Sunday, September 30, 2007
Stop Destroying Dreams, Nate McMillan
It's official: Two of my favorite young players in this league have been destroyed by Nate McMillan. This article made it official that Sergio Rodriguez is out of the point-guard rotation for the Blazers this year, which disappoints me to no end- if I had to make a list of my favorite players in the league, it would look like this:
2. The Namesake, Stephen Jackson, Monta, Andris, and the rest of Nellie's heroic underdogs
And now Sergio's not even going to play big minutes. The worst part is that this isn't the first time Nate has reduced one of my favorite players to nothingness.
Full disclosure: I love Sebastian Telfair. A lot of that has to do with the fact that "The Last Shot" is one of my top-3 all-time favorite basketball books, and when you learn just how hard it is for kids to make it out of Coney Island, it's impossible not to root for them. I'm going to put a full article up about it one of these days, but for now I'll just say that Sebastian and his cousin, Stephon Marbury, have been through some stuff we can't understand. Additionally, the documentary made about him, Through The Fire, was my favorite basketball movie since Hoop Dreams, working as a sort of companion piece to it; Hoop Dreams was about the brutality of failure, while Through The Fire works as a cautionary tale of what happens when success touches someone who has seen nothing but failure in his life. (It's a kind of full-length version of the brief glimpses we got in The Last Shot of Stephon Marbury as a cocky freshman.)
I am also not immune to the allure of legend of the New York City Point Guard. Thanks to Sonny Vaccaro, high-level basketball has become rigidly mechanical at all levels. LeBron James' game was forged by authority; from the time he was in middle school, he was plucked from his single-parent home in Akron, lived with his coach, played in organized scrimmages and practices that the coach ran at the local community center, learning how to use his left and jump-stop correctly. His summers were spent not in playgrounds, but playing AAU ball and at high-level camps like Five-Star and ABCD. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, he was a part of big-business basketball; he was posing for SLAM Magazine, his high school was hopping on charter jets to play in sold-out tournaments against prep school basketball factories like Oak Hill Academy, the womb of Carmelo, and by the time he was a senior, he was playing in nationally televised games in NBA-quality uniforms with personalized sneakers. In his senior year in high school, he had already begun to be confused or bored by simple pickup games, a reflection of his recognition that basketball without purpose was meaningless. People were surprised at his maturity when he got to the pros, but one has to wonder why; he's been in the business of basketball for as long as he can remember.
All of this makes a player like Telfair, or at least his legend, very refreshing. Telfair's game was forged on the asphalt under the projects; he perfected his crossover not under the guidance of coaches, but against his peers. He did not play against boys who played basketball constantly because they had been indoctrinated that basketball was to be their life, but against men who loved basketball because they knew all too well the realities of life outside of basketball, and latched onto it as a way to escape that life. His workouts were not programs designed to make him perfect, but dribbling around boxes at 6 in the morning and running stairs every day under the guidance of his brother, driven not by the desire to become perfect but the desire to escape what was horrible. Yes, he went to ABCD camp, and famously out dueled LeBron there, but he still went home to the streets of Coney Island, and workouts on the blacktop. In a culture where even Streetball isn't actually streetball, but a sneaker-company brand name publicized on ESPN, Telfair seemed destined to become the bridge between the new rigid system of channeling talent and the playgrounds where the game we know was born as a way to feel sheer joy and accomplishment in places where there was none of either to be had.
And during his first season, it looked like he actually might pull it off. After a rocky start, near the end of the year, he began to flourish with all the skills he'd learned in Coney Island; blinding speed, an inhuman crossover, no-look passes that spanned area codes, and bold forays to the basket. The kid that nobody thought could make it in the world of real basketball was beginning to fulfill his destiny in the first year of the point-guard revolution. The Blazers apparently thought so too, passing on Chris Paul so as not to block Telfair's rise.
