Before game four of these 2013 NBA Finals, the question was posed to me on Twitter if this was a make-or-break game for the legacy of LeBron James. The question struck me as peculiar since basketball is a team game and it’s incredibly difficult-if-not-impossible for one player to carry a team and odd that one game could override a larger body of work. On the surface, LeBron’s 39% shooting percentage in games one through three — a likely result of the Spurs’ defensive effort — was worthy of an eyebrow raise. However, whether it was his 12.3 rebounds per game, 6.3 assists per game or 2.0 turnovers per game in that stretch, LeBron found other ways to contribute to the team while he tried to find his rhythm.
And this one game was supposed to define LeBron’s career from this point on, overriding four MVP awards in five years, three consecutive Finals appearances (which very well could be four appearances in five years dating back to Cleveland), and a championship? I don’t think so.
The truth is that when the Heat have lost games in these Finals (save for game one) they’ve been careless with the ball, gotten beat on the boards and left shooters open. When they’ve won, they’ve protected the ball, rebounded, and got to the line– all things that help you control the flow of a game. The bigger determinant of the Heat’s success in these Finals has not been whether or not LeBron has been good enough, but whether or not the team as a whole is willing to do the little things like exert the effort to crash the glass, make the proper defensive rotation or focused enough to cut down on careless turnovers.
At any rate, how did our protagonist/antagonist fare in his big legacy game? Oh, 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists with just two turnovers on 60 percent shooting. It’s funny because even though many would have viewed a poor performance in this game as a stain on his legacy, there was no widespread clamoring that his legacy was now given a boost for his performance. Perhaps this meant that it had no effect on it and something that his critics would feel is something he should always do, making his showing something to be expected. Which in some ways is an odd form of roundabout praise masquerading as absurdly high standards of near-perfection because they’re still acknowledging LeBron as a great player.
Alternatively, LeBron’s “legacy” is likely no different than any other great player in the history of the league in that he’s needed help from his teamto put them over the top. We’ve seen this happen all throughout history how great teams need their role players to step up from time-to-time, just as Rick Barry told me last week. The Spurs are no exception to this as they called on Boris Diaw in game five to successfully defend the best player in the league or have leaned on Danny Green while Manu Ginobili has slumped, who has emerged as a legitimate front-runner for Finals MVP. That’s right; not Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, but Danny Green! And Green is really the next in the line of role players such as Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, and even Shane Battier last year who stepped up when their team needed them to.
I play the game because I love it. I love the competitive side of it. Once I’m done, you know, you guys will write my legacy and say what I’ve done for this game, but that’s not for me to worry about right now.
The only way this legacy thing really matters anyway is if it matters to the players, which it doesn’t. LeBron admitted as much before the Finals and he’s not the first player to come out and say so. As fans we like to believe that these things matter as much to the players we attempt to rank, but they don’t. They speak the same things about enjoying playing the game and competing rather than worrying about their place in history. While analyzing the game is a part of the fun, overanalyziation takes away from our ability to appreciate what we see from great teams and players while we’re still able to watch them. Maybe that’s where we should take a cue from them to sit back, relax, and just enjoy the game ourselves. If we’re able to do this tonight, we’ll be able to truly appreciate the Spurs adding another championship to one of the greatest extended runs in NBA history and a great team digging deep to save their season should the Heat claim victory.
A brief peek into the mind of Tim Duncan with .8 seconds remaining in the first half of Game 1:
“…seriously, though, it’s ridiculous how badly druids were nerfed in the last patch. Blizzard is out of their minds. Boris, are you even listening to me? Blizzard is a French owned company. This matters to you, too. … S’that, Pop? …with less than a second remaining? Sure. What’s the play? Must be like a lob or a pindown or something, right?”
Trust the process.
Create space. Give Tony room to get you the ball. Laugh at Joel Anthony. Seriously, Joel Anthony? Is Erik Spoelstra trying to play a joke on me?
Okay, focus. Wade’s here, too. He’s pesky. Probably won’t affect the shot too much, but he stands to have a bigger impact than Joel F—ing Anth — I said focus, Tim!
Why am I even thinking about these guys, anyway? Trust the process. Set your feet. Square your shoulders. Bend your knees. Get at least 6 inches of lift on the “jumper,” or Tony’s going to give you so much s— about being 50 or some other s— after the game. Trust the process. It’s just math. .8 seconds is plenty of time to make the catch and shoot, as long as you trust the process. No hesitation. No fear.
Heh, remember No Fear? Man, I think I still have a dozen of their shirts in the closet at Pop’s super secret lake house. Love fishing there. Pop’s got the biggest cache of C4 from his military days and man, it’s hilarious watching Patty Mills swim around after the detonation, gathering nature’s flash-charred bounty in his mouth. He loves it.
