Essay: Wants and Needs in the Drive for the 2013 NBA Title
“Things belong to people who want them most.” – Dashiell Hammet, An Unfinished Woman
Oftentimes we–the few who attempt to extrapolate nuances of meaning from what is, at its root, a game–spend oodles of time trying to figure out what teams do which things right, and use that somewhat esoteric bit of quantitative information to show how it’s the driving force behind one team’s success and another team’s failure. But increasingly in this day and age of shot charts and synergy cameras, we forget to step back and look at the big picture: namely, who has the drive or the will to want it more, or perhaps more aptly: who needs to win the 2013 NBA title the most?
If you look at history, it’s this seemingly superficial trait which most clearly segregate the haves from the have-nots. That’s not to say certain teams with a paucity of talent don’t want to win as much as the league’s juggernauts, but the difference at the top of the league’s standings is less about analytics or talent and more about the innate Will to Power. Nietzsche was so derided for this idea when he scribbled it—along with a renunciation of the Judeo-Christian tenants of piety—in 1883′s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that many thought it was a madman’s perhaps prescient future of chaos and anarchy without the Church’s guiding light. Continuing Schopenhauer’s will to live, Nietzsche skirted around his central philosophical thesis in his earlier works before settling on the will to power schema in 1883. It’s important to remember this is the same driving principle that’s separated the top NBA team’s in the contemporary game. When you boil everything down, and extricate the statistical subterfuge, the only thing left is motivation. While it isn’t very Christian to want to assert your will over your competitors (capitalism!), and to sacrifice anything to win, the need to eviscerate opponents is how many winners are formed. So who among the league’s elites needs it like MJ did during his pathological reign during the 1990′s? Who is willing to do whatever they can to win because they need to win just like humanity needs oxygen to breath?
In a way, this is impossible to determine. Of the NBA’s 30 teams, only 7 or 8 have a real shot of taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy this June, and of those 8, only 2 or 3 are in the upper-most tier where analysts are pretty confident they’ll be in the Conference Finals and thus in a place to win this year’s title. So let’s go through them one by one and try to figure out who among them needs to win the title to be complete. Keep in mind this is highly–if not entirely–subjective task where we’re assigning motivation based off a number of different narratives, some of which–like a certain girlfriend of a Heisman contender–could be totally imaginative. But it’s still fun to attempt to come up with ancillary motives when all things are equal (even if they’re not entirely equal: only two teams have a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant).
Yeah, they just lost Rajon Rondo, and with it any real chance they can compete with the big boys in the Eastern Conference. The best they could possibly hope to do without Danny Ainge pulling the trigger on a trade to blow the team up, is a 7 or 6 seed (they’re currently in 8th place in the East) where they won’t have to face the Heat in the first round. If they do squeak into a first round matchup against New York or Brooklyn, watch out. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are old, and their knees have experienced hundreds of thousands of jump shots and rebounds over the decades, but they’re also psychologically hardened to the rigors of playoff basketball. The Celtics are short enough on talent to make them a long shot among long shots, but I wouldn’t put it past Doc Rivers to use the loss of Rondo as rallying cry for a nouveau Ubuntu and the possibility of an upset or two in the Eastern Conference.
Do they need the title enough? Probably not. Their win in 2008 satiated the need, but they certainly want another one, especially after their game 7 loss in 2010. But Rajon is their best offensive player, and even with him they would be a long shot to come out of the East. Unless both Garnett and Pierce find a time machine, this looks like a lost cause, and the need hasn’t been there since Pierce and Garnett reached the promised land almost five years ago. As we’ll see with another couple teams on here, need is basically impossible when you’ve already been graced with one Larry O’Brien trophy.
Los Angeles Lakers
How long can Kobe channel Earvin? How long before his teammates start missing shots and he reverts back to the Kobe Bryant we all know and, a few of us, love? How long before Mike D’Antoni gets so annoyed with the slow it down defensive approach of this team and implores Kupchak to panic trade Pau back to Memphis for Rudy Gay? How long before Kobe and Dwight really do initiate pugilistic entreaties, and the whole team is thrown for another tailspin as Kupchak and Co. try to trade Dwight before the February 21st deadline or risk him leaving in free agency this summer? Or is this all a fake out; a Rube Goldberg-esque plan hatched by Kobe to start the season weak and trick people into thinking the Lakers are done—at least for now?
