While the world’s wealthiest men continue to do their best to disprove other, better-known examples, some truths remain universally acknowledged: parquet looks great on television; nobody will ever understand how to domesticize bears; the American education system is broken. Regardless of our individual solutions to these problems, it seems reasonable to suggest that we agree on these.
Another truth nearly universally acknowledged – and only nearly because there remains a small but growing populace, somewhere, whose entire existence seems strictly to hinge on the acceptance of counterpoints and “asking questions” when there aren’t really any interested parties in the answers, including themselves – is that Chris Paul is the Point God. On Thursday night, helming the Phoenix Suns, and staking his case in the playoffs for the first time in direct opposition to his Banana Boat buddy LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Paul did his work, as always, leading the Suns to a continued rise.
At some point, what you are becoming and who you are meet. Sometimes you decide the time and place of that meeting; most often, you do not. Rarely is it easy, a Craigslist handoff that satisfies both parties over a diner coffee at some halfway point. Someone is usually coming away sour. Given that who you are now, in the present, has the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonably safe to say that who you are looks at who you were and wonders how, exactly, you are standing here, right now, like this.
Who is Paul George, now? I can tell you – anybody who watched the NBA at the beginning of the last decade can tell you – who Paul George was in 2014, which was a would-be dominant force meant to supplement the LeBron-stopping powers of Roy Hibbert and the rest of his merry band in Indiana.
Following Tuesday night’s Game 7 loss against the Denver Nuggets, however, in a series George’s current team, the Los Angeles Clippers, many observers heavily favored to win and one in which those very Clippers were up 3-1, the question becomes much more hazy: who is Paul George, and what is he going to be in terms of championship contention in the forthcoming NBA?
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.
“I apologize for us being healthy. I apologize for us playing who was in front of us. I apologize for all the accolades we received as a team and individually. I’m very, truly sorry, and we’ll rectify that situation this year.” – Steph Curry, October 2015
So often, when assessing the circumstances surrounding a season and its participants, onlookers make the critical error without the proper framing. This is true of culture – Lemonade as the greatest work of artistic liberation this year, this decade or this century, let alone this week – but is dominant in sports. Conversations abound concerning Karl-Anthony Towns’ place in the all-time NBA player hierarchy with, now, nearly as much frequency as LeBron James’, if you look in the right places.
Rare is the situation that doesn’t need the benefit of hindsight to have a definitive historical identity waiting in the wings. This season, the NBA gave us two, possibly three, teams whose historical contexts seem almost preordained. Rarer still is the fact that each team faces unique circumstances which are fascinating in a vacuum but even more so when contrasted with one another.
Last Thursday, the NBA’s trade deadline came in like, if not necessarily a lion, then a tiger cub exploring wilderness without its mother for the first time, but it went out like Dwight Howard – generally functional, marginally compelling, much more infuriating and with its movers likely coming away with the impression that they are all champions, no matter what.
While arguably the biggest move of the day involved Orlando sending Tobias Harris to the Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova and was more or less functionally about basketball, a number of less-heralded moves seemed to speak to the cultures of the teams involved: Cleveland traded for Channing Frye to hedge against Kevin Love questions, Oklahoma City nabbed Randy Foye as a more stable proxy for Dion Waiters in the backcourt and the disappointing Wizards ended up with the annoyed Markieff Morris. None of these says “cultural fit” so much as it does “cultural change,” but sometimes in the NBA, as in life, a move is good for the soul.