As I halfway watched the Lakers on opening night while tweeting sophomoric observations and consulting with my wife about the cost of dog sitters (oh, who have I become?), I started wondering if this is what a post-Kobe world would feel like. Even the most ardent Kobe supporter, the one who reverts to rings as the obvious reason why Kobe is better than LeBron and proceeds to quote Herm Edwards (“You play to Win the Game!”), but will double back and say Kobe’s a better player than Mike (rings be damned) because he’s a better three-point shooter and has a better handle, even this inconsistent debater will, in his private moments alone in the dark with his head on the pillow waiting for sleep to deliver him to an imagined meeting with his hero, in his heart of hearts this man, woman or child (because let’s be honest, Kobe defenders know no age or gender) will admit to Kobe Fatigue. Because for all those moments of pure elation, those moments where Kobe has singlehandedly put his team on his back and defied all odds with mid-air acrobatic game-saving, leg-pumping, triple-clutching impossible gravity-defying jump shots that find nothing but the bottom of the net … for all of those there are literally thousands of ill-advised, nausea-inducing, agonizingly senseless, “What the fuck are you doing?!?” misses.
Opening night 2013 the Lakers are a band of pickup warriors without the oversized ego of Kobe or the insecurity of Dwight or the attention-whorish antics of Shaq. It’s just a likable group of overmatched and mildly athletic (relatively speaking) pro basketball players. The two showcase names, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, are at varying points on the downsides of their careers. They’re surrounded by a group that’s been rejected or ignored for not being able to fit in or meet expectations. Specialists and career fringe starters. It’s a group no one expects much from and for good reason. And as a Lakers fan, there’s a refreshing, guilt-free element to it.
It’s not like this is a group that’s playing this organic style where egalitarian ball movement comes naturally and trumps all else. Natural-born chucker, Nick Young seems to be locked into a mano-a-mano battle with whoever happens to be guarding him. He insists on a series of dribble moves, head jerks, strange pivots, and spin moves that do little except give him the little sliver, the millimeter he needs to fire up another contested jumper. It’s no consequence if it goes in or not, because this skinny mini-Kobe is going to come back and do it again the first time he has the chance. Meanwhile, Xavier Henry’s coming off the bench, in a desperate rush to prove wrong anyone who’s ever doubted or rejected him. He’s dribble driving to the rim with blinders on, his muscular upper-body parting the Clippers defense while his mind, his eyes are oblivious to the four Laker jerseys surrounding him.
This isn’t sustainable though. Kobe will come back and where Young’s style is just a poor man’s mimicry of Bryant, Kobe brings it all: The complex selfishness wrapped up in an unmatched work ethic and homicidal competitiveness; an ego that casts shadows over the entire Western Conference; an 81-point game, the rings, books, nicknames, endorsements, myths. Kobe is too big and he’ll come back and smother everything these Laker wings are attempting to accomplish (which is very unclear at the moment).
And if you try to put on your time travel goggles and look into the Lakers future, you won’t see what you’re seeing tonight. As long as the Kupchak/Buss tandem is building Laker foundations on the mountains and stacks of Dr. Jerry’s greenbacks, as long as the Lakers call L.A. home, and as long as L.A. is still an entertainment and marketing Mecca … it’s still going to be a natural fit for the megastars who want the mega-market, the prime time games, the Showtime. So enjoy this group while you have the chance, because they’re clearly too weird to live.
It seems every year a player or two enters the preseason having publicly removed the safety net for themselves – make an NBA roster or retire.
Most of the time those players are washed up veterans who will never impact a season in any significant way but are instead bound to be the twelfth man on a roster, a visual reminder to fans that they used to be something besides a warm body earning a paycheck, like Quentin Richardson has made a recent career of doing.
And until recently I always had the same thoughts on those types of players, sure it was sad but it was time to accept that their point of usefulness was over, time to hang up the jersey one last time and let a young player try and break into the league.
But this preseason I found myself in a new spot. I found myself rooting for Corey Maggette to make the Spurs instead of being forced to retire. I have never been a Maggette fan, in fact the only time I even remotely rooted for him was during a 67 game stop he had in Milwaukee for the 2010-2011 season.
At first I couldn’t figure out what caused me to root for Maggette, and ultimately what made me sad for him when he was cut, sending him into retirement to chase a front office job. But recently it hit me, after years of not completely understanding what caused players to hang on to a career that had already passed them by I finally have a bit of understanding.
Since I graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2012 I have held two jobs. The first kept me busy in the fall and the spring doing exactly what I planned since I was a high school junior, covering sports for a newspaper. It wasn’t a professional team or anything but the high school field hockey and softball beats I was assigned were steps in the right direction.
When the paper didn’t need me in the winter thanks to a lack of sports I was handed the keys to the middle school basketball team in my hometown.
I had been coaching in the program since the summer following my freshman year of college, when I offered to help the coach and program that had meant so much to me as I grew up. With my love of the game I expected to have some fun teaching younger players some things during that year’s summer league but never for it to turn into much besides the volunteer work it started as.
But midway through my first, ultimately meaningless, game I realized just how much fun that being on the sidelines was. It was the competition I had craved so much during my first year without organized ball in the winter, as the team I led did what they always did and tried to win every game they stepped on the floor for, despite being severely undersized and undermanned.
One summer turned into two, two into three, and after I graduated, three into four. Being around the game, even in just a semi-meaningful way, was too fun to give up yet, so I gave up free time three days a week to continue to lead those summer league teams.
