The NBA isn't remade each offseason, but you wouldn't know it from the amount of buzz its free agency period generates. If you're a fan of the Houston Rockets, you're currently transitioning from Dwight Fatigue to early-stage Dwight Excitement, but it's all a riddle to the rest of us: What exactly are the Hawks and Pistons trying to accomplish? Why are the Bucks foregoing next year's lottery to compete for the eighth seed? What is Monta Ellis worth? Where in the world will Nikola Pekovic end up? It's not that these questions aren't compelling, if you're starved for basketball talk, but the fervor with which they're asked suggests that they actually matter.
Some NBA scribes call the free agency period the Silly Season, presumably not because zaniness is its foremost trait so much as alliteration is the favorite crutch of brain-fried writers. That doesn't make it a useful descriptor. The details of contractual negotiations and state tax codes seem to me a great deal less whimsical than even the most perfunctory, cornstalkish Nick Collison screen. While the NBA court is a forum for all manner of inventiveness, transcendence and goof-ups, its front offices are ... well, offices, and what happens there is considerably less stimulating: Laborers and management throwing numbers and terms at one another, trying to quantify talent. During the Silly Season, Hakeem Olajuwon is a component of a sales pitch rather than, y'know, Hakeem Olajuwon. For a handful of weeks, the NBA puts on a starched collar and stands in front of a PowerPoint slide. It's not a little depressing.
Which isn't to bemoan that we've become more interested over the past decade in transactions and contract negotiations. I think we're all on the same page: We'd rather watch a playoff game than read about Andrew Bynum's diminished earning power. The athletic event itself hasn't and will never become secondary, and our increased fascination with the happenings of NBA front offices has made us more patient and understanding fans. Sam Hinkie was widely praised for his draft day trade in which he swapped Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round selection. Philadelphia will be terrible next year, but that's sort of the point. By getting three assets in one draft -- the Sixers also drafted Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick -- Hinkie fast-tracked a middling team's rebuild. Few Philly fans will complain next year as a young, depleted roster stumbles its way to 23 wins. To start the 2014-15 season, the Sixers will likely have four lottery picks on their roster, which is an accomplishment considering it took, for example, the Cleveland Cavaliers three years of prodigious losing to do the very same thing.
Most fans now understand that building a team is about playing the odds and are therefore not afraid of losing in the short-term, which allows GMs like Hinkie and the Cavs' Chris Grant and the handful of fellows who will preside over massive Andrew Wiggins-seeking tank jobs this upcoming season to make decisions that will, in the long-term, help their team's chances of competing for a championship. Fans even understand -- the ones that truly grasp probability, at least -- that failure is not an indictment of the process. A few ping pong balls or a trade that falls apart at the last minute can doom a team to the basement or mediocrity. This makes fandom a more pleasant endeavor. There's less Monday morning quarterbacking, less righteous indignation to choke on.
Excitement is a different emotion altogether -- one that, as a general rule, should be encouraged. The NBA's fans and media are excited by the Silly Season. There are a lot of caps-locked and exclamation-pointed proclamations being thrown around on Twitter in the moments after a signing is announced, and the reporting often seems as if it's meant to be read aloud in a breathless rush. I'll speak from personal experience: When the Cavs signed Earl Clark, a few friends and colleagues texted and emailed me some stuff that, in tone, was wildly out of whack with my internal sense of how much one should reasonably emote over a 25-year-old journeyman forward who was just signed to a contract that guarantees him exactly one year of employment. Earl Clark will spend his time in Cleveland spelling Tristan Thompson and helping to comprise what might be the league's worst small forward rotation. He will do what he does, which is rebound and not much else. Until Earl Clark reveals himself to be Jandek or posts a PER above 13, he will not move me to do much more than shrug.
Despite being thoroughly unremarkable, Earl Clark was the subject of more than a few knee-jerk rants that included words meant to convey intense feelings. "Incredible" and "unbelievable" are a couple, which isn't to go on some Carlinian riff about how hyperbole abuses language, but still: People got upset and had strong opinions about Earl Clark being on their favorite basketball team. This is because the Silly Season turns many fans and media members into loaded springs, ready to uncoil at the exact moment rumor turns to reality.
