I giveth. . .
Been a minute since I’ve managed a long post, partly because the FA dust hasn’t quite settled enough to make me feel like anything substantial has changed (unless the Cavs get a PG, that team is a headless monster. . .and as smart as the Pacers front office is, don’t they kind of have a problem with Tinsley, Jackson, that Lithuanian guy, Granger, and TW competing for minutes at the 1-2-3? Tinsley is the new Eric Snow, and Jackson, Artest, and O’Neal means more than enough demands on offense already). But I’ve seen enough to know one thing: this coming season will be nothing like the last. What made 2004-2005 tick, what gave me the power to bother with rhapsodic, blog-creating posts in the first place, was the Suns and the Wizards. And since I helped build these bandwagons, let me be among the first to (justifiably) threaten their dismantling, or at least un-detailing (if you buy the idea of detailing a wagon in the first place).
The Arenas/Hughes backcourt was a thing of pure basketball majesty: two dizzyingly talented and versatile guards, both prone to selfish, erratic play, somehow find true love and respect—for themselves, each other, their team, and the game—in this unlikely swath of seamless chemistry. If that sounds overblown, it’s because you’d have to go back to Isiah and Dumars to find two star guards share the ball this well and creatively; if you think that comparison is a reach, just deal with the fact that I don’t actually know all that much about the sport or the league that houses it. When people talk about the Wizards as a running team, they mean Hughes/Arenas with a bunch of spirited guys cleaning up for them.
Unfortunately, those days are gone, replaced by “Gilbert Arenas: Franchise Player” and “Larry Hughes: Kind of Stupid, Kind of Brilliant, Less Exciting and Central than He Should Be.” For me, Arenas has always walked on water; his partnership with Hughes gave credibility to a career that seemed destined for cult status, not meaningful competition. Hughes I never liked (see above), but pairing him with Arenas gave him a chance to be a aesthetic complement while establishing his usefulness (Arenas is always the main attraction, but some nights plays like he’s making up the sport as he goes along). Antonio Daniels should be able to tether Gilbert in the same way Hughes did, but he’ll never inspire him while doing so.
And while I can’t really say that Arenas makes his teammates better than LeBron does, the mature Hughes we saw this year might, taken out of his peculiar arrangement with Arenas, just be an unusually responsible version of the modern NBA shooting guard. So while Gilbert competes for the scoring title, Washington sort of resembles a real basketball team, and they’ll make the post-season again, without Hughes they just don’t pull off that LOS (League of Stars, bitch!) magic in the playoffs. Hughes, well, I can’t say I’ll be excited about watching him play. Interested is more the word. And also, let’s not forget that LeBron is Hughes, but better, in every way imaginable. At least Arenas and Hughes had complementary skills and styles, however beautifully intertwined their games would become (no SportsCentury).
At Phoenix, the change has been far more subtle. It came from the playoffs, when the free-wheeling team game gave way to Nash and Amare (as well it should have). It didn’t help, though, that Q showed up with the worst basketball of his career, and Marion came off as the most bemused All-Star in league history. Factor in what from hereon shall be known as the Joey Johnson Theory (team loses secondary player, team struggles without him, he is thus elevated to star status), and all of a sudden Phoenix had on its hands the keepers (Amare, Nash, Johnson) and its talented, but inessential, “pieces” (Q, Marion, the deeply amusing Steven Hunter, who is way too athletic and seven feet tall to be coming off the bench, but did so in Phoenix and it only added to the craziness of it all). Certainly a long way from singing Motown hits together on the bus, or collectively crashing All-Stat Weekend (nevermind that some were in the actual game, others only in the Three-Point Shoot-Out) to put the Association on notice that this was history in the making!!!!
Ladies and gentlemen, your new Phoenix Suns. Kurt Thomas, a muscular, slightly-undersized but reasonably skilled big man brought in mostly to make Amare’s life easier (and less rudimentary). In the negative, Nate Robinson, who would have been to Nash what Hunter was last year to Amare, but instead ended up on the Knicks. . .as part of the deal that landed Thomas. It’s hard to argue with a future plan that centers (no pun intended) on freeing up Amare, allowing him to enjoy and long and pleasurable career, in Phoenix, as a force of nature whose only chore is to murder defenders, grab the rebounds that are easy for him (about 12 per game), and every once in a while swat a shot in his inimitable fashion to say something about Phoenix’s defensive intensity. And, pending his near-max re-upping, Joe Johnson, future star, expected to step in as the clear-cut third option, entrusted with spelling Nash’s ball-handling duties, sometimes even with both on the floor. Flapping in the wind, it’s Sean Marion, whose defense and shot-blocking become expendable with Amare and Thomas penciled in, whose puzzling long-range tendencies fall out of favor with Q having been shown the door (they made it a team trademark), and who could be replaced by a more prototypical three that had a reputation for generic defense (Marion does so much he sometimes neglects the obvious).
And let's not forget, that by the beginning of 2005-2006
will be but a faded memory.
So with what flame does the FreeDarko torch burn in the coming months? If not for the New Offense, then what? Simple. The New Redemption. Phil and Kobe. LeBron. Franchise and Marbury, one last chance. And most of all, the man himself.