When the offer to coach in games that mattered presented itself I jumped at the chance, especially since it meant a paycheck I wasn’t expecting. I learned quickly the season would be tough when the middle schoolers stepped on the floor for tryouts and I realized they were never taught the simplest things like jumping off your inside foot to shoot a layup. We got beat by 50 twice, 60 once and held below 25 points in almost every game because we only had one player who belonged at that level. But every day brought with it a new sense of competitiveness, that maybe the next game would be the one I could somehow put my team in position to win. When it finally happened, one time towards the end of the season, the hard times were worth it – watching those kids realize what it felt like to win while enjoying the feeling myself.
Being the middle school coach also made me a varsity assistant on a team that had one of the best seasons in school history, and that was where I truly had the most fun. In truth I probably didn’t add all that much to the great two man staff that was already in place but that didn’t matter, in the moment anything I could add felt like it could be the difference between a win and a loss.
In the end though, a Board of Education rule prevented me from returning as middle school coach this season, as a teacher with full-time certification decided he wanted the job despite everyone’s objections. It left me without a paycheck and seemingly without anything to do outside of blogging this coming winter.
But my need for competitiveness hasn’t subsided yet and again without reporting work in the winter I have a chance to coach. So I will still be on the sidelines for varsity games, as a volunteer assistant, again hoping to make a small difference while feeling the adrenaline boost that comes with every game.
As I move on in life though, I realize I am coming to a decision I never expected to have to make and one that has given me a new perspective on players at the twilight of their careers. Do I give up my work in journalism despite years of schooling for it and return to get a teaching degree with the intention of becoming a high school coach, hopefully fated to take over at my alma mater one day?
The decision will need to be made in late February or early March, whenever my season on the bench ends, and as I think about it I finally get what guys like Maggette and Tracy McGrady felt, though on a much lower scale.
I can’t imagine how hard it was for those guys to finally decide it was time to move on to new careers in a new phase of their lives, to leave that competition that they had every day for the majority of their lives behind for good. I’m not sure I can give up coaching, not because I want to be a teacher or don’t want to be a reporter, but because I’m not sure I can give up the competitiveness for those twenty to twenty five games and countless practices over a three month stretch.
One thing I do know is that never again will I wonder why a guy won’t just accept their fate and move on. Instead I think I will find myself rooting for them to get one more year and go out on their own terms.
At the very least they deserve it.
Corey Maggette’s Wikipedia page lists the typical highlights and out of context numbers that it does for every basketball player. The flow is the normal variety of Personal Life, Rookie Year blah blah blah but then it ends abruptly after a brief section on his time with the Golden State Warriors. Corey Maggette played three seasons of NBA basketball which have not been documented on Wikipedia, which doesn’t matter whatsoever but is emblematic of his career. Through whatever clerical error made by whoever it is that maintains and curates athlete wiki pages, Maggette is left incomplete. He spent three seasons on three different teams after that, but all of them were in the hinterlands of the league, and were seasons of such little consequence to the overarching narrative that they may have never existed in the first place. Was Corey Maggette a basketball ghost this whole time?
Obviously he was real. There is video of him playing NBA basketball and the ontological realities of are not up for debate. The question revolves around a type of Maggette-shaped tree falling in a forest of NBA fans and an uncertain whumph. The floor of this particular forest is filled with grand, proud trees in various states of preservation or rotting. History eventually cannibalizes the fallen, their careers exhumed for consumption or retrofitting by the current generation. Unless the retiree is a major star, their legacy is collapsed to a set of bullet points. You can almost imagine these on a powerpoint. Grant Hill: Cruel fate of injuries. Great in College. Noble as an old dog on a few teams. Next slide.
Maggette doesn’t really fit into this schematic. There is no linear arc to his career. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when evaluated within the rubric of a quote unquote typical NBA career narrative. For one, his greatest skill was the ability to rupture the flow of a game, stop time, and shoot free throws. The twin acts of manufacturing and converting free throws are solitary practices. Many great three-point shooters rely heavily on passing and team-wide misdirection. Maggette was his own player, a monument to individualism in a sea of cooperation. This is an unsatisfying skill, if not a pragmatic one. Basketball is by its nature a whirlwind. Ten players run around and attempt to harmonize their motions so as to achieve an objective, and Maggette’s chief solution to the problem of buckets was to blunt the objective down it’s simplest form and go take shots on his own time.
If this was all he did, Maggette would be probably be remembered as a role player who found a way to exploit a technicality and create something out of nothing. Two free throws are worth the same as a perfectly executed offensive set or a powerful dunk. However, Maggette wasn’t just an earthbound margin-dweller. He competed in a dunk contest and the central attraction of his first dunk involved a front flip. The rest of dude’s dunks weren’t too creative; windmill here tomahawk there, but the central spectacle of it all was ‘look at how cool I can make these basic dunks.’ It was all style, as if the athleticism and strength of his performance were going to be enough to drown out his opponents’ artistry. This proved unsuccessful, as Maggette finished last and never returned to the dunk contest. Maggette also sported a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arms, and was probably the most musclebound player of his NBA tenure. For all his physical advantages, he never evolved into the rugged star many predicted him to be out of Duke.
This is not to say Maggette was by any metric a poor player. His PER was almost always above 15, and has averaged over 20 points per 36 minutes for his entire career. The numbers show that he was an effective player, and my hazy adolescent memories of him confirm this to a certain degree. The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it feels hollow now. Perhaps this is an unfair byproduct of constantly measuring a player not by their production, but rather as a ratio of how much of their hypothetical potential they fulfilled. As much as we attempt to predict the future, it’s impossible. You can get an idea of production but there’s no way to put an actual ceiling or floor on potential. There is too much uncertainty involved.
