Slip Not on My Tears as You Dance
First order of business: if you have not yet done so, please listen to this week's installment of FreeDarko Presents the Disciples of Clyde NBA Podcast. Shoefly was in the house as a guest on the show. Also, don't forget some of his excellent recent updates at Boxiana.
Second order of business: what follows is a reflection upon a changing of the NBA guard. Make note that it was wholly conceived independent of Shoals, who has made reference to and advanced a similar theory. He can, and surely will, better explain his take on it at a later date. Among other things, he's smarter than I am. But please know that this post reflects no collaboration or previous discussion.
Third order of business: you may know me from Straight Bangin', and as a sometime FreeDarko guest lecturer. Well, I have an account over here, now, and will be doing some writing. I hope that preempts any confusion. Onward...
This postseason, there is much to celebrate, what with the revelations that Denver is not Denver this year, Dallas is a new version of the old Dallas, and Kobe vs. LeBron is seemingly swelling toward a crest. Plus, we’ve received the usual glimpses of exciting youth, this year provided by Philadelphia (again), Chicago, and Portland (sort of). We also have the tabula rasa of Houston’s impending participation in a second round: it is either a fairy tale about Yao’s quiet fortitude and the harnessing of new, quirky powers (who knew Aaron Brooks would be this way?), or it is the latest cause for lamentation as we continue to chronicle the heartbreak that is Tracy McGrady. We might even add that these playoffs, so far, stand as a refutation to the tired criticism that the NBA is solely a league of isolation and one over five. To the contrary, while stars continue to shine bright, it is readily apparent that it takes a real team to win. Were it otherwise, Orlando wouldn’t be mired in panic, and New Orleans wouldn’t be an afterthought. (Maybe this makes Dwyane Wade even more impressive.)
That’s all good, however, it’s not most pressing in my mind. This is almost surely a function of my rooting interests, but these playoffs, through two weekends, have taken on an elegiac tone that cannot be escaped. I am enticed by the good, of course, but I’ve found myself dwelling on the bad. Or, really, the sad.
(props to nahright)
2009 marks the end of an era in the NBA. Some would argue “error” (zing!), but nonetheless, caring about the Pistons and Spurs was a rite of spring that is suddenly useless. The Spurs will soon be over, either now or in the next round, most likely. The Pistons are surely over. Their twin demises are not shocking, but now that they’ve arrived, the reality is somewhat jarring. I’d fallen into the habit of caring about these teams, of considering these teams, of closely watching these teams. That’s no longer necessary, and that’s weird. The Spurs and Pistons have served as barometers for the league this decade. We’ve calibrated our beliefs about worth and value using those heretofore enduring measuring posts. You don’t just switch off the gold standard to something else and not notice. You know?
But it’s bigger than those two teams, even. Kevin Garnett, who long suffered from knee problems that are degenerative and won’t just get better with surgery and rest, is not a part of the playoffs. It’s a sad portend of his coming decline, as his departure from our regular consideration will draw to a close a period of NBA history when a league of brand names grown in college started regularly running into the newjacks who short circuited the process. Beyond the obvious lessons taken from that merger of those disjointed cultural norms, Garnett had special meaning, because he was almost a template for a new kind of fan relationship with players. Without college incubation, Garnett’s growth as a person and a player was harder to discern, and to predict. But his youth, which served as his defining characteristic having never gone to college, also invited fans to care about him in a different sort of way. At least, that’s how I felt. I so desperately hoped for his success because I thought he needed it. He was just a kid. Actually, he was Da Kid, which seems even more apt when Garnett is cast in this light.
But it’s bigger than KG, too. Allen Iverson effectively played his way out of NBA relevance this year, and the consensus appears to be that he won’t be coming back. Iverson, too, was a certain sort of paradigm who marked the shift in the NBA. The interregnum between Magic-Larry-Michael and LeBron-Wade-Paul-Howard may not have clean dividing lines, and its leading historical stars may be Shaq, Tim Duncan, and Kobe, but Iverson, more than anyone else, was clearly of that time. He arguably was that time, his body, itself, standing as a testament to a change in the Association. He’s now gone, an absence made even more conspicuous because his team has chosen to play without him.
To all of these reasons for mournful reflection, we might add a contemporary sadness: Dwight Howard. Blaming him for Orlando’s feebleness, and almost palpable panic, may not be fair. He was terrible in Game Two, but he’s otherwise played well. And yet, it seems impossible to not be angry at him, and disappointed in him. Some of it may be our fault. Since August, we’ve deified him, almost willing the manifestation of his potential. And he obliged in every way--he was stellar on the floor, he grew as a player, and he seems to have no limits as a personality. That may have simultaneously neglected his shortcomings and set unrealistic expectations. Let’s be straight up: for all of his muscular excitement, Dwight has few moves and no jumper. He hit two big free throws in crunch time last night, but he’s far from reliable at the stripe. With a smaller man pinned at the basket, the Defensive Player of the Year couldn’t find a way to prevent the game-winning layup. And on a team that was so clearly jittery in the clutch, he did little to mollify nerves. Reading that back makes me depressed. That’s the problem. He’s not where I want him to be yet.
Kind of like these playoffs. For as much good as we’ve seen, there’s been an equal amount of bad. At least, for me, there has been. It’s an odd duality well captured by the Celtics, in fact. As sad as it is to watch Kevin Garnett reduced to the world’s most profane, best-dressed cheerleader, Rajon Rondo’s playoff performance has been a sensational counter, offering the sort of boundary-challenging performance we like to celebrate and mythologize. Of course, it likely comes from necessity precisely because Kevin is hurt. I don’t think one necessarily trumps the other, but this year, the bad seems to be a consequence of the good in a way that’s more pronounced than usual.