Part of this is wanting for anything at all to talk about with regards to the NBA, but another component of this propensity for loud overreaction is that a lot of fans suffer from a sort of existential affliction. Not the type that makes one turn to Dostoevsky, but the type that makes you wonder if your expectations are completely ill-founded. Shortly after the NBA postseason concluded, Will Leitch constructed a list of the league's most tortured fans for this website, and what might strike you, as you scroll through the list, is how few franchises have won titles over the past 25 years. Many of those fanbases -- even ones ranked near the very top of Leitch's rankings -- have watched tantalizingly great basketball teams. Kings fans had the Chris Webber years; the Suns were nearly champions in the early '90s, then again in the mid-2000s; the Jazz would have won multiple titles if not for Jordan's Bulls. But the reality of the NBA is simple: You need one of the best five or so players in the league to compete for a championship, and that kind of player might not come around for decades. Given that there are only so many Kevin Durants to go around (one, for instance), your favorite team is likely in the process of blowing it up, building through the draft or making like the Titanic's patio coordinator.
This discomfiting reality begins to weigh on you, if you're a fan of the Denver Nuggets or Milwaukee Bucks. If the endgame is title contention, then what is there to talk about, in a meaningful sense? You can only project and hope and speculate. If real-life existentialism can be tempered with distraction- -- by concerning oneself with the trivial -- then sports fan existentialism, the feeling of hopelessness that our trivial pursuits cause us to feel, can only be quelled by concerning oneself with something even more irrelevant. This is how you get to talking about Earl Clark as if he matters.
So the overreactive blather is irksome, but it persists because fans of teams that have existed in basketball purgatory for decades need to feel, from time-to-time, as if they are invested in something important. We have an internal dimmer switch with which we can elevate or deemphasize the importance of sports depending on how much we want or need to care. (This isn't something you can do with, say, a marriage or a career.) Earl Clark is not objectively worth caring about, but my friends and colleagues wanted to feel strongly about something -- it's been a dull three years of futility for the Cavs -- and Clark was, for 36 hours, something to feel strongly about. They hollered for a spell about Clark's stopgap-quality skill set, which is rather like getting upset that a $10 whiskey tastes like fire and dirt.
This rage is indicative of a single-mindedness that seems to have infected some fans as we've become more intrigued by how front offices work, and killed afternoons imagining we were the general manager of our favorite team while tooling around with ESPN's trade machine. We have perhaps shifted our focus too narrowly toward team-building, specifically its endpoint. There are a half-dozen theories floating around- -- The OKC Model, The Star Model, The Morey Plan -- about what a team can do to juice its title chances. It's one of the most frequently discussed topics in the NBA blogosphere, and comment sections, even on articles about basement-dwelling teams, are littered with ideas about what the team can do over the next four or five years to build a contender.
This is all fair enough; teams are supposed to win, and GMs are supposed to construct teams that win more than any other team. But I think the point of fandom is not to watch your team win more than any other, but to be interested. Winning helps this, obviously, but if fandom is a hobby outfitted with a dimmer switch, then we get to decide what's interesting about it. We can examine the game from whatever angle suits our aims at a particular moment.
This is why the Silly Season leaves me cold: All I find myself doing is scrawling a couple new names into a depth chart. This can be exciting when the name you're penciling in is Dwight Howard and a dull task when it's Earl Clark, but all the same, treating players as commodities on a ledger sheet both bores me and makes me a little uncomfortable. All that really happens in the offseason is that win totals are speculatively recalculated. If I can pick and choose what I want to care about, I think I'll opt out of the Dwight Howard Ingratiation Tour and its fallout, if only because my television screen probably can't stand up to the amount of things I'll want to hurl at it. I'll keep shrugging at the Earl Clark signing, maybe look up an interview or two on YouTube so I can know what his voice sounds like.
This isn't simple, by the way. My lunatic NBA fan instincts tell me to repeatedly refresh Hoopshype's rumor page until every player has a new team, and to soak in every last smarmy introductory press conference that goes down in the next couple of weeks. But it's unhealthy to want to care about something that doesn't move you. It's how we end up aggrieved about Earl Clark. If we're going to drive ourselves crazy over nothing, we should at least make sure it's a crazy that feels good and a nothing that truly enthralls us.