Selfish athletes get a bad rap. Basketball is about more than winning and losing, more than raising banners. It's about All Star appearances and Hall of Fame busts. It's about pride. When I throw a beautiful pass to a wide-open big man under the basket and he misses a gimme, I don't care about the scoreboard. I'm worried about my stats, and how that buffoon just cost me a double double. And don't think for a second that I'm going to launch a full-court shot just before the buzzer sounds, not when I'm shooting 60 percent from the floor. NBA 2K14 puts you in the shoes of an NBA rookie, where you jockey for playing time and earn respect. My team's name may be on the front of my jersey, but it's the name on the back that's important to me.
NBA 2K14 has moved closer to reality than any basketball game so far. Players tweak their shots when defenders rush toward them, and tumble miserably to the floor when a driving point guard catches them off balance. Miss a critical foul shot, and you see the frustration in their eyes. Can they shake off their failure to hit the next shot? When Tyreke Evans is pounding the rock at the top of the key, his teammates stand around watching, knowing that even if they flash open, he's not going to give them the ball. The intelligence isn't so artificial anymore. Wing defenders fly toward the block to double-team Roy Hibbert, or stay glued to their man when Dwight Howard is bumbling around. The kinetic flow mirrors the real game so closely that minor flaws, such as when players don't dive for a loose ball, really stand out.
What's most striking about the visuals is how they draw you in. Stephen Curry isn't just a nondescript avatar. You can see his face and hear his words, and you want to prove your value against him. Thump your chest after picking his pocket; you've earned a bit of strutting. Make sure your feet are planted before you hoist a long three. If you're drifting backward, you jump awkwardly, and that off-balance hitch could be the difference between a swish and a clang. Defenders have busy hands, swatting away contested shots like a young Hakeem Olajuwon or poking at lazy dribbles like a venomous Chris Mullins. Again and again, defenders embarrass you, until you learn restraint. Use your off arm to shield the ball, practice up fakes and fadeaways, and most of all, be patient. Watch the flow before attacking, and know your limitations. This is a team game, even if you only care about filling up the box score.
And don't think for a second that I'm going to launch a full-court shot just before the buzzer sounds, not when I'm shooting 60 percent from the floor.
I've always felt a disconnect in previous iterations of My Career mode. Although I could use my own name and decide my play style, I never felt like I belonged. My player was just an avatar, as separate from me as a real NBA player. That's no longer true in NBA 2K14. Story sequences that played out behind the scenes made me care. Sure, I laughed when Derrick Favors would give me advice even though his voice wasn't recorded and his mouth didn't move, but I still appreciated being taken under his wing. After I shot poorly, he pushed me to the practice floor, and I couldn't leave until I knocked down 20 consecutive shots. After games, my coach called me into his office to praise me for an exemplary night on the court, or lecture me for sloppy play. I was part of the team, and chose how I conducted myself. When Richard Jefferson employed some Richie Incognito-style bullying tactics--telling me to carry his bags and wear a red nose just because I'm a rookie--I told the old man to shove it.
When the season began, I found my butt stapled to the pine. The Jazz aren't exactly loaded, but I still couldn't beat out Alec Burks or Brandon Rush for playing time. I watched players trade baskets from my courtside vantage, turning my head to see how my teammates were responding or peering into the crowd to watch the cheers and catcalls. Of course, I watched the action unfold as well, and took advantage when the coach finally gave me a chance. Coach Tyrone Corbin liked my willingness to act as a glue guy. I drained open threes and found cutting players. There were serious holes in my games, so I committed more rookie mistakes than I'd like to admit. I piled up more turnovers than points, unable to overcome pressing defenders, and couldn't defend a lick one-on-one. My feet were like cement, way too slow for the likes of James Harden. But I made slow and steady progress. When I became the team's sixth man, I couldn't contain my smile, and even led the team to a victory during a critical fourth quarter.
And then I tumbled.
When Richard Jefferson employed some Richie Incognito-style bullying tactics--telling me to carry his bags and wear a red nose just because I'm a rookie--I told the old man to shove it.
Coach Corbin began to trust me so much that he put me in charge of the second unit. As the main ball carrier, I had to run the offense, and that newfound responsibility was overwhelming. Defenders sensed my weaknesses, trapping me before I reached the three-point line. I was slow to react, panicked, and forced an ugly pass that resulted in a turnover. Later, I split a double-team and threw a pass to Enes Kanter. But I was out of control, and the ball sailed into the 10th row. Another turnover. On the defensive end, I wanted to make up for my mistakes, so I gambled for a steal. And I gave up an easy basket. That was the wake-up call I needed. When Austin Rivers is making me look foolish, I know that my game needs serious work. Coach Corbin chewed me out after the game, and cut my minutes, but I would earn my way back on the floor.
2K14 does a remarkable job of cutting the fat. You don't have to waste time scrimmaging or training in My Career mode; you prove your value during games. And that immediacy is empowering. The same is true in My GM mode. I tinkered with the stacked Pacers rosters before the season began and was proud of what I pulled off. I traded Danny Granger for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilyasova. I thought I was the next Jerry West. It turns out I was worse than Isiah Thomas. My beloved Pacers became the dregs of the East, but I continued to pitch trades to get back on top. With small success, I gained the wisdom that separates the general managers who are ousted in two years from those who flash maniacal victory grins at every draft. I learned how to scout and how to judge the emotional makeup of players. And don't think that irony was lost on me. I needed to know how mentally sound my players were, but couldn't become emotionally attached or else I'd be scared to pull the trigger on a trade.
Because NBA 2K14 is so close to reality, every step away from what we know about the real NBA feels off. Earning points to improve my scouting talent as a general manager is less rewarding than organically becoming more proficient. Why do I have to earn the ability to tweak lineups? I'm the general manager, darn it, and I can fire the coach if he questions me. The same contrivances exist when improving your player in My Career. My three-point shooting doesn't improve when I spend time in the gym or drain a clutch corner jumper. No, I have to spend points in that stat after the game. Yes, raising my character from benchwarmer to starter is empowering, but just imagine if I could improve based entirely on how I played. There's still that lingering disconnect, that one element that kept me from being fully invested. Even with this unrealistic approach, there's so much that lured me deeper in that I couldn't dwell long on this one oddity.
The on-court action in NBA 2K14 isn't markedly different from the way the current generation versions play, which means its excellent, and by far the best we've ever seen in virtual basketball. What's so remarkable is how the upgraded visuals enhance the overall experience. Smooth animations and lifelike faces aren't just eye candy; they affect you on an emotional level. By chipping away at that barrier between digital players and real life, you feel even closer to what's transpiring, which makes it difficult to pull yourself away. You want to hold the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in one hand and an MVP trophy in the other. For the first time in my life, I finally sympathized with the likes of Carmelo Anthony. I know what it's like when your teammates are struggling and you just want to chuck the ball every time down the floor. But I'm better than that. I'm going to win a ring.