More likely, Corey Maggette appears unfinished, a player who could never fully leverage his physical gifts because of the teams we was on and the associations that come with those teams. He played the first eight seasons of the millenium on the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that was the laughingstock of the NBA for an entire era. The first half of his time with the Clippers was played alongside two of the sadder reminders of unfulfilled potential, Darius Miles and Michael Olowokandi. These teams were bad, and they floundered in the hyper-competitve Pacific Division. The 2005-2006 season was his only winning season in L.A., and the Clippers most successful of the post-Walton, pre-Blake interlull. Maggette missed most of the season, but returned for the playoffs (his only career trip to the second season) and was the Clippers’ best player. They turned out a Denver team in round one, and pushed Phoenix to seven games before succumbing to Steve Nash and Shawn Marion. The next year, they finished two games behind Golden State and missed the playoffs. Maggette joined that Warriors team for 2007-2008, but they imploded and Maggette was destined to a few years of semi-anonymous vagabondhood. Milwaukee traded for him, seeking a scoring punch. However, just like the Warriors, they regressed upon the arrival of Maggette and in a bizarre twist of symmetry, followed up a surprising playoff run with falling two games short of the playoffs. He then moved to various sinking ships and went to the Bobcats, then the Pistons and finally, off into the sunset.
This isn’t how fans and analysts expect things to progress. A player enters the league, wins some or loses some. They face a career defining foe, and either conquer it or gracefully fall in defeat, all the while improving. Maggette was somewhat a victim of circumstance. He played his best years out in the boondocks of the NBA and then when he finally moved on, it was always a year too late. This is not to absolve him. Corey Maggette was moderately effective, but his style did not particularly lend itself to team success. He did not improve the weak facets of his game much throughout the course of his career, and gradually lapsed into self-caricature and irrelevance. Rather than develop into a better player for himself and his team, Maggette drifted chaotic-neutral through the league. If anything, his time in the NBA is a reminder of the size and forward churn of the league. There is so much basketball out there, so many young guys seeking to supersede entrenched players.
Corey Maggette was always too good to be supplanted all the way out of the NBA during his prime, but he was instead pushed aside. The league never slows down, and Maggette’s late-period shuffling serves as an antidote to the cruel, Darwinian aspect of NBA ball. For every rookie who gets drafted and makes the roster, one more spot for a veteran disappears. Maggette was once a promising young player who stagnated. If the forward march of history forces vestigial players to adapt or make way, Maggette’s antithetical longevity shows that the league is not too specialized. The NBA is still a big business and as such is obsessed with marginal advantages. Maggette stuck around despite this, and was an emblem of an era since gone by. He was weird and maybe even fun, and most importantly, he trended retrograde to the blossoming era of stats and efficiency. The league is not so big and unforgiving that wayward talents can’t find a home. Maggette was athletic enough to earn contracts for a while, and while he did, he was a living symbol of the NBA’s beautiful imperfection.
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
The Houston Rockets have achieved a winning record for seven straight seasons. It’s a remarkable run of consistency when you consider how drastically the lineup has changed over that time.
The Rockets last had a losing record in the 2005-06 season. That year Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady made up the team’s core, but both missed significant time; 39-year-old Dikembe Mutumbo (philantropist, supermarket shot blocker) played more games than either star.
Those Yao-Mac teams were considered a disappointment. They could never stay healthy and those teams reached their apex in 2009, when the Rockets reached the Western Conference Semifinals, taking the eventual champion Lakers to seven games. Tracy McGrady didn’t play a minute of those playoffs, and Yao went down early in the the Lakers series. That was a letdown, but the overachieving players who filled the void—Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry and Shane Battier in a performance that made him the poster child of basketball’s nascent Moneyball era—showed how they could carry the Rockets through the transitional period to come.
Daryl Morey kept finding those kind of players, who kept the Rockets watchable while he stockpiled cash and draft picks. It paid off at the beginning of last season, when Morey turned those assets into James Harden, whose beard had grown too wild for Oklahoma City’s bench. Morey had already added Jeremy Lin (hang on, need to get something out of my eye) and Omer Asik that offseason, but Harden was a higher caliber player. If anyone was wondering whether he could handle the role of chief scorer, he pretty much said “Oh my, yes,” and dropped 82 points in his first two games.
Anyone who reads this site in particular knows how good Harden is. (If not, you missed like, a whole week where we wrote about how good he is.) He’s the type of player you can build a serious contender around. The Rockets weren’t there yet last year; Harden was brilliant, but he didn’t have consistent help on offense, and he didn’t help at all on defense.
And that’s where Dwight Howard comes in. If this were 2011, this would be a ridiculous, ridiculous coup for the Rockets. It’s still a ridiculous coup. But Dwight has added some baggage since his Orlando days, when he was an MVP candidate and arguably the second-best player in the league. He extricated himself from Orlando in the whiniest, most childish way possible, and picked up a lingering back injury that made him look pretty mediocre in his lone season with the Lakers.
If he left Los Angeles to escape the media scrutiny, then Houston is a reasonable destination, though I’m guessing the local sportswriters will take offense to that. But if he left to escape the expectations, then Dwight Howard has miscalculated. As I wrote Wednesday, this could be one of the worst Laker seasons in a while, and it might not have been that great even if Dwight had stayed. But in joining the Rockets, Dwight has raised expectations in Houston, when they were already quite high.
James Harden has to continue to prove that he’s worth max money after a somewhat disappointing showing in the playoffs. Omer Asik has to show he’s more than a backup. Jeremy Lin has to somehow find the middle ground between the impossible heights of Linsanity and the lows of last year, when he was at times benched in favor of Patrick Beverley. Chandler Parsons has to stay adorable. Dwight might have higher expectations than any of them. He’s the highest paid player on the team. James Harden might be the face of the franchise, but he can’t impact a game the way Dwight Howard does at his best. But we haven’t seen that guy since 2011. If Dwight thinks he can hide behind the guy with the giant beard, he’s wrong. We’ll be looking for him.
