The NBA Playoffs As Character Study

March Madness is a bloviated process in a changing sports world. ESPN and the NCAA must be reeling from this lack of attention to the amateur basketball front. The University of North Carolina produces an NBA pedigree unlike its main rival from Durham, North Carolina. This we know. A starting five of Kenny Smith, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace and Antawn Jamison easily defeats Jay Williams, J.J. Redick, Grant Hill, Elton Brand and Christian Laettner. When the presumptive Number One Tarheels came in to Cameron Indoor Stadium to trounce the Blue Devils on March 5th, there was an air of anti-climax given how inferior a team of automated three-point shooting high school stars ranks against quick, semi-professional, game-tested titans from all over. But the diminution of college basketball is only one part of a significant trend. Athletics are skewing toward the young like never before. By extension, the mentality of athletics is more youthful — possibly even more rash — than in previous eras. It is a risky proposition to quantitatively compare one time to another without getting entangled in nostalgic, prohibitive thinking. Rather than travel that road, we should offer theories of pertinence and relevance of one quality during one time. Youth is an absolute advantage in sports, no doubt. Basketball players benefit from this advantage more than baseball players, and less than football players because of the nature of The Game. He who can leap can dunk. He who can run can score. Baseball players, by and large, can score without being the fastest participant on the field. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox for instance might not flourish if the rules involved running the bases repeatedly over the course of four hours. Even the most athletically gifted players who are prone to speedy outbursts (i.e. Jose Reyes) can only become absolute stars with complementary skills like catching to back it. Otherwise, they are specialty players like pinch runners or relief pitchers. This variation also has to do with the diversity of positions in baseball and football. More players on their fields make it easier for the organism to function in pieces. Thus, a basketball team (only the sum of five parts) can be greatly affected by one part. When LeBron James or Kobe Bryant add their talents to any group of four, the outcomes shift dramatically.

But more potently, when the mindset of a team becomes that of a barely developed young man, it will mature as he does. NBA players currently reach the “middle age” of their career at about 26 or 27 years old. This is an astonishing fact that goes too often overlooked. Rather than view player milestones in a continuum, commentators limit them to a television audience purview, using de facto lines like “the youngest player to win MVP” or “the youngest player to 10,000 points by three years and 84 days” instead of revealing how he might be the youngest player to doubt his ability after peaking for five straight years. Tracy McGrady has suffered this burden. After leading the league in scoring, and performing at impossible speeds and grinds throughout, he saw a natural lag when he turned twenty-five. For one, he endured a significant death in his family in 2006 that altered his play thereafter. Players are human beings, so it seems unnecessary to underline, but again we are confined to thinking of them as machines for productivity much like our other entertainers. (The irony of a sport like basketball is that it completely focuses in on the triumph-and-tragedy duality on the court, but seldom off it. We can believe in the tears from a player having won or lost a crucial game, but ask loud questions if one shows emotion nakedly during a personal battle.) Maybe more tellingly, Tracy McGrady began to see his life composed of elements other than basketball. Although Kobe Bryant comprehends the weight of other parts of his existence, he would have trouble ranking them above his first passion. These two protagonist types — crestfallen hero and bald-faced competitor — are essential roles in a compelling story. Sports writers were once moved by the romance of the college tournament because those players had everything to lose. They were either going to graduate without playing at a higher level, going into a lottery for the higher level, or out to prove that Mr. Basketball titles in the state of Wisconsin meant something to them. The college basketball romance is gone because players are not just inferior athletes on the whole, but their emotional quotients don’t figure as much into the storyline. Convincing fans that a One-And-Done dynamo like O.J. Mayo of USC has the restive desire to win a championship is a tough sell. O.J. will look back fondly at his college year for nearly as long as it takes him to decide how to spend his first million from the Association. To find the real antagonizing anguish of winning, wanting to win and seeing it come full circle, we must look at the Coming Of Age NBA. The playoffs of 2008 will be the best of a generation because they will embody the spirit of young men finding themselves in the global capitalist schema. I have long theorized that a changing of the guard was underway, an epoch in which guard play would finally supersede interior dominance. The real transition is happening among the former high school stars who have now come to rule the land, and who yearn to plant some flags in the annals of their sport. These are the eight most important narratives for April’s playoffs.

8. The Atlanta Hawks – Josh Smith is monstrously good. He combines naivete with athletic ability so well, one almost forgets that careering to the rim to block shots can hurt well-meaning players. Joe Johnson, average name that he is, quietly girds this team’s youthful expressionism with timely shots. Despite that, their power lies in the incautious moments of Marvin Williams crashing into the lane or Josh Childress attempting an ill-advised pass through traffic. Their core players spent barely a few years at university, but this may serve them in the end. Prolonged adolescence does not produce victories in the postseason. It will take grudging maturation for them to make any headway. Good luck young charges!

