THE PLANK JUNE 16, 2009
Bill Simmons has the definitive piece on the 2009 NBA champs, and the team's enigmatic superstar, Kobe Bryant. Simmons is the most entertaining and insightful NBA analyst around, but lately his stuff has been unconvincing or contradictory. Still, this latest opus is a masterful summation of the Lakers' season. Simmons both acknowledges the team's good fortune (a number of competing teams faced serious injury problems) and gives credit where credit is due.
This, however, did not make much sense:
Kobe played so much better in the 2009 Finals than the 2008 Finals.
Everyone kept saying it so it must be true! Actually, not really.
2008 Kobe (six games): 25.7 pts, 4.7 rebs, 5.0 ast, 3.8 TO, 21.8 FGA, 8.2 FTA, 40.5 FG%, 80 FT%, 32 3FG%, 42.8 MPG.
2009 Kobe: (five games): 32.4 pts, 5.6 reb, 7.4 ast, 3.2 TO, 27.0 FGA, 8.8 FTA, 43.0 FG%, 84 FT%, 36 3FG%, 43.8 MPG.
Hmm, those numbers look a lot better to me, even with the increased shot attempts. Anyway, he is generally fair to Bryant: Simmons now ranks the star guard as an all-time Top Ten great. (I made a cursory list and came up with ten better players, but not eleven. In other words, Kobe is right there).
The best part of Simmons' column is its attack on the media's slavish reluctance to say anything critical about the league's biggest name, who is by all honest accounts a difficult, unlikable teammate. The press' unwillingness to depart from the script--a script partially set by Spike Lee's unwatchable, propagandistic, pro-Kobe ESPN documentary--prevented any serious analysis of one of the most fascinating figures in sports. (It is too bad David Halberstam is not around to write a biography. However, Kobe's personality might call for the Robert Caro touch).
And what about these Lakers? They never really got going until the third game of the conference finals against Denver, but from that point forward they played as well as their personnel would suggest. Historically, however, it is hard to rate them highly, both because they did not look much better than a far-from-great Denver team and a fatally injured Rockets squad. This was one of those years in which key stars (Kevin Garnett, Jameer Nelson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming) were injured on three of the six best teams. The playoffs had some great moments, to be sure, but this is not a league full of great, or even really, really good basketball teams.
Overall, the playoffs alternately confirmed and refuted the two biggest criticisms of the NBA. The first criticism is that the refereeing is terrible, and the league needs to institute major changes. The proof of this unfortunate state of affairs was manifestly obvious night after night, and ranked as one of the two biggest problems (along with dreadful coaching) of an otherwise exciting two months. That's right--two months! People love to complain about how long the playoffs last, but this criticism has never made any sense to me. For over sixty days, we get terrific basketball almost every night. Sure, the first two (four day) weekends of the NCAA tournament are great, but those account for eight days of the year. What is wrong with more high-stakes basketball? It's true that the league should shorten the regular season by ten games, but this has nothing to do with the playoffs.
One final note: the outstanding television ratings are a good sign for the league, but maybe bad news for those of us in favor of reform. What is the NBA's motive to seek improvement if viewers are sticking around?