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Just Below The Surface

JMSDF Submarine

At this past weekend’s enshrinement ceremonies at The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame the twelve inductees were made available for a forty-five minute breakout interview session. Feeling the pull of recency I spent most of my time hovering towards the back of the pack at Gary Payton’s table. Watching and waiting, I picked my spots and slipped in a few questions about what Payton thought about his career numbers and whether the experience of actually being here at the Hall somehow affected the gravity of the experience. He answered thoughtfully and honestly, either ignoring or overlooking how obviously nervous I was; a gesture for which I will always be grateful. His responses made their way into my piece from earlier this week.

Questions asked. Anxiety fading. Flop sweat evaporating. I stepped back as the conversation veered off from Payton to his perceptions of the league in general. He was asked about the way the point guard position has evolved and he shared his opinion that there are just a handful of “true” point guards playing NBA basketball today. He then identified those that he saw as “true” enough:

“Chris Paul. Rajon Rondo . . . . . Tony Parker. And that’s it.”

When asked which era he liked better, Payton said, “I like my era,” then flashed that devilishly brilliant grin that burns out the back of your eyelids.

“I wish I could have played in this era. I probably would have averaged 60.”

Another reporter guided him back to how he viewed today’s NBA.

“Top five point guards in the league right now?”

“Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook. Rajon Rondo. Derrick Rose. Kyrie Irving.”

“In that order?”

“Yeah, in that order.”

When asked if there were any young defenders he enjoyed watching in today’s NBA Payton answered:

“Tony Allen.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

He then expanded his response, pointing out how the way teams play defense has changed. No one plays passing lanes the way they used to. The aggressive focus on taking the ball from an opponent has been replaced with the more passive establishment of flexible barriers. Specifically, he lamented the fact that teams no longer pick up opposing point guards full-court, tenaciously turning them back and forth and forcing them to trade twelve seconds of the shot for the privilege of initiating their offense. For Payton, Allen represents the last vestige of this defensive mindset.

Taken one-by-one Payton’s statements are of the variety that would normally set Basketball Twitter, and a large portion of the entire internet, to a righteous broil. Any retired veteran (or active player for that matter), ranking any group of players, by any criteria, seems to create inevitable backlash. There’s plenty in what Payton said to get indignant about. Off the top of my head, I feel like I could make a fairly compelling case that Steve Nash, Andre Miller, Greivis Vasquez and Jose Calderon are all point guards of the “true” variety. There’s also certainly (right or wrong) an argument to be made that Stephen Curry, Deron Williams, John Wall or Mike Conley deserve consideration for a list of the five best point guards in the league. And I, for one, was a little put out that Payton didn’t derive any satisfaction, aesthetic or otherwise, from watching Paul George, Andre Iguodala or Avery Bradley put the screws to an opposing scorer.

But with a couple brushstrokes of context the heat begins to melt away. Payton is right that a modern-day elite defensive team may be borderline unrecognizable to a time-traveler from the mid-90s. Top-tier defense used to be characterized by brute force and insistent physicality; delivered by elbows, knees and swiping hands. Those elements are rarely applied by today’s best defenses, replaced by the subtle and purposeful destruction of empty space. Steals are a risky proposition and fouls are no longer messages sent, but fractions of points surrendered. Defense has become less about imposing one’s will and more about gently tilting the scales, controlling the series of inevitable trade-offs that occur on every possession. For a player like Payton, whose identity was tied up so thoroughly in the stylistic application of specific skills, it’s easy to see how the perceived passivity of today’s NBA defenses could be, not just disappointing, but downright offensive.

When it comes to his list of the best point guards in the league, feel free to tackle the circular logic of Payton identifying Tony Parker as a panel in the last triptych of “true” point guards, but omitting him from his list of the top five overall. The uncertainty in his voice as he rattled off the names was wiped away as he tried to convince both us and himself with the emphasized certainty of, “Yeah, In that order.” The truth is that even if you argue with his ordering, or the omission of a name or two, Payton’s wasn’t exactly throwing curveballs. While he’s professed a preference for skill purity, it’s clear that subconsciously he is attracted by a certain intensity and ferocity of spirit, the kind that can’t help but be spilled all over the court.

Payton had certainly thought about these questions before, although perhaps not in the direct form with which they were presented here. But standing ten feet away it was obvious that he wasn’t approaching them with the same care and precision with which his answers would inevitably be picked apart. With a dozen handheld digital recorders thrust in your face, there isn’t much time for thoughtful analysis. That’s not to say that Payton’s answers weren’t thoughtful, it was just they traveled from brain to tongue in a manner of seconds. There’s simply a real limit on how much thoughtfulness can be applied. As the words moved towards his mouth he was filtering them with whatever vague and undefined criteria happened to be in the vicinity. Fitting, since we were at The Basketball Hall of Fame, the universe’s epicenter for the inconsistent application of vague and undefined criteria to the arts of inclusion and exclusion.

Payton was in the process of being inducted into The Basketball Hall of Fame. No measure of his personal reputation was at stake in arriving at thoroughly comprehensive and defensible answers to these questions. This was a celebration of his career and these questions were utterly tangential to his purposes and presence on that particular day. What the answers revealed is less about what Payton thinks and more about how he thinks. The specific ordering and characterizations are not necessarily revealing individually. But cemented together they show a player with great respect and admiration for players who he sees as similar to himself. It was a harmless and amusing extension of nepotism and conceit.

These situations arise often and there will almost certainly be a similar scenario, with similar questions and similar answers, popping up on your Twitter feed or favorite basketball blog over the next few months. A player or analyst will say something that seems patently absurd when ripped from the context, the full context, and paraded forward to be destroyed for the amusement of the masses. But before reaching for your torch and pitchfork, imagine yourself behind an array of microphones, mind-wandering to dinner plans or knees aching for ice-packs. Imagine the question in front of you, and the twenty-seven more that you know are coming right after it. Try and picture how much energy and effort you would be able to summon for moving away from your own inherent biases for the purposes of constructing an ironclad argument.

Would you just go with your gut and get yourself to The Cheesecake Factory?

Me too.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.