If you weren’t convinced already, the cascading, increasingly insane events of the last fortnight in the NBA should have done the trick: It is now more fun to follow the drama and intrigue of professional basketball than it is to actually watch professional basketball. (Some of us have been beating this drum for a while.) I love the NBA, I love watching the NBA, I love how basketball’s most efficient form (unlike, say, baseball’s, which is mostly just dudes striking out) turns out to be fast-paced, athletic, and aesthetically gorgeous. But there’s no way a full two-and-a-half-hour basketball game can possibly compare to a 30-second clip of Kevin Durant flipping out at reporters for endlessly speculating about whether he’s going to leave one of the greatest teams of all time to join the Knicks.
Frankly, the NBA is at full speculative tilt, and what happens on the court is increasingly irrelevant. The Rockets’ James Harden just became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 30 points in a game for 30 consecutive games, and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook notched a triple-double for the tenth straight game, the first time that’s ever happened (also breaking Chamberlain’s mark). We are literally watching basketball players attain heights no one has ever attained before, every night. And yet the lead stories on every NBA site today barely mention either feat. Instead: How do the Lakers trade for Anthony Davis now? Can the Knicks bring in Durant and Kyrie Irving? Can the Raptors hang on to Kawhi Leonard? Will the 76ers keep Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris, or both?
Part of this is a reaction to the seeming inevitability of this season, the certainty that we’ve all had that the Golden State Warriors are going to cruise to their third consecutive championship without much resistance whatsoever (a certainty that’s all the more so for how seamlessly DeMarcus Cousins has meshed with the team). When you already know what’s going to happen on the court, who can blame you for spending more time focusing on all the stuff happening off of it? But it’s not just that — and not just because, one reminds me, the Warriors came within one game of not even reaching the NBA Finals last year. The fact is, all the drama is fun, and far more aligned with the way we currently consume sports — in short, in snackable bursts, from the RedZone channel to fantasy sports to gambling spreadsheets — than taking the time to actually sit down and watch a whole game. What’s more enjoyable at this moment: Talking about Kevin Durant joining the Knicks, or physically looking at a Knicks game? Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, summed it up: “We’re actors in a soap opera.”
Thus, every team’s a part of it, and it is, in particular, going to lead to an absolutely fascinating Eastern Conference playoff this year, as the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors, teams which have desperately maneuvered their rosters to and fro so that they might take advantage of LeBron James’s first year outside the conference and reach the NBA Finals (where they’d be summarily stomped by the Warriors, but hey, it’s about the journey, not the destination). Though even the games are precursors. Each team has a major pending free agent (Irving on the Celtics, Butler and Harris on the 76ers, Leonard on the Raptors) whose off-season decisions could blow up their teams, or the whole league. The games are the pregame.
But, if you are a holdout in this shift, if you are supportive of the players’ hard-earned rights to control their own futures but are also perhaps growing a bit cross-eyed keeping track of all this, if you still hold the old eras of traditional team-building and continuity dear, if you want things to just slow the heck down for a second, I might have a team for you. Witness: the Milwaukee Bucks.
It is the Bucks, not the Warriors, not the Raptors, not any of these teams tossing their rosters in the air at random, who currently have the best record in the NBA. And they have done it in a way that has pleasingly balanced the old-school and the new-school. They are as analytically oriented as any team in the sport, with a spread-out offense that has taken obsession with the efficiency of the three-point shot — and, more to the point, with never taking inefficient “long two’s,” either shooting from far out for three points or very close for two — to a nearly cartoonish level.
But they are also built in as “traditional” a way as you can imagine. Essentially, the Bucks, a small-market team that hasn’t exactly had much success in convincing free agents to come to their decidedly unflashy city (it should be pointed out here that Milwaukee is in fact a fantastic city to live in and to visit, though the nightclub scene is indeed a bit lacking), drafted a superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo and then went about building everything around him in order to convince him to stay. They draft and sign role-players who don’t need the ball in their hands and can simply benefit from the attention Antetokounmpo brings with him; basically, he storms the lane like the monster he is and they wait for him to find them. Add in the right coach (Gregg Popovich protégé Mike Budenholzer), the right pieces, a prudent, patient process, and a media environment that isn’t constantly screaming at everyone, and the Bucks have built the best team in the sport in a way not all that different from what the old Chicago Bulls used to do with Michael Jordan. Get the guy, and then only get guys he needs. Use the parts of the current NBA that benefits teams, but not the parts that don’t. And it’s all working perfectly — the Bucks are beating teams by nearly ten points per game, an average that puts them in the top 15 in the history of the league.
Thus, the Bucks have succeeded where the Pelicans (with Davis), the Pacers (with Paul George), and the Timberwolves (with Butler) all failed: They’ve made the superstar happy with where he is. Antetokounmpo has been up-front and loud about how much he loves Milwaukee, saying, “I don’t like all these flashy cities like LA or Miami. I don’t know if I could be the same player if I played in those cities,” and emphasizing he never wants to leave Milwaukee.
Now, the arc of history is long, and if you think the league is earthquaking because of Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant, imagine what happens if Antetokounmpo changes his mind about “flashy cities” before he becomes a free agent in 2021. But right now, all these superstars are daydreaming about how much nicer the yard is on the other side of the fence. (Imagine wanting to leave the Warriors … for the Knicks!) But the one who is winning the most is sitting tight, right where he is. LeBron’s in LA, Davis and Leonard want to be in LA, Durant and Kyrie may be in New York. But the best team, and the most fun story, is in Milwaukee. It’s enough to make you want to go and watch an actual basketball game there. If you’re still into that sort of thing.