2019-20 Previews: Atlanta Hawks

Losses: Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee, Taurean Prince, Justin Anderson, Omari Spellman.

Additions: Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando, Evan Turner. (Side note: While many folks are criticizing the Hawks for going into the season with Evan Turner as their backup point guard, I think it is a great decision. Evan Turner is going to be really good this year; you’ll see.)

Likely Starters
Guard: Trae Young
Wing: Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter
Big: John Collins, Alex Len (my guess is that Collins ends up moving up and that Allen Crabbe or Jabari Parker ends up in the starting lineup)

Predicted Record: 33–49 | 23rd in NBA | 10th in East

Before we start, I swear to God this is going to end up being an essay about the 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks. With that in mind:

Gorman Hall, UMass Amherst

My freshman year of college at UMass Amherst was somehow both seismically life-altering and profoundly uneventful. I spent close to every waking moment in one of two places: the dining commons (at UMass, you call this “The DC”) and my dorm room. I lived with Ian, my best friend from high school. The fact that we already knew each other made our dorm a natural hangout for any friends we made. Ian and I had been friends since kindergarten, and another friend from that kindergarten class, Jake, ended up in the same dorm as us.

Ian, Jake, and I spent a lot of time in that disgusting dorm room drinking Red Dog and doing one of two things: playing cribbage and playing Mario Kart on Nintendo 64. We would listen to one of two albums: Neil Young’s Harvest and The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. Life became an endless fog of cribbage hands and time trials. In the context of these activities, it felt like we had begun to speak a new language.

I remember that sometimes when I left the room the world seemed incredibly bright to me—too bright, really. Just going to hang out in my friend Marisa’s dorm room with another group of friends felt wild and astonishing. I barely remember going to class, though I did, and my grades were good. I did no work whatsoever, but somehow became a research assistant for an English professor, and I made photocopies for him of what felt to me at the time like obscure articles about connections between science and literature. I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I drank so much beer—just endless beer. I skated by in my weird fog, wasting the privilege of being young.

Though, come to think of it, I’ve never really felt young. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve felt like I was operating my life from a distant kind of mission control, watching my existence on a small screen. I remember, in particular, this one day during that first year of college when I decided to spend the entire day in the dining hall, and I remember feeling like, “Okay, I think I am living; I am here in the dining hall now, and now, and now.” Life was pathetic and meaningless. I look back on this period of time so fondly I can hardly breathe when I think about it. I would go back there in a second.

At some point, Mario Kart 64 became the main thing. The more we played, the better we got at it. The game had already been out for years, but I remembered having seen some contest in a friend’s copy of a Nintendo Power magazine where you could win some sort of special, golden controller if you got under a certain time on Mario Raceway. I knew the contest had been over for years already, but it seemed like a good goal. I’m sure I have these details wrong, and that I had them wrong at the time. What I remember is that Ian, Jake, and I would try to complete the course in less than 90 seconds.

And for a while, this seemed impossible. You couldn’t do it. I looked on the internet; people had done it. How had they done it? Somehow, in the year 2000, it did not occur to me to look for video. There was no YouTube; the internet was young; the only thing on the internet was a download of an mp3 of shitty bluegrass cover of “Gin and Juice.” Nevertheless, there were records of better Mario Raceway times.

Eventually, I remember my competitors falling away. I was spending more time on this activity than anyone else. Ian became interested in activism, and started going to meetings and making new friends. Jake started dating another friend of ours. More and more, I was alone. I kept playing Mario Kart. I kept racing the same course, shaving off seconds, perfecting turns and power slides, warping my sense of the physical world to imagine new pathways. The course itself was a field you could manipulate, and it began to make sense to me in pixels, as parcels of data. Everything was mostly nothing.

I shaved seconds off my time. I’d work on one thing for hours and gain, like, a tenth of a second. A hundredth. Eventually, I was under 90 seconds. Eventually, after months of this, I was under 80. I think at some point I got down to around 75. I’ll mention here that there are far better times out there; on YouTube there are videos of secrets and shortcuts I never discovered and patterns of power sliding I never considered.

What I learned from all of this is that you never know exactly what you are capable of in a given world. You never know the ways in which greater attention might alter what is possible. You never know what you might be missing, what you might have missed. You never know what you are taking on faith as impossible. I tend towards depression; I feel—and here I’m talking about right now, at the very moment in which I am writing this—impossibly lonely, and I feel that this feeling is intractable and endless. Life is brutally sad and disappointing, and yet, somehow, what I learned from Mario Kart provides some little bit of solace. You just have to keep trying, keep repeating the course, have a little faith you might see something you haven’t seen before.

