Monthly Archives: December 2012

DeMarcus Cousins: Friend To None, Friend To All

Image via scott mecum on Flickr

Image via scott mecum on Flickr

DeMarcus Cousins was suspended, and then he was suspended, and then he was suspended. Then he was not-definitely reinstated from that not-so-indefinite suspension, a mostly clean slate with a warning label in tiny, inconsequential print.

Don’t do it again.

Last week, post-suspension – when he was still sort of suspended – he was forbidden from traveling with the team to Portland. But through all of this, through Paul Westphal and Keith Smart, Sacramento continues to ineffectively grapple with a larger question, or really to draw a line. How much DeMarcus Cousins is worth DeMarcus Cousins?

Talent is chemistry’s great equalizer. No one particularly enjoys playing with Kobe Bryant; winning is just a nice consolation prize, or at least enough for Pau Gasol to withstand his place beneath the bus. LeBron James was nearly left off the ’08 Olympic team for his disrespectful immaturity. But he wasn’t, and only earned himself a talking to, which invariably led to him gaining bits of humility; though “The Decision” still happened. This past summer, teams were lining up to whisk away Dwight Howard’s indecisive baggage. Because morals give way to victories, especially when the latter comes in bunches. And it will always be easier to exercise our moral authority over the likes of the lesser productive. A reeling Deron Williams, say.

DeMarcus Cousins isn’t too talented, and he isn’t less talented, either. But he’s Sacramento’s best player, and the allure of potential is still too much to resist. Plenty of people have already wrestled with the DeMarcus Cousins question, failing to arrive at a consensus. He could be traded or he could remain in Sacramento. Keith Smart could be on the hot seat or he could be safe. It’s all very confusing and a lot of good and smart people just don’t know what the hell to do.

Most of these situations usually sort themselves out one way or another. A franchise does some moral grandstanding because the victories can afford it, or a player backs himself into a corner – cut, trade, reputation suicide, whatever. And so with DeMarcus Cousins, somehow, even if we can’t put our finger on it quite yet. But this isn’t about a solution or a way to deal with Problem Players or drawing the line between tolerable and rampant team-imploding. Sports are winning, or more simply, not losing. At a young age, there are soccer moms and cheering and postgame Krispy Kreme doughnuts and equal playing time. But then the little ones hit 10 years old, or 11 or 12 or whatever line your town has drawn, and adults become children and children become adults. These new adult-kids are divided and picked and classified – the good, the OK and the bad – and we go from there. Because it’s time to start winning, and fairness isn’t actually a thing. And it continues, for a while: junior varsity, varsity, AAU, Division III, Division II, Division I, never-ending stratified distributions of talent, winners and losers.

This whole thing, winning, it’s primal. Because it’s more than winning. It wasn’t just that Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks won. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, The Miami Heat, LeBron James, they all lost, defeated, the lesser, not winning. That was barbaric gratification, the pleasure of vengeance and retribution, and it felt really damn good when it happened. The other accessories, careers and trades and internet forum discussion and the ESPN NBA Trade Machine and all of that, it’s all winning, or winning-seeking. Everything sports-related is a microcosm for winning in some way. Even the dynamics of a team, which tries to win together, pushes and pulls and tugs for and against itself constantly. Who has more playing time, who has less playing time, who starts, who comes off the bench, who scores more points, who grabs more rebounds, who makes more money. Individual victories without detracting, tangibly, from Team.

The Sacramento Kings are not winning, and everyone remotely connected with the organization is really upset about it. Their record is 11-19. Their record last year was 22-44. Their record in ’10-’11 was 24-58. Their record in ’09-’10 was 25-57. Their record in ’08-’09 was 17-65. Losing breeds crazy most of the time, firings and complaining and trades and angry fans and endless complaining. Everyone’s uptight, wondering why winning can’t just happen, just like that, just like everyone else. Sacramento in particular hasn’t won in a long time. They last made the playoffs in ’05-’06, but were last championship-relevant in ’03-04. The Kings of those years with Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, they were fluidly basketball with passing and sharing and winning The Right Way. These Kings, they’re not very good. Their best player is a troubled star. Their second best player is hurt and doesn’t seem to fit into any long-term basketball plans. They’re fighting the present, compounded with the past, and emotions are going haywire.

Enter DeMarcus Cousins, pacifier of exactly nothing. He’s a guy who’s really good at his job that’s prone to irrational outbursts of anger. We want there to be more to it than that, a problem with a yet to be discovered neatly folded solution. But it is more than that too, more fundamental, the prism through which we admire and glare at athletes. That we wouldn’t be DeMarcus Cousins if we were professional athletes. We would be better. More grateful, team-oriented, humble, aw-shucks happy, content in our fortune, sports for a living. That’s a thing that everyone wants, or at the very least at some point wanted. Because there’s an inherent yet invalid assumption built in to the athlete and sport as business or job, that it is neither of these things. It’s a game played by players, and they just so happened to be paid millions of dollars.

Except sport is professional. The pressures of an overbearing boss, outperforming your salary relative to the business, cohesion with co-workers, all of that. There just happen to be a lot of people peeking into the office all the time. But the scope of the analogy applies to the malcontents too, in that plenty of people trudge to work every day unhappy with their jobs. And so should DeMarcus Cousins, they say. And then they say that he’s 22 years old and will mature, transform even, into not DeMarcus Cousins. But we want DeMarcus Cousins too, just without DeMarcus Cousins. But you can’t have DeMarcus Cousins without DeMarcus Cousins, either. DMC is a bully, physically overwhelming, a possibly crazy person with basketball shoes on his feet. In a 94 x 50 box that whole persona works – really well, in fact. Even if that means he hits O.J. Mayo where it hurts every once in a while, well whatever. It’s a part of his irreplaceable nasty and it’s the small sacrifices, sometimes.

And that is winning with and for DeMarcus Cousins. Some players don’t have an off switch, because some players are people and players all wrapped up into one. This particular can of whoopass is not resealable. DeMarcus Cousins is out there, being DeMarcus Cousins. The Sacramento Kings are out there too, but they’re just losing. If they happened to surround Cousins with good players, for winning games, the prism through which we observed his volatility would adapt accordingly. DeMarcus Cousins would still be DeMarcus Cousins, but it would be an edge. A good thing.

A Letter To Royce White

Everytime We Say Goodbye from Professor Bop via Flickr

Everytime We Say Goodbye from Professor Bop via Flickr

Dear Royce White,

I’m done. I’m sorry, I tried, but I can’t do this anymore.

I wanted so badly to support you, to back you in your fight to raise awareness about mental illnesses and break the stigmas surrounding them. But it’s hard to believe that’s what you’re fighting for anymore.

At first, I thought you were fighting the good fight. You used your celebrity to speak out against the misconceptions surrounding anxiety. Was it uncomfortable at times? Yes, but the tough yet essential topics are always uncomfortable at first. Continued discussion is what makes them less so.

