The Ziller Sessions: Edition 8

Firstly, please, look below for details on our Chicago and Seattle launch events.

I spend a lot of the day chatting with Tom Ziller about basketball. Sometimes, once of our conversations is so eventful, I decide to take it's basic structure, write a bunch of big words around it, and pretend I thought of the whole thing. This is one such post. Hence the title, and the occasional quotes from TZ.

Last night, when I decided to stop watching Facts of Life and go to bed, my thoughts immediately turned to yesterday's description of O.J. Mayo. I stand by the Joe Johnson comparison, but looking back at it, there's something a little too generic, or porous to what I wrote. It could describe anyone who "plays within the flow of the game but will step up." That could, to some degree, describe not only Mayo and Johnson, but also Kobe, Durant, and LeBron James. It's especially the addition of Bron to this list that rubs me the wrong way; the first four make it imprecise, he makes the characterization empty.

Searching for hope and direction, I was saved when my girl handed me last week's New Yorker, which had a long article on psychopaths/sociopaths (apparently one is either the PC term, or the one that makes the most clinical sense). It was then that, in reference to the above question of on-court assertiveness, I started kicking around that old cliche "killer instinct." This is, of course, a good thing. Unless you're reading an article about sociopaths, and then, the relationship between a man and his killer instinct starts to take on a more ambivalent connotation—especially if you think of "the flow of the game" and "team" as some version of polite society, and see Kobe as 1) epitome of killer instinct; 2) someone for whom it's not always a positive on the court; and 3) a person once suspected of being a low-grade sociopath.

I think the best description for what I see some of in Mayo, and defines Joe Johnson, is an especially powerful strain of cool. That takes it a step beyond "respecting the flow of the game," since there isn't that tension between their killer instinct and the flow of the game. Their insides are, for lack of a better word, flow, which is why there's no a clear disturbance when they assert themselves. Johnson doesn't struggle against circumstance, look to dominate, or even—to throw another cliche out there—"wait for the game to come to him." He's not envisioning opportunity in advance, or laying back one step, all predatory and reactive; he's right there with it, seeming just to know. There's a confidence to him, but you'd hesitate to even call it "steady." And when Johnson explodes for 20 in a quarter, it's about as naturalistic as these things get. Mayo's not quite there yet, but as Ty Keenan put it, "even when he seems to be forcing it he acts like he's supposed to."

Durant, possess no such mystical qualities. Barkley, I think, compared KD to Gervin, in terms of piling up points without anyone noticing. And it's true: Unless Durant hits five threes in a row and follows it with an especially acrobatic drive (which, with his length, he rarely resorts to), his style is impressionistic. Not understated—a 6'9" jumble of arms and legs that rises up for threes like he's floating is still an extraordinary sight. But between the lack of emphasis in his game, his build, and those limbs just seem to trail off into the rafters on every play, Durant can get pretty ethereal at times.

You can tell he's embraced this, perhaps because it suits his outward mildness, maybe since he knows he's not an intimidator. But we've all seen glimmers of unspeakable intensity from Durant, and some of his epic scoring bursts shatter all this, mistaken by some as complacency. Ziller: "Durant's eyes are always kind of frantic, like he wants to scream but bottles it up." There's a killer instinct there for sure, perhaps—remember the Jordan comparisons—one that borders on unnerving. That he gets the best of both worlds, instead of being torn about by the tension or overcome by his passion, is one of the greatest signs of his maturity. That doesn't mean, though, that he's always easy to watch, or ever feels entirely stable. More Ziller: "He makes the league uncomfortable."

In a way, Durant's closer to Kobe than he is Joe Johnson. It's not really worth going over Bryant's struggles with ego, and the ways in which his various instincts have been both incredibly productive and seriously destructive. When we talk about the mature Bryant, it's of a player who keeps himself under wraps until called upon. Certainly, he's internalized this good behavior, and Kobe does have the pure ability to play well with others without completely reforming. But that Kobe is always there, just beneath the surface, by design. Durant's at his best amidst the interplay of extremes. Kobe's an either/or headcase just waiting to steal the keys.

The missing element in all this is LeBron. This exchange says it all:

TZ: LeBron doesn't actually care. Like there isn't tension. Because he doesn't care if he's 2-for-14 or if he's scoring 55. Not that he's detached, but, well, he sort of is.
BS: I also don't think LeBron feels disappointment. He's above it all.
TZ: Exactly
TZ: That's because he can never let his team down.
BS: You mean, no matter what he does, he can't let them down?
TZ: He could have his worst night ever and his team is better off in the immediate with him on the court. His worst is better than any teammate's best. That's not quantitatively correct. But spiritually, that's the case I think
BS: I think it's true. Like, when does LeBron actually hurt that team?
TZ: Never! Even Team USA, in 2004 and 2006. I don't remember him hurting the team ever.

