4 subversive opinions on eve of 2009 NBA Finals

Steroids
Strange that no one talks about steroids in the NBA. Personally, I don’t see how you can’t speculate. Compare players with those of ten or fifteen years ago. Forget Dwight Howard’s twin pythons. Even today’s bench scrubs look ready to strap on for the Lorry Pull or haul the Atlas Stones at a WSM comp.

It’s not just the bodies. The hyper-aggressive play, barely controlled wrestling matches that pass for post positioning, and utter inability to control emotions suggests something more than natural jock passion heightened by bruising competition. According to msn.foxsports.com, 115 technical fouls have already been called in this year’s playoffs. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard each have six playoff techs heading into the Finals. One more for either results in a game suspension. Simply for being an un-tethered rage-a-holic. Normal? I don’t recall Magic and Larry Legend leading their teams this way.

For the moment, no one seems to be paying attention to the possibility of artificially enhanced performance — the same way everyone pretended not to during that ridiculous 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Don’t blame LeBron. But why not?
One week ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the most dominant team in basketball. With the consensus best player in the league in MVP LeBron James, they were expected to cruise into the NBA Finals where they would dispatch the Los Angeles Lakers with their putative second-best player in the league, Kobe Bryant. Few pundits publicly doubted this outcome and the reasoning made a sort of sense. The Cavaliers had the best record in the league this season (66-16) and were nearly unbeatable at home (39-2), where they’d be playing most of their games in the playoffs. While the Cavs barely broke a sweat in the first two rounds of the playoffs (8-0 against Detroit and Atlanta), the “soft” and “unfocused” Lakers struggled a little against Utah (4-1 series win), a lot against Houston (4-3 series win), and almost as much against Denver (4-2 series win). The numbers supported the idea that Cleveland was primed to win its first NBA title, but the real fuel powering the Cav hype was LeBron James, the “international brand” the league and its fans long-ago anointed “the King.” Now, it appeared inevitable: the King would finally be fitted for his crown.

Interesting how quickly the narrative has changed now that LeBron and the Cavs have been run out of the playoffs by the Orlando Magic. The popular explanation for this unexpected turn of events? NOT LEBRON’S FAULT! He simply hasn’t got a quality supporting cast. The team can’t match up to the rest of the league. Cleveland’s management has failed to surround LeBron with good players. Forget the 66 wins, the home court dominance, and the two playoff sweeps. This team sucks! Except, of course, for The Bron, whose MVP reputation and endorsement-friendly status shall be maintained at all costs, even while the clearly superior Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard prepare to duke it out in the Finals.

“Good for the League”
The knee-jerk instinct to protect LeBron’s image is related to a strange fascination that has come to consume fans across the spectrum of sports, wherein discussion of games, events, and peripheral developments are cast within a framework that asks them to consider whether or not something is “good for the game” or “good for the league.” A LeBron-Kobe Finals, for example, would obviously have been “good for the league,” whereas an Orlando-Nuggets Finals obviously would not have been. Stanley Cup games involving any of the NHL’s “Original Six” teams are widely considered good for hockey. The stateside arrival of David Beckham a couple years ago was supposed to be good for the terminally pathetic performance of U.S. soccer. The drama surrounding jockey Calvin Borel’s bid to win this year’s Triple Crown aboard different horses is being trumpeted as “good for horse racing.” The wondrous ascendance of Manny Pacquiao is an absolute godsend for boxing. Etc., ad nauseum.

Amazing that sports fans have been trained to give a shit about the financial well being of millionaire businessmen and their partner media networks. Me, I couldn’t care less about whether ratings for the Lakers-Orlando series will be lower than they would have been for a Kobe-Lebron showdown, just as I don’t care what the handle at the track will be for this week’s Belmont Stakes. I’m a fan. I watch games. I care about results on the field, not at the box office or with Nielsen wonks. Media naturally care about the popularity (i.e., financial health) of the leagues and events they cover and sponsor. This doesn’t mean the rest of us need to treat this self-interest as a genuine story. Are we really that fascinated by accounting ledgers?

Twenty-second Timeouts
Click a stopwatch the next time someone calls a “twenty-second timeout” in an NBA game. It’ll run between two and three minutes before play resumes. Sometimes longer. Can the NBA stop with the “twenty-second timeout” charade? If the Association can’t even be honest about something as measurable and inviolable as time, how can we trust that it’s telling the truth about any of the topics discussed above?

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