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Is the NBA the Most Entertaining It’s Ever Been?

Chuck Klosterman joined ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ to discuss the league’s skill-over-physicality era and what it means for the future of pro basketball

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Basketball has had many “golden eras,” with different seasons, teams, and individual efforts vying for the right to be dubbed Pinnacle of the Game. But could this current iteration of the NBA be the most entertaining ever? On The Bill Simmons Podcast, Chuck Klosterman argues that the league’s skill-over-physicality version is the most fun that professional basketball has ever been.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Chuck Klosterman: I would say — you might disagree with this — [that] discounting the players, just the game itself, the way pro basketball is now is the best it’s ever been from an entertainment standpoint. The way the game is played is the most entertaining way it’s ever been. Do you agree or disagree?

Bill Simmons: I think this comes in waves. I think the ’92, ’93 [era] holds up to what we’re watching now. It’s really about the talent more than anything. There’s just a lot of talent right now.

Klosterman: But this is the thing that transcends it. In ’92 or ’93, wouldn’t it have been awesome to watch those teams play the way teams play now? Wouldn’t it have been awesome in the ’80s to watch those teams play [the way they play] now? If [Larry] Bird was taking 14 3s a game, wouldn’t that have been better? I think the way the game is played now has never been better. It has sort of amplified the importance of skill over physicality in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated.

And then here’s the the next question: Should the league basically say, “OK, let’s try to keep this static. Let’s keep this the way it is”? Or should they go even further? Should the game be moved in a direction where the current trajectory keeps going, and that skills are even a bigger deal? Because it feels like to me that in a few years it’s going to be very difficult for a traditional 7-foot player to even play in the league at all. Unless they’re like [Joel] Embiid or one of these guys who can do all of these things. The question becomes, should that be promoted? Or should we hit the brakes?

Simmons: So, a couple [of good things] are going on. One is everybody is in shape and their heads are on straight. And there’s just no drama anymore, with any of these guys. You mentioned the ’90s earlier, and the ’90s was just filled with drama and people not reaching their potential. They’ve settled that part, and they’re also just in a talent boom right now. They had four drafts in a row where a bunch of great players came into the league, and they’re riding that too. And then the style — now that people have been playing this way for a few years, they’re used to it.

The watershed moment for me was ’04. Because I really do think if you go back and watch ’92, ’93, those games are super entertaining. There was 3-point shooting, and the biggest thing was the pace — it’s a faster pace now, but it’s in the ballpark. But if you remember ’04 in the Olympics when we [the U.S. national team] got our asses kicked, everybody looked at the team we sent out and how they played and it was kind of this come to Jesus moment. Like, wow, Argentina — they had one-third of the talent we have but they just played better. How do we do that? How do we get there? And every move they made over the next five, six, seven years was to try to move the league toward that, and it worked. … I think there’s more non-American players in the league, and that helps. It just seems like every team has the [Marco] Belinelli or the [Goran] Dragic, and those guys have a certain style.

But yeah, to answer your question, I think it’s going to get better and better. I still think there’s a place for post play. If you watched Game 2 of the Bucks-Celtics [three] nights ago, that’s the reason the Celtics won is because they had Greg Monroe and they had Al Horford and the Bucks had a pretty small lineup where they just didn’t have a lot of size. And they bully-balled [the Bucks]. They pounded them. And they basically flipped basketball back to what it was when we were growing up, and it worked. And I still think that works, if you have a smart coach and players who have the ability to do that. I think that’s always going to work.

Klosterman: Well, that did happen also in that series two years ago when it was the Thunder and the Warriors, and the Warriors ended up winning. But the Thunder almost won — 

Simmons: They bully-balled [the Warriors].

Klosterman: So maybe it’s possible. I was watching the end of the Sixers and the Heat game [Thursday night] and it was … really dynamic to watch, but it does not seem to involve playing with your back to the basket at all. Like, it’s just not part of it.

And … I like the fact that [the game is] rewarding the more skilled guys. But then part of me is also [thinking], well, what about some kid who’s in sixth grade and he’s a foot and a half taller than all his classmates and he’s really uncoordinated. At least that kid could think, “Maybe I’ll make the NBA.”

Simmons: Right.

Klosterman: What does that kid dream about now? I mean, a guy like Jon Koncak — those guys won’t exist. Or could Shawn Bradley even play for BYU now? I’m not sure he could!

Simmons: I went super early to the Celtics’ [second playoff] game because … I like watching the guys warm up. We went and [Jayson] Tatum was shooting — we were just watching Tatum shoot 3s effortlessly around the arc and you just realize, this is a guy who’s been shooting 3s since he was 8 years old who’s now 6-foot-9 and is meant to do this.

But the other guy who was shooting with him was Aron Baynes, and Aron Baynes was practicing, like, corner 3s. He wasn’t practicing any post-up moves at all. He wasn’t practicing footwork on the low post, jump hooks, any of that stuff. He was shooting corner 3s and he was making a lot of them. And the friend I was with, we were just looking at it going, “Wow, this is 2018.” You’ve got Aron Baynes 25 feet from the basket, that’s where he’s practicing. And that’s kind of where we are.