Denial

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At the moment, the only sense I have of the Cavaliers championship celebration was the second of jubilation I saw just before I grabbed the remote control with sweaty palms, with my stomach beginning a three-day plummet into the depths of disappointment, my face totally hot with disbelief and disgust. I only got the briefest moment of exposure to the joy and elation of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and all who pledge allegiance to their cause, before I turned the television off for the rest of the night. It was enough. I saw the black-shirted wraiths beginning to bloom from the bench; an unidentifiable Cavalier pumping his fist in the rhythm reserved for professional athletes beginning to live out one of their earliest dreams: a championship at the highest level of competition. That was enough. That was plenty. I watched a second of their celebration, and then turned the television off.  And in the silence, there was a stark, jolting certitude about what had occurred. In the silence, there was a conclusion to a season that always seemed surreal; always seemed just a little too good to be true.

I know it’s over. There’s nothing left to brace for; no need to find anything else in, on, or around my body to gird. I wouldn’t wish the NBA Finals on my worst enemy. Do you understand me? I wouldn’t wish the NBA finals on my worst enemy.  It settles over your entire life, usurps everything that you hold dear. It turns sumptuous food into gummy slop, bland piles of puff that you push back and forth on your plate. It transforms your favorite activities into arduous chores; tedious tasks that must be completed before tip-off begins. Work days become staccato affairs as surreptitious glances at smartphones draw dirty glares from colleagues. Intimate moments with loved ones are punctuated by sharp, impatient quips, or watered-down by blank stares, as the mind shifts gears from hardcourt proceedings to real-world events. The NBA Finals become a stock template to organize both external behaviors and internal thoughts; all individuality is muted while the games are occurring. For the feeble mind of a fan, it is both terrific and terrifying; each moment a new emotion, each second nearly unbearable.  So I need you to understand me. I would not wish the NBA finals on my worst enemy.

Because you see, the weight of each possession was agonizing, especially when it all went to hell.  With each clank off the back rim on wayward hoists from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, on shots that fell so easily in the regular season, and at absolutely the worst time possible, there was a feeling of hopelessness and puzzlement. With each missed defensive rebound, and subsequent second-chance field goal from a lanky, bull-driving Cavalier, came a pain, which rose from a dull hum in game 5, to a full-throated roar by the end of game 7. Every one of the Warriors minor weaknesses, brilliantly masked by the tremendous abilities of Curry and Thompson, were suddenly put on full display by a smart, capable, and fully in-control Cavaliers team. A Cavaliers team that, as the series unraveled seemed to grow bigger and stronger with each possession, to the point where they seemed almost physically overpowering. A Cavaliers team that knew that beating the Warriors involved gaining a decisive psychological advantage. For 12 horrific quarters, the Cavaliers doled out punishment on multiple fronts. They launched successful assaults on the bodies and minds of the Warriors. It took 12 quarters – 144 minutes of dismantling; 8,640 seconds of throttling – to undo a joyride that was unspeakably exhilarating and dreamlike.

Basketball is continuing, and the Warriors didn’t disappear from the face of the planet after they lost Game 7. But I don’t know it. There is no Twitter on my phone anymore. I swipe the apps on my phone right and left in a repeating sequence; my thumbs not quite sure what to do with themselves now that there’s no timeline to troll. The Warriors drafted somebody. They may have drafted somebody else, as well. I’m not sure. The Warriors are probably interested in signing available players free agency. There are probably reports about Kevin Durant. It’s entirely possible that the other 29 teams are doing things as well; tucking in their shirts and rolling up their sleeves for another go at fixing everything that ails them in a few short summer months. I’m not sure. At the moment, I am in denial about the offseason, growing hot and sticky with each passing day. The pulsating throb of the NBA finals still drums endlessly on; my brain waiting for a best of 9, or best of 11 series. But I know it’s over. I know the focus is not on internal reflection and correction, but rather, external additions and situational augmentations. The 73-9 Golden State Warriors, a team that was sought after like the grail, now belongs to the historians and the haters. Those Warriors are now a was and and a were; they can no longer can bask in the radiant glow of is and are.

I would like to find a rhythm again. I’d like to be galloping; I’d like to be be soaring; I’d like to be be well on my way to new heights. But I cannot find the center. It’s the way it is, but it wasn’t supposed to be this way. I swear it. I’m not supposed to be frowning like this, trying to find some sort of basketball catharsis by typing into a text box on a small, dying corner of the internet; trying to avoid every hint that the Golden State Warriors fell short of their goal. I’ve lost myself. I see wraiths. This isn’t supposed to be happening. This isn’t the summer I had in mind.

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I Don’t Turn Off Games

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No, I don’t turn off the games. I haven’t in a long time. It’s the fat-man-on-the-couch’s equivalent of never leaving the arena early; never succumbing to the first world thrill of beating traffic. But I was damn close tonight; all out of dramatic sighs and disgusted grunts as the Warriors lost 118-94 in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It wouldn’t have changed the environment I had set up for myself; the television on mute as Russell Westbrook strutted about the court, the Thunder crowd rocking and rolling in a corybantic frenzy. I would’ve been free to do other things, I think I would’ve been excused. But I stayed on the channel, somehow trying to absorb some of the beating myself. When you know you should be doing something else, but you stay since you really don’t have anything better to do. Believe it or not, a lot of Warriors fanhood is rooted in that idea. So I stayed. It’s the Western conference finals after all. Even if they’ve taken a turn towards the terrible, it’s a terrible that only comes every few decades. I’ll stay and take my unique beating.

