Team can be about larger-than-life individuals feeding off of each other; it can be all about form and function. San Antonio always has been somewhere in between the two.
We are delighted to have Bethlehem Shoals, our favorite basketball writer on the planet, joining us again this season to blog about the NBA season for GQ.com. With just days to go before the start of this season, Bethlehem is unloading a three-part preview. Part one is here: a snapshot summary of the three teams that got significantly better this offseason—and the three teams that got significantly worse. Here’s our man on the new-look, CP3-powered Clips:
The Clippers play in L.A., sharing a court with the august Lakers, but might as well play on the moon. That changed last year, when jet-propelled big man Blake Griffin, who missed his rookie season, put the league on notice. This month, they added Chris Paul. Think on that: The Clippers have the NBA’s best PG, and most terrifying big man not named Dwight Howard. If it’s not shades of Stockton and Malone, it’s certainly Payton-Kemp territory. Springy center DeAndre Jordan was deemed valuable enough for $10 million a year, and veterans like Caron Butler, Chauncey Bilps, Ryan Gomes, and Mo Williams provide some ballast. Barring nuclear event, this team is legit. On paper alone, that’s enough to make Clippers-Lakers a true rivalry for the first time…ever.
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The real question to ask, then, is what kind of championship was this, anyway? The Mavericks didn’t dominate the playoffs; they surveyed the field, found their rhythm, and simply out-performed as necessary. They consistently played as good, or slightly better, than we expected, but this wasn’t a Cinderella run. Dirk may have had one of the all-time great postseasons, and in the process, once and forever changed the way he (and other white international players who did not attend college in America) are discussed. But, as we’ve said along, Dirk’s always been nearly this good, and all this “soft” and “choking” business is only in the heads of people who need this sort of thought-lozenge to get them through the news-cycle. Maybe something to keep in mind as the vultures descend on the Heat, even if they deserve lashes and murder.
Most importantly, the Mavs were populated by names we recognized, veterans whose All-Star pasts meant that this wasn’t a team of Brian Cardinals. They had guts, but also plenty of skill left. “Veteran” wasn’t a euphemism here, and the names you knew weren’t a part of some dingy, diminished last hurrah. Shawn Marion wasn’t dead yet, just cold enough that we were pleasantly surprised when he made an impact. Rick Carlisle got the team thinking right and executing; he was served well by a roster that was neither resigned to pure grit nor able to count on raw ability. Above all else, the Mavericks solved problems. They came back from cavernous deficits because they had time to. It was the opposite of the Dirk we had been told about; it was also about the most German approach imaginable.
Prior to last week, I hadn’t given a lick of thought to what a Mavs/Heat rematch would mean. I’d said often that the Heat could mess around and win a title, but I never imagined they might do it so respectably—with a smidgen of honor, even? There’s a changing of the guard underway, perhaps, and yet neither the veteran Mavericks, nor the Heat—who haven’t really come into focus yet—really mark that turning point.
This isn’t the NBA in transition, it’s a rupture, a one-way ticket to Rod Serling’s parlor. Miami versus Dallas. What, exactly, hangs in the balance? Dirk could use a ring, but his reputation has already undergone a massive overhaul—and his legacy received a good deal of just recognition—from the run he has had so far. Jason Kidd is a Hall of Famer, and a master of his position, title or no title. Sometimes, the greats don’t get their championships. Sometimes, we hold this against them; sometimes, we don’t. Kidd is in that latter category. There’s a painful irony to Shawn Marion reaching the Finals when Steve Nash never has and likely never will, but that neither elevates Marion nor makes us think less of Nash.
Shoals: We need to stop complaining about the Heat so much. Or at least start complaining about our need to complain. Because that is certainly their fault, too. Meta-suck.
Roth: Aesthetic AND ontological-theoretical bumout.
Shoals: I keep trying to figure out whether the lack of interest in the Heat, after all is said and done, has allowed for this season to be so awesome (more room for other story lines) or makes the awesome season all the more surprising (since we’ve had major stars, media time, and televised games wasted).
