What Hideous Curiosity

Over the years, FD has become associated with many things, some good, some bad. Among the leading positives is Big Baby Belafonte's dazzling artwork. Since the Style Guide was first released--ironically, you can't even see it anymore--Big Baby has popularized a distinctive, resonant way of looking at basketball. Literally. The Macrophenomenal Almanac and the Undisputed Guide expanded the audience for this exciting, perceptive, creative thinking, and Big Baby's work is as inextricably FD as anything else. We're all fortunate to say so. Those prints are something of a trademark. And a cash cow!

(Please note that I can write all of these nice things, however factual, because I've had absolutely nothing to do with the art. Like anyone else, I am a fan who looks on with amazement and appreciation.)

It's not just Big Baby, though. FD has been the launching point for a number of artistic explorations. Who could forget when Tom Ziller used his third-eye vision to teach that the day's mathematics was Z? Or more recently, when Hakeen was remembered amid the scribbles in your notepad that invented your life? FD has a proud artistic tradition.

Today may mark a departure from this distinguished history. Certainly, there is artwork that follows, and it very much endeavors to comment on this basketball which we hold dear. But that's the end of the similarity. Our latest episode offers decidedly less aesthetic appeal than that which is common among its predecessors. It might not even make any sense. The images that you're about to look upon are purposely lo-fi, functional in the service of expressing an idea, but not exactly ready to adorn the lavish halls of Slim Chin's manse.

These images grew out of a confused, meandering conversation that I had with Shoals one night last week as Derrick Rose played a sensational game that we hated. You may recall the capstone:

Less obvious while in plain sight, Derrick Rose took a customary straight path to the basket. He seems to always do that, eschewing soft angles and minute precision for hard darts and raging athleticism directed in a single vector. Rose can change directions, of course, but he explodes in a series of discrete movements, no matter how quickly he may change from one to another. His motion isn't united as a single brush stroke. It is a collection of lines, a pile of pickup sticks arrayed in new patterns but always limited by the component parts. Another image that immediately appeared in my mind was one of a locomotive laying down its own tracks as it rumbled along. Shoals was almost mad at Rose for this. We agreed that it was dissonant. For all of his obvious physical prowess, Rose has a limited game. Only, the limit is born of convenience. He isn't a wonderful shooter, his court vision is not an unmistakable strength, and he does not pose a threat from all over. Derrick Rose doesn't need that. Instead, he's something of a perfect scoring weapon, a man who invariably finds himself at the rim after picking a trail and racing forward along it. The shit works.

Brute strength and straight-line basketball are shrill traits for a point guard in this new era of the position's pitch-perfect primacy. While styles among the leading point guards vary, seemingly each one makes far more sense for its master than Rose's does for a player as physically competent. Shoals and I mulled this over for a while before intervening commitments left us at the point where artwork comes into the story. Lost in the morass we commonly create as our online ruminations crash into each other, we agreed that I would endeavor to create simple visuals that captured the overriding impressions respectively left by my favorite guards. This, we thought, might help us better articulate what Derrick Rose is, exactly. I am not sure that I succeeded, but maybe it will start a better conversation.

(Click to enlarge.)

Chris Paul, Angle Master

Derrick Rose, Raging Bull

Rajon Rondo, Cat on Ice Skates

Russell Westbrook, The Magic Carpet Ride

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Your Channel Is Bleeding


Couldn't let this ground go cold without saying one more thing about Rondo. Here's Kevin Pelton on Double R's Game 5, and how it compares to the Wilt/Oscar Night:

. In some ways, Rondo's controlled Game Five performance was as much a sign of maturity as his takeover of Game Four. He picked his spots, deferring to his teammates early and finding the perfect time to exert his will on the game. Rondo and Allen were both highly efficient, combining for 41 points on 27 shooting possessions.

That's a chunk from a paragraph, and as Kevin noted during the game, Rondo's plus/minus indicated that a surprising amount of the Celtics' assault came with him on the bench. However, I would like to compare this to something I wrote here back in March of 2007:

Rondo is like a thousand angry voices in one. This isn't a Kidd-like all-around consistency; I don't think anyone's projecting him as a consistent triple-double threat. Rondo's box scores read like a decent all-around player who relies on demonic possession to excel at any particular one. It's tempting to call these outbursts situational, but the overall pattern is one of provocative randomness. When the unpredictability becomes a predictable feature, you throw up your arms and run toward the light.

Wow, things were so much different then. Whatever, if you're crying for the past right now, read that Suns thing I did for today. It's both closer in tone to 2007 and about why change must come. But enough about me. I remember that, when I posted that thing on Rondo, someone laughed it off as a function of the C's ragged, insistent play. Also probably something about Rondo trying to do everything at once because there was no structure to suggest otherwise.

