8.10.2009

Still Waters Run Shallow



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.

Trevor hates sports more than, perhaps, anything else. In fact Trevor’s has irrational hate for everything that doesn’t pique his interest is the only thing that keeps me from definitively saying sports are the main target of his loathing. You see Trevor prefers to spend his days as an active citizen, devouring monographic texts on the complexities of nuclear deterrence theory. He fancies himself a thinker, an intellectual even, and resents that others are more interested in half-heartedly watching a second episode of Sportscenter instead of making sure to catch this week’s U.S.-Chinese Strategic Economic Dialogue on CSPAN.

So needless to say I was skeptical when Trevor sent me an article he described as “probably about basketball, you like that, don’t you?” I damn near closed the tab when I saw a goofy white dude with thick rimmed glasses and a weak ass ‘fro staring back at me, until I read the subtitle: “When underdogs break the rules.” Intriguing. Except horrible.

When I talked to Trevor later that day I told him how I thought the article was fucking stupid. I straight up murdered that shit. Guess what pal? No fourteen year old team is really all that talented, so it’s not like the metaphorical glass ceiling was too high for up and coming team to break shatter. Not to take anything away from the sport, but my high school’s girls team once scored under 20 points in a game—scratch that, a win.

Trevor, possessing a biting wit, responded, “Didn’t you just write like a page long feature about how bad-ass some team was cause they were so odd?” Oops, there goes gravity.



The team in question was the Golden State Warriors. And the short piece theorized that if we remember sports are ultimately an exchange of entertainment for pay, wherein wins and losses are just one function of entertainment, then the W’s are actually one of the most successful teams in the league. Their games are thrilling, they give 48 minutes of excitement, and the constant tension between Nellie and his riotous players fosters a compelling and dramatic narrative. While the team might not be win many games, both the Golden State Warriors and their fans are certainly winners.

But every time we boot up ESPN, watch Sir Charles rant on Inside the NBA, or listen to the B.S. Report we are reminded that championships and wins are the measure of the quality of sport. On top of that brainwashing we’re reminded that only certain types of teams win championships—teams that are about as unique as Simmons’ punch lines.

As a result of this propaganda most fans perceive unique teams like the Warriors as gadgets or tricksters, somehow perennially inferior to the real contenders. The Magic can’t win in a series—live by the three die by the three, bad luck will eventually hit. And my, oh my, look at that Rafer Alston’s street ball moves, aren’t they a neat distraction! The Nuggets don’t have any chance—up-tempo teams just don’t play enough defense to win big games. By the way, friends, please note that J.R. Smith has no basketball awareness. It must be because those tattoos cover his eyes too!



Of course in reality the curse of the three-pointer is a myth carried over from the NCAA’s one-and-done tournament format and streaky shooters. The Magic shot the three more consistently than any other team deep in the playoffs, which makes sense considering that the greater the sample the more likely you are to find the mean. As far as fast pace equaling a lack of defense, Denver was 6th in the league in defensive efficiency despite missing Kenyon Martin for much of the season, much better than even moribund grinders like the Spurs and Trailblazers. Anyone who watched the Denver’s playoff losses recognized they lost due to late game offensive blunders, not defense.

Considering how few teams played with a style asymmetrical to league trends last season, I count 8 (Knicks, 76ers, Magic, Pacers, Rockets [without Yao], Nuggets, Warriors, Suns), isn’t it modestly impressive that half made the playoffs, none were embarrassed, and two made the Conference Finals? If you play the percentages, teams who employ unique strategies to maximize their advantages actually tend to be competitors more often. Now remember that the Suns would probably still be in the Conference Finals picture too if it weren’t for their owner’s shameful identity crisis.

Perhaps it was fate that the Suns would be betrayed by their owner, since the only thing that had ever kept them from winning multiple champions was catching a couple breaks. Or, rather, they caught too many breaks. Joe Johnson broke his face, Amar’e broke his knees, Amar’e and Diaw broke the rules, and Nash broke his nose. But Steve Nash standing back up, defiant with his face bloodied, will be my image of a winner’s spirit forever. The pained determination in his eyes was enough to make you wonder if he had asked God why he had forsaken him. And yet since we all should be preaching “defense wins championships” so kids will learn to be winners for life at elementary school basketball camps, the story books will remember Nash and the seven-seconds-till-death Suns as nothing but an entertaining sideshow to the Spurs dynasty.



Yes, the haters are right that none of these eight teams have won a championship lately, and they’re right that recently the ranks on Larry O’Brien’s trophy are devoid of a team with a unique, non-traditional style. But consider the three greatest dynasties in the NBA’s history: the Bill Russell Celtics, the Showtime Lakers, and the Jordan Bulls. Believe it or not, Russel’s Celtics thrived off fast-breaks at a time when clothes-lining a streaking wing was considered a defensive fundamental. The Showtime Lakers overcame having stars named Ferdinand and Earvin to become flashy to a fault at times, they admittedly made no effort on defense, and the guy named Earvin could and would play all five positions. Of the three only the Jordan Bulls even vaguely resembles what we now know as the prototypical blueprint for success, whatever the fuck that even means, and that’s likely only because Jordan’s dominance shaped the model in our collective minds.

