What Happened to That Boy
The least FD thing about me is that I hate J.R. Smith. Hate him. Despite my predilection toward the Julian Wrights of this world, despite a lifetime spent riding for Scottie Pippen and Tracy, despite my celebration of players who don't so much challenge orthodoxy as introduce their own, I nonetheless carry around an almost ruthless insistence on basketball efficacy. Your shit had better work, or else it becomes less a style, or an innovation, and more a gimmick. Gimmickry is for Asher Roth, Sarah Palin, and Ricky Davis. Like anyone, I can fall hard for the seductive potential of athleticism applied in new directions, and as such, I can wander down the wrong path for some time. But I always come back to the sole criterion from which I never deviate: does your shit work?
J.R. Smith hasn't worked. Year after year, I've been told to brace myself for the coming J.R. Revolution, and it has never arrived. I've been promised breakthroughs--erratic play replaced by consistency, bad decisions displaced by enlightenment, ambivalence about teamwork absorbed into a new-age point guard. I've read and heard everything. Yet, by the second week of May each spring, I've instead found myself swollen with pride while wondering in which empty gym he was presiding over such sweeping, irrelevant change. I never believed in J.R., and I was always vindicated for my assured skepticism. Even when he'd have days, or weeks, or fortnights of inspired play that threatened to carry him from cult worship to mainstream acceptance, I was secure in the knowledge that, ultimately, J.R. Smith didn't work.
Smith has been the perfect Nugget. In every way. The second-least FD thing about me is that I hate Denver. My disdain for Smith runs so deep because it is a microcosm for my zealous loathing of the Nuggets. In this Carmelo Era, Denver has symbolized the sinister potential for self-destruction that is inextricably linked to basketball which challenges the NBA's established models for success. Whereas the D'Antoni Suns or the Davis/Stack Jack Warriors offered tantalizing glimpses at a new order, albeit fleetingly (and, therefore, perhaps not so much true glimpses but, rather, illusions), the Carmelo Nuggets have pursuasively argued against change. This bizarro campaign for something new reached its nadir (perhaps zenith if up is down) last year, when Denver flamed out of the playoffs amidst a conflagration of lazy defense, disorganized offense, and selfish decisions. As I wrote then, it was offensive, with the ugly vainglory and petulance that affirm vexing stereotypes: about the priorities of NBA players; about the mental capacity of these men; about strategy that would wield unfettered basketball as a weapon, rather than fearing it as an undesired outcome. Denver's shit hasn't worked.
I won't front--I've enjoyed watching Denver inflict its own wounds. Not only because I dislike J.R., but because I find George Karl to be sanctimonious in his obvious belief that he serves as a Keeper of the Game. Because no matter how unfair it might be, Kenyon Martin has devolved into a video-game villain, replete with a robotic offensive "skill" set and a seemingly endless penchant for masturbatory mean-mugging. Because Denver-as-Movement somehow became a widespread fiction on par with the hokum that Knicks fans would rather watch a mediocre playoff team than build for a championship future. I could continue, but that seems excessive. It's felt good to stand over this frustrated, seething, volatile mess and gloat in the wake of annual failure brought on by the excess of style, not it's triumph.
Rejoicing in Denver's undoing is not such a lonely pasttime, though, and this season, this postseason, the Nuggets appear to be playing as though they're tired of people like me making fun of them. Really, it's been an almost inexplicable transformation ostensibly brought on by what has previously been diagnosed as one team become decidedly more FD when infused with an un-FD player. As noted:
[Chauncey] Billups, then, is neither too much nor too little of a point guard, and as such is the perfect equilibrium for a Denver team made up of various forms of excess and lack. His job isn't to encourage K-Mart, J.R., and Nene, but in effect, manage them. Neither dashing "floor general" nor feckless "game manager," Billups is entrusted with turning craziness into a useful commodity, ordering and meting it out so that players are compartmentalized without being squelched. Maybe that makes him a lion-tamer, or the guy in charge of The Wild Bunch. Denver may not have the least conventional roster in the league, but it's certainly the most streaky and combustible. Billups can juggle these pieces (one of which is George Karl, natch) through a combination of equanimity and pragmatism.
