The Rodeo is in town. Which means that the Spurs are out traveling. The RRT continues with a visit to LA, and yet another in the series of email exchanges I'm doing with the SBNation bloggers who cover our oppenents. Today the conversation is with Chris over at Silver Screen and Roll. Without further ado, let's get to it. (Go and join their side of the conversation, but be sure to play nice - even though they are Lakers' fans.)
. via briandickie.typepad.com
Chris, this is really not at all what I was expecting from Los Angeles after Gil and I talked in December. Dead triangles and potential condo shopping in Detroit? I take a quick trip to SS&R Tuesday afternoon, and it's like I've slipped into a parallel universe where the Lakers aren't the two time defending champs. It was enough to make me consider reevaluating the entire sport of basketball -- then Tuesday night's games happened.
Both Rockets vs Lakers (Recap) and Spurs vs Blazers (Recap) hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, but it was L.A. who found a way to pull out a win, albeit during an extra period -- but who's quibbling? I suppose it'll be easier for the LA fans to chill out a bit, now that you're no longer in danger of seeing your team drop three straight home games. And as for the Spurs, they may come to LA with a 6.5 game lead over their hosts, but if that number dips anywhere near 3, then it would be time to shift the media machine from producing "What's wrong with the Lakers?" stories, to turning out "Will it take 5 or 6 games for the Lakers to defeat the Celtics?"
Frankly, the Lakers are downright scary: trade or no. I see no reason to expect that the issues currently causing so much locker room consternation will do anything but evaporate once the playoffs begin. And that's brings us to the twin concerns that arise when evaluating this year's Lakers: do you expect them to shake off the rust once April arrives, or do you agree with so many Lakers fans that feel the team isn't right and needs anything from a severe dressing down to an infusion of New BloodTM? To which camp do you belong?
It's been a surprise to you and me both. I was absolutely ready early in the season for the Lakers' inevitable assault on 73 wins. I mean, the 44% 3 pt shooting and Offensive Rating that was literally the highest ever in the league's history, those things seemed totally sustainable to me. Loyola Marymount's defenses could win a championship with that kind of offensive potency. Now everything's gone to hell. I know I coined the Dead Triangle phrase, but that's not really painting the best picture. Instead, what you have is a bunch of different players playing a bunch of different shapes. Lamar is sticking with the triangle. So is Derek Fisher, I suppose. Pau Gasol is too busy going through an existential crisis to bother with geometry, and that's caused Kobe to alternate between the Single Point offense and the Straight Line offense. And I'm pretty sure Ron Artest's offense is only understood in the 5th dimension.
L.A. fans will never chill, or else we will never un-chill. We're complex like that. But honestly, I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell, short of Manu Ginobli spontaneously combusting, that the Lakers will catch the Spurs for the best record in the West (for the record, you do have a player nicknamed the Red Rocket, so this is an actual possibility and don't say I didn't warn you). The Lakers have provided zero evidence that they are interested or capable of winning games consistently for over two months now, and that applies to, literally, a constant and steady dose of scrubs. The Lakers have the hardest schedule in the league remaining, and I don't even think there's a close second. So the consolation prize that is home court advantage will undoubtedly be yours no matter what.
I don't know that I belong to either camp. I tend to make my home in the "This team makes it really hard for me to love basketball" camp, which borders the "I don't give a fuck" camp. It's not so much that I expect them to be fine come April, though I have a hefty amount of arrogance as any good Laker fan does, so much as I just don't see the point of trying to answer that question. Either there's nothing wrong with the team and they will win it all, or all these "telling signs" are actually TELLING SIGNS and they don't stand a chance, and nobody will have any idea which one's which until it happens.
But let's give the Spurs their day in the sun. Good freaking god, what in the hell is going on here? Honestly, I've spent years quietly admiring the Spurs from the shadows. Somewhere between Pop's intentionally fouling Shaq to start that game and then giving him the thumbs up, and Manu catching a fucking bat, I lost all ability to dislike your team. That and the whole "We haven't lost to you in the playoffs in nearly a decade" thing. Anyways, I've come to expect, and enjoy, certain qualities in the Spurs, and frankly, I'm a little disappointed. 40-8? Who do you think you guys are, Dallas? I'm kind of surprised Pop is standing for this. I wake up every morning half expecting to read that he's decided to call up SA's entire D-league roster for 15 10-day contracts and stage a prolonged kidnapping/hostage situation with the first team. Did Manu's bat incident turn him into some kind of real world Bruce Wayne/Peter Parker hybrid? Was there a clearance sale on whichever grade of Extra Virgin Olive Oil you guys use to keep Tim Duncan running? I don't even need to ask whether you think this is sustainable. I'm more interested to know if you even want it to be?