Teams were scared of you. You were outspoken about your anxiety in a realm in which most who suffer from mental illness keep quiet. And yet, your openness was what gave me, and countless others who suffer from mental illness, hope. When you were drafted, it seemed like a victory for all of us, those with a mental illness, and those who just wanted to see a player of your unique talents take the floor.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get off to a great start. Issues about travel and support systems arose instantly, and prevented you from being at training camp. Then it prevented you from playing in all of the Summer League games. But you did get on the court, and that should have been the start toa promising rookie campaign and a chance to show everyone that anxiety doesn’t have to control our lives.

Should have been. It wasn’t.

Instead, more issues surfaced, and you began a war of words, a war you couldn’t possibly win, with the ONE organization that was willing to take a chance on you. You called them unsupportive, uncaring, ignorant. You called them liars. You took to twitter, howling about this misdeeds and unsafe environment not just of the Rockets, but of the NBA itself. With every chance you got, every perceived slight, you railed against the very people who were trying to help. Only you didn’t want help. Help involves compromise, not bending over backwards to acquiesce to one’s every demand. More and more, it seems like that’s what you actually wanted. You wanted to get better, to join the team, but only on your terms.

There were those who tried to get through to you, to show you that although your heart was in the right place, the direction in which you were headed could only lead to disaster. But you didn’t, no, you wouldn’t listen.

You had the amazing opportunity to make an impact not just on the court, but off of it. You could have broken down barriers. You could have been a leader, a voice for the silent sufferers of mental illnesses, showing them that they don’t have to be ashamed.

And you blew it. Your #AnxietyTrooper and #TeamAnxiety rallying cries, once endearingly cheesy, are now outright embarrassments. Don’t you realize that with every petulant outburst or refusal, you’re further cementing the already negative misconceptions regarding mental health?

You’re not helping. You’re making it worse.

I hate writing about this. In a better world, a world for which you were supposedly a champion, I wouldn’t have to continuously write about you. I wouldn’t have to say that your actions are not representative of me, or anyone else who suffers from anxiety, or depression, or a multitude of other mental illnesses.

Once, it seemed like you were actually trying to help, addressing this taboo in a constructive manner. Now, it just appears you’re using your anxiety as a cover for…well…being an ass.

I know anxiety is a struggle. No, scratch that, I know anxiety is the asshole that holds your head underwater, lets you up just enough so you can remember what breathing feels like, then shoves your head underwater once more. But that doesn’t give you the right to be a petulant brat when you don’t get what you want.

Today, Royce, you lost most of the goodwill and trust your bravery and candor won you. It was already slowly eroding with each outburst against your employer, but when you referenced the Newtown tragedy in your statement refusing Houston’s D-League assignment, somehow equating the massacre of 28 people, 20 of whom were children, to your plight, you hammered the final nail into your own coffin. It was ignorant, and it was beyond disgraceful.

It’s a terrible thing to lose hope. But I’ve lost all hope in you, Royce.

 

Signed,

Jordan White

Lies, Damnable Lies and What the Knicks Do

Truth-Lies

In addition to covering the doomed denizens of Madison Square Garden at KnickerBlogger.net, Robert Silverman writes about hoops for the New York Times, ESPN and at TheClassical.org. He is also a playwright, an actor, a wand’ring mendicant/gadfly. He also once wrestled a bear and lost but lived to tell the tale. He can be found on twitter at @BobSaietta, if you’d like to chew the fat. – Ed.

It’s hard to be angry if you’re a Knick fan.

I’m sure you’re aware, it’s the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/Practically New Year’s Eve season, and I don’t know what particular dysfunctional family dynamic reigns supreme at Chez Vous, but in my stomping grounds, the holidays are as much a time of giving thanks for all the joyous gifts that the universe/God/the Gods have provided as it is a painful regurgitation of all the myriad and unceasing ways in which members of SilverClan feels that the universe has slighted them. (The food’s pretty good, though. Come over some time. We never chuck leftovers.)

Basketball-wise, the 2012-13 season has been replete with so many deliciously unexpected presents—the Hot Tub Time Machine Jason Kidd drunkenly tumbled into, emerging with a deadly three-point shot, the long-awaited transmogrification of Anthony into Bernard King 2.0, Mike Woodson dropping his bland ISO-Player X offensive tendencies and unearthing a heretofore unseen wellspring of creative playcalling and, last but not least, Sheed! I mean, c’mon, Knick fans looked under their collective Hoops Chrimbus Bush and got a mint-condition Sheed from that slightly creepy uncle from Oregon or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (you don’t really know and are too nervous to pry, lest the answer’s an EST-based cult of some sort.) who delights in touching our shoulders/offering Buster Bluth-style massages for no reason whatsoever in a well-meaning but still horribly awkward way. One would have to exhibit a Veruca Salt-esque level of avarice to ask for anything more.

But when the huddled masses were notified that Raymond Felton suffered a broken finger, I had bite on a towel to keep from unleashing a blood-curdling scream that would do Tyson Chandler proud.

Injuries happen, I get that. Heck, Injuries are always going to be part of the grueling Bataan Death March that is the NBA Season. And even if ‘Bockers are dropping with a frequency that would shock veterans of the Battle of Verdun, given that their roster is the league’s most wizened, this spate of maladies should surprise absolutely no one. What I find so utterly galling is the manner in which the Knicks deign to parse information out to we mere serfs.

For those not intimately familiar with the timeline of events, Felton’s been dealing with a slew of bruises to both his mitts; a definite contributing factor to the ungodly shooting slump that’s plunged his FG percentage below .400.  On Tuesday, while trying to deflect the ball away from Steve Nash, he got bopped on the pinky and, though he returned to finish out the 4th quarter (missing 7 of 8 shots), he was obviously in a great deal of pain.

The next day, the Knicks, as is their wont, announced that Felton was “questionable” for that evening’s game against Phoenix with what was alternately described as a “bone bruise” or “sprain”.

Felton didn’t suit up which, considering both his recent play, wasn’t an entirely unwelcome event. But during the post-game media huddle, after some persistent prodding from the members of the fourth estate, Raymond fessed up, spilling the beans that he had actually suffered a broken digit andwould likely miss the next 4-6 weeks.

All I could think was, why? By all that is holy and good, why was it necessary to sling bull like “sprain” when it’s clear they were simply awaiting the results of the tests on his hand.

Not that this pointless deception is in any way an anomaly. For some reason, the entire Knicks hierarchy is so insanely paranoid that they insist on hoarding information as if the results of an x-ray were a tightly guarded, heavily redacted state secret. The exact same thing happened back in October with Amar’e Stoudemire’s balky knee that went from a “day-to-day” bruise to a “sprain” to “surgery”. Ditto for Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis last season.