Oh, neat. We scored. Someone must have trusted the process. Wonder if Pop will let me run a 5-man dungeon at halftime.
Maybe I’ll invite Joel Anthony. Dude probably plays a hunter.
After waiting for nearly an hour, the man you have come to see finally makes an appearance. Wearing a lab coat on top of a professional suit and tie combo, he looks every bit the authority figure you were led to believe. You offer your hand. He ignores it, gesturing for you to sit. Nervously, you oblige.
“Before we get started, I need you to understand something,” he begins, without looking up from the chart he has opened in front of you. Pausing to adjust his tie, he closes his chart and calmly stares at you.
“The San Antonio Spurs are boring,” he says, with a matter-of-fact certitude that you feel compelled to agree with. After all, he is an authority figure. He knows what he’s talking about.
“If you write anything about the Spurs, you must address this point. Every time you even think about the Spurs, that has to be what is on your mind.”
Years later, you sit down to watch the Spurs advance to their fifth NBA Finals since 1999 and their first since 2007. Despite shooting three pointers at a rate comparable to Knicks and possessing a team-wide passing game the likes of which a scrappy underdog team in a feel-good basketball movie aspires to, one thought dominates your mind: this team is boring. You’re not even sure if you agree anymore. The Spurs have been so good or so long that the mere thought of them not winning 50 games is as alien to you as basketball before the three pointer. In 1997-98, their first year under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs went 56-26. In all but one season since, they have won at least 50 games, and the one year in which they didn’t was shortened by a lockout, and they won the NBA title.
Since the Spurs started this run of excellence, nearly unprecedented in the history of the sport, Michael Jordan has retired, returned, retired, drafted Kwame Brown, been elected to the Hall of Fame and re-created the Charlotte Hornets. In 1998, Saving Private Ryan was the top film at the box office, while the soundtrack to Titanic was the top-selling album. When that first season under Popovich ended, MTV’s Total Request Live had yet to debut. The fourth and final Lethal Weapon film was released, marking Jet Li’s debut in American cinema. 1998 saw video game releases such as Starcraft, Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: this level of continued excellence is essentially unparalleled in the history of this sport. Only Bill Russell’s Celtics can make such a claim, and this Spurs run has already lasted two years longer than Russell’s entire NBA career. One can only imagine how today’s NBA would react to eleven titles in fourteen seasons.
Yet, through all of this, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking, talking, or even looking at the Spurs from an outsider’s perspective is that they are somehow less interesting than the more explosive and dysfunctional super teams we’ve all become accustomed to. Even before Boston’s superteam made “collusion” a four letter word, the Lakers were the more entertaining alternative to the greatness of the Spurs, which makes a certain kind of sense. Watching Shaq and Kobe passive-aggressively dance around one another while Phil Jackson smirks makes for a more entertaining locker room than Tim Duncan calmly befriending his teammates and fostering a culture of respect and professionalism. At a certain point, this narrative (the only narrative the Spurs have ever faced, it seems) becomes so all-encompassing that I have to ask myself if the Spurs are even supposed to be good. Their goal as a franchise seems to be perceived less about succeeding and profiting than it is living up to some abstract notion of entertainment. Are they professionals, or are they entertainers? No matter how proficient, skilled or downright great the on-court product is, it seems the Spurs will always fall victim to what is now an ancient meme in the ever-powerful court of public opinion.
If you think there’s any confusion about this in the organization itself, then you just haven’t been paying attention. Gregg Popovich cares less about your opinion of his team’s watchability than you do about what he had for breakfast this morning. Surely he, and the Spurs by extension, have never had the most…charitable relationship with the media. One has to wonder if there’s a sort of chicken-egg situation going on here. Are the Spurs cold and withdrawn to the media because the media keeps calling them boring, or does the media keep calling them boring because the Spurs are cold and withdrawn? I should probably steer away from using such a catch-all term as “the media,” but it feels appropriate in this instance. The Spurs have generally been equal-opportunity in their disdain for all things newsworthy.
In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase that is the subtitle of said book, the idea that most evil is committed not by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who “accepted the premise of their state and continued with the idea that what they were doing was normal.” This idea was of course brought the forefront by the actions of Nazi Germany during the Third Reich, and the common defense of simply “following orders” used at the Nuremberg Trials and in countless other instances since. I bring this up not to go into any sort of depth on the Holocaust or even to claim that any of this has anything to do with “evil.” I bring this up because the premise of the Banality of Evil gave rise to a series of very interesting and very telling social experiments of the latter half of the 20th century. Among these experiments are Stanley Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience, the Zimbardo Prison Study and Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment. These were all interesting exercises that said a lot about the nature of authority and pack mentality, but at the risk of drawing further from my topic, I won’t elaborate upon them. Look them up yourself if interested. I simply bring up these references to aid in what has recently become a bit of a theory of mine in reference to the NBA and how we, being enlightened people on the internet (lulz) discuss it.