Recently, Marcus Smart said the following in a quote from an article by Michael Lee in The Athletic: “A lot of people say doing the same thing over and ever and expecting different results is insanity. But for basketball players and athletes, we call that working.” When I read that quote, I thought about Mario Kart, and then I thought about Trae Young.

***

This iteration of the Atlanta Hawks, under the stewardship of Travis Schlenk, is being built, somewhat famously, in the image of the Steph Curry-era Warriors. Schlenk was the assistant GM in Oakland when Curry was becoming a basketball supernova, and the prevailing narrative around Trae Young is that the Hawks are hoping he is their Steph Curry. The question of what, exactly, that formulation means is a little slippery.

What is the thing about Steph? He’s the best shooter of all time. He’s able—because he’s a tremendous handler of the ball and a visionary passer—to leverage his shooting in myriad ways all over the court. He’s truly unselfish while also being alarmingly audacious; he’ll make any pass at any time, and he’ll take any shot from any spot on the court no matter who is guarding him. Basically, when Steph Curry is on the floor, the opponent is in a constant state of panic. They lose their strategic agency; they exist in a state of reaction.

Steph Curry, when you consider all of this, is without question one of the greatest basketball players ever. Entirely unique; entirely himself. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect these things of Trae Young, not because Trae Young isn’t also incredibly special, but because it is unreasonable to expect them of anyone. It was unreasonable to expect them of Steph Curry. Occasionally, someone like LeBron James comes around who is so obviously going to be great that we can pile expectations upon them and fully expect those very expectations to be summarily obliterated before our very eyes. For everyone else, greatness is a little surprising. You don’t get to see it coming.

Trae Young, for what it’s worth, might be his own thing. Last season, as a rookie, his assist percentage was over 40 and his usage percentage was over 28. No rookie in the history of the league has posted those numbers together. He also turned the ball over constantly and shot a lousy percentage on jump shots everywhere from the midrange to the far reaches of the 3-point arc. Trae Young, again, is not Steph Curry. He is a work in progress. His numbers point to the possibility of more, though. Already, at 20 years old, he was an NBA offense unto himself. Not a good one—the Hawks were 23rd in offensive efficiency last season—but not a terrible one either. The Hawks scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, but that number plummeted to a team-worst 101.9 when he sat. His team needed him. He was their engine.

I want to get back to audaciousness. During the fever dream of the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors run, I remember thinking a lot about their turnovers. They were a little careless, always. At times, it felt like a kind of Achilles’ heel, but at times, it also seemed to be their secret. They played with a kind of blind faith that made them impossible to handle. They were capable of anything, and the risk of making a few mistakes along the way was a necessary cost of their being within constant reach of transcendence.

What makes me so optimistic about Trae Young’s future—and, subsequently, the future of this version of the Hawks—is that he plays with this same sort of wild spirit. He plays basketball at the edge of basketball. What I mean is that some players are beholden to the limits of their own game moment by moment, but Trae Young is beholden to nothing but the limits of the game itself. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries, shooting from further away, slinging passes from more impossible angles, attempting to dribble through more unlikely traps. To this point in his career, there are more mistakes than you’d like. He’s fucking up a lot, wasting possessions, losing games; but he is also learning. Every mistake is a possible future success. He’s stretching his own idea of what is possible out there.

The way Trae Young plays basketball: it is a kind of insanity. In the present moment, it is often a bad idea. Even this coming season, the Hawks will lose a lot. Trae will shoot them out of games. He’ll commit too many turnovers, waste too many possessions. The Hawks will let that happen, because they are interested in what might be possible. On the Mario Raceway of the NBA, they are trying to shave off impossible seconds. They are reimagining the race itself. We can’t see from here what, exactly, they will end up being. Trae Young is in the lab, working, but he hasn’t invented that future quite yet.

2019-20 Previews: Chicago Bulls

Losses: Robin Lopez, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Wayne Selden.

Additions: Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet, Coby White, Daniel Gafford.

Likely Starters
Guard: Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine
Wing: Otto Porter
Big: Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. 

Predicted Record: 30–52 | 24th in NBA | 11th in East

The 2018-19 Bulls were a tough watch. They were terrible on offense (29th); they played slow; they tried to limit transition points (they were last in offensive rebound rate). They seemed sort of joyless. They formed a leadership committee. I’ll be honest here: I did not watch a ton of Bulls games in 2018-19.

Even so, I’m intrigued by what’s here. Zach LaVine—a longtime favorite of mine—and Otto Porter make a potentially devastating wing tandem. The two only got to play 13 games together, but in them they shared the court for 29 minutes on average. During those minutes, the Bulls had an offensive rating of 116.6, which would have led the league by a good margin. Even their defensive rating of 112.1 was better than the Bulls’ season-long rating of 112.8. They also bumped their pace up in those minutes from 99.3 (20th) to 102.4 (would have been ninth over the full season).

