Make Life Easy
It is cliché — which is certainly not to suggest that it isn’t true — that one element of individual greatness in team sports is the ability of one player to make their teammates better. I found myself thinking about this as I anticipated Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the Nuggets and the Jazz, two teams notable for the way they seem to orbit around their centers. I realized that I don’t know exactly what better means.
Without question, Nikola Jokić and Rudy Gobert are tremendous basketball players. Jokić is an offensive system in and of himself; he’s a gravitational force around which bodies swirl unpredictably, and he has a space-bending ability to connect his teammates with long range laser-passes and short range dribble handoffs executed with balletic perfection. Gobert does his best work on defense; he exists as solid as a citadelle, or a kind of space station from which his teammates are able to travel as distant satellites in orbit mucking up the passing lanes of the opposition.
Playing offense with Jokić would be a blast. You’d get to try stuff out, to be creative, to stretch your limits. When you found yourself open, the ball would find you as if by magic. Playing defense with Gobert might have a similar kind of joy to it. You’d be able to take more chances, to be a little bolder. These kinds of joy have benefits beyond the immediate moments of their happening, too. When you stretch yourself, you get better at doing that. Trying things out allows you to know more about what is possible; even better, it actually expands the range of possibility.
Of course, the problem with Jokić and Gobert is that, in spite of their greatness on one side of the ball, they are far more ordinary on the other. Jokić is able to use his great hands and tremendous feel for the game to generally be in the right place and to rack up a ton of steals for a center, but he’s a liability because of his speed. Gobert provides his team’s offense a kind of vertical space, and he’s a wonderful screener and rebounder, but given his lack of shooting touch, it’s not difficult to account for him defensively.
When we talk about making one’s teammates better, maybe what we’re talking about is a kind of ease of existence. Does the presence of the player make it possible for the players around them to be better than they would otherwise be? Does that version of better have any permanence to it? Playing with a guy like Jokić, you would think, would make you a better passer, but would you be a better passer once you moved on from him? Once you signed a new contract someplace else?
As a Celtics fan, this whole way of looking at greatness has me thinking about The Jays. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown look absolutely incredible this season, and their development in the context of the Celtics’ disappointing offseason has me feeling a little frustrated. It feels a little like if they just had one more good teammate, the whole thing could really start humming.
On the other hand, why is everyone struggling around them so much? They’ve each improved so much as passers and ball handlers, and they’re each so solid on defense — so locked in to the concept of what the team is doing as a unit. It isn’t enough somehow. When they played the Lakers last night, it jumped off the screen to me how easy LeBron makes things for his teammates. Sure, The Jays can get where they want to get on the floor, and they were playing with admirable ferocity and efficiency, but there seemed to be countless sequences in which one of them would create a bucket out of nothing at the end of a whole possession of difficult labor, and then the Lakers would come down and LeBron would do some subtle little thing, seemingly as simple as a wave of a wand, and suddenly one of his teammates would have the easiest look in the world. It’s a wash. In the end, the Lakers won by a point.
And that’s a kind of okay, right? The C’s lost Marcus Smart down the stretch, and Kemba Walker couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and they lost by a point to the prohibitive title favorites. Nevertheless, I found myself appreciating LeBron more than ever. His control over the game is so total at this point that it nearly vanishes. The way he creates open space for his teammates, the way he seizes certain moments on defense, the way he bails his team out of rare moments of listlessness: it’s all so lovely. Maybe greatness is a kind of disappearance or acquiescence. It’s not so much that you’re making your teammates better; it’s that you’ve hit a kind of selflessness in which you can lose yourself. We’re trying to be ourselves, and when we get there — if we get there — we find to our happy surprise that we are part of everything.