Experiencing NBA action from a courtside seat is not a commonplace occasion for the majority of basketball fans. When the opportunity presented itself to witness some Sunday matinee action between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers at Barclays Center, my natural reaction was to document my impressions of the experience. Below are some of my notable observations from my seat adjacent to the visiting 76ers team and next to their owner, Josh Harris.
Joel Embiid: There is something about first impressions with a special person that can have a lasting impact. Jo Jo by all accounts is a unique individual on and off the court beyond his tantalizing athletic combination of size and agility. Features can be found all over the web documenting his combination of personality and skills. These stories manifest themselves in manifold forms, whether it be a long-form piece describing his career, youtube videos honing his skills in the gym, or perhaps the most entertaining of all his twitter and instagram handles.
We all have a certain awareness of the fact that the NBA is a society of titans, but reality is sometimes stranger than fiction. In pregame warmups when Sixers rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot drifted by me like a gazelle tracking down an errant ball, it was immediately apparent that even the 21 year-old rookie with the slightest frame on the Sixers squad was still a full six inches taller than me: I’m 6-0, 170 lbs, adequate size for high school hoops and professional tennis. When Nerlens Noel took a fade-away 3 that to no surprise clanged off the side of the rim, I jokingly inquired whether he was planning on taking the same shot in the game. When he shrugged his shoulders, smirked at me, and acknowledged my poor effort at a joke with a simple “maybe”, I really wanted to follow up with an even lamer joke inquiring how the air up there feels.
Point is I’m not used to people literally looking down at me. Now imagine how NBA athletes feel when they spend their whole lives straining themselves to look down at others only to find themselves forced to gaze upwards at a teammate? To say that Embiid’s presence was immediately felt from the moment he stepped on to the court would not do it full justice. It has to be experienced in person to grasp the tangible embodiment of a physical colossus standing just a few feet away. Joel commanded the floor and the game was still one hour away from commencing. Nets representatives were quick to compliment him on the newest offensive move he had unveiled the prior game in Boston, proclaiming it the evolution of the patented Harden driving low sweep move. May I note he drew a foul on Joe Harris and nailed the free-throw to complete the three-point play on his first successful offensive possession with this exact move.
Sixers fans who made the road trip and arrived early to the arena were chanting “Trust the Process” in an exhilarated state of euphoria. The heightened anticipation for Joel to play in the game was significantly amplified by the incongruity that this was all happening in Brooklyn on a frigid January Sunday morning. Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that a particle attracts every other particle in the universe using a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance to them. I can think of no better representation of Newton’s definition than the existence of Joel Embiid.
The Process: In a meeting between two teams with a combined record of 17-52, the present state is merely a temporary step in the right direction for two franchises aspiring for future success. The Sam Hinkie radical plan for long-term success has been discussed at length, most notably in Pablo Torre’s story and posthumously in Chris Ballard’s piece. The Sean Marks era in Brooklyn on the other hand has begun with much less national fanfare and media speculation. Similarly to Hinkie’s predicament when joining the Sixers organization, Sean has been dealt a difficult hand with limited assets upon which to build upon. In the offseason he showed willingness to aggressively pursue young talent in signing Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson to offer sheets that were ultimately matched by their respective teams. The Jeremy Lin signing has been positive when he has been healthy, and Trevor Booker has been a very active rebounder and defensive stalwart in the lineup.
It is yet to be seen which direction he will take the team ahead of the Feb. 23rd trade deadline as he continues to assess his current roster, but he has consistently shown a desire to proactively seek out opportunities to gradually build upon the young foundation. The attempted signing of Donatas Motiejunas was yet another example of resourcefulness which didn’t result in the acquisition of a player but did shed light on Sean’s desire to acquire talent with promising potential. Patience will be key with the Nets rebuilding effort as they will be forced to swap their first round pick this year with the Celtics from the blockbuster Garnett/Pierce trade, and sacrifice their 2018 first round pick as well. This means unless Marks is able to make drastic trades to acquire first round picks, i.e. a Brook Lopez trade, Marks will continue to scour the league for hidden gems and market inefficiencies. Taking the long view is necessary and in sharp contrast to the Billy King regime that resulted in the current roster barren of elite assets or picks. A sustained plan nourished with patience and prudence will potentially provide the process with a positive payoff. Voila! That is my best Process vestige of this.
Physicality: I may be just as guilty of questioning officiating as probably any other NBA fan. Referees are paid to officiate the game, so we wonder why sitting on our couches we routinely see obvious calls being missed. Being on the floor my appreciation has grown significantly for the officiating crew for simply being able to keep up with the speed and physicality exhibited on the court. The players are absolutely electrifying with their ability to move up and down the court and as the speed of the game continues to evolve and accelerate this only increases the degree of difficulty of catching every movement and collision. This certainly doesn’t mean that physical contact has necessarily diminished either. Up close I could hear the consistent banging of bodies on every single play, both on the perimeter and especially in the paint. The key here from the officiating standpoint is not to uphold an unrealistic expectation that every single call will be correct, as inevitably we are all human and prone to error.
