Can Simmons and Maker become the rivalry Australian basketball needs?

Today is Australia Day. For most of us, focus shifts to the Hottest 100, Sam Kekovich's crazy obsession and tinnies by the pool. For the sports inclined, there are traditions that provide a perfect background to the dulcet tones of Triple J. Cricket at Adelaide Oval, tennis at Melbourne Park and the occasional bout of NBL hoops are the only logical destinations, right? Just be aware of a noteworthy addition to the list this year, in a place covered with snow and as removed from the homeland as possible: the BMO Harris Centre in Wisconsin.

My travels bring me to Milwaukee this Australia Day for what the locals are dubbing Australia Day by the snow. The Milwaukee Bucks host the Philadelphia 76ers and for one night only, the green and gold are in control. Heck, it’s even Matthew Dellavedova bobble head night! Australian basketball is taking over Wisconsin and I am fortunate enough to be here for the ride.

Today presents another opportunity for Australian basketball to showcase itself on a global stage. The combination of 5,000 Delly bobble heads and honorary Australian Brett Brown coaching the 76ers will headline proceedings, while the subtext of Ben Simmons and Thon Maker lurks in the background.

The fact that Simmons and Maker will not take centre billing is the only negative with what should be a flagship night. Simmons remains unsighted, while Maker’s minutes have been limited by the Bucks’ renaissance. Maker may get the chance to join Dellavedova on the floor against Philadelphia, although Jason Kidd’s rotation roulette offers no certainties.

Luckily, Simmons is on the mend and Maker’s impact is on the rise, as evidenced by his first career start last week in Miami. Today's matchup will hopefully be the final game in this rivalry where Simmons and Maker aren’t prominently involved. That is an exciting thought because something significant could be developing between the Bucks and 76ers.

What if Australia Day 2017 signals the dawn of a relationship that could simultaneously transfix the local sporting landscape and provide Australian basketball with the one thing it deeply requires?

The missing element of Australian basketball

Australian basketball needs a legitimate rivalry. I toyed mercilessly with finding the right words to subtly drop this theory but they don’t exist. The truth is the truth, and a blossoming sport needs its rallying point.

A true rivalry will define the sporting landscape. It will drive interest from the casual fan, move the needle in the media industry and there are many more clichés that can belabour the point.

What are the greatest rivalries in Australian sport? The usual suspects speak for themselves and need no introduction. Queensland and New South Wales in rugby league. Australia and England in test cricket. Australia and New Zealand in the Bledsloe Cup. Carlton and Collingwood. Holden and Ford. These relationships occupy a space in the public sphere that transcends any individual sport. Even those who find rugby league unwatchable (my obvious bias!) still know that Maroons and Blue Baggers like each other as much as Shannon Noll likes leaving a strip club. The Australian sporting universe pivots when these battles take place.

Very few pairings compete with the disdain that Queensland and New South Wales fans have for each other, and there is certainly nothing in the NBL that even approaches it.

Only four sides (Perth, Adelaide, Illawarra and Cairns) have competed in every NBL season this century. The turbulence of the NBL is well known and not worth rehashing; it is clearly more indicative of the past than the future. Sins of the past are slowing being corrected, but certain evils cannot be amended by flashy imports and TV deals. The fact Melbourne United now carry the ghost of the Melbourne Tigers says it all. Quintessential rivalries of the NBL have been downgraded (best case scenario), or in certain cases completely eroded.

Perth and New Zealand is the closest thing to a current day NBL rivalry. These two clubs have shared the past seven Championships and faced off in three Grand Final series. If State of Origin is a rivalry built out of hate - making it the best kind of rivalry - a faux rivalry has artificially developed between the Wildcats and Breakers through familiarity alone.

The Sydney Swans and West Coast Eagles played countless important AFL finals between 2005 – 2007. A “rivalry” was central to AFL football only until it wasn’t. As time moved on, contests between the Swans and Eagles faded into the background. The Wildcats / Breakers relationship will likely suffer a similar fate the moment these two sides stop facing each other in the championship round. As someone who has spent countless nights at Subiaco Oval and Perth Arena, the comparison seems apt. I can tell you this much: us Eagles fans don’t measure our success against the Swans in 2017. There is no need to; we aren’t fighting over common ground anymore.

Flowing through the history of Australian football is reinforcement of the fact the NBL doesn’t posses a truly elite rivalry. Either does the WNBL, the same argument concerning turnover and league wide instability applies. Anyone else think that it’s comical our national teams continue to boom despite the turbulence that has occurred at home this millennium?

