Slip Not on My Tears as You Dance

First order of business: if you have not yet done so, please listen to this week's installment of FreeDarko Presents the Disciples of Clyde NBA Podcast. Shoefly was in the house as a guest on the show. Also, don't forget some of his excellent recent updates at Boxiana.

Second order of business: what follows is a reflection upon a changing of the NBA guard. Make note that it was wholly conceived independent of Shoals, who has made reference to and advanced a similar theory. He can, and surely will, better explain his take on it at a later date. Among other things, he's smarter than I am. But please know that this post reflects no collaboration or previous discussion.

Third order of business: you may know me from Straight Bangin', and as a sometime FreeDarko guest lecturer. Well, I have an account over here, now, and will be doing some writing. I hope that preempts any confusion. Onward...

This postseason, there is much to celebrate, what with the revelations that Denver is not Denver this year, Dallas is a new version of the old Dallas, and Kobe vs. LeBron is seemingly swelling toward a crest. Plus, we’ve received the usual glimpses of exciting youth, this year provided by Philadelphia (again), Chicago, and Portland (sort of). We also have the tabula rasa of Houston’s impending participation in a second round: it is either a fairy tale about Yao’s quiet fortitude and the harnessing of new, quirky powers (who knew Aaron Brooks would be this way?), or it is the latest cause for lamentation as we continue to chronicle the heartbreak that is Tracy McGrady. We might even add that these playoffs, so far, stand as a refutation to the tired criticism that the NBA is solely a league of isolation and one over five. To the contrary, while stars continue to shine bright, it is readily apparent that it takes a real team to win. Were it otherwise, Orlando wouldn’t be mired in panic, and New Orleans wouldn’t be an afterthought. (Maybe this makes Dwyane Wade even more impressive.)

That’s all good, however, it’s not most pressing in my mind. This is almost surely a function of my rooting interests, but these playoffs, through two weekends, have taken on an elegiac tone that cannot be escaped. I am enticed by the good, of course, but I’ve found myself dwelling on the bad. Or, really, the sad.

(props to nahright)

2009 marks the end of an era in the NBA. Some would argue “error” (zing!), but nonetheless, caring about the Pistons and Spurs was a rite of spring that is suddenly useless. The Spurs will soon be over, either now or in the next round, most likely. The Pistons are surely over. Their twin demises are not shocking, but now that they’ve arrived, the reality is somewhat jarring. I’d fallen into the habit of caring about these teams, of considering these teams, of closely watching these teams. That’s no longer necessary, and that’s weird. The Spurs and Pistons have served as barometers for the league this decade. We’ve calibrated our beliefs about worth and value using those heretofore enduring measuring posts. You don’t just switch off the gold standard to something else and not notice. You know?

But it’s bigger than those two teams, even. Kevin Garnett, who long suffered from knee problems that are degenerative and won’t just get better with surgery and rest, is not a part of the playoffs. It’s a sad portend of his coming decline, as his departure from our regular consideration will draw to a close a period of NBA history when a league of brand names grown in college started regularly running into the newjacks who short circuited the process. Beyond the obvious lessons taken from that merger of those disjointed cultural norms, Garnett had special meaning, because he was almost a template for a new kind of fan relationship with players. Without college incubation, Garnett’s growth as a person and a player was harder to discern, and to predict. But his youth, which served as his defining characteristic having never gone to college, also invited fans to care about him in a different sort of way. At least, that’s how I felt. I so desperately hoped for his success because I thought he needed it. He was just a kid. Actually, he was Da Kid, which seems even more apt when Garnett is cast in this light.

But it’s bigger than KG, too. Allen Iverson effectively played his way out of NBA relevance this year, and the consensus appears to be that he won’t be coming back. Iverson, too, was a certain sort of paradigm who marked the shift in the NBA. The interregnum between Magic-Larry-Michael and LeBron-Wade-Paul-Howard may not have clean dividing lines, and its leading historical stars may be Shaq, Tim Duncan, and Kobe, but Iverson, more than anyone else, was clearly of that time. He arguably was that time, his body, itself, standing as a testament to a change in the Association. He’s now gone, an absence made even more conspicuous because his team has chosen to play without him.

