The alley-oop can be a simply breathtaking experience. When done well it incorporates all of the soul-stirring aesthetic elements which draw us to professional sports—precise execution, a synergy of skills and feats of athleticism well beyond the abilities of the average fan. The fact that you often can't see it coming until it's literally splayed out in front of you just heightens the excitement.
From a defensive perspective, an alley-oop is a powerful body blow. It's a sign that your defense was so entirely out of sync, either from a lack of effort or a lack of execution, that you could prevent neither an offensive player or the ball from approaching the rim simultaneously and, usually, in a straight line. The psychic impact is way more damaging than that of almost any other made basket.
From an offensive perspective, an alley-oop is an emphatic statement of physical superiority. It lets the defense know that you'll be doing what you want, when you want and that they may as well get out of the way. It can inflate a team's offensive spirit in the same way that it can break a team's defensive one.
The alley-oop can take many forms and shapes, stretched into different angles and incorporating different parts. The simplest, and most common, presentation of the alley-oop is a back cut from the wing. Here the Pacers swing the ball to Roy Hibbert in the high post just as Paul George loses his man on the opposite side of the floor, heading for the rim.
Misdirection is often a key element in offensive success and it can be a key ingredient in a well-constructed alley-oop. Here, Blake Griffin comes off a high pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, and appears headed for the corner to set a pin-down screen for Jamal Crawford. Griffin adds his own theatrical flair by waving Crawford forward as he approaches. Griffin's defender stays high, expecting his help to be needed on Crawford. He's caught completely unaware as Griffin back-cuts him into oblivion.
Sometimes explicit misdirection is overkill and the simple threat of an offensive player's talent can be enough to distort the defense. When a big man catches the ball in the paint, the attention of the defense is rightly focused. But sometimes they can miss the fact that there is more than big man on the floor. Here all eyes are on Pau Gasol as he makes the catch, allowing Dwight Howard to sneak behind the defense.
And then there are our favorite alley-oops, those constructed with the slimmest of openings and transcendent athleticism. It may be nothing more than space for a trailer to cut in transition, or a half-second opening in the lane, just enough time to plant and launch. But my personal favorite is a clear lane to the basket on the back side of a fast break. Here LeBron James needs just a handful of steps to beat five Knicks to the other end of the floor and wreak havoc on the rim.
Basketball is as much an artistic endeavor as it is an athletic one. The alley-oop is the most joyous and exuberant expression of that art, the best of the whole darn thing all wrapped up into a single play. I'll never catch one and I'll almost certainly never throw one. But the anticipation of watching one should be just enough to get me through the next two months until basketball returns.