The Outlet #8: One More Red Jefferson

Posted on Tue 10 January 2012 in The Outlet by Alex Dewey

According to Aaron, the end of the Lakers-Suns game was a vintage Mike Brown performance, featuring crucial defense down the stretch and a 16-1 run without Andrew Bynum. Which is crazy. I didn't watch it, but I'll trust him on that one. We've both have seen more than our fair share of MB defenses. But in any case, today at the Gothic we're not going to talk much about the games tonight but of two key players from these games. These players both have the weird property that their talent levels and aesthetics reflect certain (very specific) qualities upon their teams, only to find their teams reflect these same qualities back upon them. It's kind of complicated, and strange. So without any further ado, let's talk about our two Richard Jefferson and Chris Paul.

• • •

SAS 103 - MIL 106; A decent game that we will ignore to discuss RJ instead. [Alex]

I woke up screaming today. It's ironic: being the first night after buying extra pillows to elevate my awful-breathing throat, it was possibly the first good night's sleep I've gotten in years. Perhaps it's only because my head was elevated that I was able to muster the strength in my vocal chords to start screaming without even waking. Of course, then I woke up. Screaming.

So, let's talk about Richard Jefferson, because before all of this I was having a dream that Richard Jefferson was the best player on the Spurs. It was a wonderful dream at first, and even well-supported. His remarkable resurgence has been a breath of fresh air; RJ has elevated the Spurs, keeping their heads above water despite the tough loss of Manu Ginobili, their best player. It's no coincidence: RJ -- despite his ostensibly small role -- is playing wonderful, versatile ball. Jefferson's a great player in set plays, and shoots well above the percentages needed to call a player an ace or a sniper. Spurs fans call him "Rebound Jumperson" and call his famous jumping rebounds "RJbounds". He bought in, and Spurs fans have returned the favor. And he's even played more than adequate defense, recently.

Somewhere along the line that paragraph describing my dream turned into nothing but lies and half-truths. And as I realized it, my sleep was disturbed by screaming. It was a nightmare, all of a sudden. That's the last time I watch "Eraserhead" alongside a marathon of the 2011-12 Spurs season to date. But it's also the last time that dream - in its recurrence - will be at all pleasant. This dream will become a nightmare. The soundtrack to this "dream" will now be "One More Red Nightmare" by King Crimson.

Because it is actually a nightmare.

Why? Because RJ's relative quality and aesthetics are usually a sort of anti-canary in the hoops mine for the general quality of his team. And there are far too many days when he is and looks like the best offensive player on his team. Aaron has a theory about how RJ looks. In short, it follows that when RJ looks like a fourth option that can get hot with oops, finishes, and smart dribble-drives while rebounding decently despite average, banal, helped defense? He's probably on a contender, or a team that's better than its record. When he looks like a superstar, a prime-Ray-Allen-at-the-SF-with-more-hops-and-speed, that means he's on a 30-win team where the players around him are so bad that his volume-producing ways make him look far better than he really is (Bucks, Nets). To use the starkest example of why this is, jumping for a rebound dramatically (really his aesthetic signature) only looks really good when defense and effort are a scarce luxury on his team, and that only happens on a bad team (or the Hawks). Dribble-driving past a good defense to the rim a few times looks great, but doesn't really bode well for a team if he's the third-best penetrator, so he doesn't do it very much.

When he doesn't do these things (or when he does them less) his game looks markedly worse, but in the end the team wins more. Because, you know, prime Richard Jefferson is their third-best penetrator and that means you aren't looking at a bad roster or a poor allocation of possessions. The fact that this season he's looked like a minor superstar on so many occasions -- or at least the Spurs' best offensive player -- is severely troubling for the Spurs' prospects. It will give us sleepless nights. Manu may give us fits when he (on rare occasion) shoots us out of the game or (more commonly) threatens to do so, but at least he doesn't give us -- as they say in medical circles -- screaming-mad insomnia. RJ looks like the Spurs' best offensive player right now. That, Spurs fans, is the literal definition of a nightmare.

(By the way, obligatory context: RJ seems to be one of the nicest, smartest, most reasonable people in basketball, and before his infamous contract extension, the Spurs asked him to spend his summer completely reformulating his game down to the fundamentals, despite a widespread reputation as an above-average, great scorer, and he did it. He put in the hours. And when he returned (extension in hand) he really helped the 2010-11 Spurs offense work. So really not a knock on RJ, who I respect and enjoy as a person: he's just the messenger. The scary messenger.)

• • •

Q: What high school did Chris Paul go to?
A: Intensity High
Q: Heyo! I seriously dislike Chris Paul, though.

LAC 97 - POR 105; __A decent game that we will ignore to talk about Chris Paul instead. [Alex/Aaron]__

Actual, mildly edited conversation from during this game:

Alex: Let's talk about Chris Paul. CP3 is so tense.

Aaron: I'm going to be honest. He's been playing awful basketball for 3 or 4 games now, and the fact that his one or two good plays a game still inspire people to say that kind of annoys me.

