Organized by Merlin Chowkwanyun
A couple of weeks ago, I realized that all my Twitter interactions were basically with people in two orbits: “Historian Twitter” (7%) and “NBA Twitter” (90%).
Wait, that only adds up to 97%?!
Correct. Then there’s #NBAHistorianTwitter, a special nexus of people in both worlds (So I thought: why not do something with this group that leveraged both their passion for history and their obsession with the NBA? Soon afterwards, the Sport in American History blog’s Andrew McGregor and I came up with what you are reading now: the 1st Historian’s NBA Playoffs Roundtable.
What makes this NBA roundtable different from all the other ones? Not much, except one thing: HISTORY. All contributors were required to introduced some element of historical analysis into their contribution. Some possibilities:
- year-to-year stats
- analogies to players of other eras
- discussions of how the overall game, its pace, and positions have changed
- players’ off-court activities around social justice issues
- larger sports-society themes “refracted” through the prism that is The Association.
- and anything else involving… change over time.
They also did not necessarily have to comment on the playoffs themselves. Some instead use this as an opportunity to springboard off of them into larger meditations on basketball, internationalism, place, and pitiful fandom (we have a Nuggets fan here).
Besides creating more NBA punditry, an alternative goal of this roundtable is to showcase the flexibility of history as a robust method of inquiry – a modern analytic lance, if you will – suitable for more than conventional academic historical analysis.
We threw this together on a fly, and very casually, so we may have missed many people who are probably in #NBAHistorianTwitter, so get in touch if you want to a) add something here or b) want to chime in on the next pre-Finals round!
Around the League — Cat Ariail
PREDICTION: Cavs in 6. Rockets in 7.
Those are my intellectually justifiable, yet emotionally-driven predictions for the Conference Finals and Finals.
In the East, King James gave the Celtics two games, allowing the Brad-besotted basketball press to further burnish the crown of the boyish genius before breaking and busting it, along with the premature proclamations about the Jay-Team and Scary Terry inaugurating the new Celtic dynasty. Out West, the NBA’s proudest tech dork in Daryl Morey surreptitiously will screw with KD’s cell phone settings, preventing him from receiving marathon motivational texts from Draymond (although Morey best be careful not to inhibit quiresultan from logging into his burner accounts, since that surely would expose his scheme). Morey’s successful ploy thus will permit D’Antoni, CP3, and Harden to (at least temporarily) reverse their playoff fortunes and reach the Finals. In the Finals, the return of the Houston trio’s heebie-jeebies, in concert with their high-variance style of play, will result in King James claiming the 2018 crown, intermittently aided by unexpected Banana Republic model and important mental health advocate Kevin Love, Atlanta Hawk legend Kyl3 Korv3r, a not-blonde George Hill, stringent soup critic J.R. Smith, the father of True Thompson, the son of Larry Nance, Jose Calderon and his jamones, the unfulfilled idea of “Jeff Green,” Cabbage Patch Kid Cedi Osman, and Jordan Crawford/Clarkson (Note: Rodney Hood did not want to be included on this list).
While I could marshal and manipulate the analytic evidence to make a more convincing case for my Cavs wish/prediction, the above appropriately indulges in the NBA’s delightful absurdities. The contemporary NBA is defined by its seriousness, as well as its silliness. As a scholar of sport, its is exciting to see the ways in which the political importance of sport and athletes has received wider appreciation. The NBA, as well as American sports more broadly, reflects, reinforces, and resists dynamics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and national identity. Sports are intermixed with and inextricable from our society’s anxieties and aspirations.
Yet, the serious realities that sport exposes cannot be separated from it moments of silliness.
Four years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers inaugurated the current era of NBA activism, spurring the removal racist owner Donald Sterling with their inside-out shooting shirt protest. Earlier this season, former Clipper star Chris Paul supposedly masterminded a locker room bum rush on his ex-teammates, nefariously navigating the tunnels of Staples Center. While modeling player agency and autonomy, LeBron James also has demonstrated how to use social media passive aggressively. Other examples of the simultaneity of seriousness and silliness abound.