But looking back, those rookie lines seem like evidence not of skills, but of a single skill—the exact one Kevin describes above. Rondo falls back when he needs to, and asserts himself however the team needs him to. That can lead to all-out domination, or game-management, or some odd combination of the two. It's an advanced, aggressive version of the point guard instinct that somehow registers less impressively, and consistently, than master craftsmen like, say, Stockton or Steve Nash.

Rondo might well be a new kind of pure point guard, one marked not by his ability to set the terms but to adapt and adjust within the game situation. That may also be his greatest strength and his ultimate weakness, since you have to wonder how this strange skill fares once you take away support (note the word choice) from the likes of Garnett and Allen.

Update: Suns link is repaired.

Labels: , , ,


His Own Happy Abyss

Good Elephant

You go away to celebrate the Lord's birth, the ringing in of 2010, and more wedding, and all sky busts open. That's pushing things too hard, maybe, but I've had a few topics festering in my brain over these last two weeks and now it's time for them to get out. Topics that deserve a friendly presentation around these parts. Also people have been nagging me over Twitter to have opinions and I like to respond to our readers. So here goes my four-act, back-logged holiday grievances, which may or may not work together as a dramatic construct, or web of intrigue, when taken as a whole.

John Wall just keeps on doing it, we watch, register amazement, and nod our heads like "I told you." John Wall: Where Amazing is one some level assumed with each passing second. There's little question that Wall represents the latest in the highly-selective lineage of CHANGE THE GAME prospects. This is not a follow-up to the "have we lived a lie?" post precipitated by Darko's retirement. That was the last, desicated days of 2009, when accounts are called in and bells rung with solemnity. Now we're wandering amidst the first triumphant peals of 2010, where for at least a little while longer we can step outside and surely announce that today's news will echo forever. What better time, then, to declare what's become something of a no-brainer: We're watching the kind of player who makes the "I am a Martian" trope intelligible; this is athletic performance we might very well be hallucinating, as well as the long-needed intersection of NBA scouting and taking lots of drugs.

But Wall, unlike LeBron, Durant, or going back, Garnett or Odom, isn't just a basketball quark waiting to be unleashed on the pros—and, for the time being, negotiating with ease the scraggly environs of the NCAA. Wall is the most preposterous kind of paradox: A player whose raw ability, and range of skills, give him the ability to shatter our very imagination, leave us transfixed and drooling at the exact point where all pedantry fails. And yet, after watching Wall seamlessly fit into a talent-packed UK team and acquire a jumper overnight, we've simultaneously seen him reveal himself as a building block that offers more than infinite possibility. Short of a seven-foot inside presence like Oden (the safe pick, the nice guy, etc.), a PG is the most straightforward investment you can make in your team's future plans. Especially in this rule-changed era, you might argue that it's an even more foundational pick than the dominant big man—besides the obvious Steve Nash/Aaron Brooks test, you also find the perimeter game increasingly transformed into the—ahem—center of the action. Inverted, upside-down ... now, the point guard is the ultimate functional component. Chris Paul, for all his all-time-y proficiency, is (like Duncan) still on some level a role player. In the same way that a Maybach gets you to and from work.


Wall, though, is both capable of almost anything and without doubt locked into a position, a role. Part of the frenzy surrounding LeBron and Durant had to do with the fact that, while they seemed capable of almost anything, we had no idea what they'd be tacked to do as pros. You could argue that Garnett's spent an entire career negotiating the less plush side of this dynamic. John Wall's potential is hydra-headed. He's the next great PG, leap-frogging Jennings, Evans, Rondo and Rose before he's even hit the league. On expectations alone, Wall already stares eye-to-eye with Chris Paul. Yet at the same time, Wall's feel for the game and innate ability allow him to do things that his position-mates just usually can't. In that, he has much in common with Rondo (not a new observation), or maybe rookie year Westbrook. Except Walls is at once a more immediately adept point guard than the scrappy Rondo or scattershot (then, at least) Westbrook, and is more of an athletic outliet than either. He has the ability to make plays that just shouldn't happen. The phrase "that's just plain wrong" is applied to bringing completely and totally raw dishonor, or defying the expectations we bring to the game as viewers. Wall actually insults our assumptions about what's supposed to happen next.

If this is odiously vague, well, it's because John Wall is balancing his point guard responsibilities with his ability to do pretty much anything he wants on the court. I got to know John Wall at Hoop Summit, where he ran wild in one of those games that reads like the greatest workout you ever saw. At UK, he's been the quintessential team player, adherent to the system, and so on. He's played the kind of basketball that every coach loves, albeit with occasional flashes of the great beyond. Yes, John Wall right now is amazing. But perhaps even more unfathomable is that tension that exists between a sense of predestination and the power he holds to write his own script. We've never seen anything like it, at least not in this era of uber-hyped kids coming out of HS. Dare I say that, because he'll hit the pros with both a first-rate sense of purpose and an untapped reservoir of basketball superpowers, his rookie season might be a voyage of discovery (for him and us) that rivals even Bron's first campaign.

