The NBA Preseason Is Both Awesome And Awful

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

The NBA preseason is upon us, which — like the above Dickens opening to A Tale of Two Cities — is manifold. On the one hand, the preseason means the the actual NBA season is less than a month away: YEAHHHH BUDDY (that’s me giving a cyber high-five to the other NBA heads out there). But, the preseason also means the next three weeks will be spent watching basketball with our fingers crossed behind our back, or on our knees genuflecting to the Gods of Basketball to keep everyone healthy until real basketball starts. That’s because teams are charging fans to watch the reserves on the roster either earn a spot, or a D-League demotion — or, better yet, a more lucrative move abroad. Preseason is fun because we’re finally watching NBA basketball again, but it’s also a bit of a false idol. What we’re watching is even more useless than the too-long, 82-game regular season. These games do not count!

Yet, here we are, playing them anyway and risking useless injuries in the process.

“But they’re going to play anyway,” you say, “so why not have them play in front of fans.” Well, that’s sort of true, but there’s a way to do this without foisting so much anxiety on the fans.

If I were a coach, I’d go full Popovich in Phoenix through this entire month. Yes, my starters would be scrimmaging full-bore throughout October, but they wouldn’t be in preseason games. Remember Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seemingly submarining the Hornets’ season before the dang season even began last fall? That’s also when Derrick Rose fractured his orbital bone, too, instead of his relationship with female fans.

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Yes, sh*t happens and players get injured and yadda, yadda, yadda, but before we get into that, just why in the hell are professional sports leagues playing preseason games anyway? The easy answer is simple and straightforward: money. Owners can charge near full price for these useless games, and — at least for the NBA — they can schedule a few games overseas to grow the game globally. But starting training camp a few days early for those guys flying across an ocean before opening night doesn’t change what those hundreds of miles logged can do to a player just starting to inoculate themselves to the NBA grind after the offseason. Then there’s the fact they’re playing actual games.

I know what you’re going to say as a rebuttal. Guys can get injured anywhere at any time, so long as they’re launching off the hardwood and landing back down on that hardwood. That’s the nature of the sport. Guys tear a hamstring running pick-up in the park against Joe Schmoe. Ben Simmons fractured his ankle in a meaningless scrimmage on the last day of training camp, and Khris Middleton was knocked out for a half a year during freakin’ preseason workouts. But it’s different in preseason because it’s different in the games. We still have three weeks of those games, too.

Think about the urgency of an NBA preseason game. Guys who are right on the cusp of being cut will absolutely go full Matthew Dellavedova when there’s a loose ball on the ground. And think about who might be sharing the court with that over-achieving, borderline NBA player. That’s right, a star. So when [insert the 15th or 16th man on an NBA roster] hits the court with his very job on the line, and he’s going against an NBA star who maybe enjoyed a couple extra steaks in the offseason, bad things can happen. And they do.

Ask any hoop head, and they’ll talk about how anxious October games can be. Yeah, early November games are almost as worthless as preseason games, but at least they count towards a team’s seeding when the real season begins in mid April. And yeah, this is piggybacking off the very real belief the NBA season is just too damn long anyway, but the big difference is those early November games actually matter, and preseason games are just an excuse to squeeze more money out of fans. On top of all that, the angst of watching preseason hoops has changed the way we watch preseason basketball. And not for the better.

I’ll use Monday night’s entertaining Jazz-Blazers game as an example. Normally, we get a little perturbed when Damian Lillard relies too much on his ridiculously natural outside shot — seriously, no one this side of Steph Curry should get the green light whenever he’s inside of 28 feet. But that over-reliance on his fluid jumper affects the rest of the offense, too, especially if he pulls up early in the shot clock on a couple possessions in a row. But in the preseason, I want him to do that EVERY TIME. I watched this entire sequence from Monday night with white knuckles because every time a guy dribbles into a thicket of big bodies, it could be the player’s last foray into the paint for a while.

When you’re actively rooting for more jump shots, something is wrong. The NBA preseason is amazing because we’re finally seeing NBA action again. But it’s also awful. Every single drive to the cup turns the stomach for that team’s fans. Every awkward landing, every solid screen, every scramble for a loose ball turns into what could be the death knell on an entire season. And yeah, the same could be said for early regular season games, but again — they count!

During the preseason, fans have to ask themselves awful questions: Is this the possession where the Thunder lose all hope for the 2016-17 campaign because Russell Westbrook might shred his Achilles’ tendon? Will the Knicks collapse before December because Carmelo Anthony landed awkwardly grabbing a meaningless offensive rebound? All of these hypotheticals could happen during the season.

But they’re doubly as deadly when you realize the games don’t matter at all.