That the Lakers are the NBA’s most colossal, most fascinating bummer has been well-documented. In the past, they were un-lovable but majestic. You could hate Kobe’s post-dagger jawfaces, you could hate Phil Jackson’s finely tailored beard and bullying spiritualism, but you could also marvel at their success and be awed by the sight of basketball beautifully played.
If a winning Lakers team evokes the smugness of a Magic of the Movies montage during an Oscars telecast, a losing one reflects a different and more forlorn LA—a million hideous publicist-planted upskirts and celebrity DUI mugshots and pill-powered Daniel Baldwin car chases, all narrated in the sneer-scream of a TMZ correspondent.
Not deliciously infuriating, then, just lonely and depressing. If the Lakers’ signature failing has been their caustic team culture, then a close second has been the awful, awful defense. Consider: their starting point guard is 38 years old and was, during his prime, among the league’s worst defenders; their two other veteran stars are playing the worst defense of their careers; their bench is populated by the Antawn Jamisons and Steve Blakes and Jodie Meekses of the world. Its easy to understand, then, just how badly the Lakers miss even a much-diminished Dwight Howard anchoring the middle.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are trying hard to land Pau Gasol. If they have to part with the highest draft choice in franchise history after just one season, the Wolves appear ready to do it. That much became clear leading up to the NBA draft on Thursday night, when Minnesota offered Derrick Williams in hopes of landing the second pick from the Charlotte Bobcats to help get Gasol from the Los Angeles Lakers, two people with knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press.
Teaming Gasol with Ricky Rubio has long been a dream of David Kahn’s–and evidently the Wolves are still looking to make a deal to land the big Spaniard. I have no doubt that a Gasol-Love frontcourt as coached by Rick Adelman is a nice idea. But I wonder: does giving up on the second pick in the draft in exchange for a 32-year-old star smack of impatience? After all how old, and how effective, will Gasol be when Rubio reaches his prime?
The NBA trade deadline has come and gone and the Wolves roster looks exactly the same as it did when we woke up this morning. The juiciest rumor had been a proposed three-team deal between the Lakers, Blazers and Wolves that would have sent Michael Beasley to L.A., Luke Ridnour to Portland (along with Steve Blake and LA’s first-rounder) and netted Jamal Crawford for the Wolves. But when we saw that the Lakers had used their picks to score Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill, we had to know that the deal had to be dead.
Now, there’s no question that it might have been nice to see the Wolves improve the roster or net a pick by moving Beasley rather than allowing him to become a restricted free-agent this summer. And it would also have been nice to land Crawford, upgrading their offensive production at the two-guard. But to my mind, the price of that deal was a little high. First of all, while Beasley alone for Crawford might not have a been an exactly equal deal for Portland, Beasley and Ridnour together seems a bit much. Ridnour has actually been a more efficient, though considerably lower-volume, scorer than Crawford over the past three seasons. He’s also a much better passer and defender, even when giving up multiple inches at the two.
Given that the Wolves claim to be pursuing a playoff spot this season, a starting backcourt of J.J. Barea and Jamal Crawford seems to be conspicuously lacking in an actual playmaker, someone who can consistently serve the ball to Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. And even if it was a Crawford/Rubio pairing the Wolves were ultimately after, Crawford has an opt-out clause in his contract for next season. In other words, the Wolves would have been trading their only healthy true point guard for a high-volume gunner who wasn’t even guaranteed to be around past July. Seems like they lucked out to me.
Since there will be no basketball for the foreseeable future and I’d kind of forgotten how terrible and nervy I used to feel when the Wolves were in the playoffs, I thought it might be “fun” to reach back into Youtube’s dark ether and extract some of our past lives. Lets talk 2003. I’m living in New York, with little money to speak of and no cable, watching the Wolves in dark bars, drinking what many might consider to be “too much,” feeling sad a lot.
The Wolves are the fourth seed in the playoffs but as foul luck and the ridiculously stacked Western Conference would have it, the Lakers are the five. After getting shelled at home in game 1, the Wolves come back to blow out the Lakers in game 2. Then, improbably, after blowing a five point lead with seconds to play and conceding an absurd four-point play to Kobe (David Stern actually apologized for that one) the Wolves manage to salvage game 3 in overtime (in LA no less!). And so game 4 was shaping up to be the decisive game of the series; either the Wolves would go up 3-1 with two more games to play in Minneapolis or the series would be tied 2-2. So I watched game four. And it was almost as nauseating as I remember it.
Surely this is a tired angle, but it’s true nonetheless.
If there was ever promise to be shown in a 17 point loss, last night our Wolves managed to do so against the Lakers. Moral victories may not appear in the standings, but they do provide the necessary motivation to push through a rough schedule and Kurt Rambis’ postgame comments spoke to as much.
