Balling at its best

I don’t understand people who say that they love college basketball but they’re “just not into” the NBA.

Not to compare the two, but … did you watch any of this brutal college season? Teams milking the 35-second clock. Incessant dribbling and meaningless passes. Horrible, gawdawful shooting (when somebody finally got around to shooting, that is). Coaches who think they’re the reincarnation of Norman Dale.

Man, college ball needs a makeover.

On the other hand, in the NBA, you have the best players from around the world — mostly former college players, by the way — playing the best brand of basketball at its highest level.

So I don’t get it. At the risk of sounding like an NBA flak — I worked with the league for six years; I could be accused — what’s not to like?

Oh. Yeah. These lame arguments:

THE PASSION isn’t there in the NBA

To that, I offer up this:

(Check out Joakim Noah, especially in the replay at 1:55. Check out Doc Rivers after the play. Listen to Kevin Harlan.)

And No. 9 on this Top 10:

(I love how Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant communicate with a look, and Gasol going primal after the basket.)

And this, just ’cause it’s funny:


Look, NBA players endure a brutal, body-smashing 82 regular-season games a year. (If you want to argue that the season’s too long, I’ll back you on that.) They don’t have a lot of extra energy lying around to get all rah-rah.

But, yeah, they’re passionate. They have pride. They want to win. If that’s sometimes hard to see during any given moment on any given night from late October through mid-April, on the second night of a back-to-back after getting into town at 3 in the morning … well, I think that’s largely understandable. More importantly, it’s fleeting.

NBA players have to care. Or they’re out of a job.

Now, do they take plays off once in a while? Yeah. Sure.. So do wide receivers in the NFL, and QBs. So do centerfielders. So do college players. It’s all the more understandable for NBA players considering the grueling season.

If it looks like NBA players backslide more, or simply don’t try as hard — I’ve heard that — I suggest it’s because these guys are just so damn good. They are so, so quick. They run effortlessly. (And a lot. For every 48 minutes that Tony Parker plays — that’s the length of an NBA game — he runs almost 4 miles. Damian Lillard played in every game this season and ran more than 205 miles. This from the NBA SportsVu stats.)

They try. They’re working. They just work much more efficiently than you do. Way more than I do.

THEY PLAY no defense

James Harden, an Arizona State guy, has been accused of that. Steph Curry (Davidson), the likely MVP, has been accused of it on occasion, though he and Harden have improved this year. And, sure, they’re guilty once in a while. Shamefully so, sometimes.

But Tony Allen plays D. LeBron plays D. DeAndre Jordan plays D. Dwight Howard plays D. Patrick Beverley, before he was injured, played a type of D that is damn near harassment just watching it.

Everybody plays D. Some just play it better than others. That’s the case on any level.

Three points on D:

  1. NBA players have to play D because they don’t want to be embarrassed. No one likes to look bad. Do they go 100 percent on every play? They don’t, because that’s impossible.
  2. I’m a big believer that, in the NBA, good offense beats good defense. These guys are the best of the best, remember.
  3. The rules — more on them directly below — certainly favor the offense nowadays, which makes playing the hard-nosed D that used to be prevalent (when the NBA was uglier) much more difficult.

IT’S ALL JUST ISOLATION and backing people down

Holy crud. If this is your argument, you haven’t watched the NBA lately. I mean, the NBA has come a long way from Charles Barkley’s big butt, from Shaq knocking people out of the way, from Pat Riley’s Knicks and the Bad Boy Pistons.

I love this video from last year. If you watch nothing else in this post, watch this. This is the best of today’s NBA:


A lot of the metamorphosis has to do with rules changes. This is an excerpt from an column by former colleague David Aldridge back in 2009:

Since 1990, the NBA has instituted a series of rules changes to increase the offensive player’s flow and make physical play costly. First came increased penalties for flagrant fouls (1990) and fighting (1993), the implementation of the “five points” rule that called for automatic suspensions of players who amassed a certain number of flagrants (1993). Hand checking was eliminated in 1994. Using the forearm to defend players facing the basket went away in 1997.

In 1999, the league eliminated contact by a defender with his hands and forearms both in the backcourt and frontcourt, except on offensive players who caught the ball below the free throw line extended. Defenses were also prohibited from “re-routing” players off the ball. This freed up perimeter players who used screens to get open. Nor were defenders able any more to grab or impede offensive players setting screens. In 2001, the defensive three-second rule eliminated defenders camping out in the lane away from their offensive man to help.

The rules changes did what they were supposed to do — open up the game. Scoring average has increased from an average 95.6 points per game in the 1997-98 season to this year’s 100 per game. Overall field goal percentage has increased from 45.0 percent in ’97-’98 to 45.9 percent this season. Three-point percentage has gone up, from .346 11 years ago to .367 this season.

Those changes have opened the way for Curry and Klay Thompson to shoot like madmen, for 37-year-old Kyle Korver to become an All-Star, for point guards like Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to dazzle with their quickness and athleticism. The rules, simply, have made shooting more valuable than strength, quickness more valuable than bigness.

All of that, in my mind, is good. It’s the way the game should be played.

ONLY A FEW TEAMS can win … nobody else has a chance

This isn’t all wrong. Forty-four of the 68 NBA Championships have been won by four clubs (the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs). If my math isn’t wrong (and there’s a 50-40 chance it is), that’s 65 percent of all titles won by four teams.

I mean, the league is loosening up. The Miami Heat have won three titles in the past 10 years. The Lakers may not win another for a long, long time. Ditto with the Celtics.

Golden State is the favorite in the West this year (the Oakland incarnation of the Warriors hasn’t won since 1975). Atlanta or Cleveland is the favorite in the East. Neither of those teams has ever won. In fact, no Cleveland sports team has won anything since 1964. (It’s on you, LeBron.)

OK, one last point. I need to address that black elephant in the room. To be honest — no reason not to be — I can’t help but think that the reason some people still resist the NBA is based on race.  According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 77 percent of the NBA players are African-American, and 80.5 percent are athletes of color. For coaches, the numbers are 40 and 40.3 percent. These numbers are from the 2013-14 season.

For those basing their sports viewing habits on the whiteness of the athletes — and there’s a word for that, you racist bastard — I’d advise sticking to hockey or golf. Maybe NASCAR. Maybe tennis. Otherwise, you’re running into black people and Latinos and Asians and Pacific Islanders and foreigners of all colors.

Maybe chess. Lacrosse? The rodeo circuit?

If you’re looking for the best athletes playing the best of the game, the NBA playoffs start Saturday . It’s a best-of-seven series in all rounds. (This, college fans, is how a real champion is crowned, not by some one-and-out luck-of-the-seeding tournament.) Check it out if you haven’t seen it lately. You’ll like it.

Damn, I do sound like a flak. I need to call the NBA PR guys for a little swag.

Before I put this to bed, slap the “– 30 –” on it, turn off the lights, call it a wrap: Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous plays in NBA history. It was, almost inarguably, the most famous play call in the history of the game, from the incomparable Johnny Most, the Celtics’ late broadcaster. You can hear it below.

This video, produced by NBA Entertainment, details the whole play.’s Ian Thomsen does a fine job of laying it out in print.

You know what I find absolutely awesome about this play, 50 years after the fact?

Havlicek most certainly DID NOT steal the ball.


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