Thursday, April 22, 2010

Superstar Dreamin'

Back when I was young (or just younger?) one of my formative experiences was the Final Fantasy video game series. Leaving aside the question of nerdiness, geekiness or whatever permutation of the concept you’d like, what appealed about the games were its stories, which were epic, and the idea that the characters in the story could be customized. They started out puny and small and grew steadily more powerful, steadily acquiring various skills and weapons When you’re young, this seems like a very realistic view of the world: unbroken, steady ascent. Well, you could dream on the potential of those characters.

That’s more-or-less a good metaphor for the prospective NBA superstar: the customized acquisition of skills, leading eventually to superstardom. If anything, that distinguishes the NBA slate in today’s game: it’s a test case for superstars, the building blocks of the NBA.

Probably the best role model to young superstars is Kobe Bryant. If anyone fits the model of superstardom outlined above, Kobe does: few other players as gifted as he give off the impression they sweat so much, constantly striving for more. I remember back last year against Denver, Anthony Carter somehow found himself guarding Kobe Bryant. Now, this was an idiotic decision and I said so, but this is a rant for another day. The point is that Kobe in this game in the middle of the series posted up Carter immediately and unleashed a move I’d never seen him use before: a quick shimmy followed by a turnaround. The Dream Shake, for the NBA nerds out there. Judging by Carter’s frozen feet, he’d probably never seen it before either. This year, Kobe’s relied on the move more and more as his game shifts into the post. It’s this encyclopedic roster of skills that wins Kobe adherents, and leads them to mistakenly assert Kobe is better than LeBron. Kobe’s skills are probably superior, but his production isn’t. There’s a difference. It’s the difference between a TV writer who’s written for (say) Gray’s Anatomy and Law and Order: he can write a lot of different styles, but he’s not as good a writer as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could only really write one style, his own. (Kobe is a better ball player than this hypothetical TV writer, but I believe you get the idea.)

To follow this analogy, LeBron only really knows how to play his style, a combination of basketball IQ and freak athleticism. His story isn’t so much the acquisition of new skills as the ruthless application of his old skills to new areas. Defense, for example, has been his strong suit. But you can still dream on LeBron: what if he got a jump shot? what if he played with a combo guard who could pass and handle the ball and got LeBron some off-the-ball opportunities? The questions go on. The only question you ask of Kobe is, what if he weren’t as selfish as he is? (It’s true, Kobe still is to a certain degree. It’s better than it was and Kobe being selfish is generally acceptable, but you still wonder…)

The real dreamers, then, are their adversaries: for LeBron, Derrick Rose; for Kobe, Kevin Durant. Derrick Rose, you wonder about defense (the question you always ask of younger players), you wonder about, what if he got aggressive and went to the rim every time, you wonder about his passing, you wonder if the Bulls got wise and surrounded him with shooters. But these questions are tempered by pessimism for me, as there’s a stink that follows the Bulls management like a bad fart. There’s a ceiling associated with that team. The real dreamer, as you must suspect, is Durant. What if Durant acquires a handle? And the real question: as always, defense. Game 2 was a premonition: Durant’s 4 blocks did not receive enough attention, yet Durant was fearsome helping off the weak side and clogging the lane, which caused such difficulties for the Lakers. It leads you to dream of outlandish scenarios, like what if Durant were put at the tip of a 2-3 zone and directed to get his hands on every single ball? Or what if Durant studied up on his Kevin Durant and started to give multiple efforts consistently on every defensive possession (e.g. tip a ball, contest a shot and get a rebound—Garnett on his first year with the Celtics was the best I’ve seen at this.) And asking all those questions you ask, well, if the answer is yes, then what new things will we see that we’ve never seen before?

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