Speaking of that great workout/great game dichotomoy, that actually sprung to mind yesterday at Seattle U./Harvard, which I attended with most members of the Super-Secret Seattle Basketball Dork Association. Normally I have huge problems leaving the house, but this offered the rare opportunity to see two potential first-rounders—Seattle's Charles Garcia and Harvard's Jeremy Lin—square off for the cost of a hot dog. Given that Lin is the greatest Asian-American basketball player since Wat Misaka, and has a shot at being the first since Misaka to make the NBA, and Garcia is ... some kind of Latino in a sport desperate for them ... I was secretly hoping for a race war. One quarter of the arena Harvard, one quarter SU, another random Asians, and the last, Latinos from around the area. And then one half of one row of draft geeks. But alas, that was not to happen, and I had to content myself with assessing Lin and an on-the-mend Garcia.

Sidebar 1: SU's return to D1, albeit without a conference, reminds me of post-colonial independence movements. They have spent years in the wilderness, off the radar, whatever, but now get to basically invent an identity and narrative for themselves as a legit program. At the same time, there's this mythical past they can always reference, with Elgin Baylor being the pre-colonial icon from which all else draws its strength.


Sidebar 2: Feel free to take whatever I say about Garcia worth a grain of salt. For reasons that will become apparent, I have no choice but to over-react. Everyone I was with concluded that they "needed more information," and Q McCall has been investigating Garcia for a minute now, so his dispatches are probably more reliable.

I'm getting tired here, so the bare bones of what I saw: Lin played the better game, Garcia the better workout. Harvard blew out SU, Lin made play after play (often inconspiciously); Garcia seemed off, distracted, and unable to deal with decent opposing bigs. But at the end of the day, Lin—while bigger, stronger, and faster than I'd expected—is, in the words of Ty Keenan, "one of those unathletic guards who does everything relly well," while Garcia is like something I dreamt up while asleep at my desk. He's 6'10", 230, with massive biceps and length for days. While he bears a faint resemblance to a young Larry Johnson in the face, his game is tailor-made for FD. My cohorts are fond of comparing him to Tom Chambers for reasons I don't quite get, but I'd describe him as post-injury Amare, plus Odom's versatility, plus Rashard Lewis's range (and lack of strength inside). Garcia needs coaching and discipline, or at least a situation where he gives a fuck, but he's hardly Anthony Randolph raw. Don't count on him chewing up the paint and knocking over opposing PFs on defense, but as Haubs pointed out, Garcia he could be positively deadly as a 3/4 on a fluid, up-tempo team. Which, more and more, is the way of the Association. Or, more specifically,: If Kevin is right that last year's Orlando Magic was the ideal line-up for today's NBA, imagine a guy who could alternate between the Turkoglu and Lewis roles.

Odds and ends:

-Don't ask me about Arenas. Any reporting that takes Vecesey as its foundation is like building a house on top of raw sewage. Bullets Forever is going a great job of compiling the credible info coming out, and as of now, I still don't feel like I have a clear picture. Sorry for not being bloggy enough; I wrote some good stuff about Beasley, but regret how prematurely I jumped on that story.

-I know that the whole "if Jeezy's paying LeBron" line from "Empire State of Mind" was cleared up a long time ago. It's not tampering, it's about Jay's imaginary drug-dealing career. But you have to wonder, did this ever come to the Commissioner's office? And if so, did he get an explanation from a PR flak: "Don't worry, it's just a high-profile stake-holder in an NBA franchise pretending to be a drug trafficker." Either we've come a long way since the Thug Warz that surrounded AI's rap career, or Stern isn't as on top of things as we'd like to think. Maybe because these things just don't matter anymore.


Labels: , , , , , , ,


My Icing for a Cake


First, the podcast:

Dan sat down (enter the virtual sitting space?) with Kelly Dwyer, who needs no introduction. He also once penned (meta-finger carved?) this beyond-the-moon classic of an FD guest post. They discuss Kelly's hustle, his m.o., and naturally, the Bucks, the new official team of the podcast. Here is the most fair, honest, and useful assessment of Skiles as a coach you will ever get. Good stuff on what's missing from the Thunder this season.

Songs from the episode:

“I Like Everything About You” - Jimmy Hughes
“I Want to Take You Higher” - Sly and the Family Stone
“Eye Know” - De La Soul
“Heavy Makes You Happy” - The Staple Singers

-In other news, I have another Iverson column—longer than the last, making a case for him and the Knicks that a lot of people will hate.

-For discussion at a later date: Everyone reading knows of my single-minded devotion to the Hughes/Arenas back court of yore, or my belief that Mo/Delonte is a poor man's version of that. But what about this year's mounting trend of playing two "pure" PGs at once? Dallas, Milwaukee, Denver, Portland, Atlanta ... maybe David Kahn wasn't so crazy after all. I have no idea, are Sessions and Flynn sharing the court at all? Just wait till Rubio shows up!

