by Wyatt Camery
[originally published October 2021]
Since this year marks the 75th NBA Season, we here at the Grape collectively decided it best to have not one, but two (and perhaps more to come!), articles in the first two issues to celebrate this historic milestone. The 2021-22 season is an exciting one for myriad reasons, from the league’s aforementioned diamond jubilee (I know this is 60 years, but can also be used for an institution’s 75th year) to the first full 82-game season since before the pandemic to a more confident, offensively-bolstered Knicks team.
Although we’re only a handful of games in, let’s take a survey of the winners and losers so far. As of writing, the only undefeated team (after only 4 games) is the Utah Jazz, who sit atop the Power Rankings for the week of 10/25. The Golden State Warriors follow in 2nd, with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, in that order, filling out the top five. The Knicks, who are leading the league in three-point shooting, are ranked at six; last season’s Champion team, the Milwaukee Bucks, are 9th, while last season’s Western Conference Champs, the Phoenix Suns, are 24th (out of 30); our hometown heroes, the Cavs, are 11th; the Brooklyn Nets are 18th and the Los Angeles Lakers are 20th, both teams with losing records. Remember, this is all such a small sample size, just over a week into the first full season since before the Covid-19 pandemic. The NBA has been lauded for their efforts to reduce the spread of Covid. In fact, thanks to the success of the NBA’s Covid prevention measures, scientists, led by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, are using data from the 2020-2021 season to better understand how Covid variants spread. Their research is being used to figure out how to safely reopen schools and other institutions that operate indoors (such as sports leagues) across the country. The study shows that while the delta variant is more transmissible than other variants, it does not generate a higher viral load. They also learned that, while vaccinated and unvaccinated people had similar peak infection counts, vaccinated people clear the virus from their bodies more quickly than those who are unvaccinated. The results of these studies have benefited public health in the US, and we have the NBA, the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association), and their quick and smart Covid response, to thank.
Indeed, the league and players are now reaping the benefits of a pandemic-response well done; arenas are packed with excited fans ready to cheer on their favorite teams. In recent years, however, fans' behavior has become reckless and dangerous, from racist taunts directed at Russell Westbrook, a water bottle hurled at Kyrie Irving’s head, and Trae Young being spit on by a Knicks fan who I do not claim, just to name a few incidents. The last two occurred in last season’s Playoffs, when fans were first welcomed back into arenas. As a result, the NBA is doubling down on their Fan Code of Conduct, which now includes a rule requiring “[compliance] with Covid-19 health and safety protocols,” a rule that I suppose is so brief and vague because those protocols vary by state. On October 22, in a game against the Suns, Rajon Rondo of the Lakers pointed a finger gun at a fan sitting courtside who he requested to be ejected. In other drama, Kyrie Irving remains unvaccinated and has not been allowed to suit up for the Nets. I don’t want to belabor the issue which I’ve already written an entire piece on it, but as I suggested in that piece, and as a Deadspin article on Irving and comedian Dave Chapelle more assertively argued, that Irving (and Chapelle), in being so steadfast in their controversial opinions, are being used as pawns by those who wouldn’t support other issues they care about, namely movements such as Black Lives Matter. I pretty much agree with this article completely, although, I also feel that this side-taking rhetoric has to potential to fall victim to an all-too divisive political ideology, but I will not venture into politically murky waters in this article, just reiterate that Irving’s stance is dangerous and as a Yahoo Sports article very astutely pointed out, eerily similar to that of Donald Trump’s reckless leadership on January 6. Look, maybe Irving is just upset he didn’t make the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, a 76 (there was a tie in the voting) person list of the greatest players of all time, voted on by a blue-ribbon committee of media, players, and NBA executives. Eleven active players made the roster, but Irving did not make the cut, and I can’t help but wonder if it is because of the controversy that surrounds him. Other 75-related celebrations include a November 1 matchup between the Knicks and Toronto Raptors, which marks the 75th anniversary of the first regular season game in league history between the Knicks and Toronto Huskies in 1946. A week in December will feature three games between the only three franchises to play in every NBA season, the Knicks, Warriors (who originated in Philadelphia), and Boston Celtics. Finally, the Lakers will take on the Atlanta Hawks on January 7 to commemorate 50 years since LA defeated Atlanta to secure their 33rd straight victory in 1972, which remains the longest winning streak in NBA history.
Looking forward, it seems that the 3-point era of the NBA continues, with only more and more focus on shots from beyond the arc. The NBA implemented a new rule cracking down on shooters who, in an attempt to be awarded free throws, oversell shooting fouls. Now, “marginal” contact will not result in a foul call, while overexaggerated foul drawing will result in an offensive foul. While the language of rules and their implementation is subject to moment-of decisions and interpretations by referees, that is a severe reversal of what was becoming an ever popular shooting strategy. I’m in no position to make any predictions about the coming NBA season, let alone the future of the NBA and its playing styles. I’m here to say that I am excited about the young crop of burgeoning stars, the veterans cementing their legacies, and the potential for the Knicks to make back to back playoffs for the first time since the 2012-’14 seasons.