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. 

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.