That Nick Young's return to the lineup would coincide with the Lakers' ascent from gonzo terribleness to bland mediocrity fits, really. Both because at every stop in his NBA career Nick Young has done whatever would annoy me the most, but also because "Swaggy P" is the basketball embodiment of a twee, boring, self-consciously internet-friendly, Lil-B-nihilistic, put-on eccentricity that is both the opposite and the death of the authentic, full-throated, batshit insanity that had made the Lakers so fun this season.
This is to say that what has made the Lakers such a great spectacle before now was the absolute conviction with which they did the dumb shit they did. Byron Scott believes in his harebrained notions of toughness and winning basketball. Kobe Bryant believes in his Solitary Basketball Assassin persona, that it will bring him victory, or at least absolve him of responsibility for defeat. That's funny! Byron and Kobe were going down with the ship, but only because they kept blasting cannons directly into the deck and calling it navigation.
They sucked, but sucked gloriously. Now they just suck. Which is boring! The Magic suck, but nobody cares about that; the Magic suck because they're being patient in the process of becoming good. Wanting to be good, and being willing to eat some shit to get there, is what NBA teams are supposed to do, and it's rational, which is not entertaining. The Lakers might want to be good, too, but more than that, they want to be vindicated. That's much funnier.
I've been writing about the Lakers since the opening of this season, and a common charge from commenters is that I am a Laker hater. This is false. I've enjoyed the Lakers' failures, sure, but not because I hate them. I love them. Until now, at least, their badness went proudly against the prevailing trends in a sport that is getting both smarter and a little duller. Their badness was a rebuke.
The growth of advanced analysis and econometric front-office thinking in the NBA has done cool stuff for the game. Across the league, teams play faster, smarter, more sophisticated basketball than they did 15 years ago. The D-and-3 wing, the pick-and-pop big, the rise of the corner 3, and the idea of warping a defense with ball movement instead of watching Desmond fucking Mason dribble for 13 seconds per possession—all of these cool things happened because people got smarter and more systematic in their thinking about how basketball works and how best to play it. That's great. It's a great development. Anyone who watched the NBA in 1999 would agree, and also reflexively make the sign of the Evil Eye at the memory of what the NBA was like in 1999.
On the other hand, there's a sameyness to a lot of the basketball being played today, a sense that now we know the most efficient ways to play it, and that the future of basketball might just come down to seeing which turkey-necked general manager doofus navigates the CBA most effectively in a given year. In the midst of all that, it's nice—it's rapturous, amazing, astonishing!—to have a team like the Lakers doing such baldly retrograde shit (turning down open threes to have bad, slow players try to drive the lane; putting nearly 40 percent of the team's possessions in the hands of a 36-year-old lunatic with more basketball on his physiological odometer than virtually any living person; having Carlos Boozer do pretty much anything on a basketball court other than walk off it) for reasons that square to absolutely no degree with the basketball culture's prevailing notions of rationality and efficiency. And to have the team doing that be the Lakers, of all the teams, and to have its star be Kobe Bryant, of all the stars, with God and the world and Jack Nicholson watching. The absurdity of it. The beautiful doomed insanity of it. It is—was?—almost everything I like best about humanity. The Lakers are the way they are because of the people they are, and no one else can be them, and that's the best thing to watch on TV.
Well, they've won two games in a row now. First over the terminally dreary Hawks, which also makes sense, because the Hawks are the quiet organic chemistry textbook library where fun things go to die. If the Hawks played a seven-game series against Satan and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with the fate of the universe in the balance, it'd get shunted over to NBA TV to make room on TNT for reruns of Bones, and rightly so. Of course the Hawks lost to the Lakers. They are basketball soundproofing. Their job is to produce whichever outcome makes you change the channel.
And then, last night, the Lakers took down the Rockets, who were without Dwight Howard and any idea what the fuck they are doing. And this—Dwight Howard rendering the Lakers less enjoyable—also makes sense. It's what he did the entire year he was a Laker, after all.
Yeah, too much shit makes sense around the Lakers, now. They are not a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life anymore. Now they're just a basketball team that sucks. They're 3-9, better by winning percentage than the Sixers, Thunder, and Knicks. They've transitioned from a team that will find a way to lose even when its opponent plays like shit to a team that will do the rational thing and accept a victory when offered one. That's boring. Booooooooo.
On the other hand, at this rate, they might just piss away their lottery pick, consigning themselves to another year of pretty much exactly this, only with an even older and more insane Kobe Bryant. That would be ridiculous as hell! I could talk myself into that.
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