LaVine and Porter are a clean fit. LaVine wants to have the ball, use possessions, get to the line, set guys up; Porter wants to stretch the floor and play off the ball. Porter, at least in theory, can cover for LaVine’s inattentive defense. LaVine is 24 and Porter is 26. They should be better this season.

Around them is a roster that is beginning to come into focus. The Bulls signed Thaddeus Young, who will be an excellent fit alongside either Wendell Carter or Lauri Markkanen in the frontcourt. They picked up Luke Kornet, who can stretch the floor as a 5, and drafted Daniel Gafford, who has a ton of talent and looked good in summer league. In the backcourt, they picked up Tomas Satoransky from the Wizards, they get back Denzel Valentine from a year lost to injury, they brought back Ryan Arcidiacono, and they used their lottery pick on Coby White. Kris Dunn is still here. Shaq Harrison is a decent fourth guard.

What the Bulls have is lots of shooting, lots of positional versatility, lots of possible lineup combinations. I don’t know if Jim Boylen is the coach to take this team to whatever their next level is, but for the first time in a while, I like the Bulls’ roster. They aren’t special yet—nobody on this roster leaps out at you as a potential star—but it isn’t going to be easy to play against the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls, and in comparison to recent seasons, that’s a victory.

2019-20 Previews: Phoenix Suns

Losses: T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes, Jamal Crawford, DeAnthony Melton.

Additions: Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric, Cheick Diallo, Jevon Carter, Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, Jared Harper.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker
Wing: Mikal Bridges
Big: Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton

Predicted Record: 30–52 | 25th in NBA | 14th in West

Some NBA mistakes are timeless, and this summer the Suns made a few of them:

  • Drafting an older player because that player seems to be more “NBA ready.” The Suns drafted Cameron Johnson, age 23, with the idea that his shooting ability will help them now. They did this last year with Mikal Bridges, too. In both cases, my guess is that they’ll eventually regret not drafting players with more long-term potential. It’s nice to get a rotation player, but drafting in the lottery is a chance to do more than that.
  • Trading for a veteran on the verge of a big contract when your team is still still rebuilding. They got Dario Saric and the 11th pick (they drafted Cameron Johnson) for the 6th pick (the Timberwolves took Jarrett Culver). Dario Saric is a nice player, but unless the Suns are prepared to offer him a big contract after the season, I’m not sure I understand the urgency of getting him now. It’s the kind of trade a team on the verge of contention makes; it’s the kind of trade that makes me think the Suns don’t have a realistic vision of what their team is.
  • Signing Aron Baynes. You shouldn’t sign Aron Baynes unless you are exactly an Aron Baynes away from competing for a title. Admittedly, the Suns also swapped a late first round pick next year (belonging to the Bucks) for the 24th pick in this draft, which they used on Ty Jerome. On the other hand, the Suns had to trade T.J. Warren—a very good offensive player on a reasonable contract—into Indiana’s cap space (giving up the 32nd pick in this draft for the privilege) in order to create the space they ended up using to take on Baynes. All together, they gave up Warren, this year’s 32nd pick, and Milwaukee’s 2020 first round pick for Baynes, Ty Jerome, and cash.

Still, while this team could have come out of this summer with a far better long-term prognosis, there is no denying that for the first time in a few years, the Suns have a competent NBA roster. More importantly, for the first time in his NBA career, we are going to get to see Ricky Rubio on a roster where he will be surrounded by players who can shoot the ball.

Rubio, to me, is the one chance this Suns team has of blasting past what all of us are expecting them to be. In every year of his career, in spite of all of the anxiety over his inability to shoot, Rubio’s team has been better with him on the court, sometimes alarmingly so:

Rubio’s net rating on-court and off-court each season, per nba.com/stats

Remember that Rubio was supposed to be a star when he arrived here from Spain. We know that he’s a tenacious defender, a great teammate, and a visionary passer. We know that in spite of the fact that he seems to be lacking so many of the skills we look for in stars in 2019, his teams have always needed him on the floor. It is at least possible that Rubio unlocks something in guys like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. It’s possible that, surrounded by better outside shooters, Rubio, at age 28 and ostensibly in the prime of his career, has the most optimal NBA roster he’s ever had.

The thing I love most about basketball is that we never exactly know how it works. Certain combinations of players succeed or fail, and we try to use those successes and failures as templates for the future, but usually we’re at least a little off. The mysterious synergy that makes a great team great is always unpredictable. Consider, for example, the way the Warriors launched into the stratosphere when David Lee got hurt and they were forced to play Draymond Green. Consider the stylistic improbability of the entire Ben Wallace Era in Detroit last decade.

