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N(ot) B(ad) A(dvice): Breaking Up With James Harden And Making Sense Of Cold War Era Offense

Welcome to the very first edition of N(ot) B(ad) A(dvice)! The advice column that hopes to answer your basketball questions as much as make sense of the feelings you are working out around those questions. Am I concerned with the stats your favourite player is or isn’t currently putting up? Very much. But I am also concerned with working through what it’s doing to you to watch a triumphant make or clanking miss.

Thank you, already, for the questions you sent in if you did! A perfect mix of x’s and o’s and agony over the behaviour of superstars. There are plenty more to get to so sit tight if you don’t see yours in this first round — it’s a long season.

Just know, my inbox made up for this column specifically is always open so please, keep the head and heart-scratchers coming to: annlandryfields@gmail.com. Let’s begin.

Can you please explain the Spurs offense/Pop’s approach to scoring?

– Baked Griffin

Well, Baked, while this questions runs a little closer to “What is the meaning of life?” in terms of straightforward explainability, I will do my best. Also, I asked for tough questions so, much like life, this is a prison of my own making.

The Spurs are disciples of an offensive system called Motion Offense, the ethos of which is actually fairly easy to explain because your brain is probably already picturing it. Players move in transition from the defensive to offensive end of the floor and rather than an ISO play or a pick and roll, the entire lineup will touch the ball as it swings around the paint in many, many dizzying sequences that stem from two basic parent plays — Motion Weak and Motion Strong.

Motion Weak concentrates on the offensive players’ movement around the weak side of the floor, basically everybody zipping around like demons in order to tie up and turn around the defence, and Motion Strong is literally called that because the point guard coming down the floor, at some point, held their bicep and occasionally flexed.

Motion Offense is also kind of like a protolanguage for the rest of the NBA, parts and pieces of it have been carried away and cobbled into pretty much every other team’s offensive strategies. Gregg Popovich’s version was predicated on Bob Knight’s version, and if both versions seem weird and secretive or overly complicated at times, it’s worth noting that Knight spent 40 years using it at West Point, and Pop also has a background in the military and initially considered a career with the CIA. A fun and roundabout fact is that Knight rejected Popovich during tryouts for the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team, a team that would go on to lose to the Soviet Union (the first loss after seven consecutive gold medals since the sport’s introduction in 1936), a team that had dogged the U.S. throughout the Cold War and its tense socio-political fallout.

When it’s done well, Motion Offense is pretty beautiful. It’s propulsive but fluid and every player is working in such a seamless tandem it feels like they have broken free of time for how things appear to speed up and slow down simultaneously. The team dispatching it is humming with confidence, connected by a near-etherial psychic cord of communication and trust. To hit on the second part of your question, this is what Pop’s approach to scoring is, which is way, aside from the mechanics of the Motion system, it can seem so nebulous.

Because it only works when it’s done right. When every player is talking, trusting, carrying their weight and holding that psychic equilibrium up. Otherwise it drags and grinds and nothing gets started. Because of this, the Spurs offence and Popovich’s approach to scoring can be totally complimentary or at direct odds, and that frustrating latter is my guess to where you were coming from with this question.

Given the schedule over the next couple of weeks, it seems very likely the Bulls will get off to yet another poor start from a win-loss perspective. Given this, how long will it take for the new front office to start to make moves?

Relatedly, other than Pat Williams, are there any other players which are or should be viewed as untouchable? My view is maybe Coby White but that’s pretty much it.

Yours truly,
Semi-Optimistic Bulls fan in Austin

Would it surprise and delight your past self that my future self, in answering your question, will remind you that your Chicago Bulls have a current better win record than two former NBA Champions, the Raptors and the Spurs? I hope so. And with players out due to COVID-19, and not the easiest schedule to start as you pointed out, it’s not as if the club’s 3-4 record is due to fluke.

Enter Billy Donovan. Also enter Marc Eversley. And also Arturas Karnisovas.

What I like best about the Bull’s new front office is that they are prone to emotion and not afraid to show it. Karnisovas said watching The Last Dance made him so verklempt that he called Eversley up the Sunday night before the Monday morning he planned to hire him, and Eversley has said he wants to make the franchise “cool again.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with either. The Chicago Bulls are a team everyone is supposed to be excited about and a good place to start will be their own players.

You can’t really blame the deadpan reaction of Zach LaVine when he found out the team had hired Donovan, he was traded to the team in exchange for the player who had the best shot at leading him, along with Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and has existed in a kind of joyless Neverland ever since. But getting young players amped up is something Billy Donovan is pretty good at, that was the whole deal in OKC, and thus far he’s been a balm for relieving the itch around LaVine’s compulsive trigger finger in urging the team to stick to plays. Just like that there’s structure again.

Given that a veteran’s presence was missing these past few seasons, I’d be reticent to say Chicago’s new front office should look to ship out its young prospects in a hurry. With Thaddeus Young, Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky and Otto Porter shifting in and out of rotations from the bench there’s been some necessary stability added in games. I hope they keep Coby White because he deserves a shot at developing with a storied franchise the way Jimmy Butler begged for and didn’t get, the way Denzel Valentine was meant to but just sort of… existed instead, and the way LaVine had been left free but wholly idle in.

By most accounts Karnisovas is a pro who values consistency and a determined work ethic, an approach he took in his playing career as the first Soviet-born player to play college ball in the U.S. — the KGB had to sign off on his exit — and Eversley saw disaster firsthand in Toronto under Bryan Colangelo’s tenure. The two of them are going to want to get this right as a first spin in their respective chairs but more likely because they stand to lift a storied franchise back up to the light if they do. I’m glad you’re optimistic, you should be. Get a feel for the new front office the same way they’re going to be with the team, and get a feel for the team as it starts to spark and exist again under the new front office. This is the fun part, probably hard to recognize after years of just enduring, enjoy it.

