Category Archives: Player Capsules

Player Capsules (Plus): The Flickering Candle of Stephen John Nash

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? The thieving tendrils of age, the noble escape thereof, and the elusive arts of Stephen John Nash.

My grandfather came over one day. Early 2000s. Said hello, dropped off some coupons. Shared some deals he’d seen at Walgreens. Small talk. He didn’t come upstairs — he hated climbing the staircase — and I was busy working on a high-school essay, so I simply yelled out my greetings and love from upstairs in my room. He yelled back, we exchanged our regular jokes, and he went his merry way. It was as any other day, and I assigned no added value to it. I had no way of knowing, really.

That week, he fell and broke his hip. Not one week later, he was gone.

There was a lot of confusion, when he passed. Scattered, broken feelings of guilt and depression. Should’ve come down to see him. Should’ve said hi in person. Quite a few tears. It’s true, in retrospect, I had no real way to know that the visit would be the last time I’d have a chance to see him alive — by his request, if I recall, other than my mom and my grandma, nobody visited him in the hospital. He didn’t want his grandchildren to see him enfeebled. I do remember asking my mom if I could go and see him — she said no, and that was the end of it. I figured he’d recover. Broken bones are awful things, but I’d never really had firsthand experience with the torment they exact on the elderly. I just knew that a kid in my cub scout camp had broken his wrist and come back fine not one month later. “Wrists are more complex than hips. Grandpa will be fine. We’ll be okay.”

I was wrong, so very wrong. There was a lesson there, one I will never take lightly. It’s rather simple. Many wonderful things come with age — wisdom, experience, understanding. But age doesn’t bear its gifts unconditionally. It’s tricky. Age steals, too. We lose the wonder at everyday life we exhibit in youth. We lose our thirst for the new and different, replaced with a humdrum acceptance of the rote toil of everyday life. But most importantly, we lose our vitality. Age steals it away, furrowing the remnants into photographs and record tapes. We watch in vain as the strength and vigor of youth fades into a natural fragility and exhaustion of old age. A slow attrition of our former glory. We take our greatest efforts to stop it. We try to counteract the disease with fitness and exercise, wrinkle cream and penny dreadfuls. We pour funds into the illusory concept of perpetual youth. We try to lash the sickness from our bones. But age will always take it back, someday. Virility never lasts forever.

• • •

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

• • •

When I watched Steve Nash play, late last season, I felt that something was a tad bit off. It wasn’t that the general average of Nash’s play was altogether different than it used to be, it was that the distribution of his play had completely changed. Sure, Steve Nash had bad games before the 2012 season — many, in fact. But in earlier seasons, it was a remarkably rare event that Nash would have non-factor games. In 2012, there was a subtle sea-change in the way Nash produced for his team. His PER was roughly in the range it has been for the last 10 years — low 20s, or thereabouts. His per-minute win shares were the second lowest in that time period, but not wholly out of order. Shooting percentages seemed intact, his passing was still brilliant, and he still had those games that made you wonder whether he wasn’t still Chris Paul’s better, even now. He was still Steve Nash, by most appearances.

But in the big picture, something changed. To put it simply — the variance went up. A whole lot. There’s this one metric — it’s called Game Score. It’s very simplistic, essentially just a weighted average of what the box score gives. You can find the equation here. For this exercise, where I’m measuring volatility in his box score performances, that’s pretty much what we need. Over time, a player’s game score is relatively consistent. If you adjust game score by playing time (to ensure the same base minutes), Steve Nash averaged per-36 game scores of 17.1 in 2008, 15.4 in 2009, 17.1 in 2010, 16.2 in 2011, and 14.4 in 2012. All very good totals. A small dip in 2012, even when you adjust for his lesser minutes played, but he was still a quality player. However, we’re measuring volatility — we need the standard deviation. That, in this case, measures the standard “distance” from the mean for a Steve Nash game in a given year. Basically, Steve Nash’s game score would generally stay within one to two standard deviations of the mean. If his standard deviation was 0, that would mean he had the exact same game score for every game. If it was 5, that would mean the vast majority of Nash’s production would be found within 5 to 10 units of his mean value, in both directions. So on and so forth. Here are the standard deviations that go with the aforementioned means. In 2008, Steve Nash registered a standard deviation of 6.9 on his per-36 game score. In 2009, 7.2. In 2010, 6.5. In 2011, 6.8. And 2012?

A standard deviation of 8.84.

This is a pretty big shift — that’s a 4 point boost to the confidence interval, in a metric where individual points really mean something. What this means is that Nash’s production, as he gets older, is beginning to lose consistency. A touch. He isn’t giving you the same box score with the same consistency he would as a younger man — when Nash has an off night, the night is VERY off. When he has an on night? VERY on. In the last 5 years, as measured by game score, Steve Nash’s best two games and worst two games came during the 2012 season. Not kidding. It’s sort of beautiful to consider that he’s having his best games of the last half-decade at the age of 38. But it’s also, given the context he’s about to be thrown into, a somewhat scary proposition. Consider that the Lakers are taking the backup point guard situation he worked with in Phoenix this year and actively worsening it. Sebastien Telfair had a relatively good swan song this last season, and even Shannon Brown is better than the refuse the Lakers have dug up to play point guard behind Nash. If Nash is off, the entire complexion of this Laker team changes. It becomes mortal, if only just.

Now. Let’s dial this back a bit, and note the obvious. When Nash has good games, the Lakers should be quite literally unbeatable. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that. Imagining a fully-functioning Nash-Howard pick and roll with Gasol and Kobe as weakside options is absolutely sublime. The wealth of top-flight talent on this team, combined with a fully-active Nash, could manifest as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court. It could be — and may be — just that simple. If Nash is healthy, his good days will more than make up for his bad days. But that’s the thing. While we can envision this to the high heavens and assert the Lakers to be the new title favorites, that isn’t how age works. Once you get into the weeds of extremely old NBA age — which, make no mistake, is exactly where Nash is headed — you start to get into unprecedented territory. The only really distinctive, all-encompassing fact is that players who stay in the league at Nash’s age tend to see an increased volatility in their contributions. One night they’ll be classic — or even better. A shining example of everything they always were. One night later they’ll have no lift, no instincts, no shot. So on, so forth. Variance inflates, and merely assessing the “average” game becomes more and more misleading.

For the 2012 Lakers to match their potential and become the unbeatable teeth-gnashing beast we’ve imagined, they require much of Steve Nash. At least considering that Artest is virtually gone, Howard’s back is balking, and the Gasol-Bryant dynamo is aging as we look the other way. They don’t simply require some certain set of averages, a dismal checklist of mean production. They require Steve Nash’s guile to remain intact. The creativity to sustain. They require Nash’s candle to flicker at just the right time. There can be no letdown game, no nagging injuries, no disappearing act behind the velour curtain. Part of the great conceit of this roster is the concept that they must be better than the sum of their parts. That Nash’s brilliance will salve the cuts and soothe the wrinkles away. That Pau Gasol, in Nash’s presence, will return to his 2010 form. That Bryant will become more efficient without having to carry such a heavy load. That Howard’s offensive game will emerge from the fire’s of Mordor even better than before, and pole-vault Bynum’s production. On Nash’s good nights, none of this will be a problem. It should be rudimentary, in fact. And on Nash’s bad nights? It could be troubling.

In a lot of ways, the frequency of those bad nights decides the fate of the Lakers’ season.

• • •

The great thing about old age in basketball is that it simply doesn’t have the same implications it does in real life. Players who were basketball-level old in the 70s are still alive today. Steve Nash’s creeping fragility doesn’t mean that Steve Nash the person is on the verge of death, it simply means that he’s losing some of the gifts and glory that make him entertain millions on national television. It’s a pity, but life will go on. For us and for him. And thank God for that. Nash is one of the funniest people in the league. He’ll find ways to keep the ball rolling after he retires from the game. And even if he doesn’t — we’ll always have Paris, Steve. I mean, videotapes. We’ll always have the highlight reels, the commercials, the streams of interviews and grainy rookie grins.