The Suns are a joke; it’s true. Look no further than the goats in the previous GM’s office. Nevertheless, the Suns have been drafting near the top of the draft for long enough that this roster has potential. Ayton could be special. Booker is, without question, an elite offensive player. This season looks to me like Ricky Rubio’s last chance of finding himself in the NBA. I’m rooting like hell for that to happen.

2019-20 Previews: Washington Wizards

Losses: Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Sam Dekker, Jeff Green, Chasson Randle. My hot take here is that Sato is the only one who matters.

Additions: C.J. Miles, Davis Bertans, Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, Rui Hachimura, Admiral Schofield, and the contracts they took off the Lakers after the Lakers screwed up the salary cap mechanics on the Anthony Davis trade: Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ish Smith, Bradley Beal
Wing: Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura
Big: Thomas Bryant (possibly Davis Bertans at the 4 or 5?)

Predicted Record: 29–53 | 26th in NBA | 12th in East

There was a brief moment somewhere along the way where I remember saying out loud that John Wall was my favorite player in the NBA. At his peak, he surged through the game electrically, and sometime around 2015-16 that electricity started to flow out of him like laser beams. He was, for a little while, one of those special superstars who sees plays happening before everyone else, and he had, for a little while, the athleticism to leverage the advantages his mind was giving him. He was a wonderful basketball player.

That’s all over now, it seems. There may be a second act for Wall, but his litany of injuries—culminating in a ruptured Achilles tendon (it happened at home, where he was already missing significant time recovering from surgery to remove bone spurs from his left heel)—will have likely sapped much of his electricity by the time he plays basketball again. If he misses this entire season, he’ll be 30 when that happens.

Everything in that last paragraph is why the supermax extension he signed in July of 2017—it just kicked in this summer—is at this very moment the least team-friendly contract in the NBA. There’s a cliche in the NBA that there’s no such thing as an untradable contract, but John Wall is going to opt in to a $47.4M team option for the 2022-23 season. That’s happening. Even if the Wizards tether him to a reasonably-paid star like Bradley Beal, it’s hard to imagine any other team seeing that combination as a smart way of team-building.

All of this is pretty bleak for the Wizards, and that bleakness makes the Wizards kind of interesting to me. When there’s no hope, you have to find hope; that’s how hope works. When the Nets were the most depressing team in the NBA, they wormed themselves out of it by scouring the league for interesting second draft types (they hit on D’Angelo Russell), using their cap space to pick up assets in exchange for taking on bad contracts, and evaluating talent well. The Wizards have an opportunity to find their own wormhole out of this nightmare.

And for all the bleakness, the Wizards have Bradley Beal, who turned 26 this summer and last season posted career bests in usage rate, assist rate, rebound rate, steal rate, and block rate while leading the league in minutes. In a 30-team league, the Wizards have one of the 15-20 best players. Would you rather be a Wizards fan or a Hornets fan right now?

Consider the following:

  1. In C.J. Miles, Davis Bertans, and Ian Mahinmi, the Wizards have $31M in expiring salary they can send out in a deal after December 15th. That’s enough to bring back a star on a max contract should one become available.
  2. They have all their first round picks moving forward.
  3. They are smartly dipping their toes into the world of distressed and undervalued assets, picking up Isaiah Thomas on the cheap and taking a flier on Mo Wagner and friends from the Lakers.

You look at it all, and maybe it doesn’t seem so bad. After years of terrible, short-sighted decisions under Ernie Grunfeld, it appears that the Wizards are beginning to be sensible. Yes, things will be rough in the standings for a little while, but there are fun players on this team. In the NBA, you don’t generally get to plateau. You are either climbing or falling. After years of falling, my read on this is that the Wizards are climbing, and they’ve packed well, and I’ve heard there are good views up there, and look at that sky; it’s actually a pretty nice day.

2019-20 Previews: New York Knicks

“We are only what we are; not what we would be; nor every thing we hope for.”

Herman Melville in Mardi, 1849

“For tho’ we know what we ought to be; & what it would be very sweet & beautiful to be; yet we can’t be it.”

Herman Melville in a letter to Sophia Hawthorne, January 8th, 1852

Losses: DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet, and a few other guys I’m not going to bother with here.

Additions: They drafted R.J. Barrett and Iggy Brazdeikis. They signed Julius Randle, who might be a great get for them. They picked up Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock, who can shoot it. They picked up Elfrid Payton. They also picked up a bunch of power forwards that they will most likely trade over the course of the next year or so: Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson.

