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The NBA and Ideology

Valuable Vince
Valuable Vince
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Among those who study these kinds of things, it is widely believed that society is an artificial construction, largely constructed by myths. To those who think of myth largely as "that stuff about Zeus or whatever," this will come as a surprise, but for more and more scholars, it's a technical term that means a class of social argument founded on belief.

In the example of the Greek gods, then, it isn't the gods themselves who are myth exactly but the construction of society around piety towards those gods represented by behaviors modeled on what it is supposed those gods desire. The martial nature of much of Greek myth, for example, helped create a society in which virtue and valor in combat were often conflated---so, a hero like Achilles might be venerated despite being very far from what we might consider a good man.

That is very far from saying the Greeks were savages and we are refined, demanding of our Rambos and John McClanes a defensive position over the innocent and unable to help themselves and I would imagine that such a claim among civilizations which have perfected instruments of death far beyond the imagination of Greek heroes should be laughed down immediately, but there are ways in which we have different values. We'll leave this point here, however.

The eminent theorist Bruce Lincoln argues that myths are a powerful component of something called discourses which are, roughly, the argument that society is making to you, that you cannot see since you are so much a part of it, that condition how you think about things in ways you don't understand.

Lincoln argues that society, while necessarily appearing an integrated whole is in fact a precarious mixture of affinity estrangement bound together by a discourse persuasive enough to erase social boundaries for an unknown length of time. Nevertheless, these boundaries persist and are at all times ripe for exploitation by new discourses.

For example: One could plausibly claim, although far too simplistically, that for all of United States history---at least from 1820 or so--the major elements of politics in the South have been wealth and a disinterest in government intervention in affairs but this consistency has not been determinative in Southern voting though it might seem so today.

That is, the Democratic party approached the modern Democratic party in its feelings about government intervention for most of the 20th century but nevertheless was able to secure the entire South for much of that time because it represented monied interests. If the two elements are wealth and government distrust, the alliance with northern democrats on the matter of wealth predominated for many yeas.

That is,believe it or not, the Deep South was claimed by the Democratic party (which approached, but was not identical to the modern Democratic party) until 1948, when it went for the (racist) Dixiecrat party, then again until 1964 when it bounced LBJ for Barry Goldwater, and even went for Carter in '76.

To put this in the terms I have been using, the South felt an "affinity" for Democratic politics along the lines of monied interests that predominated over its feeling of estrangement on government involvement (and, sadly, on race lines) for MOST of the twentieth century, with the occasional break (the 1948 Dixiecrat sweep was predicated on race), until modern Republicans managed to capitalize on the "estrangement" felt by southern Democrats towards northern Democrats on the matter of government involvement (an always essential element that had been muted, not killed) such that the South seems solidly, irrevocably Republican.

The fact that the modern climate of partisan bickering now seems inevitable and invincible is merely a symptom of the fact that a successful ideological shift makes itself seem natural, inevitable and eternal despite repeated evidences that the opposite is the case. As recently as 1976, California was red and Mississippi was blue.

Enough. To basketball.

The elements which generate ideologies in the NBA are talent and money, and we are in a new one. The new CBA has given leave to the presentation of a focus on the power of unspent money over individual talent which, like all ideologies presents itself as unproblematic and more importantly would not be heard if it were not capable of doing so.

The recent Rudy Gay trade is a perfect example. Gay was, at the time of his trade, the Grizzlies' most productive offensive player. He was, and always has been relatively inefficient but this year those numbers ticked over to extremely inefficient as his shooting percentage hovers around a Kobesque 41%. Nevertheless, on a Grizzlies team that was averaging the 27th most points in the league, Rudy was averaging nearly 2 points higher than the 2nd best offensive performer, 4 points higher than the 3rd.

Nor was Memphis a team that certainly had a lot of tinkering to do. Part of today's ideology, fed through commercials and the focus of sportscenter spots, is that only Miami and OKC really matter, but the Spurs have been bashing through that ideology every year and Memphis, with the best defense in the league, the kind of mauling, physical upfront presence that works so well in the playoffs, and the fourth seed in the West wasn't out of anything.

Trust me when I say that a team in contention trading its best offensive player for some talented pieces, but largely for the ability to make as yet unmade future moves would have seemed strange in a different paradigm, even if it seems as natural as breathing today. This is not a judgment of that trade, it's a statement of fact.

The problem, the same problem the Mavs are facing is that the justification for the trade is that Rudy Gay was overpaid and that Rudy Gay is not more valuable than a single player who deserves the amount of money Rudy Gay is making. Which is on a certain level, inarguable. What is very much arguable is whether Memphis, or the Dallas Mavericks, will ever get the chance to spend that money in that way.

Is Rudy Gay less valuable than the more likely option, that the Grizz fill his 16 million dollar salary shoes with two 8 million dollar players? Possibly, not definitely. If the NBA weren't a star league, there would be other planets in the galaxy besides Miami and OKC. Is he less valuable than the Grizz pocketing four million and spending 6 million each on two guys to replace him? Probably not.

This ideology is very, very certain that the potential of money unspent is more valuable than a flawed bird in the hand to the point that there have always been rumbles out of Boston about trading Rondo, that there are these in LA about trading Dwight, two players whom cannot be otherwise described than exactly the players unspent money should be spent on. The invisible, the intangible of potential spending has achieved, in this era, a dramatic, an ontologically certain but thoroughly uncertain crescendo.

In today's NBA, the Mavericks and the Lakers stand on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. No one has embraced the lure of unspent money more fully than the Mavericks, the only team ever to break up a championship team over the supposition that they not only could but had to do better, in a more cap-friendly and youth-friendly way, and as the Knicks fall in the standings with a lot of their old team, they might be right.

On the flipside, no team has ever embraced the idea that the world is apparently ending tomorrow, so wtf, than the LA Lakers whose cap number is nearly twice the salary cap and who are chock full of old parts, but who nevertheless scored the young prize of the offseason and bid fair to keep him. And yet they stand by side in the standings, more or less, and the Lakers just lost to a team the Mavericks beat by 15 a few days ago.

Perhaps, in a sense, the modern NBA ideology is a defense against the unknown-in one sense, by preserving the unknown for as long as possible, by deliberately not succumbing to the seductive and flawed even if nothing better inevitably arrives. Perhaps, tomorrow, we'll begin to think of something new-if the Thunder start really missing Harden, if the Grizzlies fall, if they and the Mavs never sign anybody worth signing. Perhaps there's a level on which it's all luck.

It will be interesting to find out how we were wrong about what we were wrong about. It will be interesting to see tomorrow's basketball ideology.

In the meantime, I hope this one pays dividends.