The mindset of a fan is a mercurial, ephemeral thing: on the top of Everest after a win, contemplating a life without sports after a difficult defeat. And it's as reality-altering as anything Timothy Leary ever advocated. Here's an example, C.A., you somehow convinced yourself that the highest offensive rating in the history of the NBA was sustainable. When a rational person would tell you that the highest ANYTHING is NEVER sustainable. But you're not unique in this kind of thinking. I caught myself believing that Matt Bonner's 3PT field goal % this year, (.504 and rising) is not only likely to continue for the rest of the year, but for next as well! Why do we think these things? Because we're fans. We watch every game we can, and when something good shows up, it's easy to get used to it and think it'll always be there.
But instead of that offense being there this year, you have "a bunch of different players playing a bunch of different shapes" and that's what I'm really interested in hearing you describe. Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher don't interest me right now because I pretty much know what the triangle is supposed to do. But what's a Single Point offense? I'm intrigued by this Straight Line offense. Please explain what Gasol's existential crisis is all about. And ... well, maybe we'd both be better of if you didn't bother with Ron Artest's 5th dimension. I'm pretty sure I've seen that already
So, I've heard any number of potential situations that could result in the Lakers catching the Spurs and taking the 1st seed in the West, but yours is both new to me, and a bit backwards from my usual way of thinking. See, at PtR, we usually consider Manu catching fire a good thing, not a bad one. And then there's the issue about how tough LA's remaining schedule is. I haven't looked at it myself, but I've taken an occasional peek at this power ranking or that, and the strength of schedule number for the Lakers' games played didn't strike me as all that impressive. But is the rest really as bad as they say? I really don't know.
Here's where I just tip my cap to you. Because this really describes everyone's position when supporting a contending team with issues:
Either there's nothing wrong with the team and they will win it all, or all these "telling signs" are actually TELLING SIGNS and they don't stand a chance, and nobody will have any idea which one's which until it happens.
And yet we're compelled to think, write, consider options, rehash bad decisions, and gripe about missed opportunities. The only other option is to simply give up and stop following the team. And despite your admission of possessing an average amount of LFA (Laker Fan Arrogance) it's actually a bummer to hear that your team is making it hard for you to love basketball. The Lakers are tied for the 4th best record in the league, and they've won five of the last eleven NBA Championships. Would you really not give a crap about this season? I can't think that's possible of someone capable of writing anything as impassioned as this.
Now, as far as the Spurs and "their day in the sun" is concerned. It's nice to hear that (now that the Spurs are playing a bit more uptempo) so many that fans of other teams are becoming comfortable revealing that they have been, as you said, "quietly admiring the Spurs from the shadows." Your candor is refreshing, and also inspiring. In response to your example, I can now freely disclose that I have no idea at all how to explain what's going on with the Spurs this year. You're right, they're 40-8. How crazy is that? And the last question you ask is a good one. Do I actually want this kind of sustained winning to continue through the regular season? And the conditional answer is YES, as long as they continue to win as they have so far: with a different star nearly every night and plenty of rest for everyone with old knees. For that, I'd gladly trade the Spurs' usual M.O. of flying under the radar, for an insane record and HCA throughout the playoffs.
See, now I feel bad, because I just hit you with a dose of weapons grade sarcasm, but print has never been the best medium for that sort of thing. The truth is I knew the Lakers offense didn't have a chance of keeping it's early torrid pace, though I must admit I did not foresee the cliff being this precipitous. I knew the shooting would cool off, but I was hoping the focus on quick ball movement would remain. Instead, we're right back to square one on offense.
If you don't know what the Single Point and Straight Line are, then clearly you are not very well informed as to the popular opinion of Kobe Bryant in the outside world. The Single Point is when Kobe tries to score without moving, and the Straight Line is when he tries to score while moving. Honestly, this is unfair to Mr. Bryant, as he is having his best statistical season in years, both in terms of scoring efficiency and passing. But, as the struggles have continued to mount for the team at large, we have seen a steady increase in Kobe-centricity offensively, something which culminated in his 41 point, 0 assist performance against the Celtics.
But the real crux of the matter lies with Pau Gasol. He started off the season as a legit MVP candidate, and now there's a fair chunk of Laker Nation who don't even merit him an All-Star (I personally find this opinion to be over-reactionary, but I can see where they are coming from). Pau is a tricky beast in that he is the most skilled post player in the game by a country mile (no slight intended towards Timmy D, who does (or did, I suppose) a much better job of using what he's got than Pau ever will), but his lack of strength can make him easy to counter if his head's not in the game. The difference between focused Pau and un-focused Pau is significantly greater than most players. And unfortunately, his play of late isn't so much unmotivated as it is questioning whether the concept of motivation is even real. Existentialism suits him well as one of those Euro academic types, and while us fans are thinking to ourselves "There goes home court advantage", he is pondering the very meaning of the regular season. Can anyone truly possess home court advantage? Does it even exist? Or is it just some silly social construct that human beings create to give their absurd little 82 game season meaning? I just hope he snaps out of it before he kills the Lakers' season and blames it on the heat (obscure literary reference FTW).