Why all the secrecy? Really, I’m asking. What possible advantage/good will could the Knicks hope to gain from treating their customers and/or the media as if they were the enemy?

It’s just so damned insulting. Maybe it’s just me, but there are very few things in life that make me grind my teeth down to the nubbin in rage more than being bald-facedly lied to, where the prevaricator either assumes I am/you are a complete imbecile or honestly doesn’t give a turd whether you believe it or not.  Regardless of whether or not it’s the intended outcome, it feels as if one of the most loyal fan bases in sport is being treated like a bunch of mentally challenged, shiny-chinned-from-all-the-excess-drool-dribbling-down-his/her-chinned numbskulls or some unknown gelatinous, extra-sticky unknown substance that had lodged itself in the heel of James Dolan’s designer boot such that he needed a shrimp fork with particularly sharp tines to dislodge it.

Part of my unfettered bile is related to the fact that we Knick fans have received so many lumps of coal in our NBA stockings over the last ten years and are so battle-scared, we twitchingly assume that at any moment this will all be revealed to be some kind of terrible, cruel joke/mirage, and the massive weight of our hopes and dreams burdening this oh-so-delicate, improbable, gorgeous alternate universe could cause it to collapse upon itself at any moment.

So when Head Coach Mike Woodson casually mentions that he’s “worried” about Carmelo Anthony’s similarly “day-to-day” knee injury, like the boy who cried Timberwolf, naturally, one assumes the worst and is left fretting and wondering in an impotent tizzy. I half expect to learn that Melo actually died from a heart attack (Though if he did die, in the Knicks’ particularly Orwellian mangling of language, they would still list him as: “day to day with an acute myocardial infarction resulting in death.). The team also claims that there’s no structural damage in Melo’s knee while simultaneously asserting that they have not to date (and have no intentions in the future to) perform an MRI.

Bullpuckey.

Once again, that just doesn’t pass the smell test. Unless the Knicks’ medical staff is wildly incompetent and/or prone to subjecting the organization to a serious lawsuit, of course they did more that a simple poke and a prod of his gamey leg. They’re not telling us the whole story and either they don’t want to release the results because they’re worse than feared or, like Rodney Ruxin from The League, lying is simply their default mode.

So yes, the fear of losing Carmelo Anthony for a significant stretch is definitely a factor.

But a bigger part of it is the fact that when I hear lies like these—casual lies that blend seamlessly into corporate pabulum/political talking points—I find myself oh-so-frustratingly reminded of all the myriad ways in which I rage against machines/tilt at windmills/the numb powerlessness I feel when confronted by the daily, life-altering, actual, important centers of power who are similarly inclined to lie through their teeth with impunity when it serves their agenda.

Lest you think I’m go off on an extended screed where I point to the left or the right and use the Knicks’ mendacity to score a few cheap points (as was the case with this hack-tastic Bryce Harper piece), don’t worry. This isn’t a partisan complaint. Whatever your political persuasion may be I’m sure you can recite a litany of instances in which the opposition to your worldview spews vast troughs of misinformation.

Sports are often derided for being a mere diversion – a silly game that allows us to forget our worldly cares for 2-3 hours and invest in what is, in the end, a fairly meaningless event.  That’s true. But just because there are no real-world ramifications from any particular victory or defeat for we spectators, doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. There’s a vast chasm of meaning between silly and meaningless that makes all the difference.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone with an operant limbic system/functioning cerebral cortex who’s able to stomach a constant stream of truths, the litany of horrors that exist in the world, from the personal and the private to the all-encompassing and apocalyptic without needing a break from time to time. Call it a rationalization or escapism or an outlet for one’s frustrations but basketball, for me, definitely serves that purpose.  That’s a good thing. (Like any pleasure, too much of it can be a bad thing, too, but that’s another article entirely.) There’s a reason that human beings have created and cultivated entertainments in one form or another since we dragged our knuckles out of the caves and a big one is that if we didn’t we’d have a great many more individuals confined to institutions, lacking access to their shoelaces and belts.

So when my particular flavor of pastime starts to eerily resemble/call forth all the grievances I have with the rest of the world, where deception runs amok, that’s when I want to start flinging heavy objects at the wall(s).

Perhaps this is all painfully naïve. The Knicks, after all, are a corporate entity, first and foremost. Maybe the idea that they owe me, a consumer of their product, anything like respect is a quaint, nostalgia-filled one at best. I’m hooked, after all. It’s been X years of fandom and considering I didn’t walk away during the reign of the mad fool king Isiah Thomas, means a relatively minor slight like the ham-fisted way they disseminate information isn’t going to change anything.

But I’m still going to get pissed.

The Myth of Repeatable Perfection

Photo by benjibot on Flickr

Photo by benjibot on Flickr

There’s a scene in Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t contain very much sports) where the titular character—38-year-old divorcee Frank Bascombe—sits down to Easter dinner with his girlfriend Vicki’s family. By way of dodging a political question, he mentions something about writing about the “team concept” in America, and Vicki’s father Wade seizes on it and pursues it. He says it sounds like when he worked on oil rigs and everyone had to do their job, but Bascombe sees it a little differently.

“[T]he way these guys use team concept is too much like a machine to me, Wade. … It leaves out the player’s part—to play or not play; to play well or not so well. To give his all. What all these guys mean by team concept is just cogs in the machine. It forgets a guy has to decide to do it again every day, and that men don’t work like machines.”

Wade can’t quite wrangle the idea, asking if it really matters how you think about it so long as the team wins. The result is the same. “If everybody decides that’s what they want it is,” continues Bascombe. “If they can perform well enough and long enough. It’s just the if I’m concerned about, Wade. I worry about the decide part, too, I guess. We take too much for granted. What if I just don’t want to win that bad, or can’t?”

“Then you shouldn’t be on the team,” replies Wade, who seems “utterly puzzled.”

Now, this book was published in 1986, but it seems like the way we understand consistency and team identity hasn’t progressed all that much in the time since. In our marrow, we feel the idea that if everyone is giving their all to the team all the time that it should make a successful team, and that if a player cannot deliver that, then the team will suffer—a thing to be avoided at all costs. But for any human being on this Earth, there are cycles, phases, ups and downs. As Bascombe points out a little later, in one of the book’s best lines, “A team is really intriguing to me. It’s an event, not a thing. It’s time but not a watch.”

Time but not a watch. Something that moves on all around us without our input, a thing we have to navigate without controlling it. We can measure it, assay it, but a team, like game itself, is an ever-liquid substance made up of a dizzying array of pieces moving with and against each other. Well, for most of us, at least. Maybe not LeBron James or Kevin Durant.

I mean, just look at that. This season has seen both Durant and James take a step up to another level where they can exert their total will on the fabric of a game at any time, more or less. There are other players who hover near that kind of ability right now: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, still. But Durant and James can make it look like child’s play. Recently, Andrei Kirilenko had a pretty satisfying defensive game against Durant when the Thunder played the Timberwolves, but that still meant Durant ended up with 33 points on 12-21 shooting.

