Once or twice before, I’ve mentioned my yet-to-be-published (or even started) Choose Your Own Adventure, NBA-style doorstop of a book based on trades or signings that didn’t quite happen (Chris Paul to Lakers is and will continue to be the Mount Everest of What-Ifs based on circumstance alone). Well, today is the first extension of that concept; what I’ll refer to as an Alternative Chapter. It’s nothing more than me channeling my imagination to come up with a (somewhat plausible) scenario for a team or player that strays away from reality. Today’s Alternative Chapter features the pride of Huntington, West Virginia, O.J. Mayo.
Mayo’s only in his fourth season in the NBA, but it feels like we’re all old friends because his name has been plastered across prep headlines since he was named to the all-state first-team in Kentucky … as an eighth grader.
At this point, I’ll stop and posit a theory about O.J. Mayo. Scouts, high school beat writers, opponents, fans and junkies (of the hoop variety) accelerated the Mayo hype-wagon in part (large, small, medium part?) because of his name. O.J. Mayo is not a name we easily forget. Oh-jay-may-oh (or you could say it like this). Say it enough and it will stick to your mind like bugs splattered across your windshield. Had he been named Jeff Ridges, the likelihood of his rapid rise through the prep rankings may have taken a longer, more traditional and healthy route. Instead, Mayo’s been ingrained in the basketball zeitgeist since 2002. Great exposure brings great expectations and that’s where the reality of Mayo has fallen short. This whole concept is applicable beyond the basketball court and should likely be addressed by Malcolm Gladwell if someone else hasn’t cracked the code already.
Onto the Alternative Chapter …
Every few weeks, O.J. Mayo’s name is mentioned in trade rumors … to the Bulls, to the Pacers, to the Nets. There’s the consoling, “Well someone wants me,” but after multiple failed trades, even a basketball vagabond like Mayo wonders, “Am I really wanted … by anyone?” These doubts are human (and potentially canine), but they make any of us feel unwanted and unloved. And since we the fans have been reading about the great O.J. Mayo for years already, maybe we’re tired of his undersized two-guardness, his catchy name, the constant trade rumors and the confusion of his game not living up to the hype (“I thought he was supposed to be better?”). Maybe we don’t want him either.
Fast forward to May 2012 when the sixth seed Grizzlies are bounced in game six against the Lakers in Memphis. After suffering a sprained ankle in game five, Tony Allen is forced to sit out the next game which means Mayo draws the start and gets the luxury of guarding Kobe Bryant. Between games five and six, reporters bait Mayo into a headline-making comment and he sadly takes the hook; cracking a joke about the time he “locked Kobe up” in a game of one-on-one. Not that Kobe needed more motivation for an elimination game, but he attacks Mayo inside and out, abusing the smaller guard without mercy. After Bryant scores 16 in the first quarter, Mayo’s confidence is shaken and it shows on offense where his performance brings up Starksian memories from the early 90s—just another small shooting guard lining up the sights for a soon-to-be-Hall of Famer. He shoots 1-14 from the field. His coach, Lionel Hollins ends his misery with two minutes left in the third quarter and benches Mayo in favor of the rangy Quincy Pondexter. Mayo exits to a cold chorus of boos from the hometown fans; his last time in a Grizzlies jersey.
The season over, a team option on his fifth year, Mayo gets out of Memphis as soon as he’s able. Bags packed, he ventures to the Caribbean for a couple weeks of quiet, uninterrupted reflection. His beard grows unkempt, his hair ‘fros out, unbrushed. Despite the images of a black Castaway, his mind is clear and upon return stateside, he meets with his agent Rob Pelinka. While the Grizzlies have rejected the team option, Pelinka excitedly rattles off teams that have contacted him regarding his client’s services. The refreshed Mayo cuts him off. He’s done, he says. Tired of the games and politics. Tired of the unfair expectations (“Don’t they know Kobe’s 6’7” … at least 6’7”!?!?”). He demands Pelinka look into Spanish opportunities (“I’ve already talked to Marc (Gasol) about it.”).
The first hint that Spain offered refuge
And that’s how O.J. Mayo came to join FCB Regal (aka, FC Barcelona) of the Spanish top division. He signed for one year to “get your confidence back” as Pelinka put it. Mayo didn’t disagree. He arrived in September and played for about a third of the money he would’ve made in the NBA. Sadly, Euro legend Pete Mickeal retired due to a degenerative knee condition, but close one man’s window and another man often hurls a basketball through it, then climbs in and that’s what Mayo did.
