The baseball season will be over soon, after which many baseball fans will migrate to football, a radically dissimilar sport. It doesn't matter, because football tends to ring almost every bell inside of us that makes us sports fans. There's a reason why football has usurped baseball's role as America's sport.
For baseball fans in winter, though, something is still missing. We're used to daily content, and the NFL delivers content for about as many days of the week as a half-neglected blog. Here is where I attempt to sell the seemingly unsellable: baseball fans should start watching the NBA.
Below is a completely unscientific Venn diagram, based entirely on anecdotal evidence, in which I attempt to illustrate the general fan overlap of the world's five largest professional sports leagues. And shuffleboard.
I polled Twitter, my SB Nation editor pals and a scattering of friends. Very few seriously follow both Major League Baseball and the NBA, or even know anyone who does.
Baseball is my favorite sport, but I know it isn’t the best sport, which is why I cringe along with non-baseball fans whenever a George Will or a Ken Burns matter-of-factly states that it is. There’s this inflexible perception, one that I unfortunately held for the better part of my life to date, which contends that your sport is the best sport -- that the best of its unique qualities make it the best, and that other sports are, at best, occasionally enjoyable indulgences.
That’s why, when I was a kid, I paid little attention to the NBA save for the playoffs. When baseball ended, there was only the NFL, lending further credence to the idea that February is the worst month (which, actually, it is). Had I really thought about it, though, I could have at least applied my inflexible criteria of enjoyment to the NBA.
Basketball and baseball have little in common, but they have enough in common for the NBA, at the very least, to act as a stand-in. The NBA’s regular season begins just as baseball is wrapping up, it stretches across baseball’s offseason, and in June, when the newness of baseball has worn off and the standings aren’t mature enough to be taken seriously, the usually-enjoyable NBA Finals are available for our consumption.
Yes, the NBA’s shortcomings are easily identifiable. That’s one thing it has in common with Major League Baseball. My argument is that if you’re a stubborn baseball fan, its other commonalities make the NBA something that you figure to be predisposed to enjoy.
Everyone will agree that in their default modes, baseball and basketball have very different paces. Consider the final two to three minutes of a close NBA game, though. Timeouts break the game into little pieces and space them up to a minute apart. These final two to three minutes seem to take as much time as the entire first quarter did.
Strangely, the frequency of timeouts is abhorred by some baseball fans I talk to. They should be used to it. For a couple of precious minutes, after all, basketball assumes the pace of baseball. Or, to put it otherwise, baseball apes the pace of a dramatic NBA finish and rolls with it for three hours straight. The lawyer-ball is there: pitchers are intentionally walking, and basketball players are intentionally fouling. So are the administrative delays: the coach is drawing up a new play, and the pitching coach is walking to the mound to discuss the next batter.
Daniel Okrent said this in Ken Burns' "Baseball":
That's the action of baseball. It's the absence of action. What it does, is it pulls us to the edges of our chairs. It pulls us to that point of anticipation. It pulls us to wondering what's going to happen, and playing the game in our mind before it plays on the field itself.
The very same could be said of the frustratingly stretched-out conclusion to a tight NBA contest. This quality isn’t exclusive to these two sports, but we should be able to agree on this: if you can enjoy watching an entire baseball game, you can’t deride the drawn-out pace of the end of a basketball game. To be honest, it should probably appeal to you.
If you dislike the frequency of foul calls ... well, I can’t argue with you. Fouls aren’t fun, ever, and in an ideal world fouls would never need to be called. Just consider a foul as you would a foul ball (see what I did there? See it?): It’s boring and it’s not what we’re interested in seeing, but we have to take our medicine. If there were no foul calls, and if there were no foul territory, everything would be flipped on its head, and the sport wouldn’t be the sport anymore.
Someone should experiment with a variant of baseball in which there are no foul territories. Sorry, let’s get back on track.
Baseball is a game ripe for statistical analysis, largely because a box score can tell us almost everything that happened during a game. It doesn’t describe a diving catch or a home plate collision, but it does tell us how many men were on base at any given time, how many pitches were thrown, where each pitch was thrown, whether the batter swung at it, who recorded the out, how far the home run was hit, etc., etc.
Raw basketball statistics also have a lot to tell us, but they pose more of a challenge.
Example A: how did this batter hit an RBI double? Well, the data says that the pitcher threw him a 3-1 outside fastball, which the hitter tends to feast on, and the runner was on second to begin with because he walked and then stole second. How did he steal second? The play-by-play doesn’t note catcher’s indifference or an errant throw, so he either beat the throw or beat the tag.
Example B: yes, Paul Pierce hit a three-pointer with 8:42 left in the third quarter. But where was Ray Allen? Was Shaq up the floor yet? Rondo has the assist, but did he throw it cross-court, or did he lose his dribble and fling it to the waiting Pierce, or did he deceive his defender with a no-look dish? These questions are means of picking away at the bigger question: what made this score happen?
