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NBA Bubble Splendidly Unmoored from Post-Season Predictability

Bam. BAM-BAM!

When I sat down in late August to write this essay — about neutral courts and how they’ve made the 2020 NBA Playoffs the most wide-open, unpredictable tournament the league has ever conducted — turns out I did not know the half of it. Less than 48 hours later, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake 7 times in the back. NBA players still in the Disney Bubble would soon go out on a 72-hour wildcat strike.

[Don’t believe the naysaying, by the way: Without NBA players and their new post-Blake resolve, arenas in NBA cities would not have been made available for voting on Nov. 3 — in exactly those urban areas where creeping fascism had closed so many polling places. Neither would the league, its owners and players association have pledged to “immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”]

I don’t want to diminish those efforts. Indeed, I would like to see that coalition formally funded. But events that last week in August only confirmed my original premise: We are in fact witnessing the most mercurial, fascinating NBA post season in history — and perhaps the most competitively compelling.

There are two surprisingly concrete explanations for what makes these playoff games so damned watchable: First, the Bubble’s quarantine construct necessarily does away with home court, as all the games are played on either of two fan-less facilities located on Disney’s Orlando, Fla. campus. No NBA playoff tournament had previously been held on neutral courts. Ever. The effect has been monumental and fascinating — and here’s why:

Sporting events are interesting because their results cannot be predicted ahead of time. The less predictable the result, the more interest. Traditional NBA playoff games are claimed by the home team 65 percent of the time. Winners are not predestined, of course, but this makes NBA playoff games less interesting from a competitive standpoint than, say, NHL and MLB playoff games, where the home team only wins only 54 percent of the time, according to 538.com. This is why we love the NCAA basketball tournament: 63 one-off games played entirely on neutral courts. Any team can win pretty much any one of those games. That’s compelling.

The impact of neutral courts inside the NBA Playoff Bubble has been striking. Only four times in 73 NBA seasons had a team fallen behind 3 games to 1 and come back to win that playoff series. The Denver Nuggets did it twice this summer, in consecutive series. We saw the top overall seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, eliminated in Round 2. That’s happened only twice in 20 years. The Clippers, a 2 seed in the West (and odds-on co-favorite to win the NBA title, according to Vegas oddsmakers) also lost in Round 2. Make no mistake: Home court protects favorites, the higher-seeded teams. And neutral courts weaken that paradigm almost to the point of shredding. They replace it not with random results but less predictable results. And that’s more fun, full-stop.

Dozens of assumptions and conventions normally attached to the playoff crucible also fell away this summer. For example, the recently completed Miami-Boston Eastern Conference Final: When the Heat won the first two games, it conveyed a different brand of superiority — because they had won neither game with the benefit of home court. And yet, when the Celtics fell behind 3-1, it never felt insurmountable — because, if they were to come back, never would the Celts have to win on Miami’s home court. Denver showed that, on neutral courts, a team can find something, make an adjustment and win three in a row. Sadly, for me, the Celtics could not make that happen. But lo and behold, we do have an NBA finalist, fifth-seeded Miami, that no one would have predicted when these playoffs started.

The NBA has rarely seen this sort of playoff fluidity, not since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-80), which effectively shook the snow globe and produced five different NBA champions in five seasons — the only time that has ever happened. Forget individual playoff games. On either side of this outlying interregnum, higher seeded NBA teams (buttressed by this potent home-court advantage) claimed individual playoff series 74 percent of the time. The NBA has been around for 73 years. In that time, 1 seeds, 2 seeds and 3 seeds have accounted for 71 championships.

Removing home court — expunging the predictability of moving that enormous advantage from city to city in the 2-2-1-1-1 format — has proved exhilarating. The entire psychology of playoff basketball this summer has become splendidly unmoored.

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Hello, World. Welcome back to The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and, until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early, successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.

Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide (the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”), Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.

Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.

In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.

What we see here is an illustration of why China is known to itself (and to every other historical culture in Asia) as the Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians.

For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the universe in Asia, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue really. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to China’s economic will.

North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta) and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic pushover.

Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average. In any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.

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Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

The encomia are surely piling up across the web, but I couldn’t let slide the fact that Bob Ryan has retired from The Boston Globe as full-time basketball sage and de facto Commissioner of all things hoops (a title bestowed decades ago, by his fellow scribes). Here’s a link to his farewell column, delivered Aug. 11 with his signature directness, brevity and authoritative elegance.

