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Sports Strength

Why Is Every Paul Pierce Video So Embarrassing?

Paul Pierce is the greatest Boston Celtic since Larry Bird. During his prime, he was among the most ruthless offensive players in the NBA and parlayed this massive scoring talent into ten All-Star berths, four All-NBA selections and a Finals MVP in 2008. Pull up YouTube and descend down the wormhole of Pierce’s clutchness: buzzer beaters silencing frothing road crowds, playoff daggers, a rich and varied array of duels against his nemesis, Lebron James. He was The Truth. Accordingly, he was recently named to the NBA 75, cementing his place as one of the greatest basketball players ever. 

And yet, the question remains: why is Paul Pierce so embarrassing all the time?

For years, Pierce has been haunted by the rumor that he faked an injury and was carried off the court in a wheelchair in Game One of the 2008 NBA Finals to cover up the shame of pooping his pants during the third quarter. What was hailed at the time as a heroic, career-defining performance (Pierce scored 19 points in the second half to propel the Celtics victory after returning from his “injury”) has since been overshadowed by a post-facto extradiegetic reading of the game.

In 2019, Pierce himself seemed to confirm the rumor. “I have a confession to make,” he said, unprompted, during a pre-game show on ESPN, “I just had to go the bathroom.”

Now, though, Pierce insists he was just joshing and that his pants were, in fact, poopless. “If you poop your pants, does it make sense to sit down and mush it in a wheelchair?” Pierce asked Michelle Beadle on her podcast. “I would walk back there and go straight to the bathroom. Why would I need a wheelchair if I pooped my pants? You don’t sit down on your poop, right? It doesn’t make sense.”

And while this is a convincing argument, it’s also besides the point (and also, you would need a wheelchair to hide your dirtied shorts, duh). But really, it doesn’t matter whether Pierce pooped or not; it’s just a joke, Paul—nobody actually cares or truly believes that it’s true. Instead, the stranger and more debasing part of this is Pierce’s continued, unnecessary engagement with the rumor, as if he’s uncertain whether everyone is laughing at him or with him. 

Outside of the uncertainty of his Schrodinger’s Scat, Pierce further became a punchline during his tenure as an NBA analyst on ESPN, <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://<iframe width="853" height="480" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RrZEb_os2Xo" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen>spewing a litany of wrong and befuddling takes—he declared that he had a better career than Dwyane Wade (he didn’t); he predicted that the Celtics would beat the Bucks in the 2019 playoffs (the Bucks won the series in five games); he asserted that Lebron James wasn’t one of the top five players of all time (he is). Even more ignominious, though, was his exit—Pierce was fired after broadcasting on Instagram Live a supremely depressing video of a weekday strippers and poker night with the fellas. 

Ever since retiring in 2017, Pierce has seemingly labored to undo all of the goodwill he amassed over his career. No other NBA great is consistently as undignified as the former Celtic, despite Scottie Pippen’s spirited effort to usurp Pierce’s allegedly poop-smeared throne. Pierce is a Boston legend and a Hall of Fame basketball player; it’s a shame that his own weirdness has soiled his legacy, both literally and figuratively.

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Sports Strength

How Cole Anthony’s Gravity Changes Orlando’s Orbit

Gravity is a remarkable phenomenon—it’s why we’re able to walk down the sidewalk, why the moon doesn’t float off into space, why the gases of the sun hold together. It’s also why Cole Anthony is enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign as the starting lead guard for the Orlando Magic.

Despite a 3-10 record, the Magic have been an incredibly endearing team thus far. Franz Wagner has popped as a rookie, cementing himself with two-way play. Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba have both taken sizable steps forward as basketball players, and Jalen Suggs is still acclimating to the professional level, but has shown glimpses of his potential. 

The Orlando Magic have finished higher than 20th in offensive efficiency once in the nine seasons since the Dwight Howard trade (per Cleaning the Glass). Despite a steady churn of different players and coaches during this period, the Magic haven’t had a player capable of leveraging their skills, their athleticism, and positioning on the court to to consistently tilt a defense. Nikola Vucevic is a tremendous passer, post-hub, shooter, and scorer as a whole, but never had the athletic gifts to engulf space; Victor Oladipo eventually found his stride in Indiana as a pull-up shooter and forceful driver, but that was well after his time with the Magic.

