You've Been Scared
First, the widget: I think I've finally quit for good, which has me returning to Cigarettes Are Sublime and its effort to get at what, beyond tobacco, makes smoking great; Miike's remake of Graveyard of Honor is one of the few DVD's I own, and I find it as moving in its own way as The Wolves; since I'm going to see Leonard Cohen later this month, I've decided to conclude that New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which I listened to on repeat the only time I wrote a short story; a couple years back, Dr. LIC and myself randomly found out we were both huge fans of Israel Rabon's ultra-bleak The Street, about a homeless Jewish soldier in 1920's Poland; Charles Shaar Murray's Crosstown Traffic is like Greil Marcus if he actually liked music; I'm routinely amazed at how many people, myself included, have long been in the dark about Playing for Keeps, Halberstam's long-ass Jordan bio.
At many times in many hours, we have brought forth the notion of a Positional Revolution. These have been near-utopian ideals, which mostly involve either an entire team structuring itself around a single, atypical player (or as a series of interdependent roles that buck convention), or a bunch of do-it-all weirdos whose contributions shift from possession to possession. Old news for anyone who has read this blog before this year, which has been remarkably devoid of advances on that front.
That is, until about a week ago. That's when the Thunder signed Shaun Livingston, I remembered they had Thabo, and I started to wonder, what becometh of Russell Westbrook? You want to talk about Rondo as a PG lacking in jump shot? Westbrook is the point equivalent of a dirty bomb. He's so unpredictable, and riotously imperfect, that you really have to wonder how teams scouting him managed to keep any stable future hologram in front of them while taking their notes. It's not just that he lacks position, but that he undermines, even threatens, the stability of those around him.
No, this isn't that same old combo-itis again, or the curse of the tweener. I think it's pretty much established that this cliche, conservative as it may be, rings damningly true except in the case of certain active backcourts where two guards overstep their bounds just enough to mesh (this year, it's Williams/West). I see Westbrook as too unstable, divergent, and fundamentally bugged-out to fit into that synergistic relationship; to a lesser extent, I think this applies to Jerryd Bayless, which is why I tried to get Golliver to ask Pritchard just what they saw in Bayless. Did they think of him vis a vis a template, and worry about his imperfections, his tweener-nes, or see him as a singularity that would really put some balls back in "best available. "Best available" as a way forward, not a cop-out. FYI, that's kind of what I think the Thunder are doing, and I applaud them for it.
Yet so far, all thinking along these lines has been in the context of a system. The redemption of such players comes when, organically, they fit into a plan. They are, in some sense, without form until they fit. Or, no matter how sympathetically, they're bent and warped slightly to work well within whatever normal, or abnormal, system they've been cast in. They could be tweeners well-coached, multi-purpose threats, or guys responsibly down for whatever (Hedo!!). But what of the Westbrooks, possibly Bayless and Barbosa, maybe Tyreke Evans—all minscule heirs to Dwyane Wade, a player who at every turn has resisted pigeon-holing and even too much law and order from possession to possession. Not because he's selfish, but because he works best when set loose and asked to explode. With that will come equal parts individual and team, but you can't see it coming and planning for it is something of a fool's errand. Compare that with LeBron's "allow me to be all pillars of your temple" functionality.
You wonder, then, what's the way to describe Westbrook? I've written previously about a redistribution of labor, either on the macro or micro level within a team. Are there not, though, players most suited not to responding to these signals from the realm of ideas, but to serving as catalysts in their own right, whose mismatched, or garbled skill-sets is proof not that they don't fit in, or are to become lepers in the taxonomy of scouting (I love Jamal Crawford, but we're not talking about his kind of limbo here). We still think of these players, and even superstars like Durant, in terms of how they might best be used to make sense of the usual slate of basketball responbiltiies. Durant can, in a sense, become a position unto himself. But either through their relative insignificance, or sheer, explosive weirdness, there's a whole class of smaller players who are best served as fields of probability, abilities that cohere more as a mess of intriguing tendencies than a CV-ready mission statement. This is nothing less than the difference between believing in skills and being cowed by the notion of responsibility.
