How the NBA Ruins Our Pick-Up Games

In which I get a little ranty about basketball.


Over at Slate, Matt Yglesias has a column about why everybody ignores the Spurs.:

America—at least in its own imagination—stands for certain things. For the idea that hard work and sound judgment bring success, and that success deserves celebration. That winners should be celebrated as long as they play by the rules. That teamwork, leadership, loyalty, and excellence all count for something. And that’s why the San Antonio Spurs, currently riding a stupendous run of 19 straight victories, are America’s favorite professional basketball team.

Except, of course, they aren’t. Not this year when they tied for the best record in the league, and not last year when they were the best in the West. Not in their 1999 championship run or the follow-ups in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Not for a single moment amid the glorious 15-year run with coach Gregg Popovich and big man Tim Duncan have the Spurs captured the imaginations of the American people or even its basketball fans. That’s because we are, ultimately, a nation of hypocrites that prefers drama queens, bad boys, and flukes to simple competence and success.

He goes through a bunch of stuff, and you should read the whole thing. The bit that really resonated, though, was this:

[T]here are two main reasons why the Spurs are genuinely boring. The first is that, unlike the Thunder and pretty much every other NBA team, they don’t have anybody who dunks. San Antonio’s top dunker, Tim Duncan, had just 35 slams this season, tied for 63rd-most in the league. That’s 157 fewer than the league’s top dunker, Blake Griffin. And I assure you that none of Duncan’s dunks were spectacular.

This resonated not because I have any great affinity for the Spurs or any other NBA team, but because of the way the lunchtime pick-up game I play in has been going lately. Over the last year or so, we've had a big influx of students, to the point where we regularly have 20+ guys in the gym, and two 5-on-5 games going at a time. That's good in one sense, in that it's more fun and better exercise to play 5-on-5 full court than to be stuck in a 3-on-3 haf-court game. But it's had a very bad effect on the quality of the game, to the point where I sometimes feel like I'd be better off just running laps.

What does this have to do with the have? The problem is that a lot of the students who play have the same approach to the game that Matt attributes to NBA fans who ignore the Spurs. The point of the game, to them, is not just to win, but to be spectacular. And this leads to some awful basketball, particularly if you get two of these guys on the same team. They want every play to come from a spectacular individual move, so they shoot three-pointers at a rate not justified by their ability, or try to make some kind of spectacular individual move to the basket every time out. And since they expect everybody else to play the same way, they don't move- they ick a spot on the floor where they're comfortable shooting or starting a drive, and they just stand there, which jams up the whole offense.

This also shows up on defense-- they all want to make a spectacular fast-break lay-up, so they aandon the defensive end at the first hint of a shot, running out toward half-court to start the break. Which means lots of offensive rebounds and put-backs when they guy they're ostensibly guarding goes to the boards. And, perversely, the desire for spectacle actually reduces their effectiveness on the break-- rather than making routine passes to set up an easy lay-up, they do all sorts of dumb stuff in an attempt to produce a more impressive finish-- long lob passes to guys who can't catch the ball well when they're standing still, or trying to pass the ball from one block to the other. I've never seen so many 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 fast breaks stopped by the defense as I have this year.

It's maddening to play with. The only god thing about it is that one the rare occasions when we put together a team that's mostly old guys, we can usually shred them by, basically, playing like the Spurs: passing the ball, moving around, and taking and making good but unspectacular shots. But we tend not to play old-versus-young, so we end up with mixed teams and frustrating games.

I'm looking forward to the summer, when most of these guys will leave town, and we can hopefully get some games where the majority of the players know how to play basketball, not just mimic the NBA.

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By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 May 2012 #permalink

I love the spurs and that type of game

The tendency to abandon the strategy of dedicated team work and many small successes by way of fundamentals and effort for glory-grabbing showboating by individuals is seen throughout American life. Why work a small but necessary job for thirty years when you are looked down upon as a loser because you will never be rich enough to avoid being taken advantage of. Why scrimp and save when your savings and pension can be plundered during a leveraged buy out. Hard work doesn't so often pay in a nation run by pirates, grifters, and card sharks.

It makes sense that the strategy would shift toward making the big score and swinging for the fences because it allows you to get in quick, extract profits, and get out before the den of thieves can rig the game.

The popular view, right or wrong, is that your best chance of success is to be had by either getting rich, or becoming a celebrity. Celebrity is usually less about talent and performance and more about being fabulous. In today's environment, in sports, and in the business world, you won't do either by playing a safe, team oriented, game of fundamentals.

The unemployment lines are full of team players and ordinary people. People I know work hard to stand out and make it big. I think they are, in the long run, self-defeating and ineffective but they look good in the action photography and have fun.

Nobody loves the Spurs not just because Tim Duncan is boring, but also because Manu Ginobli is a flopping baby and they have a history of screwing over better teams through cheap and dirty tactics (see, Suns v. Spurs, 2007).

TAN: Just noticed as I was driving by that the post with Yglesias as jumping off point has lots of typos.

By buddhacat (not verified) on 02 Jun 2012 #permalink

Just noticed as I was driving by that the post with Yglesias as jumping off point has lots of typos.

That's how you know it's really him. If you ever read something by Yglesias that appears to be competently proofread, you should suspect that he plagiarized it from Carl Zimmer.