The NBA’s silly dramas remind us of players’ humanity. Yes, they are exceptional athletes and important activists. But they also are exceedingly human. They are insecure, immature, irritable, and intelligent. The humanity of players is particularly important for scholars, who can tend to view athletes only as analytical material, representatives of larger phenomena rather than individuals in and of themselves. This is why I love the NBA. It allows me to appreciate both the seriousness and silliness of sport.
So Cleveland, put on your Thom Browne suits, put the Celtics away, and put King James back at the pinnacle.
Cat Ariail recently received her PhD in history for the University of Miami.
Overseas Fandom — Albert Wu
Prediction: Celtics in 6, GSW in 5
Calibrating sleep schedules is an annual ritual for fans of the NBA who live overseas. In Taiwan, where I grew up, the twelve-hour time difference from EST was disruptive, but manageable. One of my fondest childhood memories involved waking up early during the Lunar New Year breaks to watch live transmissions during All-Star Weekend of the Dunk Contests and All-Star games. I found myself doing dissertation research in Taiwan the year Dirk and the Mavericks defeated LeBron and the Heatles. My mornings were spent watching basketball instead of going to the archives, but I justified my obsession by telling myself that at least I would have the afternoons to work. (Of course, by the early afternoon, I would have to watch all of the post-game interviews and read all of the game analysis, and the next thing you know, it was 5 PM…)
Living in Europe, on the other hand, is an altogether different proposition. The six-hour time difference is brutal — an 8 PM EST start time means staying up until 2 AM; if I wake up early enough (5 AM), perhaps I can catch the final six or seven minutes of the late West coast games. My craziest season was 2015-2016, when Golden State won 73 games. I watched a large percentage of the Warrior’s regular season games and every single Golden State playoff game live. By the end of the season, I was a zombie.
As many journalists have written, the NBA has been aggressive in globalizing overseas ever since the 1990s. Live NBA games were first broadcast overseas in 1989, when British Satellite Broadcasting began offering weekly games. The NBA was also pioneering in offering audio broadcasts over the internet as early as 1996. But as Motez Bishara has written, options were fairly limited until the NBA began offering an international League Pass several years ago.
International League Pass is truly something of a marvel. You get all of the games, without any real blackouts. You can also choose which broadcasting teams you want to hear — in TNT games, for example, you can choose between hearing Marv Albert and Reggie Miller or the local announcers. There also is the option to toggle a “non-spoiler” mode, so one could conceivably wake up at a reasonable hour and catch up on the games as if they were live. (One of my NFL-obsessed colleagues does exactly that — he has a subscription to NFL league pass, avoids reading any news about the games, and catches up on all of the games during the week. But idiots like me don’t have that type of self-discipline.)
But International League Pass also destroys certain parts of the experience of local charm of being an NBA sports fan abroad. My first time in France, my host had a TV and I heard George Eddy doing the broadcast for the first-time, and I was delighted by Eddy’s heavily accented French and his over-the-top interjections. You don’t have the options to hear these overseas announcers on NBA League Pass — instead we get to choose between the American national and local broadcasters.
For me, at least, League Pass has also ended some of the communal experiences that used to bring overseas NBA fans together. Bishara recounts a story of getting thrown out of a bar with Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Kings and Lakers tied at 100. In 2009, I found myself at an Australian hostel in Berlin at 4 AM with a bunch of other American ex-pats, divided between the Laker fans and the Laker haters. It was raucous; it was fun. The time difference further bonded us together. Now I watch the games alone on an iPad.
Albert Wu is an Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Paris.
Three Things About These Playoffs — Merlin Chowkwanyun
Prediction: Celtics in 6, GSW in 6
- In Russ We Still Trust?!
Russell Westbrook is probably the most polarizing player in the league. What might be called Russology tracks along the following two lines:
A. Russ has to have a high usage rate and ISO because his teammates are so subpar, as are his coaches, and he has no choice but to shoulder the labor by himself.
B. Russ is vainglorious, selfish, pads stats for triple doubles, and doesn’t try to play within a scheme or involve his teammates.
Line A’s origins are in the 2014-2015 season, when Kevin Durant went down and missed the rest of the season with a foot injury. Russ took the keys to the team and turned in dominating performances for the rest of the season, including several 30+, 40+, and one 50+ point games. Some of the character traits lamented by those who push Line B surfaced during this period. But most let it slide because, no KD, no really great supporting cast, no choice (Line A).