To start the season, Cole Anthony has routinely been the defense-warping presence that the Magic have desperately missed. Anthony’s gravity is sustained first and foremost by his athleticism and ball-handling, essential traits for any sort of guard or wing initiator. However, given his smaller stature, Anthony has natural barriers attacking the rim.

While he has improved his rim efficiency by a solid margin this season (making 58 percent of his layups this year as opposed to 52 percent his rookie season), much of his scoring improvement and gravitational boost has been catalyzed by his prolific and precise pull-up shooting. He’s taken over 50 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocked down 38.6 percent of those attempts, dramatically upping his volume and accuracy from last season.

The biggest difference, though, is how he’s generating those shots. Anthony is launching pull-up threes this season, taking 3.2 per game and hitting 40.5%, the sixth highest mark among players shooting two or more pull-up 3s per game, sandwiched between off the dribble savants James Harden and CJ McCollum.

Canning shots off the dribble at this rate has forced defenses to continually fight over screens, which, in turn, bends the floor to his gravity and opens up scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Last season, Anthony often played at one speed, attacking the rim with a breakneck pace if a sliver of runway opened. Now, he’s more comfortable easing into drives, mixing in stutter steps and hesitations to complement his swift, explosive strides. 

The change in pacing has been night and day for him compared to last season. Accordingly, his intermediate scoring has reaped the benefits as he’s scoring on 46% of his looks from 4-14 feet per Cleaning the Glass (78th percentile among point guards) and he’s improved as a finisher,  largely due to better self-created looks. Similarly, he’s adept at lulling a defense to sleep in transition and then hitting the speed boost to catch an unlucky defender if the shell is too slow to form.

As his scoring has grown in effectiveness and defenses have adapted coverages, more passing reads have opened up for him. 

While most of these reads are rather rudimentary, they’re effective. Go over on the screen, and get punished by the roll or pop. Or go under the screen and give the lights-out shooter a wide open three. With his downhill gravity, he forces the tagger to rotate low, opening up corner looks. 

No, Cole Anthony isn’t often nailing a crosscourt no-look whip pass, but defenses has to acknowledge his craft regardless of flash. His accuracy on passes is still inconsistent; he can still premeditate reads and force passes that aren’t there. But, the growth has been notable and he’s improved considerably as a playmaker since last season. 

At the moment, he’s a combo guard through and through, but the flashes have been promising and hint at more. His ability to recycle in the offense has been fantastic as well this season—if his drive dies, a read isn’t here, or he misses a passing window, he’s been good at moving the ball to an open man and quickly relocating off the ball. Although he’s not fully bending a defense in these instances, he’s forcing the defense to adjust to his gravity regardless.

Often this season, he’s had his drive stalled by a good defensive possession, but still forced opposition into an inopportune mismatch on a switch because he attacked so quickly and decisively the action. So even if he’s not getting all the way to the rim or forcing a full rotation, the defense still has to adapt. 

This pays dividends considering Orlando’s roster. Particularly in the starting lineup, the Magic have numerous players who can attack closeouts and make decisions.

Franz Wagner misses the shot here, but the idea remains. Multiple players who can continue drives and work together in synergy to turn small advantages into open shots. 

Lineup data is certainly noisey this early in the season (and in general) but the Magic’s starting five have the sixth highest net rating among five-man units that have played 100 or more possessions per Cleaning the Glass. That group’s calling card has been its defense and its stingy 91.6 defensive rating, but the offense has maintained play above league average, with much credit due to Anthony.

Per Basketball Index, Anthony has produced a box creation score of 7.5; box creation is a metric from Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball that does an admirable job of ascertaining the impact of a player’s playmaking and scoring gravity. That 7.5 mark puts him in the range of Jrue Holiday (7.6), Malcolm Brogdon (8.1), and Devonte’ Graham (6.8). 

That lends credence to the on-court production. Cole Anthony is not a primary offensive engine, but he’s capable of igniting a fire to mimic similar results for stretches, much like those guards.

Anthony doesn’t solve Orlando’s need for a superstar, but few players would.  He’s putting together the most dynamic offensive stretch an Orlando guard has in years and having a positive impact on those around him. He still has a great deal to iron out and improve upon, but make no mistake, Cole Anthony is taking a leap and his growth and budding scoring gravity are shifting the course of the Orlando Magic.

