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In Hollinger’s new piece about the Spurs flying under the radar (which, for the record, we here at The Chase-Down Block identified quite a while ago), he refers to the public perception of the “boring, plain-as-vanilla Spurs.” This got me thinking about the ways in which we judge teams’ entertainment value. Are there boring teams in the NBA? For that matter, are there exciting teams?
Let’s take the Spurs as an example. During their heyday, I was one of those Philistines who constantly complained about how boring they were. Their Finals appearances against the Pistons and the Cavaliers were excruciating. Bruce Bowen remains the single most loathsome athlete I have ever watched, and his presence in any game made it automatically 7% worse. And yet, their series against the Suns in 2007 and 2008 remain some of my fondest basketball watching memories. Is this just because of the Suns’ transcendent offensive basketball? I don’t think so: as a former Bay Area resident, I witnessed plentiful Suns-Warriors games that left me shaking my head in frustration, wondering if this absurd exercise in running as fast as possible and counting as high as possible should even have been called basketball. No, I believe that the reason the Spurs and Suns entertained so greatly can be found in their contrasting styles.
The phrase “Styles Make Fights” comes from boxing, and it means that you can’t merely look at how good the fighters are in a vacuum and use that projection to predict the outcome of a bout. Instead, you need to look at the kind of fight each man wants to have. Whoever can force their kind of fight, or their style, will be victorious. The same holds true, in many ways, in basketball.
I recently had a conversation with my dad about the Bulls current streak of 20+ point road wins. Going into Sunday afternoon’s game with the Celtics, Chicago has set an NBA record with four straight wins on the road by more than 20 points. The catch? Those wins have come against the Bucks, Nets, Hornets and Bobcats. While these wins make me happy in the abstract, as a Bulls fan, they have also been basically unwatchable. There is only so much great defense you can take before you just want someone to hit a jump shot. That, combined with a preponderance of garbage time, makes for truly dreadful basketball.
Does that mean that the Bulls, or defensive basketball, are inherently uninteresting? Of course not. Chicago’s game against the Heat a few weeks ago may have been sloppy, but it was one of the best games so far this year. Even the dregs of the league have played some games worth watching: the Bucks have beaten the Heat twice this year, and both games have been defensive struggles that have you gripping the edge of your seat. Meanwhile, the Heat have romped against the 76ers, normally one of the most entertaining teams in the league, both at home and in Philly.
What does any of this mean? It means that, just like you can’t just boxers in a vacuum, you can’t judge basketball teams in a vacuum. If you, like me, used to think that the Spurs were boring because they played good defense and didn’t flash up and down the court, take the time to appreciate them now that they are 5th in the league in True Shooting Pct. And 7th in Offensive Rating. But also take the time to appreciate Chicago, or Portland, or even Memphis, teams that depend on staunch defense. That may sound yawn-inducing, but find the right match-up, and I guarantee it’ll be worth it.