I guess I’d better write something in the fucking blog, was the thought that popped into my head, once it was over. I had figured I should write something in the fucking blog for a few days, as the weight of the situation befalling my preferred basketball team slowly crept into my everyday life. I’d better write something in the fucking blog. But what to write? The Warriors lost the basketball game. There are many different losses in the NBA; many different shapes and forms a dismantling takes. Even in my insulated living room, with the television on mute, with Twitter closed and texts piling up, this loss screamed through the television. The Thunder eviscerated the Warriors; rejected every advance. Nearly every assumption the Warriors wrote into their game plan was met with stern rebuke. Anthony Roberson hit threes. Steven Adams was unaffected by injury. Enes Kanter played stout defense. Randy Foye — Randy Fucking Foye, man — was a net positive. The players who were supposed to sink have soared. The Thunder were superior in nearly every single way. Man, this feels great. This is writing in the fucking blog.

The Warriors were not great. They have not been great for the vast majority of the series. And if you want my opinion why the Warriors are not armoring up for another go at an Eastern conference foe; if you want this really great postulation I’ve formed while I screamed at a television and stomped around my living room for months on end, I’m happy to tell you that I don’t know what the fuck is going on with the Golden State Warriors. I feel like the best answer I could give you would be straight from the Shit-Ass Mid-Stage Millennial Bible, and say that the Monstars stole their powers, and the Warriors have just gotta drink some of Michael’s Secret Stuff. It’s a sense of vulnerability with far too much exposure; a defense that essentially falls in the category of “well we won all those other games, so I’m not sure why we’re not winning this one.” Their once airtight offense has become bland and ineffective against the Thunder’s defensive dynamos. Their once suffocating defense has buckled and collapsed under the onslaught of the taller, stouter and, up to this point, vastly superior Thunder. Watching it has involved that certain sense of “pain” that a fan feels; a petulant, anxious unhappiness primarily fed by the the desire to exert power over variables that are resistant to control.

Let me be clear: this is not the good night, good luck, thanks for all the memories post. Truth be told, I’m not sure I have that post in me. I’m pretty sure I can’t even get a thousand words out about basketball at this point; I feel like I’ve basically said everything I’ve wanted to say about the National Basketball Association. But I do need to confess something, to someone who might have some sort of reaction to a deep confession about the game I love: I don’t know how the fuck this happened. I don’t know why Steph Curry’s shot is gone; a miraculous joy totally muted and stifled. I don’t know why the turnovers have returned; basketballs ricocheting off of outstretched fingers or soaring harmlessly — almost gracefully, really — into the stands. I don’t know how basketball has ruined my day; ruined my week. I don’t know why this shit matters so much to me. I don’t know why I don’t just shrug my shoulders and say, well, fuck, maybe next year. The only reason I have cable is because of the Golden State Warriors. I don’t turn off games.

I need a fifth paragraph here in order to make the post seem complete, but there isn’t much left besides muttered cuss words and exasperated sighs. Tomorrow I’ll wake up, and my brain will reload the events from tonight, and I will frown into the unkind darkness that only 5:15 a.m. can deliver. I will type-and-delete countless snarky replies on social media, and offer short, stilted texts to communicative partners. “Sucks.” “Not great.” “Thunder are good.” “Gotta play better.” There’s not much more to say. Summer is coming. It’s getting hot. There isn’t much basketball left to play, anyways.

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Because Magic Disturbs

Jack Nicholson moved to Hollywood when he was seventeen. It’s unclear when he first became a Lakers fan, but most people would probably just assume he’s been a fan of theirs “forever.” What is abundantly clear, however, is that during the championship years of coach Pat Riley’s “Showtime Lakers,” Nicholson and all the other beautiful basketball people in L.A. were completely under their spell. They loved the athleticism and showmanship the Lakers brought to the game, especially because it served as a direct counterpoint to the workmanlike approach embodied by their chief rival of the mid-to-late 1980s, the Boston Celtics.

In those days you sided with either the Lakers or the Celtics. Even if you were a die-hard fan of another team, you weren’t allowed to be without an opinion on the matter.

Why? Because those two teams were the gold standard in the NBA during that era, just as they’ve arguably always been: together, they account for thirty-three of the sixty-nine championships in NBA history, the Celtics with seventeen and the Lakers with sixteen, respectively.

Despite that history, I couldn’t believe that the Celtics were able to occupy the same air space as the Lakers. Watching McHale, Bird, Parrish, D.J. and Ainge win during those years drove me to acute frustration. There I was, some sort of fifteen-year-old reverse racist, pounding my fist on the coffee table, in utter disbelief that a few dumpy white guys and a stoic ground-bound center could compete with the elegance, athleticism and artistry offered up by Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Cooper, Wilkes and the rest of the L.A. crew. Nicholson probably felt the same way. After all, the city of Los Angeles is all about aesthetics and entertainment, so if you win you also want to win pretty. In Boston, you’re free to win ugly so long as you win. To me, the Lakers were progressive, cool—the future. Meanwhile the Celtics were old-school fundamentals, uncool—the past.