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Sports Strength

The New Orleans Pelicans Are Embarrassing

For the most part, the New Orleans Pelicans have existed in the abstract—they’re a real basketball team with real basketball players that’s played real basketball games, but also, have they really? The NBA season is full of empty, forgotten space that’s catalogued by Basketball Reference pages rather than anybody’s memory, but the 1-11 Pelicans have been especially nondescript, floating through the season and silently losing games.

The Pelicans are a very bad team, but that alone isn’t a defining feature—there are lots of bad teams. But whereas the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets lose games as part of an alleged masterplan, the Pelicans lose games simply because they stink.  Although this is a fairly young team, the combined goodness of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has robbed the Pelicans of the luxury of patience; Williamson and Ingram are ready to win now, so the Pelicans have scrambled to accommodate them. They’ve adopted the ambivalence of at once trying to win now while still rebuilding. As such, David Griffin, the VP of basketball operations, has imbued the roster with a schizophrenic quality, alternately  stockpiling draft picks and then trading them for veterans. 

Without Ingram (hip contusion) or Williamson (fat and sad), though, the Pelicans are a hodgepodge of role players who have floundered in the absence of an anchoring offensive force. Over the summer, the Pelicans acquired Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas with a particular vision of how Graham’s pull-up shooting and Valanciunas’s burliness would unclutter the court for Williamson; now, Graham and Valanciunas are jibbitz without a Croc, accompanying pieces that no longer have something to accompany. 

But for the Pelicans, the shittiness on the court is secondary to the sour vibes that have quickly subsumed their season. Whereas their badness isn’t so interesting (it’s hard to muster much analysis beyond yikes), their general grumpiness is a rich text to mine. In their recent defeat to the Sacramento Kings, the Pelicans succumbed to the weight of their down-badness, setting an NBA record by registering five technical fouls in the second quarter alone. What’s more, the Pelicans’ orneriness extended beyond the court and into the front office—David Griffin tried to fight Alvin Gentry, a former Pelicans head coach who’s now an assistant in Sacramento. 

These almost-fisticuffs with Gentry are emblematic of how poisonous Griffin has been in New Orleans. Since taking over the Pelicans in 2019, Griffin has fired two coaches (including Gentry), alienated Williamson, tried and failed to reconcile with Williamson by playing piano for him, and established a reputation as a two-faced scoundrel. In just two-and-a-half years, Griffin has managed to unravel all the good will that he earned by building the Cleveland Cavaliers team that won the 2016 championship. 

In a season where they desperately needed to prove to Williamson that he can win in New Orleans long-term, the Pelicans have instead demonstrated how badly they need Williamson to even approach respectability. This is not just a bad team, it’s a broken one. They have until 2023 to find a fix. 

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There Should Be Fewer NBA Jerseys

On October 21st, the Golden State Warriors played the Los Angeles Clippers; the Warriors won 115-113 and Steph Curry scored 45 incandescent points and everybody (besides Clippers’ fans) had a lot of fun watching it. It was also the stupidest game of the NBA season—so far. While this was just one game that everybody has already forgotten about, it’s symptomatic of one of the NBA’s biggest systemic issues: there are too many jerseys.

In this game, the Golden State Warriors—a team so devoted to the color gold that they put it in their name—wore blue and red jerseys without a trace of gold, paying homage to their predecessors, the Philadelphia Warriors. Beyond simply wearing a different costume than their customary home whites, they unveiled a special court for the occasion, one that was awash in blue and red, but not any gold. The Clippers, a team that usually draws from a red and blue color palette, wore their home white jerseys, despite playing on the road.

  A summary: the Golden State Warriors, for some reason, made themselves look as Clippers-y as possible in a game against the Clippers. If this all sounds very confusing, it’s because it is.

Gone are the days when teams established iconography and stuck with it—god forbid that teams would actually be easily recognizable. Instead, teams drape themselves in sundry exotic fabrics, no matter how discombobulating it may be. 