Regarding the schedule, considering who the Lakers still have left to play, and how they've played so far against the league's better teams, it would take a minor miracle for them to catch San Antonio. My guess is that the Spurs could afford to play .500 ball from here on out and still retain Western Conference HCA. As for my frustrations, let me be clear, I'm not complaining about being a Lakers fan. Even I am not so self-indulgent as to be upset with the back-to-back champs because they don't try very hard. I think my frustration mainly stems from the fact that watching the Lakers is now a job as much as it is a passion, and the way they play causes me to have to explain that none of this regular season stuff means anything so often that I feel like an efficiency expert would eliminate me for redundancy. Besides, it's never fun to cheer for a constant underachiever, even if you know it doesn't mean anything.
Not to dissuade from your overall view, but my appreciation of the Spurs has very little to do with how they play, or how they have played in the past. Aside from the hilarity I spoke of earlier, it really boils down to the Spurs being the perfect rival for my hometown team. The Spurs are really the only legitimate rival the Lakers have in the West, a rivalry borne out of plenty of playoff interaction that includes varied results. More importantly, they do not combine that healthy respect with the asinine dickishness of a team like the Celtics. The Spurs put their heads down, go to work, and when shit doesn't go their way, they don't complain. I remember the last time our two franchises met in the postseason, with the infamous Brent Barry non-foul being a deciding factor in the series, and his response after the game was to blame himself for not selling the foul more. That complete lack of pretentiousness is incredible.
I'd be careful about being willing to sacrifice your identity for a few more wins though. Take the current Rodeo trip for example. Normally, this is when the Spurs look to build momentum towards the postseason, but they can't possibly go any higher than they already are. What if opposite world continues, and this long road trip ends up fracturing the team? What if Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobli come to fisticuffs over the Copa Sudaamerica or something like that?
In all seriousness though, the different star every night thing really mystifies me. The Spurs have guys I've never even heard of playing more important roles than guys that we are playing MLE money to. I'm not gonna lie, I had to check ESPN's roster just to get their names. Gary Neal, James Anderson, Richard Jefferson ... who are these guys? Wait, Richard Jefferson isn't the same Richard Jefferson you had last year right? That guy blew, so I have no choice but to believe that you signed a completely new Richard Jefferson that I've never heard of before. And I could have sworn that Tiago Splitter was supposed to be the guy who was going to turn things around for you. He's only playing 11 minutes a game, and yet things are most certainly turned. So I'll end this round with this question: Does it keep you up at night pondering how it seems like every single player on the team is playing at a higher level than last season, or does that progression make perfect sense to you?
I get it now. I see that I completely missed the irony. At first I checked to see if my sarcasmometer was on the fritz, but it checked out just fine. Puzzled, I took a look at the manual and, past all of the technical specifications, were multiple mentions of an LIO, which I'd never heard of before. I eventually had to do some research online, where I discovered that there was a Lakers Irony Overlay that I needed to purchase "for situations where weapons grade sarcasm is being used in conversations about Los Angeles' NBA team." Needless to say, my feelings of foolishness turned to anger when it turned out that the LIO costs twice as much as my sarcasmometer itself! Double the cost for an OVERLAY? Anyway, I ordered it and it'll be delivered next week, but that's not going to help me now. I just found that I was waxing eloquent about the nature of fandom and un-sustainability of peak performances, in response to a sarcastic remark. People have filed lawsuits over less.
When I think of Kobe trying "to score without moving" I immediately get a mental image of a basketball that's hovering before him in midair. He's perfectly motionless -- perhaps his arms are folded across his chest, maybe they're simply resting at his sides -- while he concentrates his will on the ball in his attempt to make it go through the hoop without moving a single muscle. In this scenario he's actually failing quite badly. I don't mean that he's not scoring. Not at all! He's 41-0. It's just that he's moving quite a few muscles in his face in order to do so; mostly his eyebrows. Single Point FAIL!
Not the right single point, is it?
Here's where I reveal that Pau at the beginning of the season terrified me. Now, not so much. And with you shining the light on his contemplative side, I've got to wonder what it is about the way he's playing that reveals this kind of spiritual angst? Can it be anything less than an entire change in his style of play? Or is it just that it appears as though he's fine with either winning or losing, and is more interested in thinking about the game rather than actually playing it?