As you’ll see in the book excerpt below, race was clearly a factor in comparing “negro” players to white ones fifty years ago, much more so than the racial contrast between the Celts and the Lakers in the 80s. In recent years, with the influx of players from around the world joining the league, the language used to describe the game and its actors has gotten better, but even now stubborn assumptions about black, white, and mixed-race players are still with us.

Fifty years ago basketball was very different than it is today. Nevertheless, basketball as entertainment in the hands of a transcendent genius is universal. The bridge from Jack’s Lakers to the latest drop-dead gorgeous basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, was paved with aesthetics and showmanship. That said, how could Jack not love Steph Curry and the Warriors?

The following text is from the 1964 novel, Drive, He Said, by Jeremy Larner. The main character, Hector Bloom, is a white, utterly wayward basketball genius, a conflicted product of the 60s. Goose, his closest teammate, is African-American. The book became Jack Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut of the same name:

There were six boys at the far basket now and six more at one off to the side. They were playing three on three; Hector and Goose stopped to watch them. The boys played basketball white-boss style. There are only two styles of basketball in America, and of the two the white-boss grimly prevails over the Negro. The loose lost Negro style, with its reckless beauty, is more fun to watch or play, if you can, but it is the white-boss style that wins. Even the negroes must play white-boss basketball to win, though fortunately the best ones can’t, and end up with both, the Negro coming out despite themselves right on top of the other style. And it is these boss Negro players who are the best in the world, the artists of basketball, the ones every pro team needs two or three or six of if it is to stay beautiful and win.

A good white-boss basketball player is a good football player—deadly, brutal and never satisfied. What keeps him going is the thought that he and no one else must win, every instant. Let him win twenty games and he will sulk and cry and kick down the referees’ lockerroom door because he did not win the twenty-first. So by definition there can be no enjoyment.

Fear the white boss.

Hector took a rebound and crouched while three of the Enemy hung on his back slashing at the ball and hacking him on his arms and hands. Was this their idea of a beautiful game?

The ball had come to him far out and on the side. He dribbled looking for a pass, couldn’t find a man open and checked and tripped and started to fall and on the way down heaved the ball away towards the basket where it bounced from the rim, fell off the backboard, bounced again from one rim to another, rolled around & around and fell through. It shouldn’t have gone in but it did. Hector couldn’t get over it. The crowd liked his sloppy luck better than any of the thousand times he had made it look easy. And he liked it best of all. The next time he just let fly from center-court and that went in too.

He had done this so often.

Sound familiar?

Hector sank a running hook-shot from the corner so graceful that were he on horseback he would have been clearly the greatest polo player in the whole blooming British Empire; but he didn’t even know it, for he was in spirit a prehistoric reptile-bird skimming through the steaming swamp… alert for prey, and the shout they sent up for him was heard clear out across town…

Admit it Jack, you’re cheering the psychedelic Warriors, aren’t you?

And so on the tip Goose trapped the ball and scooped it downcourt to Hector on the run, took the return pass and whipped it behind his back to Hector all alone under the basket for a lay-in.

…their eyes sparkled with sweat and hate and their stubby hands flailed and snatched with desperate malice but the ball was gone and Hector driving, he sailed, twisted, shoved the ball up and around and shifting hands shoved it through a tangle of outthrust arms off the boards and into the basket. His own arms were rubber and ten feet long. He was hearing his own music, moving out & on to the most electric rhythm section ever convoluted together in a single brainpan.

And they hit him more than ever… Why?

Because magic disturbs.

Good luck, Spurs.

Hector was resplendent and unstoppable and there was nothing they could do but go into a zone defense with one man free just for him, which was fine, just fine for his side as they worked their give-and-go and set up picks and Hector shot his jumpshot from far, far out behind the screen and the ball sailed dead in the air not-turning came down clean as a bomb through the hoop and the cords flipped their skirts and the crowd jumped for joy…

The lights came down hot through the smoke and they poured it on, flipping the ball from hand to hand, running it down and down, way gone. The basket hung in the bright, big as a bathtub as they shoveled in points from all over the floor. Goose took a floor-length pass from Hector and laid one up behind his back. Hector sprung for a tip-in all the way out by the foul line and batted in another on the end of a high bullet-pass. He took them past 100 all alone as he squirmed through a panicked tackle and came in on a fast break, not laying the ball up but floating with his whole forearm above the basket and stuffing it, ramming it through to the floor like a pistol shot.

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Almost time for battle.

Good luck, LeBron.

***

Peter Sennhauser is based in Seattle. This is his third post for The Diss. His other work can be found here.

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Friday, April 22, 2016.

I feel pathetic. Read these pieces. I’ll be in the bathroom, sobbing.

Bill Walton’s Long, Strange Tale of NBA Survival
Sam Anderson
The New York Times

I’ve become a pretty staid NBA fan over the years. The human interest stories aren’t interesting. The deep dives are fairly shallow. But mark my words: I will always smile when I read about Bill Walton. To hear that he’s still doing what he does best: being an eclectic mix of public intellectual, hippie, jock, artist and stratosphere-bound spirit. If you’ve kept even the smallest amount of attention on Ol’ Bill, you could probably guess how he’s doing — living the best version of his life in San Diego, California. Sam Anderson attaches excellent prose to the Bill Walton Experience; barely containing his excitement to be rolling around town with the gentle giant, listening to Grateful Dead and talking about basketball from the mid-to-late 20th century. I smiled throughout this read. Bill Walton is a treasure that we must protect at all costs.

