a defensive player. To set a screen, you need to plant both feet and not move any part of your body. So you can’t push your hip out to pick off the defensive player, nor can drop your shoulder into them as they run past you. Yet the number of times players do this in games, and then complain to the referees about the call against them, annoys me no end. Sure, I get that the defensive player can’t run through you to chase their opposing player, but you just need to watch the replay to see that you moved. Just set your feet, or get a grown-up to do it for you.
Chris Paul Flailing
I am a big fan of Chris Paul (the point guard for the Houston Rockets). I love his pass-first mentality and the way he can control the tempo of the game. His mid-range game is really notable (particularly in this era of dunks and 3-point shots), and he will no doubt be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame at the appropriate time. But Chris Paul’s on-court shenanigans (including a well-documented habit of flopping) make it hard to watch him for more than a few minutes at a time. As I’ve gotten older (more mature?) I’ve come to understand that you can sometimes trick a referee into thinking that you’ve been fouled by an opposing player. But I think there should be a difference between playing up the contact a little bit and giving an Academy Award worthy performance. At one stage it seemed like the NBA was cracking down on flopping, but we still have this kind of thing going on.
When you take a free throw in basketball, the rebounders (in the key) can’t move into the lane until the ball has left the hand of the shooter. The players outside shouldn’t cross the three-point line until the ball has hit the rim. And the shooter shouldn’t step across the free-throw line until the ball has entered the basket and the shot has been made. Most of the time, lane violations are called on defensive players looking to block out the offensive players. But there seem to be a lot of shooters actively crossing the line before the ball has entered the basket. Go watch LeBron shoot free throws. He does it a lot, and he crosses that line a lot too.
Palming is a big problem in the NBA. Watch some of these guys dribble and you’ll see that they let the ball rest in their hands briefly before they continue, and the hand is not allowed to go underneath the ball while touching it during a dribble. That’s a carry, and is usually called as violation in the lower levels of the sport. In the NBA we call it “amazing handles”. It gives the offensive player a significant advantage when they can palm the ball. It’s a big problem in the sport, and it feels like we all just look the other way when it happens.
The Clothes Make The Man
Generational titles (eg Jr, III, etc) seem to have become really popular in the NBA this year. You know who needs a generational title on their jersey? Tim Hardaway Jr. Because I’d buy one of Senior’s jerseys, but probably not one from younger Tim. But for some reason, everyone who’s ever gotten a whiff of one of these is now running with Jr, III, etc on their jersey. Is this a cultural thing in the US? I must admit that I’m ignorant about the significance of it. In any case, it annoys me and I don’t know why. There’s a broader discussion of patronymic naming here that might be interesting too, and sheds some light on the various ways it’s done throughout the world.
Why are “ninja headbands” a thing now? This is one of the sure indicators that I’ve become a curmudgeonly NBA fan. Clearly, they solve a different problem to the traditional sweatband. That is, they’re more hair tie than sweat prevention device. But I don’t see why you can’t just use the sweatband. Gracious me, when did I get so old?
We’ve come a long way since Nike was paying Michael Jordan’s sneaker fines. In 2015 things started to loosen up significantly, and this season the NBA dispensed with the sneaker policy entirely. That means that, even if your team’s colours are red and black, for example, you can run on the court with some iridescent orange shoes and the NBA will keep quiet about it. I don’t want to be the guy who’s stifling creativity on the court, but I swear it looks more like a C-grade social team put the uniform together, rather than a team of professionals.
I’m the first to admit that the variety of replica uniforms you can buy is great. There are now heaps of ways that you can show off that you’re a fan of this team or that, and it does make a refreshing change from the light or dark thing that dominated the NBA for so long. That said, it used to be accepted that the home team wore a light colour and the away team wore a dark colour. The good thing about this is that you could quickly tell which team was playing at home just with a glance at the television screen. Now I have to take a second look, usually at the floor they’re playing on, to get an idea where they are. Shouldn’t I just know where they are? Why do I care? I don’t know, but it bothers me.
Russell Westbrook As Fashion Icon
Do a search on Google for “russell westbrook fashion” and dig in to the images part of the search. I defy you to show me a picture of him wearing anything that could be described as fashionable. I just don’t get it. And GQ should know better, surely? I don’t blame Russell though, he’s just clearly getting some poor advice (and encouragement) from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Talk as much smack as you want when you’re healthy and competing in the NBA Finals.