“Sources say” that when KD returned, he found it frustrated to play with this new unleashed Russ, setting the stage for the Cupcake Wars: that is, the pair’s tense parting a couple of season later.
But KD’s absence unlocked yet another level in Russ. Last year, he became the only other player besides Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for the entire season (Robertson’s feat occurred in 1961-1962!!!) Signs of Line B Russ surfaced, but they were overshadowed by Line A discourse. When you have no KD and your second best player is probably Steven Adams, what else are you going to do? Go for it, Russ!
This year, Russ averaged another triple-double, yet it came with little fanfare. It was a sign, I think, that more people were embracing Line B on Russ. There were reasons to support this interpretation of Russ, especially towards the end of the season. In its last game, some believe Russ rebounded gratuitously to get the triple-double stat (stat for game: 6-19-20 line: yes, that’s 6 points).
In the Round One series against the Utah Jazz, which ended with a 4-1 loss, Russ repeatedly clanked ill-advised 3-pointers and other questionable “hero” shots. It got them one remarkable victory from a 25-point deficit, largely propelled by Russ’s spectacular play. That same style of play, though, may have cost them the other games. More broadly, Paul George and especially Carmelo Anthony, the team’s marquee additions, looked awkwardly integrated all season long. Even when Russ tried to defer, it seemed George and Melo didn’t want to undermine Russ’s leader role.
I am still in the Line A camp, but the arrow is moving slightly towards Line B. I still think the Problem of Russ ultimately dates back to the cheap OKC Thunder front office’s infamous and shocking decision to trade James Harden to the Rockets. That hollowed out the team’s roster, and placed a larger burden on both KD and Russ’s shoulders, one magnified with KD’s absence, first during his injury, second when he left for good. The problem is also not one of ISO-heavy ball. Contrary to what the “eye test” might tell you, OKC this season was not leading in ISO’s, not even close: https://stats.nba.com/teams/isolation/?sort=Percentile&dir=1&Season=2017-18&SeasonType=Regular%20Season&PerMode=Totals Rather, Russ is trying to do too much all the time (scoring or otherwise), and what you think of his doing that comes back to whether you blame him or the pieces he’s around.
As I do on my Yelp reviewers whenever I experience bad service, I personally am still going to go with a structural analysis rather than blame the individual. Russ is one of my top-5 players to watch in the league (others: Pau Gasol, Draymond Green, Brandon Ingram, and the god Lance Stephenson).
I want Russ to win a championship badly. He plays with a psychotic commitment to his craft matched by nobody else in the league.
He seems like a terrific person and has channeled a lot of his effort into improving child literacy via his foundation. Watch this video below of him gifting his free All-Star MVP car to a single mother and try to stop your heart from melting:
I am a charter member of the “Russ on Currency” (ROC!) club. ROC! Originally wanted to replace genocidal former President Andrew Jackson with Russ on the $20. When the Obama Administration announced it would be Harriet Tubman, we agreed this was a sound choice and are now proposing a $15.
I love how he deals with baiting questions from the press (or simply nonsense). Whenever I am at a conference and on a panel and get a “question” that is a five-minute speech with a point nowhere in sight, I remember this face he made at a reporter:
Then I write a mental note to myself that reads as follows: “Make a Fathead of this Russ face, then glue it to a wooden stick to hold up in situations like this.” Unfortunately, since it is a mental note, I keep forgetting to do it.
- Social Justice and the NBA
People in the NBA have been speaking out on a number of social issues off-the-court. This development has some limits, many identified brilliantly by fellow roundtabler Cat Ariail. Still, it is hard not to admire players and coaches for using platforms and public visibility in the way they have, and for the NBA to endorse it as much as it has. That’s doubly the case when you look at the NFL as a counterpoint.
Here are some of my favorite moments from this season only:
- Draymond Green and Jaylen Brown lecturing at Harvard on professional athletes and activism
- Gregg Popovich’s various comments on the current President Administration: like this or that.
- David Fizdale’s subdued but hauntingly effective protest of Confederate momuments.
- Lebron James’s retort to Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who told him to “shut up and dribble” rather than speak out on political issues.
- Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, otherwise a loathsome disaster in every other way, giving a beautifully worded and dignified vow of support for Black Lives Matter after protestors surrounded the Kings’ stadium following the shooting of Stephon Clark.
- Demar Derozan and Kevin Love candidly sharing their struggles with mental health issues, anxiety, panic, self-doubt, and depression.
- And of course, my guy, two-time NBA champion and three-time Olympic medalist Pau “Catalan Cash” Gasol on Becky Hammon and gender stereotyping in the NBA and the absurd controversy brewing over Hammon’s receiving a head coaching interview with the Milwaukee Bucks.
I have been eating crow with predictions: OKC over Jazz, Blazers over Pelicans, and many more. The most embarrassing was my declaration that this was the year of the Raptors. (When they got bounced 4-0, it meant I lost a bet to my Lakers fan group, which meets at Los Angeles institution Zankou Chicken whenever I am back. Next time I meet them, I have to dress up in a Big Baller Brand shirt, wear a mini-boom box playing Lonzo Ball’s rap, and declare to all the clientele how much I love Lonzo Ball, even though you can count me as one of his skeptics in Laker Nation.)
But all this may be an afterthought if my CELTICS-WARRIORS prediction comes true. It would be like getting the NCAA final bracket right and missing the others. With the Celtics’ convincing victory over Cleveland tonight, this just might be what’s happening with my bracket.
Baby Names and History
Years ago, Jalen Rose remarked that after the Fab Five in the early 1990s, there was a spike in babies named Jalen. I wondered if Celtics rising all-Star Jaylen Brown was one of these “Jalen babies,” even though he spells it “Jaylen.”
These times-series graphs of “Jalen” and “Jaylen” suggest that the answer is… yes!
Merlin Chowkwanyun is an Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University
Moving the Three — Jasmine Cobb
Prediction: Warriors in 6, Celtics in 5
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls owned ‘90s basketball. In this decade, as my love of the game developed, I was in awe of Mike’s command of the game like so many of us. As I became a genuine fan, I committed to the entire team—Mike’s clutch abilities, Scottie’s wingspan, and eventually Rodman’s frustratingly efficient defense. Not often talked about, I even enjoyed Steve Kerr’s soldierly appearance off the bench to make threes and free-throws (with his signature brow-dab shout-out to his kids). While various players shot three-pointers, few exacted it as a dagger with the precision of Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers. At once a kind of exclamation point and a slow-killer, Miller used these shots to both decimate and taunt his opponents. Standing at number five on the list of all-time three-point scorers of the playoffs, Miller’s 320 made threes off of 820 attempts (for .390 percentage) lists him far ahead of other hall-of-famers like Jason Kidd (.322) and Scottie Pippen (.303), as well as future Hall-of-Famer, Kobe Bryant (.331).
In his five seasons in Chicago (1994-1999), the Bulls could count on Steve Kerr to nail a few threes, averaging .479 and attempting more than two three-point field goals per game in the regular season. With a Bulls-playoff high of .463 on three-point shooting in the 1997-1998 season—the year the Bulls defeated Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals—Kerr’s 3-point contribution was 19 for 41.
Today, Kerr is the head coach for the two-time champion Golden State Warriors, with their pervasive three-point shooting distributed across at least three players at any given time. Most notably, point guard Steph Curry has averaged .436 percentage on three pointers in nine NBA seasons (2011-2017). Sharing the perimeter with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and sometimes Draymond Green, Curry’s playoff 3-point percentage of .410 includes making almost 100 shots in the 2014-2015 playoffs (98 for 232) and still more than 50 once Durant joined the Warriors (72 for 172) in the 2016-2017 playoffs.
For his efforts, Curry stands at number three on the all-time playoff three pointer list, with 330 made baskets on 804 attempts (.410). He has passed the great Manu Ginobili and is chasing LeBron James (351 for 1070) and Ray Allen, in the top spot, with 385 on 959.