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
When I was a kid, Kobe Bryant was my favorite basketball player. I loved his baby fro, his behind-the-back dribble, his windmills, his tomahawks and his fadeaways.
Things are different now. Kobe is different now, several times over.
Remember 2002? That’s when the Kobe-Shaq Lakers won the last of their three championships. There was no need to anoint the next Jordan. Kobe had anointed himself with each fadeaway and fist pump.
But the narrative fell apart just two years later. The Lakers, coming off a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, assembled a super team of sorts, adding aged versions of future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Stunningly, the Lakers lost to the no-name Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals, Kobe’s bursts to the basket stifled by a mess of limbs called Tayshaun Prince, backed by a pair of scowling Wallaces.
After that, Kobe and Shaq divorced. Shaq got custody of me (He has since lost me by ruining ‘Inside the NBA’). Kobe had changed. He would not be a sidewalk any longer. He was still changing. Soon, the fro was gone. This was a New Kobe. He went from No. 8 to No. 24. He got a bunch of tattoos. He got rid of Phil Jackson. He scored 81 points. He got rid of Rudy Tomjanovich. He stopped passing to teammates in the playoffs. This new Kobe wasn’t pretty.
But the Lakers always come back. Phil Jackson came back. The Lakers seemingly swindled their way into Pau Gasol (though Marc turned out to be pretty good himself). New Kobe became New New Kobe. He started trusting his teammates. It helped that they were better. Aside from Pau, there was Lamar Odom, at the peak of his do-it-all powers; Metta World Peace, still ferocious on defense and a neverending element of surprise; and Andrew Bynum, in a spring thaw between catastrophic knee injuries. New New Kobe won two rings and banished most of the demons of the divorce.
Things got weird after that. The Lakers got swept aside in Dallas’ magical 2011 championship run. Andrew Bynum took his shirt off for some reason and Phil Jackson retired. And after a decade of the Lakers being the most arresting storyline in the NBA, suddenly people couldn’t stop talking about the Miami Heat.
They still won’t stop, at least not because of the Lakers. Last year may go down as one of the most dysfunctional in Lakers history. Everyone suddenly looked old: Pau, Metta, Antawn Jamison and Steve Nash all had down years. Even Dwight Howard, the young star the Lakers hoped would replace Bynum, and eventually, Bryant, looked sluggish, still bothered by a lingering back injury. Everyone except Kobe. The 34-year-old had one of his most efficient shooting seasons in years and with Nash missing almost half the season, ran Mike D’Antoni‘s offense for long stretches of the year.
But the weight was apparently too much to bear. Kobe tore his Achilles tendon in April. The Spurs crushed the Lakers in four games in the playoffs. Dwight left. Metta was cut lose.
When the Lakers start the 2013-14 season, Jach Nicholson will still be sitting courtside. But he’ll look out on opening night and see one of the worst Laker lineups in years. Yes, he’ll see Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, but also Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Jodie Meeks. It’s been almost a decade since Kaman played all 82 games. His 48% career FG% is not impressive for a center, and he’s slower than Dwight Howard, even with a bad back. He’s no savior. Nick Young is an unrepentant chucker. I can’t see Mike D’Antoni getting him to repent. Jodie Meeks is a solid young role player. He would look great playing alongside Kobe. He will look less great in Kobe’s starting spot.
It’s unclear when Kobe will return to fill the void. Last year he was the best Laker. This year, he will have to be again. An Achilles tendon tear is a catastrophic injury, even for a professional athlete. Kobe is reportedly ahead of his recovery schedule and he has a magic doctor in Germany to rejuvenate his knee, but when he returns, don’t expect him to be New New New Kobe. Each generation of Kobe Bryant has added something new: that Jordan fadeaway, that Hakeem post game, that Phil Jackson Zen. Now, he’s just trying to get back on the court. Now, he might just be old Kobe. And that Kobe, and this edition of the Lakers, might struggle again just to make the playoffs, even assuming Pau and Nash stay healthy.
Nothing in sports is immune to over-narrativization as it provides such a tidy — if situationally incorrect — picture that quickly surveys the immediate past and tosses out probable directions. These are not always right but that’s not really the point. They are manifested on multiple timescales and carry with them all kinds of strange baggage. LeBron James always turns back into a frog at midnight, Paul Pierce is a proud Eskimo alone on an iceberg over and over again until it isn’t true. When their careers are finished, these noble warriors of meaning have redeemed themselves and won solace, or they have failed because of tragic flaws or whatever and they’re free to unmoor themselves and float off into the sunset. If you didn’t win a title, well you can still be in a slideshow. You are a story.
Almost no real-life cases exist in such a linear space of course; theory inherently rounds corners that are naturally jagged in order to provide methods of stacking things up. This is not to say that NBA basketball is complicated beyond any hope of solid classification or analysis, but more often than not, chaos triumphs over schematics. The trick of narrative-centrism is that any new developments simply get folded into the existing story. New plot points to fit preconceptions, or prove the fabled haters wrong.
The rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder from awful 3-29 team led by P.J. Carlesimo to perennial challengers for the championship is such a popular and ingrained story-arc because it happened so fast. Teams who make the leap from slumping around the bottom of the standings in hopes of assembling an able core to playoff berths usually run into all kinds of trouble, and the process usually takes a few seasons. Conventional narratives render this period as a time to pay dues, where a team must ‘earn’ their place in the postseason before usurping an older team’s playoff spot. The appeal of the Thunder was that they spit in the face of ‘tradition’ and overcame older, wiser teams on their way to the NBA Finals. They were anti-heroes, but only in the sense that they were preternaturally talented whippersnappers.