Australia against the world

The Boomers and Opals are both stuck in a tricky place when it comes to Australian sport. Our national sides drive mainstream interest once every four years. An Olympic tournament is the hook and improved competition is a key force.

Regular opponents from the Asia Pacific region are perceived as talent deprived adversaries who we should always beat, well that’s the hope. Does a Boomers v China matchup rank highly on your personal rivalry index?

*shakes head vigorously*

At the other end of the spectrum is Team USA, the Lord Voldemort of Australian basketball. Competing against American national teams is a therapeutically uniting force, for no other reason than Australian basketball can’t beat them.

The Opals were close to slaying Goliath at every Olympics from Atlanta to London and couldn’t get the job done. Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor didn’t defeat America at the highest level during their careers. Despite achieving unimaginable success, a team featuring the two greatest female ballers our country has ever produced couldn’t slay the giant. The Opals claimed gold at the 2006 World Championships while not facing Team USA during the tournament. Could they have defeated the American women en route to a World Championship title? Despite thinking so, we’ll never know.

As for our men, Rio’s battle was the closest they’ve come to a meaningful victory over Team USA. True rivalries need mutual competition, and Australian basketball remains just another stepping stone for Team USA on their road to repetition. This will hopefully change; a budding contender could await Gregg Popovich in Tokyo but lets not get ahead of ourselves. If we go back to the Harry Potter analogy, it feels like the Boomers have just discovered the Order of the Phoenix and need more time to percolate.

Australian basketball needs a rivalry that can define their golden generation. We can’t build up competition against Team USA as an elite local rivalry when touching points are only possible every second year. There is also the fact we just haven’t beaten them yet.

We don’t need Steve Price and Brett White throwing haymakers however we do need something. Two teams dominating the NBL and projecting forward to close defeats at the hands of Team USA is not enough.

Simmons v Maker: could it really be?

On one side, we have the prodigal son. Simmons is a poster boy for everything Basketball Australia wants to achieve over the coming years. He is already the global face of Australian basketball and ready or not, a Simmons force is heading our way. My love affair with Simmons is unwavering and has been already taken up too much space on the Internet (here, here, here and here). Any criticism is a harsh overreaction to a 20-year-old finding his way. All the while, a disparaging narrative is out there; just don’t expect it to last. Success has a funny way of changing perceptions. I suspect it will only take one jaw-dropping dunk from the 76ers’ #25 to make distractions of LSU basketball disappear.

As for the Bucks, they are everything we are taught to love about Australian sports. Our lovable Delly created the storyline and Maker, his upstart companion who Australia welcomed with open arms, only reinforced why the sporting world is ready to fall head over heals for the #FearTheDeer movement. Milwaukee is a small market franchise, flush with a mindset that successfully balances the competing forces of a perennial overachiever and an inferiority complex. A feeling at Australian sporting fans should know all too well.

Simmons and Maker uniting to run over Team USA is the dream of every Australian basketball fan, but what if these two become embroiled in a foundational rivalry that pits them on a collision course?

The pair will not share the court and that is unfortunate, although it is far from damaging. There is already a juxtaposed narrative developing between the franchises they will call home for the foreseeable future, with Australian undertones littered everywhere.

The Bucks and 76ers already have a sneaky competitive rivalry, just ask any Bucks fan about the officiating in Game 7 of 2001’s Eastern Conference Finals and you will be convinced. The clubs are guaranteed to meet three times every season, and a playoff series over the coming years could be a propellant that re-lights the fire. As crazy as it sounds, significant seven game series between these two franchises could be on the cards if LeBron James finally subdues to father time.

Ask yourself, who will be the next Eastern Conference franchise to reach the NBA Finals without LeBron James? This isn’t the same question as who has the best chance to dethrone the King in 2017. No, the aim is to find the next Eastern Conference team to beat him full stop. LeBron is a cyborg, but even The Terminator had a weakness. When these frailties become fatal in the Eastern Conference playoffs is the tough question.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the Cavaliers making the Finals this season. Continuing the streak into 2018 will match Miami’s four straight trips to the Championship round. Realistically, 2019 seems like the first year when a present day John Connor could arrive from the future and save the Eastern Conference.

