It's Judgment That Defeats Us
A profound believer in liberated fandom, djturtleface loves the worst or most peculiar teams in the league. In third grade he listed Rasheed Wallace as his idol, and currently writes for TheGoodPoint.com. He just started SB Nation's Memphis Grizzlies blog Straight Outta Vancouver, which is an exercise in pain, misfortune, and hope for a better tomorrow.
Like virtually all of his ‘We Believe’ teammates before him, turns out that Captain Jack was never quite as happy with being an act in Donnie Nelson’s circus as we once presumed.
Bear in mind that this is a player-coach combo once thought to have built the best rapport in the league. When on Oakland’s local sports-talk radio they would regularly call in as anonymous listeners to pose goofy questions to each other. Nelson gave Jackson more minutes and more regular minutes than any other player on the squad, which is actually quite an accomplishment since Nelson benched players like Jamal Crawford, who should nicely compliment his system, and the Anthony Randolph, who should be a fucking thunder-lizard or something, for the bulk of the season. Point is it’s becoming rather obvious that Don Nelson is to the NBA as Colonel Kurtz is to Vietnam.
Nelson is a man tortured and ruined by the combination of his own genius and the impossibility of his circumstance. Donnie can turn some undrafted kid out of the Georgia Institute of Technology into an explosive scorer in his rookie season, but couldn’t have cultivated a healthy, professional relationship with Dikembe Mutumbo. And while this phenomenon might be endlessly interesting to a casual observer, it seems to be particularly frustrating to those living the dream.
In the most FD of ways, Nelson’s dementia is clearly reflected by the style of his system, which makes his insanity almost a necessity. As I’ve written about in the past, teams that play asymmetrical basketball can be extremely effective, but are still extremely uncommon. This is because there are three enormous roadblocks that tend to prevent the more sane coaches in the association from being given a chance to prove their genius.
While Don Nelson has broken the mold by simply refusing to acknowledge the existence of any societal norm, most of us prefer not to have conversations with the demons inside our skulls, so front offices tend to get stuck on these worries:
Social: Lots of people pretend like peer-pressure isn’t real. Lots of social scientists know it’s an incredibly powerful force in decision making. Lots of professional sports teams have fans, which provide an enormous social pressure. NBA front offices trying to build unique squads have to make unique, sometimes questionable roster moves. Since lots of the fans aren’t members of the front office, it’s incredibly difficult for a franchise to teach them the rationale behind their action without alerting every other team in the league. And that kind of defeats the purpose of running a sneaky strategy the other teams aren’t built to counter.
Unless you’re Chris Wallace, chances are you don’t want to be perceived by your fans or the national media as like Chris Wallace—not to insinuate Chris Wallace is covertly building an asymmetrical team, just to insinuate most teams would probably rather hire Isiah Thomas as their new GM at this point. Some franchises manage to answer this convoluted equation, normally by branding their style so fans and media understand their personnel decisions. But most franchises find it much easier to just remove the whole unique squad part from the equation, then all you need to do to quell those incessantly riotous fans is trade for Shaq.
Cultural: This equation is much shorter. Coaches and GM’s aren’t always on the same page. Because of the ‘No Championships’ propaganda and the reason above, GM’s resist making particularly creative roster choices. Coaches need to win, or they get fired. So if the coach has a traditional lineup, there is too much pressure from the NBA’s win-or-burn coaching culture for that coach to tinker with the way the lineup is constructed and utilized. Who really wants to save a world that is destined to die?
As evidence I would like to submit that coaches using a unique system typically have nothing to lose because of their status (read: large and long contracts, or exceptionally short leash): D’Antoni, Nelson, Adelman, Karl are the legends; Stan Van Gundy and a bunch of interim coaches are the outcasts who need to show sparks of genius to have any hope of staying an NBA head coach.
Economic: Common sense would edict that a team using its personnel in unique ways to maximize their ability and minimize their flaws would get some serious discounts on players. In theory because they’re getting the maximum value out of each players skills, these teams could get by paying less for players who are seen as flawed in most systems. Sadly because of the branding issue even the most innovative team needs to have some semblance of consistency in player roles. The more unique your team becomes, the more unique skill-set necessary to make it work, thus the rarer the player that will plug into your asymmetrical system.
Since players and agents aren’t fucking morons, they know their team’s unique needs and use this as an advantage in their negotiations. How does a dude named Andrea makes $50 million over 5 years from a team bidding against itself, despite failing to contribute for a bad team over his entire career? He is seven-foot tall and can shoot on a team that’s trying to build the NBA’s closest approximation of Euro-ball. The Raptors have the opportunity to emerge as the strangest team in the NBA next season, but had to pony up serious cash to make it happen. I’m not exactly a trained economist, but common sense tells me that if supply equals one, it doesn’t take tons of demand for the price to rise.
Like most systems that persist over time, team development is well reinforced by structural forces that are perpetuated from Grand Minister Stern all the way down to the most ignorant of fans. There isn’t even an ounce of hope for Reformation at this point. Nelson is too egomaniacal to lead the revolution, the Magic are too repentant for their loss, and D’Antoni is too not in Chicago.
So where, precisely, are we, the fans who want nothing more than to just see something fucking new and different, to go from here? Well it looks like in the foreseeable future we’ll just have to keep on elevating our heartbeats over the positively titillating news that flawed dunk specialist Hakim Warrick will be joining the incredibly raw rookie Brandon Jennings, who might not even start over Luke Ridinour. And we will keep watching insufferably ugly, slow Bobcats games just to catch the token Gerald Wallace highlight. Or maybe we’ll track a Suns team that is a ghostly, back-from-Siberia version of its glory years. Crazy Donnie, you are a much stronger man than I.