November 28, 2010

I Know It's Early, But . . .

Famous last words, 'cause you know that whenever you see that sentence, the speaker is just about to totally ignore the fact that "it's early" and go ahead to make a rash proclamation from that shaky base.  Just like when somebody says "no disrespect, but . . . " they're about to disrespect somebody.  Or when they say "taking nothing away from _____", they're about to take away from _____.

Dwyane ("The Typo") Wade, after losing to the Pacers:
"The Indiana Pacers -- and take nothing away from them -- but they don't have a lot of playmakers," Wade said. "Their offense is their playmaker and they do a great job of it, but that's why they play the style of ball they play. That's not LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. That's not our games so we have to figure out with our games and our strengths what to do and that's not us. Yeah, we move the ball and we have offensive sets to get the ball moving, but we're not trying to play like the Indiana Pacers."
Uh, yeah.  They just kicked your ass.  Are you really asking for more?

The implication is that the Pacers play team ball because they have no choice.  Well, that's true (sort of: I wouldn't put Granger in the class of James, Wade, Bryant, or Durant, but he's right there in that second tier with guys like Rose, pre-injury Roy, etc.), but isn't it starting to become clear that you need to be more like the Pacers?  Everybody has said it, including you yourself: there's only one ball.  All you "playmakers" need to become "playmakers" in the real sense - that is, do the little detail-oriented fundamentals-based dirty work it takes to get the job done every single second you are on the floor.  It's not even really clear to me that James and Bosh know how to do that, but at least they have excuses, James having had no college coach and Bosh having had it little better with Rick Barnes, but you had a good coach (Tom Crean), so at least you were taught.  Have you forgotten what it takes?

Then there's this:
"You see guys playing above their heads; there's no secret about it," said Wade, who noted that he feels a bigger bull's eye on the team this season compared to when the Heat were defending champs. "Teams are playing very well against us. There's a lot of things that we have that go against us at times, but we'll figure it out. It's understandable. We understand that we're a team that everyone wants to beat. When they finally do that, it's their playoff game. It's their biggest win of the year possibly, unless they beat the Lakers. I don't think it's going to get too much bigger, so we are not really worried about that."
Well, yeah, except for the fact that the Pacers beat you with their B- game, not their A game.  You may have had an insanely off night, going 1 of 15 from the floor, but Granger wasn't much better at 6 of 21.  We'll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe you shoot a tick under 50%, which you normally do, and additionally leave Granger with his atrocious shooting.  That's a twelve-point swing, and guess what?  You still lose by four.  And, not only did Granger have a bad shooting night, but the Pacers' second most important player, Roy Hibbert, only played 21 minutes because of foul trouble.  So: the Pacers beat you with their top scorer shooting 28.57% from the floor and their vital post defender on the bench for almost half the game.  Doesn't seem like the P were playing "above their heads" to me.

Dwyane, you just need to shut the hell up and play.  You and Bron both.

*          *          *          *          *

I'm not jumping to unreasonable conclusions here: if the Heat play up to their full potential, and the Pacers play up to theirs, the Heat win 10 out of 10 (well, nine out of 10, because there's always the chance that the Pacers do this).  And yes, the Heat took a dump on their home floor Monday.  But it's not as clear cut as that: the Heat didn't just lose this game, the Pacers won it.

And yes, that's the source of my early Pacerish optimism: there are things happening here that haven't happened here in a long, long time.  My optimism has its caution, and I'm careful not to expect too much in the won/loss column yet, but there are definitely things that a drawing my attention:

  1. They are showing signs of being able to play defense.  Not shut down defense, mind you, but they're closing down the expressway to the iron, and generally contesting jump shots (except against the Heat, when they just totally collapsed in and offered engraved invitations to the King and the Typo to beat them from 25 feet and out).  They are more and more maintaining decent defensive positioning, and generally making things a little more difficult than they have any time since the O'Neal/Artest/Foster era.  And, with Roy Hibbert emerging as a legitimate shot blocker, guys like McBob and Psycho T can play close, pesky defense, and if (when) they get beat off the bounce, they just turn their men in toward Hibbert, and he is actually capable of erasing a few of their mistakes.  Like I said, they're not the mid-aughts Pacers or Pistons, but at least now you have to work a little to score on them.
  2. And speaking of pesky, so far this year, the effort has been there pretty consistently there.  Nobody is wondering around like they're lost.  Again, part of it is the personality of guys like Hansbrough and McRoberts, who have to go big or go home . . . but, beyond that, it's clear that Jim O'Brien doesn't let anyone on the floor who's not willing to go all out, all the time.  Mistakes they will grudgingly live with (not many - for, as the Typo intimated, the Pacer's margin for error is almost non-existent), but not flying around will get you benched until you earn your way back in.
  3. Jim O'Brien's motion offense, though very far from being a finished product, is starting to pay off.  Now, instead of just running down the court and chucking up a shot, the Pacers actually look for the best shooter in the best situation AND actually take steps to achieve that situation.  As a result, everyone is starting to look a little bit better on the offensive end . . . especially T J Ford, who, after a failing grade as the primary point guard last year, is coming around as an important catalyst for the offense off the bench.
  4. And speaking of O'Brien, it seems like he is finally starting to realize some sort of vision for the team.  Going into this season, O'Brien seemed like a dead man walking, even if the Pacers managed to profit from the ill fortune of others (here I'm casting my eyes in the direction of New York, New Jersey, Philly, Washington, and Cleveland) and shuffle backwards into the playoffs.  But now, more than just exhorting a ragtag group of nobodies to the upper echelons of mediocrity, it seems possible (just possible!) that O'Brien has a vision of how to instill some sort of personality into that motley crew, and further, that he has a program that, given players with the right combination of talent and work ethic, could get the Pacers back to where they were in the Reggie Miller era.
After losing a heartbreaker to the Thunder (there are no more moral victories in Indy), The P stand at 7 -7, which is hardly a world-beater, given their relatively easy schedule so far.  And yet, there is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, low in candle power though it may be.  For the first time, it seems like maybe, just maybe, this team can be built up instead of blown up.  Certainly there will need to be major improvements, and it is clear that the focal point of the team has yet to arrive (Granger is really good, better than most people think he is - even the ones who think he's good - but, he's Robin, not Batman), but we have here something that the Heat definitely don't have: a good supporting cast.  So far, it is a supporting cast in search of a star, but there is really something here that can be built on.

We know the job of a ball team and its front office . . . or do we?  Answer number one would seem to be to WIN GAMES, but in these days of economic chaos and the capitalization of every last element of our lives, including our sporting endeavors, the main job of a team is to SELL TICKETS.  Of course, winning games makes selling tickets much easier, but it is not the be-all and end-all of a franchise's new reality.  As much as I loved the O'Neal-era Pacers, I was in the minority in this fan base.  Oh, the fans would have gotten behind them if they would have realized their pre-brawl promise, but that support would have been shallow.  Say what you want about Rick Carlisle, but that was an ugly, nasty team.  It had to be an ugly, nasty team to compete with its arch-nemesis Detroit.  It was what was called for at the time.  But the Good, the Bad, and the Crazy always had a short leash with Indiana fans.  And since the debacle at Auburn Hills, the P have been a hard sell, especially after Reggie finally hung it up.

Indiana is the most basketball-savvy fan base around, bar none.  It's not that they prefer high school and college basketball over the pro game, it's just that they have so many choices of top-notch basketball at so many different levels, they're not going to pay attention to a bush-league operation . . . I mean, for Christ's sake, even if you leave the Big Ten and IU and Purdue out of it, you have a Butler team that competes with the big boys year in and year out, and even easy tickets like the University of Indianapolis (alma mater of the Spur's George Hill) and IUPUI can buy you first rate hoop action, and that doesn't even include occasional fits from teams like Evansville, Ball State, and Indiana State, or a top-notch roundball league like the Big East rotating through South Bend, even if the Irish themselves are rather unspectacular and workman-like . . . and then there's the best high school basketball in the nation, and that includes all those trendy East Coast basketball academies.  No, the average Indiana ball fan won't put up with bullshit, because there's quality to be had around every corner.

So how do you serve that fan base?  Good ball.  That simple.  Indiana fans have been resistant to the pro game mainly because of the recent drive-and-kick nature of the pro offense (the very "style of ball" that the Typo is referring to as the anti-Pacers style of ball favored by himself and his Heat boys club).  There is a certain beauty to the one-on-one game of a true basketball genius - I think, in spite of the racial overtones of the anti-NBA sentiment around here, and in spite of the different tastes of the local roundball aficionados, Allen Iverson in his prime would have been well received in Indianapolis - but these days, the drive-and-kick game has completely lost its aesthetic appeal.  Derek Rose is exhibit A in that respect: there is no denying that  he is conscientious, studious, and driven, and there is no denying that he wants to do what's best for his team, and ultimately, there is no denying that his game is first-rate.  But: his game is ugly and uninteresting.  He throws himself at the iron like a chaotic missile, with no grace or art.  In the rare instances he is stopped cold, he kicks it out to a shooter - some guy standing around watching the action - to try to finish the play.  Now, when the driver has some real game to display on the way to the hoop, this approach is fine and enjoyable, but this has led (at the college level as well as the pro level) to an offense where you get a baller with just enough game that you need more than one defender to shut him down on the way to the hole trying to draw the defense into the lane so he can kick to some shooters on the edge.  BORING.  