Alex: I'm not saying he's playing especially well. Or well at all. I'm literally saying he is full of intensity. He is 'tense as a wound-up ukelele.

Aaron: That seems like a really weird sentiment to me. Really odd.

Alex: What do you mean? He's yelling at people constantly, jumping up from fouls, having to be slightly restrained, working the refs, working his teammates, working, working, working. Besides, how is that a weird sentiment? A weird sentiment would be that he avoids looking at the camera when he's glaring because he would break that camera. That would be a weird sentiment. [Alex's Note: One that I actually, literally believe.]

Aaron: I can't disagree. That's all true. But I think -- to some level -- I just sincerely dislike CP3's current game. As fun to watch as it was, years ago. I mean... I appreciate him. He's undoubtedly a great (and formerly MVP-level) player, but...

Alex: Then why? I could understand if it's because he's like LeBron with this media presence and branding BS, but. Gamesmanship?

Aaron: Because I hate his attitude, I hate his demeanor, I hate the way his aesthetics warp the perception of his game to push it beyond its actual quality -- and it's really fucking good. And yes. His gamesmanship. That's mainly it. Maybe entirely it. His dirty, excessive gamesmanship. At his peak he's underrated, but he hasn't been at his peak in years. Byron Scott destroyed his career with his insane practice regimen. And honestly, CP3/Blake is the absolute most annoying duo I have ever seen on one team. At least in terms of arrogant/dirty players who -- while great -- haven't really proven anything yet beyond their own greatness. They are great. In Paul's case, transcendent. But the aesthetics of their games can't overcome the way they approach this Clippers team. I can't stand watching the Clippers. It's like the opposite, in every way, of the collective Popovich-reflected Spurs attitude or Steve Nash. Maybe it's Vinny. I don't know.

Alex: That makes a lot of sense, but for my sake, I appreciate greatness for its own sake. More than that, in fact. I enjoy it and what it does to the game as a whole. His aesthetics may warp the perception of his game to fans (which is bullshit, yes), but they also warp the perception of the game to being more important and significant as far as his teammates and opponents are concerned, and he raises the tenor of the game in doing so. Sure, he may call attention to himself with a burst of light that isn't just about basketball, but the light is real and casts a shadow and a reflection from everyone else. When he loses despite making every right decision, despite working over everyone possible? That feels important. When he wins because of the same? That feels important. CP3 is important partially because he's important, and that's unfair, yes. But as a viewer? There is a real, substantive difference in the end product.

Aaron: See... I don't totally agree with that. It makes a difference to the lazy viewer, perhaps. (Not meant in a mean way -- it's not a bad thing to watch basketball in a "lazy" way, it's a matter of personal preference. Not a value judgment. Bear with me.) But to the observant, careful viewer who takes in every play, who sees Paul get absorbed in their dirty knocks, the wonder of his overall play is somewhat lessened and arguably erased by this attitude with which players like him and Blake approach the game. Effortless preening dominance without the results to back up the hype, I mean. The Heat are about 20-30x better than the Clips in this sense alone, because goddamn, they're arrogant as hell... but they back it up, and they don't let it control them. LeBron has, in the 5 Heat games I've seen him in so far this year, once neglected to get back on defense so he can argue a call. Blake does that 5-10 times a game, minimum. Same with Paul, so far.

And really, that's the story with Heat versus the Clippers. So far, the Heat don't really make a habit of showboating in-game on every other possession. They don't try and kill opposing players with dangerous screens and the old "tug on their jersey, endanger them midair" tactic. They don't do the sneering preening that Blake became slightly obsessed with late in his rookie year (and has continued this season). They don't punch Marcus Camby midcourt then cry foul so the ref T's up Marcus. The Heat don't do the dirtiest stuff. And their coach -- who, despite my hatred of the Heat, I very much respect -- demands effort and excellence. Unlike Vinny Del "No Creativity-ro". [Alex's Note: This nickname is now GG canon.] Now, this isn't to say I love them, obviously. The Heat are bad. Really aren't a ton of fun to watch. Free throws galore, occasional preening, the off-court arrogance, et cetera. But their coaching, their execution, and their relative lack of being self-absorbed on the court make them markedly more fun to watch if you completely decontextualize them and the Clippers as teams, during the games themselves. I really, really hate what the Clippers do to the game of basketball. They are a team that define preening, and a team that make all the ore than the Heat. more than the D'Antoni Knicks. more than Shaq. They just turn basketball into a petty game where arrogance and dirty play become synonymous with "intensity"

This is especially irritating when there are players like Nash who are intense without being dirty. Manu is intense without trying to kill Andre Miller every trip up the court. Even Wade, who's intense by drawing a shitload of undeserved fouls (which is incredibly annoying and sometimes completely unwatchable) -- even he's better than Paul and Griffin. There's just this general air of disrespect around the Clippers. They don't respect their opponent. They play dirty. And what's worse? They aren't even effective in doing so! They're a bad, mismatched team that plays lazy defense and reflects Vinny Del Negro's worst instincts. I should love seeing a talent like Paul and a talent like Blake fly across the court. I should love this team. I mean, hell, I love Mo Williams and I can enjoy Reggie Evans every once in a while. But in the 4 Clippers games I've watched so far, I can't say I love them. I can't even say I like them. I hate watching them together, in fact.