While the Grizzlies’ Grit ‘n’ Grind is Perfect Branding, it May Also Be the Team’s  Most Fatal Flaw
Kevin Arnovitz
TrueHoop

At the moment, the Grizzlies are swimming hopelessly upstream in a lopsided playoff series against the formidable San Antonio Spurs. There seems to be little chance that they will win; their team has been totally gutted by injury over the course of a beleaguering regular season. Yet, even in sure defeat, there is something glorious about their on-court product. It is informed by their dedication to “Grit ‘n’ Grind,” a phrase uttered by Tony Allen that has become the essence of the franchise. Kevin Arnovitz provides readers with a short history of grit ‘n’ grind: how it came to be, how it operates, and its overall relevance for the Grizzlies during their competitive era. There are several interesting tidbits in this piece, ranging from the insistence from team brass that players use the words “grit” and “grind” as much as possible, to the tension between Dave Joerger and the front office over the type of talent that should be retained by the team. I really enjoyed every word of this, and always dig what the Grizzlies are doing. Next year they’ll be back to their tricks, and it will be excellent to watch.

Whatever You Think of Sam Mitchell, the Way the Wolves Fired Him Was Disrespectful
Britt Robson
MinnPost

Tom Thibodeau is now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. It will be on him to continue the developmental gains achieved by Sam Mitchell, who served as the interim coach this season following the untimely death of Flip Saunders. Britt Robson provides a small look into the last day of work for Mitchell, who was let go at some point during the day he coached his final game. Robson takes a close look not just at the way Mitchell interacted with other individuals associated with the organization, but also how they regarded Mitchell, himself; as a coach who inherited a young team with a bright future, who had a longstanding relationship with the famously nepotistic owner, and whose on-court philosophies seriously conflicted with the general direction of the league. Robson concludes that Mitchell’s exit was disrespectful, given what he accomplished with the team. Importantly, Robson discusses the influence race may have had on the ousting of Mitchell (as Milt Newton, the general manager), and the implications therein. This is definitely worth the read, and I agree: Sam Mitchell was the brunt of incredible criticism; criticism we’ve seen leveled at several other black coaches in the past.

The Bulls’ Beat Writers Spilled the Beans on the Bulls’ Dysfunctional Locker Room
your friendly BullsBlogger
Blog A Bull

Finally, I wanted to include this roundup compiled by Blog A Bull, consisting of spilled beans from various Bulls beat writers. The Bulls did not have a good season, and the pieces linked here provide a tortured look into a season marred with jealousy, infighting and what sounds like a lot of passive aggression. The anonymous commentator, shielding his real name like a mid-2000′s basketblogger, dropped a few lines that made me snort pretty loudly. The image of the Bulls’ front office “barfing all over themselves at a rushed presser” is worthy of some sort of award. Does anyone say “barf” anymore?

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Tweak

I used to cover my eyes each time Stephen Curry hit the floor. As his slight frame went crashing to the hardwood, I’d suck my breath in sharply and promptly squeeze my eyelids shut. I would use Jim Barnett, the team’s color commentator, as my cue as to whether I could open my eyes and get back to it. If Jim’s voice remained calm and level, I would slowly open my eyes, just in time to see Steph bouncing up, no worse for wear, his mouth-guard mashed between determined teeth, ready to rejoin the fray. But if Jim didn’t play along — a tortured moan emerging from his body, his voice high with panic as he would exclaim that “this doesn’t look good at all!” – I would immediately slip and fall into a deep chasm of fan despair.  As Steph would hobble up, favoring an appendage, wincing and grimacing as he’d limp down the court, I would throw my hands into the air and squeal pathetically to an empty room. My panic would deepen as Steph would head to the bench, and trainers would surround whatever piece of his body he had damaged. Sometimes the trainers would walk away, and Steph would eventually return to the court. But sometimes, he would slowly rise and head to the locker room, and I would join the chorus of other Warriors fans, wherever they may have been at that point in 2013 or 2014, thumping the sides of their heads with frustrated, balled-up fists and  using their strained voices to wail a shrill lament.

I easily remembered the steps of that dance this past weekend, at the 2:10 mark of the second quarter in the Warriors blowout victory against Houston Rockets. Though the event itself was unique, the features were horrifyingly similar; dark reminders of a not-too-distant past. Steph’s landing after his missed layup was somewhat awkward; nothing about it particularly caught my eye. But then his gait shifted; I noted him shaking his leg in an attempt to correct something that had become misaligned. I could feel my face getting hot as the situation degenerated by the second, and Steph’s condition began to worsen in the world’s full view. Before long, Steph was dragging his leg, struggling to keep up with the disjointed Rockets as they hurled the ball at their basket. My fists were already pounding the table by the time he reached the bench, pulled off his increasingly iconic Underarmour shoes, and presented his ankle for the team’s trainer to look at. As he rose slowly to head to the locker room, I had stopped caring whether he would return to try and play through his troubling injury. In fact, he did briefly try and return during the third quarter, but a combination of a sufficient Warriors lead, a discombobulated opponent, and a clear limp lead to him staying on the bench, close to the watchful eye of Steve Kerr. I had long stopped caring about win number one. I had joined everyone else on their own respective islands of despondence; the blue splendor of a historic season suddenly shrouded in leaden skies.

