There's this moment that Joel Strachota has been dreading since summer. Every time he thinks about it, he gets conflicted. On the one hand, he wants his team to win. On the other, he knows that it would be better if they didn't, and it's tearing him up inside.
He can see it all happening. The game will be on the line. There will a last-second shot. He'll want it to go down and savor the victory, but he also knows that the win will be hollow, maybe even self-defeating in the long run. Joel looks pained as he contemplates the scenario. I gently suggest that maybe he should find another hobby this winter. He looks at me like I'm insane.
"I wish I could, but it can't happen," he says. "That's not an option."
After months of soul searching, he has finally decided on a strategy. "I'm going to watch this season as an individualist."
There are maybe a dozen teams who enter this NBA season with championship aspirations, and probably half of those are doomed before they even get started. There are many more who aren't even good enough to be deluded.
If the premise of professional sports leagues is to provide a fair opportunity to win championships, then the NBA is an inherently flawed creation. Only nine franchises have won titles in the past 34 years, when the modern league was invented with the three-point line, the salary cap and the codification of the star system.
Magic and Bird gave way to Isiah and then Jordan, whose brief detour to the minor leagues allowed Hakeem to have his day. Duncan and Kobe carried the Aughts, and now it's LeBron's time. Brief incursions from Larry Brown's Pistons, KG's Celtics and Dirk's Mavs only underscored just how difficult it is to win even one title.
Everyone who follows the league knows this, which leads to the choice that Joel and others are making. Either they accept the reality that their teams have no realistic chance and play out the season with other goals in mind, or they press forward on thin hopes and unfounded optimism. Hey, it could happen.
We don't know where the next great team is located yet. It may be in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder were undone by injuries and a tough playoff matchup. It may be in Houston, where Dwight Howard signed up to live out the third act of his pro career on his own terms. It may be in Chicago, where Derrick Rose is back, or in Los Angeles, where Doc Rivers will try to bring the best out of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
In all likelihood, the next great team doesn't exist yet. It's in the embryonic stage, clearing space under the cap and counting on players who haven't even suited up in college yet. That's the promise that sustains the also-rans and the never-weres who are playing the collective bargaining agreement as much as the Heat.
The latest CBA came with a promise both implied and explicitly stated that the answer to the league's competitive balance problem can be found in the intricate details that govern the league's salary cap. With a de-facto hard cap in place (AKA, the luxury tax line), it should make it harder in theory to build and maintain super-teams.
The entire premise seems dubious at best and a convenient cover for suppressing salaries at worst, but it has had an effect. Teams know, or should know, that they can't spend their way to a title. And if they do, they'd better be right. The alternative is to tear it down and wait, which isn't so much a strategy as a survival tactic.
It's the reason why the first official act of Sam Hinkie's tenure in Philadelphia was trading his best player for an injured 18-year-old center and a future draft pick. It's why the Utah Jazz took in $24 million worth of players they don't want. It's why Danny Ainge finally bid farewell to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
A few brave souls have ventured down a middle path of competitiveness and been met with derisive laughter from the peanut gallery. It's a vicious, unfair cycle when winning 50 games and a round or two in the playoffs is seen as a sucker's bet. It's even more pronounced when the very idea of competitiveness is dismissed as pure folly.
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Joel is a Celtics fan, but he could be anybody in countless other NBA markets who knows that their team has no chance this season. He doesn't begrudge Ainge for making the Brooklyn trade. Hell, he wanted Ainge to do it years ago. But he knows it will be a long time before the Celtics are good again, and he's not real optimistic they can get back there.
"I would rather be a fan of the Orlando Magic or the Phoenix Suns right now," he says, meaning he likes their outlook better. But that's not an option either. The Celtics are his team, and he's not going to turn his back on them now.
With his shock of strawberry blonde hair and excitable manner, Strachota is the Celtics fan you imagine Celtics fans to be everywhere. He's still not convinced that trading Kendrick Perkins was the right thing, even when you carefully point out that Perk's game has fallen off dramatically. He desperately wants Jeff Green to become a 20-point scorer and Avery Bradley to become a competent ball-handler. He listens to way too much talk radio.
He has opinions! Then he laughs and admits, "I could be off because most of my opinions are not based entirely on fact."
Yet Joel has more in common with fans in places like Sacramento or Washington than the stereotypical Celtics fan. It wasn't the legacy that attracted him to the team. His first memory of Larry Bird was as a broken down player at the end of his career. He used to talk his way into the Garden for $10, where he pinned his hopes on Kedrick Brown. The only banner that has any relevance to him was in 2008. "The reward for so much awfulness," as he put it.
The only thing he really wants is for the Celtics to play hard every night and for the players to improve, but not improve so much as to deny the team a high draft pick. He wants to enjoy the process, if not the outcomes. Yet, the longer we chat, the more he starts to talk himself into a sixth seed.
"It could happen," he says. "If everything goes exactly right and Brad Stevens is a really good coach. If. If. If."
Boston is not a basketball town the way New York and Chicago are basketball towns. The high schools barely register a blip and the college programs take a backseat to hockey. Even the Celtics, as legendary as they are, are not as big a part of the local conversation as the Sox and Pats. Lately, they've fallen behind the Bruins.
It can be a lonely experience being an NBA fan in the Hub, but every Wednesday during the season, the true believers gather at Parlor Sports in the Inman Square section of Cambridge. It's a sports bar the way sports bars should be, with serious fans watching and talking about the games. Wednesday is NBA Nerd Night, a phrase coined by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. That's where I met Joel and when he first started hammering me with questions about the team.
It's there that I've met attorneys, academics and teachers from all over the city. Women and men from all walks of life and backgrounds who are united solely by their devotion to the sport and the promise of a safe haven to talk usage rates and knock back a couple of High Lifes. People I never would have met otherwise have become fast friends, united by a common language that runs deeper than post-ups and isolations.
Where does it come from, and why does it bind us through the interminable 82-game season that never seems to end and the playoffs that stretch on for months? Except for the chosen few, it can't be the promise of winning that sustains us.
We are fans of teams, yes, but also players. We like the strategies, the highlights and the postgame press conferences. We revel in the nonconformity of a league where the superstars truly are bigger than the sport, and we seek comfort in a well-executed pick and roll.
At some point during our conversation, Joel and I started talking about Allen Iverson. The man in the booth next to us perked up, but stayed quiet. During a lull, he reached over and introduced himself. He was from Philly.
He likes what Hinkie is doing and believes it's the only way to get better. Still, he knows it will be a long road and not a lot of fun. That's OK. He's in, just as he was during the Iverson years. He believes this is the year that it all clicks for Evan Turner. He thinks maybe there's a chance they'll be better than people think. Just not too good.
We moved on to the Big Five. I told some Rasheed Wallace stories, and we talked about the Catholic League, Chester High and Kobe. We told him about Nerd Night and Parlor. He says he'll be there on Wednesday when the NBA kicks up again in full force with games from Toronto to Salt Lake City and everyone can talk themselves into a sixth seed.
The game is back and we are once again captives under its spell. We have no choice but to watch and believe in the promise of a brighter day.
If. If. If.