The On Deck Circle

The unofficial home of Real Talk

Imaginary Player: Runnin’ Down a Dream

Posted by Blake Murphy on April 11, 2008

This article has been submitted by The Imaginary Player, Trevor Smith.

“We gotta get out while were young/ ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run” - Bruce Springsteen

It is a cliché almost as old as Naismith’s game itself: ‘basketball is like poetry in motion.’ When the metrics of roundball are not restricted and narrowed by the Pat Riley’s of this world, there is no game that flows as expressively or with as much opportunity to excite the imagination. Players posses individualistic freedom of expression while operating as part of a large arrangement. The game is at its most inspired when players within that arrangement work together as a cohesive unit, and do so with speed. A team that plays with zest will inherently move the ball better, breeding trust and greater opportunities for individualized brilliance. In this way an exciting basketball team is like a jazz group: there is room personal improvisation, so long as it contributes to the group’s collaborative appeal. The game itself doesn’t automatically take on such lyrical qualities though. It only achieves this offensive eloquence through commitment to a philosophy, which is that speed, creativity, and vision will be rewarded above all else. Only when every team member adopts such an ideology can it be realized effectively. Ultimately beauty lies in a fast-paced offense that relies on smaller, athletic players to create mismatches and outrun opponents. Nash-like expressiveness only happens when swiftness and offensive execution are held as sacred. That kind of energy gives the game a spirit and vitality. It makes it more visually appealing and commercially successful. The Warriors, a team that is committed to tempo and team-based inventiveness, is more arresting than San Antonio, who pledge allegiance to all things slow and defensive. Fans and League marketing execs alike want scoring and quickness to be instinctive. High-octane teams are more stylish and we marvel at them because, hell, they are just more fun to watch.

Sadly, herein lies the rub. For all its ability to electrify and inspire, a run-and-gun philosophy doesn’t promise substantial success. Actually, it basically guarantees the opposite. Action-packed entertainment promises playoffs dead loss. To win come June, one must take Kanye’s advice: “You gotta pump your brakes and drive slow homie.”

“It’s a start, a work of art/To revolutionize make a change”- Chuck D.

The realization that a quicker, expeditious pace deters meaningful success is akin to learning there is no Santa Claus. It crushes dreams and strips us rudely of our childlike optimism. The Nellie Ball school of thought has so many favorable philosophical attributes that make us long for it to work. It is democratic and classless, rebellious and profound. It is more exciting to play, more stirring to watch, and easier to implement than its cousin theories, Defense and Efficiency. The Pastor Saints for Swiftness (Don Nelson, Roy Williams, Mike D’Antoni) would all have you believe that their teams can speed, zoom, and dash their way to a championship. One can easily picture them remarking, “My fast is better than your fast.” Sadly, a quick glance at the past would suggest otherwise. Basketball’s history books are scattered with teams that looked to outscore and outlast their opponents. With only a few exceptions, all failed to achieve meaningful playoff success. The Run-TMC Warriors ran like the devil, but never made it past the second round. Kevin Johnson’s Suns were a joy to watch offensively, yet they never reached the mountaintop of NBA supremacy, even after acquiring Barkley. The same is true of Payton’s Sonics, Pistol’s Jazz, or McAdoo’s Buffalo Braves. These teams were memorable, and some even achieved immortality, but their lasting fame was more about ‘what if’ than ‘what was.’ Their timelessness is decidedly different from that achieved by champions. Teams like the Nash-era Mavericks are renowned for the virtuosity of their style of play and their talent. Champions are remembered for their accomplishments and their supremacy. Distinction based on excellence outweighs merit based on excitement.

Taking better care of each offensive possession and committing to hard work on each defensive possession is what wins championships. For proof, see the trophy case inside the Spurs’ offices. San Antonio scores 15 points a game fewer than Denver or Golden State. They are not nearly as energetic or fun to watch. The sheer perfection of the Big Fundamental’s game is not nearly as compelling as the liveliness of Baron Davis and Monta Ellis. Manu’s commanding efficiency isn’t half as alluring as Melo’s magnetism. Even the most exciting Spur, Tony P, pales in comparison to A.I. in terms of appeal. Yet the cohesive, boring Spurs have four titles and are poised to make a run at another this spring, while the Nuggets are still seeking to edge past the Warriors for the right to lose in the first round. Thursday night’s game between Denver and G-State was breathtaking and full of entertainment. But in the playoffs, style points and crowd reaction does not matter. Effectively defending the pick-and-roll and the high-low pass does. Off the charts offense does not save you from lackadaisical defense. Denver should know this better than anyone. Its 1982-83 team, led by Alex English, had the highest scoring average in NBA history at an astounding 126.5 PPG. By all accounts, they were light-years more exciting than the Showtime Lakers and had more offensive talent and creativity than any team ever. They also lost in five games in the second round.

“Admiring the splendor, but scared ‘cause she remember…” - Pusha T

Evidence to support the idea that defense still wins games in the NBA is everywhere. As of Friday, Denver and Golden State are tied as the best scoring teams in the NBA by each averaging 110.7 PPG. They are in eighth and ninth in the Western Conference respectively. The Raptors, a team crafted by Bryan Colangelo to emulate the Nash Suns, lead the NBA in 3-Point Percentage, shooting at a .402 clip. They hover just over the .500 mark and are in seventh in a weak Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics lead the L in Opponent Field Goal Percentage (.418), Fewest Points Allowed (90.4), Fewest Opposing Assists (18.4), and Defensive 3-Point Percentage (.316). They also lead the NBA with 62 wins.

In the 2004-05 season, the NBA saw a resurgence of high-scoring, fast-paced teams, led by Phoenix and Seattle. New rules regarding hand-checking allowed scoring to rise and curiosity to spread league-wide around playing at a faster pace. The watershed mark came last year, when the Suns beat the Nets with the incredible score of 161-157. Yet after falling short of the NBA Finals for three years straight, the innovators of this High-Speed Renaissance threw up their hands. In trading for Shaq two months ago, those Run-and-Gun Suns provided the most powerful indictment possible against the breakneck style of play that came to define them. Sure, the Suns can still score in bunches, but not with the same kind of joy, animation, or effortlessness they once did. Instead, they have begun to focus on the defensive side of the ball. Steve Kerr’s mandate was clear: the time for rebellion and reckless abandon is over. In the end, the system broke them, as it always does. Nellie Ball is unconventional for a reason, which is that it has not proven consistently successful. It is fatally flawed. No team has ever won a championship playing this way, mainly because placing with such an emphasis on offensive energy does not allow a team to play the kind of defense necessary in June. I wish it were another way, but consider this my white flag. Offensive brilliance and break-neck speed ultimately will only get a team to back to where they started: ring-less. Somewhere, Steve Nash is dying inside.

“That doesn’t mean you were born to run/ Either we’re vain or we’re broken hearted/ We don’t believe in a heaven above/ That’s why we’re back to the place that we started” - k-os

This article has been submitted by The Imaginary Player, Trevor Smith.

One Response to “Imaginary Player: Runnin’ Down a Dream”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Anything that quotes k-os automatically is dope

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