Our expectations create our perceptions. A cheeseburger off the drive-thru value meal might hit the spot, but if you order a $14 burger at an expensive steak house and the waiter serves you a Big Mac, you would complain to the manager.
For 13 million dollars a year, fans expect everything. That’s reasonable. Guys who are paid at an elite level are expected to combine their (assumed) elite talent with elite work habits. Effort, consistency, and a good attitude (or, at least, the perception of all three) are base line expectations.
Since the trade with Cleveland was announced yesterday morning, I’ve read a lot of obituaries of Baron Davis’ time with the Clippers, ranging from mostly negative to downright vituperative. He’s been killed in opinion columns and message boards, called “lazy” and “moody,” an “indiscriminate chucker,” and a “coach killer.” At times, he was all of these things.
But honestly, the adjective I would use after watching Baron play for two and a half seasons is “limited.” As that heavyset fellow behind the podium in those beer commercials says, he was who we thought he was: a player prone to both injury and indifference, an extraordinary facilitator who often preferred scoring, an occasionally spectacular player who rose to big occasions, but – all too often – only to big occasions. That was the player Donald Sterling and MDSr should have seen that he was at UCLA, in New Orleans, and in Golden State.
I won’t try to defend the indefensible. In two and a half seasons in Los Angeles, Baron played about a season’s worth of good basketball. He helped Mike Dunleavy lose his job, and probably guaranteed that Kim Hughes will have more trouble finding his next one. He brazenly reported to camp out of shape this season, and his subsequent knee injury was a contributing factor to the 1-13 start that essentially ended the season before Thanksgiving.
But Baron challenged me as a fan, made me aware of the different ways I judge athletes and “people.” As a person, I found myself feeling sympathetic to a lot of Baron’s challenges. Who hasn’t taken a job and immediately realized it might not be a good fit? Who hasn’t had a boss who was bull-headed, over-critical, reflexively joyless, seemingly determined to thwart any attempt at creativity or personality? Or felt sour after a friend’s betrayal? Or responded to criticism with petulance rather than a renewed commitment to accountability? Been overwhelmed by the pressure to impress at home?
Some athletes go out and perform regardless of circumstance. Some don’t. Some can’t.
Baron frustrated us because was human, and his responses to tough situations often seemed flawed, self-pitying, or selfish. For 13 million dollars a year, being human is something we expect athletes to forgo, or at least delay until they’ve retired to “spend more time with the family.” I’ve often heard sports-talk radio hosts say “You never hear a peep about Player X off the court,” when approvingly describing this or that star’s complete commitment to the sport. The less we know about an athlete “as a person,” the easier is becomes to conflate his in-game performances and the person behind the athlete.
What do you know about Kevin Durant? Or Eric Gordon for that matter? Each seems like a pretty good guy. Both are really, really good at scoring a basketball. We like to say that so-and-so is a good guy or a great teammate, but really we don’t want these guys to be multi-dimensional. Theoretically, I’m sure plenty of Clipper fans admired Baron’s trips to Africa or his interests in documentary film … right up to the first moment that Baron failed on the court. Then, his outside interests became distractions. I enjoyed the three-dimensionality that made Baron unusual in professional sports, even as I recognized that those attributes were unusual because they don’t usually coincide with winning. Baron liked to talk to reporters about his trip to Rwanda or the best restaurants he had discovered in San Francisco; Kevin Durant talks about working on his free throws.
Plenty has been written about Baron’s role as Blake Griffin’s alley-oop tossing “muse,” but impossibly accurate lobs to the rim were only one of the things Baron did extremely well. He put English on full court bounce passes that would have impressed Minnesota Fats (yes, that’s a billiards reference). He has one of the best handles in the league. He was great at getting Chris Kaman and Blake Griffin the ball on the block, often moving back and forth at the top of the key, maintaining his dribble until he could find the clear pass. (To quote ClipperBlog professor emeritus K.A. “Baron’s fingerprints were all over Chris Kaman’s All-Star selection last year.” It will be interesting to see if Blake Griffin’s eFG% takes a hit in the second half of the season.)
He has a savant’s understanding of how to manipulate space inside the paint. I’ll miss the way he likes to slow his final two steps on his drives in order to draw two defenders: first driving straight at the rim to draw the help defender from underneath the rim, and then popping horizontally away from the basket in order to draw the big in the paint. Once he had both bigs moving towards him he would slither a bounce pass into the newly empty space under the basket, where Blake or DeAndre would be waiting for a gimme dunk. (Baron trails only Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash on assists on “at the rim” baskets with 3.9 per game.)
The way I felt about Baron was more like the way I feel about certain musicians or film makers than the way I usually feel about athletes. Even when he was bad, there was always the chance that he would be amazing … if only for a one great pass or one impossible drive. We all have movies or albums that we know aren’t particularly cohesive or have a lot of filler, but are redeemed by the one great moment, a perfectly pitched supporting performance, or a transcendent guitar solo. In fact, we often associate inconsistency and artistic genius.
