At some time between revolutionizing his position and casually accumulating scoring nights the likes of which would be almost any other player’s career highlight, Steph Curry re-inverted the basketball court. As singular as he is a shooter, playmaker and scorer, his exploits have influenced the way teams play, even beyond his own Golden State Warriors.
A hallmark of the Warriors dynasty – and, accordingly, a window into NBA team assembly prior to and during Golden State’s run – has been a lack of a dominant center in the traditional sense. Because the Warriors typically shoot more threes than any other type of shot and tend to eschew the midrange and rim, and because they have a nontraditional big man, Draymond Green, act as center in their most important lineups, the notion of a center in the Shaq or Hakeem mold never made sense for the Warriors; many other teams tried to follow the blueprint, to mixed results at best.
If Curry was the endpoint of the NBA’s first three-point revolution, he was also indirectly the catalyst for revitalizing the center position. Even as we are inundated with reminders that the NBA’s position classifications are antiquated and, in cases where contract bonuses are tied to honors and awards, harmful, they nevertheless remain useful as a contextual foundation for what a player could be on offense, a foundation, even if that doesn’t pan out: Luka and Giannis are point guards in the bodies of forwards; Russell Westbrook is essentially a tiny center; Karl-Anthony Towns is a massive, volume-scoring shooting guard.
Through this lens, no single player in today’s NBA represents the return of the center specifically better than two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic, whose pursuit of a threepeat this season has already taken shape. As his Denver Nuggets press for top playoff seeding in the Western Conference, Jokic, nominally a center, is among the league leaders in assists, something only Wilt Chamberlain has previously done as a center.
Where did it all go wrong? Now you ask yourself: what restaurant, effects pedal, celebrity-ish person, institution, soda, social platform update, person that you and I somehow both know, beer edition, automation technique, ideology, golf tournament, city that you never knew, or relative am I talking about?
Some people may already know that time as most of us understand it is the result of the work of an Islamic scholar; the rest of you will blame aging on him, despite Aristotle. No matter, in any case: this is about the 2021-’22 Los Angeles Lakers, eliminated from postseason play Tuesday night against (fittingly) the Phoenix Suns, and the amount of pushing a rock can possibly do against a solid-state presence before retracting against every will in its lifeless form.
The days are getting longer. They look short but continue for ages. At once, a new day will be upon you and gone almost before it happened. They pile up, the days, and the blurring of colors at dusk can just as easily be the memories of events that slip between the cracks, regardless of importance.
When we think about the things that are familiar, we can have a sense of present-nostalgia: yes, I know that deli; of course, I’ve seen that player many times; indeed, I fell out without ever actually falling in with a group of people during that game. We think we know who we are, and we assert that to the world, only for the world to remind us of a different reality.
For a time almost destined to be locked inside of itself, quarantined or otherwise, the Philadelphia 76ers are a perfect emblem. The sense of what the Sixers are, or were, or will be(?) has shifted in the various allegedly-conscious organs of fans and onlookers nearly by the minute ever since Ben Simmons essentially ruled himself AWOL. Joel Embiid is currently enjoying an MVP-caliber campaign, this time as earnest as ever, but – thanks to old pal Daryl Morey – here comes James Harden, and the bevy of his flavor in seeming full force.
It is the latter half of the 2021-’22 NBA regular season, and the Los Angeles Lakers sit in eighth place in the Western Conference with a 28-29 record. Big man Anthony Davis, acknowledged to be a big without allowing himself to be referred to as a center, has missed twenty games, while LeBron James, the fulcrum upon which all Lakers-based activity must depend, has incurred an apparent return of the high ankle sprain which had once befallen him.
James has taken to imploring his teammates to work harder in his absence, which seemingly grows longer at his whims. On Instagram, his beseeching increasingly includes the term “brodie,” seemingly in the pejorative. Teammate Russell Westbrook notices.
The thousand injuries of Lebrunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled – but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity.
Historically, there is a slight dispute over the first usage of the term “triple-double” in a basketball context – Philadelphia 76ers publicist Harvey Pollack stakes a claim, as does ex-Los Angeles Lakers PR man Bruce Jolesch. Fittingly, they are intertwined courtesy of the same player, Magic Johnson, who had seven triple-doubles the 1980-’81 season and would ultimately finish with 138 in his career.
That number was still 43 behind the career total of Oscar Robertson, who held the record for nearly half a century and had set his final total at 181, in 1974. That number stood until Monday night, when Russell Westbrook, now of the Washington Wizards, pulled down his tenth rebound against the Atlanta Hawks and, having already notched double-digit points and assists, broke the Big O’s record for career triple-doubles on his way to a 28-point, 13-rebound, 21-assist performance. Naturally, Westbrook barreled up the floor and promptly missed a three-pointer.
After all of that, Kevin Durant managed to play nine games with the Brooklyn Nets, only six of them alongside Kyrie Irving, before that team acquired another All-Star Wednesday afternoon. Joining Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan, the latter of whom Jarrett Allen had finally supplanted as the Nets’ starting center this season prior to the trade, will be one James Harden, Durant’s ex-teammate, the 2018 MVP and a revolutionary offensive genius.
Of course, Harden has become as confounding a teammate as he is an actual basketball player, and his uneasy exit from Houston begs many questions, not the least for which because of the destination. The ever-prickly Durant is playing at an MVP level; Irving is essentially AWOL; Harden openly ripped the Rockets organization Tuesday night, all but forcing his team’s hand. Now, those three find themselves together, apparently at their communal behest.
Taking a concept to its ideological extreme can be a perilous exercise: first, one must fully concoct an actionable conviction, one that finds pros outweighing cons; then, after experimenting with the idea, one must attempt to put it into practice and – the hardest part – convince others that this pursuit is, in fact, worth investigating, in the hopes that an audience sees its potential, wildly glorious benefits and agrees that it is, at the very least, worth a shot.
Ideas like this tend to provoke the “hard sell” label, and they allow detractors to seize upon various nooks and crannies in order to mock the ideation and its true believers. To buy all the way in, one must steel themselves for the possibility of a very public humiliation, often in the mouths of bad actors and those who could never regress to the norm for lack of having ever deviated from it. Somehow especially content with the median, these people envy middle managers and the people who ride the coattails of people who actually possess half-decent beliefs, for they themselves believe only in what they see, not in what may be.
When they traded starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a multi-team deal that netted them the coveted Robert Covington at this year’s trade deadline, the Houston Rockets bought all the way into an idea that head coach Mike D’Antoni pioneered over a decade ago yet was unable to fully realize before various factors ended his tenure with the Phoenix Suns. Now, with none other than Russell Westbrook as their nominal center on offense, Houston is making the bet that running teams into the ground can overcome any, uh, shortcomings they may otherwise have.
Bradley Beal, magician – Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports
Along with the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings (who have apparently revealed themselves to be frauds) and, until very recently, the Phoenix Suns (who very well may still be frauds but are enjoying a good run right now), the Washington Wizards are, historically speaking, an NBA team only ostensibly and have a history of producing the sort of spectacular assclownery typically reserved for Stefon’s nightclubs, the bum-rush for Popeyes chicken sandwiches and Congress, all of which can be set to the Benny Hill theme music without much disruption.
To get this out of the way up front: the NBA shrinking in the face of one nation in which it has interests – one whose interests happen to conflict with those of what the American ideal is supposed to be, mind you, as it suppresses the protests of people in Hong Kong, facing potential extradition to the mainland, where prisoners’ cases can be ignored entirely – makes the league’s put-on image of empowerment look transparently weak.
That Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked the current, ostensibly bipartisan discourse with a fairly innocuous tweet seems to say more about that nation, its insecurity as a world power and its desire for overwhelming power on a world stage, than it does about anyone who has anything to say about it, but the NBA is at some fault here, and commissioner Adam Silver is in an even more unique position than he was when the Donald Sterling circus unfolded five years ago.
With a deep breath – and I know it’s complicated to dig out of that tunnel, even if human rights shouldn’t be – I would like to move on to the Rockets themselves, and the fascinating approach(es) they may take this season in integrating the likes of, ehem, Russell Westbrook into their offense.