In the Wolves’ previous game, against the Heat, James racked up a quiet 22 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks. The last player to score at least 20 while getting at least 10 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks? It was LeBron James. And the two times before that as well. For the very few players who ever reach James’ and Durant’s caliber, an NBA game is less a set of adjustments and negotiations and more like a speed run through Super Mario Bros.

People still make speed runs on modern games like Skyrim, but it takes as long as a full-length movie to do it, and involves a measure of luck as the game world has a certain amount of inherent unpredictability in it. A game like the original Super Mario Bros represents a knowable pattern, a field on which to exercise repeatable perfection.

Of course, it’s not as if Durant or James never have a bad or off night. But when they’re on (and lately they’re on a lot more than they’re off), their play exudes unstoppability, weaving between and around defenders like so many goombas and koopa troopas. If you’ve played Super Mario Bros, you know what a titanic pain in the ass the Hammer Brothers can be, but at 3:53 in the above video, the guy doing this speed run shreds them like so much tissue paper. This is the way Durant and James can attack NBA teams nearly night in and night out.

But just as most of us are never going to master a Super Mario Bros speed run for want of dedication, time, or interest (probably mostly interest), so almost all professional basketball players are never going to be LeBron James or Kevin Durant. And thus most teams are never going to have a player with that level of outsize talent; instead, they will have an assortment of players with different talents and must figure out how it works.

Putting a player like J.J. Barea on the floor, for instance, is a little like Mario getting the Starman power-up, the one that makes him more or less invincible and plays this song:

First of all, I now challenge you to watch Barea play and not hear that music in your head. Barea—at both his best and worst—is an agent of chaos. The moments when he is most successful are the moments where a team’s offense has stagnated. Like a team, a game is an event, not a thing, and so there is action and reaction, move and countermove, and in almost all games comes a moment when a team gets to the bottom of its trick bag, when they’ve found their most successful plays and said plays have now been solved. This is where Barea comes in. Putting him in can disrupt the other team’s defense, but it can also disrupt his own team’s offense. And maybe that’s a good thing. Like an invincible Mario, he can careen all over the court with little regard for obstacles or spacing. His circus layups go magically in. His unlikely buzzer beating threes find the net.

But here’s the thing about invincible Mario: he can still fall off cliffs. When you get that Starman, you play reckless, and that’s sometimes as much your undoing as Bob-omb or Bullet Bill. (Note how in the above speed run Mario eschews any kind of power-ups at all, stomping enemies only as a means to an end, collecting coins only when they happen to be there. The goal is bigger than any individual piece of it.) There’s a reason it’s a blessing the Starman lasts such a short amount of time, and it’s the same reason Barea is best off the bench in short, disruptive stints. And it’s not because Barea sometimes runs his teams off a cliff—he’s often just as responsible for getting a team back into a game or holding off a charging opponent. It’s because whether your game is Super Mario Bros or the NBA, pandemonium can only work for so long.

But here’s the thing: because there are so few Durants and LeBrons, sometimes pandemonium is all a team has. Sometimes it’s grinding it out. Sometimes it’s Hack-a-Dwight. Sometimes it’s small ball. For teams that aren’t executing speed runs to the playoffs, it’s about constant adjustment, about dealing with injuries, about juggling lineups. And those are just the things you can see and sometimes measure. The players have to decide, time and again, that what they want more than anything is to win. And even when they don’t, they still have to play the next game. And the next and the nest. A team is an event, not a thing.

And really, isn’t that why we watch? After all, a Super Mario Bros speed run is fun to watch once, but all the time? In another scene from The Sportswriter, Bascombe has to deal with Vicki’s surly younger brother, Cade, a future policeman for whom the world is black and white.

All his feelings are pretty closely positioned to this conceit—the strongest chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and he’s resolved never to be that link in his personal life, where he’s in control. This is the central fact of all tragedy, though to me it’s not much to get excited about. His is the policeman’s outlook, mine the sportswriter’s. To me a weak link bears some watching, and you’d better have replacements handy in case it goes. But in the meantime it could be interesting to see how it bears up and tries to do its job under some bad conditions, all the while giving its best in the other areas where it’s strong.

Watching that Super Mario Bros speed run, I found myself kind of disappointed that at the very end, he found the actual Princess Peach and not just a Toad. I confess: I’ve never beaten the game myself. My favorite part was always finding that you had to keep going, that your princess was in another castle.

RTOEABC: Avery’s Been Canned

Avery Johnson won Coach of the Month in November, and he was fired in December. The Paroxysm guys (Jared, Sean, Ananth, Derek, Dylan, and Clint) try to figure out where it all went wrong.

1) In Haiku form, give your reason as to why Avery Johnson was fired (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables).

Jared:
The Nets from Brooklyn.
Their coach, he was fired because
Deron Williams said so, yo.

Sean:
Chilling with models
Prokhorov told he owns Nets
Made the call from yacht

Ananth: Not really answering question but here is a haiku made up of an adaptation of Avery Johnson Jr’s tweets (@itsaveryjohnson)
players couldn’t make shots
Didn’t give my dad a full season
a fuxking Outrage

Derek:
You don’t bench Humphries
He used Brook Lopez’s hair gel
He had a funny voice

Dylan:
We are not winning
Let’s panic panic panic
You are welcome, Deron.

Clint:
There once was a point guard named Deron
Who got coaches fired like he was Charon
Blamin’ the wrist
Ridin’ river Styx
To an owner who pretends he is carin’.

Wait, that’s not a haiku…

2) Is there any one person who deserves the blame for the Nets’ recent stagnation?

Jared: I’m not sure if he/she is a person, but I blame the BrooklyKnight.

Sean: It was a group effort. DWill is disgruntled and not playing well. Kris Humphries is in the doghouse. Brook Lopez has been hurt. Avery was running a ton of isos and reminding us why we hated IsoJoe in Atlanta. But you can’t fire the players, I guess.

Ananth: Yes, Kris Humphries because he is Kris Humphries.

Derek: Not necessarily just one person, no. You could point to Deron Williams’ shooting, or they’re too thin, evidenced by leaning on guys like Stackhouse, Blatche, and Evans too much. Maybe their core won’t mesh like they thought. No matter what I keep coming back to the fact that they’re .500 just 28 games into the season.

Dylan: No, because assigning particular blame is always a frivolous pursuit. But it seems management was afraid of Avery’s panic-stricken lineup shuffling and largely set-in-his-ways dynamic, so they went with the quick hook. The iso-heavy offense isn’t working, mostly because only Brook Lopez is a true isolation player, and so the team has been left at an offensive impasse. Still, this is a new team with a new dynamic, and they did play well to start the season. That has to count for something, even if it apparently doesn’t.

