As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the leaves turn frosty, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last full week. Not quite done yet, but close. Today we continue with Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph, and Marcin Gortat.
Follow Rasheed Wallace by yelling "BALL DON'T LIE!" at your next office potluck.
“You know, I say what’s on my mind, speaking my freedom, and I get fined for it. It’s a catch-22 with that (expletive), man. See, they think they can control people with money. Everybody don’t live like that.”
Did Rasheed Wallace care?
When you examine Wallace's game, you find a man whose talents were generational. He had the opportunity at several junctures to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. And don't scoff -- it's true. Rasheed's combination of post dominance, defensive acuity, and outside game were absolutely unfair. He was one of about 3 post defenders in the past decade who could cover Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan one-on-one. When he locked in, he was an excellent rotating defender. He could reign in his errant shooting in a tense playoff situation, and when he actually focused on taking it down low, he was excellent. His only flaws were those of effort -- he never quite seemed to care exactly as much in the regular season as he did in the playoffs, and even in the playoffs, there was a certain devil-may-care attitude that permeated his game and demeanor to the point of sabotaging his public persona. At least to some extent.
There's a reason fans of Portland's Jail Blazer era generally don't love Rasheed as much as everyone else does, and it's certainly not baseless racism. As good as Rasheed Wallace was in his prime, there's this lingering sense that he could've been quite a bit better. It's the same sense people get when they look at Shaquille O'Neal and wonder on how good he could've been if he hadn't eschewed practice and come in out-of-shape every other season, or the same sense people in Toronto get when they look at a player like Hedo Turkoglu or Vince Carter. The allure of unearthed brilliance is great -- there's a deep disappointment to be had when you see a level of play within a player's grasp that they never cared to reach. There's a sad, hollow death knell to a career riddled with those kinds of questions. All careers have a few things the player never finished -- few careers have quite as many unanswered questions as Rasheed or Shaq, and as such, they inspire our lament. But it's a compelling lament. It's one that makes you think, and makes you wonder why exactly he turned out that way. Did he simply not care?
When I examine his personal bent, though, I come to a different conclusion. He cared. Rasheed Wallace is a cult phenomenon for a reason, and it isn't his dominant generational talents. It's the way he composed himself, and specifically, the philosophy behind it. The classic conception is that Rasheed Wallace never cared what you or anyone else thought of him -- on the contrary, I propose he cared a lot. He simply didn't care how you thought of him. He simply cared that he was thought of at all. He cared that he'd be remembered for his larger-than-life personality, no matter what that meant exactly to his reputation. Rasheed Wallace, when all's said and done, didn't want to be Kevin Garnett. He didn't want to be Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Moses Malone. He wanted his imprint on the league to be distinctly Rasheed-shaped, Pilsbury style. Yes, he could've worked harder and gotten into shape and demanded the ball more. He could've been a better player, certainly. But Rasheed Wallace got his ring. He was the best (or second best) player on years and years of great teams. And you know what? That's enough.
When you're an enigma, a riddle, and a man who simply wants to be remembered on his own merits, you don't need any other validation from a basketball perspective. You simply need the one thing your basketball skills can't give you -- a platform for ideas. They don't need to be good ones, they don't need to be philosophically consistent, and they don't need to be well presented. You don't need to enact change, either. I profess that Rasheed Wallace -- more than basketball, more than any particular ideology, more than anything -- simply cared about impressions. Not what they were, but simply the object of making them. Everyone has an opinion about Rasheed Wallace, and he's left us reels and reels of cult-strengthening tapes and hilarious truth-to-power antics. He inspires essays in honor of his greatness and essays in honor of his laziness. He's succeeded in the primary thing Rasheed Wallace really wanted to do in the first place -- he's furrowed his way into the NBA's sands of time. Not as a good player, not as a star, not as a generational lightning rod.
He'll be remembered as the very first (and very last) Rasheed Wallace. That's all he ever needed to be.
"You don't look bad on nobody because somebody went to the penitentiary or somebody did this. You treat everybody the same because everybody's got skeletons. Some people just hide them more. Some don't get brought to the light, but ain't nobody perfect. Nobody." -- Zach Randolph, 2012
Although his numbers last year don't show it due to his injuries, Zach Randolph is a really good player. Reminds me -- in a lot of odd ways -- of Karl Malone. He's an exceedingly good scorer when he has a hot night, with seemingly infinite range and this eldritch sense of inevitability. Of course Randolph would hit that three. Of course he'll can the fadeaway with two men on him. Of course he'll get the key rebound. The same was always true of Malone -- even when he'd take an absolutely terrible shot or try to go one-on-four in the post, it always seemed to work out for the best. He'd make do. There's a reason Malone averaged 22 points a night at the age of 38. You could make him take terrible shots all you wanted -- it didn't matter, he'd still can enough of them to scuttle your team. Ever since his Memphis renaissance, Randolph has had that same sort of feeling -- he may ballhog at times and he may slow down the offense, but in the end, you're usually comfortable with whatever the hell awful shot he puts up. Because by and large, he'll make enough of them to make you feel that way.