We know fairly little about what happened with 2:10 to go in the second quarter of game one. Part of this is part to the Warriors’ peculiar penchant for highlighting-and-deleting the diagnoses they release to the media, a practice they have mastered since Andrew Bogut revealed his own secret microfracture surgery to reporters in 2012. Steph’s injury has been variously called a roll, a slip, and, most sinisterly, a tweak. I am unsure if “tweak” is the medical term — Webster’s defines “tweak” as “twisting or turning something sharply” — and regardless, it provides little comfort for anyone who is searching for an answer about what to expect from here on out. Watching Curry suffer a non-contact ankle injury is enough for even the most arrogant fan to self-consciously put the champagne away and save the vacation day they had set aside for the championship parade. Even the newest, most inexperienced Warriors fan knows that Steph is the celestial body the rest of the team orbits around, and that without him, the Warriors are deeply compromised.

Most fans of any given team can point to a season where  injuries seriously altered the outcomes they had hoped would occur. Fickle ligaments and brittle bones can be found on both good teams and bad, and the snap or pop that alters the course of history can come at any time. Any Bulls fan frowns darkly as they remember Derrick Rose rolling around the floor of the United Center, a potential championship team fully disarmed as their most important weapon wrapped his body protectively around his ruined knee. More recently, Cavs fans can point to the images of Kevin Love sprinting towards the locker room, cradling his shoulder, his arm dangling askance from the socket, or Kyrie Irving, slamming his jersey to the floor as he limped off the court to start the long process of recovering from a broken knee. Even Warriors fans who, shall we say, waited out the bad weather from 1995 to 2013 to belatedly bask in the sunshine, can point to the 2013 team, which fell short against the San Antonio Spurs while simultaneously managing injuries to Curry, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. They could even point to the 2014 team, who fell in seven dramatic games to the Los Angeles Clippers while trying to cover-up Andrew Bogut’s massive absence in the pivot with Hilton Armstrong, a tall man who wore the number 57. In this regard, nothing about what happened to Steph is unique: this is an injury that he has suffered before, in a league that, collectively, suffers many injuries of a similar nature. Certainly it will not end his career. But in tournament where — yes, gird yourself, Warriors fans — luck plays a meaningful role in the outcome, this is not an event to be taken lightly. In many ways, everything has been tweaked; wrenched sharply in an unnatural direction.

Others are far more skilled at predictive prognostication, and as such, I’m the wrong person to ask about what might happen in this series. Obviously a great deal rests on whether Curry can perform at a level at-or-above an MVP level; if he is to return in this series at all. And while the Rockets certainly remain a threat to exploit a wounded Warriors team, the Warriors have beaten the Rockets without Curry; a scrappy, aggressive game that represents one of the most satisfying wins of the Kerr era. The Curry-less Warriors are long, lanky and positionless; Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shawn Livingston lead a a different sort of assault. They clog passing lanes and endlessly switch on defense, they steadfastly work towards creating their own unique but effective shots on offense. They are a formidable outfit, without doubt. But they are vulnerable without Curry. Without the individual that accentuates everything at which they excel, there is little more to do but watch with clenched fists, and hope that nothing else need be tweaked from here on out.

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It’s Time, Glen.

What type of person buys an NBA team?

The kind of person who can come up with tens of millions of dollars on short notice.

By the spring of 1994, suitors were lining up to see Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, co-owners of the 5-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves. Thanks to mismanagement and poor decision-making, the pair couldn’t make mortgage payments on the Target Center, and they needed a way out. One way that was being explored was relocation; representatives from Nashville, San Diego, and New Orleans quickly showed up at the door.

The other solution was to broker a deal to keep the team in town, an endeavor that reached the office of the governor, who asked one of the state’s most successful businessman to lead the effort: Mankato-based printing magnate Glen Taylor. The self-made son of southern Minnesota pig farmers, Taylor had been out of public life for a few years following a nine year run as a State Senator, including three as Minority Leader. Taylor Corp, his privately held company, had made him a billionaire, but by 1990, his life in public service was over, due in large part to an extramarital affair that had caused the end of his first marriage as well as any gubernatorial aspirations. Still, his connections and business acumen put him on the short list of people who could help out. Governor Arne Carlson asked Taylor to help broker a deal between the Wolves’ current owners and some prospective buyers.

As Taylor himself tells it:

“It was kind of a freebie (the governor) asked me to do, so I got myself involved in figuring out how to keep the team in Minnesota… While doing this, I had access to the Timberwolves’ financials. When reading them, it occurred to me that with my business knowledge, I could probably run it better than it had been being run prior and perhaps even make it a profitable venture.”

A month later, after the original resolution he worked on fell through, Taylor himself swooped in and made a successful $88 million bid for the team. Just like that, the Wolves were his, and their relocation to New Orleans (which had emerged as the most likely landing spot) was officially dead.

Glen Taylor had saved professional basketball in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

***

“Then what happened?”

Minnesota sports radio listeners are probably familiar with Dark Star, the wise-cracking part-time sidekick on several shows prior to his 2012 passing. Perhaps his best quip, uttered in his smoky baritone with heavy emphasis on the first syllable, was the phrase “Then what happened?” It signals a rhetorical shift; someone would be describing something good- a winning half of football, a solid drive down the fairway, a no-hitter taken into the eighth inning- before it all fell apart.  And as the tale was being spun, Dark Star would let everyone know that now is the part where things would take a downward turn.

