Unified Style Theory, Pt. A-41
If I had parents, they would've told me the following: "There is no such thing as stupid ideas, only those that have not been suitably plumbed." Here, myself and a mystery stranger work through one such prior misstep. Ziller contributed some diagrams, which he will explain as we go.
Also, read this post I wrote about this year's Dunk Contest.
Archibald Barrington: The Outlaw trade rumor is shocking for this situation, but if there was ever a "sell high" situation, this is it. He's finally flashing his potential, which is sometimes the best time to trade a guy if you dont have faith. It seems like an incredibly savvy Pritchard move if there's any weight to the rumor, and yet I can't believe that he would ever trade his entire bench (outside of James Jones and Sergio) for Devin Harris.
Bethlehem Shoals: You probably know better than I do, but is this Outlaw "flashing his potential" or "coming into his own?" He's not that streaky, he has a defined role, he's taken to it, and it seems like even if he doesn't get any better, he's a very valuable dude to have around. I agree that he could get even better, which is pretty awesome.
There's a really convoluted (and possibly false) point to make here about plateaus of development, and how someone like Outlaw or Andrew Bynum could stop developing and still be respectable. Whereas Dwight Howard, even in his present greatness, seems somewhat raw and incomplete. With certain guys it's all or nothing. If that makes any sense.
AB: I certainly see this as Outlaw "coming into his own" but with the potential for expansion. A lot of the attitude towards development that you mentioned in terms of Outlaw and Bynum comes from the initial expectations. Also, a lot of the difference in expectation comes from body type. Outlaw, Bynum, Tyrus Thomas, Brandan Wright, Shaun Livingston, Bargnani. These guys are long and lean. Subconsciously, we know that they need an assist from nature in terms of size and strength if they are ever going to reach their full potential, regardless of how skilled they are. This allows us to not be surprised if they become perennial All-Stars, yet not be overly surprised if they never maximize their abilities.
Guys like Howard, and to some extent LeBron, have the opposite effect on our subconscious minds. We see these massive, mature and powerful bodies and think that they can be great by simply learning how to dribble and shoot, two things that a nine year old in South Dakota can learn to do well. We can never be satisfied with their development because they are such physical marvels. This is how I feel about a guy like Michael Beasley right now. He's obviously going to be great, but I can't even predict how great.
BS: The very notion of "development" seems a little absurd with regard to LeBron or Howard. When Bynum adds a little jump-hook, he has an arrow in his quill. When Howard toys with one, it's almost like a distraction. Same thing for LeBron's eternal search for a post game. All these guy can do is continue to better channel what they already are.
What's also weird about Bynum and Outlaw is that they're athletic freaks, and yet have fallen back on an older mold of development. One that, you could argue, might be limiting them. Then again, it's turned them into real players, whereas I'm still not sure that Gerald Wallace or Josh Smith will ever be helpful in any real way.
AB: With LeBron and Howard we can replace "development" with "improvement" or "evolution." Howard and the jump hook is an interesting issue - he does lead his team in scoring, but is third in attempts. That jump hook will finally make him a Shaq-like focus of the offensive. I think LeBron is loosely following the path set by MJ. Jordan was great as a dunker, amazing with a jumper, and the best when he could score anywhere any way.
I think Outlaw, in something close to his current mode, is a perfect cog for a team like Portland that is building around franchise-type pieces. He can be the scrappy freak-athlete who plays his role and plays it well. That's what has worked so well with Outlaw and Bynum: they were given roles to grow in and around. It's potentially limiting, but incredibly effective. When a guy is an incredible talent, but doesn't excel in one area in particular, pigeonholing him to an extent gives you a result like Outlaw or Bynum. Without that structure, we get the enigmas we love like Wallace and Smith.
BS: Okay, but "evolution" turns the jump-hook into the symbol of something bigger. Howard's becoming the unquestioned center of the offense is the next step in his becoming DWIGHT HOWARD. A jump-hook would be part of that, but just developing that wouldn't address or solve the issue.
The safe bet is to turn a young player into Bynum or Outlaw. But when one gets turned loose like Smith or Wallace. . . well, I have no idea if that's good for anyone except for a handful of fans.
