More than any other professional sports league, the NBA is an ongoing telenovela, structured around the games outside the games, dependent on the personalities of the odd and whimsical multimillionaires whose thoughts are now readily available, unfiltered, on social media. It is one long inside joke, and this is why the highlight of the NBA calendar often occurs weeks after the Finals themselves, during a free agency period that is fraught with the kind of off-court capriciousness and unpredictability that hardcore pro-basketball fans embrace almost more than they do the games themselves.
The most capricious free agent of all, it now seems clear, is DeAndre Jordan, the 26-year-old center who pulled a straight-up Hamlet this week on the Dallas Mavericks, reneging on his verbal agreement with Dallas in order to re-sign with his previous team, the Los Angeles Clippers. In the midst of this, several members of the Clippers, including coach Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick, reportedly showed up at Jordan’s house in Houston and refused to leave until Jordan could officially sign his contract at 12:01 on Thursday morning. This all set off a war of words between ESPN reporter Chris Broussard and frustrated reality-television predator Mark Cuban, as well as an oft-nonsensical daisy chain of emojis. It also briefly immortalized two photos on social media: One of Chris Paul riding a banana boat with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and the other a picture, tweeted out by Griffin, of a chair literally barricading the door to Jordan’s house.
In the end, no less an authority than Grantland’s Zach Lowe proclaimed it “the most ridiculous 12 hours in NBA history.” Maybe that’s an exaggeration, and maybe it isn’t, but I think Lowe hit on a fundamental truth, which is that the NBA embraces its own fundamental ridiculousness in ways that no other league does. Baseball is often charged with stuffy disagreements over advanced statistics and historical comparisons; the NFL is so absurdly popular that it can’t help but get fraught with political debates over legislating morality, so that even a story as inherently absurd as “Deflategate” somehow becomes an over-serious ethical quandary. The NBA, of course, has its own issues, most notably the fact that the regular season is overly long and often crushingly dull, but that doesn’t matter to the people who subscribe to the soap opera that runs alongside the games themselves. It’s become a league increasingly targeted at the young and social-media savvy who treat it as a learned language, at people who understand emojis well enough that they could mock the suddenly ancient-seeming Paul Pierce (age 37) for not understanding emojis.
This is all good for the league; this is why the NBA will probably be hesitant to adapt the common-sense solutions that Lowe suggested to “fix” free agency and avoid the odd calendar loophole – the “moratorium” period between when a free agent agrees to a contract and is actually permitted to sign – that allowed Jordan to change his mind. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, appears to be a very intelligent man; and I imagine Adam Silver recognizes that a great deal of what powers his league’s popularity at this point is the way it fits so naturally into the absurd nature of social media itself.
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For now, at least, given the ascendance of the Warriors and the way the Spurs sold themselves to prized free-agent LaMarcus Aldridge and the ongoing attempts by LeBron James to short-circuit Cleveland’s self-loathing, the game itself remains compelling enough that Silver doesn’t have to concern himself with the notion that his league can often seem alienating to those who don’t speak the language of social-media irony, or that all of these social-media storylines tend to have the approximate shelf life of three-day-old seafood. The more the NBA becomes about things other than basketball, the more its hardcore fans embrace it. Its inherent ridiculousness is its greatest selling point.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb