Not that you were especially curious about my opinion, but being that we’re all curious about everyone’s opinions – only to the extent that we can then espouse upon our own, I suspect – let me be clear about what has happened over the past week: no, I have no idea what’s going on in the NBA, other than that players are doing whatever the hell they want, which is good for fans from an objectivity standpoint and bad for fans from a “We want a title at all costs!” standpoint.
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.
I’m not so much scared as just, well, on notice. Who knows what could happen? At any time, somebody may think more of you than everybody else, and then you’re onto a new journey, full of promise, confidence and relative autonomy. Conversely, though, maybe somebody decides you’re worth less than that, and you end up an errand person, subsisting on coffee and nodding your way through days that are no more notable than others as you try to take stock of who you are, where you are and how you can change one or both of those things.
Has it ever occurred to you just why you look at your phone so much? Starting from the premise that nobody on Twitter is actually that funny, so – Let me backtrack. Maybe you don’t check it that much, and if not, more power to you. It might be a performative power play on your part, but even in that case, you’re doing better than Rob in accounting and the New Orleans Pelicans.
On that last bit: better check your phone right now, just in case Woj has traded you from your cushy, insurance-laden desk job to a gig economy substitute that will drain your bank account as quickly as your will to live. For which, by the way, you’re working. If you’re in the NBA, today is an especially sweat-inducing time, as the trade deadline is upon us, and it has already played out as one of the most unpredictable in years.
I am a Detroit Pistons fan. It should be said that I am an incredibly casual Detroit Pistons fan, and while I followed the team closely during its glory years in the ’00s, these days I rarely go more in-depth than watching their (exceedingly rare) national broadcasts, checking scores and reading Andre Drummond features that occasionally cross my Twitter feed.
This is only to say that I am explicitly not someone to offer any sort of depth or nuance in my opinion of the modern NBA. I watch the later playoff rounds, and generally know which players are exceedingly good or outright trash, but any sort of in-depth knowledge I have on the league predates Steph Curry’s time in the league. When it comes to watching pro basketball, I am all feeling and no head these days.
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.
Having literally birthed the Cool during sessions toward the turn of the decade, Miles Davis subsequently descended into hell, fighting depression with a legendary heroin addiction. After a lengthy battle to kick the addiction, the trumpeter took his quintet to the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1955, putting on a comeback performance capitalized by a performance of “Round About Midnight.” By that October, Davis was at a crossroads in his already esteemed career and had to act quickly to form what would become his first great quintet, one featuring the landscape-altering saxophone wizardry of John Coltrane. Together, Davis and Coltrane, along with Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and, later, Gil Evans, created some of the decade’s, and jazz’s, most enduring music, culminating in the era-defining modal record Kind of Blue.
After nearly breaking the core apart before it achieved anything, the Utah Jazz matched the Charlotte Hornets’ offer sheet for Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2014. Prior to this season, the team re-signed rim-protecting center Rudy Gobert through 2021. Along with George Hill, Derrick Favors and a resurrected Joe Johnson, as well as the contributions of heady, heavy vet Boris Diaw and Australian swingman Joe Ingles, the Jazz have charged their way into a second round date with presumptive title favorites the Golden State Warriors, slaying a maligned dragon on the way to becoming fan-favorite underdogs.
Long held to be a tragically uncool locale – the Warriors are sad not to be able to take advantage of the Los Angeles nightlife, for example – Salt Lake City suddenly has the hippest game in the NBA. With critically acclaimed but crucially underrated art from Brian Kraker inspired by the classic records from labels such as Impulse!, Atlantic and Blue Note, let us walk back on Utah’s journey to the brink of excellence, two basslines conflicting and confiding in one another.
Since October 25th, when the NBA season began, a few things have changed. Some are minute; perhaps you switched from white wine to red, took up yoga or bought a new pair of dress shoes that you’ll save for just the proper occasion. Others, less so, but you can read about that in the oblique, unchecked vacuum that convinced you the world was one way when, in fact, it’s the other, at least to a large enough plurality for that to matter.
Much of what we presumed to be true is shaken, even stirred, while the rest is magnified to such an extent as to be distorted beyond reasonable comprehension. What we face now, in basketball as in life, is adjustment to the new normal.
“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.