Make Life Easy

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.

Passing Is Everything

I can’t remember where I saw this line of reasoning first, but it goes like this: the difference between being Seth Curry and being Steph Curry is all the stuff beyond shooting. In fact, while Seth has made 44.1 percent of his 3s over the course of his career, Steph is at 43.7. Meanwhile, Seth has worked his ass off to become a good rotation guy, and Steph is a legend.

The point here is that if you can’t dribble and pass well enough, it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting the ball. This goes for all the parts of playing basketball. Teams draft hyper-athletic players—think Jerami Grant, who was a monster last night in the Nuggets’ win over the Suns—in the hopes of teaching those players the mundane stuff that will allow them to harness their athleticism. The reverse happens, too, of course—think of the Celtics’ experiments with Glen Davis and Jared Sullinger over the past decade or so.

Anyway, when the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in 2016, the idea was that he was a project. An athletic wing, smart as hell, capable of learning how to be great. In various ways, he’s been both more and less than that, but through three years, while he’d had great moments and exceeded expectations here and there, his feel seemed to be lacking.

I’m being vague, because it’s hard to describe specifics. I think it comes down to passing. If you’re Jaylen Brown, and you have enough ball-handling and shooting and strength to get to your spots on the floor, the only thing left to prevent you from being great is your ability to see the floor. It tends to be the last piece to develop. Even in his destruction of the league in last season’s playoffs, it was clear there was room for Kawhi Leonard to improve his passing. This season, through two games, it feels like Kawhi is seeing it all. Everything has slowed down.

When players get great at seeing the floor and passing, they are able to exert outsized influence over the game as it is happening. Think late-career Jason Kidd, moving around the top of the key and slinging lasers all over the place. It was like he was operating the game from a distant control center. He was basically washed up as an athlete, but if you are great enough at thinking the game, and capable of leveraging your mind by moving the ball around through the pass, you can help a team win games.

Part of it is patience. You need to let the game develop. Jaylen used to go to the basket like a dart; he was a straight-line driver; he was without syncopation; there was no nuance to it. That’s one way of doing it, and if you’re lucky enough to have great teammates, you’ll usually get the ball with half a step on your defender, so your straight-line driving is an asset. To be great, you need to be able to manufacture your own leverage. Jaylen could always get to his spots, but now it seems like he’s in control when he gets there. He knows his options. Defenders are reacting to him—not vice versa.

So, yeah, part of it is patience, but part of it is vision. Passing is the great connector. Anyone who has ever learned a rudimentary press-break knows that dribbling is death. Passing is how you get to the good shit: run outs on fast breaks, wide open 3s, easy buckets. Great passing is the tactic for which there can be no accounting, because nobody can possibly move that fast. Passing takes a small advantage and explodes it into a huge one.

As a Celtics fan, I was optimistic heading into this season, but my biggest concern was that Jaylen (and Jayson Tatum, too) has been slow to develop as a passer. How far can you go as a team if your best players don’t see the floor better than the average replacement-level schmuck? I don’t want to overstate this; Jaylen just had four assists last night. Still, it feels like something fundamental has changed. On a fast-break in the 4th, with the C’s down one, Jaylen whipped a long bounce pass to Gordon Hayward for a lay-up that made a weird, “ohhhhh” sound come out of my mouth.

Jaylen is in control out there. He sees the game happening, and he has some control over how it happens. I’ve been a huge fan of Jaylen’s since before the Celtics drafted him, but for the first time, I think he might be truly special.