The Underlying Issue with NBA Fans' Basketball Knowledge
It has everything to do with the NBA and not the fan.
During the postgame press conference of a Friday night matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 9, 2021, Warriors forward Draymond Green was asked this question, “Do you wish defense was seen, like, in a sexier way? That like, being in good position, or staying vertical...that’s just as good as, potentially, hitting a splashy 3, but it’s the 3 that ends up on the highlight reel?”
And in classic Draymond Green fashion, he responded with: “Uh, well that would require people to know the game of basketball, and most people don’t. It’s wishful thinking, but most people will never learn the game of basketball.” Ouch. I could feel that one through my phone screen. Later, he went on to say: “I enjoy being one of the not-so-many people that actually know the game. Being in that rare category of people who really know what’s going on in the game of basketball, as opposed to watching it and think they can dissect it because they realize who hit a shot.”
Another reporter asked him, “How would you go about teaching them the game of basketball?”
Cue in another Draymond-type response, “Uh, well first off, in order to learn, you have to understand what you don’t know. And most people don’t understand that they don’t know shit, so they’re just fucked...and so when you have all these internet sensations thinking they know they know the game of basketball, they would then have to admit they don’t know the game of basketball, so they’re pretty much just fucked.”
If we had a treasure chest of great quotes from Draymond Green, this would be one of the more shiny and valuable items in the chest. If you don't really know who Green is and his personality, you would probably think this guy is rude, arrogant, and just flat out mean. From being a Warriors fan since I was little, and following Green from when he was drafted up until this point in his career, I am pretty sure I have gotten a really good feel on the type of person he is. Draymond is way too honest. He speaks on topics and issues with the intention of just speaking about the way he feels. The fact that he dropped a couple of swear words in his answer to those postgame interview questions means that he really felt strongly about what he was saying. Green, who is now playing in his 9th season in the NBA after a 4 year college basketball career at Michigan State, has become one of the most intelligent and cerebral players that the league has ever seen. He is what the basketball community would call a “basketball junkie”, someone who is obsessed with all facets of the game, both physical and mental. He’s right up there with the likes of LeBron James, Chris Paul, and others, where one of their best skills as a basketball player is not how well they can pass, shoot, or dribble. Their brains and how they think about their play on the court is actually the part of their game that makes them elite. Now, if you compared the statistics and numbers of NBA stars in history to Green’s career statistics, you would not believe that Green deserves to be the conversation of an NBA star. In the 583 games of Green’s career, his traditional averages come out to 9 PPG (points per game), 7 RPG (rebounds per game), and 5 APG (assists per game). Great NBA players are known to be prolific scorers that are super athletic, or guys that can shoot from anywhere on the court. What Green does on the basketball court that positively impacts his team cannot be measured by counting how many points he scores or what you see in the highlights after the game. What he specializes in are all the little details on both ends of the court that can create winning plays for himself and for his teammates. What are the little things you ask? Well “little things” on the basketball court can range from a lot of specific concepts. Setting great screens, being a solid help defender with good defensive rotations, knowing where each person should be on the floor on both ends, knowing how to defend taller players using leverage and angles, hustling for loose balls, and exerting maximum effort on both ends are several “little details” that not many people that are watching can pick up during an NBA game. Those are all actions and plays that one would describe as "winning plays". There is even a whole 'nother conversation about NBA defensive schemes and offensive sets that most people watching the game will just definitely not pick up, or maybe even care enough to learn about. And all of those ideas and concepts are amplified in a playoff series where two teams are playing each other to win a best of 7 series. There is a reason Green was one of most important players for the Warriors during their run of 3 NBA championships in 5 years. Even in this current season for the Warriors, Draymond missing the first 4 games of the season showed how important he was to the team because of how poorly the Warriors were playing on both ends of the floor.
Now that you have a good understanding of who Draymond Green is, let us talk about what he really meant in his quotes. And for the record, I wholeheartedly agree with him. There are a lot of people in sports media that talk about basketball and the NBA, and most of them don’t know the game of basketball. There is no second meaning to what Green said, and he never says anything to make you ponder or think deeply about. He simply means what he says. In the first question that was presented to him, he was asked about those “little things” that I just mentioned, and how no one will ever really show those plays in highlight reels. Why? Because a majority of basketball fans simply do not think those types of plays are highlights. And he is absolutely right about that. Could he have said it in a better way? Sure, you can always say something that is supposed to sound condescending in a lighter tone, but that would not be able to create enough buzz and traction in this conversation. Let’s get into the meat of what Green was alluding to in his statements.
