But first, Brandon Jennings blazes more path.
New Media Somethingstar: Quietly, or at least not on a register we're used to taking seriously, Brandon Jennings has been huge lately. I know some readers think I believe too ardently in the power of the interwebs, most notably the silly 2.0 version that kids use on the electric bus. There have also been some disagreements in the past between myself and Mr. Jennings, namely, I am several years older than him and don't quite always get his meaning.
But in a summer that has seen LeBron James simply killed for his misadventures with television and virtual print, Jennings has used Web 2.0 to set an agenda and hone his image -- all without ever seeming to try too hard.
He has used Twitter and gossip sites to lambast the Heat and other prospective super-teams; was filmed playing with fellow young turks Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans in some summer run that, compared to Miami's corporate gigantism and Team USA's delicate national interests, was practically the raw uncut; slyly asserted that sneaker interests played some role in who made Team USA; and finally, danced to Lady Gaga even if he totally looked like a dancer from Madonna's Truth or Dare.
If you don't think Jennings is busy constructing a more layered, intricate public persona, well, you're not on the right frequency. Jennings's frequently shifting, sometimes locked, Twitter accounts aren't so different from pirate webcasts or disposable cell phones. The low-risk, high-reward world of social media -- where an item can live and die in a matter of hours, and imperfect archiving means you're always left with some form of ghost -- is the future of athletes-in-public. Unlike more durable "stories," there's an element of unpredictability, fan input, and freedom that makes it at once exhilarating and potentially dangerous.
Brandon Jennings knows how to play the game like no other. These are a few of his stories.
Jennings first got going back in June, when he live-blogged the draft with SLAM; if it ended up being pretty low-key, it's still notable as a case of him exploring new, unfettered channels of self-promotion. Then in August, the deluge. First, Jennings accused Nike of running USA Basketball. When you put it like that, Jennings comes off as a paranoid, and presumptuous, jerk. After all, when a team can make excuses for letting Rajon Rondo walk away unmolested, does it have space for Jennings? But he does have a point -- going back to the Dream Team, the Sneaker Wars have hovered in the background of our nation's great united basketball efforts. Take a look at Jordan accepting the gold and tell me what he's concealing.
Jennings isn't the first to make this point. Gilbert Arenas, who were it not for the unfortunate gun saga might be seen as the creaky prototype for BJ, said it in 2006. Arenas, though, made the mistake of telling the mainstream press. That's a surefire way to get written off as a loose cannon, or suckler of sour grapes. Jennings snuck it in, casually, like it was something those in the know should, well, know. The less attention you demand, the more cover an idea has. It can sit around, germinate, and hang in the background as we watch Team USA do whatever it may. It's not paranoia if everyone gives it consideration.
Is it a blind accusation? Maybe. Maybe Jennings is just looking at the same numbers we are. Or maybe he has inside information. What's more, it cements his anti-establishment, gut-punching rebel image. The specifics, or even the effect, are far less important than the affect. We might even forget that Jennings said it, but we remember that he said something subversive about USA Basketball.
Then, to lighten the mood, Jennings lit up YouTube by taking part in some informal night ball that preceded the Boost Mobile Elite 24 Camp. That was for the kids, but the demi-adults -- Jennings, Wall, Evans, DeRozan and Bobby Brown -- stole the show. They took part in the exhibition play the night before, and Jonathan Givony of Draft Express tweeted second-by-second updates that had the feel of folklore in the making.
Luckily, the next morning highlight showed up, giving us exactly the kind of offseason action that we always hear about, but never witness. It was, if you like, a player instantly identified with laying bare all aspects of his basketball life, not just the NBA-sanctioned stuff. Check Jennings out at No. 1 and No. 3.
And then came the super-team bombshell. Jennings first made the comments to TMZ.com, which was a roundabout way to make a statement about the state of the league. He then took to Twitter, adding Blake Griffin to the mix; the repetition may have pushed deadpan to its logical extremes. But read the initial quote: Jennings isn't proving that he has been brainwashed, or forced into a corner, by his elders. He disdains the Heat. Teaming up with Wall, Curry and Evan is cool for pick-up ball -- an irony I'm sure he's referencing -- but is exactly the kind of haphazard, star-hoarding that doesn't win championships. Or so we've been told a million times. Regardless, Jennings is going with the traditionalists on this one. It hurts competitive balance. It isn't earned. And, although Griffin makes the line-up a little more plausible, it's more than a little absurd.