Likely Starters
Guard: Dennis Smith Jr.
Wing: R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox
Big: Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson

Predicted Record: 25–57 | 27th in NBA | 13th in East

Herman Melville was born in New York City, and he died there—just a block down East 26th St. from the site of the first two Madison Square Garden locations—72 years later. Over the course of his life, in spite of—or, perhaps, because of—his prodigious talent, he was a commercial failure as a writer. His life is an endless procession of bursts of genius followed by misunderstandings, failure, disappointment, you name it.

Melville’s history of passionate obsession, enormous expectations, and dashed hopes feels somehow Knicksian to me. And yet Melville managed to quietly recede into himself, spending the last 30 years of his life writing poems and working as a customs official in New York City (where he had a reputation as an honest man amidst a great deal of corruption). There might be a small victory in this, considering the above quotes. There is something to be gained, perhaps, in coming to terms with whatever it is we are.

The failures of the Knicks over the past 20 years can in many cases be attributed to a comical lack of self-awareness. The terrible decisions of the Knicks can almost always be traced back to deeply delusional readings of the state of the franchise in a given moment. We don’t need to litigate those decisions here; suffice it to say that the events of this offseason have been more of the same.

Beneath the delusions, you can start to see the vague forms of a competent plan. The Knicks did, after all, engage in a rebuild, finally, after years of buckling under the idiotic conventional wisdom that said Knicks fans would never embrace a rebuild. They have a clean cap sheet, and are now stocked with a roster of decent, tradeable players who don’t fit together in the context of actual basketball games. I could go on.

I won’t though, because it doesn’t matter. The Knicks are owned by James Dolan, and they will be a misguided and delusional mess of a franchise until that changes. It’s hard to read the events of this summer—KD and Kyrie choosing the Nets first and foremost among them—as anything but an indictment of Dolan. Why would you want to play for that guy? In what universe could you convince yourself that your interests appear anywhere in the cosmic map of shit he cares about?

Herman Melville died at the end of September in 1891. A few months later, Dr. James Naismith invented the sport of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts. I like to think that Melville would have liked basketball, that he would have appreciated the intricate teamwork at play and the constant movement. He was sad New York office worker who for the last, long stretch of his life went home at the end of the day and wrote poems. Poor bastard would have definitely been a Knicks fan.

2019-20 Previews: Memphis Grizzlies

Losses: 28 dudes played for this team last year, and the vast majority of them seemed to pass through like shoppers at a mall looking for some nameless though unfindable thing. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are gone. Chandler Parsons, mercifully, is gone. Joakim Noah, probably, too. Delon Wright and Garrett Temple are gone. Something new is beginning.

Additions: The young guys: Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson, DeAnthony Melton, Grayson Allen. But also, the old guys: Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ja Morant, Andre Iguodala (until he's traded, then Grayson Allen?)
Wing: Kyle Anderson
Big: Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas

Predicted Record: 23–59 | 28th in NBA | 15th in West

When I was a kid, my favorite video game was Mega Man (Mega Man 2 was my favorite iteration of the series, and the one I’ll reference here). You can read about the plot here, but suffice to say that Mega Man is a humanoid robot trying to save the world from Dr. Wily and his band of rogue humanoid robots gone berserk. In the game, as Mega Man, you have to defeat each of Wily’s robots, each of whom has a different special weapon, before you can move on to defeating Dr. Wily himself. As you defeat each robot, you acquire that robot’s special weapon. Flash Man can freeze time around him. Metal Man shoots out circular saw blades. You get the idea.

What’s cool is that the game becomes endlessly replayable, because the order in which you defeat the evil robots determines the order in which you acquire the weapons needed to defeat the next robots. For example, Quick Man’s boomerang shooter makes it much easier to defeat Flash Man, but it is incredibly difficult to defeat Quick Man without first acquiring Flash Man’s time stopper. Dilemmas like this add to the allure of the game by allowing you to create interesting challenges for yourself along the way. Mega Man is a game of matchups.

In Mega Man, nothing exists untethered from context around it. You can’t say which evil robot is the most difficult to defeat, because the answer depends on which robots you’ve already defeated. There’s no perfect way of going through the game; in fact, it all depends on what parts of the game you’re good at or struggle with. Each player of Mega Man is different, and will make her way through the game in her own particular way depending on her own strengths and weaknesses.

In this way, Mega Man is a lot like the NBA. The players on a team together possess a wide set of skills and abilities, and those skills and abilities succeed or fail against other teams depending on how they match up with one another. We tend to think of basketball players as more or less talented as individuals, but the truth is that their ability to play the game depends on the context around them. Just as Time Stopper makes it easier for Mega Man to defeat Flash Man, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s ability to block shots makes it easier for the Grizzlies to defeat, say, the Hornets. 

