Expectation can be a funny thing. In the abstract, we – in some cases, admittedly, the royal we – all expect things, whether it be the acceptance letter to a prestigious college, the big-time promotion that will finally make you feel a certain kind of comfortable or, in a more macro sense, the giant orb of light rising each morning despite all of the darkness, everywhere, all the time.
A funny thing about expectation, though – often, it doesn’t belong solely to the person on whom it is placed. That is to say, nurture makes itself apparent against nature, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to military school so that you can be a doctor. The other side of it, though, is that expectation, when set against the vast unknown, can be as powerful and as stupefying as fear. Like expectation itself, it isn’t always up to one person to decide whether to shoulder it on their own.
The final battle between Bhima & Duryodhana
For a moment, I beg of you to try and envision yourself as Kyrie Irving, in several stages of his life. You’ve got perhaps the best handles in the history of basketball, routinely curling camels through needles’ eyes for fun as you lampoon your beguiled opponent before an adoring crowd, which screams at you to end the procession and join your only true love, the basket, in eternal harmony. They recognize you from Sprite commercials; you recognize them from the hordes of people shielding their eyes, but peeking through, as you did this in your youth to many nameless foes in the neighborhood, on schoolyard courts and in parks near and far.
One minute, it’s 2016, and you’ve hit The Shot™, solidifying your immortality, both in the annals of professional basketball and to Clevelanders everywhere. The next minute, it’s 2017, and you’re requesting a trade out of the city that drafted you, that crafted you, that created a media megalith despite its decidedly Middle America setting. If the preceding period is any indication, twelve months is enough to change anything, least of all the presumption that a team owns an entire conference because of one man. You are not that man, but you strive to be. And now, you need to be.
Akrotiri Thera Fresco, c. sixteenth century BCE
Likely dating back to the first interaction between civilizations of Homo sapiens from different geographic origins, the trade system is both as simple and complex as one wants it to be. An entity has something; another entity has another thing; each one wants what the other has, giving up as little as possible in order to gain it. With the exception of a few law-making scandals here and some ethical creativity there, that is all trade has ever been, whether it be Mycenaeans utilizing the Danube River, or your possibly drug-addled stockbroker gambling your retirement on the latest cryptocurrency.
Though the exchange of humans themselves largely, mercifully went out of fashion over the past two centuries, it remains a compelling means of business in the public arena of professional sports. We watch the games for a variety of reasons, but in the age of social media, reaction has become nearly as important as action. A team wins, and another loses. The former has to maintain its formula, while the latter has to figure out an antidote.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign was the coldest consolation prize for the first season since moving from Seattle spent without Kevin Durant. To paraphrase ESPN staff writer Royce Young, as eye-poppingly ostentatious as it was, for the Thunder to succeed with him, Westbrook’s 2016-’17 season can never happen again. The Monolith needed help, and on Tuesday, that help officially arrived.
Watching Russell Westbrook over the past two months has inspired a litany of think-pieces attempting to analyze what makes such a player tick, and at what point that tick becomes the soundtrack to a time bomb that goes off every 24 seconds. Westbrook is whatever you want him to be, and he isn’t; the love he attracts is in direct correlation to the immense hatred he inspires. His gallops to the rim, nonchalantly ignoring every open teammate while realizing that he has a better chance 1-on-5 than they do unguarded, are both crass and brave, simultaneously shattering mirrors and creating new ones. His playing style is iconoclastic (and his style is iconoclastic, for better or for worse), giving the middle finger to both old-school team devotees and disciples of statistical analysis. Basically, at his size and with the limited means at his disposal, what he’s doing should be impossible, but Russell Westbrook doesn’t share our reality.
Ode to Earl, we hardly knew ye.
Trading away team headcases is a time-honored NBA tradition. From Dennis Rodman’s Detroit exit in 1993 (and then from San Antonio to Chicago in 1995) to Ron Artest’s unceremonious trade out of Indiana in 2005, getting rid of serviceable but troublesome players allows both teams and players to move on from the skeletons of a marriage gone awry. In situations like these, a player’s future success (Rodman’s with the later three-peat Bulls, Artest’s with the Lakers) tends not to cast the trade in a bad light because the team had decided it simply could not function the same way anymore.
On Monday, two teams expurgated veritable Anthony Fremonts, as the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder while acquiring J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks as part of a three-team trade which also involved Iman Shumpert. Both Smith and Waiters had endured franchise-altering waves in the last few months, and now each is set to test exactly how much a change of scenery can do to help a player’s psyche, to the betterment or detriment of their new teams.
In a strange twist of events, the All-Star Game was the actual best part of this year’s All-Star Weekend. Kyrie Irving lit up the Crescent City, scoring 31 points and adding 14 assists in a record-breaking game during which both teams cleared 150 points. Saturday night’s festivities, long the most exciting of the break, failed to deliver. Elsewhere, the trade deadline passes, coming in like a motorcycle and going out like a tricycle. Also, the KD-LeBron dichotomy is heating (thundering?) up, though both just seem to want to play their own brands of basketball.