Will the Lakers recover in the season’s second half, make the playoffs and then use their superior–and now healthy–talent to overwhelm teams used to their old transition defense (or more appropriately, lack-thereof), and not this stringent one led by a suddenly altruistic Kobe Bryant? God, who knows, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch, and there’s no one in the NBA that needs to win as much as Kobe Bryant. So until the Lakers are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, or someone beats them four times out of seven in the spring, the Übermensch will always be number 24 on the Lakers (sorry ‘Bron). Take that for what you will.
Like Boston and their injured point, the Bulls’ fortunes hang on their point guard play, which means looking ahead to the return of Derrick Rose on some cold, Chicago night in February. He’ll be introduced to a frenzied crowd at the United Center (they wouldn’t unveil him on the road), and he’ll pop in for a few minutes to run the Chicago offense. An offense, it should be noted, that’s currently stuck in the stagnant lower third of the NBA (21st in the league in points per possession via NBA.com). Their defense, under their taskmaster coach, Tom Thibodeau, is still 3rd in the league in points allowed per possession, but they’ll need to find more ways to score if they’re going to be included among the top flight contenders.
Rose’s return from an ACL tear is the primary reason they’re even in this piece. His implementation into the NBA’s title contending discussion must appear to oddsmakers as a deus ex machina for Chicago’s offensive woes. But team him with the ferocious defense of Thibodeau, the rebounding and shot blocking of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, and the rejuvenation of a Carlos Boozer long since thought dead after arriving from Utah, gives Chicago a very real chance in a middle-heavy Eastern Conference where there’s Miami and everybody else. The Bulls will only go as far their still-recovering point guard takes them, but that’s not such a bad spot to be in when you think about Rose’s MVP 2011 season.
Unfortunately, since their title hopes are pinned to a player that hasn’t seen NBA action in more than 6 months, they can afford to slow his return, and there are lowered expectations when he does come out in a uniform. The need will return next year when they’ll be title contenders from the get go as long as Rose returns to his prior form and they continue to play defense at a superior level. There are others who think even a healthy Rose won’t be enough to get them over the Heat hump. But for now, they don’t have an overarching need to win, just a want that can be deflected by the very real limitations of their still injured point guard.
The new ownership group in Memphis, led by 34 year-old Robert Pera, seems to be more concerned with cutting costs than with fielding a championship-worthy team. Right now, after a hot start, the Grizzlies are 4th in a loaded Western Conference, with the Lakers licking their chops from back in the 10 spot plus a surprising Golden State team and a Denver team that’s survived an incredibly tough early season schedule to remain in the Western Conference mix with smooth, high altitude sailing in the season’s second half.
Rudy Gay is gone, and in exchange they got an improving Ed Davis, Tayshaun Prince’s angled jumper and defense that’s three years past its prime. Oh and Austin Daye, who has knocked down some 3-pointers this season. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies still don’t have a dominant wing scorer they need. True, Rudy never made “the jump” that NBA followers like to refer to without substantiation, but he was a solid, unselfish player, who provided the Grizzlies with some much-needed singular ability to create offense. Mike Conley Jr. can’t facilitate the offense on his own, and for all the genius of Z-Bo and Gasol on the block—or in the case of Marc, at the elbow—they’re still front court players who can’t initiate the offense, or create their own shots at a very efficient clip. Then again neither could Rudy for most of this year.
The Grizzlies–particularly Randolph–want to win and win again, and possibly get back to where they were in their surprising 2011 playoff run through San Antonio, but do they need to? What’s driving them? Anger about last year’s shameful loss to the Clippers after squandering that 27 point fourth quarter buffer in the opening game of their series last spring? What about their loss to the Thunder in game 7 of the aforementioned Western Conference semifinals in 2011. They’ve been one of the top defensive teams in the league for the last three years, but now Gay is gone and Tony Allen might follow this summer if the Memphis hierarchy doesn’t think his on the ball defense is worth the money.