JJJ, in particular, is a wonderful test case for what counts as a superstar big man in 2019-20. Jackson is an entirely unique combination of size, shooting, and defensive ability. It is instructive to compare him with last season’s #1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton. Ayton posted the gaudier traditional raw stats, but JJJ’s game is evolutionary. He gets to the line more than Ayton. He takes and makes infinitely more 3s. He blocks more shots. He uses more possessions. What all of this means is that JJJ is easy to build around. To go back to Mega Man: having JJJ on your team is like having Atomic Fire AND Air Shooter when you face Wood Man. JJJ’s combination of useful weapons makes it so much easier to play basketball. 

JJJ’s game means the Grizzlies can comfortably draft a guy like Ja Morant, radiating with incendiary talent but still sporting some holes in his overall game. The threat of Jackson’s shooting in the pick-and-pop game should give Ja plenty of room to probe the paint. Jackson’s athleticism rolling down the middle should open up space for Ja to find shooters. Jackson’s defensive ability should allow Ja the freedom to bust up passing lanes and run around like a maniac. My point here is that JJJ’s presence has the potential to unlock the best possible version of his teammate. If Ja had to play with Deandre Ayton instead of with JJJ, many of Ja’s strengths would suddenly be mitigated. Ultimately, it would impact his ability to be great himself. 

One of the great little secrets of any deep and abiding NBA fandom is this: rebuilds are sorta sweet. Sure, the teardown part—the plodding and tortured departures of Tony, Zach, Marc, and finally Mike—sucks, but after that? It’s pretty great. As a fan, you get to cheer the successes and ignore the failures. It’s all youth and promise. Players are defined by their potential and not their failure to live up to it. It’s joyous. It’s almost better than winning.

Eventually, the Grizzlies will likely flip guys like Iguodala and Crowder for more fodder for their rebuild—picks and young guys. Tyus Jones looks like a good level-headed caretaker point guard to pair with Ja (Jones led the whole damn league in assist-to-turnover ratio last year). Brandon Clarke was one of the best players in the country last year at Gonzaga, and he probably should have been drafted much higher than 21st. Ivan Rabb, Grayson Allen, DeAnthony Melton, and, I guess, Josh Jackson are all worth a look on a team at this stage. These things are all peripheral though. At the center of everything is JJJ, and the way his game has the potential to make his teammates better. 

So, Grizzlies fans, you know what? These right here? These are the salad days. By the end of this season, we’ll probably be worrying about Ja’s jump shot. Come to think of it, why isn’t JJJ a better rebounder? Tyus Jones is okay, but maybe $8M/year is too much? The shine of this team, I’m sure, will have begun, almost imperceptibly, to weather. I always hated the end of Mega Man 2. Beating Dr. Wily was a letdown. The end wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the beginning, when I was challenging myself to see if I could do it without the best weapons, when I didn’t know what was fully possible. 

Eventually, the Grizzlies will start winning more games, start cashing in some chips, and in a few years, maybe they’ll be a pseudo-contender. Maybe they’ll even be a real one, and you’ll tell yourself how much you love it, but in the parts of your heart where the truth hides away, you’ll know. It was better when it was going to happen, not when it was happening. 

2019-20 Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers

Losses: When you are sinking to the bottom of the sea, can any weight cast off really be considered a loss? I sorta liked David Nwaba though.

Additions: John Beilein (coach), Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr. 

Likely Starters
Guard: Darius Garland, Collin Sexton
Wing: Cedi Osman
Big: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson

Predicted Record: 19-63 | 29th in NBA | 14th in East

It isn’t so long ago, is it? One almost feels the sense of being back in those times: a breeze coming in off the lake on a bright, clear evening, a good basketball team providing some modicum of meaning to whatever the hell is happening here. LeBron James played his final game for the Cavaliers (this time around, anyway) on June 8th, 2018. If I understand time correctly, that was barely more than a year ago. 

As suddenly as he had appeared, LeBron was gone again, leaving in his wake, yet again, the rotting carcass of a bloated roster built to appease him. The Cavs gathered up the pieces, maxing out Kevin Love to preserve the asset (unclear at this point whether that was a good idea) and taking fliers on flotsam like Marquese Chriss and Sauce Castillo. Somehow, though they finished the 2018-19 season with just 19 wins, they were capped out. Somehow they still are.

The Sauce Castillo in Cleveland Era: 2/5/19 – 4/9/19

Recently, I visited the Ball Mountain Dam in Vermont. As I walked alone along the spillway, peering off down the length of the reservoir, the slopes of Stratton Mountain off in the distance to the west, I noticed that the ground beneath me seemed parched and cracked, and yet gorgeous, tiny weeds and shoots of grass dotted the world, finding purchase where they could. It was more beautiful than an actually beautiful place could be. There was a kind of pathetic, pleading hope in it. 