Two super facts, however, that these numbers do not capture:
First, the feeling generated by Curry’s three-point shooting. His ability to energize the arena, including his teammates and coaches is encapsulated in moments like the pull-up jumper from half-court, at the buzzer, in Oracle arena, against the LA Clippers on January 28th, 2017. After Curry’s on-court celebration with his teammates—replete with a chest bump fall capped off with the Superman save—Coach Kerr’s live mic catches his desire to “feel an ounce” of what Curry must have felt that night. In terms of numbers, Curry finished with 43 points on 15 for 23 shooting. The feeling, however, is what inspires even high school basketball players to heave the ball toward the basket from half-court in Curry-like fashion.
Finally, among the all-time top scoring three-point shooters in NBA playoff history, Curry’s numbers obscure an important detail—that he has made his 330 three-pointers in just 80 playoff games. While Ray Allen took 171 games and the still-active LeBron James has racked up his threes in more than 230 games, Curry managed to combine the clutch-performance, the soldierly yet deadly three of the 90s in less than 100 games.
In the words of David Fizdale, “Take that for data.”
Jasmine Nichole Cobb is Bacca Foundation Associate Professor at Duke University.
The NBA’s changing MVP geography — Andrew Liu
Prediction: Cleveland in 7 (but now reports he is “no longer confident in it”), GSW in 4
Here’s a piece of NBA trivia: When James Harden wins the regular season MVP this summer, he will become only the third MVP winner in the league’s history born west of Louisiana (among Americans). Harden, of course, emerged out of the famous Los Angeles basketball scene that now dominates the upper echelons of the NBA. So who were the other two? (waiting)
OK, you probably easily guessed Russell Westbrook, also from southern California, who won just last year. This means in the preceding sixty-two years of the award, only one other player from the western half of the country had ever won the award. (waiting)
Give up? Bill Walton, from San Diego, in 1978.
In other words, although the mass of land spanning Washington to Texas constitutes well over one-half of the country (to say nothing of Hawai’i and Alaska), it has given the NBA fewer than four percent of its MVPs. And, really, we’re talking about a 120-mile stretch in the southwest corner of the country.
In fact, less than a year ago, the western U.S. could claim fewer MVP trophies than South Africa (Steve Nash x 2) or the U.S. Virgin Islands (Duncan x 2), and no more than the the MVPs of Germany (Dirk) or Nigeria (Dream).
This imbalance of course reflects the uneven distribution of the US population. When you look westward from the Atlantic seaboard, the population density drops off a cliff somewhere around the eastern half of Texas. The numbers only recover when you arrive in California, which, in fact, has become the new capital of NBA talent. By one measure, the forty-six California-born players in the league last year constituted just over ten percent of the entire NBA.
What about timing? Beneath the MVP level, we have seen many more west-coast players in recent generations: Klay Thompson and Kevin Love from Oregon (though both born in LA) and Seattle stars such as Isaiah Thomas and … (checks notes) Zach Lavine. This timing, I think, was an effect of NBA expansion into the west, over the late sixties and seventies, which nurtured generations of fans and players in new regions. For instance, among Seattle fans it is well known that Jamal Crawford hung out with Gary Payton during the nineties. And one cannot overestimate the influence, harmful as it was, exerted by Kobe Bryant over his Californian fans.
It is worth speculating how geography and timing have translated onto the court. New Yorkers love to call their city the “Mecca” of basketball, and indeed, they could claim seven MVPs over the league’s history (six by Kareem and one by Cousy). But they haven’t produced a major talent in several decades. If you read Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground (1976), you will learn how one of the last great New York (specifically Brooklyn)-born stars, Bernard King, learned the game on blacktop courts played with crooked rims and no nets. Slashing and close-range shooting were rewarded; long-distance shooting was penalized. But as three-point shooting has gained greater weight in the modern game, the spoils now go to those who have harnessed their shot by practicing for hours in private, air-conditioned gyms located in the suburbs. These players could emerge anywhere, but certainly the west coast, with its sprawling neighborhoods peppered with gyms and parks, is as fertile a hothouse as any.
How well will these new patterns hold up? There is only one other MVP-caliber Californian in the league that I can think of (Kawhi). Perhaps the L.A. MVP trend is but a brief bubble. The newest stars in the league have come from Cameroon and Australia. My bet is that rather than settling in one spot, such as California, the league’s talent pool will continue to roam out even further, paralleling the league’s commercial and media expansion across the globe.