Another crucial element of the Thunder mystique was that they were all nice boys, good guys who would carry your groceries off the court but apparently had a switch they could flip at will and transform into ruthless basketball demigods when they chose. This is who we are told our athlete idols should be. Hypercompetitve and merciless when playing sports, and genteel, selfless, and humble everywhere else. This distinction is an iffy binary, but Oklahoma City — at least Kevin Durant — seemed to fit into the schema perfectly. When Russell Westbrook refused to defer to his leader in the postseason, he was castigated for daring to step outside the ‘natural’ order of the team. Of course, it turns out that more Westbrook is a good thing for the Thunder, evinced by numbers and the Thunder’s quiet exit from the 2013 playoffs. It says a lot about the fiery, seemingly irrepressible Westbrook that such an elite team fell so quietly. Before Westbrook’s knee crumpled, his 2012-2013 season was probably his best ever and the team had it’s best regular season in their current incarnation. However, what makes Russell Westbrook so refreshing and lovable is his violent, lurching style, able to render any team of defenders into a pile of jelly and bones. He is everything right about sports.
And now he’ll miss his first season opener ever due to knee surgery. An essential part of the myth of Westbrook was that he’d never missed a game, and the shattered streak is reminiscent of a sadder truth about the complex, entropic world of the NBA. These streaks rarely work out in the long run, but Westbrook felt like a superhero. His game is built upon an overlapping series of clashes and explosions, mutually eroding interactions that would not normally be sustainable. Westbrook endured the externalities of his violent drives with no problems for long enough that it seemed he was immune to human unravelling. However, now the secret is out. Westbrook isn’t an alien or a robot and he can’t float above bad fortune forever.
What happens next is that thing where narratives contort over themselves to incorporate new data next to the old stuff. If Westbrook comes back from his injury with the same genius and scowling athletic menace that preceded it, well then, Westbrook is once again exalted. The narrative confirms itself and we all go home happy. If it turns out his meniscus tear costs him some of his springs or lateral freedom and his team suffers, characterizations of Westbrook will be scrambled and basketball fans will have to settle for a less-athletic version of one of the best guards in the league. This projecting of the future is a silly game to attempt. The only truly scary scenario is the one where Westbrook is plagued by chronic injuries, a la Penny Hardaway, and he never graces the court without an assemblage of knee braces and only serves as a depressing touchstone of his past triumphs.
Regardless of how much new Russell Westbrook looks like pre-injury Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will probably be able to retain their place towards the top of the Western Conference. Reggie Jackson is good at basketball, even if he isn’t a shapeshifter, and Kevin Durant is still going to shimmy his feet together and articulate his limbs to form an array of unreachable and accurate shots. What’s at stake isn’t team wins and losses, but a sense of possibility. Basketball is full of spectacle, but Westbrook is way off the bell curve. Aside from the glum feel of a Westbrook-less NBA, a league without Russ is a league that feels a bit more earthbound. The sense of creative possibility and magic that comes with basketball would fade, even if only temporarily. Westbrook isn’t the best player in the NBA but he is the most fun, and that can sometimes be even more important than being the best.
If you’ve found your way to this site, I assume you’ve watched a basketball game before. Probably several. Probably many consecutive seasons of basketball games. As you’ve noticed and as writers have pointed out, patterns emerge and constitute the fabric of a game. It’s many people’s jobs to illuminate these patterns, to contextualize them and file them under the proper subheading. So logically, the game will eventually go stale. You can only rebrew those coffee grounds so many times before the kick goes missing. Patterns will calcify and the NBA will go dodo on us and we’ll all start looking for illegal streams to curling. It’s not fun to watch exclusively pick-and-rolls every night for years.
This is obvious bullshit and examining why is an interesting rorschach test. Watching basketball is a somewhat deceptively difficult thing. We only have so many (~2) eyes regardless of how many camera angles TNT can cram onto a laptop screen. If you watch the ball, you’ll miss all that important cutting action and also Demarcus Cousins attempting to body dudes 5 seconds into the shot clock. You can watch a specific area but then there is always something you’ll miss. Sometimes, I like to watch just one guy make his way around the court. Early period Josh Smith or Gerald Wallace were the first players in my basketball life that I took the time to single out and they’ve come to represent the swirling entropy that makes it impossible for watching basketball to ever really become boring or rote. You can’t watch every part of a tornado though, and there is a necessary reduction of perspective, no matter how you watch.
I asked the Hickory-High crew, a few friends, and my dad what they watch when they watch and there was a grouping, if not a consensus. Most attempt the holistic view, whether via scanning the whole court all the time or training their eyes on a midpoint and unfocusing, allowing the game to seep through to their processing centers. These are opposite ways (active vs. passive) of attempting to do the same job, to incrementally understand the complex and rapid setup and decay of an NBA game. Each sacrifices little things in order to hone in on a certain aspect, be it specific action or shape and progression. Almost everyone warned of the dangers of ball-watching, which tends to not be a particularly interesting strategy because the ball doesn’t do anything. Since basketball is the sport most driven by individual talent, watching just one player do their thing is an effective way to understand how a free-thinking human balances the impulse for independent action within a system. This approach may be the sharpest point of entry into comprehension of how players see the court, but you necessarily miss the forest. Watching a game live presents it’s own set of benefits and drawbacks. Depending on how close you are, it can either be a ticket to see bombastic NBA athleticism firsthand and be wowed or a more atmospheric way to replicate the televised experience and see the plays develop. Live games are harder to intellectualize as they happen, but actually being there gives you a window to the visceral aspect of the game and makes for an unfiltered experience. All of these approaches to watching demonstrate a somewhat subtle truth about basketball. You can’t possibly see everything the first time, and this is a beautiful thing.