The real key now is whether he can win an NBA title, and find validation for a career that in large part doesn’t need it. At least in my view. Nash brought to the hardwood a tincture of joy to every stride. A grin to every face that ever rooted for him, a better appreciation for the beauty of a wonderful game. Nash made those around him better, and I don’t simply mean the players. His fans were made better for his presence in their lives. His coaches, his handlers, the league as a whole — Nash’s legacy is best measured outside of the stats, in the grins and smiles that spread across faces across the entire nation. The love he gave and the love he took. The unfettered abandon. The speed, the hours in the gym, the incredible holistic work-ethic he applied to all aspects of his game and life. These are the metrics that you must measure to really understand Steve Nash’s mortal legacy as an NBA superstar. But all that said, he’s in Los Angeles now, and he wants to win a title. He’s accomplished everything he could in his youth, become a global phenomenon more than a man.

From a purely basketball perspective, as age saps his abilities and takes away the outlets for his creativity, he’s become evermore mortal — he’s reflecting the fragility of age, the realization that he simply doesn’t have much of a chance left. He can’t spend years frittering away with the Suns anymore — if he does, he’ll be gone before he knows it. He can’t go retire in his home country, adored by the populace, playing for a low-tier Eastern playoff unit. He can’t sip scotch at a villa on a hill with his best friend Dirk, an expanse of promise before them. Those days are gone, replaced with a new age, replete with dreams of a dominance he’s never tasted. A bubbly he’s never supped. A roster that’s on-paper better than any he’s ever played on. Pieces new and foreign, ripe for molding, that in his youth he could have molded into a whirling dervish monster unlike any ever seen by man. He’s older now, and his capabilities lesser. He can’t do that every night. But he can do it some nights, and he can work as hard as he’s ever worked before, and he can try to stave off the clutching tendrils of age a tad bit longer. He can hold it off, if only the Lakers help him. And he shall as captain set the sounding furrows and sail anew, a voyage wrought with peril, in search of one last thrill before age concludes its fateful, dreadful hunt.

One day, age will catch up to him, and complete its petty thievery. But surely, it hasn’t happened yet.

• • •

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

For more Laker capsules, check the Los Angeles Lakers page in the Player Capsule Directory.

Player Capsules (Plus): Defining a Hero with Andre Miller

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Andre Miller, John Marston, and what makes a man a hero.

The other day, I finished Red Dead Redemption. Amazing, amazing game. Such a complex world for the player to tinker with, and so many little mechanics that made the playing experience brilliant. Above all, though, it had a story I could really respect and heroes I could relate to. Which is in and of itself a pretty amazing accomplishment, actually. Consider that the game is set in the early 1900s — I’ve known exactly two people in my life who were alive during that time, and they were children then! Between then and now, there have been many broad-scale shifts in the way the world works and operates, and the general way that human beings view the world. General morality is a bit different. Quasi-solipsist views of life have taken a legitimate foothold in our society. So many things in the game are different and foreign, even if the setting is similar in-scenery-only to the place I grew up in.

Despite all these differences, the time barrier, and the fact that the game actually comes across as a brilliant representation of its period? I still felt I could distinctly relate to most of the characters in the game. One of the things I love so much about classical Russian literature is the tendency of Russian authors to distill their characters down to the things that make them human. They feature their humanity (or lack thereof) in a timeless character-centric manner that makes their characters outlast the situations of the stories and the epoch of the work. Prince Andrei would hardly be my favorite character ever if I couldn’t relate to him. Raskolnikov would hardly be interesting if we could simply blow him off as a product of his time. Would we care about the sufferings of Ivan Denisovich if we didn’t relate? And so on and so forth. The game really succeeds on this front, and it allowed me to relate with people who (all things considered) should be virtually impossible to relate to. It distilled them down to their human core. You can’t do that all the time, really. Or even very often.

When it comes to the NBA, though? You can with Andre Miller.

• • •

When I consider the world Andre Miller came from compared to the one I grew up in, I wonder how I feel such camaraderie with the man. After all. He was born in Compton — I was born in Los Angeles too, but more around the Mission Hills area, and in significantly less daily danger. The biggest tragedy I experienced in my youth was my grandfather’s death early in my high school years — his brother died when he was 12, completely changing the family dynamic in the Miller household. Via one of the best pieces Blazersedge ever published, Andre Miller recalls that as having been one of the huge things in his life that shaped everything. Trying to get past the loss of his brother meant that he couldn’t really stay a kid for long. His mother became super-protective of Miller, and the protectiveness maintained through Miller’s college years. While she supported his basketball exploits, basketball always came second to academics, chores, and family in the Miller household. This led to several amusing anecdotes about Miller being constantly late to practice after chores ran long or skipping practice entirely. Not to drink or run rampant on the streets, but to study for a test the next day. Insane academic focus for a would-be NBA player, seriously. But Miller’s singular focus on his studies is actually reflective of a sad truth in the basketball community.

As a kid,  I used to wonder how in the world anyone failed tests like the ACT or the SAT. I always thought I was really bad at them (and relative to the kids in Honors classes with me, even in public schools, I absolutely was), but I got decent scores and the question was less “will you pass” and more “how close to a perfect score can you get”.  But as I get older I start to gain a greater appreciation for how much of a ridiculous privilege it is to not have to concern oneself about that — I grew up in a solid public school system that had great graduation rates and that developed an excellent SAT-friendly curriculum from an absurdly young age. They taught you how to think like a test-taker, in some ways, from grade two onwards. But not everyone has that! Despite getting on the honor roll and working incredibly hard, Miller failed the ACT. Given how intelligently he plays, and how well he had done on the backs of hard work at his schools growing up, I’d consider the failure less a problem on his end and more a problem of development. It’s not his fault, really! He had excellent grades, and worked incredibly hard to get those grades by all accounts. If you get good grades you should be able to pass a standardized test, theoretically. If you can’t that’s less a failure on your end and more a failure in how the school is teaching you and how their curriculum prepares you. Which is really, really sad. So many basketball players come from these depressingly scant backgrounds, with poor preparation for both the real world and any further academic work. If a player works hard enough to excel in their school and still can’t pass a standardized test, I’ve never quite understood how we can vilify the player. That’s on the system, and the broader disparity in the quality of schooling between even comparably well-endowed school systems. In a lot of ways, it’s luck of the draw.

Still. The Andre Miller story doesn’t really end there — due to Proposition 48, due to his failure on the standardized test, he wouldn’t be able to suit up for a college team until he’d accumulated one year in good academic standing. Predictably, this dried up almost every scholarship offer Miller had received. He went from having his pick of schools to having doubts he’d get a solid scholarship from anyone at all. Which, by the way, puts something of a damper on the idiotic criticisms people throw at Derrick Rose for cheating on the SAT. What was his realistic alternative? He couldn’t possibly pay for college, his family needed the NBA money, and if he failed the SAT again he would’ve been in Miller’s position. No scholarships, no ability to go to college, no hope. Of course he cheated on it. Check your privilege — in that situation (one that’s hard to imagine for most people reading this, but consider it deeply), you would too. Anyway. Luckily for Miller, a single college chose to not rescind their scholarship — the University of Utah, wholly used to losing players for a year or two at a time on missions. So Miller packed his bags, going straight out of Compton and into the Mormon-built catacombs of the flagship Utah university. Which there aren’t nearly enough stories about — Miller said once that he went to school with “the first white people I ever went to school with” in Utah, and as neither him nor his mom were Mormon, there HAS to be a bunch of funny stories about his time at Utah. Few are published, unfortunately. But they have to exist, right?

