We all know the league is in trouble, because the rest of the world is the same way. Our friend Micah Wimmer has covered the extent of the crisis at length, delineated the various hypocrisies at work, the limits of the NBA’s conscientiousness, how confusing this whole mess is. Having read Micah’s work, the prescription is obvious: shutter the operation, get everybody boosted, and don’t come back until you’re good and ready and case numbers have sharply declined.
Adam Silver has been very clear that’s not going to happen, delivering his cynical pitch: “I think we're finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to over the past several months, and that is this virus will not be eradicated, and we're going to have to learn to live with it.” This is itself a much friendlier but still bleak rendition of the White House’s recent Verhoevenesque statement: “We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated… For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”
At least we’re finally getting some honesty. Republicans never cared about the virus in the first place and Democrats ran out of patience around the second time big city mayors had to close down indoor dining. In the fall of 2020, the NFL, Republican culturally and in every other facet of its being, plowed ahead with its season while barely entertaining the idea that it would stop play. The Democrat-flavored NBA had prudently shut down for a spell before moving its show to Orlando, staging the end of its regular season and its playoffs in the ersatz security of a resource-devouring Disney campus it branded The Bubble. Cut to now, following a year-and-a-half of commercial disruption, overleveraged team owners selling off houses they never use just to get liquid, and the messages—only slightly different in the first place—have completely converged: you’re on your own, because we’re not missing out on another goddamned cent.
So the games will continue, even though they absolutely don’t need to. Does anyone seem to be having a good time? Not really, but State Farm needs content upon which to affix its logo. If there is any satisfaction to be wrung from this farce, it’s that some aggressively COVID-ravaged teams are Remembering Some Guys at a stratospheric level. We have seen Isaiah Thomas, Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson, C.J. Miles, and Ersan Ilyasova signed on ten-day contracts. Udonis Haslem is getting minutes for the Heat. Marquese Chriss returned from whatever shadow realm to which he’d been banished to score six points and grabb eight boards for the Mavericks on Tuesday night. Flipping through League Pass has become, among other things, a Spot The Dude exercise. Franchises are desperate enough and the names are getting washed up enough that Defector’s Dave Roth is actively trying to will a Christmas Day Jamal Crawford cameo into existence.
This is a stupid sort of fun. I recently floated the possibility of a rotation composed of nothing but tantalizing draft busts: your Tyrus Thomases, your Tony Wrotens. This thought lead to me spend some richly rewarding time perusing Perry Jones III’s Basketball Reference page, reading a few stories about his time at Baylor, and googling the various European clubs he’s played for. His Wikipedia page contains a single-sentence subsection titled “Return to Iowa (2016).” He last hooped professionally at s.Oliver Würzburg in Germany, featuring in the final five months of the 2020-21 Basketball Bundesliga season, where he put up 8.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game for a squad that went 9-and-25 and narrowly avoided relegation. From his ESPN recruiting profile, in September 2009: “The combination of Jones' overall skill level, athleticism and character make him one of the most talented players in the 2010 class. He can do it all. He rebounds, runs the floor, and blocks shots with the best of them.” He was ranked seventh in that class. It’s fascinating, the circuitous paths some lives take.
I was looking this stuff up while Mavs-Wolves was thudding and squeaking in the background. Using cheap and strange nostalgia to brighten a season that started promisingly but has now taken on the same grim perfunctory stink as the last one feels appropriate, perhaps even metaphorical. In basketball and everywhere else, as our withered structures buckle and erode, their final function revealed to be sheltering only those with the most skin in the game, we discover new ways to carry on. In other words, we find something to do, on a boring weeknight. If that means browsing statlines from 2012 and dubiously factual Turkish Super Ligue standings, then alright. We have to entertain ourselves because what is supposed to serve as entertainment will apparently persist well beyond its utility. Because the NBA is not for us. It is for the plutocrats who own the teams and the league’s corporate partners and, to a lesser extent, the players. Our interest is, if not taken for granted, then highly abstracted into ratings and demographic statistics. The way Adam Silver understands it, it is not entirely or even mostly real.
There is nothing more real, in part because it’s so banal, than denting the couch casually researching Joe Johnson’s Atlanta numbers, those vaguely good yet dismal Hawks squads’ failed matriculation through the playoffs each and every year. At least I find it a profoundly grounding activity. It’s not exactly a thrilling primetime tilt featuring two of the very best basketball teams on the planet, but that’s not what’s on offer at the moment—only aspartame versions of it, the pervasive sense that what’s happening on our TVs each night shouldn’t be. Against this torpor and stress, we are all making due: inventively, dumbly, and otherwise. We, and whatever Guys we can recall, are all we’ve got.