What If Dazzler Had Become the Herald of Galactus?
The Warriors are dead as we knew them. Baron is gone to LA to play godfather to Jessica Alba’s offspring. Gilbert Arenas, whose pairing with Don Nelson would have set the comments ablaze with new algorithms to calculate FD quotients, looks like he’s going to re-up with the Wizards. Yet, for a few glorious hours this morning, we had to entertain the possibility. Moments of this magnitude cannot be cast aside as soon as they become impossibilities. We must imagine what might have been.
For all his bravado, Baron is, in simple terms, one of the most complete point guards in the game, the kind of guy who finishes with a near-triple-double on an off-night. Guys like that are obviously rare, but they still conform to accepted notions of what constitutes a franchise cornerstone. On the other hand, building a team around dual 6’3’’ combo guards is basically unheard of, the sort of mad scientist decision that we associate with a team that relies on transition threes and refusing to guard at least one player on the floor at all times.
Then again, from a standard basketball view, this would have been Mullin’s worst move since he decided to pay a bunch of role players like they were lynchpins. There were certainly some stupidity afoot in the decision to lowball Baron; after all, Gilbert always said he was probably going to return to DC if Grunfeld brought back Jamison. Even if Arenas had surprised everyone and moved, regular basketball analysis would paint this move as a major miscalculation: Arenas is being paid max money after two major knee injuries, Arenas and Monta are both scoring guards without top-shelf PG skills, and this deal would tie up the organization’s finances in the long term without doing anything to shore up the team’s massive rebounding problems or compensate for the loss of Baron.
But the Warriors of these last few years have never been the kind of team to pay much attention to conventional wisdom. If Mullin had pulled this off, he would have succeeded in marrying the front office’s philosophy to that of the team on the court, even if he’d have done so without intention. Arenas would replace Baron quite cleanly in a philosophical sense, but not in terms of on-court abilities, bringing a change in the specifics of Nellieball while not denying its fundamental principles. Mullin would therefore bring about an entirely new method replacing players within a system: one that conceives of on-court changes as secondary to philosophical continuity.
Organizational unity can mirror what we want to see in the on-court product. Philosophical through-lines do not have to lead to orthodoxy, just as a team’s system doesn’t have to keep each athlete from playing a constrained role without room for individuality. The franchise’s worldview must still be interesting on its own and allow for a certain degree of personal freedom -- the Spurs come closest to this unity in the current NBA, and that doesn’t automatically make them electric eels -- but, with the Arenas offer, the Warriors were on their way to becoming a team that demands something without precedent at every level of the organization.
Unfortunately, this antiestablishment philosophy does not easily translate to the suits. For one thing, NBA salary negotiations exist in a near-utopia in which employers compensate their workers with some attention to the revenue that they produce. When everyday people complain about a lack of respect at work, they’re talking about the difference between comfortable living and getting by; when basketball players complain about the same thing, it actually is about the lack of respect relative to the marketplace, because there’s no necessary reason to complain about a difference of a few million dollars when it’s just a small fraction of the total contract. When a general manager offends his franchise player with a low offer, he changes the conversation between management and player from one of respect and shared involvement to a salary cap issue. Basketball becomes a business.
An MBA doesn’t need to be a prerequisite for enjoying basketball, but what if ideology defined the business end of things, too. Our dearly departed Suns could have used some daring in their recent financial dealings. To take another view of it, does anyone think that the Blazers would be as promising as they appear if Paul Allen didn’t give Kevin Pritchard license to deal second round picks just for the hell of it?
But possibility can’t sustain itself without a basis for hope. Arenas would have replaced Baron as the Warriors’ building block, allowing fans to look to the future while not fretting too much over the lost past. Looking at the current roster and cap situation, I defy anyone to predict what this team will look like next year. Will they just be a more frenetic, less effective version of the present-day Kings? Can Monta Ellis really carry a team at 23? Can Stephen Jackson possibly play the same way without Baron by his side? Will CJ Watson get legitimate minutes at the point? Is Mullin secretly a liberated fan who wants to put Monta and J-Smoove on the same team? Will they score more than ten baskets in the halfcourt offense per game? Am I going to have to shave my beard?