Much has been made in recent months and years of the prevalence of the dreaded narrative in coverage of our favorite sport. I won’t argue that some of these narratives (specifically the ones that deal with such unmeasurable, fickle, and honestly silly things as “mental toughness” and “clutch”) are tiring to the point of nausea, the idea that even the most ardent sabermetricians among us would prefer basketball to be viewed as the statistical variance study it generally is, without the narrative, we wouldn’t care. Take the first round of this year’s playoffs, for example. Where Knicks/Celtics was interesting to a lot of people (even outside the respective markets), Pacers/Hawks was seen as dull and lifeless. The quality of basketball in those two series was essentially the same: bad. Because the Knicks and Celtics are filled to the brim with such interesting characters and at some semblance of history between the teams, it was seen as a gritty, albeit sloppy series where Pacers/Hawks was merely dull. To take this to a higher level, look at the reaction and discussion of the dearly departed Heat/Bulls series in comparison to, say, the Spurs/Grizzlies Western Conference Finals. Despite ending in fewer games, Spurs/Grizzlies was a much higher quality than Heat/Bulls (that is to say: any quality at all). Because of the Derrick Rose Saga* and the Heart Gristle McLeadership of high-quality basketball stalwart Nate Robinson, Bulls/Heat was seen as one team valiantly fighting inevitability where Spurs/Grizzlies was simply more consistent domination from the unstoppable tide that is the San Antonio Spurs.
*note to self: punch self in face as hard as possible for using this phrase
I don’t mean to sound judgmental, and I certainly don’t mean to say that I myself don’t prefer at least some sort of intrigue in my basketball viewing. All I mean to say is that we’ve become somewhat conditioned, either by the narratives we claim to have no use for or some strange form of peer pressure, to blindly follow the “Spurs are boring” train to the point that it has lost all meaning and has become nothing more than a platitude, a crutch to hold up a dead idea, a grassy hill to die upon for a cause long past dying for. It’s a meaningless phrase, a non-starter that adds nothing to any conversation and only serves to inform everyone around you that you don’t really care for making your own opinions or this whole “thinking” thing. The Spurs still might be boring to you, but that should be because you dislike constants and require a little more combustion in your basketball life. The fact remains that such determination should be made by the on-court product and not by what is now an ancient and mystical ritual by which we indoctrinate our new recruits.
With the start of the playoffs but a week away, the notoriously cautious Spurs have seen their would-be playoff roster go through quite a shake-up over a 12 hour span.
First it was announced that Boris Diaw will miss 3-4 weeks after having surgery to (deep breath) remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Later, it was announced that the Spurs have requested waivers on mercurial swingman/rapper/entertainer Stephen Jackson, citing concerns that his “strong personality” (putting it lightly) would cause locker room tensions with him struggling to adapt to his diminished role.
Diaw was no longer starting for the team, as Year 3 of The Tiago Splitter Experience has finally seen a full-blown bloom. Popovich hesitated to play Splitter next to Tim Duncan nearly of all last season, with the twin towers combo seeing only 129 minutes. Popovich was clearly more comfortable spacing-wise with the non-shooting Splitter next to a 3 point threat in Matt Bonner – the two shared the court for 702 of Splitter’s 1121 minutes. Duncan, meanwhile, played next to whatever 4th big was in the rotation at the time – initially DeJuan Blair, eventually Diaw.
This season, such qualms seem to have been thrown out the window, with Splitter and Duncan having shared the court for 819 minutes. The Spurs have scorched opponents in those minutes, to the tune of 106 points per possession (right around where they are for the season), but even more impressively, they’ve held opponents to 92.7 – a number that would easily lead the league, and is a full 6 points better than their 3rd best mark. The Duncan-Splitter combo was easily this year’s greatest addition to a squad that somehow keeps improving even though you think their roster is maxed out, an unlocked super-weapon among an arsenal that was nearly complete but still slightly lacking.
Alongside the two, Diaw has settled in as the utility third big. His 38.5% mark from three isn’t as big a boost as it seems, as he rarely shoots, but his vision and passing are helpful cogs in the steamrolling machine that is the Spur offensive system. His loss is huge not because he played a crucial role, but because his 23ish minutes a night were dependable quantity. In replacing them, the Spurs will likely have to choose between two defensively inferior players with glaring offensive flaws in Blair (spacing) and Bonner (a slow release, high accuracy sharpshooter who has struggled to get the same looks in the playoffs over the past few seasons).
The third option is a tricky one, and opponent dependent – and that is playing small, with Kawhi Leonard as a nominal power forward. Such lineups could work against similarly small lineups that the Nuggets (Wilson Chandler at the 4), Thunder (Durant) or Clippers (whenever one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is sitting) like to run, although running them against the Grizzlies could be a dangerous endeavor.