Labels: , , , , , ,


Collapse in Reverse

Read the official FD Mock!

You don't need to warn me about the perils of drafting based on potential—what it seems like a player might be able to do one day. I have both been seduced by, and gotten endless mileage out of, this rotting cliche of NBA scouting. There's a distinction to be made, which I've done several times and don't feel like doing again, between "might be able to do" and "could be the kind of player who might be able to do." But while the latter is more immediately compelling, it's not like the former is more empirically sound, just not so utterly Romantic or suspended in a dream-like state not unlike religious conversion.

So it is with great trepidation that I seek to advance a serious scouting theory based on a hypothetical. However, since seeing that Brandon Jennings Euromix, I've been thinking about a line I've heard, and read, in several places: roughly, "there's just no one else in the draft who can do the things he can." The legend of Ricky Rubio aside, Jennings's slippery, high-speed trickery with the ball is an asset that just can't be ignored. Jennings is accused of showboating, streetball, next Marbury, and all the usual. But as a passer and facilitator, Jenning's game isn't bullshit, it's the kind of Nash/Paul skill that could pull together an entire offense in this PG-friendly (or -centric, you choose) era. And Jennings doesn't merely have great vision. When it comes to this one, rarefied aspect of the game, he can hang with anyone in the league.

If you don't believe me, ask Stephen Curry, speaking to Chris over at The Baseline:

CL: Tell me what you thought of Jennings. Everywhere he's going, he seems to be leaving a trail of fire, one way or another, like what he said about Rubio for example. Tell me what he was like as a player and what he was like as a person.

SC: As a player, he's very quick. You don't know exactly what he's going to do. He's got an unconventional style about him where you think he's going one way and he'll throw back between the legs and go another way. He's tough to guard because he keeps his dribble active and looks for open spots on the floor. He definitely is a solid point guard. I think his season in Italy really helped him develop going against physical guys.

CL: Did Jennings remind you of that you've seen?

SC: No, he plays different than anyone I've seen before.

CL: What makes him unique?

SC: His creativity with the ball. He's always moving. Even without the ball, he's just always active on the floor. When we were doing 3-on-3 drills he'd do the Steve Nash dribble from one side of the court, underneath the basket, to the other and do a turn around. He's a great passer, so you've got to stay in front of him

I know I shouldn't take the word of a player I'm not so high on. And as Henry noted, Jennings still has major holes. However, this is exactly the point I'm after here. Jennings isn't a gaseous cloud of could-be, nor a good young player whose past offers a template for future success. He's both more and less than each of these. In some ways, he's the best PG in the draft; in others, one of the shakiest, a project needing not only technical tutelage, but some basic help getting in tune with the pro game. The level of competition in Europe may be higher in the NCAA, and it helped Jennings grow up; at the same time, is there any question this kid's recent history leaves him with a lot to work through on the court?

But again, that brilliance with the ball, the total unpredictability and idiosyncracy Curry refers to. Yes, it could lead him to self-destruct. As of now, though, it's an enormous asset, at least one facet of what it takes to be a first-tier PG. I want to compare it to drafting Thabeet on the basis of his shot-blocking, and yet this isn't about a specialist. It's about a player with a gift, one that, if a team's ready to look past or committ to sanding down the rough edges, could be the basis of not just an All-Star, but a dynamic team. This is exactly why point guards can be the new franchise these days.

I like Evans, and he's ready right now. But he's not precocious, ahead of and behind himself, like Jennings. Rubio, who knows. At this point, it's impossible to separate his actual ability from the rhetoric (no, not "hype"), a lot of which is glib and contradictory. I don't blame him for not working out, but that's keeping us from getting the same measure of how he stacks up against other prospects. Please, discuss the Olympics below. However, regardles of what Rubio is or isn't, people seem either sold or not sold on him. Everyone agrees on Jennings. The question is whether you take a player on the assumption that from one great thing, other good things will inevitably follow.

Labels: , , ,


We Touch Your Ears (Podcast #55)


This was recorded Tuesday night, but its apocalyptic reachings are probably the sort of thing that benefit from being found in a clay pot several thousand years after the fact. Also, I've been a little busy with my new joint, The Baseline, which more than warrants your attention. At least this harried state of things prompted the following hilarious line from Dan: "'Blame it on the Baseline' sounds like an Eric B and Rakim record."

But now you have it before you, and it's a good one. We look for the future, ponder the interchangability of point guards and centers, say "ball-stopping" dozens of times without giggling, and discover the science of the Ewing Theory. We also manage to make the unflappable Tom Ziller misty by taking a trip deep into the collective Kings memory we all share.



