Metacognition: What themes will define this NBA season?


The NBA and its culture is about so much more than just which team will win the championship. What are the larger, meta themes that will define this season?

About nine months from now, an NBA team will be reveling at a parade, wildly celebrating their championship run during the 2019-20 season. That team and their story will be the last chapter of the season but the narrative arc of the year will be shaped by far more than just that team and the smaller arcs or other teams they beat along the way.

Here are the meta themes that will really provide the framework for the 2019-20 NBA season.

Negotiated reality

Is anything more representative of the modern zeitgeist than toying with the subjective nature of reality? We are all superheroes with the incredible ability to speak our truth into existence, no matter how absurd that truth might be, through a combination of gaslighting, obfuscation, delusion, selective listening, repetition and plain old-fashioned lies. Your universe can be literally whatever you want it to be — provided you can believe it hard enough and refuse to engage with any evidence to the contrary.

The proliferation of analytics over the past decade of professional basketball has, generally, moved the sport in the direction of objectivity. But a good story, well-told, is still one of the most powerful forces on Earth and as more people become overtly reminded of its power, negotiated and transactional reality will be an ever-bigger part of NBA life.

Sure, Kyrie went 2-for-20 in that loss to the Knicks but how can you argue with him when he tells you they were all good shots for him? Repeat James Harden’s individual defensive post-up numbers loudly enough and you won’t be able to hear anyone else pointing out that, “defending the post is just, like, one part of defense, man.” If the 76ers win a title with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combining for 60 points a game in the paint, we can blow all the hot air back into the “jumpshooting teams don’t win titles” balloon. Tweet enough photoshops of Giannis Antetokounmpo in a Heat jersey and it might actually happen. It always works for the Lakers, right?

Bros before other bros

Remember how great basketball was when all the players hated each other? When basketball was a game for gladiators with sharp elbows, acid tongues and hearts filled with bile and a burning will to destroy their enemies? Now everyone’s been trading Pogs and hugging it out since their AAU days, and all the intensity been drained from the sport. The NBA used to be a violent HBO drama built around grizzled anti-heroes. Now it’s a baroque soap opera, Moira Rose hitting jumpers then feigning humility while lathering in a faint trickle of adulation from both friends and foes.

The bottom line is the NBA is not just the game, it’s the relationships behind the game. It matters who likes their teammates, resents their backup, respects their veteran mentor and chafes under the direction of their coach. Intrateam chemistry has a profound effect on who wins and loses the games. Interteam chemistry has a profound effect on who wins and loses the social horse race of free agency, which resets the whole cycle.

Physical pain

Every NBA campaign is shaped by injuries — those that end seasons, force players to miss games, or simply push through at less than 100 percent. Nothing much has changed on that front but now we have the added variable of a near-pathological crusade of injury avoidance. Load management — whether overtly missing games or simply playing reduced minutes or filling less-demanding roles — will cast a shadow over every roster-building and rotation decision.

It’s not just about who is hurt and who is healthy. It’s about the lengths teams and players will go to keep themselves in the latter category.

Existential pain

By rule, at least some information about a player’s physical pain must be communicated with teams — “By 5 p.m. local time on the day before a game (other than the second day of a back-to-back), teams must designate a participation status and identify a specific injury, illness or potential instance of a healthy player resting for any player whose participation in the game may be affected by such injury, illness or rest. For the second game of a back-to-back, teams must report the above information by 1 p.m. local time on the day of the game.”

There is no similar reporting for angst, ennui, depression or disaffection. We don’t know who is feeling inadequate without a championship ring to shine up their legacy, who is suffering from shredded self-confidence with their minutes being cut, who is listening to a convincing internal monologue about how they are really a small forward even though the world sees them as a center, or who is being ravaged by the green-eyed monster as a teammate is showered with accolades.

Who will feel that pain and act out? Who will repress that pain until they literally explode? And who will wallow in that pain until a first-round playoff exit and then high-tail it to Houston?

The fourth wall

Spurred by the reach of social media and the remaking of the sports-media complex, there has been a rapid reconstruction of the relationship between athletes and fans. Athletes no longer need to rely on reporters and media outlets to filter their thoughts and ideas, they can deliver them directly to their fans, along with pictures of them drinking wine or lifting weights or drinking wine while lifting weights.

The fourth wall isn’t just coming down digitally — in-arena confrontations, often racially charged, between fans and players became a major talking point last season and for every one that was captured on camera and dissected on Sports Center, there were a dozen more that players were asked to endure in quiet. Players and fans have never been closer, literally and figuratively. For better or worse, overlap in that venn diagram of humanity is going to be a story.


Early in his career, Kobe Bryant flushed out any trace of personality and filled the void of character with an overdone devotion to winning and whatever took to get there. The narrative was indelibly flawed — it doesn’t take too much perspective to see his devotion was not to winning but rather to winning in a very specific way. You can trace Kobe’s radicalization to the implicit teachings of Michael Jordan but as Jordan has faded to the owner’s box and golf course Kobe has been left as the public standard-bearer for this particular sports pathology — a negotiated reality built around intensity and desire.

It would be one thing if Kobe had followed Jordan’s path in retirement as well, just wearing this all-or-nothing mask in the occasional public appearances of an otherwise private life. Instead, Kobe appears set on building a brand around blindly dribbling the ball through brick walls — a multi-platform Mamba-experience worming its way into society through television, fifth-grade girl’s basketball, teen fantasy novels, and sports academies for both youth and professional hoopers.

This is not just a retired player working to fill his bank account or stay relevant. The success of Kobe’s Mambification efforts is literally a matter of survival. He needs Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox and Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to continue feeding his legacy. To allow the NBA to persist without a Kobe disciple, to have players achieve greatness in other ways, without that d**kish devotion to winning and being a hero of the classical template, would be to admit that he was wrong about everything.

Is basketball a game or is it war? Should it be defined by jubilant triumph or by surviving the violent struggle? Kobe’s hold on the NBA’s culture is slipping but he’s not letting go until we pry it from his desperate, ball-hogging hands.

Next. Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25. dark

Money and power, baby

As the old saying goes, “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get to make a difficult decision about whether it’s worth paying the repeater tax to keep together a 46-win team with a second-round ceiling.”

The NBA is an elaborate system of metaphorical pipes and tubes which siphon money out of the pockets of fans and redirect it to owners, players, agents and advertising partners. Watching those dollars fly back and forth has become, for many fans and media members, as engrossing as the game itself, especially breaking down the mechanisms by which each party tries to tilt the balance of cash in their favor. You can try to ignore it or try to accept it, but it’s the game behind the game.

Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.