Ball Mountain Dam, West River Trail

This is the situation the Cavaliers now find themselves in, at the start of the second year of their second post-LeBron reconstruction. There are hints of promise. John Beilein is definitely a good basketball coach (though we’ll have to see how he translates his message from college to NBA audiences). Collin Sexton (the prize of the Kyrie Irving trade) shot 40% on 3s as a rookie. Larry Nance is kinda good at rebounding. Dylan Windler has looked, like, actually awesome in summer league. There exist wonderful dreams of Kevin Love trades both bountiful and enriching. On the other hand, is this whole experiment with Sexton and new rookie Darius Garland in the same backcourt doomed to fail? What purpose, exactly, does Jordan Clarkson serve in this context? Can something be done with the expiring contracts of former legends like Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova? How in holy hell is Brandon Knight still getting paid?

Crest of the Ball Mountain Dam

The question you—sitting on your couch trying to write about the 2019-20 Cleveland Cavaliers—have to ask yourself is this: what did it all mean? Do you ever get the feeling that the experiences of your life don’t really belong to you anymore? The Cavaliers are recent winners of an NBA championship. Certainly, that should linger in our minds a little, right? Certainly, that should color our perception of the franchise. The sad truth is that it doesn’t. LeBron passed through Cleveland twice, both times due to uncontrollable forces of personal history and sheer luck. He never belonged to them. It’s devastating to admit, but the present and the future are all that matters now. The weeds are here. The dam can’t hold forever. Eventually, all evidence of our infrastructure will have vanished. The river will be the river again. 

2019-20 Previews: Charlotte Hornets

MKG doing…something. Shooting? It can’t be shooting, right?

Losses: They lost Jeremy Lamb, and Tony Parker retired, but the loss that is sending them from mediocrity into a kind of experiment in talentlessness is Kemba Walker.

Additions: They signed (really acquired in a sign-and-trade with Boston) Terry Rozier to a ludicrous 3 year/$57M contract (at least it descends each year?). They drafted PJ Washington, who is actually kinda promising. They also picked up Cody and Caleb Martin (twins!), and given the dearth of promise on this team, those guys might actually get some chances this season.

Likely Starters
Guard: Terry Rozier, Dwayne Bacon (can Malik Monk play alongside Rozier?)
Wing: Nic Batum, Marvin Williams (Miles Bridges is in the mix, too)
Big: Cody Zeller

Predicted Record: 19–63 | 30th in NBA | 15th in East

I mean, listen, he might actually be good, right?

When it comes to finding meaning in the world around us, perhaps we tend to gloss over how much of the work is done by our ability to discern general patterns. I think about this sometimes when I am following a trail in the woods. On even a pretty well-marked trail, one inevitably, at least once, finds oneself momentarily blind to the next trail marker. Generally, one knows where to go anyway, takes a few hopeful, probing steps, and then, sure enough, there it is: a blaze of yellow on a tree, a pile of stones artfully arranged on a stump, something. In moments of deeper reflection, I can’t help but think: what if there was nothing? What then?

It is alarmingly true that the world generally tells us what we’re supposed to make of it; as such, the majority of our opinions—even those that feel most personally identifiable to us—are given to us over the long course of our socialization within that world. What this means is that most of what counts as conventional wisdom ends up going entirely unchecked; our assumptions are so dearly and thoughtlessly held as to be nearly unregistered by us as assumptions.

If we were vulnerable forest creatures, one thing that would be obvious to us is that anything we’re not noticing might have the potential to kill us. Predators have to sneak up on prey, right? Why are they able to do that? You only notice what you’re capable of noticing, and the whole rest of the universe is made up of blind spots. If you think about it this way, a living thing’s ability to go on living could be said to depend on its ability to widen the scope of what it is able to perceive. Challenging assumptions isn’t just morally beneficial; it is essential to survival.

Now consider you are a fan of the Charlotte Hornets. The team you root for is at this moment almost entirely devoid of rotation-caliber NBA talent. Where would the best player on this team at the moment rank on a list of the best players in the NBA? 100th? 200th? Who even is that player? Terry Rozier? Marvin Williams? I believe this team—when it comes to winning and losing—has a chance to be one of the worst basketball teams we have ever seen, and what’s worse, there is almost nothing here to hope for. Maybe Malik Monk becomes a competent NBA scorer? Maybe Miles Bridges is good?

And yet, because we know that our very survival depends on our ability to try to broaden our perspective, it is incumbent upon us to try thinking about this in a different way. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote:

Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.