(Graphs by Ziller. This is the spectrum of positionality. Blue dots are continuity, red ones isolated occurrences.)
I want to step back here and nod in the direction of a conversation Silverbird5000 and I had the other day concerning, on some base level, stats. We eventually returned to the question of whether, in the most crude sense, something like adjusted +/- presumes (as Berri certainly does) that it's better to have a team full of players equally good at offense and defense, at perimeter and the paint, than a collection of folks who excel at some things but suck at others. Forget for a second that what I've just described is pretty much the way teams are built, since the game is as much a series of encounters in the moment as an overall flow of data, and dominance gets you more mileage than playing it close in all departments. But it also dawned on me how much this ultra-conservative version of basketball (where, say, you'd take two players that are 5 in all categories as opposed to two with a wider range of "scores") resembles a team like the Warriors of legend, where even Baron Davis could blur his PG's role with Jackson around, or the Amare-less Suns, or that ideal D'Antoni team mentioned in the press at one point of "all 6'8" guys who can run and pass."
Here, of course, is where the ultra-right and ultra-left unwittingly crash into each other, when Communism becomes Fascism, or communes giving way to cults. I doubt it ever works the other way—a sinister consolidation of power and crushing of all opposition giving way to egalitarian sunshine and light? But certainly, the nexus is both unlikely and potential ammunition for both sides, even if it's that moment where you look across the battlefield and realize your enemy is human. We all want the same thing, sometimes.
And now, we come to what should be the topic of the hour, Allen Iverson. I find it fascinating that, ever since the 2001 Finals, even those who decry ballhogs and bemoan the death of the league have a soft spot for the guy. He's heart personified, guts on a stick, a performer whose sheer visceral and emotional impact on fans is like being hit by an unshorn tidal wave. He is, in short, a stone classic, a Hall of Famer, and one of the most important players in the game (even if you want to argue over whether he's one of the best). But he's been both ahead of his time and, in his uncompromising version of the Wade philosophy, a prototype that could not move forward without reforms. It's a given by now: AI can't play any other way. Even with Melo, when he racked up assists and worked well with another scorer, he set the tone and rhythm of every possession, and forced all around him to pick on his idiosyncratic sense of timing, space, and cues.
We can argue over whether or not the 2000-01 Sixers were effectively built around him, since no one else on there even needs to touch the ball. I'd say, though, that in retrospect, Iverson isn't the man who wrecked the guard position, but a phenomenal talent who can't help himself—actually, can't help but transcend the very notion of roles and responsibilities. As irresponsible as it sounds, Iverson only works when you give him the ball and let him improvise. Let what come may. Not because he's a ball-hog, but because the game only comes to him on those terms. Just as, for the guards discussed above, there's too much going on there (and sometimes missing there) to try and assign them clear-cut responsibilities. We're talking about a stylistic profile, a new way of mapping an ordinarily maddening kind of player. Inconvenient truths, but ones that have yielded fruits at times. Iverson is perhaps too extreme to even fit this model, but what he would need is a team built to respond to his disproportionate hits and misses—not a normal one that pretends he's a point guard, or even one where he's paired with a complementary player, as if Iverson were merely singular, not totally fluid.
All of which brings us to Lamar Odom. At this point, the "could've been Magic" has turned from regret on fans' part to a kind of background myth: "That Lamar Odom sure is good, did you know he could've been Magic?" I'd say, though, that at this point in his career the Lakers use him precisely as this kind of x-factor. I'm sure it's a pain in the ass for the coaching staff, but allowing Odom to shape-shift within the triangle, as opposed to cast him as KG-esque New Synthesis, is exactly what's allowed him to finally gain legitimacy. We can only hope that, whatever happens to Iverson next, in cast more in the light of forward-thinking strategy, rather than the Angel Gabriel handing out pizzas in the Stone Age.
ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS UPDATE:
Per audience request, here's Anthony Randolph's profile. We flipped it on its side and added some pentagrams to make it even weirder than it already is. However, also take note that we've added "handle" and "low TO's", so when you're looking at the other graphs, imagine those on there, too. They should only further affirm what we have discovered to be true.