I’ll be honest with you; when I pitched the idea for this article it was as a preview for the NBA season, which started in the late hours of Tuesday night (25th October). One loose word however, meant I had started a debate within Hurlers on the Ditch the likes of which had never been seen before. Which, translated, means one or two of the others decided I was talking through my hat and that they would write a piece telling me why the NBA was not the most exciting sports league in America.
And so that is how I have come to find myself in this position; the last defender of pace and space, the champion of small ball, Timmy McCarthy’s best friend.
See, the thing is, I actually think I have a good chance of coming out the right side of this. The other goons are going to come on here and bleat on about the NFL. Yes, the NFL that just saw two teams draw 6-6 last weekend. Yes, the NFL that is losing viewers by the week. Yes, even the NFL whose most famous player is great buddies with Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong; the NFL can be exciting. Redzone is truly one of God’s greatest creations; cut out all the less interesting bits of American football and just give me the touchdowns.
But currently, it just cannot match the entertainment levels on offer from the NBA.
Last season was, according to many people who know a hell of a lot more about the game than me, the best NBA season of all time. The Golden State Warriors, reigning champions, became the most successful regular season team of all time. GSW won an incredible 73 games (losing only 9 times) to beat the record of Michael Jordan’s famous 1996 Chicago Bulls. Not only did the Warriors break what many thought was an unbreakable record, along the way they also prevented Western Conference rivals the San Antonio Spurs from completing an unbeaten home season.
The Warriors were expected to breeze through the playoffs and prove themselves the greatest team of all time but things did not work out quite like that. Two time MVP and game-revolutionary Steph Curry injured his knee in the run to the Western Conference finals and did not appear himself for the remainder of the playoffs. Finding themselves 3-1 down in a best of 7 series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, the Warriors became only the tenth team (in over 200 attempts) to turn such a deficit around.
However, they then squared the circle by coughing up an identical lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavillers in the NBA finals, making the Cavs the first team to win the finals from such a position and handing America’s saddest sporting city their first NBA title. James had franked his decision to return to his hometown city by essentially dragging his team over the line in that series; it was the performance the phrase “taking a game by the scruff of the neck” was invented for.
The worst thing about having arguably the best season in history is that something has to follow it. There is little fear of a sense of after the lord mayor’s show about this NBA season however; the off-season saw to that. . .
This season sees the start of the NBA’s mammoth nine-year TV rights deal with broadcasters ESPN, TNT and ABC. The deal sees the league earn $2.6bn annually from their broadcast partners, a 180% increase from the previous deal.
Much like the Premier League, this massive TV deal has meant NBA franchises have had more money to spend on players. The prospect of massive pay hikes in the coming seasons threw this off-season into chaos, with high profile players opting to become free agents in search of a huge pay day. The most high profile player to do so was Kevin Durant who, as I am sure most of you are aware, decided to join the Warriors from their Western Conference rivals OKC.
So now, a squad of players last season who were good enough to become the best regular season side of all time can boast two of the league’s best three players. It is the most super of super teams, a genuinely frightening prospect.
And yet, it is still not what I am most looking forward to this season. What will be most must-see about this NBA season is how OKC and Russell Westbrook react to Durant’s defection. Westbrook is what would happen if peak-anger Roy Keane and Diego Simeone had a baby and is surely going to be intent on turning this season into 82 renditions of this:
Of course, this is all big picture stuff. Durant, Curry and the Super Warriors, Westbrook 3:16, LeBron reaching for Jordan’s GOAT label. All important, absolutely, but still missing the real appeal of the NBA.
What makes the NBA America’s most exciting sports league right now is everything that happens in the margins. The regular season, all 82 games per team, does not really matter. And that’s what makes it special. Take the NFL, where teams have 16 games to make sure they reach the playoffs. The stakes are huge and that’s how we end up with 6-6 draws. The NBA regular season is basically one long vine, where teams take turns dunking, swishing and no look-passing their way into going viral.Check Twitter on any random Tuesday night during the NBA season and you will find Klay Thompson going on a three point splurge or Westbrook going into full “I might murder you” beast mode. It is, first and foremost, an awful lot of fun.
The Warriors and San Antonio have been at the forefront of a movement which has seen a change in how the game is played. Gone are the hundred of Cleganebowls at the rim every game as the big men crashed together. In their place is a new focus on quick ball handling, movement off the ball and a premium on making 3 pointers. Pace and space is king and it is a beautiful thing to watch.
And then, after months of glorious exhibition basketball, we get the Playoffs; weeks of the most concentrated and intense sporting events of the year. The seven game series create just the right amount of niggle between teams, as familiarity begins to breed contempt just quick enough for us to see it explode on the court.
Playoff basketball is mad enough that the greatest team in regular season history were basically almost certainly going to be eliminated, saved themselves, were almost certainly going to win and then lost. You could not write that drama.
Whatever you want in your sport, the NBA has on offer. You want over-sized personalities and ridiculous behaviour? The NBA has Draymond Green and JR Smith. You want maybe the angriest man on the planet? The NBA has Russell Westbrook. You want a player whose entire physical make-up suggests he shouldn’t even be in the league yet he is somehow the two time MVP? The NBA has Steph Curry. You want athletic freaks with a receding hairline and surprisingly good comedic chops? The NBA has LeBron. Whatever you’re looking for, the NBA has it in spades.