Here we are reminded that broadening our perspective is about subtlety. As a Hornets fan, you must subtilize your fandom. Could there be something to find joy in beyond winning? Something beyond, even, the hope of future winning? What might we be missing in all of this?

Whale with the bemused expression of a 2019-20 Hornets fan no longer under the tyrannical spell of caring about winning.

The answer, I think, is simply the sport itself. At the bottom of everything, beneath all the schemes and sets and salary cap sheets, there is basketball. There is simply the fact that there is a game to watch, and players playing in it. It might be the case that all of our attention to what we conceive of as success is distracting us from what might be an even greater joy. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that at times this summer it has felt like the conversation around basketball has moved further and further away from the game itself. In Charlotte this season, this absolutely garbage roster will serve as a kind of experiment in what basketball is when there is no meaning in it whatsoever beyond the fact that it is happening. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing whether I can enjoy it.

Alone Out There: On Russ & Harden

A few years ago, I wrote roughly 1500 words about a regular season game between the Thunder and the Pacers from late in the 2014-15 season. In that game, Russell Westbrook scored 54 points on 43 shots and the Thunder lost by 12. As a result, they ended up just missing the playoffs. That season, Durant had been injured and only played 27 games. For the rest of the season, Russ went nuts. The game swirled around him like a cyclone. Or maybe it was a black hole. Watching him was exhilarating but also alarming. After the late-season loss to the Pacers, I wrote of Russ, “It felt like he was all alone out there. It felt like the other people on the court were ghosts. Russ seemed to be part of a drama no one else could see. The basketball game started to disappear.”

Watching the Rockets this year, at times, felt like a version of the same thing. It is not hard to argue that, over the long history of the NBA, the recent iterations of Russell Westbrook and James Harden have carried a bigger offensive load than any other players ever have. It is fair to wonder whether it is possible for these two particular players to coexist on a basketball team. Certainly, each has picked up some bad habits over the years since they last played together: resting up on the defensive end, failing to engage off the ball, making questionable decisions in key moments, etc. It is fair to think this experiment is destined for failure.

One of the many paradoxes of basketball is that of all the team sports, basketball is the one in which individual players have the most influence over winning, and yet, at the same time, the fluid nature of the game means that combinations of players succeed or fail in often surprising ways. Talent tends to win out, but only if that talent is able to cohere beneficially. Russell Westbrook is not traditionally an easy fit. Russell Westbrook is a meteorite screaming through the sky, and you don’t generally ask a meteorite to adjust to what the rest of the heavenly spheres are up to. A meteorite just keeps screaming. The sky is almost irrelevant.

And yet, in the face of all logic, having sat with the news of Russ-to-the-Rockets for a little while now, I’m feeling strangely optimistic. As I often do in times of profound confusion, I looked up some stats. Back in 2011-12, Russ & Harden played 1231 regular season minutes together over 62 games, and the Thunder had a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of 11.3. In the playoffs, they shared the court for 458 minutes over 20 games and the net rating went up to 14.7. 11.3 is elite; 14.7 is scorched earth. In both cases Russ + Harden was OKC’s best 2-man combo on the offensive end. 

Obviously, I am aware that these statistics are basically ancient runes at this point. Those were different players, and that was a different league. Harden made 113 of 292 3s that season, and 86% of those were assisted. This past season, Harden made 378 (!) of 1028 (!!) 3s, and just 16% of those were assisted (!!!!!!!!!!). Meanwhile, Russ made us think about triple-doubles so much over the past few seasons that he drained the concept of mystique entirely. The point is, we’ve all been through a lot since the 2012 Finals. We’re irrevocably changed. 

Basically, what we’ve got is a bunch of statistical evidence that Russ and Harden might be the two least malleable players in the NBA, so singularly who they are that it feels impossible to imagine them otherwise. They may be past their primes. They likely are. And yet, many years ago, together, they were more together than their individual selves. The thing about basketball—the thing for which there is just no accounting—is that in basketball, context is everything. It’s why individual players are so important. A great player can make other players greater. Russ and Harden have spent years crafting games somewhat antithetical to this idea, but now they are together again. What will that look like? What will it mean?

Around 335 million years ago, the tectonic churning under the massive plates of the Earth’s crust formed of the continents a supercontinent. Around 175 million years ago, those plates drifted apart. Evidence suggests that the forming and breaking apart of supercontinents has been cyclical throughout the geological history of Earth. One might think of time itself as a this sort of endless drift, great forces coming together and breaking apart, a kind of planetary breathing. 

Two great forces of basketball have collided now in Houston, and years from now, our ancestors will read the fossilized evidence of what that was like. They will wonder if we saw it coming, but if they look at their own lives, they’ll know we had no idea.