To all of these reasons for mournful reflection, we might add a contemporary sadness: Dwight Howard. Blaming him for Orlando’s feebleness, and almost palpable panic, may not be fair. He was terrible in Game Two, but he’s otherwise played well. And yet, it seems impossible to not be angry at him, and disappointed in him. Some of it may be our fault. Since August, we’ve deified him, almost willing the manifestation of his potential. And he obliged in every way--he was stellar on the floor, he grew as a player, and he seems to have no limits as a personality. That may have simultaneously neglected his shortcomings and set unrealistic expectations. Let’s be straight up: for all of his muscular excitement, Dwight has few moves and no jumper. He hit two big free throws in crunch time last night, but he’s far from reliable at the stripe. With a smaller man pinned at the basket, the Defensive Player of the Year couldn’t find a way to prevent the game-winning layup. And on a team that was so clearly jittery in the clutch, he did little to mollify nerves. Reading that back makes me depressed. That’s the problem. He’s not where I want him to be yet.

Kind of like these playoffs. For as much good as we’ve seen, there’s been an equal amount of bad. At least, for me, there has been. It’s an odd duality well captured by the Celtics, in fact. As sad as it is to watch Kevin Garnett reduced to the world’s most profane, best-dressed cheerleader, Rajon Rondo’s playoff performance has been a sensational counter, offering the sort of boundary-challenging performance we like to celebrate and mythologize. Of course, it likely comes from necessity precisely because Kevin is hurt. I don’t think one necessarily trumps the other, but this year, the bad seems to be a consequence of the good in a way that’s more pronounced than usual.

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At 4/25/2009 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solid post Joey. I did just have aseizure do to the graphic near the top of your post.

Regarding the Magic. Dwight is good but the dude doesn't set the tempo. He plays in the post and is one of the few stars in the league who is a true positional player. He is a center through and through. And because of this he needs help to win. Esp from the point position. Rafer Alston, I would argue is as responsible for the Rockets and now the Magic's inability to get over as anyone. While I like to pile on T Mac, Alston is a playoff disaster.

Regarding the Celts. Are they a more interesting team/likeable team without KG? As a diehard I can't tell, but I think this is true. I can't imagine not being taken in by Rondo's game. Help with this please.

At 4/25/2009 7:03 PM, Blogger Louie Bones said...

That was straight bangin'. Thank you Joey.

WV: Frerp - A.I.'s weed carrier.

At 4/25/2009 7:03 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Dub Deuce--first, church on the Magic commentary. Completely agree about the positional limitations that Howard encounters because he's a pure center. And I was thinking but forgot to write that really, it mitigates some of the criticism. Good points. Also, good point about the PG situation. They really need someone who can keep a level head, and who can initiate. They don't really have that.

As for the Celtics, they are, oddly, more interesting without KG. But that owes his absence removing the air of inevitability. If he's healthy, it's just a matter of Cleveland or Boston, and in how many games. (I would have chosen Boston.) But without him, the Celtics are more vulnerable, so more interesting.

More likable? Not for a New Yorker. I am intrigued by Rondo and I like his game. But I still root against them mercilessly. It's easier to feel that way without KG.

At 4/25/2009 7:05 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Joey is selling himself way short. This is an idea I've kicked around behind the scenes, in emails, and alluded to a few times in posts (I think). He's actually fleshing it out, showing how these playoffs extend the concept, and applying it to people I hadn't realized it worked with.

At 4/25/2009 8:07 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

Yeah, I think Howard is looking worse because Philly makes him look worse. Philly's length, speed, and levels of muscle/sinew as a team can partially neutralize Superman. They have enough athleticism that taking it to the paint isn't totally futile. On the other end, they range all over the place and take away Howard's supply.

And Alston can't match up with anyone on the Philly team.

The most interesting part of that series to me has been watching the direct confrontations between Hedo and Iguodala. It's like Hedo has exhausted all the craftiness he has; he keeps coming up with countermoves that should work but don't, and it's taxing his brain. He looks like he's playing with a headache.

Lastly, let's all hope Okur isn't a shell of himself tonight.

At 4/25/2009 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First: Love the article, and Free Darko did itself some good, because it means at least one more person will be checkin' up on you guys now that you have Joey as a special guest writer.

