The 2022-23 NBA season officially began on Tuesday night with two entertaining games featuring four of the league's most popular franchises. There was plenty for basketball fans to appreciate and analyze following a very long night of programming, but there was one play that caught the eye of fans across the globe for all the wrong reasons.
On a cool but seasonable opening night in Boston, one of the league's preeminent foul-seekers, Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden, matched up against one of the NBA's most physical perimeter stoppers and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart.
Everything pointed to a thrilling battle between two of the league's titans of their craft at each end of the court, but as Serbian poet Dejan Stojanovic once said, "Everything that looks too perfect is too perfect to be perfect."
Fast forward to late in the second quarter, when we witnessed one of the most embarrassing displays you'll ever see on any basketball court, let alone in the best league in the world.
Oh dear. This one deserves multiple angles.
Alright, so we see these kinds of "Shaqtin' a Fool" type plays basically every night ... but this one's different. From start to finish, the play epitomizes the exact aspects of NBA basketball that some people simply cannot stand. Here's a quick breakdown of the layers involved.
As great a defender as Smart is, he's guilty of some of the worst flopping in NBA history. Who among us can forget this gem from the 2016 playoffs?
Back to Tuesday night, the entire horrific sequence is set off by Smart's initial flop. Harden is known to use his burly upper-body strength to push off defenders, so Smart thought he could bait him into an offensive foul. The egregious flop begins at the 3-point line:
And he ends up almost underneath the basket before Harden even lets go of the ball:
If you ask people why they don't like watching the NBA, one of the first things they'll bring up is flopping. It's certainly not exclusive to basketball -- the diving in soccer is just as ubiquitous -- but it can ugly up the game real quick. The league has instituted fines for overtly trying to sell calls after minimal contact (Smart himself has been fined multiple times), but it's simply a part of the game now, and this was a prime example.
Can't you just hear the so-called "basketball purists" screaming at their cathode ray tube television sets while they complain about gas prices and gender-neutral pronouns? Harden could have just shot the ball without the theatrics, sure, but this type of showmanship has become an integral part of the game -- whether it's hitting an opponent with a "too small" after scoring on them or Steph Curry putting teams to bed with the "night night" dagger. Even Harden's attempt at a shimmy is an homage to Trae Young's showstopper in the 2021 playoffs.
At its most basic level, the NBA is entertainment, so it makes sense that players would do their best to hype up the crowd and energize their teammates with these kinds of WWE tactics, but many detractors of the league see this as showboating and consider it a reason not to watch.
We won't spend too much time on this one because it's been beaten into the ground, but once Smart performed his Olympic-quality backstroke into the paint, Harden could have taken a few steps in for a wide-open 17-footer. Instead he stepped back behind the arc for a 3-pointer, which is the wise choice analytically but no doubt fired up those who decry the NBA's growing abandonment of mid-range jump shots over the past decade. Harden is one of the players who brought the step-back to the forefront of basketball, and now every single perimeter player, and most bigs, have it in their arsenal. It's hard to argue the math at this point, but some people just don't want to watch games where the teams combine to attempt 100 3s.
With Harden mid-shimmy and Smart on the floor with his hands up begging for a foul, Celtics backup center Noah Vonleh stands in the middle of the key. Does he run toward the wide-open Harden to contest the shot, or maybe run him off the 3-point line? Nah, he throws his arms up to join the complaint party.
Hey, credit to Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon for running over to actually try to play defense. This is another obvious gripe with NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike -- there's just too much whining. After nearly every foul there's, at best, a piercing glare toward the official and, at worst, a full-on confrontation. The league has tried to solve the problem, but hasn't yet found a reasonable solution. The irony is that annoying complaints from players lead to annoying complaints from fans about the annoying complaints.
A vicious cycle.
It's one thing to showboat before a made basket. It's another to do it before a miss. But to shimmy at your opponent and then hit nothing but backboard on a top-of-the-key 3-pointer? It's just unfathomably embarrassing. Harden put an acrid, trashcan juice-soaked, poo-colored ribbon on this entire play by missing the shot so badly that it induced equal parts hilarity and misery.
If you're reading this, you probably watch at least some NBA basketball. But there are a lot of sports fans out there that don't, and plays like this are precisely the reason why.