Another season is in the books, and the playoffs are a tip off away. Like any season, 2013-14 was defined by good and bad play and terrible refereeing. Though the high points were high, the low points were myriad, which means its probably as good a time as any to try and answer that famous question brought up by Laker legend and NBA logo model Jerry West during an appearance on ESPN's Scott Van Pelt show: Does the NBA suck?
With the exceptions of Miami, Indiana, and Chicago, the Eastern Conference is a boneyard of talent, populated by once-great geriatrics like Paul Pierce and (at just 31) Amar'e Stoudemire, solid role players in starring roles (think: Al Horford), and low-ceiling lottery picks (John Wall). And have you seen the Knicks? As part-time Detroit Piston and full-time zombie Kyle Singler would say: "Grp."
But what about the Western Conference? It has pummeled the East at a historic pace and, over the past ten years, its in-conference competitiveness has remained relatively stable, with a difference of about seven games between a five-seed and the bubble team that doesn't get in. The problem isn't a lack of competition, the problem is that the competition isn't as good as it used to be.
So maybe West is right. Maybe the NBA has a serious deficit in overall ability. And maybe the problem is that these 20-year-olds just aren't ready and the defense is shoddy and the league doesn't let anyone play physical anymore. Here's the thing: Who cares? This year's NBA has more dynamic teams than any season in recent history. The brick-and-mortar dullness of the Malone-Stockton-era Jazz is nowhere to be found and young guns like Steph Curry, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin have all somehow – almost impossibly – gotten a lot better. With a few knotty exceptions, their teams have improved with them and adopted a bit of show-time boldness. There's always a chance that fans will see something that inspires awe and that is the best reason to watch sports in the first place.
Here are six more reasons to watch the playoffs. It's about to get wild.
Joakim Noah Is Angry
Conventional wisdom says that having a chip on your shoulder is a good thing, but when that kind of personal intensity manifests itself in frequent outbursts, ritualized screaming, crazed gestures, and free-flowing obscenities, it should be a big negative. Strangely, this is not the case with Bulls' center Joakim Noah, whose game has evolved in direct proportion to his rancor.
The son of 1983 French Open champ Yannick, who was never quiet himself, Noah is the most raw-nerved player in the league. He plays as though someone just shot his dog and sustains that level of fury for 35 minutes every night. For the opposition, it's discomforting to see this rope-veined misanthrope bounding up the court with his scraggly I-don't-give-a-shit hair bun bobbing in the air, his eyes narrowed and cindery as he prepares to set a pick, dunk on someone's head, and toss a slur at a fan on the way back down the floor. But if Noah's emotions are highly charged, his seven-foot, mantis-like body is composed, graceful even.
With Derrick Rose lost to season-ending knee surgery in November, the trade of Luol Deng in January, and the always inadequate Carlos Boozer playing inadequately, the Bulls seemed destined to fall apart early this season. Then Noah happened. He was always a great defender and rebounder, and a dexterous scorer underneath. The biggest improvement in his game is his passing (which he credits to the advice of former NBA big man and friend Brad Miller). He averaged 7.5 assists a game in March, the second best assist month for a center behind Wilt Chamberlain. The difference is, Chamberlain wasn't bringing the ball up the court or running a set from the perimeter. The offense not only goes through Noah, it usually begins with him.
Noah's March 2 stat-line against the train-wreck Knicks says it all: 13 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists, two steals, and two blocks. The last center to come close to that assist number was Euro pioneer and serial chair puller Vlade Divac, who racked up 13 against the then-Vancouver Grizzlies in 1996. (And let's be honest: Divac's passing was more of a stylistic veneer added to his crafty but workman-like game than a bona fide weapon.) In using his size to create space, Noah may set up teammates as well as anyone in the league, point guards included. Inevitably, commentators will reflexively wheel out the tired trope, "willing his team to victory." But in Noah's case, it might actually be true.
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