But first some very expensive news about this column, which has been on hiatus since Tom Ziller left town. Today, it launches anew, with Shoals reprising his original role and Eric Freeman riding shotgun. Eric writes a lot for Ball Don't Lie, and is a regular contributor to FreeDarko.com and our recent Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. The Works will go from a daily column to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday deal. On the plus side, that means we will have more time to come up with weird stuff not ripped from today's headlines.
It's Knicks Time
Because the Knicks are the Knicks, some of the weekend's biggest news was the triumphant return of this team to national television. Granted, they have been on occasionally since Mike D'Antoni took over, but that's token-ism for the market to end all markets. This time it's for real: five of the next eleven Knicks games will be nationally televised, which in NBA terms means, this team is relevant again. Here are four reasons why this is a good thing:
Small Ball Lives: Over the past few seasons, as D'Antoni's Knicks faltered and Don Nelson systematically poisoned half his players (take that either literally or figuratively, the choice is yours), the once-thriving small ball revolution seemed to have petered out. General principles of fast-break ball have swept through the league, but few teams have embraced the style like D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less teams in Phoenix. It was more effective as a tactic than a strategy, an approach that can be seen most clearly with Alvin Gentry's post-SSOL iteration of the Suns last season.
The Knicks don't have a trio to rival Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amar'e Stoudemire, and they can't get out in transition with the same regularity as their stylistic forebears, but they remain as committed to a running system as any other team in the league today. Looking more like a playoff team with every game, the Knicks are showing the rest of the NBA that stylistic extremism (with a happy face) can still be a viable option for a lottery team in need. It's not just a pipe dream destined to end in disappointment.
A Repudiation of Evil: The Knicks jumped on Amar'e early in an attempt to prove to King James that they were serious. Or get a bird in the hand. Or maybe capitalize on the fact that Bron owed Amar'e money or something. Whether it was a smart move is debatable; certainly, it didn't work out as planned. The Knicks couldn't pack their roster with high-priced free agents this summer, and so far, none of their attempts to trade or wait their way into one (Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, Chris Paul) have worked out.
Instead, the Knicks have ended up following a very steady course of action: bring in a high-profile coach with a history of winning; draft well, including likely future star Danilo Gallinari; convince a big name, Amar'e, to join their rebuilding effort; and, with the Felton signing, address the biggest gap in their roster with a smart, under-the-radar signing. The Thunder have basketball's finest utopian community going, but that can only last while everyone is on their rookie contract. The Knicks are a blueprint we can believe, proof that sometimes, rebuilding the old fashioned way can still work.
Amar'e Stoudemire, Shining Star: Leading up to the apocalyptic summer of 2010, Amar'e was widely considered the high-profile star most likely not to live up to a max-level contract. Various parties thought he doesn't play enough defense to set a good example for teammates, or he can't rebound enough to rank as a truly great big man, or even that his offensive greatness was mostly a product of Steve Nash's ability to get players the ball in great spots. Never mind that Amar'e was a force as a rookie with black hole Stephon Marbury on his team, or that Karl Malone spent most of his career with John Stockton without arising much suspicion about his legitimacy.
This season, Stoudemire has established himself as the least disappointing pickup of the 2010 class of free-agent stars. Whereas LeBron and Bosh have often sputtered in Miami, Amar'e has emerged as a capable leader willing to take on the responsibility associated with his obvious top-dog status at Madison Square Garden. His defense and rebounding still aren't stellar, but they're solid enough to provide a base for team-wide success. Instead of seeing his reputation crash under the weight of increased expectations, Amar'e is making it clear that his contract is well-deserved.
The League Needs Them: Long gone are the days where the Knicks were on every Sunday, even as they barely slipped into the playoffs each spring. The Dolans and Isiah made that arrangement -- already an insult to the intelligence of every NBA fan not flooded in blue and orange -- totally untenable. Yet there's no ignoring that hard truth it represents: with the possible exception of the Lakers, no franchise is more important to the health of the league than the Knicks. New York might as well be the capital of the world, and while it's no longer defensibly the Mecca of basketball, it's a market -- and fanbase -- that needs a quality product in front of them. Even if they occasionally act like it's their god-given right.
