Recently, while doing research for another post, I stumbled across the following: of players getting starterâ€™s minutes, Al Jefferson has the highest PER for a player not named to the All-Star team this season (Note: since that search, he’s been leapfrogged by Ryan Anderson and Greg Monroe, but just barely). His PER also beats out Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. Per 36 minutes, heâ€™s scoring and rebounding more than Bynum and several others. Neither advanced stats nor All-Star appearances are the end-all-be-all of a playerâ€™s worth, but seeing Big Al so high up on that list got me thinking about how close Big Alâ€™s time on the Timberwolves came to ending my Timberwolves fandom, about how much Iâ€™ve always respected but never liked Tim Duncan, about why Kevin Love feels so different, and what all of that says about how we might lie to ourselves about basketball.
Al Jefferson highlight mixes on YouTube are a little weird, often consisting of highlight reel passes to Big Al for strong, secure two-handed dunks. There will be a bunch of up-and-unders, some blocks on shots by shooting guards and small forwards, some excessively smooth and effective drop step spins to the hoop. He is, in essence, doing everything you could want from the power forward and center position according to those positionsâ€™ traditional roles. And I almost fell asleep watching those videos.
When the Wolves were casting about for a reason to get Big Al out of town, the argument that kept coming up was that he was a black hole on offense. Once the ball went into him in the post, it wasnâ€™t coming back out until he scored or turned it over. You see, his propensity for stopping and scoring the ball was taking away chances from, well, Jonny Flynn, I guess. And other deadeye shooters on the 2009 Timberwolves like Corey Brewer, Ramon Sessions, and Sasha Pavlovic. Sure, Jeffersonâ€™s usage rate was highest on the team at 24.3%, but numbers two and three on that list were Flynn and this guy. (For what itâ€™s worth, number four was Kevin Loveâ€”this was his rookie season.) Jefferson was also (supposedly) creating a logjam in the frontcourt alongside Love, a charge that seems kind of ridiculous when you look at a Wolves team that started this season with three to five natural power forwards and zero serviceable centers, although Pekovic has since emerged as a bruisingly effective five.
And when he was on the Wolves, I bought every justification for shipping Jefferson out with relish. He was such a letdown from the energy and furor of Kevin Garnett, and there was no way he would ever be the face of the franchise. His exemplary low-post footwork, his effective spins, his decent midrange shot, his competent rebounding and blocking: it was all just so solid that it drove me crazy. I didnâ€™t watch basketball for the subtle beauty of the back-to-the-basket game. My first love was the Human Highlight Film, my second was The Answer. I wanted basketball players who defied gravity and physics. I wanted drama. I wanted players to overcome their maladjusted, Frankenstein games and achieve the impossible.
Itâ€™s why I never liked Tim Duncan. I never once picked him for an NBA 2K fantasy draft team, despite his reign as one of the (if not one of the two, alongside Garnett) best power forwards of his generation. By 2003, Iâ€™d developed a healthy distaste for the Lakers, and so by rights, when Duncanâ€™s Spurs knocked them off in the conference semis I should have crowned him my new favorite player. Instead, I rooted for the Nets in the Finals. Heâ€™s clearly an all-time great, a lock for the Hall of Fame. But I find it impossible to drum up any enthusiasm for his hook shots, his low-post passing, his bank shots. His game has virtually no defect, and that, at least to me, is the defect with â€œThe Big Fundamental.â€ (Well, his free throw shooting has been on-and-off problematic, but even that has improved to respectableâ€”not impressiveâ€”levels.)
Iâ€™m sure there will be those who read this and have the reaction that Iâ€™m â€œhatingâ€ on Duncan and Jefferson, but hating would be an improvement. My feelings about these two players are more like The Nothing from The Neverending Story, and itâ€™s not their fault. Itâ€™s mine, and I know it. As I gradually warmed to Kevin Love, I thought maybe I had learned to love a solid, unflashy player. Loveâ€™s consistent double-doubles, his lunchpail work on tip-ins and putbacks, his ability to get rebounds via positioning and timing, not sizeâ€”all of it points to an unglamorous player. He barely jumps on dunks, and if he punctuates them, itâ€™s more with a boldface period than an exclamation point.
But then again: his post game is fine, but hardly the subtle machine of Jefferson or Duncan. Instead of acting like a archetypal big man, his preference is to score from midrange, and (hereâ€™s the rub) the arc. Heâ€™s kind of a stretch four, but kind of not, and so, he exists in a liminal space. His propensity for threes (and especially for game-winning threes) is what unbalances him as a player, and ultimately what endears him to me. Realizing that has also helped me realize that Iâ€™m a fraud.
I like to think of myself as cultivating a refined sensibility in many areas of my life: I like a classic gin martini made with Plymouth, Noilly Pratt, and olives; Iâ€™m one of those people who gagged on Dan Gilbertâ€™s Comic Sans letter, who appreciates the clean, utilitarian lines of Helvetica, the timeless beauty of Garamond; one of my top three movies of all time is Wong Kar Waiâ€™s â€œIn the Mood for Love,â€ a tremendously restrained, lushly shot meditation on love and loss. I love Steely Dan. And what are Al Jefferson and Tim Duncan if not the basketball embodiment of Steely Danâ€™s cooly professional and misunderstood contemporary jazz-rock?
My ho-hum feelings about Duncan and Jefferson (and other blandly solid players like Andre Miller) belie my idea of myself as a basketball aficionado. Because down at the root I still fell in love with basketball because of Dominique Wilkins, because of Iversonâ€™s crossovers, because of fast breaks and dunk contests, because of style over substance. My other two top movies? “Aliens” and “Die Hard.” My head wants crisply efficient offense and staunch defense. It knows the bank shot is better than the circus shot. But Iâ€™m sorry, Timmy and Al, the heart wants what it wants, dammit.