With the help of re-watching, statistics and cameras that track players in granular detail, it can feel like basketball is on the verge of complete quantification. Over the past few years, a bounty of performance measurements have allowed anyone with access to google and a slide rule to tell you that Rudy Gay is inefficient. It is important in today’s NBA to grasp the importance of stats since they drive the apparent majority of basketball decisions, from who gets minutes to who gets the MVP award. When many scientific-leaning analysts write, they often corroborate their numerical findings with a reassurance that whatever they have uncovered is affirmed by an ‘eye test’. Which can feel like a throw in to reassure the non-quant crowd that their numbers were produced in a meatspace setting and they either helped or hurt someone’s chances of winning a basketball game. Completely disregarding calculable metrics is ludditic, but there are some frontiers that the Disciples of Synergy can’t really colonize. You can figure out that a player is efficient in certain areas or situations and you can even find ways that those situations are created, but there is an unpredictable tilt to proceedings nonetheless. So much of efficiency and performance is affected by defense, matchups, personnel and psychology. The game is played by humans, not computers. Neither method of analysis can give a complete picture on it’s own, yet the eye-test and it’s importance to the statistics side of the game illuminates the characteristic disorder of NBA games that make them so damn fun.
Divergent ways of digesting a game espouse this conclusion. Basketball is full of weirdness and disorder and our strategies of soaking it up will never be complete upon first watch. Thus we take different approaches to understanding or enjoying or getting whatever it is each individual gets out of basketball. If systems and strategies are paramount to you, DVR the game, rewind it and watch sets. If you like beautiful, unhinged, vaguely nonsensical basketball, by all means, stare at J.R. Smith. Basketball isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an intricate game that can at best be appreciated however you choose to appreciate it.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Another sad entry was scratched into the chronicle of Michael Beasley last week when he was stopped by police in the early morning hours and marijuana was found in his car. I now need two hands to count the number of public incidents that involve Beasley and pot and it would be naive in the extreme to assume that these represented the entirety of his illegal indiscretions. As these incidents have piled up his performance on the court has been slowly circling the toilet bowl. His field goal percentage has declined, and his turnover percentage has increased, every season he’s been in the league. With this summer arrest coming on the heels of a thoroughly lackluster campaign in Phoenix, he seems dangerously close to playing his way out of the league.
Any description of Beasley’s struggles on the court will probably center around issues like his apathetic defense, passive rebounding, lazy offensive execution and questionable decision-making in the shot selection department. There can be no arguments about his talent, the problem has been in the implementation. I find it ironic that every piece of that description – apathy, passivity, laziness, questionable decision-making, unrealized potential – overlap perfectly with the most common stereotypes of pot-smokers. I don’t think anyone is comfortable drawing a straight line between marijuana and his inability to make a dent in the NBA, but the fact that he plays with all the awareness and intensity of Kelso from That 70′s Show makes it hard to separate the two. With that stereotype in hand it’s easy to watch him launch another contested twenty-footer and dismiss Beasley as a burnout, burning out.
But there are variations on the pot-smoking stereotype. Just contrast how Beasley’s relationship with marijuana is treated differently from someone like Joakim Noah. While his rap sheet is much shorter than Beasley’s, Noah was arrested for marijuana possession after his rookie season in 2008 and was photographed perusing the wares at a local head shop in 2010. But he is the on-court antithesis to Beasley – bubbling over with intensity and using intelligence and effort to squeeze every last bit of production out of his talent. His public intersections with marijuana are not then viewed as a lack of self-control with the potential to leak out onto the basketball court, they are quite easily and comfortably nested under the domain of his worldly, educated, hipster, renaissance-man persona.
There’s a third common fable as well, built on the career and life arcs of players like Zach Randolph and Lamar Odom. Both struggled to live up to expectations early in their careers, promoting the same brand of passive, disorganized, self-serving basketball that characterizes Beasley’s game. Alongside those disastrous early campaigns there were arrests and failed drug tests. But each ultimately found NBA success by making significant changes to their on-court approach, changes which coincided with a lack of police interaction and publicly reported drug crimes. The theory is that they grew up, stopped smoking, stopped messing around, and began to man up on the basketball court. But it also seems entirely plausible that they realized discretion was the better part of valor. When you consider the fact that Randolph has continued to be linked, indirectly, with unsavory characters and events, it seems less likely that parting a cloud of marijuana smoke in front of his eyes somehow helped him recognize what a good shot was. They’ve stopped getting in trouble and started making positive contributions and, because of the power of stereotypes, the implied absence of marijuana happily steps in to sketch out a pathway between the two.
Narrative is a powerful force of nature. Mainstream media, and other fringe outlets, constantly find themselves scrambling to interpret and frame new pieces of information. There isn’t always time to acknowledge and develop nuance, so stereotypes and generalizations provide a handy short-cut to incorporating the newest events. I don’t mean to sound high and mighty. I’ve been guilty of massaging a narrative or two to make it suit my purposes, shaving down square pegs to make them fit through round holes. But in Beasley’s case co-mingling marijuana and his on-court inadequacies obscures the real problem.
I don’t mean this as way of apology for his choices or behavior, but smoking pot is not the root of Beasley’s problems. Neither is his love affair with contested, off-the-dribble jump shots. Both are symptoms of some deeper issues. I don’t know the man well enough to make any responsible guesses about what those issues are, but I feel comfortable stating that they exist. There is some other underlying situation, organic or otherwise, in which Beasley is struggling. The feeling of danger and impending destruction that comes with Beasley’s marijuana use feels so much more tangible because he already appears to be overwhelmed by so many other pieces of his life. For Joakim Noah or Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur (who were kicked out of the NBA’s rookie problem as part of the same incident as Beasley) to be smoking pot feels more harmless because their personal situations appear to be so much more stable.