Lucky for them, and us, and Stern, the Knicks are experiencing the kind of rebirth that they were not expected to enjoy when their grand plan to pair Amar'e with LeBron didn't come to fruition. Much to the delight of Stern, he can now put the Knicks on national television without eliciting groans. As for the rest of us, we should be thankful that this Knicks team isn't just winning games -- they're doing it in a way that makes these games worth watching. A successful, entertaining Knicks team is (undeniably) gravy for the league's bottom line and overall brand. With the CBA apocalypse on the horizon, this works out for everyone. (BS & EF)
When Aliens Attack
Last Friday, Manu Ginobili grabbed headlines around blogospace with the video above. In case you can't tell, Ginobili sees a bizarre flight pattern in the sky and thinks it might be an unidentified flying object (UFO). It remains unclear if this was a simple military exercise or a thing from another world. To their credit, Ginobili and teammate Matt Bonner left open the possibility that the Spurs star witnessed an alien craft, however brief it may have been.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I also don't think we should dismiss Ginobili and Bonner's fears out of hand. We may never learn if Ginobili saw a spacecraft, but we do know that alien lifeforms have been a part of the NBA since its inception. Don't believe me? Just read on for quick history lesson:
• The NBA was technically founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, but it didn't become a formidable entity until it merged with the rival National Basketball League in 1949 to become the newly named NBA. What you don't learn in the official history is that the leagues merged in direct response to the Roswell, NM UFO incident of 1947. Although the deal took several years, the new NBA served as a safe harbor for crash-landed aliens who had been taught basketball in preparation for the 1949 launch. Dolph Schayes, a rookie in 1949-50, is often cited as the league's greatest Jewish star, but he is also its first alien great.
• Wilt Chamberlain is famous for his impressive feats in the bedroom. Yet the astronomically high number of women he bedded was only made possible by a similarly interstellar sexual power cultivated on his home planet of Mars. Wilt's sexual philosophy also served as the inspiration for the system of love practiced by protagonist Valentine Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land. The cruel irony is that Smith's ability to attain a higher plane of existence was not matched by Chamberlain in his quest to become one of basketball's great winners.
• Darryl Dawkins's career-long rants about his home planet of Lovetron have commonly been seen as an expression of '70s soul power, but they were actually an impassioned plea from a distant land for interplanetary assistance. Faced with a disturbing lack of love after civil war, the government of Lovetron sent Dawkins to Earth. However, after finding a hopelessly splintered planet with little peace, Dawkins decided to save himself the trip home and spend the rest of his days naming different kinds of dunks. It's not the noble path that was chosen for him, but it's still a worthwhile task.
• In the 1997 hit film Men in Black, a cheap throwaway joke notes that Dennis Rodman is actually an alien from the planet Solaxian 9. This gag was not a rare admission of alien activity by the powers that be, but rather a cover-up for the true Solaxian, Rodman's one-time teammate David Robinson. The Admiral's aloof personality is in fact a trait held by his entire race, a group of aloof loners with strong senses of morality. They tend to work best in groups, so it is no surprise that Robinson achieved his greatest success when paired with fellow Solaxian Tim Duncan. The Spurs have only kept Ginobili unaware of his teammates' true natures by introducing so many foreign-born players into the roster that the Solaxians' bizarre ways appear to be nothing out of the ordinary. (EF)
What a Difference the Draft Makes
In the spring of 2009, the incoming draft was considered, at best, mediocre. Blake Griffin sat on top by virtue of being tall. International sex machine Ricky Rubio, who or may not have been available for 2009-10, was so hyped it was hard to find out the truth. Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry may not have been real NBA point guards. Brandon Jennings was some punk who had terrible numbers in Rome. DeJuan Blair lacked knees. Expectations were muted for college studs Ty Lawson, Jonny Flynn, and Tyler Hansbrough.
