If the NBA Finals are the peak of basketball, the NBA Draft is the peak of non-basketball – a too-lengthy, semi-communist role call that has been transmogrified into a premier “fashion” event for good young basketball men and a shining beacon of hope for the teams hoping to draft them, all wrapped in the most fantastical of fantastic fan delusions that this is really, truly their year. Although it may never achieve the cultural relevance or pure, bong-ripping insanity of its NFL counterpart, the NBA Draft still functions as the ultimate referendum of what the league is and what it will be.
For those who have been too busy yelling at clouds about the downy softness of the league to, you know, actually watch it, basketball has become a positionless game; long arms and all-around competence have taken precedence over girth and menacing goonery. The Golden State Warriors sprinted to 73 wins and the best regular season in NBA history on the strength of their small, switch-happy Death Lineup. The Cleveland Cavaliers felled the Warriors and won the championship once they discovered their final form by essentially pushing Kevin Love, a productive, albeit pokey, power forward, onto a raft and casting him out into the middle of the ocean. This is not to say that big men are necessarily fading into obsolescence, but that imposing height and a nasty attitude is no longer enough to excuse clumsy oafishness.
It is in this context that Ben Simmons, the first pick in the draft and the newest member of the Philadelphia 76ers’ process-focused suicide cult, is best understood. Granted, Simmons does have his flaws – his defense can often be meh and his jump shot is currently an affront to jump shooting – but he can do this. And this. And that. An unholy amalgamation of size and skill (think: Boris Diaw with roughly 8 million times more fast-twitch muscle fibers or a combination of Jason Kidd and a domesticated grizzly bear or the hardwood embodiment of a shockingly graceful Fat Guy Touchdown), Simmons is the patron saint of positionlessness, a marriage of a point guard’s sensibilities and a power forward’s power. And in this realm of versatility, Simmons is not alone. Brandon Ingram, a mutant Flat Stanley with an unsettlingly wide armspan and baby afro, was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers to be a long-limbed terror on the wing. The Phoenix Suns chose the wonderfully named Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, two big men with the potential to transcend the stylistic norms of Big Man-dom.
Beyond signaling an on-court, aesthetic sea change, this draft portends that the NBA’s silly season is about to grow exponentially sillier. Thanks to a new television deal worth nearly twice the GDP of Albania and a salary cap that’s set at a record $94 million, teams are now free to be increasingly active and proactive in constructing a roster. More so, teams are allowed to get weird. Most teams have the capital and the opportunity to do shit, and shit they will do. The Chicago Bulls almost traded Jimmy Butler; the Boston Celtics almost traded for Jimmy Butler and then for a small village of Philadelphians, before ultimately drafting Jaylen Brown with the third pick and joyously flipping the double bird at Gar Forman and Bryan Colangelo for wasting their time. The Orlando Magic traded away a now-former franchise cornerstone in Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka and the right to be swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Cavs next season. The New York Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, presumably after Phil Jackson smoked his weight in peyote and consulted with a yogi deep in the Himalayas. The Sacramento Kings did stuff, too, most of it decidedly not good, and now Vlade Divac is trying to figure out why DeMarcus Cousins won’t respond to any of his texts and where exactly Sacramento is on a map.
More than anything, though, the NBA has embraced spectacle and undergone a transformation from a seasonal jaunt to yearlong event, stretching through the summer with a winding path of banana boats and Woj Bombs – and the draft is its ultimate celebration. While the NFL operates under a veil of distant, invincible coldness and the MLB flagrantly panders to people who think that Curt Schilling kinda has a point, the NBA Draft – or at least those who exist within it – is brazenly human, a room full of young men who anxiously await their future, all for our viewing pleasure. Yes, the draft is surely just an exercise in trumped-up pathos by the NBA in an effort to disguise a shameless naval-gazing cash grab. But it works. Granted, there is an inherent grossness to the whole gala affair … but when it’s hidden by a wave of giddy, choreographed handshakes and saucer-eyed disappointment and maroon suits and shiny shoes, it’s easy to pretend that there isn’t.