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The Block That Saved Basketball

LeBron James block cemented his all-time great status. Bob Donnan - USA Today

LeBron’s block is the best basketball play we have ever seen.

I sat on the patio this morning thinking about the basketball game I watched the night before. Sweat began to collect near my temple, the casualty of unseasonably wet central Texas heat and a flood of caffeine from the morning’s coffee. And, in that mindset—the intersection of fever dream and reality—I began to wonder if my memory of the previous night’s events could be trusted.

How far away was our hero LeBron James when he transferred his body’s potential from the feet and into the ground and took to the air? It seemed like eight feet. Is eight a good number for this? Maybe the use of a spatial cue would be more useful here. Was he at the opposite block? The dotted semi-circle? The solid semi-circle? The free throw line? From how far away did he stalk his prey?

I remember it like this: LeBron James, at a canter, saw the play developing at half court and turned into the Six Million Dollar Man in an instant. The next snapshot is LeBron, in the midst of the dotted semi-circle, continuing his pursuit, while Andre Iguodala moves to avoid J.R. Smith. That hang up was all that was necessary and LeBron, now in-between the dotted semi-circle and the solid semi-circle, elevated from the surface like a child on a trampoline and flattened the ball against the glass into a momentary frisbee, until the confused oxygen atoms rediscovered their rightful home in the coming seconds. And “OH, BLOCKED BY JAMES. WHAT A REJECTION!” emerged from the mouth of Mike Breen, and my family’s collective jaws hitting the floor, and nervous uneasy laughter, no one properly sure of how to react to the greatest basketball play we may ever see. The crowd on the television, shocked, increased in volume.

LeBron James just saved basketball.

If you are unsure that basketball needed saving, consider this: since 2013, the last time basketball was saved (when LeBron James missed a three-point basket, Chris Bosh grabbed the rebound, and Ray Allen made a three-point basket), the game had become adapted increasingly more to a logic of efficiency: he who shoots the most three-pointers, with the best shooters, will likely win the basketball game. Share the ball, find open space, not mismatches. Make easy twos if they are available, or if the defense crowds. Shoot the ball. 

That was the Warriors blueprint en-route to a 73-win season. They broke the NBA all-time 3NP (3 x Makes - Misses) record, set by themselves last season, in February. The NBA’s top offenses, with the exception of the Oklahoma City Thunder, all ranked near the top of the league in 3NP.

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From March 8th.

The product of this increased focus on three-point shooting is not only creeping bipolarity—where the rim is no longer the goal—but also increased variance. Game 7 was the only game in the NBA playoffs that was decided by less than five points (at the end of regulation) since Steph Curry came back from injury to defeat the Portland Trailblazers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Since that point, every single game has been a lopsided victory. 

This is in no small part due to the efficiency logic above, in which the “make or miss” nature of the game has become its sole determinant. Teams that made 15 or more three-pointers in a game only lost 37 games this year and there were 137 such games (win percentage of 73%). In the 2014-15 season there were only 80 instances of 15+ three-pointers; the year before, 2013-14, there were 76, and in 2012-13 there were only 46. 

This is an intentional shift, a by-product of Silicon Valley and econometricians ’disrupting’ basketball, correcting its inefficiencies, and profiting (or not, as Sam Hinkie found out). From the New York Times:

In recent years, venture capitalists, private-equity investors and hedge-funders have been acquiring N.B.A. teams. The Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks all belong to this new class of investor. The Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies are both owned by Silicon Valley engineers. If you include Lacob’s Warriors, that’s more than a quarter of the league.

Lacob was not the first venture capitalist to buy a franchise, but he is the first to operate one according to what might be called Silicon Valley precepts: nimble management, open communication, integrating the wisdom of outside advisers and continuous re-evaluation of what companies do and how they do it. None of that typically happens in professional sports.

The acolytes of these ideals, who kneel at the altar of “best practices”, speak on their strategies as though they are a moral and manifest imperative for the future of the game. Here’s Joe Lacob:

“The great, great venture capitalists who built company after company, that’s not an accident,” he said. “And none of this is an accident, either.”
“We’ve crushed them on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team,” he said. But what really set the franchise apart, he said, was the way it operated as a business. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things,” he said. “We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”  

And the adoption of the logic that three is greater than two (and that everybody should be able to guard everyone–or at least most of the people–on the other team) is unquestionably good basketball strategy, but what does it mean for the fans? 

Do we want whoever makes and takes the most three-pointers to determine the game of basketball, or at the very least be the pervading logic by which we perceive the game? For fans of being a fan, a cabal in which I include myself, this series, and the Warriors series with Oklahoma City, was a battle for the spirit of the game. 

Distinguishing between the Cavs and the Warriors here might appear to be a false dichotomy, as the Cavs are a high volume three-point team. Yet there is no team in NBA history that has shot the three as much or as well as the Warriors, so the Cavaliers became the de-facto defenders of the romantic values of basketball.

LeBron is a bad three-point shooter, but does everything else on the court and is unstoppable en-route to the basket. Two 41-point, all-action games from him were required for the Cavaliers to get back into the series. His dominance over the Warriors in the three final games of the series evokes Gustav Vigeland’s statue “man attacked by babies”. The Warriors were displaced on every possession. Their shots were thrown, their bodies swarmed, and they eventually flew to the periphery—in the wake of James’ violent dominance. 

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Photo via Bob West - Flickr

Beyond LeBron, Richard Jefferson and Tristan Thompson scrapped and scrambled their way into Cleveland’s hearts. The Cavaliers won Game 7 while making only six three-pointers and surrendering 15. Matthew Dellavedova existed as a religious icon of grit. Their coach, instead of preaching ball movement and teamwork, preached the nebulous concept of “aggressiveness” and shouted out “Mexico, Missouri” after the horn had rung. They were the representation of the idea that supreme will and devotion can take you further than technology. 

With stakes like those, I found myself in a permanent state of unease. I paced around my living room, did laundry during timeouts, and drank beer. I was often unable to stand near the television. And then, this:

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The play-by-play will have to do for reality because the collective memory of this stretch has been reduced to nil. We remember that no one scored, we remember the tension, but we can’t remember what happened until “The Block”.

LeBron’s block was the romantic shout out of darkness. It was a rejection of the false idol Stephen Curry, a response to Joe Lacob’s boasts of basketball enlightenment, and a defining moment with his legacy on the line. It has elevated him into the pantheon of great athletes who are remembered not only for their great careers, but their singular plays that reverberate beyond their context. “The Block” was the all-powerful hoops Saturn, devouring his son, showing that the destructive imaginary of basketball can end any attempts to chain it to a techno-moral imperative. “The Block” was the greatest NBA player of the new century maximizing his talents in the most-tense moment of the most-important, most-watched game in NBA history.

It was the greatest basketball play we have ever witnessed.

Edited by Robert Hess.

Of this 2015-16 Cavaliers team, who was most recently on the Warriors?
Created 6/20/16
  1. Richard Jefferson
  2. Matthew Dellavedova
  3. Mo Williams
  4. Channing Frye

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