Watching tonight's game against the Hornets in the wake of yesterday's Super Bowl, it was impossible to ignore a few key differences between the NBA and the NFL; namely, that pro football has eclipsed pro basketball in nearly every conceivable manner--especially in its willingness to encourage competitiveness and innovative team play.In his collection of essays Eating the Dinosaur, NoDak Chuck Klosterman writes about what he views as the NFL's engine of innovative success:
The reason the NFL is so dominant is because the NFL is basically Marxist. This was Rozelle's greatest coup, and everybody knows it. But you'd never guess that from watching the NFL Network. Marxism is not a talking point.
What the NFL has realized is that they have no better marketing tool than the game itself. Every other sport tries to fool us...The NBA tries to create synergy with anything that might engage youth culture (hip-hop, abstract primordial competition, nostalgia for the 1980s, the word "amazing", Hurrican Katrina, etc.)...Unlike David Stern's failed vision for the NBA, the NFL Network does not try to expand its empire by pushing the sport toward nonchalant audiences with transitory interest; it never tries to trick anybody into watching something they don't already like.
After running through a few examples of how the NFL appeals to conservative values, a sense of nationalistic identity, and a system of internal values that make football fans feel like an end unto themselves, Klosterman gets around to what makes the game of football itself so endearing to the American public as well as what drives its appeal: its willingness to innovate:
But this is how football evolves: Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later.
Bill Walsh, Sam Wyche, Mike Leach, Darrel "Mouse" Davis, Mike Martz, Dick LeBeau, Gus Malzahn, Steve Humphries, the spread offense, the zone defense, and so on and so forth. Football innovates and changes with what works. It adopted the forward pass. It changes its overtime rules. It encourages year to year turnaround and the importance of a team concept typically reserved for pure socialism: the concept of the greater good.
The NBA, on the other hand, has it exactly backwards. Its appeal and brand is built around socially liberal memes while its play is decidedly capitalist, the American version. The NBA is a super star league where individual talent drives success. It is a league where the rules are geared to allow for the maximum amount of individual freedom. It makes rule changes that do away with hand checking and broad zone defensive principles so that its most individually talented and physically dominant players can drive to the hoop in dramatic fashion. In recent years its most dominant forms of play have nearly completely done away with anything other than 2 man games and pick and roll action between absurdly athletic perimeter players and increasingly athletic power forwards. Slow big men are a dying breed. Back-to-the-basket low post play is all but extinct.
In contrast, Klosterman once again explains the appeal of innovation and football:
Whenever an innovation fails to result in a title, its unorthodoxy takes the hit; every time a football coach tries something unorthodox, he is blasted for not playing "the right way." But all that "not playing the right way" means is that a coach is ignoring the eternal lie of football: the myth that everything done in the past is better than anything that could be invented in the present. As a result, the public arm of football--the conservative arm--bashes innovation immediately, even while adopting the principles it attacks. The innovators are ridiculed. And that kind of reaction is reassuring to fans, because it makes us feel like football is still the same game we always want to remember. It has a continuity of purpose. It symbolizes the same ideals and appeals to the same kind of person. It feels conservative, but it acts liberal. Everything changes, but not really.
Watching the Wolves against the Hornets, I couldn't help but to think that the NBA feels liberal, but acts conservative. It is a constant march towards the adulation of the individual as the driver of all success; this is a tremendously narrow scope of interest--yet, it is pitched as a socially expansive game that appeals to all. Pro football is innovative enough to find a space for the Danny Woodheads of the world. Pro basketball is a game of, unfortunately and ironically for Wolves fans, innate length and athleticism. The primary basketball innovations in recent years have all been the result of players who are simply bigger, faster, stronger, and more physically amazing than anyone and everyone else: Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Blake Griffin. The highlights are more freak show than policy geek and that is ultimately what will limit its appeal to the American public. Despite the hip-hop music blaring in the background, it is a game for Wall Street, not Main Street. They even rig the refs to give the best and brightest an even bigger upper hand. Golden State is more Goldman Sachs than we'd all like to realize.
Why bring this up in a game where the Wolves played lights out against one of the only 2 .500+ teams they've beaten all season? Teams like the Wolves have no hope because they have no talent. There is no hope other than to luck into Basketball Jesus. While they ostensibly run something of an "innovative" offense, it's really nothing other than a lot of standing around and hoping the best players can make something happen.
Watching them go up and down the court against the Hornets I couldn't help but to think that even if they wanted to do something radically different (say, run hockey-style shifts in 2-3 minute segments of full court pressure), the league is fundamentally structured in such a way to make sure broad policy innovation based on team success (you know, the greater good) is an impossibility. You know it and I know it that if this game really mattered (which is another black eye altogether--the idea that much of the regular season is meaningless compared to the NFL) that the Hornets could just call upon the individual greatness of Chris Paul and he, the refs, the fans, and anyone else would all accept that there is no systemic innovation that could be conceived of that could trump the needs and modified abilities of a true individual super star.
I can't stand football. To me, it is far too violent and, well, socialist. Yet, I am beginning to have a greater appreciation of its appeal and vitality. The NBA has it backwards and it is slowly killing the game, especially for the fans of bottom-dwellers. It really is true that nothing changes in the NBA other than a new physical specimen who comes around every 5 years or so. It is mind-bendingly conservative in its play. It is a survival of the fittest and, as a personal preference, I like that. What I don't like is...well, it's kind of boring and I wish that it was more of a laboratory for broad team innovation. You really can tune in during the final 2 minutes and see all you need to know. You know that Kobe is going to get the call. You know that the Wolves will do anything in their power to...well, tonight was a surprise.
Anywho, I'd like to hear what y'all have to say about the lack of innovation in the NBA. Throw in a recap or two of the actual game if you like.