Anyway. Miller excelled at Utah, both academically (interviews with teammates indicate that Miller leveraged every single tutoring option available at the university, and sometimes did assignments twice if he felt he didn’t fully understand them) and in a basketball sense (working his way into shape and eventually becoming an obvious NBA lottery pick). He was drafted right after graduating — he worked hard enough that he was able to graduate on-time (with a legitimate degree in criminology and sociology) without jeopardizing his basketball career or his academic standing. Seriously great accomplishment for someone who’d failed the ACT not five years earlier. His NBA career has been one of constant rotation of teams, friends, and coaches — he hasn’t once in his career stayed with the same team for more than 3 seasons straight and he’s been a key contributor despite the turmoil. He virtually never gets injured (or, when he does, he plays through the injuries). He comes in, puts his head down, and does his job quietly and with a silent strength that in a less-storied form reminds me a lot of Tim Duncan (my favorite player). And although he’s somehow evaded a national, global recognition of his talents and abilities (and in my view is the OBVIOUS choice as the greatest player to never make an all-star game), he has a handful of loyal fans from every team he blessed with his work.

For obvious reasons, I find Miller’s story compelling. But that’s only half the picture. When it comes to the people I think of as my basketball heroes, there has to be something in their game that really draws me in. Some aspect that makes me think “wow, that’s impressive.” For Miller, that particular thing is simply the way he runs the offense, and the older-era feelings he endows in it. It’s weird — Miller’s designed offenses aren’t exactly the best offenses on the face of the earth, nor are they viscerally stunning like a Nash offense or a Paul offense. But there’s this classical flavor to it, one that I can’t help but love. Part of it is Miller’s personal offense, as the man can’t can a jump shot to save his life. He shoots a flat-footed 70s-era jumpshot that feels like it was born of a world without form trainers or the three point shot. But part of it is the way he passes — it’s not that he’s necessarily 5-6 steps ahead of everyone else, but he simply fakes out guys with enough gusto and manages everyone’s expectations down to the point that his passes and circulation surprise even the seasoned vets. It reminds me, in a way, of Manu Ginobili’s beautiful game. So much of Andre’s value is rooted in his ability to fake out and misdirect his man, and in a broader sense, the entire opposing offense.

So much of his efficacy comes from the plays where Miller’s machinations serve to con the defense into a story about the upcoming play that simply wasn’t going to happen. About overrotating and leaving a man with all the time in the world under the rim, or faking everyone out and taking his own flat footed shot when everyone could’ve sworn he was going to pass out for three. Some players make their bread on simply living up to the talent they were born with. Andre is talented, yes — don’t get me wrong. But for a player who looks like he’s barely an NBA guy, and a player who tends to show up to camp a tad bit out of shape, and a player who’s had an old man’s game from the day he entered the league? He’s not simply coasting on talent, or if he is, he’s the hardest-working talent coaster in the world. Andre is constantly dealing with incredibly low expectations, whether in the form of opposing players who see him on the calendar and salivate at how old and out of shape he looks or defenses who couldn’t imagine he’d have the balls to take the final shot himself. And he doesn’t complain about it — he simply manages to it and games them to his advantage. I find that significantly more interesting than yet another talented player making good on his talent, and it’s part of why I love watching Andre Miller’s game so much.

• • •

The main character of Red Dead Redemption — John Marston — is a man that most people in the modern era couldn’t directly relate to. Sure, the broader theme of redemption for one’s sins is relatively universal. But the sins themselves (murder and robbery of all sorts) are so far beyond anything in my frame of reference, and the general way Marston handles himself is so different from anything I’ve experienced before that I don’t think it’s naturally easy to relate to him. At least, in theory. Because in practice, the way the game was built makes it the easiest thing in the world. They unveil his story gradually, never giving you more than you absolutely need to know. They leave him something of an impressionable mystery, allowing you to see for yourself what makes him a good man and what makes him a bad man. They never quite prescribe “hey, feel this way” or push you into a certain opinion. They open the doors and let you decide how you personally relate to him.

Ironically, Andre Miller doesn’t really do that. At least personally. Every article I’ve read about him seems to be written with the unstated maxim that Miller doesn’t (and won’t) open up about himself. He seems to feel that every word that needs to be written has been spilled about his game. That he’s said his piece, people didn’t really listen, and he’s good with what he’s got. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazing piece that drives home why everyone should listen to Andre’s wisdom more — case in point, this excellent piece by the Oregonian’s Jason Quick. Miller is hilariously down to earth. He doesn’t even own a summer home, in fact — this is an NBA player who’s made millions and millions of dollars. What does he do during the offseason? He goes home and stays with his mom in Compton. You can’t make up a story that awesome. He’s made his peace with his background, his past, his roughscrabble roots.

Outstanding heroes transcend how you SHOULD feel and recontextualize how you DO feel. I have virtually no common ground with either John Marston, Andre Miller, or most of my favorite literary figures. But it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes a story is so compelling, a figure so refreshingly real, it becomes impossible not to appreciate and feel for them if you learn enough about them. Life’s tricky that way. For me, Andre Miller does that. And unfortunately, he’s almost gone. My recommendation to you? Take the time to watch some Andre Miller games this season. If Andre Miller has a big highlight performance, make it a point to catch a replay. Watch as he — even falling off, even in old age — redesigns the Denver offense and keeps fooling every team stupid enough to underestimate him. Watch the greatest player to never make an all-star game spin his craft and trick the competition with the finesse of a master magician. Appreciate what he brought the game, appreciate what he brings the world, and enjoy one of the greatest hidden treasures the league can offer.

Player Capsules (Plus): Ricky Rubio, Can You Hear Me?

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Ricky Rubio, the Who, and living up to expectations.

Little known fact: before the Beatles came to America in 1964, before their brilliant Ed Sullivan Show appearance, before they had melted away the lines separating the British and American music industries for good… the U.S. popular media thought they were going to flop. And flop badly, too. Multiple times, the U.S. subsidiary of London’s EMI records (the Beatles’ label at the time) rejected attempts from George Martin and Brian Epstein to bring the Beatles’ music to America. “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in this market.” So too did the media, who dismissively referred to the Beatles as an “infestation” in Britain, a localized case of an Elvis Presley “rock-n-roll” ripoff band getting too big for their britches and too popular for comprehension. The British had never produced “good” music before, or so the media thought. They couldn’t really do well in America, right?

Well, as the story goes, they did. They blew up. And thus began the British Invasion, a 3 or 4 year period of intense cultural exchange between the British music industry and the American public. After the Beatles’ runaway success, the media didn’t want to make the same dismissive mistakes they made the first time. So they were quite fond of hyping just about everything that could possibly come over from Britain as the “next Beatles” — not just pop groups, everything that was even remotely comparable. Any 4 or 5 man band with the same general composition ended up billed as the “next Beatles” before their arrival, at least for the next few years. They were measured up to the standard the Liverpool boys had set, and in that kind of an atmosphere, many bombed out on their first go-around. Some didn’t, but many did. And for the ones that succeeded, the “next Beatles” mark has somehow managed to sustain through time, with most post-Beatles British Invasion bands being introduced to children even today in a similar fashion. (Like myself, as I’ll outline later.)

Enter the Who. Another British invasion band, the Who were a four-man band from Britain that were ported over in the mid sixties. That right there’s about where the similarities with the Beatles end. The Who are one of the quintessential rock-n-roll bands — they recorded a bit of everything, and no two Who records really sound the same. But, somewhat ironically, this also means that virtually nothing they produced matches the style of those aforementioned Liverpool sweethearts. It was a completely specious way to describe the Who, and a way that oversimplified the group to the point of utter meaninglessness. Nobody who heard their music would really think “dang, this band is definitely the next Beatles.” They weren’t the next anything, really. The Who were the Who, defying any and all simplistic characterizations or or summarizations of their music. You need to listen to the Who and really try to take them in before you know what kind of a band they are. And even then? You may very well need to listen again. You might’ve missed something, you know. Trying to shove their music into some Lennon/McCartney-shaped hole detracts from the Who’s own brilliance, and makes it harder to appreciate the myriad of things they do well. In my view.

