This is a very special (day before) Thanksgiving edition of The Works.
After my wife and I braved the great Seattle ice-wall of 2010 to reach the airport -- passing wrecked cars and reliving "The Road" every step of the way -- I started thinking about the holiday. Not "the holidays," you ding-bat; the humble pilgrims are now some of America's finest blue-bloods, which means they make money off Christmas and have no reason to lobby for a celebration unique to their tradition.
Old money isn't a culture, it's a state of mind. Still, considering all the trouble some of us take to make sure Thanksgiving gets done right each year, it's a little strange to me that there are no good Thanksgiving songs. Or chants. Or madrigals. Or anything joyous, rousing, repetitive, and yet ruminative, that small to medium-large groups can trot out while the turkey is bleeding to death in the backyard.
With that thought in mind, Tom Ziller and I decided to write our own little Thanksgiving invocation, except all about the NBA, and with no discernible tune. Consider it blank liturgy, or a grocery list of hope for you to share with those who might understand when the Chinese armies overrun our shores and we're left huddled in a bunker, with seconds to live, reflecting on what we have truly been thankful for. (BS)
The 50-40-90 club. Membership to this club is limited to players who shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from behind the arc and 90 percent from the line for a season. Invented by, no joke, Larry Bird, only the most brilliant scorers (Bird, Dirk Nowitzki), sweet-shooting guards (Steve Nash, Mark Price) or complete WTF flukes (Jose Calderon) make the cut. Shannon Brown is on pace this season. Draw your own conclusions.
Legends everywhere. It's hard to turn on an NBA game these days and not see a legend, whether it's Walt Frazier talkin' and mockin', Kareem Abdul-Jabbar casting aspersions and worse at Andrew Bynum, Bill Russell looking grumpy, Oscar Robertson looking really grumpy, or Jerry West looking tanned.
Truly engaged owners. NFL owners wear three-piece suits everywhere (even to the cleaners!). All Major League Baseball franchises are secretly owned by conservative pundits. But NBA owners? Them's good, engaged people. They wear Ed Hardy shirts and split nights between working at Dairy Queen and playing in a crappy blues band, just like the rest of us. They'll even tell the world when they don't understand a column!
Nothing lasts forever. The half-life on any given NBA truism is, like, two days. Defense wins championships ... until the Lakers smoke Dwight Howard. The Heat are invincible ... until the season starts. Ron Artest is a lunatic ... until he wins a title. Kevin Durant is overrated ... until he wins the scoring title. Zach Randolph is the most cancerous black hole ever invented ... until he's a rock-solid 20-10 pillar. Give any trope long enough and it will die.
Those guys we just can't quit. Part of falling hard for young players, especially of the freakish or sleeper variety, is turning your back on them when they fail. That's just the way nature works, and basketball is nothing if not part of the natural world. However, some guys keeping pulling you back in, year after year. JaVale McGee. J.R. Smith. Francisco Garcia. Amir Johnson. Many fall by the wayside. But those players who remain to you as fresh as they day you called them a future All-Star ... that's as much about you as them, partner. Be yourself. Enjoy the season.
I used to be a pirate. Ziller touched on this already, but there's really no good comparison in sports for the place Stephen Jackson currently occupies in the NBA's hive-mind. He didn't have a Ron Artest-like arc of redemption. Nor has he, like Zach Randolph, been transformed into a surly older dude who gets the job done with a little bit of attitude, and stories about his wild days. Jackson was once the league's real public enemy No. 1. Now, he bros down with Larry Brown, after forcing his way off of a Warriors team that he turned around with his crazed leadership. Pirates never die. They just go into business as pirates.
Sam Presti. I'm sorry, is it wrong for a column to suck up to GMs? Kevin Durant love is hardly worth writing home about at this point. Russell Westbrook isn't far behind. But Presti, mastermind behind it all, is the architect who has made this all possible -- right down to handing the keys to Scott Brooks and letting him manipulate the Thunder's unusual roster. The cult buzz may have died down, but this team is still the absolute cutting edge of postmodern basketball research. Getting Durant may have set the wheels into motion, but it's Presti, who I think is younger than I am, who we can really thank for sustaining a team that's somewhere between a thinktank and secret weapons facility.
Omri Casspi. Sorry, Jewish people, Casspi will not be saving the planet anytime soon. So we spread this around: Asian-Americans, if Jeremy Lin lasts five years in this league, fortune will indeed have smiled upon your throngs. However, the more we get real diversity in the NBA -- "token white guy" doesn't mean much -- the more this sport, which is going international with a vengeance, really starts to serve as a front for important discussion of domestic matters of race, culture and identity. That's part of what makes sports great. Too heavy for you? SLAM JUMPER! There.
Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels. Maybe this dates us here at The Works -- guess what, we're not in college -- but as rookies, these modern-day Heavenly Twins were one of the most unexpected, and wacky, developments to come out of the truly unprecedented and wacky 2004-05 season. Howard was an ACC stud who fell to the Mavs late because he was only an ACC stud (despite a body and skill-set that screamed POTENTIAL); Daniels a sneaky Auburn product who found his way onto Dallas' roster and late in the year, proceeded to shock the world. Together, they looked like the future -- of the team, and the league. Limited, and yet infinite. Oh well.
