Allen Iverson famously ranted about practice (and a lot of other things) when he was at the heights of his powers back in 2002: "We're talking about practice. We ain't talking about the game."
In NBA 2K17, though, practice is the name of the game, whether you're taking the role of "The President of Basketball" in MyCareer or working on new dribbling moves. It's brilliant in the way that it makes you feel like you're playing as a professional, but a little monotonous as well. But maybe that's the price you pay when you're as committed to realism as NBA 2K17.
As always, I'll be addressing two different sections of NBA 2K's audience: Those who are relatively new to the series, and those who have been following the series for a while now. We'll start with a broader overview of what you can expect from NBA 2K17 and the franchise in general.
For those who are new to the series
Above everything else, Visual Concepts takes pride in presentation. It's evident in the elaborate pregame show featuring Shaq, Ernie Johnson, and Kenny Smith, the in-game player interviews, and the way that every arena has multiple openings. It's meant to feel like a real NBA broadcast; and in many respects, it does.
Their crown jewel remains MyCareer: A story mode in which you create your own player and embark on the road to becoming an NBA superstar. MyCareer's presentation is full of brilliant little touches like postgame interviews with Ernie and company and live tweets highlighting your performance. You can even hang out with and go one-on-one with stars like DeMarcus Cousins on your MyCourt - a customizable hub where you can retreat and shoot baskets between games.
It begins by asking you to create a character and choose a position, at which point you become "The President of Basketball" - a rising star who is treated as the next LeBron James. Your journey takes you through college, through a stint on Team USA, and into the pros, where you will sink or swim as you try to reach your potential. Joining you is Justice Young (Creed's Michael B. Jordan) - a low-key professional who quickly becomes your best friend on and off the court. In fact, you eventually grow so close that you develop a kind of telepathy that enables you to take direct control of Justice and perform alley-oops and other fancy moves.
Above all, MyCareer's goal is to make you feel like an actual NBA player; and in that, it succeeds. It pulls back the curtain in a way that no other sports sim quite manages, whether you're getting hazed by your teammates or complaining about a loss in the locker room. It's an environment where familiar NBA stars aren't just computer-generated action figures - they're your equals.
That approach is evident in NBA 2K's other modes as well. In MyGM, you converse with your owner, hold press conferences, and meet directly with your players as you try and guide your favorite team to victory. It includes the ability to relocate and rebrand your team, bringing with it a huge number of cities to choose from, lending it the kind of flexibility and customization that fans love. In Blacktop, you move outdoors and play some pickup basketball with other players. On the floor, every star has their own signature moves. Verisimilitude is the name of the game in NBA 2K17, and it's at pains to couch as much as possible in the real sport.
Of course, none of this would matter if NBA 2K wasn't strong on the court. Thankfully, though, NBA 2K does a terrific job of incorporating realistic basketball strategies and player skills into their gameplay. Every famous player has their own unique skillset; and if you're a fan, half the fun is mastering their signature moves and dominating. It also gives you a sense of a team's real-life strengths. As a Timberwolves fan, I was simply blown away by the speed, length, and power of Karl-Anthony Towns. Whenever a rebound was in the air, his arm was guaranteed to extend out like Inspector Gadget and snag it. It made me feel good about our future, to say the least.
Cool as it can be, though, NBA 2K17's commitment to realism has its drawbacks. One such drawback is its barrier to entry: NBA 2K17 is probably the toughest sports game to pickup, which is accentuated by its move toward removing canned animations. It is very much geared toward existing basketball fans, and it has very little way of useful tutorials. The best it has to offer is 2KU: A simple lesson in the basic controls and concepts and little else.
Another drawback is MyCareer's determination to make you practice. Granted, being an athlete in real-life is an often monotonous process; but NBA 2K is a videogame, and practice quickly gets to be a drag. When it comes down to it, it's more fun to play the actual games, and it seems counter-productive to force players into a less interesting aspect of the game just so that they can grow their player.
On that note, NBA 2K is still the only sports game to feature microtransactions outside of Ultimate Team, which has its own benefits and drawbacks. NBA 2K's in-game currency affects MyCareer and MyGM progression; and in the case of the former, feels paced in a way that turns progression into a bit of a grindfest. It also means that you have to connect to a server, which makes the flow of the interface feel clunkier than it should.
Looking across the total package, though, it's hard not to be impressed by NBA 2K's polish, presentation, and thoughtful design. It is well ahead of its competition in a lot of respects, and has been for a while now. If you're looking for a sports game that will keep you busy throughout the year, then there's absolutely nothing better.