Let me ask again: Who among us is really human? And when exactly did we decide that mattered so?

(diagram by Ziller)

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At 11/12/2008 11:34 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The Venn diagram is definitely a unique approach to analyze the human element of Lebron James. Just for that, I am going to add your site to my home page. Hope you can check me out as well.

At 11/12/2008 11:48 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

LeBron is supposed to be floating above the whole thing. But I guess you could also read "LeBron James" as a title, which would make it totality of his being. That works, too.

At 11/12/2008 11:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Of course you are referring to "Bo" Outlaw, correct?

At 11/12/2008 11:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think it's Cayman. It's pretty there.

At 11/13/2008 12:17 AM, Blogger Lavator Shemmelpennick said...

First time commenter long time reader, pulled out of the shadows to congratulate you on an unbelievable book. Got my pre-order from Amazon today and I can only echo what has already been written here all month -- simply blown away.

"His worst is better than any teammate's best" -- I don't disagree but it is certainly fascinating to speculate on what the conditions would be that would bring Bron back to earth and integrate him into the way we conceive of other player's instincts, into the diagram. Perhaps a truly dominant big man who could call him out without it being laughable? Myth of the next Shaq/Kobe...

Lastly -- does Ziller have any plans to compile his diagrams in one place? They're not quite as polished as Big Baby's masterpieces, but they are genius in their way.

At 11/13/2008 12:21 AM, Blogger Tony Hernandez said...

Speaking of Kobe, have you noticed his reaction when he gets hit with a pass for a wide open shot from 15 feet and beyond? It's similar to what happens when you put a laser pointer in front of your dog. It's like Kobe completely malfunctions. He'll look -sometimes at the basket but usually his eyes begin to dart frantically- hesitate, pump fake, wait for a defender to guard him....anything but take the easy shot. Despite the silver spoon upbringing and spoiled demeanor, it's like he doesn't know what to do when things are too easy. Just something I noticed which adds to the dichotomy of Kobe.

At 11/13/2008 12:28 AM, Blogger Brendan said...

You might have caught this Klosterman interview from September.


Re Mayo: "Mayo is more complex. He’ll either be awesome or useless. There is something strange about his attitude; he seems detached in a way I cannot define. He might end up being a version of Vernon Maxwell who passes well, or a [redacted] sociopath."

At 11/13/2008 1:00 AM, Blogger JohnCraig said...

Where does Dwyane fit into the diagram?

This site is amazing. Can't wait to get the book.

At 11/13/2008 1:09 AM, Blogger Trey said...

I spent at least 2 minutes wondering why JJ Redick was included on a FD diagram, even convincing myself that his game is primarily "flow." Then I realized it was Joe Johnson.

I think it was Kaman that threw me off.

At 11/13/2008 1:44 AM, Blogger djc said...

chris paul would split this diagram's trap, no?

fantastic collabo with ziller, shoals. those lost conversations should be released someday as b-sides, or when FD book (1.0!) goes paperback ...

At 11/13/2008 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught Joe Johnson in person last night. I recall when he was drafted by the C's. I never dreamed he would become so icey. At crunch time he did not force the issue, smoothly setting up Marvin Williams for the three (who knew this guy had this shot?).

Hawks are for real (even Flip Murray!). They were on the second night of a back to back (Bulls minus Hinrich still counts), down a top player (Josh Smith) and in hostile territory (too many posers last night though) and they played well.

I hte comparisons (sometimes), but since it is going around, Hawks are hoops answer to the D Rays.

As a Celtics fan this Atlanta team scare the hell out of me. I also hate hollow predictions. Hawks win the division.

At 11/13/2008 7:48 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

LeBron is my rainbow!

You write: "Their insides are, for lack of a better word, flow, which is why there's no a clear disturbance when they assert themselves."

The relationship between players and "flow of the game" is one of the most fascinating things to me. The prime example of active players is still Iverson to me (inactive player: Jordan, obviously), with guys like J.J. or Mayo having the opposite effect while putting up similar stats.

Iverson's style of play doesn't particularly move me, but it is exactly what you touch in the first half of your post, how he impacts or disturbs the flow of the game.

I guess one could describe it in musical terms, talking about rhythm and so on. But I imagine the court like a grid, with Iverson being a very heavy ball rolling on top of it, making a huge dent and bending the plain around him. This gravitas surely isn't just physical dominance, since Nash two years ago had a similar effect on the flow of the game. Nor is it solely dependend on the amount of time a player has the ball in its hands, since Amare distorts the playing field even when he is still waiting to attack on the weak side.

