NBA lovers actually love to hate on the NBA

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

By its very nature, basketball is made for the social media era. The players are always moving, their faces are widely visible to the fans and the smaller team size allows for more individual impact. 

Add that to player movement being at an all-time high in the National Basketball Association (NBA), and it should come as no surprise that the NBA reported 18 billion views in 2023 across all its social media platforms, more than all other sports leagues. 

However, this exposure has allowed NBA discourse to become a reductionary and hyperbolic cesspool actively polluting a beautiful game. Recently, the league has seen an explosion in offensive production. However, all anyone can talk about is how “chucking up threes” have ruined the game. 50 and 60-point games are often viewed as a byproduct of the “terrible defense” around the NBA. In reality, offenses are simply more talented. Seven-foot centers, like Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokić, now serve as the main playmakers for their respective offenses. Role players are now shooting three-pointers, spreading the ball around and playing passable defense in only 20 to 30 minutes per game. The days of a long two-pointer and pure paint scorers are phased out for three-pointers and mid range shots. In the 2010-2011 season, the percentage of shots that were three-pointers was only 22.2%. 

That number rose to 39.2% in the 2021-2022 season, and it has continued to climb. Asking defenses from the 90s, who were inherently more physical because offenses primarily operated inside the paint, to guard the high-octane, spaced offenses of today would be comparing apples to oranges. Furthermore, a lot of fans take umbrage with the rise in “foul baiting.” However, as the three-point shot has spiked in volume, the number of free-throw attempts per game has actually declined from the 2010-2011 season from 24.5 attempts to 22.7 attempts. The skill of superstar players means that more often than not, defenders have to foul them in order to prevent an easy bucket. Players are more creative with how they put pressure on a defense; dismissing their skill is disrespectful to their individual talent. 

There is also no nuanced opinion when it comes to discourse around the sport. One of the prime examples of this is the debate between two of the game’s most recognizable players — the aforementioned Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid. Jokic is known for his incredible playmaking and impossible shot-making while Embiid combines imposing rim defense with an automatic mid-range shot. Both players have publicly stated how much they respect the other’s game. 

However, fans of the players minimize the other’s accomplishments while refusing to consider the greatness of the other one. Embiid fans routinely accuse Jokic of being a horrendous defender and an advanced-stats darling who did not pass the “eye test.” 

Conversely, Jokic fans lambast Embiid for his supposed foul-baiting, injury history and poor playoff performances. It led to Embiid fans not being able to appreciate Jokic’s incredible run during the 2023 finals and Jokic fans scoffing at Embiid leading in the league in scoring in back-to-back years while anchoring a top-10 defense. 

The truth is that NBA fans often build players up just to laugh at them when they fail. In Embiid’s case, fans dismiss his incredible scoring outputs as the product of a meaningless regular season buoyed by favorable ref calls. 

Yet, they take issue when Embiid sits out games in the “meaningless” regular season to manage his injuries in preparation for the playoffs. 

When the 76ers medical staff made the decision to take Embiid out twenty minutes before playing the Denver Nuggets, NBA Twitter tore into the Sixers superstar for “ducking smoke” against Jokic. During last year’s playoffs, Embiid’s poor performance caused many media pundits to label him as a fraudulent MVP despite those same people selecting him to win the regular season award mere weeks before. 

The criteria of how a player is evaluated changes and shifts to fit whatever narrative groupthink is pushing. Many fans have trouble accepting that their favorite player can be incredible at some things and deficient in other areas. They see context when it is favorable to them and ignore it when it goes against their beliefs. 

While this is true of a lot of sports fans outside of basketball, no other sport has the same level of proclivity for “hot takes” or “agenda pushing” because of the game’s viral nature. Having a favorite team does not outlaw balanced opinions. 

It makes the game more fun to consume when people can just appreciate greatness without trying to use it to confirm their priors. 

At a simple level, the NBA is about high-quality displays of basketball.  We must appreciate those displays irrespective of where they might come from.