“Well obviously that wasn’t the result that we wanted, but I thought our guys did a really good job for a vast majority of the ball game. We stuck to our game plan, we got the shots that we wanted, we just couldn’t make shots. And they’re a team that can take your defense-your good defense-and make a shot that can turn your defense into nothing.”
This is unquestionably true. Los Angeles not only features the virtuoso Kobe Bryant, but a cavalcade of talented postmen and dead eye shooters who all maintain the savvy and selflessness to compensate for the occasional off night from a teammate. That’s exactly what happened on this particular evening. Despite a debatable shot selection from Kobe and one of the poorer outings I’ve seen from Pau Gasol since donning the purple and gold, the Lakers still coasted through this matchup thanks to the heady play of their bench, particularly Matt Barnes.
Following a string of unfathomably humiliating losses, our Wolves played the two time defending champs down to the last minute in their own building. That should be encouraging.
But it’s not. It’ll only make things worse.
The cries from the uninformed and mercilessly unfunny will only grow louder after last night’s performance. Tired jokes will pour in, contextless stats will rain down and the truth will remain a stranger to the lot of us as the thoughtless credo becomes deafening.
Free Kevin Love.
The fact of the matter is that people like to make fun of this basketball team-specifically its management-at any given opportunity. And while we’ve certainly provided more than enough fodder for them, it must be made clear that this isn’t one of those times.
Last night Kevin Love became the only other Timberwolf besides Kevin Garnett to go for 20 points, 20 rebounds & 5 five assists with a magnificent 23,24 & 5 game that had the box score bursting at the seams. The problem is that everyone wants to treat him like Kevin Garnett, thus their concern with just one number, 38.
“See what happens when you give Love more minutes?!” goes the meme, with little regard for the point my partner just recently made (or the fact that Love is currently leading the team in minutes). The Wolves have hardly been suffering defeats, they’ve been binging on them, losing consecutive road games by 20, 32, 42 & 26 points. Should Kurt Rambis be more concerned with establishing some order amidst such chaos or placating his pseudo-star?
Yes, pseudo. One of the tougher assessments in this game is gauging the capabilities of a good player on a bad team. Are the stats a mirage or merely a preview of what he could do with better teammates? In the case of Kevin Love, I’d have to say, well….both.
Merely peering at Love’s box scores over coffee every morning would be enough to make you spit it out. “17.6 & 13.3 in only 28.4 minutes?! Good Lord, someone get this man a plane ticket out of there!” However, this seems to be the extent of such analysis. I have my doubts that many of those who have such fun mocking this team are actually watching it. For if they were, there’d also be an acknowledgment of Love’s shortcomings that lead to many of those trips to the bench.
Kevin is undersized, wide in the hips and not exactly fleet afoot. He has no lift, not much touch and is equally confounded in the post on both ends of the floor. He lacks defensive awareness and a reliable move with his back to the basket. Of course I’d be remiss to ignore his strengths; prodigious rebounding, impressive range and instinctive passing, however this is simply not enough to compensate for all the problems this unit has. The Wolves are playing the league’s fastest pace and are its most inefficient team. Surely there’s plenty of rebounds to be had, hence the league leading 46 per. But what is truly needed is a dependable scorer and true defensive presence. Kevin can’t provide that. He’s a complement, not a centerpiece.
Yet we’re still bombarded with the conventional wisdom that the best player on the team should be on the floor for 35 minutes per game.
If anything, all of the starters should be playing more so that we wouldn’t be subjected to empty five headed monsters such as Maurice Ager, Corey Brewer, Lazar Hayward, Anthony Tolliver & Kosta Koufos. As my other partner, Zach Harper, recently noted on the twitters, there is little reason to empty the bench in these blowout losses when we’re the leagues youngest team and all of our players need the experience. If they’re down 20+ in the fourth quarter, leave them in there to play for pride and to develop some cohesiveness. After Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster heal from their injuries and work their way back into the lineup, a rotation should be solidified and perhaps that will mean more minutes for our core players. Including our best player.
The only thing Kevin Love needs to be freed from is the unrealistic expectations of those who care more for wisecracks than his best interest. Let’s just give this some more time.
Kobe Bryant is miserable. When the Lakers lose, he barely pretends to cover his disgust and frustration–with the shortcomings of less gifted and prescient teammates and with his own imperfections. When they win, the relief seems mild and fleeting, allowing him the brief luxury of exhaustion rather than any kind of joy. When things go badly on the court, his face painfully contorts. When he hits a big shot, he juts out his jaw and narrows his eyes, just an icier version of the same angry contempt. Over at SLAM, our pal Myles recently gave what is, to me, the definitive capsule of the Kobe enigma: He is “a man who pretends not to give a [dang, or possibly whup] what you think while making it quite evident that he plays for your approval.” He is desperate to win and be vindicated, but that vindication brings him no happiness. He wants us to believe in his aura of magnanimous, carefree stylishness, but turns cold at any suggestion of his own vulnerability.