Like so many expats before him, Mayo was revived by a new culture and new people. The passion of the fans brought back nostalgia for the high school crowds he played to nearly a decade before and his game thrived. In his first season alone, Barcelona won the rare treble: the domestic Copa del Rey, the ACB Championship and the Euro League title. This wasn’t any indictment of the quality of Spanish league basketball; just the realization of O.J. Mayo’s potential.
The record books and tales of Mayo’s long stay in the Spanish league are much too long for the meager space allotted here. Just know that the acceptance and sense of inclusion that was so hard to come by in the Association was made readily available by his teammates and fans in Barcelona.
A rainy Sunday in Seattle made it easy for me to do what I was going to do anyway: Sit on my couch and watch basketball. It was an alpha and omega situation in Chicago and Oklahoma City. OKC ended the blue collar fairytale from Memphis while the Bulls (rolling ten-deep) owned the boards and the opening game in Chicago.
Between the two games, there were three players from the All-NBA first team, two from the second team and one from the third. MVPs, global icons, scoring champs—Sunday had all of the above. Kevin Durant, Scotty Brooks and Russell Westbrook finally achieved offensive continuity. The result left everyone smiling and shaking hands: Durant scored 39 points on 25 shots while Russell tamed his inner rebel and tossed up an effortless triple double. 33% shooting is a lot easier to swallow when you’re only putting up twelve shots in a game compared to the 24 shots per game Russell took in OKC’s playoff losses. Up north, Derrick Rose led the Bulls like he’s done all year. The bigs did the dirty work on the offensive glass, but Rose extended Thibodeau’s game plan from the white board to the court.
I went with “We Are Not the Same” as the title because I was thinking about that scene in Falling Down when Michael Douglas is caught up with the neo-Nazi in the army surplus store who eventually tries to relate to Douglas’s character with the classic creepy “You and me, we’re the same” line. Some part of Westbrook is feeling that when he sees Rose play and get the national recognition. He identifies with Rose and based on age (born forty days apart), build (both 6’3”, both roughly 190lbs), athleticism, stats, or abilities, it’s easy to see why. Of course, Michael Douglas’s character ends up creating a clear distance between himself and the neo-Nazi and responds with the stern “We are not the same.” Just because Douglas’s character was in the midst of a mental breakdown, it didn’t include any change in his core values or persona.
So it goes with Russell and Rose—they are not the same. I wrote that Russell’s potential as an NBA point guard might be something akin to Rose’s 2011 MVP season. But there’s the unsettled darkness behind Russell’s eyes—he picked up three techs on unexpected outbursts in this series. If memory serves, the outbursts were all directed at the opposition instead of the refs. Rose’s temperament is something different. I’ve seen him stand up for his teammates or himself and mix it up a bit, but with more Ricky than Doughboy in him.
The variance in temperament coupled with Rose’s clear definition in Chicago versus Westbrook’s splitting identities in Oklahoma is where the schism occurs. I’m revisiting some of the topics from my post last week, but I’m trying to understand this as much as the next NBA fan. Rose and the occasionally offensively-challenged Bulls are comfortable with their roles and portray classic basketball archetypes; from the wild child agitator in Noah to the white boy with a sweet jumper in Korver and it all comes together perfectly. Today, OKC found harmony and it was in large part because Russell channeled his furious energies into rebounding the ball and knocking the defense off balance with his drives and passing. It helped that his teammates shot well from the perimeter and Durant was able to go backdoor for a couple of easy buckets, but pass first Russell saw the openings with Chris Paul vision. I read something years ago where a writer was talking about Christian Laettner and Michael Jordan and said the worst thing Laettner ever did was prove to MJ that he was capable of being a player (happened when Laettner was playing with the 92 Dream Team). After that, MJ knew what he could do and was understandably disappointed in Laettner’s lack of ability when they played together in Washington years later. Performances like the one Russell put up on Sunday are the reasons that his forays into 12-30 madness are so frustrating. We know what he’s capable of and it’s somewhere between Oscar Robertson and Derrick Rose—that’s a hell of a place to be.
The only logical place for us to unearth the Russell/Rose secret is the NBA Finals. Playing against his doppelganger on the biggest stage in the basketball world would be the best finals point guard matchup since Magic vs. Isiah (did they even guard each other?). In between now and then, we’ve got anywhere from four to seven more nights of the Russell variety show. And if the current unpredictability continues, I’ll have to rename this blog to something like Between Laughter and Tears, starring Russell Westbrook.
The title of this post is about the wonderful collective Lionel Hollins has created in Memphis. But it’s not just about Memphis because, more than ever, I’m unable to stay away from the cyclonic Russell Westbrook and, less intriguingly, the OKC Thunder.