Clint: Clearly, this is a Kardashian Effect hangover.

Seriously, though, Deron’s wrist still isn’t right, even after surgery; he’s averaging career lows in field goal percentages and a career low assists since becoming a starter. Even if the Utah Jazz’s trade that netted both Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter (from a draft pick acquired) doesn’t pan out, said trade is looking better and better for that fact alone.

3) PJ Carlesimo is the new interim coach. If he weren’t, who would be the best interim coach of the people available? Who’s the best fit of coaches NOT available?

Jared: Stan. Van. Gundy.

Sean: Best coach available for this roster is Jerry Sloan. But the best coach available for the Lakers is Stan Van Gundy, which was about as likely. Actually, wait a minute. SVG would be great in Brooklyn too.

Ananth: I am still not sold on PJ as a head coach; know he has been around the game forever and has been a solid assistant coach everywhere he’s been but his stints as a head coach have never really impressed me. Would have liked to see one of the other assistant coaches, like Mario Elie or Popeye Jones given a chance; see what they can do. As for an interim coach who is not currently with the Nets? Would be great to see Stan Van Gundy work his magic on this team; I am a big fan of SVG but supposedly he has no interest in the job. Ex-Russian Head Coach David Blatt would also be interesting, with the Prokhorov/Russia connection but he is currently the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. As always the answer for any open NBA heading coaching job is Phil Jackson because rumors.

Derek: PLEASE, SHAMMGOD. JERRY SLOAN FOR NETS COACH, BECAUSE I LOVE IRONY. For this team I think you would need an experienced coach that players respond to, but that isn’t too overbearing. Not sure who, but we’ve seen how Deron has responded to those types in the past.

DylanThis guy. As for the second question, this guy.

Clint: I’d still really like to see Mo Cheeks get another shot at head coaching. He’s a guy that might be able to reach Deron on a point guard level as maybe the most underrated point in NBA history. Obviously, Phil Jackson could probably do the most, but he’s not available for a team like the Nets.

4) What’s with Deron Williams and his coaches getting fired? And what’s with Avery Johnson getting fired for micromanaging his point guards?

Jared: That shit cray. Man, I’ve been waiting so long for an opportunity to say that.

Sean: I don’t know, but you know who doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that would get two respected coaches fired? Damian Lillard.

Ananth: Still too early to say that it was Deron Williams who got Avery fired. I am sure he was behind it but this is America so innocent until proven guilty. Avery Johnson is known as the “Little General” so micromanaging is in the job description for his nickname.

Derek: I can’t say for sure, but those things may not be unrelated.

Dylan: I would have forced Avery to re-adapt the offense to his personnel – well, person, as in Deron Williams. He’s the player that makes this team (not) go, so it seems like a no-brainer to put him in pick and roll after pick and roll. And while Brook Lopez may be more of a low post player than a picker and a roller, his remarkable touch around the rim coupled with an easier ability to establish deep post position post-roll would benefit both players. Not to mention that if you run P&R’s on Joe Johnson’s side, you force help defenders to make an impossible choice: sink off Joe Johnson and give up a wide open three to one of the league’s best shooters, stop Deron Williams from barreling all the way to the rim, or defend against the Williams-Lopez alley-oop. Okay fine, Lopez layup. Still, he’s good at that.

Also, play Andray Blatche more. He’s really good.

Clint: In reality, this is a case of losing turning into finger pointing. By nature, people want someone to blame when things aren’t going right, and while it may start with Williams not being 100% healthy, the fact of the matter is losing games led to the firing, not Surly Deron.

5) The Nets are a team built on big money, big names, and a gamble. If it were up to you, would you have kept Avery because of everything you invested to make this team what it was? Or would you have also dumped Avery Johnson because of the aforementioned gamble and high stakes?

Jared: Dumped. The Nets are all in on “Deron Williams, Franchise Player” and it doesn’t seem like he wants Avery to coach him. With an $80-million plus payroll and no cap room in sight, this is their team, for better or worse. If the marquee player wants a new coach, you go get a new coach.

Sean: For a team that cares this much about media perception, it’s always better to fire a coach you’re unsure about before the start of a season than two months in. There’s no way to react to this news other than “Nets are pressing the panic button.”

Ananth: The Nets had Star Wars level hype coming into the season and so far have not lived up to it so I would have probably dumped Avery as well. It seemed like the team was just going through the motions and perhaps a new voice could spice things up. Kelly Dwyer, as usual, has a great take on the situation.

Derek: I keep coming back to the fact that it’s just 28 games in, and they were playing well at one point. I don’t believe many thought they’d be Finals contenders, but I can see why the Nets made the move if they had higher expectations, and greater belief in the team’s potential.

Dylan: Say what you want about the Lakers and Mike Brown and not giving him a chance, but he wasn’t the right coach to manage a bunch of superstar personalities. He’s reserved and x’s and o’s and purely basketball, not emotionally basketball. Now the Lakers did mess it up by hiring D’Antoni over Phil, but that’s another conversation. The point is that quick triggers aren’t such a bad thing, always. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but it is broke in Brooklyn, so fix it. Avery Johnson has his way of coaching, his style. Coaches adapt, but they don’t change. His offense will always be partially iso-heavy, and the personnel does not fit that style. Brooklyn is not winning it all this season anyway, so you might as well put the right coaching core in place to build towards a future.

Clint: I would have put Jay-Z and Mikhail Prokhorov in a Thunderdome with majority stake in the team at the top of a 24 foot stepladder with rusty nails sticking out of it and let Spike Lee officiate it with prejudice.

6) If a “shake up” was mandatory, would you have also fired Avery Johnson, or would you have gone another route?

Jared: I would have moved the team to Newark.

Sean: If it was this or trading for Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract, I’ll take firing Avery.

Ananth: The Nets have a solid roster but it wasn’t gelling in the larger sense. If it was a mandatory shake up, firing seems like the only option in this case. Also since the Nets are “shaking” things up:

Derek: I guess if a shake up was mandatory you fire the coach or make a panic trade. Unfortunately for Avery, you can’t fire the players, and it was easier to make a coaching change than try to orchestrate a trade given the contacts and roster.

Dylan: Firing Avery Johnson was the only option because the Nets are financially inflexible and possess very few movable parts. They were squeezed by their own roster-assembling ineptitude, really. Still, I would have fired Avery Johnson because he is not the right coach for this team. The whole iso-heavy thing, as discussed before.

Clint: Johnson was just Coach of the Month in November. It’s like the Coach of the Year curse has been truncated like a lockout season. It’s an instant gratification world we live in these days, with little patience for learning curves. I don’t anticipate much more success for this firing, at least as long as Deron Williams continues to play at a career low level, whether it be untold health reasons or any other.

