I simply won’t apologize for being sentimental.
We’re living through a time when mental survival means embracing the smallest of victories. A text from an old friend. An email confirming you don’t yet have the potentially deadly virus. A cup of coffee on an uncharacteristically cool morning. A song that reminds you of a specific waterfall that really wasn’t all that great as far as waterfalls go, but it’s easier to romanticize the waterfall than to admit out loud that you’re constantly taking moments with people you love for granted and being there, with this particular person, staring at this fine enough waterfall, was really quite nice.
JR Smith and Dion Waiters are teammates, and this isn’t a small victory for Alex and me. It’s an enormous one. Of course, it comes at a moment of blinding uncertainty. Should this Disney World experiment even be happening? Is it safe? Has JR Smith shot a basketball in the last 17 months?
But the one thread we’ve held in the nearly six years of writing this column is that these two men are moment chasers, a quality that in one sense, we admire, but more notably, we find necessary to indulgently document, because sometimes history is disproportionately influenced by people who seem less significant than many of their counterparts, and thus the history books should, likewise, be influenced by relatively insignificant people like us.
We started this column as an excuse to write something disastrously nonsensical about basketball (RIP The Classical), and have since taken it to a new home at RealGM. The editor of this publication--a respected man who operates on reason and logic--emailed me that this “moment is too special not to get the band back together.” We’re being paid literal currency for this even though I have yet to write anything about basketball, and honestly, I’m pretty much free associating at this point so I can’t even guarantee I’ll start.
So, yes, this is a big victory.
Assuming this bubble season does indeed happen, you’re more than welcome to put an asterisk on the upcoming champion if you’re the type of person who enjoys being generally unlikable and policing the integrity of a game that’s happening inside a children’s amusement park during a global pandemic. But I’d ask you to acknowledge that outcomes of athletic competitions, like everything else in life, are at the mercy of the butterfly effect, and few players have thrashed their wings more violently than JR Smith and Dion Waiters. Some unknown number of champions over the past decade are champions because somewhere JR or Dion did something.
Now, they’re on the same team, and they’re probably going to win a championship together. And I’m not going to say it’s fitting for these crazy times or some cheap notion that downplays how tragic these times have been. No, JR and Dion together isn’t that. It’s just objectively good, if you can muster the energy to look at it in a vacuum.
By now, you know the rules. The Power Rankings are determined by the committee of Alex and myself and participants can rank anywhere from number one all the way to number two.
1. Dion Waiters, Los Angeles Lakers
Dion Waiters is the type of mid-level office drone all of us should aspire to be. He may get to work late smelling of booze, but he’ll get his work done. He may ramble almost unintelligibly during sales meetings, but in the middle of the ramble, there’s a kernel of genius, and that kernel gets the ball rolling, and when the ball gets rolling it can’t be stopped. Dion has the full package of a beloved NBA character actor. The antics. The confidence. The realness. The wit. As Jonny says, at this point, we’ve both put down so many silly but serious words over these many years attempting to find fresh ways to describe this serious but silly man. It’s our hope that Frank Vogel will be willing to risk his blood pressure and concede some limited moments on the floor to Dion for some hardwood goofin’ around, fan service that might just pay dividends in the margins. There are Garbage Time minutes when decades happen.
We’re yearning as ever to see the flashes, sparks, and shimmers of our old friend Dion. The joker who believes that he’s a scholar. The blademaster with a broken sword. Dion Waiters, awash in bathos, back at it again. That would be nice. Plopped back into the thick of it, free more so than ever to be an utter doof. Though the Doof is just one side of Dion Harvey Dent visage. Waiters has done much to smother his reputation as the NBA’s pre-eminent Hubris Clown. I think about how Dion was meant to have gone to the NBA Finals in 2016. He played well alongside Durant, accepting his role with taciturn aplomb. He was a central piece to that deep, fierce, last great Thunder team. That squad would have entered the Finals with enough momentum to make it to Jupiter and back. They should have had no real problem snuffing out the Cavaliers with grim Steinbeck finality. A glamorous execution and a realignment of history after the 2015 Warriors jumped the aspiring powerhouse line.
That never happened of course, and the things we knew, loved, and loved less about Dion’s personality never left him. But you can’t blame a guy drafted by the dour, hopeless Cavaliers team for anything. The psychic slime of negativity gets into your bones. So, Dion’s always been a version of a version of himself, and now, we can hope, we get to see him slouching towards the suburbs of Bethlehem once more. This would all be fine and dandy in an ordinary year. Or even a regular year that was disgusting and awful. This just happens to be the Michael Jordan of Worst Years Ever.
Because now, even as someone who loves the NBA, it’s players, it’s feuds, it’s arcs, it’s style, and beauty, even as someone who loves all these things, what’s coming next can’t possibly bring you comfort. Because poring over spreadsheets of data and hopping on a podcast to discuss TS% and Adjusted Plus and Minus or which Lopez Twin will die first must by necessity take a graceful backseat to other ****. The objective reality of your waking hours has become navigating-with as much poise as you can muster-the blunt knowledge that we live in a particular genre of dollar-store Hell relentlessly shaped by dullards bedecked in American flags who are square dancing as the country burns. The pandemic, and especially our country’s flaccid, flailing response to it, has accelerated our induction into Hell World. A daily 9/11 sans explosive emotional heft, played at quarter-speed, never ending. A limbo of existence. A Phase II petri dish. Millions of necks shoved roughly onto the chopping block. Yes, some of those necks belong to zombified citizens who, and I had no idea about this, have always had a deep and abiding hatred of small masks, but still, we don’t want them to die. We don’t want anyone to die, or at least, that’s what I always thought the idea was, at least even as a fiction to cling to when speaking aloud. That mask is off too. Everybody dies, the new TGI Friday stoics have declared. Why should people getting sick and dying when they don’t have to impact my life? Why indeed?