Even more than most drafts, it was supposed to be a "not that much difference between 8 and 28" affair. We got some clarity with workouts. Evans bullied other guards. Harden drew comparisons to Roy. Teams got legitimately excited about swingman sleeper Paul George, who shot up draft boards. The draft happened, unpredictable but with no real reaches.
Then came 2009-10, when the Class of 2009 defined itself as a clearinghouse for young point guards. Evans achieved 20-5-5 nirvana and won Rookie of the Year; Stephen Curry, after an uncertain start, proved he could score in more ways than we thought and handle the point. Brandon Jennings had an up and down year, but his 55-point game early on was indelible. Once Jrue Holiday got himself minutes at the end of the season, he was making everyone feel better about the Sixers future. Jonny Flynn could play. Ty Lawson proved himself a worthy successor to Chauncey Billups. Darren Collison was phenomenal filling in for Chris Paul. Eric Maynor looked like a starter. Rodrigue Beaubois and Jeff Teague showed flashes. For these players, the future was wide open.
Rubio became less and less important, but in the grand narrative, lurked like a secret weapon. Meanwhile, Griffin, who missed the season with injury, could be grounds for an "are point guards the new big men?" argument. Hasheem Thabeet was a dud. Harden may have been the right fit for Oklahoma City, but wasn't anything special.
This year, things are very different. Griffin is the toast of the league, the best top pick since Dwight Howard in 2004. Curry, who is only getting better, should be an elite player for a long, long time. Holiday continues to make progress. Maynor was traded to OKC last year, and now frequently plays alongside Russell Westbrook. Yet Evans is slumping big-time, and Jennings has failed to solidify his game. Collison was traded to Indiana to start, and more or less fell off the map. Lawson is in a holding pattern. Beaubois has been hurt. Teague regressed. Thornton lost his starter's spot. Rubio is a distant memory. Marcus Thornton and Omri Casspi, both sleepers who paid major dividends in their first seasons, have regressed and lost minutes. Terrence Williams looked good when he got minutes, but was recently sent to the D-League as a disciplinary measure.
In short, the sophomore slump this draft class has faced is nothing short of incredible. Some guys, like Evans, can't help but turn it around. He's just too good to keep playing this bad. Still, this does show that maybe last season's buzz was an over-compensation. We'll come out on the other side with a view of 2009 as a good, not great draft. Too bad, though, that to get there we'll have to learn to neglect so many once-promising players. (BS)
Derrick Rose and the Nature of Perfection
"Black Swan" is the hot new movie that has all of America talking. It also nearly dissolved this new Works partnership before it started. See, Shoals couldn't stand it, while Eric has already seen it twice. That said, we both agree that it had some interesting ideas in it, ones that are especially germane to a discussion of the NBA's up-and-coming point guards that have all of America talking.
We don't know John Hollinger -- Shoals once rented a car from a guy who wouldn't stop talking about how JH used the same place in Portland -- but we feel comfortable assuming that he got into an advanced screening of "Black Swan." If he didn't, he really needs to see it. Because this passage from a post on Friday is pure "Black Swan." Also, both of us have on occasion been referred to as "the Jewish Vincent Cassel."
Not to give too much away, but the plot of the "Black Swan" relies heavily on the difference between precise, adept art and the truly ecstatic and chaotic. You don't have to use much imagination to see how, by Hollinger's logic, Rose is the former, and Westbrook, the latter. But does that make Rose "better to watch" -- or, as the film suggests at times, maybe worse? We discuss.The unfortunate fact is this: The same things that make Rose so watchable also conspire against him. He's so smooth, so graceful and so explosive that it's fairly easy for him to float past opponents and drop in a layup or to launch his unusually-effective 10-foot floater or to pull up for the J while an opponent watches helplessly from the other side of the screen. Alas, none of those maneuvers get him to the line, and the next time Rose willfully draws contact to force his way there will be a first.