Contra the drive-and-kick, we have the motion offense.  These days, everyone wants their turn for a solo (is that not the whole offense of the Heat at this point?  Wade and Bron taking turns, and getting Bosh involved when they remember?), but there is more . . . it's like jazz, and I don't make this comparison lightly.  Letting Coltrane run wild while Sanders or Dolphy, along with Tyner, are hanging out on the wings waiting for a kick is one thing, because it's freaking COLTRANE, after all.  And the more chaotic, Don Nelson/Golden State approach, with everyone throwing themselves willy-nilly into the chaos of an offensive possession like the brothers Ayler with Sunny Murray as a trailer, always has a certain car-crash appeal.  But there is nothing to compare to the breathlessness of a free-flowing group improvisation, like Ornette's Free Jazz, with everybody carrying the weight.  It can be free flowing like Steve Nash running the floor with Amar'e and the crew, or it can be orchestrated and disciplined Mingus-style like the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, one of the best teams in the history of basketball.  Or, there can be the charts of varying complexity that are always run as they should be, like every other Bob Knight team that didn't include Isaiah Thomas.  The thing is this: there is a beauty in the complexity of interplay that is lost in today's drive-and-kick offense.  Hoosiers may not give a shit about jazz, but they do give a shit about hoop and its aesthetic dimension, even if the average Hoosier wouldn't know aesthetics if it bit him in the ass.

Which, in a long roundabout, brings me back to this year's Pacers.  Indiana fans will support a team that tries to run a complex, disciplined game, even if they are not particularly successful in doing it.  If the the old-school dynamics are there, if the hustle and the effort are there, if the game has some sophistication, then the average Hoosier ball fan will credit the effort and patiently wait for the payoff.  Running isolations for Jermaine O'Neal* would have been long-term acceptable only if it lofted a banner in the rafters of Conseco Fieldhouse . . . nothing short of that was acceptable, certainly not the Artest freakout, the gangsterisms of Tinsley and Jackson, or the inability of the second generation of the Miller era to get the job done.  No, the average hoosier looks to roundball for aesthetic fulfillment, and he demands sophistication . . . details big and small, like the '87 Hoosiers flouting conventional wisdom and running with UNLV, just a little slower to keep the game at their tempo, not UNLV's; like ultra-conservative Bobby Knight debuting the first big hybrid guard in '76 with Bobby Wilkerson; like Butler neutralizing the K State guard's brutal full-court pressure by having their 6' 10" power forward Gordon Heyward bring the ball up the court (and any time they tried to take him on, he just kicked it back to the guards who exploited the mismatch): like the standard bearers of the old ABA, a flexible, dynamic bunch that included such HOF worthy people as workhorse pivot Mel Daniels, silky smooth Roger Brown, prototype power forward Big Mac George McGinnis, and more; like one of the five greatest ballers of all time, the very Larry Legend that currently runs the Pacers, and whose credit with the faithful is vast, though moving toward its end . . . 

This Pacers crew can earn that love: for while the bar is unbelievably high, there is much credit given for having your heart in the right place.
*  Incidentally, Jermaine tweeted earlier this year that he wanted to retire a Pacer.  I very, very much want this to happen.  I know that the fanbase will never be reconciled with Ron Artest, but I really think that the implosion of that Pacers team robbed O'Neal of his rightful place in the Pacer pantheon.  I don't know that we necessarily hoist his number 7 into the rafters with McGinnis's 30, Reggie's 31, Daniels's 34, Brown's 35, or Slick Leonard's blue polyester sports coat, but I think that, when he decides to retire, we sign him, have a Jermaine O'Neal Day at Conseco, and then let him go on his way.  It's only fitting.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Is it wrong that I'm relishing this story?

Also, it seems like a totally bizarre critique to essentially say that the Pacers' problem is that they play well as a team. ("their offense is their playmaker") Well, that's not exactly what he meant, but it's kinda what I heard.