The Aesthetic: Defining the elements of (basketball) art


The elements of art provide a common language for exploring the aesthetics of visual art. The aesthetics of basketball deserve a similar set of tools.

Put a Jasper Johns painting next to a Roy Lichtenstein and try to find the connections. You can start with bright colors, but things diverge quickly after that. The subject matter is obviously different, one an abstract, repeated pattern. The other a highly stylized image of a woman that could have come from a 1950s comic strip. Each artist is working with a different aesthetic, in a different set of artistic schema, to create a different result — visually, practically, emotionally.

But there is a language for the base elements that connect these two works, and every other work of visual art from any era. These elements of art — line, shape, texture, form, space, color, value — are the aesthetic building blocks of any piece. They run on multiple spectrums, some linear, multidimensional and the way each artist emphasizes and explores the different elements is what creates a signature style.

I am starting here because the purpose of this particular sub-blog (The Aesthetic) is to deal with basketball as an artistic medium, with a focus on style and aesthetics. But I have found that the language I use in this pursuit feels fluid to the point of being unsteady. As I continue this work and hopefully it continues to connect to other ideas and conversations. I thought it would be useful to try and codify a similar set of aesthetic markers, The Elements of (Basketball) Art.

After much thought, I’ve arrived at these as a proposed starting point for The Elements of (Basketball) Art. It’s important to remember that these are the building blocks of basketball aesthetic and they aren’t binary. Each element exists on a spectrum and the relative quantity and specific application of each element is what shapes basketball aesthetic not simply the presence or lack of.

  • Power: Physical strength, force, momentum, etc.
  • Speed: Speed, quickness, acceleration, both fine and gross motor
  • Distance: Length, height, vertical leap, distance traveled
  • Complexity: The sequencing of connected and related actions
  • Precision: Accuracy, fine motor control, error avoidance
  • Creativity: Actions and ideas that are common, uncommon, rare, etc.
  • Stakes: Game situation, score, time remaining, etc.

The definitions above are a bit vague, just trying to outline the concept as much as possible. But each element is best defined in practice, with specific examples.

Zion Williamson works with power

No current NBA player is doing more with striking or impactful work with power than Zion Williamson. The very essence of power is implied in his frame, suffusing every movement, but it’s at its most striking when it’s combined with speed and quickness to create explosion. He can make basketball plays that no other player (except maybe LeBron) can pull off because of the way he can generate force to move through obstacles. It’s not the only thing he does well, but it’s the defining element of his aesthetic.

Russell Westbrook works with speed

Russell Westbrook is a perfect icon for the element of speed because he represents not just the extreme end of the spectrum — simply outrunning opponents, end-to-end — but the way it can be utilized in bursts and in tight spaces to create separation. He doesn’t have the same range of speeds as a player like LeBron James but I’m not sure any player in the NBA makes more out of the ability to accelerate to top speed at the drop of a hat.

Stephen Curry works with precision

Stephen Curry’s body of work has a fairly wide range of aesthetics and he’s often at his most compelling when he’s combining creativity, complexity and precision. But underneath it all is the thread of precision, that metronomic jumper. It’s what shapes the reaction of the defense, opens space for his chaotic, skating-by-the-seat-of-his-pants dribble moves and what often acts as the final stroke.

Kyrie Irving works with complexity

Like Curry, the best of Kyrie Irving comes at the intersection of creativity, complexity and precision. But Irving seems to be an outlier in his ability to string together longer and longer sequences of unlikely moves. The drive about reflects both creativity and precision, otherwise, he would have missed the floater or simply swung the ball to the wing as he approached the 3-point line. Instead he goes from half-crossover to behind-the-back crossover, to front crossover, to left-handed drive, to one-legged, fall-away teardrop off the glass.

Giannis Antetokounmpo works with distance

Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry pulling up from 35 feet is the most obvious application of distance but it’s far from the only one, or even the most interesting. Basketball takes place 3-dimensions and the spatial relationships between the players on each team, the ball, the basket and the boundaries of the court all matter. When someone drills a pull-up from the logo, they’re working with distance, but so is Rudy Gobert when he unfurls his full wingspan and pins a shot to the backboard at the top of the square. And so is Nikola Jokic when he grabs a rebound, turns up court, and hucks a full-court bounce pass into the hands of a streaking teammate. And so Derrick Jones Jr. when he rises to eye-level with the rim before throwing it down with two hands. And so is Giannis Antetokounmpo when he needs just two steps to get from the 3-point line to the rim for an emphatic dunk.

LaMelo Ball works with creativity

The actual process that produces a basketball action — be it improvisation, instinct or careful forethought is irrelevant from an aesthetic standpoint. Creativity then is about the mental (conscious or subconscious) and physical ability to manifest the unlikely, unique and unconventional. Once LaMelo Ball initiates the drive above with his pump fake, he makes at least three separate decisions that turn the mundane into the extraordinary — spinning back towards the middle of the floor, making the pass to Miles Bridges instead of attempting some sort of floating layup, and using a no-look, right-handed, whip pass instead of a two-handed bounce pass.

Damian Lillard works with stakes

Even though the object here is to deal specifically with the aesthetics of basketball, they cannot be entirely separated from basketball as a competitive pursuit. Even if we could completely quiet the part of our brains that processes score and the game clock and the standings and the box score, the players would be carrying the mental weight for us. The stakes of each particular moment in each particular game provide a backdrop of emotional context. It’s why an off-balance 3-pointer during shootaround hits differently than a physically identical off-balance 3-pointer midway through the second quarter, and differently from the one Damian Lillard hits above — as the buzzer sounds delivering a win for his team.

Hopefully, it goes without saying but there is no reason for the ideas of good or bad to enter this particular basketball conversation. Aesthetics are a subjective, qualitative idea. There is no desired outcome, and therefore no generally preferred quantity or mix of the elements above. For basketball fans who prefer chaos, maximum creativity and complexity with a minimum of precision might be paradise. Back-the-basket purists seem to miss the power and precision of players like Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing, but those elements look increasingly out of place in a game focused on speed and distance. But having a common language, descriptors with commonly understood definitions and applications can hopefully make all those qualitative discussions much more meaningful.

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The Aesthetic is an irregular column series, treating basketball as a purely artistic medium. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.