As to your issues with following this year's Lakers: a) it's good to know that your self-indulgence does have bounds; b) if you've been having to "explain that none of this regular season stuff means anything " then you're becoming well acquainted with what life as a Spurs fan ha been like for the past several years; and c) the fact that you're not only noticing, but also drawing attention to San Antonio's CLOP rating (Complete Lack Of Pretentiousness) makes me miss Gil Meriken a little bit less.
I'm nowhere near being willing to sacrifice the Spurs' identity for more wins. The essence of who this team is can't be shaken like that. And it's a myth that the RRT helps them build momentum. But it's nice that you've noticed a difference with the model of Richard Jefferson that's wearing #24 this year. His performance has altered so greatly that we're calling him RJ2.0. And while we're not expecting a new version to be needed this year, I wouldn't be opposed to seeing a rev to RJ2.1 for the playoffs, if it's another improvement. Finally, I'm thankful that CapHill, one of PtR's most excellent writers, has already answered your closing question most eloquently -- and with stats.
What can I say? Cost of living is probably the single factor that keeps the entire country, nay, the entire world from moving to California.
I have to admit, your interpretation of the single point offense has my mind racing, although the scenario can not be complete without including a bunch of pundits complaining about the fact that Kobe never "passes without moving". I think we can both agree that if there was ever a player who would be capable of scoring using only the force of his mind, Kobe would be that player. In fact, I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a secret labratory where he works on these telekinetic powers late at night, because if he ever reaches the success labeled in your scenario, he will truly be able to play basketball until he's dead. The all-time scoring title, Bill Russel's championships, it would all be in play. I'm envisioning 9 players on the court, and Kobe sitting in a wheelchair by the scorer's table Professor X style. It leads to a slew of impossible questions: Can a levitating ball travel? Is it possible to foul the air? Will team defenses resort to distracting Kobe with Rorschact tests? My head is about to explode.
To understand Pau Gasol's mental state, there are a few things you need to establish. The first is that Gasol is not that strong, but that, when focused, he is capable of compensating for his relative weakness. His play in last year's Finals is proof of this; there is no team more ready to capitalize on Pau's weakness than the Celtics, and yet Pau was able to stand up to them and dish out his own punishment. So, if it is established that Pau is capable of not playing weakly, and yet he continues to play so weakly this season, the reason behind it must be mental. And his mental state has changed considerably from this year to last (at least so much as we can observe it). Last season, as the Lakers struggled with malaise that was not quite this bad, Pau was vocal about the things that needed to change in the team's play. He called out the team (implicitly calling out Kobe specifically) for not playing the game inside out, and he was one of the most frustrated when it came to underwhelming team performance. This year, no complaints, no frustration, just aimless wandering. He is a microcosm of this year's squad. They've always struggled to keep focused through the regular season grind, but until this season, I've always believed they respected it. Now, you get stretches where they really don't give a shit, like the last time our teams met, when the Lakers lost 4 of 6 by double digits, including home losses to the Grizzlies and Bucks.
Speaking of psychology, how is it that we've gone this far into the exchange without making mention of the single greatest aspect of any Spurs-Lakers face-off, our beloved coaches? I think we can both agree that Pop and PJ are truly in a class by themselves, right? On the one hand, you have Phil Jackson, who's game plan is really a geometrically disguised AI. He sets parameters and expects the offense to generate its own conclusions. And Pop is trained in counter-intelligence, for crying out loud. In fact, I remain convinced he is actually a CIA operative, which goes a long way towards explaining the Spurs' consistently amazing foreign talent evalution. I don't think the Spurs drafted Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli so much as Pop recruited them, and now he is their handler. It really makes you wonder about our understanding of the game, because the chess these guys play makes it seem like all other coaches are playing Candy Land. Their mind games play mind games, and watching the two match-up for one game (never mind for 7 of them) is always a treat. Is there any doubt that PJ and Pop are the last two Jedi on earth? I know your side might think of Phil as belonging to the dark side, but I like to think they are really just using each other to practice their skills as they wait for the true evil of the universe to reveal itself.
As for being an expert in saying the same thing over and over again, how do you manage? Do you have a template for compiling quick basketball analysis? Is there a Spurs Underwhelming Regular Season Mad Libs that I can get my hands on? I'd be willing to pay good money for it so you could recoup some of the cost of that overlay. No lawsuits necessary.
Too many subjects and not enough time. We'll leave it as it is for now, and I'll pick up from here when we have our next installment in early March. Though I do have this to add: Camus is not all THAT obscure, and he'd have been quite upset to hear you call his work existential.