KG is a totally different animal. In recent years, as Zaza Pachulia, Big Baby Davis and Jose Calderon can attest, his well known respect for authority has verged on bullying. (We should never be surprised at the easy, slippery relationship between power and domination.) But as the playoffs have shown us, the other KG is still alive; the hyper ecstatic who bounds around the court like a child and bellows to the rafters, who seems close to exceeding the boundaries of his ridiculous body and becoming pure spirit. Who shares with Kobe a manic competitive fire but whose joys and pains are totally transparent.
Despite their vast differences, these two are conjoined in ways that go beyond even their four playoff meetings and their shared history as mid-’90′s teen prodigies. Both seem haunted by the Marlo Stanfield of the NBA, Rajon Rondo, the ruthless, unsmiling kid intent on usurping his elders. In so many ways, Rondo seems to represent all that these two are fast losing: the energized legs; the youthful arrogance; the brash forgetting of time and death.
Both Kobe and KG, in their different ways, also seem haunted by our absolutist culture of victory; I’m talking about the notion that a simple binary, winning and losing, is the only arbiter of a player’s, or a team’s, ultimate worth. That winning a title is the only measure of real success, that a player’s place in history can be deeply altered by the result of one insanely competitive series (for a typical example of this, check this Bill Simmons novella and note the way he manipulates his all-time player rankings based on this Finals’ possible outcomes).
To me, this account gets it wrong in two ways. First, it operates on the mistaken assumption–one that the Jordan era seems to have nurtured, if not created–that a team’s fortunes are entirely predicated on the ability of their star to “will them to victory”. We seem to believe that these great players operate in a vacuum. We seem to constantly forget how Jordan struggled until–aided by Phil Jackson–Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came into their own. We forget Kobe’s epic frustrations that lasted precisely until Pau Gasol arrived in LA. And we forget the tragedy of Garnett’s futile Wolves years (well, we don’t forget; we remember that really, really well). The irony here is that, in all of these cases, these great players only reached their greatest heights after ceding some power, that their greatness was actually magnified in a genuine team setting.
The other huge problem with this way of thinking is the notion that one playoff loss can somehow nullify everything a team has already accomplished. Especially this year, with so many teams doing so many magnificent things, I find this view is kind of shameful. Throughout these playoffs, the Lakers’ ability to flow in and out of the triangle and use its nuances of player and ball movement to inflect their more traditional half-court sets has been totally inspiring (not to mention providing yet another object lesson in just how far the Wolves have to go, how many levels of knowledge and experience and skill separate them from these Lakers). And, especially until the Finals, Kobe has shown an unprecedented comfort with his teammates and his own role in the offense. He moves the ball; he artfully finds open space on the floor; he allows his team’s passing and movement to create shots; its hard to imagine someone so good playing with such trust, confidence and presence.
As for Garnett and the Celtics, their miraculous playoff transfiguration has been well documented. In their victories over Miami, Cleveland and Orlando, Boston has operated at near-cosmic levels of group awareness and intensity. This originated in Rondo’s rise of course (and in the veteran’s ability to accept that rise), but also in Garnett’s defensive captaincy, his smothering of Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis, his ego-less offensive work, and his gritty reckoning with his own aging body. None of this–not the Lakers’ brilliance, nor Garnett and the Celtics’ fearsome run–could possibly be tainted by a Game-7 loss.
We paint with these broad, historical brushstrokes because its easier. Its less complicated to remember that Jordan is the greatest player ever because he won six titles than to remember that, for two games in 1996, the Sonics’ pressure defense totally flabbergasted the Bulls. Its easier to look back and imagine that the result of a series was predestined because of the star’s innate qualities than to remember the razor-thin moments, the minute tactical moves, the slight surges in energy and focus that turned the tide one way or the other.
What I’m saying is, lets not do that. Lets try to appreciate Kobe Bryant not because he has won this many titles but because his fading 20-footer is an awesome sight to behold. Lets try to imagine that Kevin Garnett is amazing not because a Game 7 victory would somehow magically alter his position among the greatest players ever, but because watching him play defense is beautiful. And lets try to enjoy this game not because the result will forever alter the balance of basketball history, but because it will likely be ridiculously competitive and psychotically intense, filled with tiny flows and shifts, myriad nuances of strategy and style. The game is played by human beings, imperfect despite their immense gifts. If we forget that, we miss the entire thing.