Beasley’s career now appears to be at a crossroads, a spiderweb of different paths arrayed in front of him. He could stop smoking off the court and start smoking on the court, reinventing himself as a ferociously focused small-ball power forward and establishing himself as a fundamental pillar of the Suns’ rebuild. Or, in an outrageously isolated display of principle he could refuse to change anything about himself and flame-out, Isaiah Rider-style. He could also work a happy Lamar Odom mid-range, avoiding appearances on the local news crime report and shaking just enough of the passivity from his game to become a useful contributor on a good team. But those are not choices, they’re narratives, stories that have been written so often they border on parable.
Beasley is clearly a man with problems, many of his own making, a fact which makes him entirely typical and utterly unremarkable when it comes to human civilization. His problems appear to border on the more severe end of the spectrum, but he also happens to play professional sports which means his choices are subject to the inflation and distortion of millions of retellings. But, in the end Michael Beasley has to live his actual life, outside the confines of any narratives constructed by the basketball media. With that challenge, I wish him well.
How many people reading this also have a tab up on Twitter, or worse (perhaps better, relative to addictive qualities), are flipping between Tweetdeck and scanning through this article at the same time? Perhaps that’s a subset of the population of basketball fans but that’s intuitive in itself. The generalization that the basketball blogging, and writing, world function as a minute percentage of the hoops-watching world is symptomatic of everything on Twitter.
Without going into the tenuous slope of politics, it’s the same story in the discussion of current events, theories and anything else in such a concentrated group-think atmosphere. Before joining Twitter and following the legions of smart and engaging group of people all over the Web, it was just a game of basketball watched on the TV screen with your boys, beers and oily-fried goodness. Of course it’s one’s own free will to watch the game as they choose, but therein lies the quandary I find myself in during every basketball game. Watching hoops with friends isn’t the same, and for me it’s intellectually stimulating, to watch Andre Iguodala run his defense whilst simultaneously applying Matt Moore’s analysis of it from that same morning.
This isn’t a debate between which style of fan is right or wrong, smarter or dumber, or even better or worse fans. We’re all fans of the game of basketball at the end of the day (Mark Jackson’s quotes have been quite the influence on me) and hoops is something that most people find to pass the monotony of time between work and play. Moreover, I find that there’s different angles in games not reached in most conversations between friends and casual observers.
Basketball isn’t the same as football. Each Sunday is akin to a minor holiday in the NFL world. People gather, barbeque, talk about fantasy teams and enjoy the 7-10 hours of pure head-to-body collisions. Basketball is a near-everyday affair that rewards the person able to withstand an insane amount of Charlotte Bobcats basketball before hitting the nirvana that was Game 6 Miami-San Antonio. I used to room with a couple of my college friends and during the year we’d get together for basketball games, but only if it was the postseason. The difference between basketball Twitter and most other things come down to the sheer number of games played. Not to keep comparing the two but the two popular sports and debate-starters include pigskin and hoops. Fairweather fans watch the St. Louis Rams, be it for fantasy reasons, gambling or merely because it’s the second game on Fox that weekend. Conversely, it’s harder for people to stay in and consume a Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors game on a Thursday night on TNT. Do we need to go over the ratings numbers?
And to the point of what Twitter brings to the game and conversations, it’s increasingly important to wade through the waves of bullcrap one may see floating through your timeline before getting to the “good stuff”. I won’t name any names I don’t follow but guys like Matt Moore (Hardwood Paroxysm), Kevin Arnovitz, Ethan Strauss are important, and perhaps essential, follows if you want to view basketball from different lenses.
An example of a conversation usually found between a couple of my friends who are casual fans that have jobs as personal trainers, accountants and medical/law students (probably harder than an actual job):
“Erik Spoelstra has the easiest job in the NBA. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh? Just go out there and play and there’s a championship.”
“Why the hell did the Golden State Warriors trade Monta Ellis? They needed a “go-to” scorer that can get buckets when they need one.”
“Kyrie Irving is injury-prone.”
Something along those lines, the cliche’d tropes, the JV coach-instilled sayings, probably influenced such observations and that’s how I grew up watching basketball. The constant, unrelenting, wave of information and diverging viewpoints from so many influential figures can become a bit oversaturated but is breathtakingly refreshing in an era where social media dominates so much of what’s going on. There’s seemingly a subset of smart bloggers and writers that cover every team, harnessing the ability to teach us so much more in five minutes about a Josh Smith defensive possession that announcers on a TV screen and friends can do in a week.
But that isn’t for everyone. Not everyone wants to watch a basketball game while simultaneously feeling the need to re-watch plays, dissect pace of game, hone in on a specific defender’s footwork, or coaching tendencies after halftime. Most just watch it as a backdrop to conversations and if the game is tight in the fourth quarter, then the focus begins to tighten. Basketball Twitter (I guess this is a thing?) thrives in those moments of detailed learning—like a hardcore fan that’s been through the crappy seasons and now gloating about how no one was a true fan in the golden age—beatings its chest against the mainstream torrent of news and facades.
But like most niche groups, there’s little influence with which Basketball Twitter actually does when it comes to the mass opinion. Dwight Howard was actually an excellent defender and rebounder—by league standards—amidst the scrutiny and injuries, that’s not lost upon most of the people watching every game. Carmelo Anthony won the scoring title but in no way was he the better offensive player than Kevin Durant, not by a long shot. There are small truisms, little phrases (saying WojBomb would get you weird glances in public), that go by unnoticed because of this specific, smaller branch of basketball fans.
