On Nov. 8, the Miami Heat squared off in a road game against the Denver Nuggets.
It had the makings of a good game: the Heat have been one of the best teams in basketball to start the season (7-2 at the time of the game) and the Nuggets were somehow treading water at 5-4, even without star guard Jamal Murray to start the season.
All it took was one fifteen-second span to completely derail the game and most of the national NBA coverage for days to come.
Nuggets reigning league-MVP Nikola Jokic was dribbling up the floor on a fastbreak when Markieff Morris, a role player for the Heat, cut across his path and extended his forearm into Jokic’s abdominal region.
Jokic quickly retaliated, approaching Morris from behind and throwing his elbow, along with the full force of his 285-pound frame into Morris’ back.
Morris went flying and the benches cleared, all congregating at center court.
A lot of finger pointing and expletive-exchanging ensued, but nothing actually happened.
Heat guard Tyler Herro, of Jack Harlow fame, and also weighing in at 100 less pounds than Jokic, took a quick step towards the Serbian 7-footer before immediately thinking twice and allowing a referee to separate them.
After the game, Heat players were reportedly waiting for Jokic outside their locker room.
That’s where this photo, of Heat general manager Andy Elisburg apparently blocking Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry from continuing the on-court dispute, comes from.
If the Heat players really wanted this to continue off the hardwood, I harbor some doubt that Elisburg’s deterrence would be enough to stop a locker room brawl from occurring.
The point is, none of these players are actually going to fight one another.
There are bigger things on the line, like fines and suspensions, which make such occurrences unlikely.
Additionally, fights are not something the NBA sanctions or condones, unlike the NHL, where brawls are essentially part of the game.
Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball has talked about this before, questioning why he would ever get involved in an on-court altercation.
Back in 2017, when he was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Ball walked away from a skirmish between his teammates and the Phoenix Suns.
Pretty much everyone in his vicinity rushed to get involved in the fight. Ball, unbothered, walked quietly toward the bench.
After the game, he was asked about it in an interview.
“It’s the NBA. People ain’t really going to fight. I ain’t trying to get no (technical foul),” he said.
Two nights later, Ball recorded the second triple-double of his career, tallying 11 points, 11 assists and 16 rebounds.
No one talked about that, though, as the focus was still on Ball’s decision to walk away from consequences that would tangibly hurt his team instead of joining in a pointless confrontation.
ESPN even ran this segment in which commentators asked which was more significant: his triple-double or his decision to walk away?
This is the essence of the problem. The NBA media has become overly concerned with gameplay-adjacent issues, instead of focusing on actual games.
The same night of the recent fracas in Denver, Golden State Warriors’ All-Star Stephen Curry scored a league-wide season-high 50 points in a win against the Atlanta Hawks.
One scrolling through Twitter the next day, or tuning into a morning sports show, might not have any idea that this even happened, however, as the discourse was so acutely focused on the Denver incident.
In the end, the league media’s tendency to hyperfocus on the peripheral drama that accompanies actual gameplay takes away from the product itself.
It’s no secret that the NBA has struggled mightily in the past decade with viewership declining, especially compared to its competitor, the NFL, which has only seen increases.
Part of the problem is just the nature of the beast. Football is… football. It is played once a week, compared to the average NBA team’s 3-4 games per week.
Last year, an astounding 96.4 million people tuned in to the Super Bowl, which was the lowest in more than a decade.
Last year’s NBA Finals averaged 5.2 million viewers. The most viewership an NBA Finals series ever received was an average of 29.04 million, back in 1998.
Again, the NBA Finals is a series, not one game, and nothing can compare to the Super Bowl, which might as well be a holiday rather than a sporting event.
That being said, such a vast discrepancy between the NBA and a league it considers a competitor is shocking.
Maybe the NBA just doesn’t have the same cultural cachet. That is certainly a large part of it, but I think the vast publicization of things like the Jokic fight, as opposed to the actual analysis of the game, are impacting viewer engagement, too.
As Lonzo Ball says: no one is actually fighting.
It’s posturing. So why would the average viewer care?
As fans begin filing into NBA arenas again, it would be beneficial for the league’s product to shift the focus from the drama to on-court performances.