So…

Glen Taylor saved professional basketball in the Land of 10,000 Lakes…

… and set about running his franchise. He allowed incumbent Jack McCloskey one more season in charge; the Wolves went 21-61, and Taylor fired him in May of 1995.  He tabbed Minnesota-born NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale as his next President of Basketball Operations; McHale immediately hired his old University of Minnesota point guard, Flip Saunders, to be his right-hand man. A month and a half into their new roles, the two of them selected a wiry 19-year old from Farragut Academy with the 5th pick in the 1995 NBA Draft – Kevin Garnett. When incumbent head coach Bill Blair began the following season 6-14, McHale fired him and replaced him with Saunders.

Under Flip’s tutelage, KG quickly became one of the best young players in the NBA, making his first All-Star Game in 1997 and All-NBA team in 1999. The only All-Star teammate he had during this stretch was Tom Gugliotta, and he departed a year after earning that honor. Despite KG’s rapid ascent, the Wolves lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

In 1998, Glen Taylor and the Timberwolves agreed to a 6 year, $126 million contract extension with Garnett,, the largest deal in sports history (at the time) and one that would become a rallying cry for fellow owners hellbent on reigning in spending during the 1999 lockout.  But Taylor had made a smart investment, because KG lived up to the outsized deal; in 2000, he was the runner-up in the MVP race (to Shaq) and led the Wolves to their first 50 win season in franchise history. In 2003, he became the first player since Charles Barkley in 1993 (and 8th overall) to average 22 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists per game over the course of a full season. The only All-Star teammate he had during this stretch was Wally Szczerbiak, who had a very nice run as a role player later on, but was never quite the same following knee and ankle injuries he suffered in 2002. Despite KG’s standing as one of the best basketball players on the planet, the Wolves lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003.

In the middle of all that, McHale and Taylor were issued severe penalties for their role in the Joe Smith fiasco. (You can find a good summary of the whole thing here). Taylor fell on the sword, stating he and he alone had negotiated the under-the-table arrangement with Smith, and that McHale merely initialed the agreements “without reading them.” By attempting to skirt the NBA’s salary cap rules and getting caught, Taylor cost himself $3.5 million in fines and the organization a total of four first-round draft picks (2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004). McHale and Taylor were each suspended from December of 2000 through late summer 2001.

But by the end of the 2003-04 regular season, none of it seemed to matter. Despite seven consecutive first round exits and all those missing draft picks, some wheeling and dealing had given the Wolves a formidable Big Three: KG, Latrell Sprewell, and Sam Cassell. Garnett was the NBA’s MVP by averaging an absurd 24, 14, and 5. The Wolves finished first in the Western Conference with 58 victories, and they won their first (over Denver) and second (over Sacramento) ever playoff series, and took Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers to six games in the Western Finals. An injury to Cassell, who’d made his only career All-Star Game that season, ultimately felled them. It was a fun team, and an admirable run.

Flip Saunders was fired in February of the following season with the underachieving Wolves sitting a game under .500 (at 25-26). McHale himself took the reins and went 19-12 the rest of the way. Despite their 44-38 record, Minnesota missed the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Latrell Sprewell entered a contract dispute that never really ended, rendering him effectively retired. Cassell was traded (along with a future first round pick) to the Clippers for Marko Jaric.

Then what happened?

The Wolves haven’t had a winning season since.

In July of 2007, after two lottery-bound seasons that frustrated his superstar, McHale traded Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics. In return, the Wolves received a collection of players headlined by young big man Al Jefferson, as well as two first round picks. One of the best power forwards in league history had played 12 seasons in Minnesota, and all the Wolves had to show for it was one appearance in the Western Finals.

Following a 22 win season in their first true “rebuilding year,”  McHale turned the third pick in the 2008 draft (O.J. Mayo) and some bad contracts into the sixth pick, Kevin Love, which turned out to be a very positive move. But after starting the 2008-09 season 4-15, Taylor stripped McHale of his title as President of Basketball Operations and sent him down to the bench, where he went 20-43 the rest of the way.

That offseason, Glen Taylor tabbed Team CEO Rob Moor (who is also his son-in-law), to find the team’s next President of Basketball Operations. After a convoluted search, undoubtedly complicated by the fact Taylor insisted that McHale should stick around in some capacity, Moor selected David Kahn, despite his colorful and checkered history in the world of sports business, as the franchise’s chief personnel decision-maker. Kahn and McHale spent the next month awkwardly dancing around one another, as well as questions regarding their roles, before it was announced that McHale wouldn’t be back as coach. The news was broken by Kevin Love himself, via Twitter. David Kahn had convinced Glen that keeping McHale was the wrong move; it was his team, now.

If you’ve followed the NBA over the past decade, you probably know Kahn’s tenure is synonymous with spectacular failure. A brief collection of the highlights:

  • In the 2009 Draft, he selected Ricky Rubio, a point guard, with the fifth overall pick, then selected Jonny Flynn, another point guard, with the sixth overall pick. Stephen Curry, who is currently having perhaps the greatest statistical season in NBA history, was taken next by Golden State.

  • Later that summer, he tabbed Kurt Rambis to be the team’s head coach. Rambis is considered by many to be (and I promise this is not hyperbole) one of the very worst coaches in NBA history.