The so-called City and Earned jerseys (which is corporate marketing-speak for “give us $120 for this mesh tanktop, you rube”) are the worst offenders. These are jerseys that seem deliberately designed to mess with my head, with a fresh batch of 30 new ones released each season. Why do the Knicks need a black get-up, despite never having prominently featured black in their entire 75 year history? Why are the Magic’s jerseys ablaze with orange piping? Why have the Sixers adopted a rainbow motif? Why did the Heat take inspiration from discontinued Trix yogurt?

Nike
A sampling of jerseys, which I hate

This is not to say that the jerseys are ugly—in fact, a lot of them look good! Nor is this to say that teams’ uniforms should never evolve; periodic redesigns are necessary to keep the league’s visuals from getting stale. But the City and Earned jerseys are shameless gambits that serve no purpose beyond juicing fanbases for every spare dollar possible; no matter how attractive or well-received a new jersey may be, it’ll invariably be swapped out the next season for some equally befuddling jersey that has minimal relationship to the team’s normal color scheme. 

These jerseys are a reminder of a darker truth that undergirds our relationship with our favorite teams: we’re simply customers to mega-corporations and our convenience isn’t ultimately important. But these jerseys aren’t a reminder of something even more important: which fucking teams are actually playing in the game. 

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Sports Strength

Don’t Mess with Nikola Jokic (Or Nikola Jokic’s Brothers)

Last year, Nikola Jokic won MVP almost by default. He’s unquestionably great, but his plaudits have always felt like they carried an implied qualifier—he was the MVP (but only because Joel Embiid got injured); he’s a star (but not, like, you know, a star); he’s one of the best passers ever (for a big man). While Lebron James or Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokoumnpo are described in hushed, reverent tones, Jokic is treated as some sort of oddity, seven feet of gelatin and puff whose success is tantamount to his obvious goofiness. He’s the hardwood Velvet Underground, a favorite of hoops hipsters who’s too weird and inaccessible for the mainstream.

He’s also, at the moment, the best basketball player in the world. 

Jokic is dominant in clear and readily apparent ways; he leads the Denver Nuggets in just about every major statistical category. His statistical profile has something for everybody—he placates capital-h Hoopers by getting buckets (25.4 points per game) and arm-chair statisticians by doing so efficiently (68.9 percent True Shooting); for the hardcore nerds, he’s highly rated across the whole alphabet soup of advanced metrics (first in RAPTOR and EPM, fifth in DARKO). 

It’s become passé to call players “unicorns,” but Jokic is truly without any antecedent. Whereas most great passers place a single opponent in conflict over their defensive responsibilities and then exploit that indecision, Jokic somehow reads the entire court at once; he turns basketball into cartography, continually mapping and remapping the placement of every player. 

Beyond just being able to see every pass, Jokic is able to actually make every pass too. Skip passes to the weak-side corner, sly bounce-passes to a cutter, twirling one-handed outlets, over-the-head backwards hurls—Jokic has the goods. In this sense, his highlights unfold like whodunnits as he manipulates the defense until he can rifle a pass through an opening that only he can see. 

Despite averaging the fewest assists since he became a full-time starter in 2017, Jokic is still a top-notch passer; it’s not his fault that all of his good teammates are hurt and that shooting across the league is down because the new ball sucks. Still, defending against Jokic requires total, unwavering focus—he unfailingly converts defenders’ brainfarts into open three-pointers and lay-ups.  

If Jokic’s passing is what makes him so singular, his scoring is what makes him potentially the greatest offensive center of the last 30 years. Having shed the meekness and deference that characterized his first few seasons, Jokic has evolved into a vicious, mean-spirited scorer. Although he’s blossomed into a sharpshooter (he shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc and 60 percent from midrange), on the block, he’s an amorphous blob of muscle, continuing the proud lineage of Zach Randolph and Shaq before him. Averaging 1.04 points per possession on post ups, Jokic unsteadies defenders with feints and body blows until he burrows out enough room to float a hook shot or fade-away over their head. 

Further bolstering Jokic’s Best Player Alive case is his development as a defender. For years, the kindest description of Jokic’s defense has been not that bad—he may never have been as permissive at the rim as his all-around pudginess would suggest, but he possessed limiting weaknesses all the same. But now, he’s a legitimately resolute defender. He’ll never be a one-man, Iron Dome around the paint like Rudy Gobert, but he ventures to the level of the screen to corral ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, spooking potential drivers with his quick hands and general gigantitude. This kind of prophylactic defense has borne fruit—per Cleaning the Glass, only four other centers are a bigger rim deterrent than Jokic and the Nuggets only surrender 94.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court, the equivalent of the best defense of any team since 2004.

