On Monday night, Kevin Garnett head-butted Dwight Howard in what can only be classified as one of the weirder incidents I can remember until then remembering that Kevin Garnett is actually a pretty weird dude prone to do stuff like this. The even money for an altercation was on Garnett-Motiejunas, given Garnett’s well-documented preference for point guards and European big men. But alas, The Big Ticket found himself tangled under the basket with Superman, a few harmless shoves were exchanged, and heads collided. The whole thing held little significance except for being the first altercation between two surefire Hall of Famers that I can remember in recent history. (I’m sure I’m forgetting something). After the game, the critics came out with their opinions on the whole thing, and a familiar theme from earlier in the season emerged: players don’t like Dwight Howard. We heard this after the incident earlier in the year with Kobe and then after when Kevin Durant–all 180 pounds of him–referred to the big man in a demeaning manner.
Specifically, Monday night, one commentator on NBAtv said, (paraphrasing), “players around the league just don’t like Dwight. You see all the smiling and the way he’s always acting and people don’t like it.” What? I’m not quite sure I understand the logic behind that thought process. I totally get why Kobe might’ve been frustrated with Dwight in L.A., or why any current Rockets teammates might find his act tiresome. Similarly, I could understand any truth behind this summer’s narrative of “players not wanting to play with [him].” It’s probably annoying to focus on winning when someone’s demeanor indicates they don’t really care. But why would opposing players have anything against him? He doesn’t play dirty, and there’s nothing about his game that’s particularly irritating. So you’re telling me opposing players want to go at Dwight because he smiles a lot and they don’t like it? That’s the most absurd reasoning I’ve ever heard. The likelier case is that people just find Dwight to be soft, with a group effect taking place. I’ve used this example before with Jeremy Lin, but its applicable here too: ever have that friend growing up who everyone either picked on or blamed for everything? It happened not only because it was allowed to happen, but because with each subsequent instance, everyone else in the group became/becomes reinvigorated in its ability to happen. Guys see Kobe squaring up Dwight and questioning his manhood, then they get fired up, and start to think that a) the charges are true and b) they can do it too. It’s kind of like what happened with Blake Griffin last year, with everyone taking shots at him in the air. When a belief is propagated enough, it can really take off.
-We’re entering a fascinating era where, for the first time perhaps, you’re really seeing the impact of coaching across the league. Last season, the Spurs crushed Miami primarily due to their superior strategies. Phoenix vastly exceeded expectations, and Chicago stayed afloat. This year, we see the Warriors running away with the league’s best record, after only making a coaching change. Atlanta, similarly, is pulling away in the East under a Pop disciple. The backdrop of all of this has been an overwhelming sense that the Thunder have underperformed, despite having the best talent in the league, due to uncreative thinking from the clipboard. Coaching mattered always, of course, but not in this sense, I don’t think. In the past, I felt the team with the best player almost always won the title, generally speaking, and the hallmark of a great coach was being able to motivate and manage egos. But the change in the rules spawned an outright transformation of the game, leading to the necessity of more intricate schemes. Teams started mastering defense, and in response, we now see them mastering offense, with complex motion sequences. The backdrop here is the total public oblivion with respect to these changes, spurred partly by ignorance and overall apathy, and partly by popular lowest-common-denominator forums such as TNT’s halftime segment. I touched on this earlier in the week, but because of reductive platitudes such as “big men need to be dominant”, the public is still largely in the dark, as are modes of thinking within the players.
I think about all of the above in relation to the Rockets. They’ve come an extremely long way this year from the disaster they featured last season where at times, they appeared to not even have a coherent defensive strategy. And the offense has featured wrinkles we hadn’t seen before. But still, there is a very long way to go. I could just be living in the moment, but I get the feeling that to win a title in today’s NBA, you have to have complete mastery of the clipboard. Even aside from the strategy, there are simply far too many inefficiencies in Houston’s offense to overlook. Dwight post-ups most of the time are possessions that could be better used (yes, I get it, he draws fouls), and while Harden has been independently brilliant, can you win a title with him going one-on-one against a team of 5 as your entire crunch-time offense? That would’ve certainly been enough in the 90s, and even five years ago, but now? The reader is likely bewildered due to my negativity, noting the team is in third in the West and on pace to challenge its franchise-best record. Those achievements are great and dandy and I too am excited. But what I speak of here in this column is the goal of winning a championship. Can they do it without better coaching, but also, perhaps more frighteningly, can they do it without both of their star players completely buying in to the realities of the new NBA? For the first time, in the basketball context, I think I understand what it means when they say winning requires sacrifice.