Then again, you also have to ask, is Jennings also clowning the media? Chris Paul made international news with a toast at Carmelo Anthony's wedding. Maybe he's making his mock-plan more plausible in hopes of the message getting muddled, and it coming back to haunt him (and us) at some point as real news. Jennings is in another media universe; it figures that, when he's used to instantaneous control over his message, he would find humor in how easily it can be wrested away from him -- no matter how stupid it sounds, or was initially meant to be.
But I digress, and probably give the kid way too much credit. Let's go back to what matters: Brandon Jennings dancing up a storm to Lady Gaga's "LoveGame". LeBron already made Gaga safe territory for NBA players, at least when Larry King is asking the question. But Jennings -- sure to insulate himself with a "pause" on Twitter and the insistence that this was "a lost bet" -- went and put on an exhibition that would do the Lady herself proud. Fun fact: Very few sports blogs bothered to note the title of the song. It's not that hard to find, really.
Do the Bucks want him doing this? Does it matter? In weeks, we'll remember only that Jennings is a live wire, who could do anything at any time, and has yet to have anyone truly clamp down on him. Granted, we've been through this cycle before with him, but Jennings is getting better at this every time -- and he's only coming off his first season. You'll hear a lot about how the kid is only getting better as a player, even if he's about to be superseded by John Wall. Who knows, though. With this kind of arsenal at his disposal, Jennings' guerilla tactics could prove a worthy match to the PR machines of loftier players.
Just look at Evans. Tyreke was hands-down the Rookie of the Year, and yet you couldn't quite shake the feeling that with Jennings, there was something really new happening in the league. If you think that's not all about the New Athlete, and the ways he manipulates his image, you probably still think points-per-game are the strongest measure of a man's game. (BS)
The World to Come: Carmelo Anthony's rough waters have calmed, just as did those keeping Chris Paul afloat earlier this summer. New Denver GM Masai Ujiri gets the lion's share of credit; his completely disarming reaction to the whole hubbub shows a bit of why everyone thinks he can keep Melo satisfied, at least temporarily.
But assuming the goodwill dissipates some point soon and the trade request buoys back up to the surface, Anthony will have a choice. In most cases, it is in the interest of the Nuggets to trade Melo to a team in desperate need of a star scorer, a franchise with assets and flexibility but one that is perhaps not championship-ready. It's in Melo's interest to go to a ready-made contender (though, of course, one could argue he's already on that team).
It will be up to the Nuggets and whichever team they'd reach agreement with to have faith the market will win, and Anthony will sign his extension before the big bad lockout strikes. (Yes, this is a little-known feature of a pending labor strike: added pressure to fall into line for potential free agents. It's almost like a pro-owner puppetmaster is running the league or something.) The risk for any team trading for Anthony is that it would be overpaying for a rental if Melo won't immediately sign an extension; that is Melo's chip, same as it is with Denver, which he can leave next summer.
Denver isn't going to trade a hero for slop and cap space, so -- unless Wilson Chandler wins a few Player of the Week trophies -- most of Melo's list is right out. When Sam Amico tweeted a list of three teams the Nuggets were interested in talking to -- Sacramento, New Jersey and Minnesota -- everyone laughed. Needless to say, Melo's list and the Nuggets' list are not compatible.
Consider this, then, a plea for Carmelo to look past 2010-11 and embrace the wonderful future he could have with a young, rising team. Sacramento, for instance, could make Denver an attractive offer without putting Tyreke Evans or rookie DeMarcus Cousins in play. The Kings have modeled themselves after the Oklahoma City Thunder; like OKC, Sacramento hit the depths, drafted a superstar, drafted well again and is ready to rise. Evans isn't Kevin Durant, but one could argue Cousins is a bigger chip than Russell Westbrook and that the Omri Casspi-Donté Greene dragon outstrip the Thunders' third tier. (There's also the fact that Sactown is an hour flight from L.A., with jets leaving five dozen times a day. Also, the team is owned by the Maloofs, who have some pull both in Vegas and the entertainment world. And they got Evans a sitdown dinner with President Obama last season. Power comes in odd shapes and sizes!)
