Lou & Trez

There’s a whole essay to write about what is going on with the Lakers, and the profound insanity of playing LeBron and AD at the 3 and the 4 instead of the 4 and the 5. I’m interested in why the players insist on it. I’m interested in why the coaches are willing to let it happen. On its face, it makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s going to cost them games like the one it cost them last night against the Clippers. Psychologically, it’s interesting to me, but I’m not going to write about it, because I’m going to write about Lou & Trez.

The idea of the 6th Man is, at this point, a timeless basketball archetype. John Havlicek, Bobby Jones, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Cliff Robinson, Ben Gordon, Manu Ginobili, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams: these players constitute a lineage of singular bucket-getters and rhythm-alterers who sacrificed the dumb glory of starting for the true glory of kicking ass.

What feels unique about Lou & Trez is kinda simple: there are two of them; they are together. Also, they play, like, the whole fucking game. These dudes played 37 and 38 minutes last night—most of anyone on either team, just slightly more than LeBron and AD. Basically, once they checked in, they didn’t come out.

Lou & Trez are a rich combination of stylistic strangeness and harmony. Lou is a technician, all staccato jabs and slices. He’s a genius at taking what you give him. You drop back, he pulls up. You lurch forward, he knifes by you. He’s a master at the extra dribble; he’s a master at the wrong foot. Trez is a goddamned bulldozer, but he’s light on his feet. He’s relentless, but he’s got touch. He’s the kind of player about whom you find yourself pontificating, “Ah, yes, you see: energy is a skill.” Together, they make screens sing. To Lou Williams, a defender is just a traffic cone in a river, and he is the water itself. To Montrezl Harrell, a defender is a statue of sand in a storm.

The Clippers! What a great team! They get to be so many things. They’ve got the standard issue basketball team: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet or Mo Harkless depending on how you want to play, Kawhi, PG, Ivica Zubac or JaMychal Green. Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder filling in gaps. Mfiondu Kabengele and Jerome Robinson waiting in the wings. You can do really competent, regular basketball shit with those guys. Fuck: that team might be a title contender already. How wonderful to also have Lou & Trez, a joyous cyclone of smarts and fun, an offensive system in and of itself.

Often, when we talk about great players, we talk about how they make their teammates better. Last night, I started thinking of Lou & Trez as their own kind of great player unit. Together, they create a hub that lets everyone else just play basketball. Alongside them, Green gets open 3s, Harkless sneaks and cuts, Shamet comes off screens shooting or attacking closeouts. It just works, and in a moment in basketball in which we seem to be veering towards various forms of stylistic hegemony, it’s nice to see this kind of searing, enlightened madness rising off the bench for the Clips.

2019-20 Previews: Los Angeles Clippers

Losses: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace.

Additions: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson, Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann.

Likely Starters
Guard: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet
Wing: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
Big: Ivica Zubac

Predicted Record: 56–26 | 3rd in NBA | 2nd in West

Finally, we have reached the Los Angeles Clippers. Once a talented roster screwed over by the managerial incompetence of their coach, “Cool story, Glenn” Rivers, the Clippers spent the past two years nailing every decision (including retaining Glenn), fleshing out an incredibly deep and seasoned roster, and creating an ecosystem that could attract the kind of star who can win the whole damn thing. This summer, they got that star. Kawhi Leonard decided he wanted to play for the Clippers. It took trading everything that wasn’t nailed down in order to pry Paul George from the Thunder, but it worked. If this roster is totally healthy heading into the playoffs, it’s the best roster in the league for sure.

If I was trying to explain the glorious possibilities inherent in basketball to someone who had never seen or heard of sports before, I think I’d make them watch Kawhi Leonard. He is somehow both machine-like and fluid. Like The Borg, he seems to be both cybernetic and organic; like an Olympic gymnast, he moves with unimaginable balance and strength. Hands like magnets; hands like vice-grips. Kawhi is like if wind was a dude; he’s like if a rock briefly became water, took the shape of a man, and then became rock again while maintaining all of water’s physical attributes.

Somehow, Kawhi Leonard made the Toronto Raptors win the title last season. Friends, winning titles basically is impossible. It almost never happens. The people who do it tend to do it over and over, and the rest of the people don’t get to do it. The exceptions you are muttering to yourself right now just prove the rule. In order to win a title—and here I mean: in order to be the meaning-making force at the center of a championship team—you need to be one of the all-time greats. This dude, playing hurt, played 39 minutes per game in the playoffs, and he averaged 30 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. And he led the league in times a player made me yelp and howl and make sounds I don’t even know how to make.

It’s kind of insane that you can just, like, sign a guy like that to a contract. The Clippers, it became clear as the days passed by in the first week of July, were willing to do whatever it took to do just that. Who could blame them? If you could hire the best person in the world for a particular job to do that job, wouldn’t you try to do that?

For my part, I’ve been having all these thoughts over the past few years about what it means to root for a team, and how that meaning survives or doesn’t in the context of a sport in which players don’t generally spend very long in one place. This summer, for example, I actually did not want my beloved Celtics to try to acquire Anthony Davis. I know Davis would have made them better, but even if I thought they could have kept him, I wasn’t interested. I’m not giving up Marcus Smart to get Anthony Davis. I love watching Marcus Smart. It’s the best. It can’t just be about getting the best players, right? At some point, love has to matter.

Kawhi, though. Sheesh. This guy exists outside of all of that nonsense. He comes with the love baked right in. Everything he does is this optimized, perfect action. Do I love watching him play basketball? I don’t know, does the fucking basketball love being a basketball? With Kawhi, it doesn’t make sense to talk about things like fandom and love. He is—or rather, he seems to me to be—basketball itself.

This Clippers team is perfect for him. They’d be decent without him. Like last season’s Raptors, they are a team with an identity already. You’ve got Lou and Trez running screen-and-roll, and the rest of the roster fits in around that, multipositional, tough, good on both ends of the floor. When Kawhi’s out there, they will wrap around him like a cozy blanket.

I’m not saying the Clippers are going to win the title. I think Denver and Milwaukee will win more regular season games. I think the Clippers are the most likely team to win the title, but it’s not a sure thing. Kawhi, for everything I wrote above, is enigmatic, challenging, breakable. He averaged 30 in the playoffs, sure, but he also hobbled around like an old man trying to get out of bed late on a Sunday morning. Frankly, I’m not sure how he did it. He carefully managed himself all season, and barely had anything left in the tank when it was over. Paul George is currently injured. This is not a sure thing.

What is a sure thing is this: when he’s right, Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world right now. Any other worlds? I’d like to see them try.