It’s a safe guess, at any given time, that we are bored. Beyond what’s necessary and immediate lies a horizon-spanning plain of nothing much, and when we are not intensely in the middle of something, life becomes a string of broadly pointless activities. Killing time, anticipating. Going to an amusement park, for instance. Getting ripped solo on a Tuesday night and monologuing about all the stuff you’re going to accomplish tomorrow, for another. On bad days I habitually check my phone waiting for, I don’t know, the world to tell me I deserve to live. That never happens. I keep checking.
The NBA-watching world reaches a perfectly enervated state of boredom once the basketball stops. Some folks rightly complained, during the strange and wonderful Finals, about all the talk of the Lakers’ front office mishegoss and where Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant might be off to in the summer. The most important games of the season were happening, and executive suite intrigue still reigned supreme, like a belligerent polka band farting up a nice dinner conversation among friends. But in the stillness of late June and July, there is no on-court action to discuss. If you want to think about hoops, you have to make your own fun. The easiest thing is to listen to the transaction hounds howl and imagine what the rumors might mean.
You get the sense that for some people, sports are at their purest when the athletic spectacle drops all the way out of the picture, and they can track everything else: the pristine math of fluctuating cap sheets, the swirly-eyed Reddit sleuthing, the passed-along rumblings from dubious sources and hedging reporters. To call any of this theater is an insult to the performing arts, which at their worst at least involve real people emoting right there in the room. There is intimacy. Following the NBA in the summertime is just a handle and an uncanny grin spitting contract figures at you. It’s possible you’re half-awake in bed or sitting on a toilet when the news breaks. You’re definitely looking at a screen.
This is not all that different from waiting in line for a roller coaster, or drunkenly imagining the better self you want to become in the morning. If it’s not exactly productive, or even that rewarding in the end, it is definitely something to do. I once read a book by Anne Carson about eros, the concept of lack or want in romantic love. Like a lot of scholarship, it was an impressively researched, powerfully tedious examination of something pretty much everyone already understands: it’s the thing we don’t possess, the thing that’s gone away or hasn’t yet shown itself, that most intrigues us. I return to the book every so often, because Carson’s a rare intellect and I think maybe I simply didn’t get what she was saying the first time around. After reading a few sections, I get mad at the book and myself and put it back on the shelf. I’ll never sell it off or throw it away. I’m trapped by the notion that I’m going to open it up one day and discover something profound.
Every summer, there’s a blizzard of speculation about what might happen in the trade and free agency markets, and then we’re usually underwhelmed by what actually unfolds. This NBA offseason has been as active as any hoops gossip addict could hope for. We got some stuff we expected (Anthony Davis to the Lakers), some stuff we didn’t (Jimmy Butler to the Heat), and other stuff that was dream-like in its off-kilter realism (Durant and Kyrie Irving as a package deal… to the Nets? Kawhi heading to the Clippers… alongside Paul George?). There have been a bunch of moves involving major players, and for the folks who like to dive into the transactional details, some of those deals have been dizzyingly complicated in their particulars. We might see Russell Westbrook in an Orlando Magic or Detroit Pistons jersey before this is all over, and it would be something like the fifth-most impactful shift of the past month.
There is part of me that sneers at all this: has this fulfilled any of you? did the thought of all the khaki slacked men placing phone calls and drafting contracts send you out into the street screaming joyfully? But it’s not like I don’t get it, and it’s not like I too wasn’t momentarily overwhelmed when I learned exactly how Kawhi’s maneuvered himself and another star to Los Angeles, The Lesser. I can’t crawl into other people’s heads, but maybe that is what we’re all chasing: bafflement, disorientation, blinding excitement. The opposite of boredom.
Anyway, this part of the NBA calendar is nearly over. The possible Westbrook trade excepted, nobody is expecting anything noteworthy to happen in August or September. For a little while, the league will slumber. This is healthy. It feels sometimes like fans might drop dead from the strain of refreshing Woj’s Twitter page, the way babies and old people do in the summer heat. In this cooling off period, perhaps we might ease ourself into the lazy wonder spawned by what’s just occurred, puzzle with vague and minimal effort over what these newly reconfigured teams will look like, knowing that we can’t know and being okay with that.
The difference between a transaction that brings a player to a franchise and the player—well, playing for that organization—is that one is an instance and the other is a process. If boredom were an itch, one would be a few quick swipes of the fingernails and the other would be a salve. And when neither is available to you, you have to live with the irritation, and that by itself can be a relief. You may find that you are bored and with no available remedy settle into it. Silence is not always something you need to be rescued from, and there’s a horseshoe theory of emotion: feeling too much and nothing at all are roughly the same thing, though they don’t need to be equally unpleasant.