Aug 14, 2008

Unconventional = Sexy

NBA fans love to make comparisons between players present and players past. (Fill in the blank) is the next Michael, the next Magic, the next Wilt. Dwight Howard is the next Shaq and Kevin Love is the next Kevin McHale. Do you remember when Adam Morrison was the next Larry Bird? Rather than give a player a chance to define his own style, we tell him who he should play like and criticize him when he falls short (just ask Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner).

I'm not quite sure how this occurs. Do these players choose their own destinies at a young age by idolizing their predecessors? Or is it us who force the players' destinies by looking at their height, shooting touch, demeanor, or skin color and telling them who they should emulate? Maybe it's a combination of both of these factors; in most cases, at least one of these factors appears to be at play. Whatever the case, the vast majority of stars are delegated a counterpart from a past era. The comparisons begin when the player successfully reproduces sporatic glimpses, or full-length motion pictures, of memorable greatness.

As soon as we link a young player's game to a legend of past, the marginalization begins. It's not: "Wow, this is the first player who is even a close comparison to Michael Jordan." It's more like: "He's good, but he ain't Jordan." Shawn Livingston never stood a chance of living up to the "next Magic" label, even if he hadn't gotten injured. J.J. Reddick couldn't even survive Steve Kerr comparisons. We draw these parallels, parallels that are so constrictive in nature. Rather than imagining what a player could be, we limit his potential to the reality that we know, the reality that played in a past era.

Herein lies the problem with our natural tendency of comparing current players to former players. We certainly won't concede - even in our inner thoughts - that this young gun could eventually be better than the O.G. we are comparing him to. If we did, we'd be minimizing the history of our beloved sport. Consequently, we are giving the player a ceiling. We may admit that he's great, but no matter what he does, he will be the lesser version of a legend prior. Sports fans don't like ceilings, and a comparison is effectively a ceiling.

Every so often, a player comes along who defies common logic and gives us a brand of basketball that is remarkably unique. Our comparison attempts are thwarted when we can't put a finger on who this new player reminds us of. When this occurs, our excitement exceeds that which surrounds the arrival of "the next Jordan" or "the next Malone/Barkley/Dantley." Why is this? It's quite simple, actually. We think we know what the comparables can bring, because we've seen their forefathers play. As our excitement for this outlier, this uncomparable, never-before-seen phenomenon grows, we dream about what his originality will mean to the team or to the league.

There are a few modern players that come to mind when I speak of the outliers, and our responses to their arrivals have been predictably irrational:

  • Josh Smith: Before Smith, we had never seen a versatile wing player capable of leading the NBA in blocked shots. This singular factor undoubtedly points to his athleticism, but we assign it so much more. Many people call Smith the "future" of the wing positions, despite his current status as the second-best player on a sub-.500 team. Rarely do scouts, GM's, or fans point to his attitude as a cause for concern. I find that particularly interesting given his on-going feud with his head coach, questioning of team management, and place amongst the league leaders in technical fouls. Rarely do they speak of his apparent apathy for long stretches of games, his streaky (at best) jump shot, or his careless turnovers. But boy, can this guy block shots. But his prowess in that one statistical category makes him far more intriguing than, say, Rudy Gay.

  • Dirk Nowitzki: While I won't disagree about his status amongst the game's elite, I think we may have the wrong idea about his value to the Mavericks. Especially early in his career, we had never seen a 7-footer who could stroke from 30 feet. For this, we tabbed him the forefather of a movement that would forever change the NBA. We saw (and see) so much more upside to a frail, 7-footer who can stroke it than a sturdy 6'9er who can bang with the big boys. Why is that? It's quite simple: we had never seen the size/touch combo possessed by Nowitzki but we had seen a plethora of average-sized bangers. For this reason, we ignore the fragility that cost him his matchup with David West, despite the fact West would never be mentioned in the same breath as Dirk. We rarely Dirk's futility as an individual defender or his inability to get offensive position below the high post. We even make excuses for his failure to knock out an 8th seeded team of midgets in the '07 Playoffs. As fans, all of these shortcomings are overlooked the moment he lofts a feathery three-ball.

  • Yao Ming: Yao's sheer mass, combined with his ascent from a non-Basketball country, made believers of us all. He would redefine dominance, we said, and lead the Rockets to multiple titles as soon as the Shaq regime came to a close. We scoffed at the notion that Yao would be a perpetual injury risk. We still rarely mention Yao's lack of mobility that has been Houston's achilles heel in the playoffs. Even a 20-game win streak without Yao hasn't convinced us that he is a defensive liability.

Let's be clear: I'm including myself in this group of fans who loves to see the new & shiny traits of an unconventional player on display. A sweeping cartoonish move by Ginobili is far prettier than a Hardaway-esque crossover by Deron Williams, and the Warriors are much more endearing than the Spurs. I really didn't intend for this post to become a Smith or Nowitzki or Yao bashing session. In fact, I love watching all of those guys play. I'm merely making an observation about our love for players who don't conform to the classical interpretations of how to play their positions. In drafting this post, I became aware of one thing: unconventional is sexy.

1 comment:

KneeJerkNBA said...

OK, I'll play along.

Dirk is definitely the new Larry Bird. In retrospect, it's hilarious that anyone expected that out of Adam Morrison.

For Josh Smith, I'll say he's the future Kevin Garnett.

There is no previous Yao Ming. Although, skillwise, he kinda reminds me of Rik Smits.