One should probably never watch, with rapt attention, any preseason basketball. Part of this is an ocular health issue. The games are sloppy affairs. There are way too many turnovers, and there's the occasional offensive set where it's clear one or two players don't know what they're doing, affecting that brave face you put on when you don't want to give away to strangers that you have no idea where the hell the restroom is in this strange restaurant. Once the novelty of professional basketball players looking not-great at basketball wears off, the games are kind of boring to watch. You're basically bearing witness to a revolving door of players -- coaches are trying to get a look at everyone, especially prospective end-of-the-bench guys -- who are either overmatched or shaking the sleep out of their extremities. This goes on for about two and a half hours.
Preseason hoops aren't farcical -- that would be Summer League -- so much as they're like watching a movie where the cinematography is a little off, and the audio peaks and clips at unfortunate moments. I'm not completely sure it's worth investing any time or effort in (surely, there are more enriching activities than enduring gussied-up scrimmages) but I've been tuning in since the preseason began, half my mind occupied by the vegetables I'm chopping for dinner or the grime I'm trying to scour out of some tile grout, the other half thinking, happily, that Derrick Rose played a couple games well on his surgically-repaired left knee. The preseason is NBA methadone, which isn't something I would recommend focusing on intently for evenings at a time, but in mid-October, it piques the interest of junkies.
The more I watch sports, the less I care, ultimately, about who wins and who loses a given game, even when one of my favorite teams is involved. I'm of the mind that outcomes don't matter in sports so much as the fact that there are outcomes. A game needs rules that determine a winner in order to get the athletes to play hard and to give the fans something to hope for, but an exciting loss, in terms of your experience of the game as it's happening, is as rich and enthralling as an exciting win. (The aftermath is another story.)
It's not that I'm relativist. I want my team to win and a player I like to perform well, but wanting these things is a way into an experience. Desire allows you to engage with the game, and makes you susceptible to being emotionally or mentally manipulated by the things that transpire during the contest. This is the point of fandom, for me, to be inspired with purpose or joy or anxiety. Once a win or a loss has occurred, that means the game is over, and it's living a diminished life in the memory or on a YouTube server somewhere. The difference between the part where you're invested in the outcome (and the outcome is in doubt), and the part where the outcome has already happened is the difference between being at a party and remembering, whether fondly or with a little horror, the experience of being at that party.
I'm musing on this topic because exhibition games are unique in that they have no stakes. They are essentially competitions that lack the defining quality of a competition. Coaches want to win, but they're much more invested in talent evaluation and observing the progression of their talent. Players want to win, but they're also wary of the prospect of picking up an injury in a meaningless game.
Because of this three-quarter throttle approach to winning from everyone involved, the games take on a fish tank quality. What interests me most about preseason basketball isn't the product on the floor so much as the opportunity to think about the game in ways I otherwise don't. When you remove the stakes from a sporting event, it's played and consumed differently. It's not that NBA regular-season games are so important you don't see players experimenting with some nascent skill or teams instituting new strategies or lineups they wouldn't try out in the middle of a playoff series, but for the most part, the coaches and players are focused on the immediate task at hand.
You won't see 11th men getting extended burn or small-ball lineups that stick a small forward at center. In the preseason, you get to feel what it's like to watch a 26-year-old journeyman guard who will probably be cut in a week slalom through the lane and then have the ball slip out of his hand as he attempts a left-handed finger roll. It feels like listening to a B-side that makes a lot of sense as a B-side. You wonder what it's like to play in Italy, but not speak the language.
What I find myself fixating on while watching these games, because the score doesn't really matter, are specific players, usually young guys. I'm not even interested in their performances so much as their movements and habits. If you watch a player enough, you become familiar with what he usually does on both ends of the floor and how he does it -- the spots he drifts to on offense, but also the rhythm of the gait that carries him to those spots. This is the small, colorful stuff that informs our understanding of players. (There is, for instance, a notable distinction between a player with an ugly-but-effective jumper and Ray Allen.) The preseason is when you start to recognize the small, colorful stuff that has changed or remained the same while a player disappeared to train and shoot shoe commercials during the summer months.
NBA blogs are filled each offseason with impressive workout stories about players dragging economy sedans along miles of coastline or learning to juggle knives because it will help them play the passing lanes more effectively, but the preseason is our first glimpse into what all that work means, in terms of aesthetics, if not performance. You see remade bodies, a quicker first step. You see a jumper that has a less pronounced asynchronous hitch in it than it did last May. Sometimes you see very little at all. Some guy got kind of fat over the offseason. How does a professional athlete get chubby? Isn't it their job to exercise? You spend the next four minutes wondering about this and miss a chunk of the second quarter.
The preseason indulges this sort of slow, aimless thought that's not deep or particularly useful. I spent most of the Cavaliers' preseason debut against the Bucks thinking about how sharp Kyrie Irving looked; not "sharp" like good, but "sharp" like angular. He obviously hit the weight room hard in the offseason, and his body resembles a craggy cliff-face. It looks like it hurts everything it touches. I have also decided to endorse Matthew Dellavedova's 12th man candidacy, mostly on mellifluousness-of-name-based grounds. De-luh-veh-doh-vuh, I repeated to myself in my head while he stood at the free-throw line Tuesday night. He converted both his attempts, and I went back to cursing at my bathroom tile.
This is not, of course, how I'll be watching real games in a few weeks. I will drop the space-case fan act and start caring about more basic and immediate things like scores and shooting percentages again. But what I'm watching right now isn't exactly NBA ball. It's an uncanny impression of it, more fractitious and less clearly about something. It's an opportunity to get back up to speed by luxuriating in the mundane. Think of it as our preseason, too.