The established and depressing truth about advertising is that nobody thinks it works on them, but it does. Through cleverness, crudeness, or pummeling Geico-style assault, brand names get under your skin. You start to develop unconscious feelings about companies and whatever they’re selling. The time-worn jingle for a chain of hardware stores deposits itself in the beige file cabinetry of your brain and when you need to replace a screen, you wonder: is there a Menards around here?
The same principle applies to the NBA discourse, which grows grimmer by the year, each player’s uneven talents and strange character reduced to measurements and efficiency stats, whether or not they can stay on the court against one specific great team, as if there weren’t 29 others. The league crushed flat and understood the way a general manager understands it: shifting constellations of assets, numbers going up and numbers declining. What could we get for X?
Whether you care for this gloss on the NBA or not—no matter how much you want to conceive of basketball as a Frank O’Hara poem, fruit for your own theories about labor and personal fulfillment, whatever it is we do here—the aggressive pragmatism of the conversations all the Smart People are having does infect your thinking. You too begin to fetishize switchy wings and want every big man to develop a jumper. You have a list in your head of Guys You Can’t Win With, even though you’re not particularly concerned about who wins and who doesn’t. Domino’s can go straight to hell, but that is a pretty price for a large two-topping pizza, and you need to eat something before it gets dark.
When you find yourself asking if you really trust Donte DiVincenzo in a Conference Finals game, and it’s still January, this is a sign that you should stop watching primetime matchups, dedicate a few evenings to the NBA’s abundance of low-stakes basketball, contests that are happening because they’re on the schedule, and because the sport itself is pleasing enough that it doesn’t have to be about anything else to be worth watching. Lately I’ve been defaulting to the Cleveland Cavaliers, because I can’t get Collin Sexton out of my head.
It shouldn’t work, his whole thing. He’s a six-foot-two guard (sure, buddy) who plays like the electricity jumping between two frayed wires. He’s fast, but it’s not a smooth, assured speed, like John Wall in his prime, nor a powerful Westbrookian stampede. It’s more frantic than that. The best way I can describe it is that Sexton plays offense like Patrick Beverley plays defense. It’s all flailing and clapping and skipped frames, and you’re not sure if it’s actually accomplishing anything. Activity is mostly a college basketball phenomenon. The best professional players are more inevitable than vigorous. There are energetic types kicking around—Trez Harrell leaps to mind, and misses the putback—but they’re not stars. Which is why I had figured through Sexton’s first two seasons that he was probably a bench scorer masquerading as a number one option, because the Cavs simply needed someone to get buckets. Now I’m not so sure. And that’s exciting.
Sexton’s nigh single-handed dismantling of Brooklyn on Wednesday night was a gas. The Nets aren’t title hopefuls because they figure to be an all-world defensive unit, but to share a court with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, and you’re the guy nobody else can stop, is certainly something. Sexton’s 42 points in a double-overtime win represent the peak of an encouraging trend, which is that he never misses a shot. It’s nine games, the averages will smooth out over time, but he’s at 50 percent from deep and 53.4 percent overall. Though he’s likely not going to eclipse Steph Curry’s MVP-winning metrics, Sexton is a genuine problem for defenses. If opponents have to worry about his off-the-dribble three, he’s too quick to stay in front of, and after spending his first year-and-a-half in the NBA getting stuffed at the tin, Sexton has developed a decent leaning pull-up shot, plus he’s learning how to draw fouls when he does attack the rim. The wildness of his play is becoming more of a stylistic affectation than something you worry about. He doesn’t turn the ball over as much as you’d think, given how much of the Cavs offense runs through him, and the fact that he seems like he should dribble the ball off his foot every other time down the floor. There’s a growing completeness about his game. A steady intelligence, even. And yet Sexton’s movements still resemble someone who is unable to control the volume of their own voice.
It kind of doesn’t matter what this means, how Collin Sexton fits into some broader hypothetical championship picture. He plays for the Cavs, who have already hit their peak. LeBron’s gone, the best moment in franchise history has passed, and now their task is to entertain. Darius Garland, before he got hurt, was looking quite a bit more confident than he did during his largely miserable rookie season, and no one should care that a backcourt featuring two undersized guards isn’t headed for ultimate success. If Sexton is a demi-star, Garland offers an interesting set of skills, and Isaac Okoro can use his expansive athleticism to fill in some gaps, that’s a nice little trio of lottery picks, if not anything like the high-wattage operation the Brooklyn Nets have going. But there’s room enough in the league and on its yawning schedule, the poisoned mental landscape of the basketblogger, for teams like Nets and teams like the Cavs.
And anyway, this is the time for the latter. While the contenders patiently work out kinks and dream of May, there is a fat middle of the league that’s fully present, because going at half-speed won’t get the job done. The job itself isn’t that prestigious, but that’s the way most work is. Doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun with it.