I think some players, like Johnson or Marion, can play huge roles but barely disturb the flow of the game, while there are "lesser" players who just leave a huge dent, like Mutombo in the 2001 All Star Game, or Turiaf in certain games for LA last season.

At 11/13/2008 10:42 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Put Deron in that little section to the right of Kobe.

Plus, is there a different diagram for internationals?

At 11/13/2008 11:28 AM, Blogger americanmidwestsamurai said...

I would love to see some set (allbeit, loose and subjective) definitions to these terms.

I think some of the distinctions between these terms can get pretty nebulous.

At 11/13/2008 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh, I just got the call that my FD book is available at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The guy on the phone actually complimented the book -- seriously.. he said, "By the way, this book looks incredible. I took a look at it and we have some basketball people here... they're already ordering some for themselves."

I'm gonna go pick it up tonight, and I absolutely can't wait. Sounds like you guys have a hit on your hands if random basketball fans take one look at it and decide they want one.

At 11/13/2008 1:54 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Lebron's flow is completely disrupted when he shoots free throws. It is probably a part of the game that he wishes would go away, as it interrupts the continuity of the game. When he has to stop and reflect on what he is doing, he must lose focus and begin to think "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"

At 11/13/2008 2:46 PM, Blogger piboer said...

WHERE is that drawing from? The photo is awesome too. Credits, please! For our sake and the artist's!

At 11/13/2008 2:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Picked up my copy of the book last night in downtown DC. You guys will probably be happy to learn that it was prominently displayed in the middle row of the basketball bookshelf--no bottom shelf dwellers!

I played pickup basketball last night and brought the book to the gym. There were some serious hoops nerds there that had never heard of the blog, but after seeing the blog I think they were converted.

Awesome job, guys.

At 11/13/2008 3:24 PM, Blogger curryrice said...

I've been reading your site since the beginning but I just had to finally post after looking at your book. Awesome.
Btw, I'm curious who in your collective wrote the "I'm near Smokehouse in Berkeley" line from the JR Rider page? I literally laughed out loud(aka "lol").

At 11/13/2008 3:26 PM, Blogger Evan said...

Re: psychopath/sociopath. I read the article, and if I remember correctly, the first person to diagnose the conditions used "psychopath," but people that followed him used "sociopath" because this was during a time when psychologists were looking to explain a person through their connections with society, and the term "psychopath" implies that the condition is purely internal and biological. It seems the researchers now have gone back to "psychopath" by looking at brain waves, etc.

As you were.

At 11/13/2008 4:14 PM, Blogger GA Hill said...

Just got the book at work today...while I haven't had a chance to really read it or anything, it looks absolutely incredible.

Big ups--well done!

At 11/13/2008 4:23 PM, Blogger ugly baller said...

More on LeBron's transcendence...

Not only is LeBron's transcendence such that his worst is better than any of his teammates' best (again, symbolically, not quantitatively), but his providential landfall in Cleveland, the "cursed" sports city, inflates the mythos; not only is his team graced by his mere presence, but Cleveland in general is blessed by his presence as well.

It's no accident that he's referred to casually in the media as "The Chosen One" -- his career in Cleveland thus far has explicitly messianic overtones, with a New Testament narrative. Arising from humble origins in Akron, yet hailed as the lord and savior from his birth on AAU courts, his earthly toil in Cleveland, aided (but not significantly) by 12 apostles/teammates, is only the opening act as we await his transcendence to a higher realm, a larger market team, where he can rule from upon high, forever and ever amen.

So although his narrative is straight out of the New Testament, he's still got a bit of that Old Testament-style person as a fickle and inscrutable almighty. If he is as all-powerful as the media myth we've created suggests, then he should be able to will the Cavs to win every game, to bring them a championship. (So why doesn't he? Well, Bron works in mysterious ways. Cue for all of Ohio the kind of penitent hand-wringing and self-flagellation that has driven Jews and Catholics alike completely batshit crazy for the last several thousand years.)

The attitude towards LeBron is a sort of "We hold LeBron's greatness to be self-evident" -- not because he's a false idol, or that he's anything less than a transcendent player in reality, a true god on the hardwood, because he is, but because his greatness is supra-literary, doesn't need to be described and can simply be seen on YouTube, or in a box score. A side effect to this myth of LeBron's omnipotence in the discourse: his legacy has little, if anything, to do with his accomplishments as we traditionally define them -- his W's and L's. It's commonly accepted that Kobe needs to win a fourth (to get one without Shaq) or even fifth ring (to get more than Shaq and Duncan) to secure his place in the basketball pantheon. And yet, LeBron could realistically retire without a single chip and still be in the discussion for GOAT. There's something incredibly FD in that... but at the same time, something incredibly obnoxious.