More than anything, Jokic’s greatness is derived from his ability to manifest his own version of reality. He contorts defenses by standing in place, aware of how his any subtle movement can provoke a defensive response. He creates scoring opportunities that didn’t previously exist, tossing passes into open spaces for his teammates to explore. He compensates for his physical deficiencies by eliminating chances for offenses to take advantage of him. On the most basic level, he’s the best player in the world because he plays within a world almost entirely of his own creation. 

And if you disagree, his enormous brothers will beat the shit out of you.

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Sports Strength

Evan Mobley Is the Future

For the last four seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have slogged through 219 totally unmemorable games, only temporarily popping into the zeitgeist as some sort of oddity to gawk at. Food fights in the locker room! Temper tantrums on the court! Andre Drummond! Ever since Lebron James decided that it’d be cooler to live in Los Angeles than Cleveland, the Cavs have collected losses like baseball cards, existing in a weird half space, almost more part of NBA Twitter than the actual NBA. 

But now, the Cavs are good—or at least good-adjacent. Although Vegas has pegged the Cavs as the underdog in every game they’ve played this season, the Cavs are 7-4 and have won their last four games, relying on a discombobulating weirdness to steal wins against putatively more talented opponents. Whereas most teams adhere to the Tao of the Big Wing, the Cavs have constructed a practically wing-less lineup, relying mainly on small guards (Darius Garland, Ricky Rubio, and the now-injured Colin Sexton) and seven-footers (Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen). By doing so, they’ve found themselves on basketball’s vanguard, brewing a plus-sized response to a small-ball world.

Every draft cycle, there’s a new round of tortured discourse about what it means to be a Modern Big Man; Evan Mobley is the answer—he’s the Modern Big Man. In just his rookie year, Mobley has already established himself as the Cavs’ most important player, alchemizing lineups and tactics with his all-purpose skillset. On offense, Mobley maintains equilibrium and offers relief when his ball-handlers overheat—he slides into open spaces on the short-roll and along the baseline; he facilitates offense from the elbows and ranks sixth in the NBA in points per elbow touch (.735) on the eighth most elbow touches (4.5 per game); he spaces the floor and attacks closeouts with startling coordination. Despite having a willowy frame that renders him largely ineffective as a screener, he’s developed chemistry with Darius Garland, a jittery, pull-up shooting point guard who’s a budding star in his own right; the two of them are the ninth-most prolific assist combo in the league

Defensively, it’s hard to describe Mobley without seeming unmoored from reality. Don’t be ridiculous: he’s not the best defensive big man prospect since Anthony Davis—unless he maybe actually is. Mobley covers ground so quickly it seems like the court is rapidly contracting under his feet; he switches with a rare menace, relishing in the opportunity to embarrass guards by enveloping their drives. Beyond his remarkable nimbleness, he’s proven his rim-protector bona fides—his 1.3 blocks per game belie his true impact; within six feet of the rim, Mobley contests 8.5 shots per game and holds opponents nearly 10 percentage points below their normal finishing rate. 

Paired with Jarrett Allen, Mobley allows the Cavs to stock the rest of their lineup with offense-first scoring types; since the Cavs are guaranteed to almost permanently have a fearsome rim protector securing the paint, they’re able to weather Sexland’s smallness and Markannen’s slowness. Accordingly, the Cavs have had an elite defense in the 235 minutes that Mobley and Allen have played together; when their center duo share the court, the Cavs hold opponents to a 103.4 offensive rating. 

Even if the Cavs cool from their torrid-for-them start to the season (Colin Sexton’s absence is a real downer), Mobley provides the foundation for sustained success going forward. The future is now. 

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Five Teams Who Should Sign Odell Beckham Jr.