In almost all of the national coverage of the NBA, the conversations are always more about who can hit shots and who can stop those players from hitting shots, with little details about specific skills of certain players sprinkled in here or there. What Green was speaking so strongly about was that the game of basketball and how it is played is never as simple as just a player making a shot or not. So much of the game is predicated on how that player gets the opportunity to shoot, how the defense is playing against the offense, and what tiny adjustments these coaches and players can make in order for their team to succeed based on their personnel, to name some of the layers of the infinitely layered cake that is the NBA. The absolute best players in basketball make those aspects really easy to see. LeBron driving in the lane to get a tough layup, James Harden hitting a step back 3-pointer, or Kevin Durant putting a dribble move to get to his spot in the mid range for an easy pull-up are prime examples of NBA players making plays look incredibly easy. But there are so many little things (how many times am I going to mention “little things” in this article?) that go into those plays that no one would usually notice. But, that is what makes NBA superstars, well, superstars. Most fans and even analysts of the NBA will make comments about how a team or a player is good or bad because of this skill, that skill, and this other caveat. What they fail to ever mention are details about the offensive plays they’re running or the little adjustments on defense that goes on multiple times during games. Why were the Lakers the best defensive team in the playoffs last year? Because they had size? Sure, that is part of the basis of that argument, but it does not tell the entire story. I think a lot of basketball fans would know what a “pick-and-roll” or a “give-and-go” is. We’ve all done them in our pickup basketball games at the park. But are fans talking about how great a shooter works around a "pin down screen", how a simple "horns" action on offense opened up so many shots for the point guard to create, or how a player’s timely weak side and baseline cuts changed how the defense played the rest of the quarter? Yeah, I did not think so either. These are the types of things that Draymond is referring to about knowing the game of basketball. There are so many terms and concepts to basketball that are fundamental and very important to how NBA teams can score or defend. Yet, why are none of these ideas ever talked about? I have a theory on that, actually.
My theory has to do with how the NBA presents its product as compared with the NFL. Now, I know what you are thinking right off the bat. The two sports are completely different from each other, so of course how they present it is way different. Yes, I know that these are two different sports that are probably not comparable in terms of a product we see on television. Football has 11 players on the field at all times for both teams. There is an offensive side, a defensive side, and special teams, with all three units having completely different players and skillsets. So, naturally people think football is more complicated, and I cannot argue with that. What I am more referring to is the way the NFL’s analysts and commentators, compared to the NBA’s, talk about the sport, with their coaches and players. For those of you that do not watch the NFL as much as the NBA, or watch at all, the NFL and their analysts always do such a great job explaining what is going on during most plays throughout the game. They show specific concepts that the coaches most likely emphasized in their practices and meetings. You need an explanation on how that wide receiver got open? Well the analyst will cover that during a replay and show the mistake that happened in the defense or showed the type of play that allowed the receiver to get open. There are a lot of X’s and O’s in football that need explaining to fans that are watching the game, and the broadcasts always do a great job and make the game understandable for all audiences. We almost never see that in the NBA. Maybe during half time on TNT when Kenny runs to the board to show some plays, but in normal broadcasts across the league, you just never see it. Have you ever heard any of the broadcasters during the NBA playoffs ever talk about the strength of the Warriors’ split cuts with Steph and Klay, and how much easy offense was created through just that simple action? Me neither, and the Warriors’ ran those plays for years with those two guys (and still will when Klay comes back). For now, I can only make examples with my favorite team because I follow them more closely than other teams. Also, I am not a coach and never played in a level higher than middle school basketball, and so I am still learning other concepts for other NBA teams and what works best for them. If you were to turn on an NBA game on ESPN or TNT, you will almost never hear any of the broadcast members talk about those specific concepts on defensive schemes or offensive plays that I mentioned earlier (especially ESPN). You would hear more about NBA drama that has happened in the past week, how tough of a shot that a player hit, or anything and everything about how player X is not as good as player Y because of this, this, and that. Granted, these are all fair talking points throughout a game. If NBA broadcasts can learn anything from NFL broadcasts, it's that the audience really just wants to know more about what is happening in the game than all the other unnecessary talking points that get brought up (*cough* Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson *cough*). There are so many former NBA players that are now analysts for certain teams and TV networks, just like for the NFL. But, those former NFL players just do such a better job to explain the game of football to the most casual fan. Wouldn’t it be way more exciting if the NBA commentators are talking about the idiosyncrasies of why a certain shot was the best shot they could have gotten in that possession, the details about how a certain player was able to defend someone at an elite level, or why that side out of bounds play was blown up by the defense? Yeah, I think so too.
I guess this theory opens up a deeper conversation on how discourse about basketball and the NBA has changed to never really be about basketball. More often than not, players are discussed in terms of narratives and opinions that are all fun to talk about, but are maybe not correlated to things that happen on the court. All of these hypothetical situations and scenarios ruin normal basketball conversations that should really be concentrating on the objectives for winning a basketball game. I am not saying that we should all just be basketball geniuses that know every single type of screen or cut on offense in order to talk about the game. But, we should at least as fans learn more about the “little details'' (there I go again) that make a lot of these players and coaches the best at the game of basketball. Because at the end of the day, it really is just a game, right?