Kevin Garnett or Shaq? Finding joy in today’s NBA
The funny thing is, a 25-year-old Kevin Garnett could definitely play in today’s game. When he arrived in the league in 1995, there was nobody else like him, and by the time he retired in 2016, he had only one athletic peer: Kevin Durant. Karl Malone might be a pick-and-roll diver and board jockey in 2021; Yao Ming might be supersized Brook Lopez; but all Garnett would need to do to fully modernize his arsenal is add a few feet to his jumper and play the 5 instead of the 4. So he fades off most of those illegal screens he used to set, posts up less, and switches onto guards along the perimeter. He could shift his focus, handle a new responsibilities, and everything else — his passing, his rebounding, his once-in-a-generation defensive instincts — would translate splendidly.
I bring this up because he did, in a recent interview with the New York Times, where he enthusiastically endorsed Nikola Jokić and Steph Curry and said that pretty much anyone from 20 or 30 years ago would have a hard time hanging with the NBA’s current crop of talent, and navigating the way the sport is played now as opposed to 1997 or 2008. KG, talking exactly how you’d imagine he talks: “It’s creative. It’s competitive. It’s saucy. You’ll get dropped! A [blank] will cross you over and break your ACL these days. The game is in a great place.”
Garnett’s effusiveness and the obvious effort he’s made to understand basketball’s ever-unfolding evolution has met a particularly receptive audience, most of whom were rolling their eyes at the lazy, bullying motivation tactics Shaq was using on Donovan Mitchell a couple of weeks ago. “You don’t have what it takes to get to the next level,” the Diesel told Mitchell in a postgame interview, like he was judge handing down sober writ. “I said it on purpose, I wanted you to hear it. What do you have to say about that?” Mitchell shrugged: “All right.” He had, not five minutes ago, finished putting up 36 points in a win. What did he have to prove to this blank mound of self-importance?
Shaq is a big enough deal that LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and seemingly every sportswriter under the age of 40, saw fit to condemn his silliness, but even those volleys felt perfunctory, everyone involved playing their part, as if obligated to contribute to the intra-family text chain from hell. The message was in its tone. Shaq came up with the most provocative question he could think of, without thinking too hard, and the response was an exhausted sigh. What it takes?
Garnett wasn’t trying to win the hearts of the folks who were annoyed with Shaq. He probably doesn’t pay much attention to The Discourse and was merely telling a reporter, in his animated way, what he likes about the NBA in 2021. If you can say one thing about insights from ex-players, it’s that they’re easy to read. Shaq (not incorrectly) believes that he’s an all-time great and therefore (less correctly) that the era he dominated was also one of the best, that these players today couldn’t compete with Vin Baker or whomever. Garnett is less burdened by his own agenda, lives less firmly in his own fermenting bitterness. And he simply likes the sport more than Shaq does, so he’s more apt to hand the younger generation its due. I bet he thinks Mitchell is a lot of fun.
The latter gloss on the game will always please fans because they, get this, also like basketball quite a bit. It garners praise from media types too, for slightly more complicated reasons. Remember when the prestige TV boom hit and every critic was talking about the “Too Much TV” phenomenon? Weird, how people whose jobs are predicated on television being well-crafted and culturally relevant were very excited about the state of television. The same principle applies to NBA writers and reporters. Their work contains the baked-in assumption that this stuff is worth caring about — thank you for reading, by the way — and while that interest is generally productive, because you want somebody who’s discussing Dame Lillard to, you know, care about Dame Lillard, it also creates a lot of unctuous, cynical nonsense: strained insistence about the league’s vitality, its importance, breathless hype and inane debate, cheerleading for the league office and hagiographies for players, trend pieces about nothing, takes pulled straight from the earth’s core and held aloft as if any more valuable than the ephemeral cocktail napkin they were scribbled on.
Emotional investment in the sport is not an absolute positive, but a certain amount of it is necessary, if the coverage is going to be any good. A lack of passion saddles us with Shaq’s drowsy arrogance, affectless phone workers who speak only in salary figures and pick protections, barely crypto-racist cultural criticism from right-wing media. That stuff is self-evidently awful.
Whether the game is indeed in a great place at the moment is up for discussion. I have my quibbles with what the three-point shot has done to modern offenses, but the league is probably as talented as it has ever been, and I’ve especially enjoyed this year’s rookie class. I’d say that I’m a pretty satisfied basketball fan were the NBA’s operation this season not being played against a backdrop of ceaseless death, if my impulse was not to pepper my coverage with every-other-sentence reminders that games should not be happening right now. I’ll admit that my enthusiasm for basketball has seriously dimmed, of late. I wish I could summon as gleeful a tear about the sport as Garnett did in his Times interview. But he’s not wrong to be as exuberant as he is, and anyway, KG and I don’t serve anything like the same function, even if our television habits overlap.
I do wonder sometimes if what I do is, at its fundament, carrying water for a broadly loathsome corporation. And then I remember — oh, look: There they are being somehow less progressive than the NFL about the national anthem — that of course that’s what it is. But it’s impossible to express your affection for basketball publicly without incidentally helping out the cartel of billionaires who more or less own the sport. That’s an uncomfortable thing to know, that your joy has been and will always be monetized. There is thin solace in the fact that the forces that corrupt and exploit the things you like — sport, music, literature, design — cannot own the joy itself. That belongs to you inextricably. So you try to find its best use, as imperfect as you’re sure that application will be. Your other options are boredom, resentment, enmity, despair. The soured inverse of imagination. If you can’t watch Mitchell and feel half-alive, you’ve run all the way out of hope. You need to care about something. It might as well be as beautiful as basketball.