Avery Johnson Fired From The Nets, Who Should Have Seen This Coming

Photo from quinn.anya via Flickr

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/WojYahooNBA/status/284357218147651585"]

Avery Johnson was relieved of his coaching duties Thursday afternoon, and it’s hard to say nobody saw this one coming. The Nets are spiraling out of control in every way possible: the offense is stagnant, the defense (save for one Gerald Wallace) is disinterested, their max star has publicly spoken out against the system, they’re paying Kris Humphries $12 million a year to attract animosity on the bench, their mascot is named after an adult actress – it’s all bad, and even worse, it’s a very mainstream sort of bad, which just doesn’t work in Brooklyn.

Johnson never really had a chance in Brooklyn. His transformation from brilliant incoming defensive mind in his first Mavericks coaching seasons to a gray, uninspiring type aside, this roster was always built towards something it could not achieve. Aspirations of championships and control over New York City are grand dreams to dream, but the depth chart shows a different story. It worked early on, with an overmatched bench unit inexplicably crushing teams instead of struggling, to stay within reach, but you can only count on Reggie Evans’s defense and Jerry Stackhouse’s shooting for so long before it all falls apart.

And it was always going to fall apart. This roster is top-heavy, and that top is flawed. Joe Johnson has now dragged a third straight coach down isolation hell, as his two last coaches are suddenly running flourishing offensive systems atop the Eastern Conference rankings. Meanwhile, Deron Williams is either not willing or not capable of being the type of player who was consistently compared to Chris Paul atop the world’s point guard rankings. For all the talent around him, this was a roster desperately in need of him efficiently bullying his matchup to the point of easy shots for him and his teammates.

You’ll excuse me for this offensive focus, even as the Nets rank 11th on offense and 21st on defense. But this squad was always going to win, if it could, by virtue of the offensive end. The grind-it-out style that Avery Johnson seems to be most comfortable with is a horrible fit for an athletic frontcourt that often struggles with positioning and pick and roll defense. And while you can’t fire your $100 million dollar star point guard for shooting 29% from three, or your prized shooting guard acquisition for posting a PER in the lower teens, you most certainly can fire your coach for taking an offensive squad and playing at the league’s second slowest pace.

The focus today will be on Deron Williams, and rightfully so; a former consensus, we are now three years into Williams acting as a somewhat petulant overhyped focus. We’re running out of evidence that Deron is even close to elite, his motivation seems more absent than wavering, and he’s now been heavily involved (if not directly responsible – I’ll allow the reader to fill in on the speculation) in the firing of two coaches in less than 24 months.

But I can’t get away from the Joe suspicions here. Public opinion on Joe Johnson has swayed wildly over the years, as he’s gone from underrated to overrated perhaps more than any player in the league since his breakout year in Phoenix; going in to this year with the Nets, in a situation where he could be Joe Johnson and not Joe Johnson’s contract, I was cautiously optimistic. Word out of Brooklyn was that ISOJoe would be gone forever, but if anything, it’s become more prominent and more depressing. Deron worked well as an off-ball point guard next to the likes of Jordan Farmar, Brook Lopez is at his best when he’s cutting through the lane and catching at the mid-post, Gerald Wallace is a terror cutting towards the rim, and yet when Joe has the ball in his hands, everything boggles down.

It’s unfair and somewhat lazy to point at Joe and say his absence is why Mike Woodson is succeeding with entirely different personnel in New York; and Larry Drew’s Hawks look better to the eye than in the Joe days, but they rank below these Nets in offensive efficiency. But the visual of 4 uninvolved players as Joe dribbles has been running on League Pass for too long. Whoever comes in will need to find a balance that keeps Joe involved but includes others, helps Deron recover but doesn’t frustrate Joe, all while maintaining what has truly been an excellent year from Lopez and a resurgence from Andray Blatche – who all “leaving the Wizards!” jokes aside, clearly benefited greatly from Avery’s presence and has already grieved his departure on Twitter.

Oh, and fix the defense, without players who can play any. Lest we forget.

I don’t see available coaches who I trust with all these tasks; I’m not sure there are many unavailable coaches who I trust with all these tasks. These Nets, sitting at .500, are only slight percentage points lower than where they probably should have been. Of course, with expectations through the roof and an owner who may or may not be crazy, may or may not be paying attention, and most certainly has an unlimited budget – this is not enough. Anything is in play with this team going forward (sign Phil Jackson as coach! Trade for Pau Gasol! Close down the Barclays Center, move to the moon!), just don’t expect the results to be as good as Brooklyn expects.

Kevin’s Summer Project, Part 5: Power Forward Offense

Well, it is an ideal week for this post, with the world in a holiday-based lull.  Power Forward easily provided the weakest correlations between OWS and pre-draft measurements.  Across the entire PF draftee set, of 80 correlations, only four reached 0.25, with a high value of 0.32.  Of eighty first-round correlations, the amount above 0.25 only increased to ten, with a maximum of 0.43.  The strongest marks involved wingspan and reach, but of underclassmen one standard deviation below average, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love register for wingspan, with Griffin and Paul Millsap nearing the bottom for reach.   Sooo…article over?   Not exactly; during the first parts in this series, I was able to focus on point guard speed, shooting guard leaping, and small forward size.  But the overwhelming trends belie the criticality of pre-draft measurements as it relates to NBA offense.  Power forward provides the first real opportunity to talk about ‘no result’ as the result.

What is the antonym for “workout warrior”? I don’t know, but this one stands poised to sign his second big NBA contract.

I root for and blog about a fairly miserable team.  In evaluating prospects, my tendency relies on trusting previous production; i.e. the numbers; both production based, but also age and strength of schedule.  The murky waters of “the more-open NBA game will allow Harrison Barnes’ athleticism to shine”, or “Thanks to his wingspan, Jeremy Lamb projects as a high quality defender”, or “Jared Sullinger is too short and fat to play in the NBA” (none of these are real quotes, to my knowledge) always leave me curious.  Any of these things could be true, but how definite is the precedent?

And this research project is confirming, at least for offense, that most pre-draft measurements do not inform late-breaking, player-evaluation-shifting information into the process.  Maybe this was already obvious, but invariably as follow-up to the combine, glowing reports are penned about the week’s workout warriors, and discussions become increasingly inundated with the recent surprises and confirmations of the strengths & weaknesses of the year’s class.