7. The Orlando Magic – “Superman is in the building!” Thank God for Kenny Smith at the Dunk Contest every year. Dwight Howard impugns the definition of dunking by soaring to catch the ball and throw it through the hoop, without grazing the rim. It was his entitlement to change things. He has the most dunk shots of anyone playing. In fact, it’s not playing anymore. Where he was once playful, doing finger-snap dances during the warm-up routine, Howard now has a child. There is a missionary air about him that has little to do with his Christian upbringing. Instead, it is about the dominant Big Man rising as The Shaq’s sun sets. Hedo Turkoglu also plays as if he is duty-bound, perhaps shaking off the Sacramento misnomers like “soft” and “inconsistent” to replace them with “aggressive” and “game-winner.” Turkoglu is no longer unfledged. The boy from Turkey who once played second fiddle to Peja Stojakovic, Euroball golden boy, is now a bona fide sharp shooter. Rashard Lewis has also slipped into his new shoes well, after being asked to take on too much of a role in Seattle’s drowning days. Their sweet sixteen was a playoff sweep against the Super Seniors of Detroit. They won’t be so easy to go this time. The Magic went to the prom, and even got the last dance with the Queen.

6. The Utah Jazz – They aren’t formulaic or reliant on pick-and-roll simplicity alone. They accept their coach’s traditional teaching, but have hip-hop affinities expressed through Deron Williams crossovers and Ronnie Brewer baseline drives. The name “jazz” no longer spells irony for the boys from Utah. It is utilitarian ethics with improvisational necessity or American aggression with Eastern bloc selectivity. Okur and Kirilenko are just as much “jazz” as Deron and Carlos are because of how they fit into the array of notes the Jazz must hit in order to win. Their sound has matured.

5. The Golden State Warriors – The Phoenix Suns’s Steve Nash recently conceded that Golden State’s team does what Phoenix did for all these years but that they do it better. He said this with a pining timbre, we assume. Phoenix did just defeat Golden State in a contest, however broken Nash is about the conversion to traditional ball. Baron Davis used to be known for his roguish comments about NBA players, and his enigmatic absences from injury and effort. He is now known as the maestro of the most pragmatically chaotic attack on the West Coast.

4. The Houston Rockets – The Rockets have won 22 straight games possibly as a direct result of Tracy McGrady’s redemption. It cannot be stressed enough how his maturity as a person has affected his young team. The squad of late has featured Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston at point guard and Dikembe Mutombo at center. There have been a few games where Carl Landry and Steve Novak made heroes out of mere men. After their Lakers win, it was clear that every part of gilded Fate had fallen in their hand baskets. Serendipity only happens to a few teams in a years, fewer in a decade. The Rockets are serendipitous. While teams like the Lakers and Celtics have the luxury of talking about a Big Three (the default nickname for star-studded congress), the Rockets operate in defiance of it.

3. The Boston Celtics – Their actual stars have passed maturity and exist somewhere in middle age. They have only a championship to win in order to satisfy their career aspirations. A big only, no doubt, but it is their singular focus. Their younger cast, on the other hand, have some instant growing to do. Rajon Rondo is Sam Cassell’s apprentice during the playoffs. Glen Davis and Kedrick Perkins want for some of Kevin Garnett’s coolness and poise. For the old heads to get their coveted wins, they need some of the Youth Movement fellows once thought to be dooming the green team.

2. The Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James can do anything, whether in the realm of boyish imagination or adult determination. His adolescence was last year’s NBA Finals. They were an embarrassing trip through the school’s hallowed halls with pants down, underwear exposed. For him to truly enter the pantheon of greats, he knows this is a necessary evil. The animated Nike commercial wherein he fights demons (we are to assume they are pillars of insecurity, not real opponents) is playing out uncannily. Never count him out of any field. Allen Iverson in the nineties was this kind of heliocentric player, one who could not be denied on a good night, one who could not be fathomed on a great night.

1. The Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe Bryant wants to win more than any other person in the world. He likes trophies and personal accomplishments. His maturity happened at 81. Once he scored 81 points in a game, he could finally breathe knowing he was the best individual without a doubt. Any mission after this one was defined by comfort and confidence. Trophies can create more trophies, he estimated. He is right.


2 Responses to “The NBA Playoffs As Character Study”

  1. 1 B Note March 21, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I’m sick of hearing about the Rockets. 22 is a big number, but color me impressed when they win 4 in the playoffs. Everybody knows McGrady can’t get out of the first round.

    No love for the Sixers? Is there a better team playing as a team in the east right now? Don’t know about you but they remind me of the old Suns except they play defense. When they eventually catch the Wiz for the 6th spot they’ll be knocking out superman.

  2. 2 miguel June 3, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    What a well-written article. Good job.

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