However, there is one factor that can be controlled, and that would be consistency. When the officials set the tone for what is a foul and what is not a foul in the first quarter, they need to stick with the established criteria and maintain that precedent for calls later in the game. On multiple occasions I overheard coaches and players rightfully question in the second half of the game that specific calls were not being called in the same manner as they were earlier in the game. Once a frame of reference has been established early in the game it is natural for the players to adjust their expectations for the rest of the game accordingly. Mistakes or not, ultimately my biggest takeaway from the action was that these NBA players still dish out major physical punishment to each other and my skinny frame would snap like a twig on any significant contact in the paint. There is a reason they are on the court and we are in our chairs. The level of athletic prowess is remarkable.
Free Bojan: Although shooters can just as often go on cold streaks as their hot ones (note the merciless booing of Robert Covington in Philadelphia), in the Nets last three victories Bojan Bogdanovic has averaged 23 points per game, almost a full 10 points over his season average. If Bojan getting buckets is a significant factor for Nets victories, finding creative ways of getting him the ball in places where he can succeed will be essential for gaining improved results.
The Brooklyn offense has always been heavily reliant on Brook Lopez for offensive production, and rightfully so, as Brook has been a career 20 point scorer since entering the league. The problem is the Nets aren’t the only team that know Lopez can score and when he becomes a target of constant double teams from opposing defenses, the Nets offense often stagnates and becomes one-dimensional. Brook can struggle to immediately pass out of the double-team, but sometimes it may not be on him if there are no secondary options to the play being run.
Off-the-ball movement and screening are always essential to any productive NBA offense and would help balance out the plays where feeding the post is still the first option. Bojan will never have point guard ball-handling skills, but running a few high screen and rolls with Brook would potentially give him some chances at open 3’s if both defenders roll with the big man. Also, back-door cuts can generate a few easy layups or runners for Bojan which in turn will give him the confidence to take some jumpers off the dribble if he is in rhythm. Although Sean Kilpatrick and Isaiah Whitehead have shown promise and taken significant steps forward with their offensive and defensive games, missing Lin for large portions of the season has limited the creativity from the lead guard position. This is where coach Kenny Atkinson can motivate Bojan to be more aggressive looking for his offense and even give him a little more freedom to play the 2-man game with his bigs. The Spurs offense with Tim Duncan in the high post was the perfect example to use as a blueprint with Lopez even if all the pieces on the current Nets roster may not be as skilled or experienced as those title-contending counterparts were in San Antonio. Whether he is starting or coming off the bench, a Bojan that is motivated to play with an aggressive streak and certain freedoms on offense could be their version of Manu Ginobili.
Barclays Center: The rustic steel exterior has quickly become an architectural elegance on Atlantic Ave. The arena itself can be described as nothing short of spacious with effective ability to host all types of events. Between Friday night and Monday morning the Arena hosted two basketball games and a tennis event, and is the current home for the Nets and Islanders. The basketball floor has a very nice faux-brick paint job on the baselines and sidelines. Host/MC Ally Love, the dance team, and in-game entertainment crew bring positive energy to the entire arena and get the fans hyped during stoppage of play. The service staff has been extremely charming, friendly, and helpful in all of my experiences at the arena between basketball and hockey games. The Calvin Klein club, Billboard lounge, and kids court are a few of the many hospitality options at the arena.
Tanking: Winning is fun. Losing is not. A common misconception due to the advantages of losing games to gain ping pong balls for the draft lottery is that coaches and players of rebuilding teams may actively attempt to tank games to improve their chances of acquiring the best rookie talent. That is a fundamentally flawed conclusion, as each member of the coaching staff and player on the roster is playing for their current job and for their future contract. I’m not sure how coach Brett Brown didn’t lose his voice during the game, but the throat lozenges he was consuming must have been soothing. The motivations of executive management and ownership may be slightly more layered and complex, but the largest smile in the arena belonged to 76ers owner Josh Harris, as his team sealed the victory Sunday afternoon. His wife Marjorie couldn’t resist high-fiving me and dishing out some friendly trash-talk to the seven-year-old Nets fan sitting directly behind her providing the loudest Nets chants in the arena throughout the game. In a gesture of solidarity Harris gladly obliged to have Embiid take a photo with the tiny sulking Nets fanatic after the game, and he will surely cherish the memory. Little did they all know that it took all the self-control I had to resist the little child inside of me from demanding a photo-op with “The Process” as well.
Big Men Shooting 3’s: I love it. Need I say more? If Lopez or Embiid can shoot the rock, and the shot is there within the flow of the offense, let the ball fly. Nobody is blocking that shot and they have proven this year that they truly are shooters.
Special thanks to Cody, the Nets Organization, and the Barclays Center staff for their generous hospitality without which it would not have been possible to write a piece about this experience.