Five years ago, Odell Beckham Jr was on pace to become one of the greatest wide receivers of all time—in 2016, he became the fastest player in NFL history to amass both 200 receptions and 4000 yards. Beyond the impressive statistics, his dominance was immediately apparent on the field as he out-ran and out-jumped cornerbacks on a weekly basis. Now, after being cut by the Cleveland Browns for being an underperforming malcontent, Beckham is a free agent for the first time in his career. Even if he never reaches the same peaks he did as a New York Giant, the 28 year-old is still a tremendously talented player. Here are five teams that would be great fits for the mercurial once-superstar.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs:
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The Chiefs, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, have perennially been among the NFL’s best offenses. This year, though, they’ve been massively turnover-prone and opponents have discovered gameplans that can relatively temper the production of star pass-catchers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Although Beckham probably wouldn’t post huge numbers in this system, his presence could be a boon for the Chiefs by demanding the focus of defenders and freeing up his teammates as a result. 

2. Buffalo Bills:

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After years of futility, the Buffalo Bills have emerged as perhaps the best team in the AFC. Still, despite having the most prolific offense in the NFL, they lack a consistent option in the passing game opposite All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. Together, Diggs and Beckham could form one of the most dangerous pass-catching duos in the NFL and potentially propel the team to their first-ever championship.

3. Los Angeles Rams:

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In recent years, the Rams have approached team-building like they’re playing Franchise mode in Madden. While other teams meticulously focus on finding and developing young players that they draft, the Rams have amassed one of the starriest and best rosters in the NFL. Beckham may not have an obvious fit in their offense (Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods already demand the lion’s share of the targets), but signing him would be perfectly on-brand for how the team has operated.

4. Las Vegas Raiders:

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Having raced out to a surprising 5-2 start, the Raiders seem poised to crash the postseason party for only the second time since 2002. In the wake of Henry Ruggs’s tragic car crash and DUI, they have a hole in their receiving corps that Beckham would fill perfectly. Alongside the resurgent Derek Carr, Beckham could buoy this offense and help the Raiders hold off the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West division crown.

5. Baltimore Ravens:

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For years, the Ravens have been hamstrung by their lack of pass-catching talent outside of tight end Mark Andrews. As a result, they’ve often become one-dimensional, relying on superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson to generate nearly all of their yardage. Beckham would immediately remedy this problem. While Hollywood Brown has enjoyed a breakout campaign after a shaky beginning to the season, Beckham would allow the Ravens to take full advantage of Lamar Jackson’s improvement as a passer.

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Put Buster Posey (And Lots More People) in the Baseball Hall of Fame

Some time during the next five to 15 years, the recently-retired Buster Posey will be inducted into the Baseball Hall Of Fame. Skeptics will crow that Posey has produced fewer wins above replacement than any Hall of Fame catcher of the last 60 years  and that he has fewer total hits than career journeymen like Yunel Escobar or Martin Prado and that Posey has really only had eight-ish good years when you really think about it and that the Baseball Hall of Fame is one of our nation’s most storied and hallowed institutions or whatever. But that’s dumb—Posey is the most decorated catcher of his generation, winning NL MVP in 2012 and three World Series rings as part of the San Francsico Giants’ dynastic early 2010s teams; he should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame and the fact that there’s any debate over his “worthiness” is proof of how broken the discourse around the Hall of Fame has become. 

And Barry Bonds should also be enshrined—and so should Pete Rose and CC Sabathia and Roger Clemens and even failed video game developer/trash person Curt Schilling. Screw it: let’s put Bobby Abreu in there too.

All of this is to say that the Baseball Hall of Fame should be bigger. Lost in all the sanctimony and cobwebbed gatekeeping, is the basic fact that the Hall of Fame is supposed to be fun. Even if the whole enterprise has been cloaked in the syrupy importance of being a custodian of the history of America’s Pastime, the Hall of Fame’s primary function is to give fans the chance to celebrate their favorite players. 

In this sense, the Hall of Fame voting bloc essentially functions as the fun police. While this isn’t to say that they should be as permissive as the Veterans Committee (who basically just induct guys they were friends with), there’s no need for the selection process to be held hostage by made-up rules that only make sense in the ink-soaked brains of long-time beat writers. 

Why are patently great players like Scott Rolen withering on the vine? Why are some of the best players in baseball history forever condemned because they took the wrong kind of medicine 25 years ago or lost a parlay in 1989 or had asshole teammates in 1919? Why are obvious Hall of Famers forced to wait several years to gain entry like they’re waiting for their deli number to be called? Why would you not give the people what they want? 

