We like to get granular here at TBW, digging into the players and trends that help shape the NBA, WNBA, eSports and FIBA games we love so much. We also believe that irresponsible, clickbaity speculation is both out of control over the past few years and also not helping the game in the long run.
That said, there’s something to be said for zooming out every now and again, getting back to the fun questions and quandaries that make debating the game at your favorite couch, bar, barbershop, etc. so much fun.
That’s what this semi-weekly column is about.
I’m not going to dig into stats. I’m not going to break down film. I’m not going to not occasionally posit fake trades and other fun parlor games.
I’m not going to not use double negatives with a straight face if the moment calls for it.
But I’m also not going to parrot the same “back in my day” or “THIS IS EGREGIOUS AND UNCONSCIONABLE!!!!!!!” talking head drivel you can catch from the big boys if you like basketball lobotomies.
So if you’re cool with all that, read on for the following never-any-particular-order questions—some rhetorical, some fleshed-out with my answers; but all open to your musings/mutterings in the Comments section—as we wrap the 2019 portion of the season and the decade as a whole. If that’s not your bag, then please read everything else we do so well here at TBW!
1. Who has been the most disappointing team to start 2019?
The Portland Trail Blazers overachieved and went to the Western Conference Finals last season, but are now banged up and five games under .500. Yet, somehow, they’re still 8th in the West. (This is still the Western Conference, right? Not some Bizzaro-East body switching routine?) That’s pretty disappointing, but their injuries and roster reshuffling mean an excuse is built in.
And are any of us, regardless of how we’ve felt about his game, legacy, etc. all that disappointed to see Carmelo Anthony back in the NBA and playing relatively well? (It’s clear he’s playing with purpose again. Give the guy a break.)
Then there are the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks, all of whom were floated as fringe playoff teams during the preseason. The Hawks have missed John Collins more than expected and have reminded us that they’re just too young.
The Kings and Wolves have reminded us that they are still the Kings and Wolves. (Shame on all of us for ever believing otherwise.)
So, that leads me to the San Antonio Spurs, a perennial quasi-contender that always warrants the utmost respect and… HOW ARE THEY SITTING FIVE GAMES UNDER .500 AND IN 9TH PLACE?!?!
This was supposed to be a coming-out party for the Dejounte Murray – Derrick White – Bryn Forbes – Lonnie Walker IV (the “Quattro”, if you will) backcourt as LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan paced them offensively. But the young guys are still figuring it out, the old guys are getting more inefficient by the day, and a team with too many on-paper good defenders has been a nightmare at stopping anyone.
Gregg Popovich has his work cut out for him now—surprisingly more so than just about any other Spurs roster of his tenure. Then again, they’re only one game back of their 798th straight post-season berth and sending us right back to all the normal Spurs talking points by April.
2. Which team has been the most pleasant surprise so far this season?
Though it’s safe to say most of us didn’t see the Dallas Mavericks being this good this early or the Miami Heat being this good, period, pretty much everything about the Eastern and Western Conference standings just feels right in the top-8. Give or take a few games and spots from whatever teams you want, but these were mostly the names we all thought would be up there in that order-ish.
But if you had told me in preseason that not only would the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Hornets avoid being unwatchable time sucks, but that they’d instead be sniffing their respective 8th seeds while playing hard, developing identities and featuring some “hey, I actually am gonna catch him/them on League Pass tonight without a gun to my head” performers?
I’d have told you to get out.
3. You get Kobe, LeBron or Steph from 2010-2019 to “define” the decade. Who ya got?
A stupid, stupid parlor game, I know. But it’s fun, I’m NOT asking for a GOAT conversation, and the trolls are bored so…
Ask me that Kobe question from 2000-2010 and I’ll likely nod while weeping robot tears into a rolled-up Tim Duncan jersey, but Mamba didn’t actually define this decade except for some Jordan-Lite nostalgia.
Steph was the most unguardable player I’ve watched in the past 10 years (and possibly ever, whenever he was on fire), but we’re talking about him dominating half the decade, not all of it. Kind of inversely like Kobe was such a factor in the first half but not the second.
Is anyone really going to argue that this wasn’t the LeBron decade? He dominated the latter half of the 2000s, true, but that’s a transitional period away from Michael Jordan’s ’90s where various stars, including Kobe and Iverson, had their turns as well.
LeBron stamped the 2010s with iron.
4. Does NBA MVP voter fatigue kick in after just one year now?
James Harden is averaging nearly 40 ppg. while clearly carrying the Houston Rockets. He’s playing at an MVP level.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is more dominant than ever and packing so many stats into his line that I keep wondering when he figured out how to change the setting to “Rookie”. He’s playing at an MVP level and is the incumbent.
But we’re all (seemingly) smitten with what Luka Doncic is doing as a 20-year old, right?
Repeat MVP’s used to be a pretty consistent thing even as recently as 2015, but I can’t but shake the feeling that we’re gonna collectively take for granted what Harden, Giannis and even LeBron are doing while we’re wowed by the Slovenian wunderkind.
Because we haven’t seen it before.
MVP voting is rarely clear cut and thus almost always divisive—the talking heads love it when it is—but multiple legit MVP’s are gonna get shortchanged this year, and that includes Luka if the voters surprisingly take the “he can wait until next year” approach.