Of course, that was part of Baron’s problem. Comparing basketball to jazz (or, more recently, hip-hop) is one of the sport’s hoariest cliches. Both involve a group of individuals, melding their personal styles together to create something that is coherent, but still unique and personality dependent. The metaphor falls apart when you consider that sports can be an aesthetic experience, but it’s ultimately an objective one. The satisfying thing about sports is how definitive they are. Strike or ball. Fair or foul. Win or lose. Each game has an outcome, an exact way of measuring who played better and who played worse.
For 13 million dollars a year, Clipper fans weren’t looking for sporadic artistry but consistent winning, or, failing that, consistent commitment. Baron couldn’t provide that and now he’s gone.
And with all that said, don’t be surprised if the team takes a significant step back with Baron gone. If all you knew about Baron Davis was what you had read in the past 24 hours, you would be forgiven for thinking that his loss will barely affect the quality of the Clippers.
He wasn’t only capable of making Globetrotter passes. Fully engaged, Baron was also a fierce competitor. This may be Blake’s (and to a lesser extent, EJ’s) team going forward, but it was still Baron’s team this season. The Clippers season didn’t turn around because of a team meeting in a Detroit hotel, or because the team “bonded” after being heckled by their own owner. When Baron Davis returned to the starting lineup, the Clippers began to win. Period. He created easy baskets. His nearly four assists per game on shots “at the rim” trails only Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash (and is nearly a basket more per game than Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook). He embraced his roll as the bearded ringmaster of the U-23 Circus. He was the first guy to offer a hand to a teammate who had gone crashing into the seats. He talked up Blake and DeAndre constantly, gushing in postgame and halftime interviews about how fun it was to play with them, how their youth and energy had restored his own.
When Lamar Odom threw Blake to the ground with seconds remaining in the game, no player was further from them than Baron at half court. But Baron was the first person on the scene, sprinting through refs and players to shove Lamar away from Blake. Then he stood there and barked at Odom until he turned away and headed back to the bench. Criticize Baron’s effort level under Mike Dunleavy all you want. Once he was engaged he became a vocal leader, passionate about his team and his teammates.
There is something ironic for me — maybe even a little poetic — about the timing of the trade. I’ve had an open Word Doc on my computer for a couple weeks now, notes for a prospective column I was thinking of calling (rather academically) “Baron Davis: A Reassessment.” The basic premise was that Baron’s high level of play between Eric Gordon’s injury and the All Star Game challenged his reputation as a guy who needs ideal circumstances to play his best ball.
Baron’s excellent play this season was often described in supernatural terms, like he was a werewolf or something. He was going to “revert” back to his old form. He had been “rebirthed” from Blake Griffin’s Magical Womb of Dunks, and he was constantly in danger of “changing back.” Or something. The epic road trip was tailor made for a guy with a reputation of finding excuses. When EJ went down, the Clips’ playoff hopes effectively went down with him.
Isn’t this where the Baron I’ve heard so much about – the moody coach killer who can’t play through adversity – shuts it off completely? I’ll spare you the onslaught of stat and anecdote that would have made up that column, but here are just a few notes from my Word Doc:
“Miami: Only Baron seems awake. Another deflection! That’s at least the third pass he’s touched this quarter.”
“Toronto: We should be losing this game by 20 points. Baron freezes defender with a fake alley-oop, takes ball to hole.”
“Cleveland: It’s like only Baron and Blake care.”
If you watched these games, it was impossible to miss: Except for the Knicks game, Baron was often most engaged, the only Clipper playing defense. It was like Bizarro Baron, playing his hardest right when the games stopped “mattering,” right when the season’s momentum began to wither. His shooting percentages decreased, not because he had reverted to a more selfish style, but because none of his teammates wanted to shoot. He played so well, in other words, that it made me wonder if Baron couldn’t pull what seemed impossible merely two months ago — play so well that by the end of 2013 his contract almost seems reasonable.
Of course, now we’ll never know. We can predict with near certainty that Baron’s time with the Cavs will be, at best, unspectacular and strained. Perhaps Baron’s fatal flaw is that he can’t just be a part of a team, he needs to be at the helm of a movement. He had the “We Believe” Warriors and then the “Blake Griffin Experience” Clippers; it’s unlikely another team will entrust a talented nucleus to a 31-year-old point guard with shaky knees and a shakier reputation. That’s life for a professional athlete — but that doesn’t mean that the idea of Baron wasting the remnants of his talent in the hinterlands of Cleveland isn’t also a little sad.
From a basketball standpoint, probably the trade is for the best. Baron Davis didn’t earn the contract he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. He couldn’t deliver either consistent wins or consistent effort. With Baron gone, it will be easier for the Clips to resign DeAndre and keep cap flexibility going forward for Blake and EJ. Mo Williams is a good shooter and, from all accounts, a good guy. Baron almost certainly wasn’t going to be the PG who brought this team to the promised land, whether he was traded now or as an expiring contract in 2012.
Long term, the Clippers probably won’t miss Baron Davis. But I will.