The thing Randolph's current incarnation has that Karl never quite embodied? A thirst for the boards unlike few who've ever played the game. In Memphis, Randolph's averaged a rebounding percentage of 19% -- that's obscenely high for a four year average. Consider that in Malone's career, he never had a single year above 17.4%! They filled different roles, but per-possession, it's inarguable that Randolph is a better rebounder than Malone. And it's also inarguable that Randolph's nowhere near as good of a scorer as Malone, even if their scoring feels similar to me -- in his Memphis years, Randolph's put up a usage percentage of 24.3%. Malone posted only two years below that usage percentage -- his rookie year and his final year, the bookends of his career. Malone took a far more active role in the Utah offense than Randolph has ever taken in the Memphis offense, and he maintained higher efficiency. Despite relying heavily on a long range shot that always looked to be teetering on the edge of "completely broken" (especially in his waning years), Malone was one of the most effective scorers of all time. Randolph certainly isn't that. But again -- it's a matter of feeling. It's a matter of reflections and shades. The way Randolph scores elicits shades of Karl Malone. The craftiness, the cheekiness, the smooth and subtle dominance.
The other big differentiator between Malone and Randolph? Prior to Memphis, Randolph was known (perhaps unfairly) as something of a basketball menace -- a ballhogging jerk who'd gun for numbers and mess up locker rooms with the people who'd surround him. He was dumped from Portland to New York for almost nothing, then dumped from New York to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Memphis for virtually nothing. Nobody wanted him -- they wanted the numbers he'd give, sure. But they didn't want the other stuff. The ties to his spotted past, the disinterest on defense, the ball-dominating and the overshooting. They just wanted him to settle down a bit, get comfortable with the team and the city, and really contribute. Put his heft behind the game. He couldn't ever find that balance in Portland, and he certainly couldn't achieve it in New York or Los Angeles. But in Memphis, he finally did. He reached that internal balance that turned the ballhog into a great. The one that Malone found in Utah, and the one that allowed him to finally free himself and emerge into the player he'd always threatened he could be. A star, if only just.
Zach Randolph is a good player. Maybe he's a good person, too. Or maybe he's a bad person -- he hangs around with the wrong crowd, for sure, and when he was younger he put quite a bit of heft into a lifestyle that he now admits wasn't the best. But it doesn't really matter, in the end -- just look, once again, at good ol' Karl Malone. Malone will always be remembered as one of the best power forwards to ever play the game, regardless of his personal sins. Like abandoning children, impregnating 13-year-olds, or baselessly slamming Magic Johnson for returning to the game with HIV. Just because he was a upstanding Christian soldier doesn't make his sins any less pressing than Randolph's -- we judge his game on its own merits because the game is all we really have to judge him on. We're sports analysts and fans, not person fans. When it all comes down to it, the people Randolph breaks bread with and the past he's begun to abandon means as much as we want it to -- and we shouldn't really want it to mean anything. If we can't bring ourselves to care about Malone's past, there's hardly any reason for us to bother with Randolph's. Malone's a great player because that's how he played the game -- and for Randolph, the sweet embrace of his late career renaissance may be enough for us to view him kindly.
Unless you're a Portland fan. Isn't it funny that he and Sheed were placed beside each other?
Marcin Gortat's an interesting nut to crack. I'll get to his off-court antics later -- they need further examination. But his on-court ones? He's a really good player, all things considered, and one of the more slept on quasi-stars in the western conference. First, a statement that goes contrary to most people's conventional wisdom -- we don't live in a league with any real dearth of quality big men. Some people highlight Gortat in a fundamentally insulting way, snidely proclaiming him a decent center but noting as well that his quality as a center "doesn't mean much" in the "modern" NBA, given that he's up against such dismal competition. That's not really true. The NBA's quietly underwent something of a renaissance from the frontcourt down, and I'd argue that the league has reached a new state with fewer quality wings than it has quality bigs. Lots of good point guards, lots of good bigs, but an absolute scarcity of good wings. You may not believe me offhand, and that's OK. But let's take a look at the top 10-15 big men in the NBA, in no particular order, separated by their general career status.
- The Old Standards -- Players who remain phenomenal top-tier big men despite being well past their golden years. (Includes: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett.)