• • •

In 2009, to much fanfare, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Ricky Rubio. This was ironically months before Justin Bieber’s first album, meaning that if either of the two are copying the other, it’s decidedly Bieber copying Rubio rather than the other way around. When he first was to come over, we were treated to several love songs about his game — Rubio was, so they said, “bigger and better” than Pistol Pete Maravich. He was the most hyped prospect in years, promising to bring together things like Steve Nash’s passing with Pistol Pete’s scoring, and a touch of Wally Szczerbiak’s good looks to really bring everything together. The floppy hair, the scrawny frame, the glowing smile. Everyone eagerly awaited for his arrival, and as the basketball-loving public waited, Rubio mulled coming over. And decided (perhaps in part due to David Khan’s “drafting another point guard directly after him” move) that it’d be best if he refrained, for a while, and continued his development in the Euroleague as he worked out his contract and figured out the exactitudes of his personal journey to America. Then, last season, he finally relented — he came over to play the point for an intriguing Wolves team that had finally accumulated some solid pieces. This tends to happen when you’ve been among the worst teams the sport had ever seen over the previous three seasons. The comparisons started up again. Pistol Pete, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas. Every good NBA point guard — or, in Pete’s case, a scoring guard — was a comparable for Rubio. Which might’ve been a mistake.

Scratch that — it was definitely a mistake. Rubio was never to be the same kind of a scorer as Pistol Pete, and the idea that he would be was one of the most ridiculous overstatements that’s ever entered the popular consciousness. While Rubio started the year shooting a decent percentage from three, there’s virtually nothing that distinguishes Rubio’s freshman year scoring ability to that of the highly less heralded Brandon Jennings — Jennings started the year on fire from three point range, as did Rubio, but there were warning signs as to their overall scoring game even then. Poor form on the three point shot, no real long two to speak of, and (perhaps most importantly) one of the worst at-rim finishing percentages in the league. He had the 6th worst percentage in the league last year (sort by “at rim” percentage), which matches exactly Jennings’ finish in his rookie year (6th worst in the league). Both players started the year on fire from three, and neither finished the year with an exceptional true shooting percentage despite that. Their final true shooting percentages, in fact, are almost exactly equal — 2010 Jennings had a TS% of 47.5%, while 2012 Rubio had a TS% of 47.6%. Not very good at all — 50% is the Mendoza line for “even remotely competent.” Clearly, both their rookie seasons miss that not-particularly-high mark.

While his passing is aesthetically pleasing and extremely effective, I have trouble really getting behind the idea that Rubio is a sea-changing transformative force when it comes to team offense. Yet. He could get there — his passing is beautiful, brilliant, and clever — but he certainly isn’t there yet. Did you know that despite the Wolves’ incredible collapse post-Rubio, the Wolves still played better offense with Rubio on the bench than with Rubio on the court? This isn’t necessarily on Rubio’s passing — to these eyes, his teammates played better with him on the floor, and his masterful execution of his passing game plan and his general command of the floor are far beyond his years. The problem is, when you’re that incredibly awful on offense, there’s virtually no way you can actively improve your team’s offense when you’re on the floor. Why not let Rubio get to the rim relatively unimpeded? He won’t even make it half the time! Why not let Rubio take a shot from the midrange? He’ll make it less than 30% of the time. And so on and so forth. When the opposing defense gets to play 5-on-4, the defense gets easier and the overall team offense of the Timberwolves suffers, even if he’s improving the play of the men he shares the court with. Which differentiates him further from the brilliant offensive point guards of much repute that Rubio’s game was introduced to us with. He’s barely like them at all, as a matter of fact.

Yet, that’s not a bad thing.

• • •

My second college relationship was pretty fantastic. My ex and I remain friends to this day, and while we’ve drifted apart and haven’t spoken in quite some time, we always got along splendidly and I very much value the time we spent together. She loved video games, evolutionary anthropology (specifically lemurs, but in a general sense too), and The Who. That was actually how the relationship started, kind of — she came over to my room once, we talked over some pizza, and she noticed that among the many vinyls I’d put up around my room at least three were from Townshend’s flock. Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Who’s Next (if I recall) — I might’ve had Live at Leeds by that point. Don’t really remember. Anyway, we talked about the Who for a while, and I discovered they were her favorite band. I was a bit surprised — while I’m a big fan of The Who, I’d never say they’re my favorite band. Nor would I say they were “better” than the Beatles. My ex didn’t say as much either — she was a fan of classic rock in general, and wasn’t in the business of putting the Beatles down.

She merely said that The Who were different. And in that, I completely agree. Every Who album is a different experience. Different flavors, different emotions, different styles. It’s a menagerie of experiences, an indescribable deluge of wonder. The more we talked about The Who, the more I realized how much her love for them made sense. They weren’t the greatest band ever, in my eyes — but nothing she said about them was untrue, and I could totally understand why a person would reasonably believe them to be one’s favorite band despite thinking they weren’t “better” than the Beatles in a traditional sense. To this day, I listen to a lot more of The Who than I did before I dated her, and I feel as though she managed to open up a facet of their music to me that even I — a Who fan who owned four of their vinyls — never quite accessed myself. And finally helped me get past the original impression I had of the Who, back from when I was a young kid. The Who were first introduced to me by a music teacher who had always described them as the “next Beatles.” In this frame, they were disappointing. But by looking at the Who on their own merits and considering them as their own ever-changing difference engine, you start to get a sense of how good they really are. Some music’s for the body, some music’s for the soul — The Who were for both.

When it comes to expectations, Rubio is the Who. He isn’t the “next Pistol Pete.” He never was going to be. On defense, though, he’s far more akin to Gary Payton — he can stay in front of virtually every point guard in the NBA, and when he’s on the court, his ability to keep point guard penetration to a minimum is essential on a team with Love and Pekovic on the front line. He’s so athletic and rangy, and he has some of the best stealing instincts in the league. And that’s already! He was a rookie! For all this talk about Rubio’s offense, as I said before, the Timberwolves offense was actually worse with Rubio on the floor. If they wanted better offense, they’d play Barea or Ridnour. But Rubio gave the Timberwolves something neither of those players could give them. Defensive dominance from the point guard position. This is not a typo: the 2012 Minnesota Timberwolves allowed 7.2 points less per 100 possessions with Rubio on the court. Which is absolutely positively insane. And fantastic. If he can work his offense into a shape that isn’t so dismal, he could lead a set of teams much akin to the mid-90s Sonics, as the defensive stalwart and the improve-everyone-else point guard.

Is this anything like we expected, when he was hyped up? Not by a longshot. Per the Pistol Pete expectations, Rubio was about as disappointing as he could possibly be. But that’s the thing. He’s not disappointing at all. Just like the Who are only disappointing if you accept a flawed premise to begin with, Rubio’s only disappointing if you accepted the idea that he was going to be some dominant offensive superstar. He’s not Chris Paul, he’s not Kyrie Irving, he’s not Deron Williams. Rubio is his own man, bringing the league something it hasn’t seen in decades and doing it in such an endearing and floppy-haired way that it’s impossible to do anything but smile when watching him play his game. My ex taught me a lot more than she’ll ever know over our short fling, and foremost among them was to keep my expectations from lording over everything I think. Because oftentimes those expectations are wrong, or silly, or absurd-in-retrospect. In the case of Rubio, all that is true. But his game is no less wonderful for its lack of offensive spackle. It’s merely different, and it takes a different level of engagement to appreciate than we were perhaps expecting. And above all, he’s emphatically his own man — it does him scant justice to relegate him to the shadow of players he barely resembles.

He’s no Pistol, no Nash, no Paul. He’s Ricky Rubio — and from all appearances, that’s more than enough to start.

Player Capsules (Plus): Heel Turns with Dwight Howard, the Laker Legend

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Dwight Howard, Two-Face, and the heel turn that’s stranger than fiction.

There’s something that bugged me a while back about Christopher Nolan’s much-beloved Batman epic from a few years ago. You know. The Dark Knight. It’s really an excellent film. Ledger does great work, and other than Christian Bale’s over-dramatic Batman voice, there aren’t many flaws to speak of. It isn’t quite as deep as some would have you think, and it isn’t exactly the redefinition of the superhero genre that some thought directly after it was made. But it was — if nothing else — a patently good movie with a fantastic rogues gallery of actors and actresses and a relatively interesting moral dilemma. But there’s this one nagging thing that got under my skin.