The loss of Jackson, however, makes it hard to pull the blanket in that direction without leaving the back-part of the lineup in the cold. Without Jackson, the ideal players for such three-guard lineups would seem be Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili – with the premier two of those three dealing with lingering injury issues. Replacing any one of the three can go downhill in a hurry: Gary Neal was a regular feature in last year’s playoffs, but is a clear downgrade, and beyond him are unknown playoff quantities in Nando De Colo, Patty Mills or Cory Joseph.
All that said, cutting Jack strikes the mind harder than it strikes the hardwood. Much like last season in Milwaukee, or the year before that in Charlotte, Jackson’s play this year hardly matched his cult figure status. At 35, his athleticism has been gone for a few years, now, taking his shot creating abilities with it. He’s hitting 37% of his shots, and 27% of his threes. He has a single digit PER, a sub-48 true shooting percentage, and his assist rate just barely outperforms his turnover rate. Each and every one of these numbers has its flaws, but the full ensemble makes it hard to reach any other conclusion: Jackson is no longer a particularly useful basketball player.
Gregg Popovich (and, by extension, the entire Spurs organization) seems to agree. The drop in Jackson’s minutes hasn’t been dramatic, but it was there – Jack sat comfortably at 19.5 ticks per night, after 23.8 with the Spurs after last year’s trade deadline and 21.4 in last year’s playoffs, and was left out of San Antonio’s top 10 most used lineups. A stat like that should come with the appropriate asterisks – namely, that between injuries and Pop’s merry-go-round, the Spurs don’t exactly have “most used lineups” that go beyond their starters, and Jackson’s case is hurt by the games he sat out.
Nonetheless, much like any other playoff squad, the Spurs’ regular season rotation is much more lenient than its playoff equivalent. Certain players get counted on more, and others remain glued to the bench. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie, and it often showed defensively; this season, Pop’s trust in him is unwavering. Combine that with Jackson’s own decline, and it was easy to see how a playoff cut in minutes was in the cards. Jackson apparently disapproved of such changes, and was shown the door.
The issue here, as mentioned above, is that the Spurs don’t really have enough extra flesh to allow such voluntary cuts. The squad is deep on paper, but much of that depth is of the sort that the playoffs wash away. Blair, Bonner, Green in last year’s Thunder series – all are players who have seen huge declines in either minutes or production in past postseasons, and not even the most black-and-silver colored glasses could show a world that sees a late emergence from Aron Baynes. These Spurs’ playoffs will hinge on Parker and Ginobili’s health, but even assuming the best, San Antonio could conceivably find itself in a spot where they just don’t have enough bodies to work through the grind.
That’s why the Jackson cut was so surprising. It wasn’t his huge role, or the fallout between him and seemingly the only organization who accepted him. Rather, it was the willingness of an organization known for its emphasis on stability to voluntarily up its own degree of difficulty. With the team limping into the playoffs on questionable legs and records (6-6 in their past 12 games), and two of the West’s premier teams finding seemingly ironclad formulas to handle them in the past two postseasons, the alarm in the Alamo should be real.
You might not have noticed Cory Joseph starting for the San Antonio Spurs. Far from flashy, you can watch them for a few minutes and miss his presence. With All-Star Tony Parker out of the lineup due to a sprained ankle, Joseph is in his place at point guard but he isn’t piling up points. Asked if plays would be designed for Joseph, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News, “When we put one in for [ex-Spur] Mario Elie, we’ll put one in for Cory.”
Cory Joseph putting in work. Photo by John Bennett.
If you pay attention to Joseph, you’ll see him pick up his man in the backcourt and take a few seconds off the shot clock. You’ll see him make proper passes but sometimes not even bring the ball up or initiate the offense. You’ll rarely see him make a big play or a big mistake. Playing 42 minutes in his two starts, Joseph turned the ball over only once.
“The thing that I respect about his game is I don’t know that he’s great at anything, but boy is he solid,” said Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson in late August at the Air Canada Centre. On Jay Triano’s staff with the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team, Sampson saw Joseph up close at a five-day training camp.
“He’s just good,” Sampson continued. “You name me one area of the game and I’m going to say he’s pretty good at it. There’s some guys … they can dribble, can’t shoot. They can shoot, can’t dribble. Not really good passers or non-willing passers. Cory Joseph is a solid passer, solid shooter, solid defender, great teammate. He’s dependable.”
Joseph’s jumper wasn’t always described as dependable. There were concerns about his ability to consistently hit NBA threes when the Spurs drafted him No. 29 in 2011. As a guard in a system like the Spurs’, the ability to space the floor is pretty much a prerequisite for playing time.