Then Nate McMillan came in. He slowed everything down, decided that walking the ball down the court and dumping it to Zach Randolph was the best way to play, made Bassy take off his headband, and generally attempted to take all the Coney Island out of Telfair's game. Telfair struggled mightily that second year, and was traded to the Celtics. (for Brandon Roy-I'm not saying that wasn't a steal, although Roy's calculating game is much less thrilling than the game that dwells inside of Telfair.) On the Celtics, he found another old-school coach who made Telfair dump the ball to Al Jefferson and be done-the game I went to, Telfair was on the bench the entire first half, and whenever he caught it, he stood there like a deer in headlights and made a safe pass, save for one time when he decided to drive, blew by the defense in the blink of an eye, and laid it in, showing us a flash of what still lies dormant in Telfair.
And now Sergio Rodriguez has been banished into obscurity, sitting behind 3 point guards who have proven their mediocrity. There is nothing mediocre about Sergio Rodriguez; there is an argument to be made that he is the best passer this side of Steve Nash, as his % of possessions that end in assists, as well as the % of his team's baskets that come off his passes rival Nash's. More than that, he's simply gorgeous to watch; it's always great to see a player dominate the game with perfect pass after perfect pass, many of the spectacular variety; he's one of the few players that takes it upon himself to create a great shot for a teammate every single time down the floor, and possesses the skill to do so. Watching a summer league game between the Sonics and the Blazers, it was eye-opening to see Kevin Durant (supposed future franchise player), drift in and out of possessions, struggle to get good position, and end up missing a fadeaway, while Rodriguez (supposed non-rotation player) constantly flew into the teeth of the defense, drew them all to him, then found the open man perfectly for a wide-open shot. It was one of the best displays of point-guard play I've ever seen, and all the announcers could talk about was how good Kevin Durant's form looked on that last missed turnaround. Of course, there was also Sergio's breakout quarter in the NBA.
I'm not one to beat a dead horse, and this one's as dead as they come, but today's NBA is so often about one-on-one play. I'm not as livid about this as most sportswriters are, because the athletes have become so good at what they do that complicated offensive schemes have become superfluous; with the new rules and quality of the athletes, just getting LeBron James or Dwayne Wade a little separation off a screen or an isolation will often end in a basket, probably of the spectacular variety. But for every James or Wade, it seems like there are 3 or 4 misguided swingmen who think that a contested fadeaway with 18 seconds left on the shot clock is a good idea, and that just makes me cringe-watching Larry Hughes do this 15 times a game last season almost made me the world's youngest coronary patient. So when a guard like Sergio comes along and replaces one-on-one moves like that with dribble-penetration, backdoor cuts, perfectly run pick-and-rolls, and quality kick-outs, making every shot an open jumper or a spectacular finish, the beauty of the game shines all the way through at a visceral level, just like a kid from Coney Island taking his street-made game to the pros and dropping dimes to factory-made stars on the fast-break allows the beauty of the game to shine through on an emotional level.
Sergio and Telfair are both meant to play in systems that highlight their considerable talents, but they have found themselves in situations where their talents are seen as non-existent, and their weaknesses have been highlighted. It would be one thing if the system worked, but it hasn't: the Blazers and Celtics both enjoyed two of the worst records in the NBA last season. I forgive Mike Brown ignoring LeBron's ability to amaze in a full-court game because his plain-looking brand of basketball got him to the finals, but there is no excuse for putting shackles on talented point guards and ignoring the revolution simply because you believe it to be so. So please, Nate McMillan, let Sergio free. Play pressure defense, run off of loose balls, get Sergio high screens in the half-court, and let him amaze all of us. If you don't want him, trade him to the Warriors, or trade him to the Cavaliers and let him and LeBron do things on the fast break that will make Magic and Worthy look like 50-year old men at the YMCA. I don't care how it happens, but please allow me to see a point guard that elevates the game into the level of collective poetry, instead of acting like the principal from Dead Poets Society and attempting to pass him off as just another mediocre point guard. There is greatness inside of Sergio Rodriguez and Sebastian Telfair, and I hope that I will some day get to see it.