“The opposite of not existing / is shopping.” - Customer Loyalty Program by Brandon Amico
“On a billboard by the 880, / money admonishes, / ‘Shut up and play.’” - Money Talks by Rae Armantrout
Rudy Gobert’s omission from the 2019 NBA All-Star team proves what we all know already: Defense doesn’t matter. The top nine players in defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) are all on vacation during the NBA’s mid-season break in Charlotte this month, but Gobert’s absence is the most explicit and egregious. It means even coaches—who select the reserves—overlook one half of the game. Despite acting as the primary obstacle for a top-5 defense in the thick of a tight Western playoff hunt, with a team-best net rating and an improved switchability that belies his Reed Richards length, Gobert wasn’t an All-Star reserve in the West. To compound matters, when he revealed how much the snub meant to him in an emotional interview, some criticized him for crying. This is America, dammit, and giving a damn suggests weakness. While we might be conflating coincidence with a larger theme, it sort of makes sense an impassioned Frenchman would be the best defender in the NBA. It’s more of a socialist endeavor, one not usually associated with AAU stars. That’s because NBA defense is un-American.
America is about the individual. It’s about a person’s right to watch or read or write or say or almost anything they want—so long as they earn. But, it’s always the individual. America is also about an individual’s right to worship whichever god(s) they want, so long as they deify capitalism. The secular America at the turn of the millennium genuflects at the altar of the Almighty Dollar. These days we’re all clinging to Babbitt’s lifestyle hoping we don’t fizzle out of an already-pinched middle class. Even if Silicon Valley’s oligarchy added an additional currency in the form of likes and retweets, they’re just a springboard to the money. Most aspire to be Mark Cuban, not Richard Thaler, Donna Strickland or Nadia Murad.
American exceptionalism venerates this individuality and ties it to the bootstrapping illusion. It’s the same mirage evoked in Paul Ryan fever dreams when his John Galt sheets end up drenched in sweat. In America, money, or some peripheral social capital like followers, connotes success. This capitalistic darwinism forces all of us to hustle, which in turns spawns aphorisms—like, “You gotta look out for yourself”—where American becomes a euphemism for avarice. This climate of capital over conduct has buried itself deep in the public consciousness, and it’s too entrenched to be summed up in a cliched Gordon Gekko maxim. But we can see evidence of its effects in sports.
Only one person can “eat.” In the parlance of more atavistic NBA announcers this means to score, and the NBA’s ironic salary cap extends that metaphor to the negotiating table as well. Only those who drop buckets, get the max. Thus, offense matters more. What you earn, in turn, signifies your place in the American hierarchy. On an NBA hardwood, the metaphor extends further.
Sure, assists happen. But only one person gets an assist—unless it’s hockey, which isn’t American—and you only get an assist after scoring. It’s still individualistic and dependent on a bucket. Nikola Jokic is the best passing big man in the modern game and maybe ever (if you weren’t a hoops fan in Boston during the 60s, Portland in the 70s, or Lithuania in the 80s); the Denver Nuggets are just the jersey Jokic wears. NBA Twitter hyperventilates over Jokic, not the Nuggets. The collective absorbed by the singular and forgotten by the rest of us. Who cares if The Joker can protect the rim, he’s a seven foot offensive wunderkind who looks like the local barfly. He’s a brand, now, and that gives him more power than the Nuggets do as a collective.
On a more macro level, NBA offense overwhelms defense, particularly in the minds of NBA fans. This is especially true in today’s game, where scoring hasn’t been this popular since 1985. The three-point revolution concerns offense, even if multipostional defenders affect games as much as shooters, particularly in the playoffs. The on-court product shows players, general managers and coaches caught up in the seemingly salubrious effects of scoring.
NBA fans hear the maxim, “Good offense beats good defense” so often it’s more mantra than cliche. It’s evoked every time Steph Curry, James Harden, or LeBron James hits some remarkable basket past the outstretched hands, or tangled feet, of a plucky defender. Offense oozes money and stardom; Defense makes one think of hustle, sweat and nameless labor. Which one would you prefer? If you’re an American, it’s pretty clear, and the NBA understands this better than most.
The NBA markets stars now, not teams, and stars are only stars if they can score, or dish, or—as is the case with James Harden, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook (before this season)—both. After Gobert’s emotional response to his all-star snub, a Twitter influencer remarked “Nobody’s watching the all star game for goofy Rudy Gobert. ‘Oh look at him alter that shot.’ Come on man.” They aren’t wrong. Boredom acts as an eighth sin for Americans, and nothing’s more boring than collective effort.
The best NBA defense happens on a string, where all five players are looking out for one another. Top NBA defenses are always rotating and yelling out directions. Good defense is mostly about sacrificing ego for the betterment of the whole. Hustle on defense rarely shows up in the box score, so it’s hard for agents to leverage that for a bigger contract. We already know that money equates relevance in the American point of view. Consequently, NBA defense is so socialist an idea, one can picture Joe McCarthy keeping a copy of Seven Seconds or Less on his bedside table with a blank subpoena for Tom Thibodeau (the Boston and Chicago iteration) and Ron Adams to appear before the HUAC as a bookmark.
Because defensive success relies on sacrifice and the whole team as greater than the sum of teammates, defensive stars only happen when there’s a twist. It’s the team that gets the credit for great defense, because it’s a team effort. In the public consciousness, known NBA defenders are freaks. Either physically, because top defenders usually play the center position, or by temperament, because it’s the only way to stand out. NBA defenders are nameless, like NBA refs, NFL placekickers and everyone in the NHL. But if they muck something up, we all learn their name.
As fans we usually only notice individual defenders when they get scored on with particular regularity or in embarrassing fashion (e.g. Brandon Knight, Timofey Mozgov and whoever’s guarding James Harden this season). Aside from failure, only conspicuous flare catches a fan’s eye when it comes to an elite individual NBA defender. Like if they dye their hair various colors, dress up in drag and date Madonna, like Dennis Rodman. Or, when they karate kick an opponent’s gonads, rock a mocking meme t-shirt during a championship parade, and give referees (and teammates) a public tongue-lashing, like Draymond Green. NBA diehards will sometimes venerate an individual defender, especially those with a cool nickname who also score a lot—i.e. “The Admiral” David Robinson, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, Gary “The Glove” Payton—but the casual fan only figures out someone’s a good defender when they let a bit of their freak flags fly. Ben Wallace captured just as many Defensive Player of the Year awards as Dikembe Mutombo, but he’s never mentioned in the same breath as the Georgetown star. Coincidentally, there’s no legend of Wallace announcing his arrival at college parties with a heavily accent proclamation of “Who wants to sex Mutombo?” On the other side of the ball, oddness isn’t necessary to escape anonymity.
A bucket’s a bucket and the announcer always says the scorer’s name or number. No one in the arena hears about the defender who timed a rotation so well it stimied a seemingly wide-open layup before it could happen. Those intangible elements to great individual defense don’t perform well in 280 characters or less. We extoll NBA offense simply for the scoring—no nicknames, pop star girlfriends, or on-court histrionics necessary. That’s because it’s so American, so individualistic. Only one player scores; The very verb, “to score,” acts as a euphemism for sex in American parlance. Conversely, the word “defensive” can be a pejorative, denoting anxiety and oversensitivity.
Defense is un-American, but you can’t win a title without defense. I hope the draft lottery goes better for America in 2020.