If you’re the sort of baseball fan who loves digging into numbers, your interests are well-primed for the statistical puzzle that is basketball. NBA statisticians crunch the numbers into compound stats such as Value Above Replacement and Win Share, concepts familiar to baseball’s stat nerds, as well as Usage Percentage, Points Produced, and Pace Factor. They have a healthy sample size in which to work: an NBA season features about half as many games as a baseball season, which is still a pretty big number.
But just as in baseball, compound stats aren’t the truth -- they’re a means of gleaning a better understanding of the truth. To best understand what’s really going on on a basketball court, you need to simultaneously watch the games and take in the stats.
Once a baseball player’s on the diamond, he can’t be tasked to something else, because (with very few exceptions) there is one and only one job for him to do at any given time. In contrast, plenty of basketball players grab both offensive and defensive rebounds, create turnovers, drive to the net, shoot 3s, set picks, record a block or two ... essentially, everything you can do on a basketball court. Sometimes a player will, by necessity or otherwise, completely step out of his traditional role on a given night.
This can get confusing as hell, especially coming from a baseball background. I know this doesn’t sound like I’m trying to sell you basketball, but I am. Dissecting the game is a rewarding challenge. Try and figure it out. Watch the games, read the stats, listen to the experts, read the hell out of some analytical NBA blogs. The Association is plenty fun if you’d rather appreciate it from a casual perspective, but if you’re statistically inclined, it can be every bit as fascinating as baseball.
Baseball has employed plenty of eccentric personalities. Bill Lee is the first who comes to mind. Turk Wendell would superstitiously brush his teeth between innings. Carl Everett doesn’t think dinosaurs ever existed. Kyle Farnsworth is capable of demonstrating the strength and ability of John Cena at a moment’s notice. Ozzie Guillen demands our attention with equal parts of silly and angry.
Baseball’s current subject of cult celebrity is Brian Wilson, the Giants’ closer. Complete with his now-iconic beard and outward demeanor, he’s arguably the game’s biggest personality of the moment.
Basketball has like 50 Brian Wilsons. Or, rather, personalities at least as interesting as Wilson’s. Some are manufactured (Shaq), some are manicured (LeBron), some are mysterious (Kobe), some are silly (Arenas), some are deranged genius (Artest)... I’m just listing the household names here; there are dozens of characters who are not as popular but just as notable. These personalities are so diverse and interesting that sometimes I get the passing thought that the actual playing of basketball is incidental, as though these guys could work for the municipal water department and make it the most dynamic, intriguing and downright fun municipal water department in the state.
These players meet in small, intimate, rectangular confines, locked in a struggle to directly outwit or outplay one another. Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee never take the field at the same time (except when they’re wearing their batting costumes, which isn’t really germane to the point). Jason Heyward will stand near the same plate as Buster Posey a few times a game, but again, not in a manner quite as meaningful as Kevin Durant shoving a back-door pass behind LeBron James. When these personalities interact on the court, it means something off the court, and vice-versa, and there are plenty of opportunities in which to do both.
Hopefully, this doesn’t come off as a knock on baseball, a sport which, like any sport, is some things but not other things. I just mean to say this: if you like Brian Wilson, you would also like the NBA.
There's an unfortunate reality that I can't not address: to a few, the impression still lingers that while baseball players are merely spoiled crybaby millionaires, NBA players are spoiled crybaby millionaire thugs. In intelligent blog circles, this trope has been mocked within an inch of its life, but the perception is still out there.
Sometimes, the position that NBA players are "thugs" is rooted in racism. Most of the time, it's probably just the acceptance of an already-established trope. Reluctantly assuming the definition of what a "thug" even is, I'll note that, for one, the average American is twice as likely to be arrested for DUI as an NBA player.
It's Chad Ochocinco Syndrome. A player makes no serious offense that we could find morally objectionable, but he's flamboyant, and the two traits are confused, resulting in general resentment. Embrace the flamboyance. It's fun. We do, after all, embrace Brian Wilson.
Basketball, like all sophisticated things, benefits greatly from supplemental reading. Know this: the NBA is the subject of some of the very best writing on the Internet. As I hope I've successfully argued, the NBA demands intelligence and attention, and it inspires passionate, fun, radical and hilarious writing.
I know I'm a company man, but I can honestly recommend any one of SB Nation's NBA blogs (to name a couple of my favorites: Sactown Royalty, Detroit Bad Boys and Orlando Pinstriped Post), as well as the NBA section of this dot-com.
In the interest of not overloading you with links, I'll recommend three blogs that I couldn't possibly give a higher recommendation: Free Darko, The Basketball Jones and Hardwood Paroxysm. The writing (and speaking) to be found here offers an illustration of the sophistication, beauty and silliness of basketball that is 50 times as compelling as the last 2,000 words you have read.
Well, I've made my argument as best I can; you'll have to decide how convincing it is. Now, to flip the question: Should NBA fans try to become serious baseball fans?
Ehhhhhh ... I mean ... probably not. Baseball's kind of boring.