Daniels has had some notable bumps -- he was lurking across the street in his white Rolls Royce Shadow during the Club Rio incident, and later made a rap record with armed evil felon Lil Boosie. Howard has fought the power, dealt with lots of injuries, and thrown a party for himself during the playoffs. Avery no like that. But now, they're back -- back enough to make you think it wasn't all a dream. Daniels is a valuable reserve with Boston. Howard is working his way back, looking to join a Wizards team that badly needs someone to bridge young and old. Let them finish out their days as more than a footnote than blew up in Dallas' face.
Monta Ellis. This could be about the post-Nellie Warriors (visionary-turned-tyrant mercifully slinks away, while leaving his stench to guide us), or the likelihood that Stephen Curry and Ellis just might work out after all. Nope. Monta is enough. Now that the numbers aren't appalling from a NASA and algorithms standpoint, just watch the kid play. Pure joy. You will not find a more passionate, creative, surprising, and now, comfortably sane lead scorer in this league. Maybe Allen Iverson isn't so dead after all.
The point guards. Who cares if they rose to power on the back of some questionable rule manipulation? A resurgent Chris Paul; Rajon Rondo taking over the Celtics like strange weather over the docks; Deron Williams turning into Captain Courageous on a nightly basis; John Wall unleashed; Rose doing Rose; Westbrook breaking games wide open and overshadowing KD at times; and dudes like Jrue Holiday still looking to find their footing, and be given a team to work with, flashing skills that mark them as the next in line.
A center enslaves a whole team; these guards open it up, expanding the possibilities until, really, if you can't play with them, you might as well resign and quit the league. I'm looking at you, Andray Blatche. Lose some weight, too. You look a surly pastry on stilts. The league will never turn into a bunch of Suns clones. But one where invention, versatility, and quick shifts in space and time lead the way? This is the Age of the Point Guards. Big men need to fall in line. And the league is better off for it.
Michael Beasley: The game is back, and Thanksgiving has never seemed more real.
Jerry Sloan's open mouth. Does he have trouble breathing through his nose? Is it just his "old person" attribute? Is he staying as prepared as possible to verbally assault a referee or Russian? Does he love the taste of the air in EnergySolutions Arena? We may never find out, and maybe we should not want to. (TZ + BS)
Thank You: Tim Grover, Arnie Kander and the Suns' Training Staff
Rob Peterson is a FanHouse producer and frequent contributor to The Works.
Moments after you take your seat at the table, tuck the napkin under your collar and grab the knife with your left hand and the fork with your right, someone will lead the group in a Thanksgiving prayer. When asked what they're thankful for, some will respond "family." Some will mention a significant other, a job or even or some, like my brother, will try to push a fingerful of mashed potatoes in my ear.
Most heartfelt, however, will be those giving thanks for their health. And in the NBA edition, this is where bold names above come in. All the king's horses and all the king's men have nothing on these guys. They would have been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. They're not (too) famous, but they make sure the most famous faces in sport stay in the forefront and that we can watch the stars, night in and night out.
Grover may be the most recognizable of the group, as he helped Michael Jordan reshape his body in the early '90s after the Pistons treated it as a pinata every spring. Grover, who owns Attack Athletics in Chicago, still has an impressive list of clients (Eddy Curry? You can't fix 'em all.), specifically Dwyane Wade, who hit the deck more often than an undercard tomato can. In the two seasons after winning the '06 title, Wade played in 102 of 164 regular season games. In the two-plus seasons since he started going to Grover, he's missed nine.
While Grover may be the MJ of athletic trainers, Kander, the strength and conditioning coach for the Pistons, is the P-Jax. Kander may not be completely zen, but few athletic trainers in the league combined the knowledge and willingness to try unconventional methods to keep the Pistons on the floor. This New York Times piece is a little musty, but it shows Kander's ability to not only heal the players, but to earn their trust. Alas, he can keep the current Pistons healthy, but he can't do anything about their lack of talent. He's good, but not that good.
As for the Phoenix Suns athletic training staff, what can you say? They must mix the Gatorade powder with water from the Fountain of Youth. Amar'e Stoudemire, now with the Knicks, had microfracture surgery in 2005, but still has the explosiveness he had when he first came into the league. We keep hearing about Steve Nash's back problems, and when he's not playing, we see him laying on the floor as if he's watching Saturday morning cartoons. But old man Canada hasn't missed more than eight games in a season since decamping in the Valley.
Then there's Grant Hill. Hill signed a massive free agent deal with Orlando prior to the 2000-01 season, but thanks to a bum ankle (he offered Kander a job, Kander said no) and a staph infection that nearly killed him, played only 200 of 410 games in his six seasons in Central Florida. In 2007, the Suns take a flyer on him and in three seasons he's missed 11 games. Yes, we'll have what they're having.
So before you dig into that turkey, give thanks for your health ... and theirs. (RP)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.