Examples of upside-down results include:

  • Of 102 power forwards, the seven shortest included Thad Young, Dejuan Blair, Jason Maxiell, and Craig Smith.  These four tallied average peak season of 3.1 OWS, an above-mean value compared to the entire group, from an average draft position of 28.
  • In 2006, Chicago utilized the #4 pick to select Tyrus Thomas, an amazing athlete, who of recent drafted power forwards ranked 95th percentile for no-step vert, 98th percentile for max-vert, 60th percentile for agility, and 84th percentile for speed.  Early in 2010, the Bulls parted ways with Thomas, shortly after selecting Taj Gibson at #26, who tested 8th percentile for no-step vert, 14th percentile for max-vert, 48th percentile for agility, and 17th percentile for speed.   How much did athleticism color Chi-town’s opinion in 2006?
  • Some players that ‘failed’ at every measurement passed the test of time; of the drafted group, Paul Millsap tested at 12th percentile for height, 61st percentile for wingspan, 26th percentile for reach, 44th for no-step vert, 37th for max vert, 38th for agility, and 40th percentile for speed.  At draft time, Kevin Love, the current king of this position, was near or below the median for height, wingspan, reach, and no-step vert, without reaching the top-quarter for max-vert, agility or speed.  Both were highly accomplished rebounders, skilled offensive players, and guys that used their smarts to make an impact on defense.

Has Kevin Love toned-up and slimmed-down since his UCLA days?

Obviously, these anecdotes exist at every position; I am just raising them here.  A primary outcome of the first half of this series is suggesting to not take the combine results overly seriously.   Every draft-able player possesses a variety of skills, smarts, size, athleticism, and intangibles; they will use their combination of particular traits towards success or failure, but very few combine-measurables offer anything remotely resembling a panacea.   There is not a perfect statistics-based draft projection system, but at least my future writing can be grounded in the context of the importance of combine results.  (Of course, defense remains non-discussed; perhaps those articles turn this series on its collective head.)

To close this out, I will hypothesize on the reasons for today’s result consisting of non-results.  One idea probably leads to the other.  First, based on my positional assignments, there were 102 NCAA or high school power forwards selected from 2000 through 2011; twenty more than any other position, and double the number of centers.    Second, and probably the reason for the first, is that “power forward” encompasses the most diverse range of skills.  At the margins of the traditionally defined positions, “point guards” and “centers” receive the most concrete roles.  With a few exceptions, “point guards” are the smallest players, the best ball-handlers, and will lead your team in assists.  There are “scoring point guards” and “distributing point guards”, but both groups fill this same list of descriptions.  “Centers” are tall, ideally seven-foot; they defend the paint, rebound, and hopefully provide scoring near the basket.

The wing positions become more diverse; however they are frequently scorers, whether as a leading guy or a spark-off-the-bench.  Superstars fill many roles, but the remaining group generally gets parsed into ball-handling slashers or spot-up shooters.  Defensive specialists trickle into these positions, but more often than not, they serve as three-and-D guys; dual specialists with a defined role at both ends.

At “power forward”, a multitude of specialists and skills find their place.  Obviously, multi-faceted stars like Kevin Love and Chris Bosh exist, but traditional bruisers like Carlos Boozer and David West still make a nice living.  Matt Bonner and Steve Novak provide excellent floor-spacing; tough guy enforcers like Reggie Evans keep surfacing; defensive specialists, including Taj Gibson make their mark; and players like Josh Smith, Serge Ibaka, and Ryan Anderson blur the lines in-between.  Paul Millsap, the 6’- 6” forty-seventh pick in 2006 can tally 6000 points, 3500 rebounds, and 466 blocks with career PER of 18.7, nearly matching 6’ – 10” Lamarcus Aldridge, the second-pick in the same draft, with career production of 8200 points, 3500 rebounds and 464 blocks (career PER = 19.6).

While no one position is uniform, the variety of ‘power forwards’ covers the most expansive grounds, making it difficult to clearly define a prototype, or specify important size & athleticism traits.

Today’s conclusions:

  • For power forwards, solid relationships between pre-draft measurements and offensive performance do not exist.
  • This was also frequently true for the other positions.
  • For power forwards, this is due to the diversity of functions served.  Are there more dissimilar role-players than Steve Novak and Reggie Evans?  Well, they play the same “position”.

Next up, we will finalize looking at offense for centers, before moving to the other end, where I anticipate things getting more intriguing.

Boxing Day

Image via seanwolter on Flickr

Every year, NBA fans look forward to the slate of games on Christmas day. It’s a great chance to maintain a connection to your NBA family, while still getting to hang around your family-family. As fans, we’re treated to five (usually) awesome and evenly-matched games. It’s the perfect mix of superstars, hard-fought basketball, perfectly-executed basketball defensive and offensive basketball plays, and the masterful breakdown of offenses into isolation plays because all these superstars would prefer to deviate from the playbook and one-up each other. Really, it’s everything a fan loves out of basketball. And this year didn’t disappoint (well, maybe the Bulls did just a bit).

If you’re a fan of good basketball and the NBA in general. No day is sweeter than Christmas. Even if you don’t get to watch any or all of the games, you are confident that some damn good basketball is being played and millions of people are being entertained. It’s a gift to everyone. If you’re a fan of bad basketball–that is, teams that NEVER play on Christmas–you can still enjoy it, but it’s hard not to notice that your team is once again too irrelevant, t00 lottery bound, too turnover-prone, too star-less to play on a national stage. Even if you do have a star, he probably doesn’t have a supporting cast strong enough to lift the team to relevance. Or maybe your team used to play on Christmas, but they don’t anymore because they’re not relevant anymore. It’s tough, but it’s life as the fan of bad basketball.

On opening night, I talked about why I was ecstatic to have basketball back, and why I’m a Wizards and Cavs fan. The Cavs brought me into this world, the ’98 lockout pushed me out, and the Wizards brought me back in. For that, I am forever indebted to these two teams. Through thick and thin (thick being 2007-2008; thin being everything since, really), I’ve stuck with these teams, and I’d like to think they’ve stuck with me. We’ve got a two-way relationship going. Sometimes, I don’t watch a few games. Other times, they trade for pieces that bloat the payroll. A few nights, I’ll watch them play and wonder how so many grown men could collectively not care about their jobs all at the same time. And then there are those nights–those awesome nights–when they tell Kobe, Dwight, Metta, LeBron, Dwyane, Chris, and Ray “We don’t give a f*** who you are. You’re not winning this game.” Sometimes for bad teams, winning the battle is far sweeter than winning the war.

Since the day after Christmas this year falls on a Wednesday, it’s back to work for the regular NBA schedule and the rest of the teams. There are thirteen games on tonight. Some will be tight games, some will be upsets, some will be letdowns, and some will be blowouts. That’s just how it goes. And it’s Boxing Day–the day most of America assumes is a holiday that either has to do with British boxing or British cardboard boxes; there’s no way to know for sure. I’ve never celebrated Boxing Day before, nor have I ever had any reason to. It’s always just been The Day After Christmas when I’m either relaxing on the couch, at the office, or traveling back home.