In short, I have a proposition for you. There's no one "right" way to play basketball. However, there is a monotonically WRONG way to play basketball. The Clippers embody that -- they play the game with no respect for their opponent, no respect for the intelligence of their fans, and no effort to play in a way that doesn't hurt the game and cheapen the sport. They play as though defense is nothing more than dirty hits and stealthy grabs, and as though arrogance and self obsession is the platonic ideal for a team of stars. They run lazy set plays and coast on their talent. Their coach runs their stars so many minutes that they take shortcuts and put in lacking effort for much of the game. In all forms of the game, they play under their potential and under what a "good" team would do. And that's why I hate this year's Clippers team, to this point. They aren't fun to watch, they don't respect their opponent, and they coast like no other. That's not good for the game, nor is it good for any of the players involved. In my view.

... And as if to prove my point, as I wrote that, Billups kicks Wes Matthews in the balls. Wonderful job, Clippers.

Alex: I respect that, and you're right: They're an annoying, dirty team, especially in combination.

But what about when Chris Paul was carrying the Hornets (who actively, strongly stood behind him for the MVP in 2008)? What about all those times he's devastated very good (and more talented) teams by unreasonable margins? When he was at his peak, his ego was more than compensated for by performance, and now because of his knee injury, only traces of the talent remain and all the arrogance remains. But it could be said that Paul signed the death warrants on the Spurs and Lakers dynasties. Just because his ego hasn't caught up with his lessened abilities does not invalidate what he's done, which is more than merely to prove his own greatness. He was arrogance; he was dirty; he was all of the above, but he was at heart a great competitor. And that hasn't changed.

The problem with CP3 is partly ego but it's also exogenous: Now he's surrounded by people that he doesn't need to pump up, that he doesn't need to build up by setting an example, people for whom building up is probably worse than just harshly and loudly criticizing all facets of their game and asking to reciprocate the honesty. And being around these people accentuates the cheaper, dirtier parts of CP3's game. His rage and swagger is real, not just the rational trolling for points and possessions, and I admire that. But when you put him right next to the living embodiments of veteran cheapness (Billups), arrogance (Blake), and unwarranted hype (DeAndre Jordan -- not his fault, of course), you start to make these unpleasant comparisons directly. And it doesn't exactly help CP3 or make him seem like a franchise savior as much as one more unpleasant piece. The fact that he also has done a lot to dislike off the court (the oddest trade demand cycle of any superstar yet, and his recent insane levels of branding that exceed even LeBron's at least in terms of relative accomplishment) doesn't help an already cynical person.

Now, all that said, I think the "lazy/careful viewer" dichotomy is a bit silly. [Aaron's note: It really is. That was the wrong word for that. I'll leave it in, but I have to emphasize that it's not the right word.] People value different things in the game, and look out for different things, and that's one of the great things about basketball. If someone is looking for "swag" with nothing objective to back it up, that's kind of dumb, honestly indistinguishable from celebrity culture, really. Celebrity for its own sake. I get that. But what about the fierce, unrestrained, total embrace of competitition, with or without visual evidence? Is there really nothing of value there to an astute viewer in Chris Paul's game? I don't think that CP3 corrupts the game of basketball, nor is his style the end-all and be-all of the game of basketball. It's just one more dimension that he displays to such an extreme extent that it's instructive, entertaining, and inherently interesting when it matches up with another extreme like Nash, Manu, or Duncan.

Now, you and I personally love the Spurs' unselfishness and unpretentious attitude (along with their "we'll do what we do and if we don't win that's how it goes" approach), and I see what you mean about how the Heat conduct themselves comparatively. I also recognize that CP3 (and, before someone else says it, Bruce Bowen) is arguably the complete opposite of that. While I wouldn't exactly encourage kids to be like him, it still has its value to me as a viewer (though it's value lessened by his surrounding team, as you and I have both said now).

• • •

Epilogue to Clips-Blazers:

Aaron: Fair enough. Nothing to add. I think we're done with this Clippers stuff. Let's move on.

Alex: Okay, then we'll edit and publish it later, probably.

Aaron: You're doing Spurs-Bucks?

Alex: Yeah. "I woke up screaming today." First sentence of the RJ thing. Thoughts?

Aaron: Did you really wake up screaming? Jesus.

Alex: Well, I was building to a parallelism with your RJ theory, you know, where the quality of his teammates -- ...

Aaron: Stop. Can we establish whether this really happened before we go any further on it?

_Alex:_ ... No, no we can't.

_Aaron:_ Fine. Too many adverbs in the third paragraph. Get rid of "all at once." Hanging comma in the second. Patch it, please.

• • •

Thanks for reading.