The NBA has been pretty blah lately and I can’t be the only one out there moaning and groaning about it.
Even the most hardcore NBA fan has to acknowledge the product on the court, especially recently, has been about as appetizing as a Los Angeles bagel to a New Yorker. Sure, it’s edible. But it really sucks subjecting yourself to something so inferior when you’re used to the best.
Too many injuries, too many blowouts, and too crazy of a schedule had the NBA sputtering through March and wobbling into early April. If we’re being real here, the March 25th trade deadline—that turned out to be almost as poppin’ as Paul Pierce getting a Friday night cut—is the only thing that’s felt fresh and fun around the Association in weeks, if not months.
Arguably the biggest reason why that’s been the case is the lack of available alphas. Considering the NBA is the most star-driven league out of the major North American sports, the absences of so many All-Stars, future Hall of Famers, and living legends continues to water down the product. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Joel Embiid have missed a ton of games with significant injuries (AD and KD having sat out a combined 59 games so far this season) while the Nets’ Big Three have only appeared in seven (?!?!) games together. Overall, seven out of our 10 players we identified as the NBA’s best before the season tipped in December—LeBron, KD, AD, Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Embiid—have missed 107 combined games entering Tuesday’s action. And let’s not forget we just lost everybody’s favorite new player, LaMelo Ball, to a fractured wrist in the middle of his revelatory rookie campaign. The league desperately needs these guys back to give the regular-season a major jolt.
That’s because we’re currently in the dog days of the NBA schedule. We’re post-All-Star break, post-trade deadline, but still six weeks away from the playoffs starting. Teams are tired, being way more judicious about resting key contributors, and basically just trying to survive the grind of this unique NBA season that features a condensed schedule, unusual travel, and restrictive health and safety protocols. We’re not going to accuse anybody of mailing it in, but it feels like there have been too many nights recently where teams look like they have nothing in the gas tank. Schedule losses have always and forever will be a part of professional basketball, but they feel super ubiquitous this season. The chances of you witnessing mediocrity or downright bad basketball when you turn on an NBA game these days have only risen as the reason has progressed.
Tim Reynolds of the AP deserves all the credit for bringing the malaise to our attention since he pointed how truly putrid the play was this past weekend.
Reynolds, in a follow-up tweet, also noted how Friday and Saturday featured four games decided by 44 points or more. The previous 101 days of the season only featured three games with a margin of victory greater than 44. We saw even more blowouts Sunday. The showcase game between the Lakers and Clippers was a dud with the Clippers winning by 18. You’re excused if you missed it, but that same day the Celtics smacked the Hornets by 30. There was only one contest that finished with a margin of two possessions or less on Easter and that was between the Warriors and Hawks. Golden State’s 117-111 defeat to Atlanta marked its seventh loss in its last eight games (insert a Pusha-T “Yuugh” ad-lib).
Monday, thankfully, saw close games between Wizards-Raptors, Suns-Rockets, and Knicks-Nets. On Tuesday, it was back to the blowouts with only two of the eight games featuring a margin of victory of nine points or less. Wednesday, mostly more of the same. A few tight games like Knicks-Celtics and Suns-Jazz. But largely, there were nine forgettable contests. The intensity of playoff basketball, technically beginning with the play-in tournament starting May 18, can’t get here soon enough.
Just don’t confuse the league’s latest gimmick as some kind of competitive savior for the slog that is this season’s 72-game slate. The NBA’s new wrinkle is supposed to make the regular-season more intriguing by giving more teams the chance to play meaningful basketball for longer and earn official inclusion into the postseason. It’s technically doing its job right now and, generally, you can’t knock the league for trying to spice things up. I’m sure the play-in tournament will be fun and the novelty of it will make it an event. But I can throw cold water on it just as easily as I can give the NBA props.
I’ll stop griping about all the desultory results and injuries and look at the bright side for a minute. The NBA still puts out a better product than college basketball. The NCAA Tournament—forever the premier sporting event on the calendar, no arguments will be accepted—was fun as usual and featured some drama, but ultimately it wasn’t all that memorable aside from the classic national semifinal between Gonzaga-UCLA. All indications are the superstars currently nursing injuries should be back in time for the playoffs. Fans have returned to just about every arena around the league. It feels like we’ll have a proper set of playoffs this year after some observers—but not me—slapped an asterisk on last season’s results.
In the grand scheme of things, the NBA, of course, will be just fine. Despite some issues with TV ratings, the league’s popularity and pop culture presence (i.e. Space Jam 2) ain’t diminishing anytime soon. The postseason will be here before we know it, delivering drama and intense basketball you can’t find anywhere else. And the NBA Draft, scheduled for the end of July, is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in recent years. But as one of the saltiest of sports observers out there, I can’t help pointing out how bad the NBA’s been lately.