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How We Watch


If you’ve found your way to this site, I assume you’ve watched a basketball game before. Probably several. Probably many consecutive seasons of basketball games. As you’ve noticed and as writers have pointed out, patterns emerge and constitute the fabric of a game. It’s many people’s jobs to illuminate these patterns, to contextualize them and file them under the proper subheading. So logically, the game will eventually go stale. You can only rebrew those coffee grounds so many times before the kick goes missing. Patterns will calcify and the NBA will go dodo on us and we’ll all start looking for illegal streams to curling. It’s not fun to watch exclusively pick-and-rolls every night for years.

This is obvious bullshit and examining why is an interesting rorschach test. Watching basketball is a somewhat deceptively difficult thing. We only have so many (~2) eyes regardless of how many camera angles TNT can cram onto a laptop screen. If you watch the ball, you’ll miss all that important cutting action and also Demarcus Cousins attempting to body dudes 5 seconds into the shot clock. You can watch a specific area but then there is always something you’ll miss. Sometimes, I like to watch just one guy make his way around the court. Early period Josh Smith or Gerald Wallace were the first players in my basketball life that I took the time to single out and they’ve come to represent the swirling entropy that makes it impossible for watching basketball to ever really become boring or rote. You can’t watch every part of a tornado though, and there is a necessary reduction of perspective, no matter how you watch.

I asked the Hickory-High crew, a few friends, and my dad what they watch when they watch and there was a grouping, if not a consensus. Most attempt the holistic view, whether via scanning the whole court all the time or training their eyes on a midpoint and unfocusing, allowing the game to seep through to their processing centers. These are opposite ways (active vs. passive) of attempting to do the same job, to incrementally understand the complex and rapid setup and decay of an NBA game. Each sacrifices little things in order to hone in on a certain aspect, be it specific action or shape and progression. Almost everyone warned of the dangers of ball-watching, which tends to not be a particularly interesting strategy because the ball doesn’t do anything. Since basketball is the sport most driven by individual talent, watching just one player do their thing is an effective way to understand how a free-thinking human balances the impulse for independent action within a system. This approach may be the sharpest point of entry into comprehension of how players see the court, but you necessarily miss the forest. Watching a game live presents it’s own set of benefits and drawbacks. Depending on how close you are, it can either be a ticket to see bombastic NBA athleticism firsthand and be wowed or a more atmospheric way to replicate the televised experience and see the plays develop. Live games are harder to intellectualize as they happen, but actually being there gives you a window to the visceral aspect of the game and makes for an unfiltered experience. All of these approaches to watching demonstrate a somewhat subtle truth about basketball. You can’t possibly see everything the first time, and this is a beautiful thing.

With the help of re-watching, statistics and cameras that track players in granular detail, it can feel like basketball is on the verge of complete quantification. Over the past few years, a bounty of performance measurements have allowed anyone with access to google and a slide rule to tell you that Rudy Gay is inefficient. It is important in today’s NBA to grasp the importance of stats since they drive the apparent majority of basketball decisions, from who gets minutes to who gets the MVP award. When many scientific-leaning analysts write, they often corroborate their numerical findings with a reassurance that whatever they have uncovered is affirmed by an ‘eye test’. Which can feel like a throw in to reassure the non-quant crowd that their numbers were produced in a meatspace setting and they either helped or hurt someone’s chances of winning a basketball game. Completely disregarding calculable metrics is ludditic, but there are some frontiers that the Disciples of Synergy can’t really colonize. You can figure out that a player is efficient in certain areas or situations and you can even find ways that those situations are created, but there is an unpredictable tilt to proceedings nonetheless. So much of efficiency and performance is affected by defense, matchups, personnel and psychology. The game is played by humans, not computers. Neither method of analysis can give a complete picture on it’s own, yet the eye-test and it’s importance to the statistics side of the game illuminates the characteristic disorder of NBA games that make them so damn fun.

Divergent ways of digesting a game espouse this conclusion. Basketball is full of weirdness and disorder and our strategies of soaking it up will never be complete upon first watch. Thus we take different approaches to understanding or enjoying or getting whatever it is each individual gets out of basketball. If systems and strategies are paramount to you, DVR the game, rewind it and watch sets. If you like beautiful, unhinged, vaguely nonsensical basketball, by all means, stare at J.R. Smith. Basketball isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an intricate game that can at best be appreciated however you choose to appreciate it.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

  • Bartek

    nice post Patrick. greetings from Poland

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