- The Prime Ribs -- Players who are top-tier big men in the primes of their career. (Includes: Dwight Howard, Anderson Varejao, Marcin Gortat, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, David West)
- The Sub-prime Crises -- Players who are top-tier big men but are a bit short of their inevitable primes. (Includes: Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik, Anthony Davis, Roy Hibbert, DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Ryan Anderson)
- The Wildcards -- Players who are top-tier big men when circumstances are right, but who aren't quite there right now due to Reasons. (Includes: Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum)
I'll count those up for you. That's three immensely high-quality old standards, eleven extremely solid big men in the prime of their careers, eleven big men who've yet to reach their primes who are already very good, and two injury-related wildcards that are as good as anybody when they're healthy. That's 27 players, enough for almost every team in the league to have an extremely good big man. And this doesn't even get into a few of the fringe cases, like Andrea Bargnani, David Lee, and Pau Gasol. There's hardly a dearth of quality big men in the league, there's simply a dearth of recognition for the big men we have now. These players are good. NBA bigs don't get more than two or three games "off" in any given year -- there are vicious scorers from everywhere, and given hand-check rules, they now have more responsibility to guard pick and roll plays and dives to the rim. It's tough, but these guys persevere and prosper. The NBA's modern big doesn't look exactly like they used to, but that certainly doesn't mean they're bad, or that the league is in some crisis of absent bigs.
As for Gortat? Again, he's really good. He's a solid individual defender who has a talent for showing on the pick and roll and containing the action, and he learned a heck of a lot more from Dwight Howard than most people realize. A bit thin in the post, so post-up centers can spell his demise, but he's not bad. He supplements his decent defense with a highly effective post-up game, with a nice 4-8 foot hook and a knack for creatively getting open for under-the-rim layups. One other huge positive for Gortat that rarely gets mentioned is his aversion to turnovers -- the man posted the 3rd lowest turnover ratio among centers last year, and anyone who watches Dwight Howard in the post would understand how important that is when you're a center who wants to be a primary offensive threat. He supplements all of that with a solid long-shot. No three pointers, mind you, but his range extends to about 20 feet and he's got enough mobility that opposing centers need to come out on him, which helps the Suns put together plays where they draw the defense out effectively even with Nash gone. He's not the best at any of this -- there are better post-up centers, better defensive centers, and better midrange shooters. But he's extremely good at all these things, and as an overall package, Gortat represents one of the best centers the league has to offer.
Off the court, Gortat is hilarious in a lot of ways. He's responsible for the song that's (for my money) the most hilarious NBA-related rap ever, this Polish sojourn to Gortat's "story". He drives the most ostentatiously hilarious car I've ever seen (see above), although I'd also caution that I'm 90% sure that automobile would be against several billion car regulations in the united states. Also, he isn't wearing his seat belt, which is curiously poor conduct as a role model to millions of 7'0" tall Polish children everywhere. Great smile though. He can also sing Bon Jovi, although he probably should stick to basketball. I'd like to see a mix tape with Redick and Gortat -- have a feeling that'd be classic. No, I like Gortat's off-court personal quirks a lot. He's funny and his antics make me smile. But I can't lie and say it's all roses -- I'm starting to get legitimately concerned about Gortat's comically poor grasp of how to compose himself around the media. Our Polish correspondent Adam Koscielak has always pointed out that his devil-may-care media attitude is endemic to the Polish spirit. I'm open to that as a fact, but at some point it's also a bit ridiculous -- there's absolutely no reason for Gortat to be spilling the sorts of comments he did a few weeks back.
Worst part? This isn't anything new for him. Don't call it a comeback -- he's been doing this for years. Proof, in case you've forgotten, lies here. That was soon after he was traded to Phoenix, where he essentially called his teammates lazy slobs and slammed his own team as the "worst defensive team in the league" straight out of nowhere. Hate to break it to Gortat, but teams have bad nights. They weren't a wonderful defensive team, but they certainly weren't as bad as he was saying. Eviscerating your compadres gets old after a while, and I have no idea how his teammates put up with him if this is at all representative of how he acquits himself in the locker room. Polish spirit or not, there's a point where you're simply being an offensive jerk with no regard for the people around you. Gortat clearly has some trouble staying away from that point, and until he deals with it, he's going to have trouble getting the playing time his production implies he deserves. Learning to build working relationships with the people around you is part of any job. If you can't do that without blasting everyone you interact with, you don't really have much of a leg to stand on when you complain about not getting a chance to prove yourself. No matter how good you really are.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Only one guess yesterday, from A. Luckily it was a 2/3 guess. Good work, A.
- Player #358 is a reclamation project that actually got reclaimed. By a team that isn't in Texas, too! Imagine that. Tomorrow, you won't have to.
- Player #359 is the most underrated semi-star in the NBA. He's on a brilliant value contract and he's one of the best 3 players at his position. And nobody seems to notice. Player Capsule Plus, maybe.
- Player #360 took more threes than twos last season. In fact, a LOT more.
Happy boxing day, folks. I'm wearing a bathrobe to work.
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