Look at it this way: who wouldn't want to get traded to the Thunder right now? Two years ago, stars would have crossed Oklahoma City right off their list -- too country, too many losses, too far from contention. They say the same about Sacramento right now, and while no one can guarantee the Kings are on the path of the Thunder, ready to contend in 2-3 years' time, it's a pretty straightforward analogy.
If Melo knew anything about business, he'd know it's better to get in early on something special than to wait for maturity. Accepting a trade to and signing an extension with a team like Sacramento -- a team that isn't quite there on its own, where he can be seen as a basketball messiah, even if he's really just an imported piece of the Tri-force -- would truly set him apart from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Melo's done it before, showing commitment to Denver by skipping out on the mini-max party LeBron, Wade and Bosh -- his Class of 2003 mates -- had. But if Anthony really wants to make his name as his own man, as a trailblazer, eschewing the traditional "trade me to an established winner" route would sure help. (TZ)
The Parker Theory: Everyone knows by now the so-called Ewing Theory is a nice way of saying certain superstars are overrated. If the Knicks play better without Patrick Ewing, Patrick Ewing must stink, right? Or if the Rockets reel off a 22-game winning streak as Yao Ming goes down, Yao means nothing; when Yao and the Rockets have a wildly successful season without Tracy McGrady the next year, both stars suck and it must be the teammates doing all the work; when both miss the following season and the team is average ... umm, we need a new scapegoat.
In other words: basketball is too complex for something like the Ewing Theory to be consistently accurate. You don't solve a jigsaw puzzle with a sledgehammer. Besides, the theory's been bastardized into a joke, though one could argue it was created as a joke, considering that Patrick Ewing was, uh, good.
But something like a Parker Theory might hold water. Team France moved to 3-0 at the FIBA World Championship on Tuesday, edging Canada a few days after knocking off a foundering Spain. France, of course, is without its best player ever: Spurs guard Tony Parker. Since winning silver in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney (falling in the final game to a Team USA starring Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Ray Allen), France has had trouble competing at the highest levels. The French didn't qualify for the 2004 Athens or 2008 Beijing Olympic tournaments, and have finished no higher than third in Europe. And that has largely been with Parker, a proven NBA winner with three championship rings and a Finals MVP to his name. As a Francophile who has been touting the team for six or so years, it's been maddening.
Without Parker, you'd expect the French to truly crumble this summer in Turkey. But the opposite has happened. And Nicolas Batum, Blazers small forward, has been a huge reason why. Batum has been the driving force of both the French offense and defense, effectively serving Les Bleus as LeBron had served the Cavaliers for seven years.
Playing with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, and under the strict, discipline-seeking boot of Nate McMillan, Batum has never been able to reach full bloom. (He's been good in Portland, but far more subdued.) But without Parker, France needs the full Batum -- his vicious rim-work, his gutsy big-shot responsibility, his gravitas. Parker, of course, is more than a scorer, though. He's also one of the best point guards in the world. Batum has shown he can handle (eight turnovers in 87 minutes in his first competitive experience as a lead ball-handler), but France is rife with finishers who need to be set up.
Enter Boris Diaw, our old friend from the mythic-if-I-hadn't-seen-it-myself 2005-06 Phoenix Suns. This isn't the Bobcats' Diaw, or even the 2006-08 Diaw. It's vintage Boom-Boom, the aloof maestro who beat out Magic Johnson for the prestigious title of tallest NBA point guard ever. Diaw is leaving the scoring to Batum and former Sonic Mickael Gelabale, but the passing! Diaw is amid the tournament leaders in assists per game, with six, outstripping Ricky Rubio, Patty Mills and anyone Team USA can throw out there.
Between them, Batum and Diaw have completely replaced Parker, and with better defense. Parker's absence has forced Batum to play more freely, more aggressively than he normally would, and has forced Diaw into that point-forward mindset. If Parker had been playing, perhaps France would still be 3-0. But we as spectators would be hoping to see a bit more Batum, and Diaw would probably come off as completely disappointing. (He's averaging four points a game on 26 percent shooting.)
If the Ewing Theory states some superstars hold their teams back in a qualitative sense, the Parker Theory finds that some superstars hold their teammates back stylistically. In this case, it's not Parker's fault -- what, is he supposed to not be so good when he's playing? -- but the way the cosmos have worked it out. Parker is a smart dude, though, and versatile himself. I can't wait to see what he, Batum and Diaw cook up in the 2012 Olympics.
There I go getting my hopes up again. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.