Andrew Liu is an Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University.
 Which states lead the league in MVPs born? You probably guessed New York. It leads with eight, although with none since 1981 (more on that later) (Kareem 6, Cousy 1, Erving 1). Shaq, however, was born in Newark. The other leading state, surprisingly, is … Louisiana with nine (Bill Russell x 5, Karl Malone x 2, Bob Pettit x 2, Willis Reed x 1) In terms of single cities, New York City is number one with seven, followed by Phillly 5 (Wilt 4, Kobe 1), and then … surprisingly, Akron, OH 6 (LeBron 4, Steph 2).
GOAT Cheese — Ryan Reft
Prediction: Cleveland in 7, Warriors in 6
This time of year it has become tradition to wander down the dark road of who is truly the greatest NBA player ever: LBJ vs. MJ. Inevitably, LeBron unleashes a ferocious playoff run reminding every one of the unique talent he possesses. Older heads reminisce about Jordan’s “flu game” against Portland or herald the fact he never played a Game 7 in his six NBA final championships. LeBron supporters point to his incredibly impressive record as an eight time finalist, and three-time champion. And then there are Lakers fans; they shake their collective head in disgust and befuddlement at Kobe’s exclusion from such conversations. He won five rings in seven finals series, they assert; he’s the only player to score at least 600 points in three consecutive postseasons.
Even the current GOAT, MJ thinks Kobe deserves more consideration. “Would I rank LeBron over Kobe? In terms of best of all time? No,” he told a room full of basketball camp participants last summer. There’s something about five that beats three. … Kobe won five championships. LeBron won three — although he’s been to seven [consecutive] Finals,” he acknowledged.
Last week, ESPN ran the three part Celtics versus Lakers 30 for 30 film that documents the rivalry between the two teams during the 1980s. A series of high level postseason confrontations that invigorated the NBA and sent it on its current trajectory. It goes without saying, L.A. and Boston remain two of the league’s most storied teams. Which is exactly why Kobe’s five rings fail to match LeBron’s three and certainly don’t come close to MJ.
We could debate the quality of teammates each player enjoyed, but this negates LeBron and MJ while penalizing Kobe; in the Kyrie versus Pippen versus Shaq equation, even hall of famer Pippen doesn’t match up to the former Laker center. Alternately, we could discuss scoring averages (Jordan), tripled doubles (Magic holds the title, Lebron is second), or any other categorical skill.
Yet, what makes Kobe’s application for NBA GOAT inadequate stems from the organization in which he developed: the aforementioned storied franchise of the Lakers; hardly Our Lady of the Pathetic Miracle. In contrast, Michael Jordan gave life to a floundering Chicago franchise that had never known real success. Sure they had Bob Love and Jerry Sloan, but not many division titles let alone championships hung from the rafters. Jordan changed all that while also launching the Bulls into the pop culture atmosphere where they remain. Even evil Jordan Rules MJ was compelling. Sam Smith’s bestselling look inside the Bulls revealed a team that demonstrated everybody is equal until they really aren’t. It gave real shape to ideas about equity and fairness in my formative years; to paraphrase a line from Animal Farm: all animals are equal but some are more equal.
Similarly, Lebron walked into a Cleveland organization more recognized for Jordan’s famous shot over Brad Ehlo than any real triumphs. Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Mark Price were great players, but not the kind, as one sports podcaster frequently puts it, you tell your grandkids about as you bounce them on your knee. LeBron dragged them to the finals during the 2006 -2007 campaign, and they were not good, and then again the past three years amazingly bringing a trophy home to Cleveland during the 2015-2016 season.
Keep in mind, Kobe did nothing wrong here (he has in plenty of other situations, but I digress), but to turn moribund franchises into not only final contenders and champions but also to establish them in the ether of popular culture, that’s worthy of a discussion. So sure, throw Kobe some love, but he’ll never really be in the conversation.
Ryan Reft is a 20th-century U.S. Historian at the Library of Congress.
#SadNuggetsFan — Andrew Hartman
Prediction: Celtics in 7, GSW in 4 or 5 games
Basketball is the greatest sport ever invented. My Dad taught me to love basketball. He was a high school coach, which meant I grew up watching a lot of high school games. My Dad used to pull me and my brother out of school to watch the annual Colorado state high school basketball tournament. Those experiences are some of the highlights of my childhood.