Toronto and Boston are the likely candidates right now; both will need to superstar talents to jump from fringe contender to bona fide challengers. Come 2019, the Bucks and 76ers could be best placed to supplant the King. Both franchises have the ingredients of a cocktail that could become a thirst quencher very quickly, including:

  • Multiple elite superstar prospects who are yet to reach their prime (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker for Milwaukee / Simmons and Joel Embiid for Philadelphia),

  • Tertiary options who will serve valuable roles for years to come (Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton for Milwaukee / Dario Saric and Robert Covington for Philadelphia), and

  • X-factors who could develop from asset to valuable resource (Maker for Milwaukee / two potential top 10 draft picks in this years NBA Draft for Philadelphia).

A universe where Philadelphia and Milwaukee become engaged in an arms race to dethrone James is more than plausible, it is downright achievable.

Here is the hook for Australian basketball, such competition is dependent on Simmons and Maker. This hopeful scenario will require to the pair to fulfil their potential. While this can never be relied on, superstardom is possible for both and an enticing prospect to think about.

The fate of Simmons is invariably linked to that of the 76ers. While Maker’s role isn’t at that level, his importance to the destiny of this Bucks team isn’t lost on those in Milwaukee. In an interview with The Lead, Jabari Parker was lavish with praise for Maker’s potential. "You can quote me, right now," Parker proclaimed. "Thon Maker's gonna be the best 7-foot player in this league. He's going to. He's that good."

“Say if, for instance, he was on a team like Philly or one of the teams that’s in the low .500s, he’d be averaging 15 and 10, easily, because his skill set is so amazing.

“He can shoot the ball, he can put it on the ground, and he’s athletic. He has that type of athleticism. Quick first step for his size, agile, great hands, good feel for the game, and it’s only going to get better.”

If both Maker and Simmons approach their basketball ceiling, we could be looking at Australia’s version of the Magic v Bird argument; a debate with no incorrect answers, just two options filtered by personal preference. Which, when we boil it down, is all that a great rivalry needs to be. Is there really much difference between Queensland and New South Wales rugby league or Australian and English cricket? Of course not, the differences are minor and perspective dictates how important the trivial discrepancies are. Shane Warne turning a ball sideways against Mike Gatting and Day 4 of Edgbaston in 2005 are equally incredible moments, with fandom being the only thing that distinguishes them.

Simmons and Maker have the opportunity to carve out careers that provide these spine tingling moments for Australian NBA fans. All going well, they will be competing against each other and be locked in a race to take Australian basketball to previously unimaginable levels.

There are a number of firsts within an Aussies in NBA context that are obtainable. Can either Maker or Simmons become Australia’s first All-Star? What about our first All-NBA performer, first legitimate MVP candidate, first to truly lead a franchise to the NBA Finals, first to earn a maximum contract? What about becoming Australia’s first true NBA superstar? Commons goals are within reach and could offer Australian sport an incubator for something special. A march to stardom could give local basketball the rivalry it needs.

Recent Finals series between Golden State and Cleveland featured Australians in supporting roles; our guys were the backup singers. Imagine a world where our NBA Australians are the headline acts in the mould of AC/DC and Crowded House dominating global music in the 1980s. Both bands are quintessentially Australian, yet everyone always has a favourite. This is what a potential Maker v Simmons rivalry can become.

It doesn’t need to be a rivalry born out of hate, regional elegances or any inappropriate undertones, rather a robust competition to accomplish something which we have never seen. It can hopefully breed from familiarity just as the Wildcats and Breakers relationship has, but the stakes, and potential rewards, are much bigger. Champions are crowned every year, mould breaking legacies are revolutionary events.

Maker and Simmons fulfilling their potential could mean the next generation of Australian basketball fans are funnelled in fandom of NBA clubs located in Philadelphia and Milwaukee. More fans, more eye balls, more 76ers or Bucks jerseys walking the streets of Melbourne and more interest in two budding starlets taking on America.

The first instalment of Simmons v Maker will have to wait for another day. Just be ready for when it begins and start asking your self this question: which side of history will you fall on? Will you be a Maker maniac or a Simmons savant? Does this question ultimately matter? Maybe not, but the Bird v Magic discussion remains a rallying point for what many people call the NBA’s golden generation. It’s an entertaining subtext to the sports industry, and lets not forget that sports are indeed a subset of the entertainment industry.

You can, and will likely, love both. Just like any competition in life, there will be one who trumps the other. Get ready Australia, a new form of NBA relationship is on the horizon.

Back to the cold for me! Check back in tomorrow for my recap of how Milwaukee celebrates Australia Day. Snow, Delly and NBA basketball – not the same as my BBQ and beer funnel, yet exciting all the same. Happy Australia Day to all!