On the night of April 1st, the Chicago Bulls’ starting lineup featured four men who, as recently as February, were hardly playing. For most NBA fans, at least two of these youngsters had never been heard of before. In total, the Bulls leading five for the game—a meaningless tank-off with the New York Knicks—boasted an anonymity that made for an exemplary sample batch in an activity we might call Are These Real Guys, Or Not Real Guys? The closing weeks of this NBA season have provided ample opportunity for fans of the tradition.
To be sure, this parlor game is as at least as old as the league’s expansion into considerably more franchises and considerably more television presence; there has long been a sizable gap between the thirst for high-level professional basketball and the NBA’s, or anyone’s, ability to produce it. And there has always been a special level of fandom—characterized by bibliophilic recall of players who scarcely have a pro career, and hysterical, withered memories of uncoordinated March and April games, played without consequence—that is reserved for those with true attentive stamina. (I, myself, have on more than a few occasions had too many words to share about Jake Voskuhl, A.J. Guyton, Michael Ruffin, and Dragan Tarlac).
What April of 2019 brings us, though—as I will argue in this essay—is a level of NBA dredges that, if not wholly new, is at least a notably deeper-yet excursion into how stale the game can get. A confluence of chance and perverse incentive structures has produced what I consider to be the least watchable stretch of league-wide play that I’ve seen since I started writing about the sport six years ago. When the hive of NBA media professionals contends that the league has created an entertainment product that has come to hold our attention year-long, it assumes that all of the league’s actual regular season holds weight or inspiration. It does not.
The current state of the standings is such that, save for a sub-.500 fart-off for the Eastern Conference’s final three postseason spots, the playoff field is set and any seeding variance is too day-to-day chaotic and competitively neutral to be invested in. Leaving out the hegemonic Golden State Warriors, no one in the Western Conference—where seeding is truly fluid—has an especially distinct edge over anyone else. There are no specific possible match-ups to clamor for, no real rivalries in waiting, and certainly no convincing contender to push the Warriors off their throne. The conference’s second-best team, the Denver Nuggets, has been flattened and looked eminently shakeable each time they’ve had an opportunity to make a statement against the champs. The Houston Rockets are a worse version of the team that gave Golden State so much trouble last year.
This is not to say that unlikely things can’t happen when the playoffs actually come. Certainly they can! I, personally, hold a non-scientific belief that Chris Paul’s best moments are yet to come, and that his earthly bounds could expand in unpredictable ways this Spring. Nothing you can say will shake my faith—nothing that actually happens in the playoffs can alter it, either, because this is my fan-church and its walls are not penetrable. But nothing that has happened since mid-February, or that will happen until the postseason begins, can even enter into the dossier of my faith. It is all junk, pure broadcast flotsam that exists to make good on massive corporate partnerships, approximately as bereft of stakes or passion as your perfunctory departmental meetings. It would be debased, pathologically craven, to pray at such meetings.
Later in the same week that the rent-a-Bulls lost to the floundering Knicks, a brief respite from the slog came when the Milwaukee Bucks visited the Philadelphia 76ers—an island of meaning in the storm of banality. Giannis Antetokounmpo took over late in a comeback win, dominating on both sides of the ball, and to an extent that challenges our understandings of hyperbole. As he went after the even more physically imposing Joel Embiid over and over, I felt like I was watching the latest in a franchise of Godzilla spin-offs. In total, the game—while not holding any real stakes for the standings—made its respective competitors horny enough that its tension was telling of a coming intensity, giving us a glimpse at the meaningful basketball on the near horizon. It also featured, in leading MVP candidate Giannis, a player so increasingly powerful that he might ascend to a level of stardom that could bail the league out of its various self-set dips in broader public interest.
Imagine the perfect playoff outcome for the interests of the NBA: someone upsetting the existing power balance, shocking the Warriors ahead of a complicated summer, while they’ve still got all their guns; exploding onto the scene with a whole new mega-narrative ahead of schedule, tossing the to-read pile into disarray for a fresh epic. It’s hard to fathom this happening by anyone’s hand but Giannis’s, much less to envision it happening at all, but the 24-year-old is so convincing in his play that it’s getting harder, yet, to see how anyone might stop him for seven games. This is the stuff of speculation, of course, but in a season that saw the sport-as-entertainment-product lose steam while LeBron James transitioned into something like an afterglow in Los Angeles, it’s become clear that a re-framing of forces is in order.
The occurrence to definitively force that shift is probably in process, burbling beneath our feet as we speak. Or is it amassing in various hardly-visible particles, in the air too high up over our heads to see? Exacting of metaphors aside, such things transcend the marketing and infrastructure machinations that the owners, executives, and commissioner toil over—their work is all stewardship of more natural, more existential stuff; stewardship done mostly in vain, spreadsheets versus cosmology. The past several weeks of NBA basketball have been scantly watchable, and it’s primarily because of structural issues wrought by businessmen. What comes next is subjects like Giannis overwhelming their context, smashing the neurotically enacted craftwork of their set-pieces into something we couldn’t possibly recognize until the moment we’ve seen it.