Some people wrongly argue that the exclusivity of the Hall of Fame is what makes it special and that any uptick in permissiveness would disrespect the legacy of the Hall’s members. And this is true—if you’re incapable of holding more than one thought in your mind at a time. No serious person actually believes that letting in Buster Posey and his meager 1500 hits actually undermines the accomplishments of the 32 members of the elusive 3000 Hit Club. Besides, this strict statistical originalism doesn’t hold much weight once you realize that the all-time leaders in hits and homers are shut out because of some Boomerific moral panic. 

If this is the Museum of Good Baseball Players, more good baseball players should be in it.

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The Celtics’ Record Is Not As Bad As It Looks

For most teams that fancy themselves a contender, starting 2-5 with the league’s 27th ranked defense while one of their star players struggled with post-Covid lethargy would be bad enough. For the Boston Celtics, all that tumult has simply been a prelude to the newest indignity: Marcus Smart is mad! 

“There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hands. I’m just standing in the corner,” said Smart after their 128-114 defeat to the Chicago Bulls on November 1st. “Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown]. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”

While this kind of sour-grapes grousing is hardly uncommon on an underperforming team, Smart is also mostly right—Tatum and Brown are two of the most prolific bucket-getters in the world and the Celtics understandably  empower them by design. In particular, Tatum is nourished with healthy servings of isolations and shots and leads the league in field goal attempts. The problem: this year, he’s not making very many shots and is handicapping Boston as a result. 

After nearly a decade of consecutive playoff appearances, the Celtics have spent the first seven games of this year gorging on a rich tasting menu of losses. Through seven games, they’ve lost a double-overtime heartbreaker (a 138-134 defeat to the New York Knicks in their season opener), been boat-raced into oblivion (a 115-83 shellacking at the hands of the frisky Toronto Raptors) and utterly melted down in the fourth quarter (a 128-114  loss to the Chicago Bulls, punctuated by Chicago’s 39-11 run in the fourth quarter). 

We’re, as the kids would say, smoking on that shamrock pack. 

Even under the stewardship of former head coach/boy-genius Brad Stevens, this has never been a notably artful or intricate offense; instead, they succeeded because of the blunt force inflicted upon defenses by Tatum’s scoring. Tatum is a hardwood sin-eater, salvaging directionless possessions with his shot-making. Despite his status as a premier offensive player, though, Tatum has never been especially proficient at generating easy opportunities; instead, his greatest utility is derived from his comfort trafficking in heavily contested, difficult attempts. 

As such, Tatum’s early slump is hardly a cause for alarm; these kinds of valleys are baked into his game. When a player adopts a shot profile as consistently difficult as Tatum, slumps are inevitable. For the season, Tatum has taken more “tightly” contested shots (defined as shots when a defense is within two to four feet) than every player besides Kevin Durant; similarly, he’s consumed the third-most isolations in the NBA. On their own, these stats aren’t harmful or even that different from Tatum’s previous seasons—Tatum’s current shot distribution is practically identical to his one last year. 

Whereas Tatum’s All-Star contemporaries like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant thrive because of their ability to lift their team’s attack regardless of their individual scoring output, Tatum is a more constrained and less enthusiastic passer. By and large, his offense is only as good as his shooting percentages. 

Accordingly, Tatum’s glacial start to the season has revealed the inherent flaws of a Celtics’ offense that’s so heavily reliant on Tatum’s shot-making to prop them up; this season is less of an indictment on Tatum than it is of the Celtics’ choice to build around a high-variance scorer whose style renders him susceptible to these kinds of droughts. Tatum will invariably play like an All-Star again and lift the Celtics into playoff contention, but the Celtics’ structural precarity ensures that any potential playoff appearance will be brief.

Still, Tatum and the Celtics aren’t as bad as their record. Besides uncharacteristically crummy shooting, they return the same core that made the playoffs last season and have maintained similar shooting profiles on offense and defense. As hilarious as it would be if Jayson Tatum morphed into Zoomer Antoine Walker and harpooned the Celtics’ season, that (sadly) probably won’t happen. The Celtics will probably not be a very good team—they just don’t have the talent to hang with the Bucks or Nets or Heat or Hawks or even the Knicks. But they certainly won’t continue to be a terrible one.

