Keith Strudler: A Game Of Inches
They say that football is a game of inches. Turns out, same goes for basketball. It certainly did Saturday night, when the Brooklyn Nets lost game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Milwaukee Bucks by what amounts to a shoe size. Trailing by two with time expiring, Nets forward Kevin Durant hit a shot that looked like it would send the Nets to the Eastern Conference Finals where they would play either Atlanta or Philly and get one step closer to their assumed destiny. Only Durant’s toe was barely on the three-point stripe, which meant the Nets and Bucks were headed to overtime where destiny gave way to reality as Milwaukee overwhelmed a depleted Brooklyn roster.
This, of course, was not how it was supposed to happen. I don’t just mean the shoe on the line, but the whole series. Brooklyn was supposed to win this and likely every Eastern Conference playoff series in short order – if not in four games, certainly five and no more than six. That was the overwhelming sentiment both as Brooklyn assembled this latest variation of an NBA superteam and as they seemed relatively invincible throughout the regular season, even as they finished a game behind Philadelphia in the standings. In addition to Durant, who sat out all of the previous season after coming over from Golden State, the Nets had elite if but a bit odd point guard Kyrie Irving and, beginning this year, mega star scoring machine James Harden. They also added Blake Griffin, who at one point was a big deal in this league for reasons beyond the fact that he jumped over a Kia in the dunk contest. All of this was supposed to ensure the Brooklyn Nets would be the greatest NBA franchise since, well, last year’s LA Lakers, who did exactly the same thing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Who were just trying to catch up to the power trio in Golden State. All of whom were building on the model constructed in Miami when LeBron announced his inaugural Big Three – at that point being LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh.
This is something of the playbook of the current NBA. Essentially, there’s only two ways to win a title. One, you bring in at least three all-star free agents, most likely in the peak of their career, and hopefully grab a ring. That also means leveraging your future and freeloading years of first round draft picks. So it’s a now or never proposition. And for the Nets, it may just be the latter. The other way to do it is to let yourself get really awful, largely by giving away all your top players, and stockpiling all these first-round draft picks to build from the ground up. It seems to be more effective in theory than practice. Just ask the Sixers. Houston is about to be the next test case, and they now have more first round picks than they had wins this past year.
All those teams in neither camp – mega team or process – are largely like the supporting cast on a Broadway Show. They’re important, but they certainly don’t sell tickets.
What Brooklyn wanted to do was to sell tickets – especially in a town where they’re always part of the bridge and tunnel crowd. They were willing to bet pretty much everything on a chance to win right now – like this year – which seemed completely feasible. Yet instead of winning it all, they couldn’t even get out of the second round, thank in small part to Kevin Durant’s shoe size but in larger part to the cruel unpredictability of athletic injuries. I’m certain that many basketball fans, at least those not from Brooklyn, would see a bit of karma in the entire affair. And they may also hope that this attempt to buy a championship might cost them years of losing on the back end – which it will. Review the Kevin Garnett experiment for verification. And that there may be some larger lesson out of the affair.
I can’t say I share that sentiment, even as my favorite team’s two titles came the old-fashioned way – wait until the league was just awful and winning only meant you had to be better than a team where John Starks may have been your second best player. That’s how I like to win. But that era is long gone, probably a good thing if you’d like the sport to survive. For now, it’s all or nothing. No sleep ‘till Brooklyn. And like the NFL, a true game of inches.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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