Roth: If it kept the freaking Magic off the air a few times, I’ll take it. I don’t need to see Fred Durst, Rep. Allen West and Donald Duck in the front row high-fiving every time Dwight Howard accidentally makes a free throw. That’s what nightmares are for.
Sports logic demands we talk about a glorious revival, an epic shift in momentum. This was the one game that changed it all. The broken Grizzlies are left to suck on their paws and obediently drop the next two in a row. All this presumes that fans have insight into some mythic athlete psyche, which is less about how athletes do think, and more about how we want them to. Athletes, by and large, are confident to a fault, if not egomaniacs. They can be stunned into submission, or just plain out-manned. And certainly, we have seen teams’ spirits broken by a single dagger of a shot; the rest of the game, or the series, is downhill from there. But to assume that the Grizzlies are done, simply because we ourselves would feel devastated, or because we like the way a certain story goes, is a colossal mistake.
The latest entry from our NBA playoffs blogger, on the perhaps momentarily deferred upset of the year.
Shoals: Have I told you about my secret hobby of Photoshopping bouffants onto Phil Jackson?
Roth: Oh man. I dislike Phil Jackson too much. I am aware, at some level, that he’s simply a slightly smugger-than-average version of your workaday NBA Authority Figure Type. But he just strikes me as someone who takes skiing really seriously, is really snobby about pot, and has a classic car that he refers to as “my baby.”
Shoals: Even the whole handing out books thing turned out to be a sham, or at least more stunt than anything else. “I’m the kind of coach who gives you books”.
Roth: That’s his brand. Dickish Dad Who Thinks You Should Read Siddartha, Steve Blake™. I imagine Jackson always having a little cone of bullshit-scented incense burning in his office.
Each Friday throughout the playoff season, GQ’s guest blogger Bethlehem Shoals will be joined by his pal and fellow hoop-head David Roth, a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal and The Awl, for a wide-ranging, savant-level dialogue about the week’s action and the games ahead. Oh and in case you’re wondering, “kibitz” is a Yiddish word for a chatty back-and-forth. Like so.
We’re delighted to report that our favorite hoop head (and FreeDarko founding author Bethlehem Shoals) will be spending the next two months writing about the most anticipated NBA playoff season since who-knows-when. Entry #1: Bethlehem’s Eastern Conference preview. Below, a sampler. Click the photo to read the whole thing.
Chicago Bulls (1) Vs. Indiana Pacers (8)
The Script: The Bulls, powered by MVP favorite Derrick Rose and defensive wiz Tom Thibodeau, are having one of those seasons. Expected to be much improved, they instead finished atop the East. No one ever watches Indiana, which is a shame, since they play fast without sacrificing much in the way of intensity. Expect an admirable, and entertaining, ass-kicking.
The Principles: My old pal Rose is sure to put on show; at this point, his imprint on big games is nearly automatic. He’s advanced weaponry in action, hoop-seeking mayhem that’s always one step ahead of defenders who know full well he’s coming straight at them. As for the Pacers, Danny Granger (the franchise scorer) and Darren Collison (the prized off-season acquisition) may remind us why we gave a damn about them last season.
Real Headz Know the Deal: Rose may steal the headlines—and grab our eyeballs on every single possession—but Joakim Noah might deserve his own newly-minted award. Maybe for “Heart and Soul of the Team?” The Pacers are getting better, not treading water; watch Tyler Hansbrough, the former Tar Heel star, and stereotypical honky Indy draft pick, who is on the verge of legitimacy.
The Finer Things: Pretty much everyone on the Bulls is underrated next to Rose. But if Noah is the team’s spine, then Luol Deng is its connective tissue. Watch for Pacers rookie Paul George, the kind of player who at any moment could do something you’ll see on YouTube five seconds later. But at least you can say you were there.
A Word About Your Coaches: Thibodeau’s schemes are nearly as formidable as Rose’s scoring—and may do more to explain the team’s success. Indiana’s Frank Vogel, technically an interim, is the league’s youngest head coach. He took over for Jim O’Brien, a disaster that everyone saw coming.
Overused Line That Will Haunt Your Dreams: A Twitter-ized, NSFW version of “Oh my, I can’t believe what Derrick Rose just did”.