What will they have left except two franchise front court players that Dick Bavetta could beat in a foot race and a lonely Mike Conley Jr. in the backcourt? They need to win this year just to stave off the inevitable regression back to mediocrity—or worse—the type of patterned losing they experienced right after moving out of Vancouver. They need it enough, but they don’t have the personnel; they’re like the Bulls, but they play in a tougher conference, and Mike Conley, unfortunately, isn’t Derrick Rose.
New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony needs to be taken seriously as an MVP candidate this season. The Knicks need to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the strike-shortened 1999 season. But do they need a title? No. Sure, it’s been almost 40 years since they were true title contenders, and they play in a venue and a city where excellence isn’t just exalted, but expected, but there still isn’t a need. If the Knicks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, only to fall to the Miami Heat in 5 or 6 games, that would be a big season for most Knicks fans.
And if Knicks fans are honest with themselves, that’s the highest ceiling for this team. It’s still a step they need to take before they can reach the need for a title like some other teams have already found. Once you’ve become a Conference Title contender, then you can find the need for a title birth within reach. Until then, enjoy the Carmelo Anthony show and remember that they’ll still need an incredible few weeks to even reach the Conference Finals. It can be done, and the need to get there is strong enough that it’s a distinct possibility—also their improving defense and record qualifies them–but once they’ve advanced past the Conference Semifinals, that’s when the need to turns to a wish, and that’s not going to be enough if LeBron and Co. are plugged in.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul almost always looks angry on the court. His countenance carries a perpetual scowl, and he’s always growling at teammates, opponents and referees alike. This tends to evoke the warrior mentality we worship at the altar of as sports fans, and his leadership cannot be questioned, nor can his dribble penetration skills, court awareness, passing ability, and mid-range jump shot. With four minutes left in a tight game, there are very few you’d rather have on your team, but can LA’s first half winning continue? Can they finish within the top three spots in a dominant Western Conference where 60 wins might still relegate you to a second round series on the road? And what of Paul’s need to win and win now? Perhaps most importantly after the last week of losing, will Paul be healthy?
Paul seems thirsty for a title, but he’s always seemed that way with his intense play and micromanagement of this young Clippers team. DeAndre Jordan is great at catching a lob, but does he need to win so much he’s taking 500 free throws before and after every practice? What about Blake? He’s got all the cute commercials, but does he have an outside shot that can keep defenses from packing the lane when he does one of his herky-jerky spin moves? Will the Clippers be able to hide Jamal Crawford on defense in the playoffs? How much does Crawford’a need to win matter over the individual offensive game he thrives on?
Can Lamar Odom block out the distractions of his domestic life and become the interior player the Clippers need him to be? Will Caron Butler ever return to his Dallas form and stop bitching about playing time? Will Chauncey Billups ever return from foot tendinitis? Can Ronny Turiaf or Ryan Hollins handle the Marc Gasol’s, Tim Duncan’s and Dwight Howard’s of the world when DeAndre Jordan inevitably gets into foul trouble and Odom’s flinty demeanor isn’t up for it ? Will Matt Barnes ever just say “Nah, I don’t need that tattoo.” There are a lot of unanswered questions for this Clippers team, but the primary one appears to be: does Chris Paul need to win so badly it trumps all the other questions posed? Probably not, but it’ll be fun to watch him try.
San Antonio Spurs
The Mighty Borg is getting old, but Tim Duncan just made another all-star team, and even though he’d rather spend all-star weekend swimming in St. Croix, or fixing a hot rod from the 1950′s, he’ll be in Houston. The question remains: does Duncan need to win another title? He’s already got four on his resume, and he’s not the type of guy—like Kobe—who gives a crap about comparing himself to the best of all time (at least overtly). It’s been a decade since Duncan was unquestionably the best player in the game, and Popovich can’t count on his body to hold up. But the need might be there again.