-the commenter formerly known as Steve S.

At 11/13/2008 5:59 PM, Blogger JohnCraig said...

I believe a contributing factor to the Lebron "worst is better" theory is the constant, and matter-of-factly discussion of Lebron eventually--and inevitably--playing for the Knicks or the New Jay-Z Nets. The city of Cleveland must have the outlook that they're just happy he's a Cav...whether he's 7-29 or dropping 40+.

And I still want to see DWade in the Venn.

At 11/14/2008 12:16 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I too have to admit to having spent a bit too much time thinking about this venn diagram.
Missing players:
wade, paul, garnett, vince (strangely) and dwight howard.

Superman is all the way flow;

Chris Paul is with Kobe, but edging toward the durant intersection. He did after all, punch Julius Hodges in the cookies during an ACC tournament game.

Vince, I think belongs outside too, but in an unpleasant sort of way. Freakish, certainly believes that everyone is better for him, unworldly at times (in the old days), not the king OR the devil.

VC is a fallen angel, outside the world, but passing/corrupted by it.

At 11/14/2008 1:05 AM, Blogger Asher said...

Granger in kill?

At 11/14/2008 2:28 AM, Blogger Evan W said...

I still feel slightly dissatisfied with where O.J. rests on this proverbial wall of mounted safari animal heads. It's like seeing a crocodile, an alligator, then a snake in order on the mantle (if that makes sense?). All reptiles, yes, but Mayo is removed from Johnson, Durant and the rest.

After seeing Mayo live at 'SC, I grew the slightest bit fascinated with his seemingly tragic character. Here's a true freshman that immediately took over the reigns of a major-conference squad--some would say playing out of position, mind you--doing any and everything asked of him for the sake of the team. Become the set-up guy for Gibson, play strong perimeter D and gamble for steals, dictate the tempo of the offense. And, oh yeah, forget all that when there's 5 minutes left in the second half and become a scoring machine. Add all the off-court history to his on-court persona: preordained as the #1 pick in the 7th grade, the next LeBron before LeBron was LeBron, the yearly change in high schools, a 29 on the ACT (which puts him in the top 5 percentile, meaning the dude has some kind of intellect). So he's smart, mature, ready for any next step due to his previous life experiences. Detractors of auteur theory warn us to be wary of synthesizing personal life with artistic achievement, but fuck it; this guy, by all accounts, is a calm, collected, compelling basketball player.

But that's the problem. Mayo's "calm," his "naturalistic, even when forcing the issue," is anything but natural. When I check Mayo's box score and see his 6-17 shooting that yields 21 points/3 assists/2 TOs, the haunting image of #32 repeatedly launching a deliberate 19 ft. crossover-to-contested-jumper replays in my head. Over. And over. Sure, it's an accomplishment for a rookie to average 20 ppg, and yes he carries himself with poise beyond his years. Maybe after a few seasons in the league he'll stumble upon the secret tomb and chant the mantra that turned Joe Johnson into the player he is today. But as of now, Mayo is more reminiscent of Jamal Crawford or Flip Murray--exciting guards who love their jump shot and always seem to drop big numbers in losing efforts (excluding the two aforementioned players' victorious start this year).

Mayo is akin to the Greek Sirens. He is deceptive, tempting and shockingly unsatisfactory.

Wow. Harsh.

At 11/14/2008 3:29 AM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

Eli, I felt the same way about Mayo at USC, but he's different now that he's in the NBA. If you didn't know who he was, you'd swear he's a veteran. What once looked like NBA dress-up is now the real thing.

At 11/14/2008 4:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caught this late, but I love it.

At 11/14/2008 11:19 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

the vernon maxwell comment got me thinking...this diagram needs a 1994 version. I would love to know where he and John Starks would end up...my guess would be deliberate and kill.

In fact, all FD theories need a historical perspective...kind of like how we can apply postmod. to Joyce...

love the Kaman addition. it cements the purpose of everything.

At 11/16/2008 3:34 PM, Blogger Ritchie said...

I think uncomfortable is a great word to use when describing Durant. But mostly I am here to say fantastic job on the book. I picked it up yesterday at Powell's and it's outstanding. Also, I had no idea Dr. LIC is a psychologist and was blown away to find Ekman's work brought out in Odom's chapter and a prospect theory graph (was that Arenas' chapter? I already can't remember, my brain doesn't work on Sunday mornings).

At 11/18/2008 5:39 PM, Blogger Tony Christopher said...

What's up with Anthony Randolph being upside down in flow? It's funny but I don't all they way get it.

At 4/13/2009 1:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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