"Hanging By a Thread"- The Forty-Fives
"Drizzle" - Burd Early
"Ride Tonight" - Z-Ro
"Terminator X" - Public Enemy
"Down South Blues" - by Old Crow Medicine Show

For other means of obtaining this program, try iTunes and the XML feed.

Labels: , , , , , ,


That Ghost Holds My Hand!


Let me attempt to explain to all of you exactly why the "Z-graphs" (link is to overview) were so seductive. On a number of intuitive, if largely metaphoric, levels, they made perfect sense: Both center and point guard, the position's most often discussed in terms of "purity," are represented as untroubled rows of attributes. They flow from logically from one to the next, even as they start toward more nebulous areas. But insofar as we believe these positions to have some sort of enduring essence, it makes sense that they'd maintain an untroubled, un-sloped plane of description. Furthermore, this allows either the PG or C section to serve as a base—or, to reify the thought, a foundation. This is consistent with our understanding of big men to this day, but the Stockton/Cousy point guard who excelled simply at a select set of responsibilities essential to any functional line-up, no longer defines the position (sorry, Steve Blake). For instance, Chris Paul, arguably the finest in the league at this position, was almost single-handedly responsible for the scrapping of the "Z," since his chart was almost as "impure" as that of, say, Allen Iverson. Paul basks in legitimacy, as did forebears Isiah, Kevin Johnson, and Payton. The likes of Magic and to some degree, Kidd, are pure in heart but can't help contributing all the over the place as well.

I never felt like Rose/Beasley was really a small man/big man dilemma. Beasley's a total weirdo and an idiosyncratic player, more SF than some SF's, more PF than many PF's, and quite possibly to "tweener" what Arenas was to "combo guard." Rose, on the other hand, was a pure point guard (relatively, historically, speaking). But with Ricky Rubio throwing his name into the hat for this summer's draft, we finally are presented with a real small/big dilemma. Blake Griffin is big, athletic, fairly skilled, and automatic; Rubio is mercurial, Pistol-like as a descriptive quality, and a natural-made trickster with an offense. Griffin—stable, staunch, and unromantic—is exactly the kind of foundation proposed by the visual metaphor of the "Z". The connotations will bury you, so don't spend too much time there: Anchoring the frontcourt, providing insurance through boards, dunks, and interior defense, you build a team around a known quantity that, for lack of a non-slang term, holds it down at both ends. Indisputably. Today's point guard, though, isn't drafted to provide a foundation (as the "Z" would suggest), but a non-stop spark. They're playmakers, here to furnish the unexpected without betraying our trust, following their muse as responsibly as possible while taking the team with them. They are, in short, anti-foundational, always reaching upward and looking for that new angle or opportunity. That involves running an offense and controlling the ball, but its stability is exactly that assurance of ambitious play-making that sweeps up the rest of the team with it.


For the most pure example of this impure point guard, you need look no further than Rajon Rondo, who has gone grievously underrated in this series exactly because he cares so little to project authority, gravitas, or emotion—those silly markers of "quarterbacking" that, ironically, have no place in Brett Favre-inspired mayhem.. I'm not placing Rondo in the same anarchic category as Westbrook, because he obviously fits into the Celtics (or rather, the team accommodates and respond to him). But instead of pin-point passing and orchestrated partings of the defense, Rondo just kind of speeds towards the basket or ball on every play, and then either ends up tossing in an off-balance lay-up, crookedly finding a teammate for the easy shot, or grabbing the rebound. Same goes for his defense: He'll lock down opponents, only to lunge after loose balls and errant passes not with a speedster's hubris, but because it's his job to make a play. He's fast, physical, and utterly undemonstrative. Rajon Rondo is the engine of that team, especially in this series, and yet he remains strangely elusive. You wonder if he's not just making every decision on the fly, in an off-hand manner that evokes nothing if not his childhood idol Favre. There's no need for poise, or bravura, because Rondo just blankets the court with his blinding speed and long arms. He's vague, even ectoplasmic, everywhere at once while only rarely making what feels like a statement play.

Does that make Rondo any kind of traditional "foundation"? Of course not. But if he keeps this up, then no lack of poise, or stability, can take away from the key role he plays on that team. Maybe Rondo is the ultimate postmodern PG. Not in the scoring vein of Isiah, or Magic/Kidd's augmented pure point-ness. Unlike Rose, Rondo is anything but immediate and tactile. If you blink you might miss him, because he does little to establish any continuity or sustained position of authority. Yet for all the fragments and impression he yields, for all his refusal to stand up and project authority, Rondo is doing exactly what a new, non-foundational PG should. He takes care of the ball, makes it move, creates shots for others, and consistently saves possessions when they appear lost. That he produces little that can pass for iconic or poised shows only that he's mastered the raw material of playmaking, and with it, a resistance to fall back on cliche or positional piety. Not a foundation, but a skyward gesture that sets parameters by remaining tethered to the team.