While Harvey Dent is consumed with misguided policies and “keeping the streets clean” initiatives that are more harmful than good in the long run (as seen in The Dark Knight Rises), he’s not a bad man. He’s not an insane man. Nothing he demonstrates in the first half of the movie really indicated as such — at worst, he’s a bit overzealous. But he’s not cruel, and his sense of justice isn’t dramatically skewed. Which is where the problem comes in. When Dent turns from Harvey the hero into Two-Face the monster, there’s such an abrupt heel turn it calls into question the entire ensuing arc of the movie. Here’s a man who spent his entire life working to put criminals behind bars and clean up the streets of Gotham. He was in a horrible accident and he’s disturbingly disfigured, yes. He’s lost his spouse to-be. He’s rudderless. But even all that said, and even considering the Joker’s manipulation of his psyche, the audience is just supposed to buy the idea that he can change so quickly, and become a completely different person.

In fact, the change happens so quickly, there’s no real alternative but to accept the idea that throughout Dent’s career he’s had this monstrosity of “justice” lurking beneath his well-groomed exterior. That the Two-Face alter-ego isn’t some sudden manifestation — that it’s a noble man’s darkest core being brought kicking and screaming into the daylight. That the Two-Face persona isn’t some sudden mental break — it’s a realization of all of Dent’s darker natures into a single disgusting distillation. And there’s a darker implication, too — if a man as “good” as Dent has demons like this, what hope do any of us have to live a moral life? Are there any real heroes? The whole thing bugs me not because it’s unrealistic (unfortunately, it’s not), but because the nihilistic abandon with which Nolan approached the whole idea discomforts me. Mainly because I couldn’t really think of any true-to-life examples that really embodied the spirit of Dent’s sudden sea-change. I knew they existed, but I simply could never think of one.

… Well, until the Dwight Howard saga, that is. It bugs me no longer.

• • •

Here’s the thing. I actually thought the movie version of Two-Face was rather disappointing. Batman: The Animated Series did a lot of things better than any of the live action incarnations of the franchise, and one of those things was the way it addressed Harvey Dent’s transformation — in the Animated Series, Dent always had anger issues, and a sub-persona the show addressed as “Big Bad Harv.” Thus, while he was a successful prosecutor, there was a present and evident well for the disfigurement to draw from when it drove him to essentially abandon nobility and become a criminal full-time. The Dark Knight chose to eschew that, which led to a relatively disappointing heel turn. One minute he’s everyone’s favorite upstanding rising star, the next he’s on the street shooting people on a coin flip and acting solely to advance the plot rather than his own character. I get that there were broader implications for Nolan’s sudden heel turn, but that didn’t make it feel any less rushed and inadequate compared to the way the comics and the Animated Series addressed the transformation.

The funny thing is, this disappointment goes double for the subject of this post. Dwight Howard’s transformation from a lovable happy-go-lucky superstar into a capricious jerk came virtually out of nowhere. There were a few indications that Dwight wasn’t exactly as he appeared — the multiple children-out-of-wedlock he refuses to accept are his, the stories of him exposing himself to a porn star while the porn star was on a date, the internal indications that Dwight wanted more power in the Magic organization. But did anyone really see anything like this coming? Who, one year ago, would’ve guessed that Dwight Howard would have effectively alienated every single Magic fan on the face of the earth and turned himself into enemy #1 in the NBA? Dwight Howard, that lovable scamp with the penchant for children’s music and childish jokes? Really? A villain? Scoffs abound.

But, well. He’s re-contextualized his entire career with one unbelievably low year. I don’t need to belabor the point — we all were there, and we all know what he’s done. He pushed out one of the best coaches in the league in a pressure-heavy attempt to force change, he rehabbed and partied in Los Angeles while his team fell meekly in the playoffs (couldn’t have flown out to Orlando to at least attend a game?), he obliterated every vestige of bargaining power the Orlando Magic had, and in the end he was rewarded for all his transgressions with the opportunity of a lifetime. A fulfillment of every dream. He accomplished this all in an unbelievably callous, cruel, and dithering fashion. He lied or misrepresented the truth at every stage. He alienated teammates (including a locker room fight with a player who was — not more than two years ago — one of his best friends), crushed the hearts of Magic fans, and burned every bridge he could find. He utterly bailed on a basketball camp for disadvantaged children, for God’s sake. Even LeBron never brought the children into it.

And where did this come from, exactly? Straight out of nowhere.

• • •

Like Dent’s sudden heel turn, there’s almost no precedent for the sudden transformation. How do you even address a change that comes this quickly? The only real way that I can is to assume that this disturbing capacity for casual untruths and disdain for his fans was always there to begin with. That this recent behavior isn’t some wholescale transformation of Dwight’s previous boyish glee but simply underlining it with a different context. Dwight’s childish humor becomes callous immaturity. Dwight’s disregard for convention become a full-scale philosophy rather than a set of isolated jokes. Dwight’s concern with his own image turns into lack of loyalty for Van Gundy, his teammates, and his fans. This, to me, is what makes the events of the last year so befuddling — they don’t just make me dislike Dwight now, but also make me spend time figuring out what happened elements I previously liked in him. The dark translations of the happy-go-lucky habits and mores of one of the world’s best players.

In all, what really disappointed me about Dent in the Dark Knight wasn’t that he became a villain, but the sudden and seemingly random way it happened. If, as in the Animated Series, there was a stronger set of lead-in conditions that made the whole transformation make some sort of moral sense, I think I’d appreciate The Dark Knight more as a film than I currently do. In the same way, I’m not really sure if what disappoints me about Dwight Howard is the fact that he abandoned the Magic. That’s annoying, and awful, and cruel as all get-out. But it happens. I dislike players for doing it, mind you, but there’s no deficit of prominent NBA players that do it. James, Anthony, Carter, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal — the list goes on and on. It’s a bit stupid, and extremely cruel to the fans. But I don’t think that’s really what disappointed me with Dwight. It certainly isn’t what sets him apart.

What disappointed me was the velocity of the shift. The fact that Dwight transitioned seamlessly from the early career ramblings of a goofy manchild to the capricious lunacy he dribbled this past year. The fact that Dwight’s heel turn didn’t come gradually at all. There was no intermediate step. One minute he was singing Kidz Bop tunes and tweeting pictures of him and Gilbert planking, the next minute he was calling Rich DeVos and making insane demands, or ordering the Magic to “roll the dice.” The fact that he was able to be such a feckless twit while pretending to be the person he was before calls into question all the years I enjoyed his antics and thought them a pure representation of his person. How much of Dwight’s likeable exterior was really Dwight? How much of his formerly loveable actions were just misunderstood reflections of a spoiled, immature child with a penchant for cruelty when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants? I don’t really know. Nobody ever will, I suppose.

But all I’ve left now is to agree with Matt — quiet down, Dwight. You’ve said more than enough already.

Player Capsules (Plus): Paul Pierce, the Role Model

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? We’re going with a personal rumination on a player I’m not fond of. Let’s discuss Paul Pierce.

Let’s get this on the table, first. I don’t like Paul Pierce. Not one bit. But even if I don’t like him, I can sing some praises. Mostly because there’s a lot praise. Pierce hogs the ball, a bit, but does it relatively efficiently — despite all the isos, despite all the problems, Pierce still shoots almost 37% for his career from three. He gets to the line a lot, and does it efficiently. He fills the box score, over his career averaging an excellent 22-6-4 from the large wing position. Perhaps a bit deficient in the rebounding, perhaps a bit of a ballhog, but nothing too awful. Not quite as valuable as the numbers indicate, as his pre-KG years showed. But nothing that necessitates massive critique and evisceration. He’s an productive, efficient player.

And most people don’t notice it, but Pierce is an underrated and often excellent defensive player — in Pierce’s defensive prime, he could shut down LeBron James like virtually no other, and he didn’t preen about it. Some defenders had a slight preen, a slight overconfidence in their defense. Not Pierce, at least not openly. He came in, did his job, and didn’t emphasize it. He didn’t call himself a stopper, or profess to have the key. He just did his job and did it well, and for once, he did it quietly. He’s a very good player. A star, in a lot of ways. He’s the kind of player we entreat young players to become. A role model, in how he plays the game. Don’t we want young players to be like Pierce? Put in his lunch pail effort on the defensive end, produce efficient offense, have some decent tertiaries? That’s the aspirational player — an excellent model for any young player.

