Basketball at its Worst?

John Gruber on game seven of the NBA Finals:

But what struck me the most watching this series, and especially game seven, is what an ugly, ugly game the NBA has devolved into. No beauty and very little strategy offensively from either side. No ball movement, and lots of standing around. Very hard to believe that these are the two best teams in the league. The Lakers shot just 33 percent from the field and yet clearly deserved to win the game. For decades, a game seven in the Finals between the Celtics and Lakers resulted in basketball at its very best. Now, it’s basketball at its worst. Brutal.

There’s no particular reason that a sport, when played optimally, should be beautiful or even interesting. Most sports evolved organically, and continue to evolve (albeit slowly) under pressures other than what makes a good or interesting game. Strategy and tactics in baseball (the sport I know best) are clearly far superior to those employed even 20 years ago, in terms of teams trying to win games, yet certainly there’s some basis in arguing that the reliance on walks and home runs has made the game less exciting. (Stolen bases, while exciting, are very minor components of winning; a walk is far more valuable.)

So I wonder: Has basketball strategy been optimized such that the game has become boring, or “brutal”? Were the Lakers and Celtics playing a general style of game which gave them the best chance of winning (notwithstanding specific errors committed in-game)? Or were they playing a fairly stupid game and both teams managed to get to the finals only because of their superior talent (or luck)?

I have close-to-zero interest in basketball (slightly more than I have in hockey or soccer), so I really have no idea. But in the abstract, it’s an interesting sports question.

Speaking of interesting sports questions, has anyone else noticed that people (other than Lakers and Celtics fans) seem more upset that the Lakers won than that the Celtics lost? I guess that’s what being the Yankees of the NBA gets you.

2 thoughts on “Basketball at its Worst?”

  1. Basketball strategy has generally not been optimized that far. (Counterexamples exist in the other NBA finals games, to say nothing of other playoff games.) Last night’s game was mostly about the Lakers’ suffocating defense on the one end, and their “Pau Gasol is better than any Celtic interior defender” offense on the other (Perkins was out with a knee injury, and Garnett, while still good, is not the defender he once was).

    The easiest way to win in the NBA is still (by a slim margin) to get out and run the floor for easy baskets. The second-easiest way to win is to give the ball to your best player and have him take his defender one-on-one, because the average NBA player is simply too good with the ball. (That does point out that teams that don’t let you do either of those things – namely, play good help defense, hit the offensive glass and talk to each other on switches/picks/rotations – will do well, and that can be “boring” to some fans.)

    As far as fan interest, the Celtics are a better candidate for Yankees of the NBA; the Lakers are more like the Red Sox. (The Celtics are the stored franchise with more titles and a richer history than anyone else; the Lakers are the newly-good team with a recent history of success.) Neither analogy is perfect – recently the Celtics are more like the Red Sox, returning to dominance after a big trade after years of also-rans, while the Lakers are, like the Yankees, in the middle of a newly resurgent team (Kobe+Gasol) after a fallow period (Kobe minus Shaq) following a dominant period (Shaq+Kobe) following a fallow period (90’s) following a dominant decade (80’s) …

    In the long run, there is no Yankees analogy in the NBA. It’s more Patriots-Colts, or Steelers-Cowboys, with both teams having the upper hand from time to time.

  2. Hmm, so does that mean that Gruber is wrong in suggesting that game 7 was representative of NBA play in general?

    I was mainly comparing the Lakers to the Yankees due to the degree of vitriol that seemed to be directed their way.

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