Labels: , , , , ,


FD Guest Lecture: Rising from the Whirl

Guest post today from Scout PT, whose ideas over email could not be denied.

Recently, I've been thinking about the job of a point guard—what he does and, more specifically, how he's measured. Basketball, as those who read FD know, is often opaque to numerical analysis. Baseball and football have discrete plays which provide clarity in the evaluation of individual actions. Strikeouts. Yards per attempt. OPS+. Basketball is a flow game and thus harder to measure. The player at the center of the flow—the point guard (and I include here for intellectual completeness point forwards, point centers, and point gauze-wrapping trainers...)—is perhaps the hardest to measure.

In the general discourse, PGs are measured first on assists - themselves, the most subjective of all major sports statistics, relying on the charity of a scorer to judge whether a player is credited for facilitating a direct move to the basket. Did or didn't, 8.3 per game or 5.1, no shades of gray, no description of quality, no description of whether the PG hit his forward in stride for a power lay-in or whether he chucked it up for the center to wrestle through four guys for an ugly bucket. Beyond assists, other measures of a PG's effectiveness include points and concepts like assist/turnover ratios—useful numbers, when considered in the proper context. Scoring 30 points a game is great, unless four dudes are watching the other player—sadly, often the best player on the team—go one-on-five every time down the court. The game is about the team and the rhythm. The extra pass. Moving off the ball. Getting everyone on the squad to move off the ball, and then to make the extra pass. That's what a PG should do. That, to me, is the magic, and point guards are the magicians.

How, then, does one measure magic? I've had a few discussions in which certain players are dismissed as "gunners", "ballhogs" or "just plain bad shooters". The determination is usually made by examining shooting percentages. Kidd and Cousy, two of the greatest court magicians, have horrible career shooting percentages, even adjusting for style-of-play in Cousy's era, and often receive criticism for such performance. Does that bad number mean they're bad shooters? Conscience-less gunners? I don't think so. Both guys had pretty good career foul-shooting percentages and, in the case of Kidd, decent 3-point shooting percentage. When they wanted to, each of them could turn it on and dominate. Outside, inside, whatever. Neither of these guys is Rajon Rondo.

One might consider styles when attempting to measure magic. On the other end of the shooting percentage spectrum are guys like Stockton and Nash (at least, in the glory years). Stockton, in particular, posted crazy numbers. Super crazy for a 6 foot 1 player. My gut tells me that the reason was that Stockton and the glory-years Nash were very disciplined shooters. They took shots they thought they could make and didn't take ones that they didn't, and didn't put themselves in positions where they'd end up with bad shots. That's how you shooting 57 percent from the field. But does that mean that Kidd and Cousy were undisciplined? Kidd, maybe, but Cousy? Aw, hell naw.

Here's what else my gut tells me. Cousy and Kidd have very similar styles. They're the kind of PGs that give the best shots to their teammates. Let's call them Superior PGs, in the I Ching sense of Superior. To illustrate, just think about the flow for a minute. If the ball ends up in the Superior PG's hand with 3 seconds left on the clock and he's stuck in a place he hates shooting from. Too bad but somebody still has to shoot the rock. Kidd and Cousy probably take that shot. Another guy might look to dish because he's in bad-spot hell, but I think guys like Cousy and Kidd take ownership for not executing in the first place and letting things get that bad and take the shot.

See, if the Superior PG dishes to his big for an easy lay-in after he drives and draws the big's man, that's doing his job right. But the shooting percentage win goes to his big. If the big's guy doesn't switch and the Superior PG is stuck under the basket looking at a wall of the wrong colored uniforms and thinking about which of a bunch of bad options is the least bad, all that happened because he's not doing his job right. The Superior PG might still take the shot from a bad spot because a) he didn't do something right in the first place and b) someone still needs to shoot the damned ball. And if he drives and things actually go well, and the choice is for the Superior PG to take a good shot or to dish to a guy 5 feet farther in who has a better shot, well, you know what he'll do.

I note as an aside here that there is an unresolved issue in my mind as to whether there is more ego - and less Superior-ness - in taking the shot from underneath that wall of wrong-colored uniforms or in pre-empting the whole issue and making a 15 footer rather than driving in an attempt to get a switch and a lay-in for your big. I also note that much of the PG's choice is dictated by the quality of said big.

But all things require balance, even being Superior. The greatest of all our magicians, Magic himself, had a .520 career FG%. Superior? Not Superior? First, you have to back out the Showtime fast breaks. Half-court Magic has a shooting number much closer to that of mortal men. Still, Magic was a pretty good shooter and, if you'll remember, Magic used to catch a lot of shit in the press about overpassing. He'd have an easy lay-in on the way and WHOA LOOKIT THAT the ball would end up in Rambis's hands.