… and Lord, do I hate him.

• • •

I once knew a man named Max. He was a traveling salesman, in his younger days, and he had some old-fashioned morals. And — from time to time — some sketchy ones. I think I was about 10 years old when this retelling takes place. We were sitting in the den with others, and Max was going on and on. He loved to tell stories, you see — regardless of whether anyone was listening, and sometimes, regardless of whether the story was actually true. His oldest son and him went to a casino, as the story went, and they found a machine that was broken. Max was a handyman, and he knew how to fix it. He actually had a screwdriver on him! But somehow, he’d gotten some prior experience in rigging the slots at casinos. So instead of fixing it, he cashed in — he told us all about how he’d rigged the machine a bit, gotten it to pay out, and enticed his older son to put their money on the slots. They came away with a heck of a nice payout. They left, his son a bit uneasy, but Max excited. Happy for the coup.

And as Max told this story, there was a glow — a glean in his eyes, and a sense that he’d do it again a million times if he could. It may not have been true — Max certainly loved his tall tales — but I explicitly remember the way the story ended. Max said that he didn’t mind cheating, as long as he wasn’t cheating a good person. He said a lot of things like that in his day. He called me “big shorty” and ruffled my hair, and left content. After Max was long gone, my father came into the room. He’d been cooking, and out of the room, but he’d heard the tale. I was playing with Legos distractedly — he cleared his throat. “So. Aaron. Very serious question. Would you do that?”

I gazed up at him. “What do you mean? The casino stuff?”

“Yes.”

“I… no, I don’t think so, that’d be cheating. That’s bad — cheating is a bad thing, right?”

“Yes. Just because [Max] is funny and nice doesn’t mean he does everything right. He did that wrong. He should’ve told someone.”

“Was he really hurting anybody?”

“It’s the moral of the thing. It’s a bad thing to say as a role model. He knows how much you respect him — if I’d known where he was going with that, I would’ve stopped him sooner. Just because he didn’t hurt anyone doesn’t make it excusable, or right. He cheated. That’s not what we do. That’s not what you do. Okay?”

“Okay, dad.”

• • •

Earlier last week, Chris Bosh said something interesting. He said that the Lakers were the favorites for the 2013 NBA title. Naturally, media exploded. How could he say that? How could the third best player on the defending champions show “weakness” like that? It’s one thing when, say, a starting big on a lottery-dweller says that a team not-their-own will win the title. It’s quite another for a contender to say things like that. So everyone seemed to jump on Bosh, and pointed to his lacking confidence, and laughed. There were ample implicit references to this unspoken ideal, this never-quite-stated expectation that superstars and major teams will always be unerringly overconfident in their own abilities. Knowing this capsule was coming up, I thought the widespread chastising of Bosh was amusing — if there’s one player who properly embodies the confident and self-assured, it’s Paul Pierce. The anti-Bosh, so to speak. The person we were all essentially demanding Bosh emulate. And what did everyone say when Pierce wholly demonstrated his ridiculous levels of self confidence?

Well, it was a while back, but I’ll assure you — Pierce was roundly mocked. Lots of talk about how absurd it was for Pierce to think he was better than Kobe, or Duncan, or Wade. We talked and talked, and talked some more. And everyone seemed to concluded with a general agreement (depending on whether one liked him or not) to either never mention Pierce’s Icarus moment again, or to mention it every single time we talked about him, as though incredible overconfidence and conceited self-assurance was a true summary of the man. It may very well be, but one can hardly slam Bosh for not being Paul Pierce if we’re going to slam Paul Pierce himself for being Paul Pierce, right? If you knock the implicit role model when he does the things you want his lessers to do, the question arises — what does that really say about the standard you’re putting on the table?

Some will bring up Pierce’s gang ties for a reason they hate him. I think that’s a bit ridiculous. While Pierce was fined by the league for throwing up an ersatz gang sign back in 2008, he denied it heavily and pointed out that it would be kind of absurd for a person with a foundation dedicated to keeping kids out of gangs and off the streets to be throwing up gang signs on purpose. And it’s worth noting that Pierce has faced more hardship than most — his father abandoned his family at the age of six, and Pierce has always dealt with that with a maturity far outstripping his years. You may mention the ridiculous wheelchair moment all you want — I can name exactly zero other NBA stars who came back within the week after being stabbed 11 times. And having to go through lung surgery to fix puncture wounds to the lungs. And only getting stabbed for trying to break up a fight before it got violent. It’s not exactly a common feat. Pierce exudes toughness, grit, and a highly respectable fortitude. Sure, he may be a little annoying on the court (although, again, he and Kobe are the models most expect and demand younger players emulate, so the annoying qualities can hardly be considered as such in the broad scheme of things), but his off-court steadfastness and respectability tends to indicate a person better than he generally gets credit for.

And, again. I don’t like him at all.

• • •

I’ll drop the facade. Max was my grandfather.

He passed away on February 5th, 2005. Quite a while back, all things considered. I still miss him, and I think about him almost every day — there’s a small music box that belonged to him and my grandmother. I store cufflinks in it, as well as my watch. I keep the box wound. When I open it to get my watch, I always end up listening to the whole song. It’s Mr. Bojangles in a higher key, with a somber note. Haunting and beautiful. Brings images of my grandfather to mind, without fail. Every other day, it seems. At least half of my button down shirts come from my grandfather, and if you hold them close enough, sometimes you can still smell wisps of his 60s-era cologne, even after all these years. My father and mother are my greatest living role models, but when it comes to telling stories and having fun, I’d be lying if I didn’t say Max was my real role model.

But this all does come to a point, every now and again. Sometimes, your role models aren’t the people they should be. Sometimes you aspire to be a person you shouldn’t. An eternal disconnect between the one you envision them to be and the one they are — an eternal disconnect between their good and their bad. And sometimes? The opposite is true. I understand, on some level, who Paul Pierce is. I have a lot of respect for him, and for his accomplishments, and for how underheralded and underrated he is. I understand it. I get it. But maybe it’s the Celtic ties, maybe it’s the wispy beard, maybe it’s the devil-may-care attitude. I don’t know. But I simply don’t like him. I don’t love him. I can’t. I simply can’t seem to bring myself to root for Pierce, or his success. I don’t get it, and I’ve come to terms with it. There’s a certain maturity that comes when you can finally put the incoherency to rest, and come to that essential realization. Some things won’t ever be explained. And when it all comes down to it? They don’t really need to be.

I’ll miss Max forever, but I can’t stand Pierce. And I don’t care to figure out the reasons why, anymore.

Player Capsules (Plus): Russell Westbrook, the Lawless Sovereign

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? We’re going with philosophy. Let’s discuss the lawless sovereign, Russell Westbrook.

The other day, I was reading an interview with Stanford classicist Josiah Ober. It’s a worthy interview, as are most of the things Berfrois puts up. Professor Ober discusses many things — predominantly his background, his theories, and his research interests. In the reading of it, I took special note of his description of a theory I hadn’t read in years, and I felt it was pertinent to today’s player. In the Thomas Hobbes classic Leviathan, Hobbes poses a general law. Humans cannot prosper without a tyrannical ruler. “The government itself, or the administration of its affairs, are better committed to one than many.” Without a single tyrant existing outside the sphere of power balance, Hobbes posits that it is impossible to live well or securely. As Ober points out, there are dire limitations to the tyrannical Hobbesian state, but that’s part of Hobbes’ point — humans are not properly wired to facilitate security or well-being, and the closest we’ll ever get comes under tyranny. We cannot hope to live “well” or “securely” — we can only hope to live without fear of death.