And let’s face it, we’re all basketball fiends, absorbing every tidbit and morsel of information found in every nook and cranny we can possibly find. I’m not sure if there’s a correct way to discuss, watch or relatively better approach to write about a basketball game but the growing trend that is Basketball Twitter is so interesting in that it is just a small portion that plays upon the dichotomy of casual fans and the dedicated. But some like it that way. There’s no tangible reason to constantly refresh your timeline during a basketball game. But that’s how powerful a tool Twitter can become. In an age where every little piece of data is analyzed and crunched and re-analyzed; Twitter is an apparatus for not only the spread of information but, under the correct limit of non-troll characters, the source for learning and forward thinking.
Photo from Scobilzer, via Flickr
You may be asking yourself, “What the heck am I looking at here?”
Just before the draft I did a post for Bleacher Report looking at how well each NBA team has done, over the past few seasons, at finding value in the draft. With some feedback and the benefit of time I’ve been able to expand and refine that analysis. The visualizations above are the result.
If we are going to objectively assess the success teams have had in the draft there are two key ideas that need to be incorporated. The first is a suitable window of time. It’s difficult to assess the value of a player after just a single season. Although they are not necessarily a finished product by the end of their fourth season, that span of professional experience gives a much truer picture of the level of talent each player possesses and the level of productivity to which they are capable. For that reason, in this work I’ve used the total Win Shares (WS) produced by each player in their first four seasons in the NBA as the measure of value. Since we’re looking at four-year increments, all the data in this post comes from the 2000-2009 drafts. At the end of the 2013-2014 season the 2010 draft class will have finished their fourth season in the league and we’ll be able to include them as well.
The other key idea to incorporate is expectations. If we just look at total WS as a measure of value, the teams with high draft picks will appear to have done a much better job of finding value. But in reality they have a much larger and more talented pool of players to choose from and they should be expected to do better in a raw measure like WS. For that reason we need to establish a baseline expectation of value should be gained from each draft slot. To begin that process I calculated the average WS produced by players taken at each draft slot over their first four years in the league. The graph below shows the results.
But what this graph represents is the relative success teams have had drafting at those positions and not necessarily realistic expectations of value. It’s incorporating both the level of talent that we would expect to be available, and the relative success that teams have had. To try and isolate just the talent portion of the equation, I fit a logarithmic curve to the averages above. That curve, which fit with an r^2 of 0.7635 is shown below.
Although this curve is not a perfect fit, especially at the tail end of the second round where a handful of successful picks have skewed the results, it does a reasonably good job of expressing expectations of performance at the various draft picks. From here on out when I refer to expected value of a draft slot, this curve is what I’ll be referring to. Now that we have the time span isolated and realistic expectations set, I can explain what you’re seeing in the visualizations.
There are several different statistics used in the visualization. Most are used to refer both to teams and players, depending on the view. Here are the ones that may be new:
Total Four-Year Marginal Value – Marginal value is simply an expression of how much the production exceeded the expectations. A player example would be would be Rudy Gay, who was selected with the 8th pick in the draft and produced 15.2 WS in his first four seasons. The expected production of a player selected with the 8th pick is 12.32 WS over four seasons, so Gay’s Total Four-Year Marginal Value would be +2.88. In the team view this stat is calculated by comparing the total four-year production by all players drafted by that team, to the expected production of all their draft picks combined.
Total Four-Year Marginal Value Percentage – Marginal value compares a player’s production to expectations and thus gives us a lot more information than just looking at production alone. But it doesn’t fully capture the expectations. Take this example. Brandon Bass and Drew Gooden both produced a Total Four-Year Marginal Value of +2.99 WS. However, Bass was selected with the 33rd pick in the draft while Gooden was selected 4th. Although the produced the same number of WS above expectations, picking Bass is actually considerably more impressive since a 33rd pick is only expected to produce 5.39 WS, total, in four season. So what I did was divide each player and team’s Total Four-Year Marginal Value by their expected value, arriving at Total Four-Year Marginal Value Percentage. To me, this is the ideal measure of value, relative to expectations. A player with a percentage of 100, exactly met expectations. A player with a percentage of 200 was twice as valuable as what was expected from that draft slot. A player with a percentage of 50 was half as valuable as what was expected from that draft slot.
There are tabs across the bottom of the visualization that allow you to change the view. There are three ways of looking at this data. The first is Marginal Value By Team. This graph shows all the NBA teams listed by their Total Four-Year Marginal Value Percentage. The color of the bars indicates the Total Four-Year Marginal Value of each team.
The second view is to look at Marginal Value By Player. In this view each circle represents a draft pick, plotted by their draft slot on the y-axis and their Total Four-Year Win Shares on the x-axis. The marginal value information is indicated by the color and size of each circle. Color represents Total Four-Year Marginal Value. The size of each circle represents the Total Four-Year Marginal Value Percentage.
The last views are the team histories. There is one tab for each team showing their draft picks from 2000-2009. The picks are sorted into four groups – players who were still with the team at the end of four seasons, players who had been moved to another team by the end of four seasons, players who were out of the league at the end of four seasons and players who never appeared in an NBA game. Each player’s production is plotted by Total Four-Year Marginal Value Percentage on the x-axis. The color of each circle represents Total Four-Year Win Shares. The size of each circle represents the Total Four-Year Marginal Value.
Simply explaining the process and visualizations has eaten up quite a bit of space here, so I’m going to save my analysis of the numbers for some follow-up posts. In the meantime, dig in, ask questions, share what you find and let me know if you find any mistakes. Have fun!