AB: I definitely agree that Howard is on his way to carving out his own niche at the center position. The jump-hook is just the launch pad for the rest of the dormant (well, not really) beast. Along with the jump hook, I would love to see him perfect his drop-step. It's a simple, yet unstoppable move unless the defense double teams. That'll help him and help Rashard and Hedo.
There is certainly something to be said about narrowing the focus of a player's development. Outlaw and Bynum are the best examples in today's NBA. The enigmatic types like Wallace and Smith only have the chance to float as they do because of the quality of the teams they play for. Better coaches or better teams (or just better organizations) would reign them in and give them a more (but not completely) defined role.
BS:. . .And now you're getting dangerously close to what I just wrote about Wallace for the FD book, which means either we'll have to cut this short or I'll have to kill you or both. Thanks for coming on the show.
There's also something to be said for players whose game seems reliant on keeping it organic, instinctive, elemental, unsound, raw, or whatever. I think there's a Heidegger book related to this, or at least a saying popular in fortune cookies. It also comes really close to the kind of racist talk I'd prefer to avoid. But imagine someone like Howard, or LeBron—or, to get less cosmic, Stephen Jackson—suddenly putting function over form, or specific moves and motifs over the big picture of who they are on the court. At some point, it doesn't even make sense. Interesting points of contrast here: I think Melo positively embodies the other type of player, as does Kobe.
AB: I think it does boil down to that debate of form versus function. In speaking about Kobe and LeBron, I see them both at their best when they move into a mode of "tunnel vision" that allows them to use all of their creative energy, yet for a defined and precise goal. That was the beauty of Jordan, Magic and Bird - they played beautifully, and yet there was always a clear purpose.
In the game on Wednesday in Portland, LeBron embraced function in the fourth quarter, but didn't abandon his form. He made a conscious decision to use those immense gifts as a weapon. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" is a great song, poetic and beautiful. Yet when it is put in the context of the civil rights movement, it becomes purpose driven and considerably more moving. Raw, elemental form is beautiful. Focused function is effective. But the true power is found when form and function meet.
BS: See, I'm not so convinced that what you call "beautiful" is non-functional. Look at Stephen Jackson—even when he's getting the job done, it's hard to figure out exactly what script he's following. The reason I see Kobe and LeBron as opposites (who, if unified, would bring about the ultimate player) is that even focused LeBron is a force being unleashed; the acts are second to the overall thrust and tide. Kobe, it's a system of analytic judgments, building blocks that lead to greatness. That's not to say that LeBron doesn't have a great feel for the game, or high basketball IQ; I think that, like Durant, even those things are sublimated into him "just being him." Kobe, on the other hand, starts with those, allows them to amplify endlessly, and uses his gut/instincts/essence as just another conscious tool at his disposal.
AB: I'm not saying that what is "beautiful" isn't also functional. I wouldn't call Stephen Jackson a "system" player, but Don Nelson's offense does allow him the freedom to be himself on the court, regardless of success.
There's also something to be said about the vast differences in Kobe and LeBron's respective career paths. Kobe was not the man, nor was he expected to be the man, when he was drafted. He was the skinny high-flyer that we spoke of earlier. It was three years before he rose to prominence, and even then it was Shaq's team. He was able to be more disciplined because he didn't have the freedom not to be with the presence of Phil Jackson and Shaq. LeBron, on the other hand, was a basketball savior even in high school. His physique was something never seen before. He was an All-NBA player from his first moment on the floor. I would never claim that he needs a Phil Jackson. Yet Jordan was a marvel in his early years, but became an assassin when he put on the blinders to everything else but the win.
Kobe and LeBron are very close to the top of a pyramid - form and function are on opposite sides at the base, but to climb to the top you have to centralize - it's like they started on different sides.
Figure 1: "This is a map showing the intrinsic styles of various NBA players, ranked from north to south based on importance. The further left, the more a player's power comes from instinct. The further right, the more like a machine the player is, executing plays due to repeated mental calculation. Players of significance are in the top half; role players and worse or below. Smush Parker not in existence."
Figure 2: "There are two paths to the pinnacle, which Kobe and LeBron have reached. At the peak, a player can sublimate the other path's properties; Kobe can use his instinct as another tool, for example. Kaman, though, has no instincts, sadly keeping him from being Dwight Howard. Do not be concerned by the sizable gap between the peak and the second tier; players, including Dwight, Amare and Francisco Garcia, do exist in this area."