Last year’s last four games against Oklahoma City after winning 20 in a row to end the regular season and start the playoffs, have to sting for Duncan and coach Popovich. The latter of which has as much of a right to be defined by need as any player on these teams; that’s just how important to the Spurs Popovich has always been. But can Tony and Manu and Pop and Duncan and their cadre of role players (big ups to Tiago Splitter for becoming Duncan’s back court mate by continuing his efficient play from last year) find it within themselves to buckle down and thwart the best in the West? Yes, they’ve got the need, it’s practically ingrained in the franchise, and with no titles since 2007′s laughable contest against Cleveland and LeBron, they’re due to make another run. Except…
Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s really no accounting for what the Harden to Houston deal has done to Russell Westbrook (who seems to need to find the rim more than any player in history), but more importantly is how it’s inflamed Durant’s competitive juices. Everyone had written OKC off when their 6th man of the year started dropping silly scoring games to start the season with Houston, but after a so-so beginning, the Thunder buckled down, and now they’ve got the second best record in the league (San Antonio has the best record in the league as of this writing) and Durant has looked absolutely indomitable in Harden’s absence. In a way, Harden’s departure sharpened the needs of OKC’s two best players and forced Serge Ibaka to take on a bigger role for their offense.
It’s helped Kevin Martin to stay healthy and defend at a passable level. It’s done little to thwart coach Scott Brooks’ stubborn reliance on anachronistic lineups (seriously, stop starting Kendrick if you’re not going against Dwight), but for everyone else on this young Thunder team it’s become a rallying cry for this season. The thinking being: we can, and will, overcome the loss of Harden, and we’ll again be in a position to win it all next June. Whether the need has risen enough to get through either LA team, Memphis’ suffocating defense (that feeds off of Westbrook’s hyper effusions of turnovers), and San Antonio’s workmanlike will, remains to be seen, but through the season’s first half, Durant, Westbrook and their perfectly tailored ensemble look up to the challenge.
They’re currently ranked first in the league in points per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession and first in net rating combining the two (via NBA.com). Also, in case people forgot, they were the losers in last year’s NBA Finals, and that’s a sting that either makes or breaks a team. Judging from Durant’s increased playmaking and his scowl that has come (unfortunately) to define the upper echelons of NBA superstars, this OKC team has the player and the team with enough of a need to reach a new apogee as a franchise. Whether that happens this year or next is largely up to the next and last team covered, the defending champion Miami Heat.
There are few things as hard as repeating as NBA champions. The last team to do it was Kobe’s Lakers team in 2009 and 2010, which was only a couple of years ago, but those Lakers teams were helmed by a pissed off Kobe Bryant who had toiled in mediocrity before Pau came to town, and Kobe is as close to the G.O.A.T as any current iteration of NBA star, so it’s unfair to use his example. That being said, LeBron seems to have progressed to an even higher plane of basketball existence in the last 10 months, winning a title this summer and a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics as the best player on the best teams in the world. But what evidence do we have there’s still a need to win a title?
For that, we have to include Bosh and Wade, especially Wade, who has–of late–shown that he’s got some spring in his game back. Wade has a little Kobe in him. You can see it when he makes borderline cheap fouls, and is usually dismissive of opponents with his casual demeanor on game days. Bosh is about as good as you’re gonna find in a big man who can spread the floor with his shooting and allow the Heat to go small.
But what’s the need? When it comes down to the helter-skelter defensive fourth quarters that define the best playoff series’, you need some extra motivation, and for the Heat it’s a race against history; the needhas to be to dominate and show everyone they’re not simply a one and done title team; they’re a title regime in the making. Whether they’ve got that need is still up in the air, as they continue to give up three-pointers after missing a rotation, or another rebound because they failed to box out. If they can clear up the rebounding discrepancy and challenge perimeter opponents with their athletic stars hounding of the ball and forcing turnovers for easy buckets, we’re gonna have to start talking dynasty.
But that’s a bigger if than many believed to begin the season. The Heat are first in the East, and the scariest thing for opponents should be the realization that they haven’t really seen the best, most consistent basketball the Heat has shown they can play. It’s up to Miami whether we ever see that team again, but I wouldn’t bet against them this spring. When you’ve got the best player in the world, you’re gonna get the benefit of the doubt. Whether LeBron’s need to be considered among some of the greatest of all time is just as strong as it was proving his doubters wrong last year is unknowable, but so far so good.
Now I need to stop adding words to this.