Secondly: Regarding Dwight Howard, I agree with both Joey and W2 in that "Superman II" is a true center in play, and that as such, requires some additional assistance...BUT, do any of you guys remember two or three years ago when Howard was publicly debating with Van Gundy about being a small forward, or one of these combo forwards like Nowitzki and Rashard Lewis (who's really a 2-guard)?? I think Howard owes a portion of his failures to his own failure in identifying what a player with his ability and position needs as defaults counter moves. Joey wrote how "Clark Kent" just dunks and that's it, really, and nothing else really shows up offensively; but when you consider that the dude was seriously wanting to start shooting long-range as a primary weapon of his game, it's understandable why he's not so effective, and it's because he may not really feel like doing what could be looked as mundane, boring work in the post. Rather, he'd gladly go and work on jumpstop dunks and mini-hooks, because that's what really might be enough to hold his attention as a big man.

One thing about Shaq is that he said that he was willing to do the dirty work as a big man (because he knew his advantages against the opposition) BUT that he was a point guard in his heart. Now did that stop him from being one of the most physically imposing and offensively dominant players of all time? As Chris Rock would emphatically say, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!", but I suspect that "Clark" allows the fact that he IS, in fact, a center keep him from excelling at the position he plays. Just watch Clark enough, and sometimes he literally looks like he'd rather be doing something else. I think the world of Dwight, by the way, from all the way when he said before he got drafted that he'd like to see a Christian cross with the NBA logo (shrugs shoulders) to him becoming a hero sort of role model in the couple of years or so; he could end up being a star version of Derrick Coleman or Rasheed Wallace, where both players could've been much more had they tried more--with this comparison, I think Dwight is doing a lot and eagerly wanting to be better, but not in all the ways that are conducive to making him the sort of talent that he could be.

Just a thought.

Sandy Dover

At 4/26/2009 12:11 PM, Blogger EL MIZ said...

wow Joey, getting called up to the Show. will SB be relegated to posts dealing solely with hip-hop, ohio state loathing, and law school updates?

At 4/26/2009 12:17 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"Getting called up"? Joey's always had an open invitation to write for FD whenever he wants. His site helped inspire FD in the first place.

At 4/26/2009 3:24 PM, Blogger nolan said...

Could Rajon Rondo average a triple-double as some sort of crazy hybrid PG/SF? The guy manages to bang in the paint and get way more rebounds than a 6'1", 170 lb. guy should.

At 4/26/2009 3:42 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I've been saying it for a while now: Rondo is Garnett's rightful heir.

At 4/26/2009 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad the bulls won, but nice comment towards the end by Jackson calling Rose out for not getting the ball away from Gordon. Gordon is clutch, he just doesn't always know when the clutch moment is.
impressed by john salmons. let deng stay in britain.

At 4/26/2009 6:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

How does Glenn Davis always have literally nobody in his face on any jumpers. Are they running like quadruple screens for the guy, does he excel moving without the ball(I'm assuming this isn't the case), or do the Bulls just not intend to ever guard the guy. Maybe Pierce is in some ways 'struggling' because the Bulls are basically constantly doubling him and daring Glenn Davis--which he can do since he literally is shooting wide open.

Also Tyson Chandler is only a positive for the Hornets because Hilton Armstrong and Sean Marks are his replacements. I think we can all agree that he knows the Nuggets are purposefully exposing that he's not really that good (especially somewhat hurt), hence the fact he seems dead-set on being an asshole after and during every play.

At 4/26/2009 8:41 PM, Blogger ronald james davis said...

I think thats just part of Chandlers method. It seems like hes always fighting someone whenever I see him. In a Hornets/Celtics 7 game series somewhere in space it would be interesting to see how long Chandler would withstand Garnett's legendary loquacity before 1 game suspensions rained down.

At 4/26/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

It seems to me that a lot of Dwight's current deficiencies are primarily a function of time. He's really only been getting taught the center position since 2007, and he's been improving his footwork, balance, and mechanics. Even so, there does seem to be some interior lacking in him. When Shaq was still learning those things, he still seemed to have an intuition about how to use his body to move other players out of his way. Olajwan possessed a smaller man's fluidity. Ewing had a deep tool box. Etc. I'm not sure that Dwight has that other something that will take him past good to great.

In what way is Rondo KG's heir? As the leader of the team or in some other more essential way?