Some players don’t like to stay away from the game when they’re done with playing, so they get into commentary. Usually they’re paired up with a more senior broadcaster to start with. And it’s mostly fine. Some ex-players are better at it than others. There’s been a new development in commentary for NBA games though, with the introduction of “players only” commentary teams in the last few years. Instead of the former player being paired with the professional commentator, you get three guys who’ve played before as the commentary team (and one doing sideline reporting). It’s not that great to listen to, and I think they need to re-think the concept. I love the idea of players offering insights into the game, and people like Jalen Rose do an excellent job of that. But players only really makes me appreciate the skills of people like Mike Breen (Bang!) and Marv Albert (Yes!). Of course, if we switched it up a bit, and insisted on Bill Walton being the anchor on every game call, I might be persuaded to persist with this format. And no, I don’t just want my commentary from old white guys. People like Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller are fine too.
Sports commentators love to talk about statistics. And basketball is a pretty good game when it comes to statistics. There are all kinds of statistics that tell you how a player and his or her team have performed. One of the kind of cool statistics is a triple-double. This is where you get double figures in three different statistical areas. Usually it’s points, assists, and rebounds, but sometimes it can be in something defensive like steals or blocks. I’ve been noticing it a lot lately when commentators have been talking about players achieving “near” triple-doubles in games (they might have been short an assist or two, for example). This kind of talk drives me nuts. Let’s talk about great statistics when the player achieves them, not when they almost achieve them. Is this the equivalent of a participation medal for everyone? I know that what the commentator is trying to do is emphasise the great game that the player has had, but surely there are better ways to do it? Like talking about how they helped the team win? the near triple-double sounds like nonsense, and belittles the achievements of those players who were able to achieve “full” triple-doubles in NBA games.
The NBA Store Has Gone Worldwide
The NBA is really good at producing and selling merchandise related to its players, teams and association. Like really good. You want a license plate holder in your favourite team’s colours, or some big flags to wave about, or a replica jersey that looks just like the one Kobe wore in the 2000 Finals? No problem. You used to be able to go to store.nba.com and find all kinds of crap covered with the logo of your favourite team. And the clearance sales were great. Each year our Christmas tree is decorated with quite a few Lakers baubles, for example, and my youngest possesses a number of Warriors shirts and trinkets from the store. But for some reason the NBA decided that if you live outside the US, you now have to use their “International” store. The good thing about this is that the postage is actually reasonable. The prices on items are so-so, but never quite as cheap as the US store, even with currency fluctuations taken into account. The bad thing is that the variety of items is extremely limited compared to the US store (I’ve been comparing via VPN), and they often don’t have stuff in stock, even when it says that it is. I’ve had a number of occasions where I’ve purchased a jersey from the international store only to have them refund my money a week later and tell me the item is out of stock. Okay then Dan, why don’t you just VPN in to the US store and ship stuff to your friend’s house like you used to? Because they block orders using overseas cards. Trust me, I’ve tried. I used to be all “shut up and take my money”, and now I literally can’t give them money. If you live in the US, you likely won’t understand what this feels like, but as a non-US resident this kind of stuff drives me nuts. It’s not quite as bad as our Netflix catalogue having about a tenth of the available titles as the US one, but it’s up there. I understand that companies sometimes want to produce things locally (and sell them for local prices) to protect local businesses. But this shop operates out of Europe. And doesn’t sell what I want. Just give me the choice!
I know it sounds like I’m just being mean to the Houston Rockets, but a lot of this stuff is NBA-wide. I understand that the sport has to evolve to retain fans and attract new ones. If you watch NBA games from the 1950s it’s a lot different to what it looks like now. Every decade looks and feels different from a fan’s perspective. I grew up on the NBA in the late eighties and early nineties. I got disenchanted with it in the early 2000s, and came back to it about ten years ago. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to love about the game as it’s played today. The players are super athletic, the speed of the game is amazing, and the access we have to the League via social media is unparalleled. But there’s some stuff I just don’t like about what I see.
We all struggle with change as we get older, particularly when those changes impact things that bring us joy. I’m clearly at that point in my life now where things have changed and I haven’t kept up with them. Some guys I know still don’t like the idea of the three-point line (it’s a bit flashy and takes away from the passing game). This is just my way of talking about it, getting it out there. There might even be people like you out there who struggle with this too. Maybe we can start a support group or something. In the meantime, bring on the Finals, and go Dubs!