 • • •

I’ve been struggling for a few weeks to think through this capsule. I’m neither Russell Westbrook’s biggest fan or biggest detractor. I find myself often taking his side in one argument only to slam him to the same people days later. Very high variance stuff. On one side, you have good Russell — the position-challenging trailblazer that’s redefined what a point guard can put on the table. On the other, you have bad Russell — the team-challenging jerk that’s redefined what a point guard can take off the table. It’s very fluid, and Westbrook seems to exist in some constant state of flux, jetting between the two poles with little time spent between them. It’s very black and white. High contrast. Clear. But how do you describe a player for whom that’s true?

Well, if you’re me, you run across Thomas Hobbes and re-read some of Leviathan. Duh! There are two ways to frame the Hobbesian dilemma of a tyrannical ruler around Russell Westbrook. The first rooted in history, the second rooted in fandom. Nicely, they fit well around the archetype I just described — that is, the separation between “good” Russell and “bad” Russell. We’ll start with the historical argument, which is primarily focused around Westbrook’s personal sojourn from convention. The classical, tried-and-true point guard is an archetype. It’s the kind of thing announcers beat into a fan’s head. They pass first, second, and third. They’re efficient in their shots. They don’t dominate the ball, they defer to their better scorers. They help keep the peace, they help keep everyone happy. They may not defend, much, but they try their darnedest. That’s what a “point guard” is. Indeed, when Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651, the tyrannical state he described was about as entrenched in humanity as that definition of a point guard is in NBA analysis.

But that’s the thing with Russell Westbrook — he completely turns that archetype on its head, just as democracy and participatory government turn the tyrant’s world upside down. Westbrook is a good passer, but not a willing passer — he doesn’t do a great job running the team in a classical sense, generally answering even the slightest of offensive dry spells by putting up a bunch of heat checks and using his speed and grace to try and restart the offense under his own recognizance. In terms of efficiency, Westbrook tends to gravitate towards distance — he takes almost nine shots a game from outside 15 feet, making about three a night. Not exactly what you’re looking for from a primary scorer. And it’s for the best offense in the game, I might remind. Westbrook keeping everyone happy just seems silly — the Thunder don’t rely on him at all in that sort of a capacity, instead choosing to let Westbrook be Westbrook with no regard to the shots of others. There’s the knowledge that in the long run, Westbrook’s many excesses will sand themselves into a smooth and varnished finish, keeping the Oklahoma City offense pure and humming. And the defense? Russell Westbrook laughs at poor defense. He laughs as he shuts down secondary scorers all night, and as lesser point guards act as no positive part of their team’s broader defensive scheme.

Here’s the thing, though, that typifies both democracy and the Westbrook style. It works. Yes, there are warts — I’m not one to say democracy’s perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But the warts on democracy are pinpricks compared to the hulking construct of woe and misery that comes with a lawless sovereign. There isn’t quite that gulf with Westbrook, but there’s a chilling sense that as he takes his tentative steps forward and grows into his role, he and his teammates discover that the “pure” point guard announcers are so quick to build up is a bit of an illusion. It’s not a necessity any more than a Hobbesian tyranny is. When Westbrook is “good” Russell, he completely changes the game for his team — the Thunder emerge like Team USA, simply playing a different brand of basketball than anyone else. No, they may not win by 83 — they may not even win at all. But they utterly change the game.

The second way to frame Hobbes’ dilemma around Westbrook is simpler than you think, and relies more on a visceral reaction for the fan than that bit of historical spelunking. There are some that love Westbrook — they love watching his feats of athletic brilliance, and his fearless stunts. There are some that simply love Westbrook not just for his feats but for his flaws — for the ball hogging, for freezing Durant out, for his tension with Scotty Brooks and his overreaction to every blown call. And that’s great. That’s reasonable. But, alas — some people love tyrants, too. When Vladimir Putin wins an “election” by 99%, it’s absolutely true that the results are completely skewed and corrupted. But it also reflects the many people in Russia that support him, even as the numbers are skewed to high heaven. Even as tyrants fall, there are always pockets of resistance. Those who don’t mind the tyrant, who feel life is simply good enough as is. Those who feel the tyrant’s actions are all made with a hint of reserved benevolence, and all completely necessary. In the last framing, Westbrook was democracy — a challenge to convention, a flash of a new world order. In this, though, he takes the perhaps more expected role. Russell Westbrook: lawless sovereign.

The key here isn’t necessarily what he does to the team, but instead what his play does with fan’s emotions. I don’t want to conflate this with Westbrook off-the-court, who’s shown every sign of being a stand-up guy. But his game, in some ways, makes hostages of Thunder fans. Westbrook plays without conscience or remorse, and plays as though there’s no alternative to hogging the ball and freezing out his teammates. He gets moody, he lashes out, he makes bad decisions. And all the while, Thunder fans simply have to sit and watch, grinding their molars in helpless longing as they watch Westbrook’s latest takeover. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, Westbrook’s takeover only serves to keep the Thunder in the game, as in last year’s game four, an effective elimination game where Westbrook put up 43-7-5 on 32 shots and just three free throws. And Thunder fans cheer. Then, the very next game, Westbrook goes for 19 points on 20 shots, despite somehow taking 13 free throws. And Thunder fans sob. This is the tyranny of Westbrook’s game — for every game he brings the world to the table, he has possessions or quarters where he simply seems to destroy the team from the inside out.

Some enjoy it, knowing that Westbrook is one of the 10 best players in the game regardless of his flaws. Others grimace, wishing desperately that their second star was simply more dependable. More conventional. More inclined to share the ball, and understand what seemingly everyone else does — he’s on a team with the reigning greatest scorer on the face of the earth. It’d behoove him to take more time to really understand how to run a team, and how to keep players happy with their offense. And to rely less on his natural athleticism and more on his natural talent. To pass more, to simply listen to his critics. These are all things I’ve observed watching Thunder fans. Some praying for a trade — they peddle hypotheticals, like Westbrook for Kyrie or Westbrook for Iggy. They wish to be past “bad” Russell, past the point where his mere existence can ruin their nights or poison otherwise quality games.

 • • •

That’s Westbrook. He’s a study in contrasts — within himself, he’s both sides of the coin. He’s democracy, challenging the reign of convention and offering a new archetype for the consumption of the fan. He’s lawless tyranny, challenging his fans to accept a player they cannot understand. He plays without conscience, without regard for either fans or teammates. Sometimes, it works. Gloriously. And all things considered, even when it doesn’t, Westbrook is still one of the best players in the game today. He’s fearless, strong, and just about the most pound-for-pound athletic specimen in the league. Without Westbrook, the Thunder are a classical version of the Dirk-led Mavericks — a team with the greatest scorer in the league surrounded by decent parts. Westbrook is, just as much as Durant, the reason the Thunder have such a bright future. He’s the thing that separates “a good team with a superstar” from “a limitless team with impossible potential.” He’s the X-Factor extraordinaire, and one of the best point guards in the league. And he does it his own way, taking his own fans hostage and making them wonder how the hell he does it. It’s exhilarating, it’s a roller coaster. Nothing is guaranteed, but nothing is off the table. It’s funny. And it’s Russell Westbrook, the lawless sovereign himself.

As another Hobbes once said: “Virtue needs some cheaper thrills.” Amen to that.

Player Capsule (Plus): Wade’s World

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with narrative, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? A narrative post. Let’s discuss Dwyane Wade.

There are many complimentary things you can say about Dwyane Wade. You can say that he’s one of the best players of his era — I have trouble thinking of more than three wings in that frame that were outright better than he was. (To wit: Kobe, LeBron, and (with some caveats) Manu. And yes, most people will disagree about Manu, but perhaps not when you hear the caveats. That’s a subject for another day.) You can say he’s one of the fastest players ever to play the game — few can match Wade’s raw speed. You can say that he’s taken his lumps — it’s not often that stars are forced to languish on teams as dismal as Wade’s post-Shaq teams, the ones that came about while Riley was putting into motion the various machinations that led to the Heat’s current star-studded era. And you can say that, by all accounts, Wade is a good father and a good man. He has style. He has grit. He’s Dwyane Wade.

And yet, in Wade’s story, there’s one thing lacking: the element of surprise.

