As a commenter on my last post pointed out, apparently Zach Lowe has always been the kind of dope who is interested in teams' logos and court designs, which is unfortunate. However, notwithstanding that, apparently he's got a pretty good head on his shoulders. This is most definitely a good read. I mean, if you're not a mouth-breathing moron, you know this country's level of discourse about sports, particularly individual players' legacies, has basically been reduced to bunch of turds screaming at each other on TV, full of sound and fury and lacking any substance. (Thanks, Mark Shapiro!) But it feels good to see a very sensible article like this published on ESPN.
Narratives are fun, and interesting. They can get at larger truths, and they reflect the way that we, as fans and media, think and talk about basketball. There is value in just analyzing that — in digging into media discussions and fan behavior. The zoomed-out examination of basketball, and of positions, at FreeDarko changed the way a lot of us think about the game — for the better. Shining a light on some of the team-level “narratives” — the notion that a jump-shooting team can’t win it all, for instance — can reveal deeper truths about the game, even if anyone paying token attention already knew the basic conclusion.
Some narratives are also, frankly, dumb. The word “narrative” can act as a synonym for “line of thought that exists somewhere in the world, and is demonstrably false.” We use an awful lot of brain space addressing and rebutting “narratives” that probably don’t merit all that much attention, save for the fact that they bring clicks. The “LeBron isn’t clutch” narrative after the 2011 Finals was ridiculous, given his past buzzer-beaters, overtime baskets, insane streaks of consecutive points, and other playoff heroics. It was accurate to say that LeBron quaked under the pressure of his first Finals appearance with villainous Miami, but that’s very different — and less catchy — than just branding him a crunch-time failure.
The notion that Dirk Nowitzki was “soft” gained some traction after the 2006 Finals and the Mavericks’ subsequent flameouts, and it died only after Nowitzki triumphed in those 2011 Finals against the Heat. Nowitzki was never soft. He wasn’t even a much different player in 2011 than the one he had been in 2006 and 2007, when Golden State’s “We Believe” team pulled off an all-time upset over Dallas. He was more experienced, smarter, better at posting up the Stephen Jackson types who gave him fits in prior seasons.
But he hadn’t discovered some inner fortitude that allowed him to succeed in 2011 where he had failed before. Nowitzki before snuffing the Heat was, by almost any measure, one of the greatest postseason performers and clutch shooters in league history. He hit monster shots in monster moments every season, including in the last minutes of close games in those 2006 Finals, when Udonis Haslem frustrated him into some unusually bad shooting nights. Even then, Nowitzki was taking and making clutch baskets. They are on record. They exist. You can watch a lot of them online, for free.
Things changed at the end of Game 5 of last season’s Clippers-Thunder playoff series. Chris Paul made three critical mistakes in the final 45 seconds of an improbable Thunder rally, and Oklahoma City wrapped the series in the next game. The Clippers were vanquished again.
You began hearing it, and reading it, all over the place: Nine seasons in, Chris Paul, the alleged Point God, had yet to appear in the conference finals. It has been no different in this corner of the Internet. Andrew Sharp wrote incisively about how Paul’s future playoff fate, and all the variables that will go into it, would determine the way we remember and talk about Paul. As I stood backstage during the taping of the first Grantland Basketball Hour, attempting not to crap my pants at the thought of appearing on national TV between Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose (and Jalen’s bat), I listened intently as Simmons asked Jeff Van Gundy about Paul’s conference finals shutout: “What does it mean?”
I kind of wanted to rush the stage.