Denver has transformed from a rambunctious collection of unyielding parts always sabotaged by their own priorities to a spirited collective unrelenting in its pursuit of defiant accomplishment. Does that make sense? It's shit just seems to work all of a sudden, as though the piling on enabled by last year's spectacular failure pushed the Nuggets' capacity for absorbing the bile which fuels self-loathing past a saturation point. Denver has convincingly pulled itself together. Even J.R. is regularly effective, his positive contributions no longer marring a vast landscape of consistent inconsistency. Billups may, indeed, serve as the manager of the team, the one whose judicious decisions enable Denver to be Denver in a good way, and not a bad way. He, an outsider with a pedigree of discipline and a championship background fueled by embracing other-ness, may have identified what I just wrote in his own way. But even acknowledging this likely truth doesn't seem to properly recognize who these Nuggets are.
There was a moment against the Mavericks yesterday when Denver broke its huddle by Karl imploring them to "keep on playing the right way." This "right way," one which had stolen the early lead and momentum from Dallas, consisted of leak outs and aggressive defensive rebounding; of Nene, not always so nimble, swooping to the basket as Dallas looked slow and confused; of Kenyon Martin elbowing anything that got in his way anywhere on the floor; of defensive breakdowns against Dirk rapidly fading amidst retaliatory secondary breaks; of Linas Kleiza taking threes early in the shot clock; of J.R. popping over guys with hands in his face; of Chris Andersen swatting a shot into the fifth row and egging on the crowd in a knowing frenzy. Erick Dampier spent most of the first half falling over himself, and it might have owed to the sort of dimentia which the Nuggets can cause when the unconventional parts are orchestrated in a common direction.
Honestly, this moment was sublime. With its brooding and surly and muscular and wild elements in explosive harmony, Denver was so far afield of anything Larry Brown has ever moaned at any of the players he loves to hate that George Karl, unintentionally, made a mockery of what we attach to the concept of "playing the right way." And yet, it was less farce and more cooptation, because Denver was, in fact, playing the right way. It was playing its right way. It's shit worked.
In the middle of the controlled hysteria, it occurred to me that only on this Denver team could the Birdman be considered the second-least crazy, or second-most normal, player. A man covered in ornate tattoos and hair gel who was probably smoking PCP this morning. But, after Chauncey, who, really, is more standard? Birdman comes off the bench, provides energy, blocks shots, and cleans up garbage at the rim. He's exceptional at what he does thanks to his athleticism and spirit, but still, he's unconventionally good at a fairly conventional role. So is Chauncey. And then...what? You have Nene, who sometimes is dominating, sometimes is involved in a psychodrama, and always seems to be into something. You have K-Mart, for whom the game is incidental in pursuit of reckless conflict. You have Carmelo, who is a sort of reluctant leader who will get to where he needs to be but regularly carves out a circuitous route that wouldn't be advisable for other guys asked to do what he does. You have the journeyman backup point guard who shouldn't even be in the NBA anymore. And, of course, the internets' favorite misunderstood agent of change, J.R. Smith. Seriously, whom else on the team is more "normal" than Billups or Andersen?
All of that captures Denver, now. The Nuggets have inverted a paradox. Or something. They've decided that a half-black bookworm who has an exotic name and no money can be president. It can be perplexing, but it also feels right. The radicalism appears like common sense. Of course that can happen; watching the Nuggets win is almost logical. The manic quality is not gone but is now managed, and each player no longer seems to be united solely by a shared apathy. Without the kind of overhaul or "recommitment" the media usually celebrate and leads to a team like Dalls getting rolled by Golden State, Denver has improved. It's tired of the haters and put its insanity to work. Forever a Nuggets skeptic, I find it awesomely intriguing. I feel like they're spiting me, in particular, and I like it.
[Insert awkward segue here] I also like the perhaps unwitting basketball project that Cam'ron is putting together. Since the start of the year, Cam has created three songs that each name checks a different point guard (something profane this way comes):
Cam'ron, "Cookin' Up" - "I'm Killa/You Andre Miller/Got a Basic Game"
Cam'ron ft. Jadakiss, "Let's Talk About" - "Shootin' in the Miam Heat/Like Chalmers"
Cam'ron, "Silky" - "I'm on Point/Like Rondo"
This has great potential. Let's hope Aaron Brooks plays well against the Lakers.