Having grown up in Greater Boston, I latched onto Ryan early, in the mid-1970s, when the Celtics were winning championships and knowledge of the team was nearly the exclusive province of Mr. Ryan, whose game reports and columns were often the only worthwhile analyses available the next morning. Yes, some games were televised locally, but only a few. Radio was an option, but Johnny Most was so bombastic, his account of the goings-down, while entertaining, could not be trusted.

Above all things, Ryan could be trusted — to authoritatively tell you the “why” behind wins and losses; the “who” when it came to contenders and pretenders. His appraisal of players was never erring. When Larry Bird was drafted, as a junior, and all of Boston watched his senior year at Indiana State wondering if his game would translate to the pros, Ryan put that matter to rest. He sized up Bird a basketball genius way before it was obvious to the rest of us, and so Larry turned out to be.

His between-the-lines sizing-up of personalities was similarly spot on and vital to a young basketball mind in its formative stages. It really was about the guy’s authority. You could tell when Ryan truly admired a player (Dave Cowens) or didn’t deem one worth a damn (Sydney Wicks). It was clear when he admired someone but didn’t necessarily like him (David Stern), and when someone didn’t like Ryan (Tommy Heinsohn). It was all done very professionally, perhaps a bit coyly, and I found it all thrilling — that someone could earn a living by chronicling such fabulously interesting things in a public forum.

All through my high school, college and early years as a sports writer, Bob Ryan’s professional life was the one I wanted for myself. One time, in high school, circa 1979, my mom got us tickets to a Celtics game (vs. the Jazz) at the old Boston Garden, where she endeavored to introduce me to the guy before tip-off. I remember that he was cordial but not especially helpful or inspiring. My mom was a bit disappointed, but I couldn’t hold it against him — he was probably concocting some new way to convey to readers the utter ineffectiveness of James Hardy and Ben Poquette.

I did indeed try to follow Ryan’s path but his times were not my times. In his farewell column, he writes about going straight to the Globe sports department after graduating from Boston College in 1968. In the mid-1980s, no one did that — years of daily newspapering experience were required before one would even be considered. Further, by that time, the Globe sports section was a veritable all-star team of talent, and thousands of aspirants were all clamoring for the opportunity to sit at Ryan’s knee, along with those of Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Leigh Montville. Even if you had the experience, and the chops, the Globe was notorious for its minority hiring policies. I remember one reporting colleague claiming that he’d already have a job on Morrissey Boulevard, “If only I were a black, female, Cape Verdean.”

In any case, dreams die and/or they’re deferred. I left daily newspapers in 1992, having had a chance to cover the Celtics (and all the Boston teams) for smaller newspapers with nothing like the Globe’s reach and influence. I was tired of making no money, tired of being essentially nocturnal. Soon the newspaper model would collapse, and I frankly count my blessings that I got out when I did.

Ryan pressed on through this period of industry decline, adapting to the web realities and even moving into television a fare bit. Personally, I could listen to him talk about basketball and other sporting matters till the cows came home, but I think even he’d admit that his rapid-fire, staccato delivery — along with his advanced age — never truly dovetailed with the medium as it exists in the 21st century.

This winter, at the height of the Jeremy Lin craze, Ryan sat and did a podcast with Bill Simmons, the guy who has emerged as Ryan’s heir apparent on matters NBA. Check it out here; it’s linked as part of my own post comparing/contrasting Billy Ray Bates and Lin. It would seem that Simmons was the guy who successfully crafted for himself a Ryanesque place in the basketball firmament, and I enjoy his writing and podcasts nearly as much.

Best of luck to them both. The torch has been passed.

Fullcourt Pod: NBA Playoff Chat for April 25, 2011

Fullcourt Pod: NBA Playoff Chat for April 25, 2011

It’s NBA Playoff time, about midway through Round I, and so we take stock of key developments courtesy of  Fullcourt Pod’s resident near-savants, Hal Phillips and Jammin’ James W. Jackson Jr. This week’s fixation and jumping-off point is Laker Coach Phil Jackson‘s indifference toward defending Chris Paul — or should we say inability?

2011.04.25 Fullcourt Pod