Contrast that, for instance, with Westbrook's bull-in-a-china-shop approach, and there's no question which one is easier on the eyes. Rose's tactic is less effective on the scoreboard because Westbrook is taking twice as many foul shots every night.
Bethlehem Shoals: So obviously, Hollinger just saw "Black Swan," and is projecting the central theme of that movie onto the NBA. But he seems to have it all figured out: Rose, the White Swan, is the prettiest.
Eric Freeman: Except that it's been a common belief among the NBA's stylescenti that even if Rose is effective, Westbrook's imprecise magic carpet ride is much more thrilling to watch. There are more surprises, and presumably we watch games to see something we've never seen before.
BS: What makes it tricky is that Rose isn't just economical, or efficient, but also is nearly Westbrook's equal when it comes to uber-athletic play. We're not talking about Tim Duncan boring, but boring with a bottle rocket in each hand. It would be like if Natalie Portman had a pet machine gun in that movie.
EF: Portman's ballerina obviously has as much natural talent as anyone else in the company. The issue is that, like Rose, she seems to know exactly what she's doing at all times; there's set choreography and she executes it perfectly. Westbrook appears to be making moves up on the fly. What makes this especially bizarre, I think, is that Westbrook was a late bloomer athletically and should theoretically have a game grounded in fundamental expertise. Rose was the all-world high school star who stereotypically should be coasting on his athleticism. Or maybe Westbrook's boundless creativity is a product of that previous need to rely on his smarts.
BS: That's the thing: Rose's game is still premised on athleticism. It's misleading to call him a master technician. But as he's gotten older -- and better -- he has made an art of straight-line athleticism. It's weird, he's not really a cerebral player, and yet his game certainly has a kind of science to it. Really, it's more like what Mila Kunis would be in real life if she were dancing with a major company. "Black Swan" makes her out to be a raver nut-job who just spins and spins and spins. Honestly, even if she had that animal magnetism to her movements, she wouldn't be in that position if she hadn't learned how to harness it. Westbrook, who got athletic late and now is like a man possessed, seems more like Portman at the end.
EF: This is part of what makes the movie's thoughts on artistic style interesting: "perfection" is posited as a willingness to be imprecise and messy, whereas pure technical expertise is obviously lacking. The artist/athlete can only connect by being out of control. On the other hand, everyone loves Portman's performance at the end, just like most fans adore Westbrook, and yet Black Swan's own craziness has divided viewers. I suppose some people still want the classic moves to work for the wacko stuff to hit home.
BS: Wait, are you saying the film itself -- its execution -- is more Westbrook or Rose?
EF: I don't think it's either. Westbrook delivers a stat-line that can make any basketball fan weep -- he's more like Roman Polanski's "Repulsion." "Black Swan" is akin to Kyle Lowry.
BS: Or Jerryd Bayless pondering the problems that Derrick Rose has faced? Maybe we should get back to Hollinger.
EF: Please do.
BS: He goes on to sound bored by Rose after saying he's better to watch. It's more like he finds Rose more satisfying, as someone whose job it is to be sensible about basketball. Whereas Westbrook will always drive you somewhat crazy.
EF: It's almost like he's describing a Beatles song with Rose. It's so familiar and well-done that it's to be appreciated rather than gushed over. Plus, despite OKC's obvious quality, the Bulls have quickly established themselves as a serious contender in the unexpectedly open East.
BS: You're selling Rose short in the novelty department. Has there ever been a player like him before? It's kind of amazing that he plays like he's following a time-honored template.
EF: My comparison for Rose has always been Baron Davis in his freshman year at UCLA. That was a brief moment, but Baron had the same effect of looking like he was playing an athletically dominant form of point guard that was the natural progression of basketball history.
BS: But wasn't his game more like Westbrook's, in terms of sheer unpredictability?
EF: Yes, but Baron was also in chrysalis then. What's impressive about Westbrook is that he feels like a polished product even as his game remains messy. Unpredictability is part of his style, rather than a byproduct of youth.
BS: Ah, youth. Well, I'm glad we settled that one.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who can also be read at Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.