The Ziller Sessions: Edition 8
Firstly, please, look below for details on our Chicago and Seattle launch events.
I spend a lot of the day chatting with Tom Ziller about basketball. Sometimes, once of our conversations is so eventful, I decide to take it's basic structure, write a bunch of big words around it, and pretend I thought of the whole thing. This is one such post. Hence the title, and the occasional quotes from TZ.
Last night, when I decided to stop watching Facts of Life and go to bed, my thoughts immediately turned to yesterday's description of O.J. Mayo. I stand by the Joe Johnson comparison, but looking back at it, there's something a little too generic, or porous to what I wrote. It could describe anyone who "plays within the flow of the game but will step up." That could, to some degree, describe not only Mayo and Johnson, but also Kobe, Durant, and LeBron James. It's especially the addition of Bron to this list that rubs me the wrong way; the first four make it imprecise, he makes the characterization empty.
Searching for hope and direction, I was saved when my girl handed me last week's New Yorker, which had a long article on psychopaths/sociopaths (apparently one is either the PC term, or the one that makes the most clinical sense). It was then that, in reference to the above question of on-court assertiveness, I started kicking around that old cliche "killer instinct." This is, of course, a good thing. Unless you're reading an article about sociopaths, and then, the relationship between a man and his killer instinct starts to take on a more ambivalent connotation—especially if you think of "the flow of the game" and "team" as some version of polite society, and see Kobe as 1) epitome of killer instinct; 2) someone for whom it's not always a positive on the court; and 3) a person once suspected of being a low-grade sociopath.
I think the best description for what I see some of in Mayo, and defines Joe Johnson, is an especially powerful strain of cool. That takes it a step beyond "respecting the flow of the game," since there isn't that tension between their killer instinct and the flow of the game. Their insides are, for lack of a better word, flow, which is why there's no a clear disturbance when they assert themselves. Johnson doesn't struggle against circumstance, look to dominate, or even—to throw another cliche out there—"wait for the game to come to him." He's not envisioning opportunity in advance, or laying back one step, all predatory and reactive; he's right there with it, seeming just to know. There's a confidence to him, but you'd hesitate to even call it "steady." And when Johnson explodes for 20 in a quarter, it's about as naturalistic as these things get. Mayo's not quite there yet, but as Ty Keenan put it, "even when he seems to be forcing it he acts like he's supposed to."
Durant, possess no such mystical qualities. Barkley, I think, compared KD to Gervin, in terms of piling up points without anyone noticing. And it's true: Unless Durant hits five threes in a row and follows it with an especially acrobatic drive (which, with his length, he rarely resorts to), his style is impressionistic. Not understated—a 6'9" jumble of arms and legs that rises up for threes like he's floating is still an extraordinary sight. But between the lack of emphasis in his game, his build, and those limbs just seem to trail off into the rafters on every play, Durant can get pretty ethereal at times.
You can tell he's embraced this, perhaps because it suits his outward mildness, maybe since he knows he's not an intimidator. But we've all seen glimmers of unspeakable intensity from Durant, and some of his epic scoring bursts shatter all this, mistaken by some as complacency. Ziller: "Durant's eyes are always kind of frantic, like he wants to scream but bottles it up." There's a killer instinct there for sure, perhaps—remember the Jordan comparisons—one that borders on unnerving. That he gets the best of both worlds, instead of being torn about by the tension or overcome by his passion, is one of the greatest signs of his maturity. That doesn't mean, though, that he's always easy to watch, or ever feels entirely stable. More Ziller: "He makes the league uncomfortable."
In a way, Durant's closer to Kobe than he is Joe Johnson. It's not really worth going over Bryant's struggles with ego, and the ways in which his various instincts have been both incredibly productive and seriously destructive. When we talk about the mature Bryant, it's of a player who keeps himself under wraps until called upon. Certainly, he's internalized this good behavior, and Kobe does have the pure ability to play well with others without completely reforming. But that Kobe is always there, just beneath the surface, by design. Durant's at his best amidst the interplay of extremes. Kobe's an either/or headcase just waiting to steal the keys.
The missing element in all this is LeBron. This exchange says it all:
TZ: LeBron doesn't actually care. Like there isn't tension. Because he doesn't care if he's 2-for-14 or if he's scoring 55. Not that he's detached, but, well, he sort of is.
BS: I also don't think LeBron feels disappointment. He's above it all.
TZ: That's because he can never let his team down.
BS: You mean, no matter what he does, he can't let them down?
TZ: He could have his worst night ever and his team is better off in the immediate with him on the court. His worst is better than any teammate's best. That's not quantitatively correct. But spiritually, that's the case I think
BS: I think it's true. Like, when does LeBron actually hurt that team?
TZ: Never! Even Team USA, in 2004 and 2006. I don't remember him hurting the team ever.
Let me ask again: Who among us is really human? And when exactly did we decide that mattered so?
(diagram by Ziller)