— Fast-break basketball is considered the Mona Lisa of sports — only less stationary, of course. An up-tempo, push-the-ball-and-score-easy-buckets approach is why NBA players are often referred to as the greatest athletes in the world. In fact, when you think about it, people prefer fast in just about everything — their food, their Internet connection, their shipping, their customer service, etc. I get it. When was the last time you saw an old man drive a giant car 20 mph down the street and said to yourself, “Wow, he’s cool!”?
But fast-break basketball has also been on the endangered species list. And that’s not necessarily an unfortunate twist, because while fleet-footed flights of fancy are fun to watch, so is hustle.
The Lakers are a good current example of this less speedy variety. It’s important to note that they’re unlikely to win a title this season. They just don’t have enough talent, and what they do have is somewhat fossilized. And there will always be an occasional stinker like the one they submitted Thursday night at Portland.
But the gripe these days is that they’re playing homely basketball, the kind you don’t want to take home. And I have to object to that, not just on the Lakers’ behalf, but in defense of all those unsightly practitioners of grind-it-out hoops who are afraid to look in the mirror.
First off, the last team to really succeed on a steady diet of fast breaks was the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. That was three decades ago. In those days, Magic Johnson as point guard was pushed by then coach Pat Riley to push the ball on each possession. If there was a fast-break opportunity, the Lakers would seize it and score an easy layup. But if not, they’d still push the ball up the court and get set quickly, an effort to wear down the other team and to get the most out of the 24-second clock.
That method went away. Because athleticism increased, it had the opposite effect on tempo: Teams became much better at getting back on defense. In the old days, the Lakers would often score fast-break baskets off of made shots by opponents. That rarely if ever occurs now. Players today are too adept at retreating and setting up on D, thereby dashing any hopes for a fast break by the team with the ball.
It’s been that way for many years now. Yet this season these Lakers are offering up a style under new coach Mike Brown that emphasizes defense, effort, elbow grease, sweat and toil, which offers a stark contrast to last year’s team.
If you’ll recall, the Lakers were favored at the beginning of the 2010-11 season to complete a three-peat and send Phil Jackson out on a high. Instead, they often seemed disinterested. They didn’t just mail it in last season, they forgot the postage. Even though the Lakers had the personnel to play an exciting brand of basketball — not necessarily a high-octane, fast-break break style, given their point-guard situation and the triangle, but exciting nonetheless — they submitted just the opposite.
They looked miserable, and they were miserable to watch.
The best basketball to witness is good basketball. Efficient basketball. Winning basketball. When guys are moving the ball around, taking the right shots and making them, it’s a pleasurable experience to take in. When they’re giving everything they’ve got on defense, rotating, contesting shots, it’s enjoyable. When they rebound well, it’s fun.
Miami is arguably the best team in the NBA right now. But they’re a treat to watch not so much because of an abundance of fast breaks or dunks, but because they mix intelligence, efficiency and hustle like no other club thus far in this lockout-shortened campaign.
Chicago and Oklahoma City have two of the fastest and most talented guards in the game in Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, respectively. Yet the Bulls and Thunder are not excelling simply because their penetrators are winning foot races. Overall, they’re playing outstanding basketball.
That brings us back to the Lakers, who again are the finest example of this ugly-is-pretty phenomenon. Some observers are groaning because it appears the Lakers have embraced defense at the expense of offense. To me, I appreciate any team that plays as if it wants to compete and win. Style points are overrated.
Now, is star power important in the basketball-viewing experience? Of course. And it differs from city to city. In L.A., it’s essential. Ditto for New York. In Portland, where the player with the most wattage in the absence of retired Brandon Roy is LaMarcus Aldridge — a terrific big man and leader, but hardly an elite personality — not so much.
But we’re not talking about marquee names here. We’re discussing what is aesthetically appealing when it comes to the game itself.
When people diss defense and bemoan the lack of offensive pyrotechnics, they invariably fail to acknowledge that it requires great defense in order to obtain the ball to perform slams, threes and various other items on the offensive menu.
The games that really are not a feast for the eyes are the ones that end up 117-112 or something like that. Such scores usually mean the players involved aren’t committed to playing a complete game — in other words, loafing on defense — and therefore fans are being cheated out of a wholly competitive experience.
When players are going at each other with intensity, and there is tension with every possession, that’s basketball at its finest, regardless of what the speedometer says.