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Sports Strength

Don’t Panic, Lakers Twitter: the Lakers Are the NBA’s Most Interesting Puzzle

No matter what agenda you want to push, the Los Angeles Lakers are here to help.  Through the first seven games of the season, the Lakers have unsurprisingly offered fertile soil for the NBA Twitter Hot Take Industrial Complex to harvest—depending on who you ask, Russell Westbrook is an elite point guard or the dreaded Westbrick; Carmelo Anthony is either barbecuing chicken or is barbecue chicken himself; the narratives around Lebron James form such an unparseably dense palimpsest that it’s not even worth engaging with them. But amidst all the daily frenzy, the Lakers remain one of the best teams in the league—this is the NBA’s most interesting puzzle, a mish-mash of players that turn line-up construction into an exercise of faith.

More than just about any other team, the Lakers have a rupture between who they are and what they can be. Although the team boasts a winning record at 4-3, they’ve largely been lurching and wooden, unable to muster the focus or synergy to play cogently and cohesively for more than a few minutes at a time; their 107.7 points per 100 possessions is barely a smidge above league-average. And this is totally fine—it’s barely November. But within the scrum of wayward pull-up jumpers and too-long isolations, flashes of future goodness are visible in moments—kick-out passes that land in shooting pockets, cuts that unravel defensive shells. 

When the Lakers’ offense is humming, it presents a path forward for what a post-postmodern NBA offense can look like. Whereas most current NBA offenses focus on spreading the floor, the Lakers primary concern is compacting the opposing defense. At times, they’re a study in how to create spacing without the benefit of great shooters, occupying weak-side defenders with clever cuts and the threat that’s posed by genius passing.

Built around Lebron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ attack can be sketched in stark, brutal vectors. Every possession is informed by a sense of momentum, informed by the Big Three’s combined defense-warping gravitational force. Even if the awesomely frightening parade of dunks and layups hasn’t quite come to fruition, the Lakers are able to parlay their potential rim pressure to create open three-pointers; according to NBA.com’s tracking data, only 8.2 percent of the Lakers’ three-pointers are taken with a defender within four feet of the shooter. 

The problem, though, is finding lineups that can supply that point-scoring goodness while maintaining enough defensive integrity. Carmelo Anthony has become a load-bearing presence in their offense as he’s eased into a regular season version of the mythical Olympic Melo, but he’s possibly the leakiest defender in their rotation and requires stauncher teammates to cover for him; Malik Monk offers a much-needed jolt athleticism and shooting in theory, but not much of either of them in practice. Anthony Davis is possibly the best center in the NBA, yet insists on playing as a power forward alongside Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan—which, in turn, makes it difficult to find a natural spot for Russell Westbrook. 

As such, the challenge for Frank Vogel is to assemble lineups that accentuate his players’ strengths while masking their obvious weaknesses; the roster is stocked with gifted players, albeit ones who largely require the right context for their gifts to fully come into focus. The Lakers have an array of shooters who can’t defend, defenders who can’t shoot, big men who can’t play together, and a Rajon Rondo who straight-up can’t play. For Vogel, building a workable five-man unit is a task somewhere between playtime with Mr. Potato Head and an LSAT logic game—here’s an adaptable, customizable set-up with a raft of distinct and productive parts, but one that’s also riddled with prerequisites and limitations. 

Certainly, there’s no rush (yet) for Vogel to solve the Gordian Knot that is his roster. The Lakers have such iridescent, undeniable talent that they could probably secure home-court advantage in the playoffs if they were coached by a semi-trained seal; the Lakers have a winning record even while James, Davis and Westbrook have gotten off to uncharacteristically slow and irritable starts to the season. Still, for the Lakers to achieve the kind of postseason success that this roster is capable of achieving, they need to solidify an identity and scheme.

It’s a mystery whether the Lakers will unleash inverted pick-and-rolls with Westbrook screening for James or if Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker will be the remedy for the Lakers’ shallow wing depth once they get healthy or if Davis can rediscover his bubble sharp-shooting. But, in a regular season that sometimes feels like a lifeless prelude to the postseason, the Lakers’ fledgling attempts at self-discover will, at the very least, be a joy to watch.