Even in defeat, the Grizzlies put on a presentation to make basketball purists smile. Even though Zbo and Marc Gasol combined for nearly 50% of Memphis’s total 123 points, the team was selflessly expressive. For their stats, effort and abilities, the Memphis bigs get the their names in lights, but Shane Battier’s harassing defense, Mike Conley’s huge three to send the game into OT and Greivis Vasquez’s shot-put style deep three to put the game into a third OT proved anyone in a Grizz uniform (Haddadi?) can carry the flame of the moment. How a cast of NBA orphans that includes Zbo, Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, Sam Young, Mike Conley, etc. arrived at this style and accepted it is a feel-good story, NBA style.
Whether it was osmosis or never-ending note taking, recalling coaching strategies and tactics from memory or utilizing a network of NBA champion coaches, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins learned a few things from his time in the NBA: How to lead and coach. In one of the three overtimes, TNT cut away to the Grizzlies bench where Hollins was sitting quietly, nodding in approval while Shane Battier rattled off motivational encouragements worthy of Krzyzewski. In the world of basketball idealism, Coach K and Dr. Jack nodded along with Hollins—game recognize. That everyone else was buying in to Battier’s earnest words evidenced the cult of trust Hollins has created in a short time in Memphis.
Tracing Hollins’s basketball roots through the years, you can see the current Grizzlies predecessors in Dr. Jack Ramsay’s Blazer squads and it’s not a stretch to believe Hollins learned a few things from Chuck Daly in the few months he played for Daly in Detroit. Daly’s and Ramsay’s squads were inclusive, moving the ball and riding hot hands from night to night. Everyone contributed and was expected to. Coupling Hollins’s lineage with his up-front communication style (he was at the helm when Memphis let Iverson know he wouldn’t be treated different from any other player) and you have a coach who’s going to give everyone a chance (Haddadi, again) and not take any guff from his players.
The template for Marc G?
The cult of trust instills guys like Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez with the confidence needed to bang home clutch threes when everyone’s expecting them to wilt in the bright, shining, face of the basketball-prince, Kevin Durant. It creates opportunities for Tony Allen to be reborn and OJ Mayo and Shane Battier to be welcomed back home not just with open arms, but with open roles on a winning basketball team.
Beyond all the good times in Memphis, down at the seedy end of the court, something strange and fun continues to happen: the all-to-public maturation of the relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Whether it’s been mandated by Sam Presti up on high or if it’s just natural for Kevin Durant and Scott Brooks to do so, there’s an element of protectionism that surrounds Russell Westbrook. When Russell-related questions pop up in Durant’s interviews, he takes the high road and talks about his point guard warm, earthy tones. Keep saying the right things, Kevin, but we saw you getting exasperated the last two games. In the post-game presser, Scotty Brooks took the same sweet route when talking about Russell. Everything was peachy and kind and why not? The guy put up 40 including several on drives that could maybe be duplicated by Derrick Rose or Monta Ellis. And, most importantly for the Oklahomans, they left town with a series-equalizing victory.
Not everyone’s sucking lollipops and eating cotton candy though. How can they be when their point guard’s field goal attempts per game jump up almost 30% from the regular season to the post season? And how about his field goal percentage dropping from 44% to 40%? The same trends show up in his advanced stats. Russell’s Edge continues to be a twisted riddle. It seems appropriate and logical to compare him to Derrick Rose, but the bolder Russell becomes, the more I see him riding a fine, narrow, dangerous edge—Evel Knievel style. I don’t mean that just to add humor to his tales, but because the comparison is accurate and legitimate. Russell’s aware of the dangers of his freelancing (alienating Durant and/or putting OKC in a position to get knocked out of the playoffs), but it doesn’t slow down his improvisational drives or macho pull-up jumpers. The combination of ultra-confidence and the need to prove he can be Durant has crash and burn written all over it. Yet young Russell continues down that same path with fury and venom (anyone else notice that road rage element to his game?).
Lost in the ongoing Westbrook-Durant drama are the Oaklean efforts of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Every play in the paint and rebound up for grabs is being contested by desperate players on both sides. These small efforts on every play are making a good series great. I can’t not mention the bearded playmaking genius of James Harden. What secrets does his beard hold? I haven’t been this surprised about a player’s playmaking abilities since JR Smith diced up the Lakers in a losing series in 2009.
In the sense that styles make fights, basketball isn’t any different from boxing. OKC and Memphis are a perfect matchup and proved it on Monday night. The feel-good-Grizzlies with their labor party lineup (Comrade Gasol?) aren’t walking the path of righteousness any more than OKC with Westbrook trying to tip the superstar seesaw closer to his side. The contrasting styles and storylines, hungry fan bases and 63-minute instant classics are encompassing a wide range of this league’s great potential. Who knew we’d reach this potential somewhere between Oklahoma City and Memphis?