Thursday, March 3, 2011

One on One

My beloved NBA takes a beating from time to time. Too many cornrows and tats. Too much flopping and whining. Too much of it not being football or baseball. I'm OK with the NBA not being for everyone, but I'm not OK with one criticism in particular: that too often it's just a game of isolation--of one-on-one.

(Author's note: there is no question that the phrase "one-on-one" has been tarnished over the years--first by the cheesy Robbie Benson movie, and then by the cheesy Hall & Oates song. Please don't let that cloud your vision of this very important sports topic)

Do people realize that one-on-one is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of sport in general? Is there anything more basic than going "mano-a-mano" ("hand-to-hand", as in combat, for those of you who are not bilingual)? Where would sports be without epic one-on-one battles like Ali vs Frazier, Federer vs Nadal, Tiger vs Phil, or Russell vs Wilt? Yes, many of those classic matchups occur in individual sports, but I would argue that team sports are as much about one-on-one as individual sports are. Let me explain...

Some fans have a problem with the NBA too often becoming a game of one-on-one. Do those fans have a problem with the one-on-one matchup of pitcher vs batter in baseball? Why don't people complain about the one-on-one matchup of receiver vs cornerback in football? Or pass-rushing end vs tackle? Why is "one-on-one" a dirty phrase in basketball, but not in any other sport? In fact, perhaps the most basic premise in team sports is the idea of winning your individual battle, isn't it?

In a football game, each player tries to win his little battle so that the play will work. It's a team sport, but each play is just a collection of small one-on-one battles being fought. And, if the battle plan works, it ideally leaves a running back in a one-on-one battle with a safety. We love that, don't we? Yet for some reason, fans ignore the series of picks and passes sometimes necessary to set up the NBA player in a position go one-on-one.

Aren't we all thrilled when Adrian Peterson gets into the secondary with one man to beat? Aren't we all thrilled when it's Cliff Lee vs Alex Rodriguez--one-on-one--in the ALCS? Why can't we be OK with Kobe going one-on-one with Ray Allen in crunch time for all the marbles?

NBA one-on-one gets a bad rap. Why? Is it because people just like to pick on The Association more than the NFL or MLB? Is it because some basketball fans have a puritan view of what they think the game should look like--all Princeton backdoor cuts and so much passing that the ball never touches the court? Truth is, if you watch enough NBA action, you'll see all of that--great passing, backdoor cuts, pick-and-roll, and yes, isolation. But the exaggerated view of "In the NBA four guys get to one side of the court while the star isolates on the other side and simply works one-on-one" seems to be a widely-held belief. Even still, for the sake of argument, let's just say that exaggerated view was accurate--so what? There is a beauty to one-on-one in any sport that fans should appreciate.

We jump out of our seats when a player gets a breakaway in hockey or soccer--when it's just that player one-on-one against the man in goal. For so many NASCAR fans, it's all about their favorite driver vs their most hated driver. Cycling generates the most interest not when two teams are duking it out, but when two team leaders are isolated on a mountainside, duking it out. A footrace may start with 8 or 800 contestants, but it almost always finishes as a battle between two.

Sports is all about one-on-one battles. Even team sports. We embrace the beauty of one-on-one in every sport but basketball--yet basketball is one of the only team sports that just two people can play--basic one-on-one. That can't really be done in baseball, football, soccer, or hockey.

It's time to cut the NBA some slack regarding too much one-on-one play. I'll address the cornrows issue after my next trip to the barber shop.

cc: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson


  1. Excellent post. More NBA stuff please!

  2. I don't understand how people say the college game is better than the NBA game. I can't watch a college game because all they do is pass around the perimeter 5 times, then jack up a 3 pointer. Is there any other play in college?

    I'm with you, Junior. Not in a gay way though.


  3. David in CleburneMarch 4, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I especially like the fact that you wait until you have something to say until you put a post up. Keep up the good work.

  4. I posted a comment yesterday that disagreed with this post, but now it's gone. Funny, the ones that say "great job, Junior!" are still up.

    My point (I'm not writing the full thing out again) was that basketball is meant to be played as a team game. One-on-one, in the NBA at least, means that whoever is perceived to be the bigger star gets the call.

    In baseball, there's the one-on-one between pitcher and batter, for sure, but you don't have Lebron v Kobe for all nine at-bats. And in football, there are lots of individual one-on-one battles that add up to a collective whole. You don't have a receiver and corner in a footrace, and the other 20 guys standing around.

    There are a lot of one-on-one sports that I love (tennis, match play golf), but basketball isn't one of them.

    That was it.

  5. mm--

    I never got your original comment, so your idea that I refused to post it is incorrect. I do reserve the right to refuse to post certain comments, but only if I deem them really, really stupid--and yours is only mildly stupid (kidding--or am I?).

    I invite you to go back through all of my posts and all of the comments--you'll find plenty who disagree with me. What probably happened is that you made a mistake in the posting process, but got it right the second time.

    To your point, as I mention in the post, it's a lazy man's thought that isolation in the NBA means one-on-one while everyone else stands around. At times, a lot of picks and passes go into setting up a one-on-one situation. However, those situations are much less frequent than you might think, especially for a sport where MAN TO MAN defense is the general rule! And when it is one-on-one, the other 4 are usually doing something, like boxing out, or cutting, or getting back on defense--something--just like in football, where the player away from the play may not be fully engaged, but he's serving some kind of purpose.

    Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

  6. My problem with one-on-one is that it's symptomatic of poor offensive basketball. An offense that executes well as a team sets up one-on-none situations, be they dunks or open treys. If one-on-one is so great, why have five guys on a team? Just make it an individual game like golf at match play, and be done with it. Personally, I love to see crisply executed picks and screens setting up easy points. That's the true beauty of the game for me.

  7. Off-topic but NBA-related stats re team defense:

    "Of the 64 NBA championships from 1947 to 2010, the league's best defensive teams during the regular season have won nine titles and the best offensive teams have won seven. That's pretty even.

    In the playoffs, the better defensive teams win 54.4% of the time and the better offensive teams win 54.8% of the time (sometimes the winning team is better both offensively and defensively which is why the total exceeds 100 percent). Almost dead even.

    The bottom line is this: defense is no more important than offense. It's not defense that wins championships. In virtually every sport, you need either a stellar offense or a stellar defense, and having both is even better."


  8. My perception of why the NBA is hated for the one-on-one idea is the focus that is placed on the individual - not the actual act of scoring. It's after a guy makes a bucket and is given the face time - yelling and making crazy facial/body gyrations... THAT is what I believe people inherently dislike.
    Yes, you have the one on one stuff going on in all sports, but the NBA cameras are in guys faces while they're actin a fool. In baseball and hockey, you kind of have a code of not showing anyone up. In football you have helmets to hide the guys face actin a fool and cameras seem much more distant. Although you still have the guy standing on top of a guy after a tackle - hate that. And Thank you for the Emmitt helmet rule (BTW I've always been a Cowboys fan).
    So, while I agree that the one-on-one stuff is going on everywhere, it just gets out of hand in the NBA with the drama after the play... not to mention the Lebron S that went on this past year...


  9. Craig you've got to read this:

    Dirk & the Mavs have a good shot to win the title playing pretty much anti-one-on-one ball.