To his credit, Magic always acted like he had the team's best interest at heart. I'm the assist man, he'd say, that's what I do. He was unselfish to the point of selfishness. It was only after he got it through his head that the game wasn't just about making gorgeous passes - whether for the benefit of teammates' scoring or his own prestidigitational glory - that he ended up scoring 24 a game and taking home MVP trophy #1. That, my friends, isn't ego. It's Superior.

So, we return to the central question. How do we measure magic? The answer is, you don't. You describe magic. Maybe someday soon, 82Games will figure out how to break every PG's game down into quanta. Then we can measure magic. Until then, we watch, we feel for the flow, we think, we debate about whether a Kidd or a Nash, a Stockton or a Cousy, a young Magic or an older Magic is truly Superior.

Labels: , , , , ,


Bearings on my T-Shirt

This wasn't going to be a DEATH OF THE BIG MAN post, but screw it. Welcome to the DEATH OF THE BIG MAN era. The AI-for-Billups trade seals the deal. What a fantastic occurrence. This deal is good for both sides, except Denver has way more to lose. All I hear on the message boards is how, yay, Carmelo finally "has a legit point guard" (taken from ESPN's featured comment), but I'm not sure Billups was ever a true (read: pass-first) point guard. He's had some good assists averages with the Pistons over the years, but ironically I think where he'll help most is giving the Nugs a legit outside shooting threat. Wait a second. Is Billups just a more battle-tested clutcher version of Andre Miller?

Who cares. The focus of everything is back on 'Melo, and I am looking forward to 'Melo leading the league in PPG. Plus, Billups' experience cannot be overrated here. He is the type of dude to get the Nuggets past the first round.

[Also, it's officially appropriate to use the nickname MCNUGGET again!!!! This trade is AWESOME.]

Of course the more significant aesthetic component of the trade is Iverson in Detroit, which is immediately giving me flashbacks to the first 15 seconds of this:

Iverson belongs in Detroit like Nick Saban belongs in Alabama. I think this is going to reignite Sheed and Rip's hunger, and have the exact same effect on the team as when Rasheed joined in the 03-04 season. Also, I love how implicitly the entire league seems to want to make AI happy. Give him C-Webb, trade him to a contender (Denver), ok, trade him to a REAL contender. If KG gets a ring, it's just dead wrong if AI doesn't get his.

And so it is, little guys rule the earth. The fall of Oden opening was no coincidence. It was a signifier...

I'm hopped up on some ill green tea right now so I'm having a hard time gathering my thoughts, but let me keep it on the topic of guard dominance would like to point everybody's attention to Russell Westbrook, who I had the pleasure of watching last night. If Westbrook isn't starting over Earl Watson by December, I'm putting a bounty out on PJ Carlessimo who has been killing this team with his starting lineups since last year (PUT KD AT PF, and make Jeff Green sixth man!!!). I'm not sure I'm sold on Westbrook being as good as Derrick Rose, and it's too early to put him on that CP3/Deron Williams level, but the kid is just sick at getting to the rim...

...and it appears "ability to get to the rim" is the new zeitgeist, replacing "ability to play with his back to the basket" as the new championship requirement. I heard some Paxson quote where he was talking about Beasley versus Rose and how in the end it wasn't even close because you "NEED" a guy who can penetrate and get to the cup. Obviously this is nothing new. The Spurs and Lakers champ teams of the early 21st century mastered the inside-outside game with Kobe/Manu/TonyParker/etc breaking down an entire team's defense with penetration, and Rajon Rondo played a critical role for the Celts last year simply in his ability to get in the paint. But of course a central component of the inside-outside game is INSIDE component--the Shaq or Tim Duncan who makes people pay down low. Might we be entering a new age of total little man domination?

Qualifier on DEATH OF THE BIG MAN: Shaq and Duncan and Yao and Amare will continue to tip scales. But I am finally willing to admit that the big man haslost primary relevance. Whereas the last five years set up an environment where guys like Jerome James and Loren Woods could make zillions just because they were seven feet tall, we are approaching an age where Anthony Carter and Jamaal Tinsley might soon be making those millions instead.

Last thing, I would like to remind all of you to VOTE.

This is another thought for another day, but I've spent many a long night wondering whether an Obama presidency would be good or bad for professional basketball. Sure, it would make those NBA Champions visits to the White House less awkward and the sport itself may gain a little more public exposure in the form of errant paparazzi snaps of the president shooting hoops instead of riding on a segway. Maybe it will revive the Michael Jordan analogy. But maybe this Obama as end-of-racism utopia that morons like Dinesh D'Souza, bright guys like Paul Krugman and many others have pushed could adversely affect The Association, to the extent that the NBA is a racialized sphere (which let's face it, it is...). In this reconfiguration of things, Obama stands as some sort of odd contrast to the NBA, not to mention that I think his campaign has expended a lot of white people's "racial" energy. Anyway, I should probably continue this when I've settled down and am not free associating. Perhaps tomorrow. I can't wait for this election to be over.

oh, and on a concluding Note: Click here if you want to see THE RETURN OF STYLE.

