Professional basketball possesses the most intense spotlight in North American team sports — perhaps not in terms of the amount of media coverage devoted to the endeavor (the NFL wins that distinction), but in terms of the extent to which one or two players get a disproportionate share of credit or blame for their team’s successes.
It’s true that in the NFL, a winning quarterback soaks up far more credit than he often should, and a losing signal caller far more blame than he deserves. Yet, it was pretty clear that the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 in spite of Peyton Manning, not because of him. Media coverage surrounding Peyton was excessive and certainly hagiographic to a point within the larger theater of activity surrounding that most recent Super Bowl, but game coverage itself made no mistake about the reason Denver won: its defense, Von Miller in particular.
The NBA features the smallest roster in major North American team sports — fewer players than the NHL and MLB by a relatively small margin, and fewer players than the NFL by a large margin. Moreover, in no other major team sport will a team’s core rotation of players consist of as few as eight or nine men, with seven players often serving as the regular minutes-eating performers on a club. The presence of so few prominent faces — thrown into a confined playing space — has a way of refining and sharpening the klieg-light glare of publicity which falls upon’ players shoulders.
This dynamic of intense and centralized pressure makes NBA fans — the hoops junkies and the casuals alike — particularly prone to a favorite game this time of year: Who’s the best player in the league — beyond the regular season?
Who’s the most overrated player in the league?
Will Player X ever win a title?
What’s missing from Team Y?
Why can’t Coach Z turn this series around for his team?
The latter stages of the playoffs — this round and the next — have a way of reintroducing these conversations, bringing them raging to the forefront of the public consciousness.
These issues — annual sources and centers of late-spring debate in the United States — are not only being revisited right now in the playoffs; they seem to be overturned with each game. From one day to the next, opinions seem to exist on quicksand. They are as frail and imperiled as anything… or in the case of Stephen Curry, anyone.
How severely — and often — are opinions changing in the playoffs?
* Kevin Durant was supposed to be THISCLOSE to becoming a San Antonio Spur, following Game 1 of the West semifinals. Then his team won four of five games against the very same Spurs.
Then his team won three of four against the Warriors.
It is not unreasonable to say that he’s playing the best defense of his life, which makes him the best player in the world if he can sustain this level in future weeks (and seasons).
* After Game 3 against the Spurs — when old-man Tony Parker unquestionably outplayed him in the fourth quarter — Russell Westbrook was as doubted by the press as he’s ever been in his career.
Now, he’s playing the best defense of his career (in tandem with Durant). He is the unstoppable force a 73-win opponent simply can’t solve.
* Steph Curry is not 100 percent, but he still torched Portland in Game 4 and then OKC in Game 2 with remarkable scoring surges. Even if one acknowledges that he’s not his most explosive self, he is still making sloppy and unintelligent plays. He is rattled, he’s missing layups, and he’s giving away points at both ends of the floor. One of the greatest single seasons in basketball history — shattering our preconceptions of what’s possible in the modern NBA — is ending with a thud. Even when accounting for injury, it’s jarring to see. It shouldn’t affect Curry’s reputation around the league, but it will almost certainly change how he’s viewed by many fans.
* Dwane Casey struggled to unlock his Toronto offense against Indiana and Miami. Against Cleveland, he — like his team — seems to have been liberated by being the underdog and no longer operating in the face of oppressive expectations. The way Casey is perceived as a coach around the league has certainly changed — a lot — over the past two games in the East Finals.
* As for Billy Donovan:
Billy Donovan when the playoffs rolled around pic.twitter.com/u8xBM0ckpK
— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) May 25, 2016
* Draymond Green was the glue which held the Warriors together. He’s been a total disaster in Games 3 and 4 against the Thunder. The idea of calling for his benching — or at least a reduced amount of minutes — does not seem unreasonable.
Is Westbrook the best player in the world? Wasn’t it Curry? Where’s LeBron in all this? Durant never had to worry about leaving the Thunder.
Billy Donovan can COACH?
Draymond is trash, as we all suspected.
Dwane Casey is the leader the Raptors needed — knew it all along.
Steve Kerr rode the magic carpet for one season. He’s not an elite coach at all.
The things so many basketball fans (and pundits) are saying today are not the things fans and pundits were saying even three weeks ago. Identities and perceptions are changing so quickly in these playoffs that every game, every night, seems to be a fresh referendum on players, coaches and teams.
Every opinion you (and I) voice tonight, tomorrow, or on any late-May day in this crazy playoff season should have a warning label on it:
The hot takes have never been hotter. Weigh in at your own risk.