“His shot’s improved so much,” said Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, a childhood friend of Joseph’s and his teammate at both Findlay Prep and the University of Texas. “Cory back in college and in high school had kind of a slow release but now he has a quick release and he’s knocking shots down.”
“When he’s open, you think it’s going in and that wasn’t the case two years ago,” said Sampson. “When he was in college I thought he was a spotty, streaky shooter at best.”
This year in 26 games with the D-League’s Austin Toros, Joseph was averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the field 48 percent from behind the three-point line before being called up just over a week ago. Appearing in only 29 games in San Antonio as a rookie, he split his time between the two teams in his two seasons, winning a D-League Championship in his first and making the D-League All-Star team in his second.
“There’s no experience like game experience,” Joseph said of his time in Austin. “I work out all the time, but you can work out every day but it’s nothing like game experience, so it was good to get down there, work out and also play in the games. And also have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes and learn from your mistakes. That helped me a whole bunch. The coaching staff down there was good — it was an extension of the coaching staff from the Spurs, so it was great.”
Joseph showed off what he learned in his first season during NBA Summer League in July, averaging 17 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds and making the All-Summer League Team. He credits his improvement to learning from Popovich and point guards like Parker, former Spurs assistant coach and current Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn and a couple of familiar faces.
T.J. Ford, an 8-year NBA veteran and a fellow Longhorns alum, spent significant time with Joseph last season in San Antonio and Austin, where he went from player to assistant coach.
“That’s almost like my brother,” Joseph said of Ford. “Last year, me and him were close. He took me under his wing. He taught me a lot … He’s done it and he’s played at all the levels that I want to be at.”
Steve Nash, then a Phoenix Sun and now a Los Angeles Laker and the general manager of Canada’s national team, reached out to Joseph before he played the Spurs last season. Joseph now counts the future Hall of Famer and the best player his country has produced as a friend and a mentor.
The advice Nash gave him? “Just go in there and work,” Joseph said. He couldn’t control how much he played in San Antonio last season but he could command respect with his competitiveness and his work ethic.
“Every first year is a hard year for anybody, said Joseph. “Just like when [Nash] was a rookie. I know I was only five years old when he was a rookie but he was just telling me about his experience, just working hard, coming early, staying after … Just try to get some more playing time and do what it takes for your team to win.”
In this situation as a starter, Joseph doesn’t need to do much for his team to win. His job is to play tough defense and put his teammates in positions to make plays. Getting his chance to share the floor with stars like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, he’s asked only to be a steady stand-in. It’s okay if he doesn’t stand out.
You loyal readers took the time to send in your questions last week to your favorite San Antonio Spurs, Matt Bonner, and he responded. Did your question not get answered? Matt will be doing another mailbag in March so use February to prep and come back with an even better question.
Bonner is hoping to compete in the Foot Locker Three-Point Shootout during All Star weekend so support the #LetBonnerShoot cause and let’s get Coach B in there!
From Jared James: I would like to hear any stories about hazing during your rookie year.
Since I was in my mid 20s during my rookie year, I didn’t really have to do anything that bad. However this story comes to mind:
One time, on the way home from a road practice in Los Angeles, the bus stopped at an In-N-Out Burger. The team made Rafael Arraujo and I go inside to get burgers and fries for everyone while wearing our sweaty practice gear. They also made us wear those funny looking paper hats for added insult. Needless to say, people were staring with bewilderment as we walked out with 22 cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes. Thankfully, at that point in time, few people had access to cell phones with cameras. So, this incident went undocumented… until now.
Jude Morte asks: What is it like playing under Gregg Popovich?
Playing for Coach Pop is wicked awesome. I have tremendous respect for him as a coach and person. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been traded to the Spurs 7 years ago.
Jude Morte asks: What was the best sandwich you’ve ever made?
I don’t make sandwiches. Remember, I’m The Sandwich HUNTER, not the sandwich maker. Making a sandwich for myself would be like Ted Nugent giving up his guns and taking up laser tag.
Jude Morte asks: What’s on your bucket list?
Here’s a few Bucket List items I’ve accomplished:
Own an El Camino
Memorize the unabridged version of “Rapper’s Delight”
Observe Brent Barry at a Rick Ross Concert
Bucket List Items I’ve yet to do:
Hike the entire Appalachian Trail
Attend the Tim Hortons Brier
See a Bruce Springsteen Concert
Witness an actual extraterrestrial being and/or UFO
Jude Morte asks: What is a common stereotype of people from New Hampshire that you would like to dispel?
New Hampshire is one of the most unmaterialistic places in the country. You rarely see people with flashy jewelry, fancy cars or Louis Vuitton purses. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have swag. You see all these NBA players showing off their closets full of crisp tees and fresh sneakers. They have Air Force Ones, Jordans, etc. Well I have a closet full of animal print tees from The Mountain (a NH company) and flannel… L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, etc.
