Who has it, and who doesn’t? How is it born, what are its costs, and how is it ruined or improved? What is it? A look around the league will, hopefully, bring light to this concept which is both said to be entirely important for success, and variously disputed as one more piece of nonsense; a further excuse for bad player performance; a myth that stands in the hole left open by dearth of talent.
Los Angeles Lakers
Of course they lack identity—‘lack of identity’ might be the most-used buzzphrase in the ongoing opera of their season’s mediocrity. But the key here is that they only lack basketball identity; culturally, their presence is distinct, well-known. Kobe’s a say-all savant, who might be a ball-hog, is definitely a genius of the sport, and definitely takes zero of Dwight Howard’s sensitivity seriously. Metta World Peace is the zanier version of Ron Artest, who is still (on disgusting relapse occasions) still Ron Artest. Steve Nash is still a genius of the sport, too, but might be too old for this now, and not even his near-benevolence as distributor seems to make much difference in the Lakers’ efforts. Pau Gasol is a mistreated prodigy, as sensitive as Dwight but never silly, and not nearly as well-known. Together, they’re Reality TV’s Masterpiece Theater, and not particularly good at NBA basketball. Because unfortunately for personnel shot-caller Jimmy Buss, basketball isn’t baseball, and the Lakers—despite their mammoth regular earnings—will never be the Yankees. Stockpiling talent isn’t a surefire recipe for success in this league.
They’re no exception to this rule. Despite their similar glut of superstars, the Heat boast one crucial element, missing from L.A.’s equation: choice. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Bosh have been able to gel their spotlight-capable games so quickly because they actually want to. None were traded by a team trying to get rid of them, none were forced to be with each other. And, instead of Mike D’Antoni, Miami has a coach in Erik Spoelstra who’s determined to scheme toward his talent; not in spite of it. The Lakers other stars sacrifice many of their touches to give more to Kobe, in the same way that the Heat do for LeBron; but in Miami it’s a lot more clear that this is the right course, as James’ power in breaking down defenses to his team’s advantage is probably the most remarkable of any non-point-guard, ever. Miami’s basketball identity is exactly this: James doing everything he possibly can, and leaving what’s left over for the rest of them as clear tasks; and it’s a set of work that the cast is more than capable of doing: make open jumpers, collect some rebounds, exploit open lanes. Lately, it’s seemed that James doesn’t even need Wade to pick up court-leadership slack anymore, and that his contributions border on the merely stylistic. Supplementing LeBron, even in the case of the legendary Wade, is what this team has accepted as their best bet to more titles.
Their hot streak in Rajon Rondo’s absence is, exactly, a case of identity distillation. As LeBron does forMiami, K.G. and Pierce are happy to key their team. While they leave their cast a lot more work than James and Wade do, the cast is doubly capable of filling in, and now they’re less confused about what’s expected of them. In his first year as unchecked team leader, Rondo seemed confused about how much to shoot, pass, save himself for defense, seek rebounds… in short, he seemed overwhelmed, and his team seemed to have a hard time relying on him as a consistent source of anything. Pierce and Garnett boast predictable outputs, are still excellent, and also provide a very strong intangible element of pride. Whether the team is better without Rondo is an absurd query: of course they aren’t. But it’s clear that, for now, they’re still in best shape when defining themselves around their hall-of-famers.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have basketball identity—it just isn’t good enough. The team seems genuinely unified, and wants to win, as Mike Woodson has done an excellent job of establishing roles and regiments for his squad. But they rely too consistently on Carmelo Anthony’s terrific isolation play, and a pick-and-roll that either ends in a Raymond Felton runner, Tyson Chandler (or a now-healthy Ama’re Stoudemire) finish, or kick-out to a three-point shooter, if they’re lucky enough to collapse the defense. But like Anthony’s pleadings that he’s a true superstar, worthy of mention among the most famous of his Team USA mates, their system falls short, and just isn’t enough. The drag of the season has exposed that their roster is mostly offense-first, and that theirs is an offense too predictable to outscore teams who realize they only need keep Anthony under 40 to win—and that their defense is easily dissected. Barring a return of the unfathomably hot shooting streak the Knicks exhibited in the early season, it seems that only a severe personnel mix-up can guide them toward making true playoff noise.
Indiana boasts one of the strongest team personalities in the league. They’re composed solely of players who buy into Coach Frank Vogel’s defensive-minded, chip-on-your-shoulder workaholicism. And this mentality is especially fortunate, in this instance, considering how small of a market they’re asked to win in—such collective red-blooded fervor seems the only antidote to lack of star power (or ability to attract it) in the current NBA. Until Derrick Rose proves he’s the player we’ve grown to mythologize, and his Bulls incorporate him smoothly, the Pacers are Miami’s biggest threat in the East. The longer view is that maintaining this crew depends on Paul George—a first-time all-star and budding near-super talent, George is the ingredient that could bring Indiana its best title shot since Reggie’s team took their classic runs in the 90’s. So far, his buy-in to Vogel’s system has produced incredible results, and made the picture very bright for his team’s fanbase. But he will be highly coveted when he’s up for free agency once his rookie contract runs out, and whether the team can keep him around will be a huge test for the franchise.
