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I sat down today intent on writing about the question on most of our lips as we watch the Magic these days: Which is the team we’re going to get? Is it the Heat-beaters with an attacking point guard and a dominant center and prolific role players, or is it the lethargic-looking, immature team that lost to the Bulls? I was going to delve in and explore why we can’t expect a consistent product, or even, it seems, a consistent effort. But then I was reading about HeatLockerRoomCryGate, and I saw that the Celtics were the darling of one of the panels at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend, and I read something about how the Lakers have regained their footing or swagger or something in beating the Spurs. And then I thought about the good Magic or the bad Magic question again. And then I thought: perhaps these things are related.
See, the Magic have fallen into that category of a successful team that has failed its own narrative. That is, we’re talking about a team that stands, as of this writing, at a robust 41-24, on pace to win fifty-plus games and a favorable matchup in the first round of the playoffs, while the tone of commentary around the team remains somewhat negative. You get the sense, listening to the overall national opinion of the team, that the Magic have somehow blown it, have missed their window and will now languish, Hawks-like, in that undesirable middling ground of no-lottery purgatory. And maybe this will happen. I don’t want to be seen as blindly touting the team’s prospects–my first post here at MBN was about the problems that might be an issue in Dwight’s free agency–but I have to believe that the Magic are not, generally speaking, being properly evaluated given the success that they’re having.
This is where the Heat-cryer story, or the Celtics fawning, or the Lakers-got-their-groove-back thinking comes in. This season, more than the past couple that I can remember, has been all about how the realities have played out against the anticipated narratives. Teams aren’t being judged as heavily on basketball as they are the extent to which their basketball fits the stories that have been constructed around them. Talking about a Lakers resurgence is pretty ridiculous–they’re 46-19 and loaded with veterans, directed by a coach who has won the NBA championship more often than he has not in his 20 years. But this was to be the year that Kobe’s legs were healthier and the Lakers’ size dominated the entire league and Jackson’s fourth three-peat would be like Sherman’s March. When we remembered that Kobe has as many games on his legs as any star his age ever has, or that the franchise center is constantly injured, well, then, it was time to brand this season a failure.
The same thing happened with the Heat. Partially they’re responsible for it, throwing a parade for their stars before a game during the season ever was played, but the coverage of their season has been positively bipolar. At the beginning of the season, they were the first good team to ever go 9-7, letting down their fans and their mothers and the Nobel Prize for Basketball Selection Committee. Then they won ten million straight games, and the world watched as Dwyane Wade made airplane arms after throwing a no-look pass to LeBron, who was flying. Now the Heat have lost five straight games, and reporters have reason to believe that a grown man might have cried due to frustration in achieving his goals. It can be tough to remember that the Heat are 43-21. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play for them. It’s like, maybe Microsoft didn’t sell so hot this year, but I think there will still be Christmas at the Gates household.
I don’t know if this is a new thing, this trend of teams being evaluated more by comparison to their own narratives than by examining their on-court product. I suspect that a large reason I have noticed it is that I’m a year older as a basketball viewer, at an age where I can start to remember a few seasons but not at an age where I’ve been really paying attention for all that long. I’m sure the sports media has long fabricated stories which then became the measuring stick for players and teams. But. Follow me here. This is the year following The Decision, the year of superstar movement, the year in which we are debating whether Kobe belongs where on Olympus. This is a year in which an ever-growing community of intelligent basketball watchers has taken control of an ever-growing and ever more diffuse TwitterBlogiverse. In short, there are not only a lot of people talking a lot of hoops in a lot of places, but also a lot of self-conscious storylines being brought to bear on the league. It has become easier than ever before to assign a narrative to a season and then abandon that narrative in favor of a new one. Eventually, narratives begin referencing themselves, and the perception of success or failure becomes nearly totally divorced from reality. To use a non-Heat or Lakers example, examine how the Thunder are relatively under the rader, and how Kevin Durant has disappeared as MVP candidate despite being the league’s scoring leader on a roster with one other combined All-Star appearance on it. It’s not that KD got bad all of a sudden, or that the Thunder don’t scare just about every team in the West, but they are a disappointment relative to the preseason expectations that they would win sixty games and Durant would score forty points a game. Never mind that no team or player in their position had ever done that, they have failed their narrative.
Which brings me back to the Magic. I see a lot to scratch my head about. Why can’t Jameer Nelson always dive through the lane like a crazed pelican goes after fish? How is Dwight still surprised by players fouling him unfairly hard? I mean, there are questions, and a lot of them, about why this team can’t seem to consistently replicate its high points. But really, I see mostly a team that has so far committed only the sin of not living up to its own story. The story, of course, that its own play engendered.
I come back to Phil Jackson, and his Lakers. It strikes me that more than any other coach–although Doc Rivers and Pop are up there–Phil understands that success is about the story as much as the play. No other coach goes so out of his way to cultivate a certain dialogue around his team or the opposition. In fact, just the other day, he made waves by taking shots at the crying Heat player, saying that the NBA stands for “No Boys Allowed.” It doesn’t matter that we all know Phil Jackson to be more comfortable with emotion and psychology than just about any other coach, and it doesn’t matter that he was half-kidding. The quote got picked up as yet another dig at the Heat, and was more demonstrative of the difference between the two teams than any I have seen on the court so far. Jackson understands what it is to have your sea legs, what it is to ride out the dips and crests of a season. He also understands how much pressure he can apply to the opposition by exploiting those dips and crests. I’ll bet that in the Lakers locker room, his players are insulated against the fickle rewriting of their season’s story, and his continued success demonstrates how crucial that is. So the next time I sit down to write the epitaph for the Good Magic or the Bad Magic, I’ll try and channel the Zen Master and resist the urge for just a little while, just long enough to get a look at the whole picture.