• • •

Tell me, when was the last time Dwyane Wade truly surprised you, in the broadest sense of the word? The seed of this concept was planted back in 2006, when FreeDarko’s Dr. Lawyer IndianChief wrote perhaps the best Dwyane Wade piece I’ve ever read. In it, the good doctor outlined what Wade had accomplished up to that point. He’d become the second member of the ballyhooed class of 2003 to win an NBA title (behind only Darko Milicic), and the first to win it while playing greater than 20 total minutes in the playoffs (the total number of minutes Darko played in that playoff run — no, not per-game, TOTAL). Wade’s star had gone supernova — his grit and hustle skidded his way across the hardwood and into our hearts. But yet, there was a pang of nostalgia and distrust, at least for me and Dr. IndianChief.

You see, for me at least, nothing about Wade’s magical 2006 run brought the same joy of his 2004 team. The 2004 Heat struck me as the far more interesting unit — replete with his motley Miami-bred crew of Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Wade’s youngest developing form, there were absolutely no expectations on Wade’s first Miami team. It was simply a team with three positionless young stars chipping in their varied skillsets and trying to master their craft. They made the second round of the playoffs, and came within a single poor possession away from forcing a winner-take-all game seven against Reggie Miller’s last great Pacer team. That was a team that made no real logistic sense whatsoever. It could’ve been terrible. And yet, it was a ridiculously fun defensive team, and one of the more entertaining cohesive units of the last decade. One of Stan Van Gundy’s greatest coaching accomplishments, and above all, a team that embodied surprise. It was spectacular.

And what then? Well, Pat Riley acquired Shaquille O’Neal, and suddenly, fate just aligned for Wade. He was on a title contender, and suddenly, his team was expected to be good. And don’t mistake this as criticism — Wade delivered. It was simply different. The doctor discusses this better than I could in his piece, but for those first few years with Shaq, Wade simply didn’t shock anymore. He dazzled, certainly, with his crossover and his dunks and his blazing speed. His abilities were great, his skills unparalleled, his style immaculate. But he suffered almost from a surplus of greatness. Dwyane Wade was named Finals MVP before he could legally rent a car, and somehow, no aspect of his run surprised me. Not the effortlessly dominant performances chained one after another on the dismal march to the promised land, not the contention, not the sudden outbreak of zebra flu in the finals. Nothing.

The Wade/Shaq Heat wasn’t a team that shocked and awed, it was simply a good team doing the things a good team does, and most importantly, living up to expectations. And that’s the key. Even a dynasty like the Spurs involved some level of exceeding expectations — the surfiet of titles was never quite expected for a motley crew of Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, especially not in a Western Conference featuring teams like the Nowitzki Mavericks, the Kobe Lakers, or the Nash Suns. There was never any thought that the Spurs had put together two of the greatest players at their positions of their generations, never quite the overwhelming media hype for Duncan and his brood that Wade/Shaq’s pairing attracted. For Wade, he paired a repertoire of next-level Jordan moves with the then-formidable husk that was once Shaquille O’Neal — one of the greatest big men ever. The question was never “can they win a title”, the question was when. And when they fulfilled dismal destiny and seemed to relinquish Dirk of what seemed to be his grandest shot, there was some element of yawn-worthy precognition attached to it. Because like it or not, we saw it coming.

• • •

While the doctor’s piece stopped there, the narrative kept rumbling onward. There was little to surprise about any of Wade’s teams since. The 2007 Heat were flawed, and as Shaq collapsed to injury, they did too. Wade’s injury robbed him of culpability for the shockingly bad 2008 spell, and the 2009 team was about as interesting in the broader sense as that Heat-Hawks yawner (which is, to me, one of the all-time worst-to-watch series that the playoffs have ever produced, and WITHOUT QUESTION the worst seven-game series). The 2010 Heat were as anyone expected from a team as focused on cultivating its cap space as Riley was — a bit loveable, a bit doomed, and a bit drab. And then, of course, a repeat of his early career — all at once, Wade gathered together two all-generation talents and cast his lot again as the presumptive favorite. In the 2011 Finals the Heat lost, but Wade’s play was exquisite and in no way was the loss his fault. And then, in 2012? The Miami Death Machine rolls forward, the Heat win, and there’s no particular joy for Wade alone. Joy for LeBron, at the culmination of his dreams deferred, sure. Joy for Bosh, his Gordito-fueled celebratory finger guns blazing, sure. But Wade? He won a second ring. He wasn’t the best player on the team, nor was he the worst. A team prohibitively favored to win the title before the season won it. Saw it coming. Chalk rules everything around me. Et cetera.

Thus, Dwyane Wade. The unlimited potential seen of him in his early years never quite came to pass — he never really developed a respectable three point shot, nor did he develop a consistently dominant jumpshot. The Wade that dominated next to Shaq is essentially the exact same player that dominated next to LeBron in 2011. The only wrinkle, now? Actual, tangible wrinkles. That is to say, Wade’s getting old. He’s passed the magical barrier separating a player’s 20s from their 30s, and while too much is made about the decline of a player the second they hit 30, there are quite a few warning signs for Wade. His game is defined on athleticism and injury-risking hustle plays, neither of which hold up well with age. His defense — once all-world — has fallen off a tad, and looks to fall off more as his mobility and speed get compromised. At this point, the surprise is simply gone. If Wade falls off, that’s age. If Wade stays good, that’s Wade. He’s in something of a catch-22, as he has been since his magical rookie season. Nothing he does, positive or negative, will really push the needle. And as thus, boredom sets in. The light droning of forecasts met and predictions made truth.

This isn’t to detract from Wade’s accomplishments or his career. As a whole, Wade will be remembered well. Sooner or later the in-moment parade of expectations fulfilled will fade and the facts will remain. Dwyane Wade is one of the 25-something best players ever. He’s a singular talent, and while his game has always had limitations, the things he excels at have always completely overwhelmed the limitations. Wade did not allow his lack of a shot to keep him from becoming one of the best of all time. He didn’t lose sight of what made him whole, nor did he let his fame allow him to degenerate into a poor father or a poor role model. Wade is an upstanding man, an incredible player, and we’re all blessed to have watched him master his craft. And yet, there’s something so intensely expected about the whole thing. Some nagging sense that a little bit of shock and awe would’ve seasoned his legacy nicely. Some surprise. Some hardship overcome, some team that nobody expected that came back to do the incredible. It bugs me, when I think of Wade, and I readily admit that it makes it harder for me to appreciate him.

• • •

Sitting in my study, I recline back in my chair and open one of my favorite Youtube videos. “Oh, hi Dwyane.” It’s Wade’s wonderful Chicago game winner. You know the one. I follow it closely, on repeat, and begin to imagine small niches to the moment — the sound of the ball cracking on the hardwood as it’s stolen, the whip of John Salmons’ neck as he turns backwards and realizes what’s happening, the echoing roar of the crowd as they realize the same. Dribble, fake, shoot, swish. The crowd falls to disrepair and the game is won. Wade’s unbridled emotion carries it for me — the scream, the protestations, the arrogance. In any other setting, it’s droll and overdone. In this? It’s perfect. Simply perfect. And then I ponder, and consider. I re-learn an important lesson.

Yes, in a broad sense, the moment is nothing — it’s a meaningless winner in a retrospectively dismal season for the Heat. But it’s also everything. It rises above concepts like surprise, glory, and the binary cruelty of a win and a loss. And in those moments, whether the broader narrative disappoints you or not, nothing can take from you the pain and joy of the singular moment — the surprise that a simple Springfield peach-basket has evolved into such gripping drama overrides any broader concerns about a legacy or a narrative. And Wade screams, and pounds, and breaks his way into your heart. No, his career won’t shock you. But he can give you that singular moment of beauty, if you let him.

And that, right there? That’s Wade’s gift. That’s the surprise.

• • •

For more player capsules, check out more of the project on Gothic Ginobili. We’re past 50, now, and today’s slate is a good one. I’ll be back at Hardwood Paroxysm sometime in the next few weeks, most likely. Perhaps even next week! See you then.