"Safe to Say, This is What Saturday's Should've Been"-TK
Let no one ever tell you I don't take this shit serious, or write just to hear the sound of my own sweet, sweet voice. The whole dust-up last spring over whether the Lakers were FD or not, that was just frustrating. The debate over what the championship Celtics gave up to win, well, I think their play early this season showed we could all be made happy. But the LeBron debacle this weekend just plain embarrassing. It was sloppy, clueless, and obscured what I actually want to say about a new duality worth watching, one that could be even more central to the league's future than Kobe/Bron. And so, with a hearty shout-out to my new friends at the Real Cavs Fans board, here's a second take that will, when necessary, acknowledge the wreck that preceded it.
Why did I fuck this one up so badly? Because those LeBron threes were, clearly, definitively, LeBron James threes. All the power, fury, excess, and iron-clad assurance that defines James everywhere else on the court, they finally came out in his long range shot. Remember, I played a large part in a book that sought to understand basketball acts in terms of a "Periodic Table of Style," asserting a direct correlation because effectiveness, comfort level, and individuality. I know that James has hit three-pointers in the past, some at key moments. I've also been mightily impressed by the progress his stroke has made this season. But the reason for all the ninth-grade existentialism was that, for the greatest players, there's an idea, or a feeling, that pervades their every act. We call this "style," and it's the symbiotic relationship between how one approaches the game and how one carries out a generic act like "go left." I think superstars can go through several incarnations—most obviously, the various Jordans, but more recently Kobe through the years, or Wade then and now. What makes James both awe-inspiring and at times frustrating is that he seemingly has the ability not to spontaneously expand his capabilities, but pull off shit as if he weren't present in it.
Yes, I will single out his three-point shooting prior to Friday. When James takes two dribbles and then staidly fires away from the top of the key, that's almost a distraction from an epic work in progress. What makes James James? His uncanny combination of size and speed, which has gotten even more inexorable in the open court, off the dribble, or anywhere around the paint; the emergent defense nightmare he's become; his court vision, which insistently delivers the ball to whichever Cav happens to be closest to the basket; a nose for rebounds that comes with just understanding the action better than anyone else. All some combination of peak basketball IQ and/or outlandish physical gifts, traits he's applied more seamlessly, and synthesized with greater ease, as he's matured. This is the education of LeBron, and what I talk about when I imagine the "authentic" James. It's also, to be sure, a process, but one quite different from those that—ahem—mere mortals face. As we quoted in the book, Kobe consider himself to be "chasing perfection," aspiring to an absolute. James isn't so much trying to make perfection his own (he does have a few flaws) as he is transcending it, putting together a game that replaces a (false?) idol with his own frightening visage.
What I saw as "video game" LeBron was his knack for knocking down threes with no personal, stylistic context; why this troubles me is that it's at once in some ways unreal, or glib, and thus—at least according to the way I view the game—proof that he hasn't fully made the shot his own. For most players, we'd say "hasn't assigned a style guide icon to it;" for James, I think we expect nothing less than the invention of a new icon. Friday, he accomplished this. Those were shots that get labeled "video game" because they're impossible, but to me, "video game" signifies impersonal and facile. It refers not to the act, but the tone of it. And, in typical LeBron-ian fashion, what should've been a fundamentally unreal and unlikely way of doing things ends up seeming more fitting than "the real way" of doing things. That's why James is something other than mortal—not because he's already perfect, but because he exists beyond perfection. He's almost its mirror image, functioning always just on the other side of impossible. Does that make him less human than Kobe? No, but it certainly makes Kobe's journey something mere mortals can relate to, a parable of ambition, toil, and vanity that at least vaguely applies to other people.
Without getting all the implied religious analogies even more tangled, Jordan is obviously the idol of today's NBA. In the past, we've discussed Kobe as Jordan-centric classicist, Bron as defining a new paradigm for the future. What if we introduce Durant as the third element, the Air Apparent not in game per se, but in, well, Jordan-ness? Here's the crucial distinction, which might well blow up in my face: Kobe may be mortal, but there's something inhuman about single-minded pursuit of an ideal. It's clinical and, while subject to fits of passion, ultimately rational. There's a tacit assumption that with enough work, he'll match MJ's greatness. The problem is, Jordan's career isn't a template, it's a narrative, a series of organic occurrences that gave rise to the illusion of perfection. Perfection is the limit of what's possible; James inverts this structure, Kobe looks only at the finished product. Duran both steps out of MJ's shadow as a player and, with a honorable nod to Allen Iverson, has more of a flare for drama, more of a sense that his greatness grows out of the moment and is then added to the prototype, than anyone since Jordan. There, I said it.
I'm running out of superlatives for Durant, and I don't want FD to turn into am unreflective parody of itself. But I find it critical that, for a player whose on-court demeanor is unflappable calm masking a yes, MJ-esque need to win, the element of drama is absolutely key. So far, every major event in his career has been a surprise, a shock, a sudden leap: the explosion at UT, sudden maturation late last season, All-Star numbers in run-up to the snub, absolute rule over the Rookie/Challenge game, comeback in HORSE (not important in itself, but helped make ASW his, itself a truly amazing narrative development), and now the freakish production since the break. You could blandly cast this as "Durant keeps getting better," but the reason I dare invoke MJ is that for KD, he's got that emergency gear that kicks in whenever failure or rejection starts to peak out from behind the corners. It's not anathema to him, or a strange unknown creature; it's a demon that haunts him and co-mingles with any ego he builds up from one game to the next. If his demeanor is one of unknowability and ghostliness, the game that pours forth from him is unmistakably human in its emotional thrust. This isn't about proving shit, or scouting out some other plan of existence. It's about a player who has a hair-trigger when it comes to pushing himself, and for whom "pushing yourself" involves lots of pushing and lots of self.