“Rover, Red Rover” – Arthur Leipzig
Free agency in professional sports, in its ideal form, is the best and most prominent example of the free market at work that exists in this country. A worker earns their keep; their employer either decides that they are or are not worth the trouble, and then there are suitors everywhere lining up to give that person their just deserts. It’s deceptively simple.
Yet – and that word does a percentage of the salary cap’s worth of lifting here – it is much more deceptive than simple. The salary cap itself is one measure of inequality-via-equality; were LeBron James ever paid as much as he deserved in his career, he would likely be rivaling Gaius Appuleius Diocles at this point. Alas, at least in salary-capped leagues, the reality is thus: make what you can of what you have, and be judicious with your forecasts. A tornado doesn’t have to spring up to be destructive; if it gets you to move, it’s done enough of its job.
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Early returns on the 2018-’19 NBA season have been extremely varied. That’s not to say the basketball itself hasn’t been good; between the paralleled excellence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, the ongoing development of LeBron’s Lakers Day Care, DeMar DeRozan embracing San Antonio, Steph Curry firing out of the gate and Klay Thompson one-upping his Splash Brother by nearly quadrupling the number of threes he’d made all season in a single night, there has been plenty to see, and not all of it has to do with the Golden State Warriors’ seemingly inevitable death march to their fourth title in five years.
Some of it has been a bit…strange, though. Some things are off, and it isn’t just Markelle Fultz. Defenses are getting to Ben Simmons (or, rather, not getting anywhere near him, except in the paint). The Boston Celtics, who took LeBron to seven games in the East Finals last year and are now re-integrating two All-Stars into their lineup, have returned a maniacal defense but have been unexpectedly dysfunctional on the other end. Oklahoma City stumbled out of the gate. 50-point Derrick Rose? 50-point Derrick Rose. The Sacramento Kings have won four in a row and five of their last six! What is this world coming to?
In the midst of all the madness lie the Houston Rockets, who currently sit at 1-5 with matching bottom-five Offensive and Defensive Ratings. James Harden has looked all the MVP he was a year ago, and Clint Capela has continued to progress into a two-way force, but everything else is amiss. Mike D’Antoni and company have some ’splaining to do.
It is admittedly unusual for us to recap a single game from a first round playoff series. Even elimination games, which are so ripe for assessment and criticism, both in the immediate aftermath and as time wears ceaselessly on heading into every other team’s offseason. Free agency beckons; fresh wounds heal, but the scars can inform decisions for players and teams, altering the direction of the entire league.
As such, the Utah Jazz’s prompt dispatch of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games calls for some prompt discernment. Russell Westbrook is the center of the Thunder’s galaxy, and as such, he draws adulation and condemnation in equal measures. He deserves considerable amounts of both, to be certain, but context is vital. Collective blame is undoubtedly shared in Oklahoma City.
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Russell Westbrook is not going to save us. He can barely save himself, and he had to turn out an all-time playoff performance down 3-1 on Wednesday night to do so. The man who captivated us for all of last season, his stat-stuffing bonanzas bordering on joyous incontinence, who posted a triple-double average again, proving that context actually does play into the MVP award, finally combined with Paul George (and without Carmelo Anthony) to sail past the Utah Jazz in one of the most remarkable second halves the playoffs have ever seen. Still, he faces imminent danger.
A year after capturing the basketball zeitgeist, examining it closely and then firing it directly into the sun, Westbrook has led a re-tooled, if not altogether “better,” Oklahoma City Thunder team back to the playoffs. For most teams, this is, at worst, a modest success, something upon which to build no matter the outcome. For a Thunder team that did exactly this a year ago and then went out and got Paul George and the Tupperware container inside which the rotten remains of Carmelo Anthony live in the back of the refrigerator, however, a second consecutive first round exit would be nothing short of disastrous.
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Let me begin by saying this, a sequence of phrases I never expected to type or read sequentially: this Martin Luther King Day will live in NBA Twitter infamy for the foreseeable future. It may rival Banana Boat Day as *the* definitive day in the cultural zeitgeist for many fans, being that it involved several more teams, as well as more star players, than that one did.
In a perfect reflection of its time, Monday was such an unabashedly ridiculous day that a few otherwise newsworthy headlines – Kyle Lowry challenging Ben Simmons to a fight; Russell Westbrook receiving an undeserving ejection before Carmelo Anthony defends him; the Hawks closing out on their (former) spiritual predecessors, the San Antonio Spurs; a second-tier Eastern Conference rivalry-in-the-making getting outstanding games from nearly all of its stars as the Bucks beat the Wizards; Memphis’ push to instill hope in Marc Gasol; Victor Oladipo’s revenge tour rolling over Utah; the Hornets winning a game(!); Cleveland literally shutting the hot water off on the preeminent team in the league, prompting Kevin Durant to call upon LeBron (the true owner) to fix things; the Knicks actually closing out a game over a winnable opponent – will get lost to history. No matter. The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers provided the kind of New York Post-worthy insanity to which only would-be kings and Kardashians aspire.
Elasmotherium (“Thin Plate Beast”), Heinrich Harder
Unicorns occupy a peculiar place in Greek culture. Their origin lies not in their influential mythology, the myths and teachings that formed something like a theological basis in ancient times and source material for an avid Edith Hamilton, but rather with the accounts of historians and thinkers who generally believed them to exist, even if they hadn’t ever seen them before. The lines between myth and fact became blurred with almost encouraged ease, as poets, playwrights and dramatists – both professionally and otherwise – began to utilize the image of a unicorn as their means of communication. The unicorn was, and is, a representation of hope; nothing more, nothing less.
Plenty of discussion has surrounded the unicorn in the NBA this season as well, although its version is understood to be a metaphor from the start. Along with a post-Decision manifestation of player power, a personably manic online ego and the most creative use of cupcakes this side of Edible Arrangements, we have Kevin Durant to thank for many things, not the least of which is his dubbing Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis “a unicorn” during the Latvian’s rookie season.
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Well well well. Here we are again. After a four-month period that felt like several millennia, the NBA regular season begins tonight with two games featuring four of this season’s expected biggest draws: at 8 p.m. Eastern, the new-look Boston Celtics face the relatively old-look Cleveland Cavaliers, and following that, the Chris Paul-James Harden era begins as the Houston Rockets take on the current proprietors of the universe, the Golden State Warriors.
The question isn’t “Did you miss it?”; it’s how much you missed it, and in an age in which every single day is a testament to human will, the slightest reprieve can provide the biggest impact. If everything is bad, fine, but there is some reason to believe the smallest hints of light can fight back all this darkness. Best of luck to all of these teams, except for the Warriors, whose organization’s luck is such that two of its four (!) All-Stars could sustain injuries, and the team would still be favored. 2017 is such a crushing time. Unless you’re a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team, which everybody is. Congratulations: we’re all borderline Eastern Conference playoff teams.