  • In the 2010 Draft he opted for the “safe choice,” Wesley Johnson, with the fourth overall pick. DeMarcus Cousins, who is perhaps the most gifted center in the NBA, was taken next by Sacramento.

  • A few weeks later, he was fined $50,000 by the NBA for stating during a radio interview that Michael Beasley had “smoked too much marijuana” during his time in Miami.

  • In comments after the 2011 Draft Lottery, Kahn flippantly accused the whole thing of being rigged and made bizarre comments about Nick Gilbert, the 14-year-old son of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

  • Ahead of the 2011 Draft itself, Kahn apparently informed Glen Taylor that he wished to fire Kurt Rambis, who had gone 32-132 in two seasons as head coach. The catch? Rambis had around $4 million remaining on his contract. Taylor, apparently in the name of fiscal responsibility and teaching his employee a lesson, told Kahn to raise that money himself. What followed was one of the zaniest Draft Nights in league history, chronicled here by Brian Windhorst. In short, the Wolves made five Draft Night trades and pick sales that netted the team approximately, you guessed it, $4 million in cash.

  • Despite taking a step back in personnel decisions when the organization brought in Rick Adelman as head coach, Kahn still managed to piss people off. In January of 2012, he irked his team’s only star player, Kevin Love, by refusing to offer him a five year max deal. That summer, according to multiple sources, Kahn was so tactless and rude towards the representatives of a mid-level free agent that they resolved to never do business with him again.

Following a disappointing and injury-riddled 2012-13 season, David Kahn was finally relieved of his duties. The Wolves’ combined record from the the end of Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals through the end of the Kahn era was 200-440. To top it all off, the best player the team had managed to acquire during that sorry stretch, Kevin Love, was both dissatisfied with the front office and set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015, putting the Wolves in one hell of a bind.

***

Glen Taylor’s first ten years as Timberwolves owner is an example of poor process yielding mediocre results. Thus is the benefit of employing a Hall of Fame talent; Garnett pulled everyone along as far as he could, until he couldn’t anymore, and it was time for him to move on. Taylor’s second decade as Timberwolves owner can be characterized as poor process yielding terrible results. Thus is the penalty for nepotism and ham-fisted indecisiveness; mix in some poor injury luck, and you end up with an eight-year stretch of .313 ball.

Taylor’s decision to hire Flip Saunders as President of Basketball Operations in May of 2013 was another example of bad process. This may seem insensitive, given his recent passing, as well as the impact he had on the franchise during his 13 years with the team; Flip, the person, was a gracious, kind man whose positivity and passion was nothing short of inspiring. He ascended to the top personnel decision-maker for the Timberwolves thanks in no small part to his close, personal friendship with Taylor. But an argument can be made that his previous work on the NBA did not necessarily qualify him for a position as a team’s primary decision maker. He wasn’t the top personnel man at any of his previous coaching stops (Minnesota, Detroit, or Washington) and had little-to-no experience with salary cap management or the business side of running a team.

That said, Saunders learned quickly on the job, and his pragmatism around team-building and player development produced lasting results. He put as much talent around Love as he could during the summer of 2013 in a last-ditch effort to make the playoffs and convince Love to stay, and did so without mortgaging any of the Wolves’ key future assets. It didn’t work out; Minnesota went 40-42 and finished 10th in the West, 9 games out of a playoff spot.

When the 2014 offseason began, it was obvious to everyone in the league that it was time to deal Love. Saunders decided to slow-play his hand, rejecting several inadequate offers ahead of the Draft and on Draft night, opting to wait to see what would happen in free agency. His patience paid off; LeBron decided to return to Cleveland, who had selected a can’t miss prospect with the first pick (Andrew Wiggins) but no longer had the positional need or the patience to develop him. What the new Cavs needed was a big man who could stretch the floor, their own equivalent of Chris Bosh on LeBron’s Miami teams. Meanwhile, Minnesota was in new of a new face of their franchise, a player with the potential to replace Love, both on and off the floor. It was a perfect match, and the two were traded for one another, giving Cleveland another star and Minnesota an elite prospect to jump-start their rebuilding process.

Also that summer, Saunders named himself head coach while keeping his role as the team’s chief personnel decision-maker. Despite repeatedly stating that he “strongly disliked” the idea of such an arrangement, Taylor ultimately caved – another example of less-than-ideal process. But again, Flip’s practical side saved the day. When injuries to key contributors (Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic) submarined their season, Flip quickly shifted gears, orchestrating a masterful tank job that netted Minnesota their first top overall pick in team history, Karl-Anthony Towns.

A few months after drafting him, Saunders passed away.

While Flip had missed on a few things, such as giving up a future first-round pick for Adreian Payne, for instance, and dealing away an asset (Thad Young) to acquire a player (Kevin Garnett) he could’ve just signed in free agency, he hit on the two most important things: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The oodles of potential in Zach LaVine and the 2013 Draft Night swindling of the Utah Jazz (Shahazz Muhammand and Gorgui Dieng for Trey Burke) were just icing on the cake. The Wolves have a dynamite young core, perhaps the best in the game, and Flip Saunders to thank for it.

***

What type of person buys an NBA team?