Jude Morte asks: Where are the good places to go in New Hampshire that are rarely included in travel itineraries?
NH is home to the greatest place on earth, literally. In the heart of the Lakes Region just off the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, you’ll find a place called, “Funspot”. It’s the world’s largest arcade and home of the Classic Arcade Games Museum and Hall of Fame. It also hosts the annual Classic Arcade Games World Championships and boasts the largest collection of classic arcade games. Add bowling (both candlestick and 10-pin!), mini-golf, go karts, a sports bar, and a ropes course and you can see why the Bonners make weekly visits when back home in the summer. Also, they carry the world famous “chipwiches” from local Jordan’s Ice Creamery. No written description could possibly do it justice (Ed. note: I ate one of these chipwiches and they are indeed fantastic). Funspot must be experienced. As a matter of fact, you should add it to your own bucket list.
(Ed. note tip of the cap to Jude Morte who sent in 38 questions.)
Alex Dewey asks: Do you feel obligated to make a shot after someone gives you a really special pass, like behind-the-back? From a spectator’s standpoint, it always feels like a supreme let down when players don’t make a shot on great passes. Do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. For me, there are basically 2 ways I can make the SC Top 10. The first is getting dunked on (ie Blake Griffin). And the second, is if Manu hits me with some ridiculous cross-court-bullet-no-look-behind-the-back-pass and I somehow catch it and make the ensuing wide-open shot.
Ayatollah Tagomata asks: Who would win in a staring contest: Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard?
Kawhi would win because he is 14 years younger and would most likely out live Tim.
Maddison Bond asks: While the league has ramped up support for the Developmental league, offering all games for free on YouTube, many players still choose to play abroad in the various leagues overseas. Having played across the water, how do you think the NBA should help make the Developmental league gather more homegrown talents and more appealing as a serious league?
First off, I think the D-League is a serious league. It has improved immensely over the years and every roster has multiple players with NBA experience. That being said, many players do indeed opt to play overseas. I think the biggest reason is the disparity in earning potential. The top teams in Europe pay their Americans an annual salary in the upper six-figures. If I’m not mistaken, D-League players can only make between $13,000 and $30,000 per season. Of course by staying home and playing in the D-League, they have the chance to get called up to the NBA.
New Hampshire native Ryan Herbert asks: New Hampshire has the world’s finest Greek-style Pizza Parlors; which in NH is your favorite, and which toppings most adequately please your legendary palate?
When it comes to Greek pizza joints in NH, the options are seemingly endless. However, since I grew up in the South End of Concord, I have to go with Milano’s. I almost always get a small cheese pizza and a chicken caesar wrap. I can state with confidence that Milano’s has the best chicken caesar wrap I’ve ever had. It’s also worth noting that Milano’s is where I developed my ability to dominate the arcade game “Buster Bros” and memorized the words to numerous jukebox classics such as “Red Red Wine”, “96 Tears”, and “Radar Love”.
Luke Bonner asks: Can you recite the quadratic formula off the top of your head? If yes, prove it.
Here’s what I remember (I’m answering this one honestly):
There’s the quadratic formula, quadratic equation and also quadratic functions. Quadratic functions give you parabolic curves when you graph them and usually give you two solutions (when dealing with real numbers) where they cross the x-axis (one positive and one negative). You use the equation y=ax2+bx+c
The quadratic formula can be derived from this somehow and it comes out to something like… darn, I can’t find the square root symbol on the keyboard. I had a program in my TI-82 graphing calculator that did it for me. It was right next to my “Tetris” program. Forget it, next question…
Brent “Bones” Barry asks: Hey Matt, You got that $43 you owe me?
I paid you back a few years ago when you wanted to buy Screech’s “lucky beret” at that flea market and they wouldn’t take your credit card… How could you forget?
When it comes to comparing sports and music, there are few tropes as tired as linking jazz and basketball. Hell, I’ve done it. But as it goes with most clichés, it comes up again and again because there’s a kernel of truth in it, because it can be a useful way to see the game. Like a quintet on the bandstand playing a standard, the five players on the floor in basketball are working within a structure that allows for fluidity and improvisation. The things they’re doing are all interconnected, interdependent, and when one of them shifts his approach, it affects the entire fabric of the play. There’s initiative, understanding, recognition, response. The idea of basketball players as jazz musicians rewards our conception of the game as beautiful, a work of art, even.
But there are other ways to expand our sense of the game via music. What if we instead consider the plays a team runs as being akin to the basic units of pop music: the verse, the chorus, the bridge? After all, the cagiest pop songs play on our expectations with each new section, adding wrinkles and subverting convention, much like Steve Nash does with the basic pick and roll.