Every year the state title game pitted a Denver team like George Washington (where Chauncey Billups played) against a suburban school like Cherry Creek (attended by many rich white kids). My brother and I would always root for the Denver team. We loved their style of play. Most of the crowd would root for the suburban team. As a kid, I thought it was because the suburban schools tended to be underdogs. Now I know better.
Growing up in Denver, my dad took us to several Nuggets games. I loved the Nuggets of the 1980s with a fierce passion. Those were the Nuggets of Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt. This also explains why I hate the Lakers. The Nuggets lost the 1985 Western Conference Finals to the Lakers, 4-1. That those Lakers teams—Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Scott—were some of the best in NBA history is no consolation. To make matters worse, the only other appearance the Nuggets have ever made in the Western Conference Finals, in 2009, ended once again in defeat to the Lakers, 4-2. The fact that that particular Lakers team had Kobe, arguably one of the top ten players in NBA history, is also no consolation. (Merlin, wipe that smile off your face.)
Being a Nuggets fan is hard. They currently have great young talent, including Nikola Jokic, who has the potential to become the best passing big man the game has even seen, and Jamal Murray, who has the potential to be a great point guard in a league dominated by point guards. But they have yet to get over the hump, which is disappointing at a time when other young teams like the Celtics and 76ers have turned potential into playoff victories. This year the Nuggets were eliminated from playoff contention by the Timberwolves in the final game of the season. No consolation that the game went to overtime. Such is life as a Nuggets fan. No wonder Merlin coined the #SadNuggetsFan hashtag. It’s funny. Ha ha!
Luckily, my enjoyment of the NBA is not limited to watching the Nuggets. It’s a great time to be an NBA fan. There are so many great players right now!
My nine-year old son Asa loves basketball, too. Although I want him to be a Nuggets fan, four years ago he, like so many other youngsters, fell in love with Steph Curry and the Warriors. At first, I was dismayed by the thought that I was unable to transmit my Nuggets fanaticism to my son the way my father had done with me. But then I started watching the Warriors with Asa, and I too became a fan.
The Warriors play basketball the way the basketball gods intended the sport to be played. When the Warriors are at their best, which often involves the famous “death” lineup or “Hamptons Five”—Curry, Klay, Draymond, Iggy, and KD—all five players are in constant motion until one of them gets free for an open look or a dunk. It is a thing of pure beauty, so beautiful that I am not offended by the fact that the Warriors have removed all suspense from the outcome.
The Warriors will defeat the Rockets in five games and then they will defeat the Celtics in four. The only drama left in the playoffs is to be found in the Eastern Conference Finals, where a young and hungry Celtics team will dispatch the amazing LeBron and his underwhelming Cavs teammates in seven games.
Andrew Hartman is a Professor of History at Illinois State University.
The Ref Problem — Tim Cate
I am no longer an engaged NBA watcher due to differential officiating. Besides no enforcement of any reasonable traveling rule, it is obvious that there is a different standard of foul calling for superstars and everyone else. Therefore, the teams with the most superstars have a built-in edge, beyond talent, making predictions of outcomes in the playoffs much easier. Also, since refs “swallow” their whistles in the last seconds of close games, good shooters generally have a better chance than drivers, since hacking and goal tending on lay-ups makes that kind of last minute basket more problematic.
Having said all of the above, Golden State will win over Houston: more superstars and better shooters. Key to the win, defend James Harden’s left hand. It can be done.
LeBron will win over Boston. Star power rules in the NBA (over team ethos) and Cleveland has the biggest star. I cynically believe TV revenues demand that Mr. James play on the Finals stage, and again, the Cavs have more superstars than the Celts.
A discussion with my wife and daughter over dinner centered on an all time-NBA left-handed team. I think Harden would probably make it, with Bill Russell, Billy Cunningham, Chris Mullin, and Gail Goodrich. Interesting that so many all time best NBA left handers were centers.
If any of the four teams left had Hondo Havlicek on their roster, they would win. That guy never stopped running and no current NBAer would be able to guard him because they are all used to loafing on defense at least some of the time.