But then there’s the Bubble. The Happiest Place on Earth. It’s safe because of, you know, a total lock-down, sort of. A Potemkin Village where NBA players will be allowed to play video games and chow down on any number of dishes prepared at any number of Tillman Fertitta’s artisanal slophouses. Massive props to Dion’s opposite number JR for the Dispatches Within the Bubble that had him immediately censored. We need war correspondents on the ground more than ever. Ditto for teammate Rajon Rondo, as no luxury hotel has ever come back from being compared to a Motel 6. That’s simply savage, righteous language.
But forget about how low-budget and uninviting the Bubble is. Comfort was promised, but that’s not it’s salient feature. The Bubble is meant to be safe. The Bubble will protect these men, and hopefully, though this, it seems is less important, the Bubble will attempt also to protect the essential workers of Disney World who serve them. The Bubble is, if not perfect, as good as it is gonna get. And many people I respect in the proverbial salons of NBA discourse see no problem with this. Many others do see a problem with it, but not much of one. As certain players choose to opt out of the tournament because they don’t want to die and more cases of COVID continue to stubbornly cling to NBA adjacent spaces, it is difficult to take it at face value that Adam Silver and Disney have just solved this whole thing. That they have outsmarted the pandemic that is on pace to finish off over 200,000 Americans within a month or so. The NBA is a reality show now that will end each round with the Commissioner bestowing a rose to the victorious team, as a white guy with the word “Equality” emblazoned on his jersey limps into the locker-room, gone, forgotten, wondering why he even bothered.
What gets me though, leaving aside the possibility of sickness and death, is the why of it. Who wants this? Is this some wrongheaded but basically sincere attempt to “normalize” again? To kickstart a world that has forgotten its comforts and indulgences? To give people a momentary distraction from the Hell World, and the punishment the Hell World metes out to us daily? Maybe the players got together and declared with one voice that it would be an unconscionable sin not to risk death for the chance to be the Heavily Asterisked and Always Disrespected 2020 NBA Champions.
Whoever wins, they won’t win. They will have to repeat at the very least to have their Plague Title mean anything, not only to history, but to the casual fan. And when a franchise cornerstone breaks their leg in this rats-in-a-cage farce, I’m sure it will all feel worth it, especially when he gets COVID as he rehabs. Things could get very dark, very fast, is all I’m saying.
One of my heroes, Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician who specializes in Chaos Theory, once visited Jurassic Park and what he saw very much sums up my feelings on the whole thing, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
Could this work? Sure, anything could work. Should it? Is it worth it? Is it worth it if one person contracts Coronavirus in service of whatever this is when they didn’t have to? Two people? Three? Four is surely the limit, Adam!
America is one damn arrogant place. This is not meant as a criticism (though it is, obviously) so much as a fact. Exceptionalism is the essence of our identity. We are the preeminent whiny bullies of the world. When things don’t go our way, we start tearing things down. We have taken what the virus has inflicted on us personally. It has pissed us off so much that we’re not even going to meet it on any rational terms. We’re just going to pretend we already won. That’s America.
Now, Dion Waiters is, thankfully, not America. That would be a cruel, unkind thing to say. Dion Waiters hasn’t joined a cult of death (so far as I know) or convinced people to offer themselves up as literal human shields to die at the altar of the free market, or to exalt the political pornography of looking tough. Dion’s a goof. Largely harmless, despite hurting Erik Spoelstra’s feelings once or twice or vibing on edibles. But then there’s that cocksure arrogance that he has occasionally displayed, a reckless bravado we love to love on a basketball court, that sort of occasionally unearned certitude. America has some of that **** deep in its psyche too. And in my perfect world, Dion Waiters, like the rest of his colleagues, would get to stay home, binge Netflix, Zoom with old friends, sample different flavors of MD 20/20, and prepare to fight another day. He has always brought me great joy (except this one time), and I’d of course be pumped as hell to see him once again plunge effortlessly into his idiosyncratic groove of bombastic buckets-lust once again. I want to, as Jonny intimates, get to witness Dion Waiters chase the moment, his moment, someone else’s moment, any spare moment at all there is to be snatched from the air. Just not like this. Not in Disney World in the schmaltzy, hellish heat of the horrible and endless Summer of 2020. Dion deserves better.
2. JR Smith, Los Angeles Lakers
JR Smith hasn’t played a meaningful basketball game since 2018. It would be pure speculation to try to analyze how much of an impact he’ll have on this bubble season. So, I’m not going to try. Instead I’m just going to list a few things I want him to do in that time without writing any transitions. If you’re still reading I assume you’re just fine with that.
-I want him to make 12 three-pointers in a game.
-I want him to fight Rajon Rondo.
-I want him to tell a reporter that “Shrek” is his favorite Disney movie.
-I want him to call Frank Vogel “Bob.”
-I want him to go to the non-Lakers games by himself sitting alone, a single, potentially sober, face in the stands, as if scouting opponents while not once looking up from Instagram.