5. Did we just witness the NBA’s high water mark?
The league could seemingly do no wrong during the 2010s, even as “The Decision” was one of its worst-conceived individual moments ever.
But that itself was in the summer of 2010, and the NBA since rode a tidal wave of ratings, cultural impact, worldwide reach and exploding revenue not even equaled during the Jordan heyday. Heck, having the Heat take a heel turn worked out perfectly too!
Today’s league is stocked with both homegrown and global talent, the game is a lot of fun to watch and debate and… sometimes you can only fly so high before coming back down to earth at least a little bit.
Everyone’s talking about TV ratings in decline. That’s a macro-level issue affecting way more than the NBA. It is not, repeat, not specifically endemic to basketball, politics or China. (Wait, maybe that last one for a bit.) Nonetheless, the league is beholden to that legacy TV structure just as much as any other American cultural/entertainment monolith facing the same crossroads.
Can it continue evolving to meet technological and social changes without eroding the product (or even just the perception of it) with its core (i.e. typically slightly older) audience?
The NBA’s track record suggests that it indeed can, but there may be a recalibration period for the next few years—or maybe even just a more “normal” flatlining for a bit. After all, you can’t expect explosive growth forever, though it wasn’t that long ago that the NFL was seemingly unassailable either until the NBA took the mantle for a bit even though that would have seemed crazy just a few years before.
The NBA’s main fear can’t be that it settles in, but rather that some unforeseen, likely-nimble upstart sneaks in during the meantime.
6. Who will be the first NBA coach fired in the new year?
David Fizdale got the early boot (there’s always at least one to start off a season), but the trend is typically that another 1-3 coaches will get canned in-season, with another handful as soon as the campaign ends.
Scott Brooks has done a heck of a job with smoke and mirrors in Washington, but the Wizards have just 9 wins. Jim Boylen’s young Chicago Bulls still look like they’re trying to play in a different era all while cursing him under his breath. I don’t think the Hawks would get so impatient that they can Lloyd Pierce yet despite being a disjointed disappointment.
So, the Kings are still the Kings, and they legitimately thought they’d be a low-seed playoff team this year. I still don’t know Luke Walton is a bad coach, as he seems to anecdotally at least have a few positive qualities. Then again, this Kings roster is substantially more talented than what he was saddled with in Los Angeles…
The franchise would have a lot of egg on its face if firing Walton just one year (or less!) into his tenure, but Sacramento’s visage is historically littered with fully cooked omelets like this.
7. Which coach will define the next decade?
It was clearly Gregg Popovich during the 2010s, but my money is on the Luka Doncic – Rick Carlisle pairing defining the next 10 years.
8. What’s your favorite memory from the 2010s?
Mine is the San Antonio Spurs’ Finals against Miami in 2014. Revenge is best-served surgically:
That evisceration ended the relatively unlikable (albeit highly laudable, from a technical hoops standpoint) Heatles era, sent LeBron back to Cleveland for one of the NBA’s best-ever storylines and crowned Kawhi Leonard as the undisputed Destroyer of Worlds. (If you’re counting, he wrecked Miami, San Antonio and Golden State’s dynasties in barely over five years.)
9. The one guy who retired this decade that you’ll miss watching the most?
Yes, I’ve always been a from-afar Spurs admirer, so I dearly miss seeing Duncan and Ginobili do their thing. I’ve found myself missing peak-Kobe as a foil, and honorable mention certainly goes to Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.
I’m a T-Wolves fan by heritage, so the default answer should be Kevin Garnett, but truth be told, my defining memories of him are from 1996-2004, even as I watched nearly every Celtics game in 2007 and couldn’t have been happier for him getting his ring.
Nonetheless, my mind goes back to Steve Nash a lot. Even though his heyday was during the aughts—meaning I kind of just undid the logic behind my Garnett omission—it was his frustratingly painful decline once he arrived to the Lakers near the decade’s front end that helped derail the monumental-at-the-time Kobe-Dwight-Pau-Nash quartet that was supposed to win multiple titles.
Nash had been endlessly fun to watch, and there was something especially tragic about his back injuries finally catching up to him right when he had a legit chance to ring chase and make other HOF-ers around him better.
Sure, a lot of us were just fine seeing the Lakers begin a cellar turn, but it was with a lot of sadness knowing we’d never see Nash orchestrate a laser-light show offense ever again.
10. What’s your one assumption from the 2010’s you’re hoping is quickly forgotten?
Shortly after Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota, I went on record in the Atlanta radio market saying that Zach LaVine would wind up having an equal-or-better career to Jimmy if he stayed healthy.
A. I don’t think that’s going to age well.
B. Please don’t tell anyone.
Share your answers to these questions in the Comments section below, and submit your questions for consideration here.
Editor in Chief, TBW co-Founder and Co-host of ‘Basketball by Association’ on TBW. Former Bleacher Report’s NBA Associate Editor (2012-17). Previously served in key B/r NBA columnist, video host and writer training posts (2009-12). Former high school history teacher, basketball coach and play-by-play broadcaster; NBA podcast host, locker room reporter (Minnesota Timberwolves, Vikings, Twins, Wild) and radio host/producer. Former Managing Editor of TravelPulse.com. Appears on NBA radio shows and podcasts across the U.S.