Consider, for example, the chorus of Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants,” which begins at 1:11 in the video below.
The chorus to the song is essentially the same refrain repeated twice, a common enough structure for the hook of a pop tune, but there’s something a little off-kilter about this particular one. The first time, the first line is a pickup into the chorus—that is, “What a girl wants” is sung so that it’s the word “wants” that falls on the first beat of the chorus. The second time through, the line lands slightly differently. It begins on the first beat and the word “wants” falls on the second beat of the chorus. It’s a little rhythmic trickery that keeps it from being repetitive.
And rhythmic trickery is more or less what defines the relationship between the pick and roll and the slip screen. Here’s Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol running the pick and roll (excuse the ABBA—it’s just the cost of doing business):
Being one of the most fundamental basketball plays, the bread-and-butter pick and roll establishes expectations. The big man will set the pick and the guard will run his man into the pick, letting the big man roll to the hoop. It’s the first time through the chorus. But once the defense is anticipating the straight pick and roll, it’s time to bring out the slip screen. Here’s Bryant and Gasol running it:
As you can see, as soon as Cousins has bought the pick and roll and started hedging in an attempt to stop Bryant from turning the corner towards the middle, Gasol breaks for the bucket, gets the easy pass from Bryant, then feeds it to Lamar Odom under the hoop. This is the second time through the chorus, where a little wrinkle keeps us on our toes.
But that’s playing in a subtle way with expectations. In both music and basketball you can go with a giant misdirection. Consider a staple of hard rock dynamics, the quiet chorus after the bridge as demonstrated by the Smashing Pumpkins in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” (bridge starts at 2:28 if you want to skip ahead):
At 3:06, just when the conclusion of the bridge seems to be building towards another full-blast chorus, everything except for guitar and vocals drops out, plus the vocals are down an octave from early iterations of the chorus. We’re primed for the big guns, but the song goes in a completely different direction.
Now take a look at the wide-open three-pointer Steve Novak managed to get at the end of the Bulls-Knicks game on Easter at the end of regulation:
Jared Dubin does a great job of breaking down this entire play right here, but the basic thing that made such an open look possible is that everyone was expecting it to go to Carmelo Anthony. Once Anthony gets the ball at the three-point line, he’s doubled, allowing Novak to float out to the opposite side of the floor. His shot, unfortunately, doesn’t go down, but regardless of that, it’s a great play, made possible because everyone’s expecting the big heroic chorus from ‘Melo. Instead, they get the quiet, guitars-and-vocals chorus from Steve Novak.
The thing about basketball, though, is that these patterns don’t happen in isolation, but rather overlap and affect each other over the course of the game. The pick is the foundation of several different plays and can also be part of a larger scheme in either a directly useful or misdirecting way. When it comes to layering motifs and patterns, there a few teams that do it better than the San Antonio Spurs and few bands that do it better than Menomena.
Menomena, from Portland, Oregon, compose their music in a fairly unique way. One of the members begins with a part that gets recorded and then looped while the other members add new parts that interlock with the original part. The early result is reams of rough material that is then shaped into songs as parts are pulled away or added. By the time the compositions are complete and ready to be recorded as full songs, they’re often staggeringly complex songs built from the simplest pieces. Here’s an example from their 2007 album Friend and Foe, a song called “Wet and Rusting”:
You can hear the song begins with a spare melody (“I made you a present …”) repeated twice, followed by a second part sung once (“It’s hard to take risks …”). Since these lines are barely accompanied it’s hard to conceive of them as verses or choruses—they’re just bits right now. The form begins to repeat, but then extends under the second part, this time backed by a guitar line instead of the ghostly piano that backed it the first time. When the piano returns with drums and bass in tow, the words evaporate. The middle instrumental section stays at home harmonically with the first two parts but explores new textures. When the initial lyrical part returns at the 2:21 mark, there’s a new vocal line laid in under it. As the song reaches its dynamic peak, it’s not achieved with new material, but rather by juxtaposing all the previously played parts against one another. It’s an unusual way to build a song, but it’s pretty standard for a basketball offense.
Take the San Antonio Spurs. In a recent game against the Lakers, they hammered the pick and roll with Tony Parker and either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter early, probably because the Lakers are notoriously weak defending it. They like to mix it up a bit, with Parker often dishing the ball off before running through the paint to emerge on the other side to receive it again and run the pick and roll. But eliminating transition baskets, the game on offense for the Spurs began with these three plays:
The first one is simple enough: Duncan steps out to set a screen, Parker gets separation from Ramon Sessions (who goes over the screen) and Andrew Bynum is too deep to defend the jumper. This is the first verse, the “I made you a present” of their sets. In the second play, Sessions tries going under the screen, but that still gives Parker room to shoot and he sinks it. This is the repeat of that first melody (“And when you unravel …”). In the third play, Splitter sets the pick and tries to roll, but Pau Gasol closes out and bothers the shot enough to force a miss. The Spurs have established the pattern and now the Lakers have reacted well enough to defend it.