A week or two ago I was chatting with Trevor and we stumbled into a breezy conversation about Third World development and dependency theory. To explain my point I dropped a little round ball reference: the Lakers want the Kings to try to build around Kevin Martin like he’s Kobe, because they know the Kings will never grow into contenders that way. They want the Grizzlies’ young core to fail because they can rape their greatest resources for a pittance in return. And the fans are strung along the whole way, struggling to subsist while waiting for that true shooting guard or seven foot shot-blocking center they just know is the final piece.

I was pretty proud of the metaphor, and thought I might have smartly, meaningfully bridged the gap between disciplines.

But Trevor just told me it was fucking stupid.

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9 Comments:

At 8/10/2009 6:02 PM, Blogger joseph said...

I'm with you on just about all these sentiments but I wonder how much we can really bracket wins. What does it really mean to say that "wins and losses are just one function..." Ok, so sure in the function that determines entertainment, there is more than Ws. But what is the relationship between them? If a team didn't only not give a fuck about playing the right way, but also didn't give a fuck about winning would it still be fun. If Arenas' long distance game winners were simply statements that he doesn't give a fuck, instead of a declaration that he doesn't give a fuck and will still nonetheless beat you, would they be as entertaining?

I guess the question I'm asking is whether wins (or competing to win) and all the other things that go into entertainment are substitutes or complements. In the post it seems ambiguous but that might be my reading.

 
At 8/10/2009 10:48 PM, Blogger Jimmy Pterodactylus said...

@joseph:

for me, this post really encapsulates, not only the FD spirit, but also my personal feelings about The Game. it isn't that wins aren't important, or that a team minus a desire to win (if not the aptitude) would still be entertaining--how many fans were rooting on the Senators v Globetrotters at, um, any game ever? no, i think (for me anyway) the point is rather that all teams, with all their disparate styles, constitute the story of The Game, and each is a character (made up, i guess, of other characters). we enjoy all of them, not just those that are quantifiably "great."

or i could be missing it entirely; it's about 200 degress in this nyc apartment.

 
At 8/10/2009 11:22 PM, Blogger BColeKid said...

Does this mean that Steve Kerr is Robert Mugabe? Or D'Antoni is Mugabe because he resisted the Western conception of development and failed? D'Antoni didn't fail, did he because Western aid was pulled too soon? Is Steve Nash Tsvangirai because he stayed for the whole show, with the bloody nose and all?

 
At 8/11/2009 12:11 AM, Blogger growfauxfinns said...

This post feeds my soul, like listening to Talk Talk after 2am. It makes me think there's still time for the narrative to change for all time with a mad bombing PRO team.
A pivot chart-smoking Eric Musselman in Nate McMillan's body hears Simba & Gladwell like 'some people read idea books' and actually tries the press. He reanimates Walter McCarty out Hakim Warrick with sound waves & very low temperatures.
All we are saying is 2 Dale Ellis clones + Al Horford could make Al look like Wilt and the other two guys would be like a pipeline of Horrys & Cassells from College that you could trade for Unsane singles.

 
At 8/11/2009 12:33 AM, Blogger New Tinsley said...

I think the problem is that when the teams start to lean toward being better at entertaining than at winning, they are easily swayed to become satisfied with this new role. They specialize as entertainers. It's easier to accomplish the goal of entertaining the audience when facing another team whose sole goal is to win. This way, no matter what you are able to sleep at night every night, cause 'hey, i'm just an entertainer.' This is a problem for the world of sport.

 
At 8/11/2009 12:44 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Great post djturtleface. Your opinions in the comments section of FD post after post have always caused one to reflect and re-read a post. This was the first post to recognize the Warriors and Suns in the context of how much they provide for the league.

Oh, and I must say, that last metaphor was pretty stupid. To better grasp your concept of Third World development, I suggest you read George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years".

@New Tinsley I agree with you 100%. The main problem is that teams don't realize there needs to be a balance between a desire to entertain and to actually win games. That doesn't necessarily mean strong emphasis on defense - as we saw with the Showtime Lakers example - just less showmanship.

 
At 8/11/2009 10:29 AM, Blogger djturtleface said...

If I'm remembering the conversation correctly the last metaphor was more or less meant only to be a summary of the first sections of 'The White Man's Burden' by William Easterly. Not my own opinions. I've read excerpts from 'The Next 100 Years.' It was incredibly insightful.

D'Antoni seems too benevolent to be Mugabe, although NY over Chicago was borderline Congo War.

 
At 8/11/2009 6:02 PM, Blogger Teach said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8/11/2009 6:04 PM, Blogger Teach said...

I think the issue of winning vs. style was best tackled on Bring It On, the television version, when the squad decides to risk disqualification by using "vulgar" moves that actually please the crowd as opposed to the more traditional cheerleading moves.

 

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