A team who’s making the bet that identity can be bought—that its only real cost is money. And since owner Mikhail Prokhorov has more than enough of the stuff, there’s no expense being spared in Brooklyn. Unfortunately for Prokhorov, his investments don’t include a true leader, as Deron Williams isn’t half the player he was when he took Utah to the Western Conference Finals. While this is largely due to injuries that seem to have set him back more than temporarily, Williams has also publicly acknowledged his team’s indifferent attitude, and doesn’t seem too bent on changing it. Teams, Prokhorov should be noting, only sort of run the way companies do—firing Avery Johnson proved to be the kind of fear-for-your-employed-life spark the owner wanted, but it faded fast, and now P.J. Carlesimo’s left with the truth, and faced with the challenge of mobilizing a crew without innate direction, and who aren’t handling the pressured expectations of their new home too well. Identity has been bought in Brooklyn. It’s just, in the case of this purchase, an overpriced and uninspiring sort. Perhaps a team’s ire is more expensive than cash.
A team in identity flux. Coach Lionel Hollins, following the trade of Rudy Gay to the Raptors, expressed major disappointment with his front office. Now, he seems to be more committed to working with his new pieces—which, in theory, are better ones for a more dynamic offense, based more on spacing and ball-movement than taking chances on isolation plays. The longer view, here, is that newly-hired John Hollinger’s philosophy will continue to dictate their decisions in player personnel, and that his philosophy is built much more toward a statistical bottom line than Hollins’ ideas regarding hard-working defenders, and raw athleticism—and also one that doesn’t necessarily care about the blue-collar romance that the Grizzlies’ fanbase has built around star Zach Randolph. Randolph now seems moveable, with his large contract and Hollinger’s acquisition of young, promising big Ed Davis, from Toronto. One should wonder whether Hollinger’s approach will erode away the identity this team’s core has built in its small market, and whether he can co-exist with Coach Hollins, who might place too high of a value on loyalty (among other things) not accounted for in Hollinger’s exhaustive calculations.
San Antonio Spurs
Greg Popovich’s system is the inspiration for Frank Vogel’s, and Tom Thibodeau’s—Thibodeau the only NBA coach who can hold a candle to Pop, in terms of system-making. Over 17 years in San Antonio, Popovich has had zero significant issues with players buying in, accepting their role, or playing team ball up to his standards. As long as he’s running the show, this team will always be identified as the best-studied, hardest-working, smartest, least likely to beat itself franchise in sports. Of course it doesn’t hurt that, in Tim Duncan, Pop’s had the ideal player for his system to build around for 16 of those years. This team’s sense of itself is miraculous, and unbelievably durable.
Los Angeles Clippers
This team’s identity is, perhaps, the most simple of them all, and summed up in two syllables: Chris Paul. Despite LeBron James’ historically productive season, this columnist believes Paul is a clear-cut frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award. How can anyone argue that any team needs any player more than the Clippers need Paul? Their depth and athleticism look chaotic, uncomposed, and directionless anytime he’s not there to guide it, as evidenced in the team’s extended losing slide in his recent injured absence. But as soon as he returned, the team re-proved themselves on national television, as they exposed the Knicks for the pretenders they are with alarming ease at the Garden. Perhaps it’s the fault of Coach Vinny Del Negro, who’s infamously allergic to team scheming and systems, but it couldn’t be more transparent that this team rallies around its superstar more than any other, and that their pyrotechnic leaping is just sound and winless fury, without him.
In the current form of the Nuggets, George Karl might have found his most ideal squad yet. Though his Sonics of the 90’s took him to the finals, this team is built in the inscrutable coach’s starless dream, running the floor relentlessly, and exhausting their opponents with their impressive depth. Running teams out of the house is their identity, but it’s a young crew (save for ‘Professor’ Andre Miller) with ample years to fight through their marks of mediocre defense, troubles away from their home court, and the assumption that a team needs a true go-to scorer to win it all. For now, the team is rightly seen as a dangerous one, but still improperly equipped in the half-court (and too inexperienced) to make a real push out of the West. The key to Denver, however, is that their identity is still forming.
In this columnist’s view, identity is—yes—a myth. But since myths are as real as Kobe Bryant fashioning his interviewing style in relation to Michael Jordan’s, to appear more great, they’re real in terms of what happens on the court, too. And since myths are also malleable (‘LeBron James can’t win the big one’), written by players who see the future as more writeable than their competitors do, we can take heart in a future that features an inevitable shake-up in the interlocked summaries of teams that we’ve made our minds up about, collectively and individually.