So the next time they run a pick and roll, they run it a little differently:
Here, Splitter sets the pick twice and Bynum and Sessions both follow Parker while trying to shield Splitter from the pass as he roles. But in the meantime, Duncan has slipped away from his defender into the open space by the free throw line extended. He catches the pass from Parker and makes the jumper in rhythm. This is the development of the initial melody into the second melody, the “It’s hard to take risks” part of the Menomena song. It exists in the same general tonal world (that is, it’s not a key change or a big dynamic change), but it’s a little different approach, and just enough to throw us off guard.
But the Spurs haven’t forgotten about that first part. They go back to it, with Parker running a simple pick and roll again on the wing:
Sessions doesn’t want to leave Ginobili, so Parker has an open shot. It’s interesting to note that even as Parker makes the open jumper, Bynum has dropped too low in the post to defend Duncan if Parker had passed it off. This return to the fundamental pick and roll is not simply a rehash of the initial action, but instead is colored by the results of the earlier pick and rolls and Duncan’s made jumper. It is, effectively, the first melody supported by the xylophone and acoustic guitar from “Wet and Rusting.” It’s not just a play, but instead a play that’s been opened up by the plays preceding it.
As the game progresses and the Lakers try to counter the Spurs, the sets become more nuanced and layered. Look at these two possessions:
What begins as a pick and roll turns into multiple screens as the double comes on Parker. In both examples, Bonner’s initial pick is basically a decoy. It draws Gasol and Sessions to the ball and Bonner floats out to the three-point line on the opposite side of the floor. In the first clip, he dribbles closer before handing the ball off to Stephen Jackson and screening his man to allow Jackson the elbow jumper. In the second, Splitter steps out to set yet another pick that Gasol has to go around to get to Bonner, whom Bynum can’t effectively cover. Bonner drains the three. My favorite part of that second one is that Splitter’s screen is actually a slip screen and he’s rolling wide open to the basket as Gasol and Bynum try to close out on Bonner. If Bonner had wanted to, he could have dished it right to Splitter for an easy dunk or layup.
To me, this is the full development of what started as a basic pick and roll at the beginning of the game. That verse melody is now being layered against the secondary melody and a new melody on top of that while the rest of the band provides support. The Spurs have forced the Lakers to adjust and then adjusted to those adjustments. Looking at the second clip, by the time the play has gotten to this point:
… the Lakers are pretty much done for. Look at all the space that Bonner and Jackson have now on the right side of the floor. By the time it gets to here:
… Devin Ebanks has closed out on Jackson in the corner, creating space for Splitter to roll to the basket while Bonner lifts up for a three he’s more than capable of hitting. The Lakers have been manipulated into playing the Spurs’ game.
And by the end of “Wet and Rusting,” the listener has been suckered into Menomena’s game. We’ve heard each of the pieces that have come before in isolation and we’ve heard them pressed against each other, but by the time they all come together into a multiphonic rush of voices and instruments, we’re hearing something greater than the sum of its parts, something greater than that first melody, greater than a simple pick and roll.
Thorpe talks about how the Spurs are attempting to stop the Nash/Amar’e pick-and-roll by having Timmy smother the ball handler while at the same time taking away the lob/pass. This, for those of you who have never tried it, is an incredibly difficult thing to do. You’re asking one NBA player to guard two NBA players. Because of Duncan’s still-underrated greatness — particularly on the defensive end — this is something that the Spurs have previously always relied on. And it’s something that, much as his nickname Groundhog Day would suggest, was always able to do. Like clock work. How? None of us mere mortals have any idea. That’s between him, Pop and the basketball gods. But being the best power-forward of all time and all, Timmy was indeed able to pull it off consistently throughout his career.
Now? In 2010?
Well, he’s old. And he doesn’t react quickly enough to do it anymore — at least not when the two offensive players running the screen/roll are Steve Nash (one of the quickest, most elusive, most decisive ball-handlers in NBA history) and Amar’e (one of the most athletic, high-flying big men in NBA history).
And David Thorpe says that it’s time for the Spurs to recognize this and adjust their defensive strategy:
They’ve asked [Duncan] to do something that very few people in history could really accomplish, and he’s no longer able to do that. San Antonio now has to make a change … The old Tim Duncan would have been able to smother Nash’s shot — or make him shoot it so awkwardly that he wasn’t going to make it. Now, in that exact moment when he has to make a decision, he is left grounded and can’t react. And that’s why San Antonio now will have to do what the rest of the free world has to do, which is they’re going to have to ask him to take one guy away or the other.