The scourge of 'ratings' in NBA discussion
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) in game two of the 2021 NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena.  Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I have not taken a true look at the television ratings for the 2021 NBA Finals, and I will not be doing so. If I did, I would be sure to first do quite a bit of research into how exactly viewership of professional sports is tracked in the 21st century — I cannot imagine that this is a simple endeavor, nor that there is ever a simple, single, all-encompassing number to available, for the sake of telling a cultural story, hinging upon thoroughly quantified attention levels to a giant corporate entertainment product.

Again, I will not be doing this research, for a number of reasons, the main two being that it is: 1) almost impossible to do correctly, unless you have access to proprietary data on the matter (I don’t) and 2) it is almost infinitely less interesting than basketball itself. Many huge sports media voices are, however, not interested in basketball, or seemingly even interested in sports; one would have to stretch their mind quite a bit just to frame most of the pundit profession as even interested in humanity as anything but a den of hogs that they throw rhetorical meat to, carnival-barking their way to higher and higher pay days.

It is one thing for those who engage in this sort of conversation as a multi-million dollar hustle. We cannot expect the Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith types of the world to do anything else — this would be like anticipating a salmon to speak and fly. Their nature (identifying the most upsetting way to discuss anything and then doing so at maximum volume) is known. They are profitable monsters, reaching outside of their gilded caves to scoop up the enriching lard lying just outside, and this won’t stop being the case anytime soon.

It is a different thing entirely, however, when the way of discussing basketball amidst the yeoman crowd begins to take on the same color of the intentionally idiotic pundit class, and the nature of how the game is played, at its highest level, retreats far from the material, and deep into a nonsensical swirl of misplaced politics, regionalism, and armchair economics. Put more simply, this is a conversation that totally and absolutely sucks, and should not be had for any reason. The next time you encounter anyone mentioning the ratings of the NBA Finals as a means of pouring fake concrete beneath their flimsy cultural-critical structures, you should understand what is happening before you to be less coherent, and certainly less respectable, than the way a dog sometimes howls out its desire to be a human.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we are — or ever have been — here: a place where a huge amount of the potential audience for people with tremendous physical gifts, playing a complicated game better than almost anyone has ever done anything, is just a bunch of hair-trigger opinionators immediately looking for ways to shape the transcendent competition before them into a cudgel that proves their pre-existing hunch about the world, too generalized and transparently aggrieved to be taken seriously. But this is definitely where we are.

Without LeBron James in the Finals action, for just the second time in the last 11 years, the hot garbage that is spewed in the NBA’s directions by morons is, mercifully, at least a little bit different than it usually is. It is not a desirable kind of different, though. Mostly we hear about market sizes, which are evoked as the ballroom floor foundation for a dizzying, sad little ego dance to take place upon, performed by people who act as though the logic of “some things being bigger than other things, which are, by comparison, sort of small” is both revelatory and a statement that makes them shine brightly. 

If Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to play the way he has been, though, such voices will shrink further, even as attention levels to the Finals are increasingly threatened by a post-COVID American public desperate to travel and be social in mid-July. His late game block of Devin Booker’s lob to Deandre Ayton in a 109-103 victory of his Milwaukee Bucks over the Phoenix Suns was an iconic enough moment to paralyze all the silly detractors for a moment. Well, not all of them. But those who know the game, and have seen Ayton develop into one of the game’s premier pick-and-roll threats, saw Giannis suss out the action as it was developing, bait the lob, and perform a hilariously difficult lateral movement that flowed seamlessly into an instantly memorable aerial feat, in the exact moment that his team needed the amazing to take place.

The prospect of more of that happening is why I’ll be watching, and why you will be too. Giannis is elevating possibilities in his sport very broadly, and staking a strong claim within its history. Seeing all of that legacy weight carried effectively on one man’s shoulders is the refreshing kind of surreal. And the onus to make sure you don’t miss it, and do appreciate his greatness in live action, is on the rest of the world; not on him and the people who share the floor with him, because what they are doing is more important, and better, than what anyone has to say about it.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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