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My superstar is shooting 12.5% from three and looks like a 5th year senior at a fraternity who has had too much beer.

But he’s also averaging 28 ppg!

Am I overly worried about how he looks? Could being thicc work out for him?

Thanks,
Frumpy in Dallas

Frumpy, babe, I’m going to level with you — there is nothing that irks me more than body talk about basketball players. Namely, is it possible for so and so to be good because they look a certain way, mostly when that way is just sliiiightly out of some collectively held ideal based in popular thought of the time. I can admit it baffling to watch Zion Williamson move the way he does, but it’s a breath yanking, gorgeous bafflement in watching a wholly new kind of player bend physics and expectations to his will.

Luka Doncic is the same.

Who knows and who cares why he looks the way he does when he can play 32 minutes a game scoring 28 points and yank, on average, 9 rebounds from the hands of hapless, maybe more muscular opponents, all while looking so damn happy! He hurls passes like a young Hercules of our time and likely grew up on dumplings instead of ambrosia, you are lucky to have him.

I find myself pulled in two directions. As a Houston Rockets fan, I have been engaged in a monogamous basketball relationship with James Harden for the past eight years. When he was benched in 2017 against the Spurs, I defended him. When we missed 27 consecutive threes against the Warriors, and then lost to them again WITHOUT Kevin Durant the next year, I still weathered the Twitter storm. However, now he wants out and is galavanting around town going to clubs seemingly every other night? He’s clearly showing us what he wants and he doesn’t mind burning some bridges on his way out.

However, the other night against the Trail Blazers he dropped 44 points and 17 assists! Seeing him playing that well reminded me of the good times. Even though I know it’s time for me, and Rockets fans as a whole, to let him go, I can’t help but hold out hope that he’ll change his mind and we’ll win the championship just like Kobe did after requesting a trade. Am I crazy?

Sincerely,

Helpless in Houston

There’s a point in every relationship with an NBA superstar where they want more than you can give them. “You” being the team that pays them their salary, but “you” also being the perceived draw of a city, a fan base, a future, a legacy. Even Tim Duncan, stoic basketball metronome, almost left the Spurs for the Orlando Magic coming off his rookie contract when the Magic made a simultaneous move for Duncan and Grant Hill. They were so committed they had Tiger Woods help with house hunting and the Epcot sphere lit up like a crystal ball that said, “Grant Us Tim”.

The difference, big difference, between James Harden and Duncan is that Duncan flew home to think about it and eventually declined, likely finding the whole thing too ostentatious, whereas it very much feels like Harden is wishing extremely hard for a show of the same garish scope.

Because, and I know this really doesn’t help your heartache, Helpless, I don’t think Harden really knows what he wants right now.

He wanted, at least we were made to believe he did, a co-star and three times the Rockets delivered — Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall. Before that, Harden was the first one out of that joyful Thunder quadfecta. Rather than stay and see if OKC couldn’t go up against Miami and reverse their fortunes for a title, he declined an extension and was traded south. He wanted his own team, he got it. He wanted his own system, he got that too.

This is all flattening the timeline some but the point I’m trying to show is that for a long time Harden has been handed the things he wants, but the things he has wanted have largely been centered on himself. Teams are, unfortunately for Harden, many way streets. Highways, surprising cul-de-sacs, occasional frustrating dead ends, all of which have to be navigated by the equivalent of a minivan in the carpool lane, because teams win titles.

You aren’t crazy, but at the moment Harden is kind of the definition of it. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It seems less likely a team is going to go all in on him if only because the season has started and no team can be sure he’d buy in, and any deal is going to be a two-year, tops. That’s a big risk for a rental who is maybe going to hate you. I’m also not sure that he wants out, that he isn’t just bored in the embarrassment of riches he’s built up around himself over the years, a perpetual common denominator who kind of just seems bored.

I hope, for your sake, that Harden realizes his best shot is still in front of him. And even if that isn’t with Houston, he has to deliver a solid season there after all this to build a better bridge for himself out. I also hope he realizes he has the most loyal, steadying, protective force for good in P.J. Tucker, and the opportunity to start something new and potentially interesting with Stephen Silas. But none of this can be on you, and the “you” here is really you, not the franchise, but you the Rockets fan. Let him go or don’t, but realize that you’re in the kind of relationship where you’re never going to get back all that you’re giving to keep it.

What am I supposed to do with all the shoes I bought to make myself feel better during the pandemic, since I can’t wear them to games to feel like one of the cool reporters?

Signed,

EmoG Anunoby, Alone in the short corner

As someone who deeply misses wearing the inordinate amount of jumpsuits she owns just to stand around at the sideline during pregame shooting, I feel you. I’ve also not worn a jumpsuit since the pandemic brought the dream of doing something as idle, anonymous, exhilarating and indulgent as standing at the sideline of an NBA court while guys lob shot after shot up in dazed reverie to an end because what’s the point.

Anyway, shoes are easier.

Be like an American, EmoG, and wear them around your house. They’re out of the box clean, after all. Have a pair for dunking the last of those holiday tinned cookies into coffee, have a pair for warmups by the front door (a.k.a. putting on the full gamut of outside winter clothes to go to the grocery store), and line some up like trophies in a spot you can see them while you work to remind you at some point you will squeak ‘em again as you catch a wayward ball and pass it back to the shooting coach who is for sure critiquing your form. It’s corny but it will make you happy.

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