But this year, for Boxing Day, I’m going to celebrate. The Cavaliers are in town their only time this season to play the Wizards, and I’m going to get to see them up close. Both teams can be (and will be) described by countless sportswriters are “lowly,” but I prefer to think of them as “successfully challenged.” Actually, that’s not true. I prefer to think of them as “mine.” They’re my teams. Both of them. With every last fiber of my sports fandom, these are the two teams I care about. I care about knee injuries (I now know words like “miniscus,” “synvisic,” and “catastrophe”). I care about college players–how else can I know who’s going to be starting for these teams next year? I care about rotations, and minutes, and minutes-restrictions, and face-mask color, and how many times a coach can sigh in one quarter, and phone numbers of local exorcists. I care.

These are my teams, and this is my NBAmas. The Wizards are facing the Cavs tonight, and I couldn’t be happier. I LOVE Boxing Day.

Skelethon & Aesop Rondo

 

*** Author’s note: The incredibly wonderful art for this piece was created by Mike McGrath from Double Scribble. You should check out their prints, originals, and shirts(one of which includes the piece above) and buy some stuff with all of that money you may or may not have just received from various holiday celebrations. Seriously their work is amazing, and I can’t thank Mike enough. He killed it. 

Aesop Rock’s Skelethon isn’t easy to like or understand. I suppose at a very basic level, you can enjoy Rock sounding fly while spitting over dope beats, but I imagine everyone’s first, second, third, and nth listen of Skelethon ends with an audible “What the hell did he just say?” (It’s no coincidence that, before the album’s release, Rock released a handful of videos explaining to various degrees the meaning of some of the tracks). In Rock’s world, donuts replace your previously held faith, fireworks distract us from a drowning child (don’t worry the dog saves the child), a frustrated teenager carves Zoso into his desk and scribbles Zulu on his Chuck Taylors, a dare devil serves as the patron saint of lane changing. Sure, Rock is off the grid, but what do those symbols under the dresser mean?

I love Skelethon. It pushes and challenges all expectations. That’s not to say it’s operating on some higher plane. Skelethon exists in its own space, mainly Aesop Rock’s scattered, thoughtful, isolated, and (and at least in this case) angry mind. If there’s anyone one thing you can take away from this record, it’s that Rock is pissed off (By all accounts it hasn’t been an easy five years since None Shall Pass). It’s no coincidence that Rock describes “Zero Dark Thirty,” the album’s lead single, as his “temper tantrum.” But there’s no screaming and shouting, no obvious lashing out or bashing at the walls. With Rock it’s more subtle and subversive, virtues go the way of Chinatown turtles,  the huntable surplus is down to one, his discontentment evoked in his donning of “4 walls like a wooden coat,” his only escape from a collapsing world.

******

Rajon Rondo isn’t easy to like or understand. Sure, he does things like this, this, and this, and he’s prone to unleashing sprawling, game-controlling masterpieces on national television, but it’s difficult to really wrap your head around him. He can’t shoot and yet he can be the most dangerous player on the floor. He’s prone to doing some pretty dumb things, but is also one of the smartest players in the league. He breathes life into the Celtics’ offense with his creativity and expansive understanding of the game, while suffocating it with his lack of aggressiveness and poor shooting. Sure, he’s a brilliant passer, but his numbers are inflated by incessant assist hunting. Yeah, he gets lots of triple-doubles, but his PER is fairly underwhelming. He coasts through regular-season games, but in the last few years has often been responsible for punctuating big moments for the Celtics. He’s cold, distant, and acerbic, his game built on sharp angles and violence, rather than the elegance, fluidity, and ease associated with the league’s best point men.

He’s also one of the league’s most divisive players. He’s beloved and cherished for his creativity by some, and derided for his inconsistency and poor shooting by others. Part of this difficulty comes from a lack of definition. Ethan Sherwood Strauss once posited that Rondo’s supporters were enamored with the pollyanish legend of the point guard as “distributor,” that he fit some mold or narrative we had built around the “ideal point guard.”. While the argument certainly holds merit in a vacuum, it doesn’t fit Rajon Rondo. Nothing about Rondo really “fits.” It’s part of his appeal, and it’s part of the confusion that surrounds him. He’s weird, he’s different, he’s distant, he’s hard to understand. He disappears, and reappears without any notice. He doesn’t invite comparison, because there’s really no one to compare him with.

****

I enjoy listening to Skelethon, and I believe in its brilliance. But I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t. I understand if you felt like Rock’s references were too esoteric, or if his lyrics just came off as a bunch of nonsensical non-sequitirs. I understand not wanting to decode and decipher. I completely get wanting something more approachable. Skelethon is a record you have to spend time with. It requires work to really dig deeper and begin to comprehend . That’s not going to be for everyone. Trying to convince someone else their preferences are “wrong” seems misguided. For the most part, this idea seems pretty inherently obvious with music, everyone “likes what they like” and it’s probably easier to just leave them alone.

Sports mix objectivity and subjectivity in a much more subversive way. In the midst of arguments about a player or a team, it’s often difficult to parse out the difference between preference and merit. Depending on the situation, and your opinion, there are any number of facts, statistics, and anecdotes that can used to either build a player up or tear them down. There’s always a sense that each side is trying to convince the other of a purely identifiable fact or truth. How could anyone be so foolish to deny what is so plainly obvious for everyone to see?

This is the place I’ve found myself more often than not with Rajon Rondo. Arguing incessantly, defending his brilliance, trying to convince others of the inviolable truth that Rondo is among the league’s elite point guards. I get frustrated with the detractors. Tired of hearing the same boring, monotonous criticism over and over again. And yet, what’s really the point? Does my enjoyment of Rondo increase if I convince everyone else of his greatness? Do I gain some sort of karmic sports points for bringing others into the light? I guess Rajon Rondo matters to me, and I wish he mattered to you. This feels so much more objective than my opinion on Skelethon, so much less like a preference and so much more like the “truth.”

In basketball, the idea of “value” looms large over every player. There’s always a question of worth, and how much Player X really means to his team. The question presents itself in such a way as to connote an easily definable answer, as if each player’s existence is a multiple choice test question. We get stuck arguing over choices C and D, when the answer is probably more open and malleable than we recognize.

This isn’t to say I’ll stop arguing about Rondo, or that we should stop arguing about player value. It’s still important to keep an open discourse. But for me, at least, I think a change in perspective is in order. There’s room to relax a little, to be more open and less entrenched. To recognize that sometimes it’s more matter of opinion than matter of fact. Skelethon isn’t for everyone; maybe Rajon Rondo isn’t for everyone either. P.S. I wrote this on a self destructing memo.

Podcast Paroxysm: Christmas Day Game Previews aka Two and a Half Jews

There are five basketball games on Christmas day. The jerseys are atrociously ugly. The basketball, hopefully, will not be so. After a harrowing Dropbox experience, I was able to upload this podcast with the help of the great James Herbert. Here, you’ll hear Sean Highkin, Noam Schiller and me previewing and posing predictions about each of the day’s games, as well as a special guest appearance by my brother for about five minutes. Enjoy. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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