The Plank

The Nba Playoffs And The Problem With Sports Journalism

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The NBA playoffs started nine days ago, and for basketball fans they have been a treat. Still, even those of us who prefer the professional game to thirty seconds of passing the ball around the perimeter before putting up a 19-foot jumper college ball must admit that this first week-and-two-days has been ever so slightly disappointing. After what was by far the best regular season in decades (at least five blockbuster trades, the re-emergence of the league's two most storied franchises, the best conference in NBA history, the second longest winning streak ever), there have been some letdowns. The (L)Eastern (get it?) conference series' have been dull--Bill Simmons humorously noted on Friday that even though it's his job to watch basketball he still couldn't stomach the idea of sitting through a Toronto-Orlando game--with the Cleveland-Washington match-up being a particular letdown. Perhaps another TNR blogger would like to weigh in on this matter, but Gilbert Arenas' "comeback" has been dispiriting and distressing, especially because our hometown coach is completely clueless about how (not) to utilize him.

In the West, where things were supposed to be interesting, the Lakers are destroying Denver in perhaps the most delicious subplot of the last few days. The Nuggets are an obnoxious and thuggish team on the court (Kenyon Martin's numerous hard fouls yesterday were nothing short of disgraceful), and off-the-court-class-acts like Carmelo Anthony always seem to find themselves driving drunk right before crucial games. Craig Sager, TNT's sartorially challenged sidelines reporter, was sure to mention that despite being down at halftime in Game 3, the Nuggets players decided to ignore their coach and watch the NFL Draft instead of game film. Nice.

Houston-Utah has been a hard fought series that an undermanned Rockets team will likely lose, but if you are a Houston fan the most dispiriting thing has been the constant criticism heaped on star Tracy McGrady by the sports press. McGrady has never moved on past Round 1 of the playoffs, but he is a stellar scorer, underrated defender, and brilliant passer. He's also a genuinely decent guy, and the media's endless drumbeat about his playoff career (he has the fourth highest scoring average in NBA playoff history) is an endless source of frusturation to those of us--few (but proud) we may be--who love the Rockets.

This is as good a segue as any other to what was billed as The Greatest First Round Series of All Time between Phoenix and San Antonio. Alas, it was not to be; San Antonio won the first three games and looks prepared to close things out on Tuesday. But what this matchup has highlighted is the unbelievable lameness of our sports media. Phoenix, you see, almost beat San Antonio last year but ended up losing to the Spurs--arguably because Phoenix's second-best player had been suspended in a complicated altercation during Game 4. The Spurs are a weaker team this year, but for some completely unknown reason, the Suns decided to shake things up and make a trade anyway. So they sent one of basketball's 25 best players to Miami for a decrepit Shaquille O'Neal.

At the time, most sentient beings believed that this trade would throw a wrench into the Suns' title hopes, but the mainstream media kept its criticism to a minimum. Shaq, you see, is beloved by everyone in the league (and rightfully so), and therefore the press decided to act as if this was a fantastic trade for Phoenix (keep in mind that Shaq is older than John McCain).  But now, surprise surprise, Phoenix is about to get eliminated. Could the trade have been the problem? I returned home to the fourth quarter of Game 3--with the Suns behind by 20 points--to find the announcers augustly discussing the question of What Ails Phoenix. And, you guessed it, there was not a single mention of the trade! ESPN's basketball analysis is particularly dreadful (the 'Situation Room' of sports journalism, if you will), but even TNT (which continues to have studio analysts ten times better than anyone else) has had some painful in-game announcing.

If any comparison can be made between sports journalism and political journalism it is this: Once the press decides on a narrative, every event must fit within that narrative. Shaq is a winner--and therefore trading for him is good. Tracy McGrady is not a winner--and therefore his averaging a near triple-double is not good.  And one more thing: The playoffs are often thought of as neverending (the finals won't be until mid-June!). But this year, maybe instead of betting on whether the (veteran, aggressive, intense) Celtics will be facing the (young, fresh, glamorous) Los Angeles Lakers or the (older, slightly dirty**, never-say-die) Spurs at the dawn of summer, we should be wondering whether the Democratic nomination will be settled by the time we have an NBA champion.

**Bruce Bowen=Mark Penn, perhaps?

--Isaac Chotiner 

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