Despite the numbers he's putting up and plays he's making, Rondo still hasn't convinced me. He seems to disappear during stretches of the game, and I just haven't seen anything original or shocking from him yet.

wv: shell--are Dwight and Rondo mere shells of the players people take them to be or are they true? (I'm not making up that wv.)

At 4/27/2009 2:53 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

@Mr. Six - I think Dwight's issue in the post, the "other something" that we've all been struggling to finger, is primarily the result of his extraordinary physical gifts. We look at his herculean delts, add in his free throw dunking hops, and automatically assume he can score down low everytime he touches the ball, etc. The thing about dwight is, what enables him to be so much more explosive than any other big man, ever, is also why he seems to be "some interior lacking in him". Because he has the pogo-stick legs of a guard, he actually can't just obliterate people with his back to the basket, posting up, like say young shaq or duncan could. A combination of lowe body girth/strength is what the "nitty gritty" of traditional dirty post play has always called for, the same thing Charles barkley always refers to when he says his "big ole butt" was the reason he grabbed so many rebounds, etc. It's the same reason guys like Maxiell and big baby can play against guys who have 3 inches on them. Dwight's upper body is sculpted and wide, no doubt, but from waist down he's got the build of a high-flying forward of the amare/marion/josh smith variety. It's hard to post somebody up with just your upper body, which is why a lot of times we see dwight on the block with his back to what seems like a much tinier man, but all he can do is try to use his quicks to spin around and dunk, or do some sort of baby hook, instead of "going to work" and backing the guy down like how we are trained to think dominating centers ought to.

At least that's what I've come to conclude...

At 4/27/2009 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason Maxiel said the same thing in the playoffs last year (year before?) about Dwight not being strong enough in the lower body to really push guys around. Think Erick Dampier - the guy can move well, gets off the ground, has an enormous upper body, but his muscle doesn't connect him to the ground. High flyers aside, low post dominance is predicated on the ability to push other players away from the floor. As springy and explosive as Young Shaq was, he was always jumping from exactly where he wanted to be.

wv: unimp - pretentious urban slang for "unimpeded" as in, "Somehow, Rose gets another unimp' on his way to 38 points in his playoff debut."

At 4/27/2009 12:34 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm going to assume that people around the league and especially in the Magic organization understand the low-post limitations of Dwight's flimsy undercarriage. The real problem is that they have no other option for the guy. Players like Pau/Duncan/Amare who made the switch from center to power forward and benefited their team (though their stats might not belie such) have the crucial skills of court awareness, a mid-range jumper, and more than one dribble worth of handles.

Dwight might become great by developing quick post moves. But he will only maximize his utility to his team (especially in playoff intensity situations) and his potential if he can develop the skills of a 4 and become more involved every play.

At 4/27/2009 12:35 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

@Daniel-Dwight's relative lack of lower body strength/bulk is something I considered but remain uncertain enough about that I wasn't sure how to include it. I don't like the idea that he can't play effectively in the post because of his build. If he's truly next-gen, then he'll figure out how to turn a perceived deficiency into a positive by altering the method of effective post play. And maybe that gets closer to the internal lacking that I suspect but don't yet want to be convinced of: I'm unsure that Dwight can figure out that kind of evolutionary/revolutionary change in methodology. I'll grant him the time but remain suspicious.

And also, Olajuwan, Robinson, and Abdul-Jabbar. Which means maybe no evolution/revolution is necessary, and it's just a question of time, practice, and more adult strength.

At 4/27/2009 12:37 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Another thought, building on djturtleface and Webber's comments during the game last night ... Dwight has to become a better passer out of the post if he's going to be great and make his team better. I wonder whether his current limitations in that area are the chicken or the egg in the oddity that is his teammates' seeming reticence to pass him the ball. Or maybe they're just limited in that area themselves.

At 4/28/2009 11:09 AM, Blogger Ryne Nelson said...

@Mr. Six: I wouldn't worry about Dwight's physical strength. There will only be a handful of players who can ever hope to match his size in the L. That said, Webber actually made a decent point (but one that's been said over and over) in that Dwight needs to improve his offensive game. In my opinion, it's not a matter of time. He'll primarily be a offensive rebounder and putback player. That, and a huge liability at the end of games with his horrid free throw percentage. All that negative... and he's still a top-five player!


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