One of my closer friends is a musical conductor and through osmosis, I’ve learned a teeny bit about musicology. He once lent me composer/conductor Pierre Boulez’s “Orientations: Collected Writings” when we were stranded on a rainy beach in West Africa, both completely out of reading material (I think he ended up with Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper.”).
Why is this relevant? For reasons ClipperBlog reader Krai Charuwatsuntorn beautifully laid out after the Clippers’ loss to San Antonio Saturday night. Responding to my conclusion, “The Clippers are a team in transition, engaged in a dialectic between the more formal offense of Dunleavy and the run-and-gun style professed by Hughes,” Charuwatsuntorn responded:
It reminds me of something Stravinsky wrote in the Poetics of Music; something to the effect that it is only through a formal system that true creativity can be unleashed. If you have the illusion of freedom in every direction, where every choice is the same as any other, then you don’t really have any freedom at all, and creativity withers.
I asked Charuwatsuntorn if he’d like to expand on this tension between structure and freedom, and he kindly composed this for ClipperBlog:
With Mike Dunleavy stepping down as head coach and his long time assistant Kim Hughes taking over the reins, the Clippers find themselves in an interesting situation. When a team or any organization is underperforming, there tends to be a natural knee jerk reaction toward the opposite direction when a new regime assumes power. For the most part, disciplinarian coaches will usually be replaced by “player-coaches” and vice versa. Players will generally embrace the new discipline/freedom and then play with a renewed sense of purpose for a little while. The transfer of power from Dunleavy to Hughes is a bit different though. Neither men are known to be players’ friends or a strict disciplinarian in a classical sense, and Hughes has been a Dunleavy assistant and protégé for many years. Where they seem to part ways is in coaching philosophy; that age old divide between a tightly controlled, structured offense, and a free flowing running game that allows players more freedom to create their own shots. But are the two extremes really polar opposites? Or is that tension between a well structured offense and maximizing a player’s intuition a necessary ingredient for good basketball teams?
Perhaps more so than any other sport, basketball exemplifies this creative tension between structure and intuition in its purest form. The free flowing rhythm of the game, the spacing of the floor, and the ability of great players to see and anticipate things a split second before they happen, testify to this raw display of creativity within tightly controlled parameters. If there is a team that the Dunleavy’s Clippers aspired to, or most closely resembled in the NBA; it’s the San Antonio Spurs. Both teams are predicated on a dominant big man posting up and a well-structured half court offense that plays inside-out. But there is one crucial difference. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have grown and expanded their game within the constraints of Gregg Popovich’s system, and Pop, himself, has loosened up the offense just enough to maximize the talents of his two wild cards. The growing pains of Tony Parker and, to a lesser extent, Ginobili to fit into Popovich’s system prior to their championship run is well documented. In their early years together, Pop can be seen pacing the sidelines in utter frustration when Parker freelanced and made questionable decisions on the floor. The maturation of Parker; the willingness to rein in his intuition and allow it to flow within the structure of Pop’s offensive sets, and the maniacal intensity of Ginobili to exert his will upon the game in crunch time, which transcended Pop’s set plays, elevated the Spurs from an efficient, well-executed, if predictable team, into a dynamic and dominant team of the last decade.
Whether the Clippers currently have players of such caliber is an important question. The closest Dunleavy’s squad ever came to replicating the Spurs was the magical Brand-Cassell year in 2006, when Elton had his best year as a pro and Cassell had the confidence and the uncanny ability to know when to freelance and when to tightly execute Dunleavy’s offensive plays. Sam’s ability to manage the flow of the game, his confidence to step up and hit a crucial shot outside the system, or see a sliver of passing lane when offensive spacing is scrambled, allowed the team to pull out victories in games they would have otherwise lost in previous years. It remains to be seen if the Baron Davis led Clippers will succeed in balancing their newly professed dedication to the running game upon the remnants of Dunleavy’s half court sets. Truth be told, the team seems to have found the right balance of half court structure and opportunistic fast break points during their most effective stretches this season, with the Baron and Dunleavy relationship seemingly stronger than last year’s disastrous campaign…at least until the most recent road trip. With Dunleavy resignation and Kim Hughes ascension, the direction of the team is clearly now in Baron’s hands. And perhaps Baron believes, all along, that his skills are best utilized in the open court, where his intuition is allowed to roam unfettered. He would not be the first to resent sublimating his considerable skills to the restraints of a structured system.
Most of our creative disciplines also struggle with this tension between system and intuition. But young musicians, artists, designers, engineers, and architects often learn very early on that the allure of absolute freedom can paralyze your creativity and diminishes your work instead of empowering it. On the contrary, it is when you are pressed by multiple constraints, that you are forced to go deeper within yourself to find a creative solution; one that is free of preconceptions and is clear and concise in its expression. Likewise, a good chess player or boxer will tell you that it is often when their situation is most dire; when a formidable opponent has pushed them to the brink, that they find something unexpected and pure within themselves, that often define their most memorable win or loss, and ultimately define their sense of self. It is only then, at that crucial moment, that the game becomes more than a chess match, a boxing match, or a basketball game. And a performance that was borne out of constraints; of endless repetition in the gym, of endless video study and strategy sessions, will have transcended all those limitations into something deeper and more enduring. It is for these rare moments that we watch hundreds of hours to catch a glimpse of. Sadly, our Clippers have not provided many such moments over the years. One can only hope that Kim Hughes and Baron Davis will be capable of such performances one day…before their clock runs out.