Labels: , , ,


The Difference Between Cults and Cliques

There's already a little grumbling about Kidd's inclusion on Team USA, that he'll crowd out what should rightfully be the Chris Paul/Deron Williams show, that there's nothing he can do that those two can't do better, and that we should hurry up and get the torch-passing over with (as if it hasn't been passed already). I completely understand the desire to see Paul and Williams take center stage, but feel compelled to say that Jason Kidd is the absolute perfect fit for this incarnation of Team USA.

This might seem like an unusual stance to take given that I typically am fully in favor of embracing the future and burning the past, and there's no question that Kidd has been fully eclipsed at this point by those two. Paul and Deron don't have any dues left to pay or any lessons to learn by sitting behind Kidd. Similarly, this isn't about Kidd's years of service, the wisdom gained from them, or the locker room hierarchy that will supposedly help him manage the egos. Deference to our elders means little to me and I have no use for symbolic positions meant to honor past glories. Kidd was pretty underwhelming this year both during his disappointing Mavs reunion and certainly while sleepwalking with the Nets. I fully acknowledge that Paul can run circles around him at this point and that Deron actually has a jumpshot. But none of that changes the fact that the U.S.'s demolition of last summer's FIBA Americas Championship was a thrilling display of basketball, largely because of Kidd's role. Carmelo put up the stats, LeBron got the highlights, and Kobe basked in the defensive glory, but it was the aging Kidd who set the tone for the entire run in a way that Paul or Deron couldn't replicate.

As ecstatic as I get over the Paul-to-Chandler oop, it's almost entirely about Chris Paul's wizardry. Kidd's passes, on the other hand, are complete deferrals to the power and majesty of his finishers, which is exactly what this crowd needs. When Paul's at his finest, the players around him almost feel like props that are out there for his pleasure. LeBron James and Dwight Howard are anything but props. With those two, in addition to Kobe and Melo, this year should still be primarily about them and the terror they can inflict. They shouldn't be out there headless though, which makes the deteriorated Kidd the perfect compromise to set them up without taking any of their spotlight; to put the ball in the perfect place every time, while still allowing the finishers to lead.

If you didn't see or don't remember Kidd's FIBA performance, it was absolutely flawless, and something I can't wait to see recreated on an even bigger stage. The statline he ended up with doesn't appear striking (1.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, and 4.6 apg in 15.9 mpg), but his two most important numbers were the just 10 shot attempts and 5 turnovers over the course of the 10 games. That second stat is especially staggering when one thinks back to the ridiculous array of passes he attempted. In particular, two of his botched passes stick out to me more than all of his successes: at one point he attempted a full-court bounce pass that weaved between three defenders, barely beating his streaking target to the spot. Even more impressive was the highlight of the entire tournament: the failed off-balance, off-the-backboard alley oop to LeBron from the 3-point line. Had LeBron connected (and he arguably should have), it would have gone down as the greatest pass I've ever seen.

Despite all the absurd pass attempts, he still ended up with a tournament-leading 9.2 ast/to ratio. That number is off the charts in a regular season, but in an intensified series of All-Star games, it just doesn't seem rational. But when you have LeBron and Dwight on the other end of your lobs and they're actually trying, you can usually get away with things you couldn't imagine anywhere else. Chris and Deron are definitely going to have their share of inspired plays, both by themselves and using their teammates, but with those two their highlights are manifestly of their creation, with their stamp always firmly affixed. In the NBA, this makes their play hugely preferable to Kidd's diminished game. Surrounded by other future HOFers though, I'll take Kidd's seemingly-less-authored genius every time.

At least as important as his awe-inspiring lobs was Kidd's unique approach to moving the ball that summer. He came into the tournament absolutely determined to never dribble the basketball, opting instead for full-court outlet passes after both makes and misses. He may have dribbled the ball 6 or 7 times over the entire week and a half, never holding the ball for more than a second or two. The "hot potato" style completely took over, as though the entire team collectively decided, "fuck dribbling," which translated to incredibly gorgeous basketball. Somehow a team starring Carmelo, Kobe, and LeBron managed to use hardly any isos at all, save for an occasional reassertion of Kobe's alpha status. On a team loaded with scorers, a point guard that needs to dominate the ball has the potential to disrupt the awesome flow that this group established last summer. With Kidd at the reigns, I feel confident we'll be treated once again to the steady stream of flawless touch passes we saw last August.

Chris Paul and Deron Williams are absolute virtuosos on the court. They'll be spectacular both this summer off the bench and as they lead us to the next 3 or 4 gold medals. But for this year, it's still all about Kidd setting the table without ever claiming the foreground. Not as a nostalgic tribute to what's come before, but because his current style is what will make for the most exciting and dominating basketball right now.

Labels: , , , ,