Maybe the better question is, “Why would a wealthy person choose to invest in an NBA franchise?” For some, it might be purely economic; after all, the financial returns seem both lucrative and safe, especially with eye-popping media rights deals coming down the pipe. It could it be the ultimate vanity purchase for an uber-rich sports fan, someone who loves interacting with famous athletes and being seen sitting courtside. It could come down to ego, as the business of sports provides a way for an extremely competitive person to try his or her hand in an arena where wins and losses are measured both empirically and publicly, rather than the private world of business, where ambiguity reigns and exact profits or losses are known only to small circles of people. It could even be a public relations move, a way to ingratiate oneself to a community, as a matter of civic pride or responsibility.

It doesn’t have to be just one of those factors, either – it could be a combination – but an owner’s primary motivating force is going to have an awful lot to do with how they go about running their team.

So what motivates Glen?

Flip Saunders once went so far as to say owning the Wolves wasn’t a money-making venture for Taylor, and that he did it primarily because he “loved the game.” (Forbes estimates the Timberwolves’ value at $720 million; by the time Taylor actually sells, he may see a tenfold return on his original $88 million investment.) Upon purchasing the Minneapolis Star Tribune a few years ago, Taylor stated that his motivations for doing so were 50% economic and 50% altruistic. It was clearly important to him that the state’s largest newspaper be owned by a Minnesotan, and it isn’t a stretch to wonder if he felt the same about one of the state’s major pro sports franchises. He entered the league at a time when financial viability was likely, but certainly not a foregone conclusion. Taylor did the governor a favor, realized he had a chance to save pro basketball in his home state, and did so, almost as a matter of civic duty.

To a certain extent, Taylor’s loyalty to Minnesota is admirable, especially considering he could’ve cashed out a few years ago if he’d been willing to allow the team to move to Seattle. But he didn’t, and has made it clear that a precondition to selling the team is that it stays put. He’s invested some of his own money into a new practice facility and Target Center upgrades, particularly notable in an age when some owners are willing to extort public funds out of their home cities to save every little bit of scratch they can. When he’s reflected on the prospect of selling the team, he almost always returns to the same hangup: he’d miss coming to the games and seeing everyone. To top it all off, he seems like a very nice man who still tends his own garden and insists that everyone call him “Glen.”

Which is why it pains me as a Minnesotan, a people known for passive-aggressive avoidance of conflict, to type the following sentence in plain, unambiguous terms:

It’s time, Glen.

***

He’s gotten more hands off in his other lines of business, content to offer advice and offer guidance rather than deal with day-to-day operations. At the Star Tribune, his other high-profile holding, his daughter is his representative on the board. As the years have gone by, he’s been more and more keen to delegate power.

Fans of a sports team want one thing from its owner – to promote a winning culture. The owners of some of the best franchises in sports achieve their success in vastly different ways. Some, like the Holt family (San Antonio Spurs), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), and Larry Baer (and his partners, who own the San Francisco Giants) are content to empower smart hirees to do just that, and lend support in other ways. Some have taken the opposite approach. Think of Mark Cuban in Dallas, George Steinbrenner’s late-90s Yankee Dynasty, or Dr. Jerry Buss with the Showtime Lakers. Cuban won a title and runs one of the most consistent teams in the league by empowering his people, but leads with both passion and charisma. Steinbrenner was demanding as hell, but offered nigh-unlimited resources to the cause of winning. Dr. Buss was a terrific businessman who expanded revenue streams while remaining personable with players, a great uniter who set the tone for the most successful franchise of the 1980s and the 2000s.

Glen wants to win, but doesn’t how. He’s delegating authority, and prides himself on his ability to choose the right people, but we have two decades of empirical evidence to show he’s terrible at it, at least in the business of building an NBA winner.

He’s perfectly willing to spend, as the landmark KG deal and a few recent contracts (Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin) show. He once broke the rules in an effort to try to pay Joe Freaking Smith $90 million over 10 years, for crying out loud. Opening his checkbook isn’t the issue. Neither is the team’s “Country Club” atmosphere, the tendency for the same cast of middling characters to show up repeatedly as assistant coaches or in front office positions. Nepotism is an issue across just about every line of business, but especially in the exclusive world of professional sports. It’s a problem, but far from the biggest, and certainly isn’t something unique to the Wolves.

No, the biggest issue with Glen is the people he selects to run the team, the length of time he sticks with them, and the clunky nature of his organizational transitions of power. Kevin McHale accomplished a lot during his time with the Wolves, but stayed a few seasons too long. David Kahn was an embarrassment from the get-go, but he was still afforded the opportunity to shape the franchise for four long years.

Which brings us to the present. The Flip hire was questionable, but he’d earned the right to see his vision through, given how well the execution of the first part had gone. His passing was a tragedy, and no one blames Taylor for sticking with his acolytes (Milt Newton as General Manager and top personnel man, and Sam Mitchell as interim coach) for the balance of the season.

But a tough decision looms. The Wolves have assembled a generational talent (Towns), a willing sidekick with perennial All-Star upside (Wiggins) and other intriguing young players around them (LaVine, Muhammad, Dieng) by virute of LeBron’s whims, shrewd tanking, and outrageous fortune. Sacramento has been atrocious for almost as long as the Timberwolves, and have had numerous high draft picks over the past ten years.  Sam Hinkie dreamed of a core like this, and planned on being actively bad ad infinitum until he got it. Neither the Kings or Sixers have been able to muster anything on par with what the Wolves have. A critical choice must be made regarding who will be in charge of molding the next step – surrounding Towns, Wiggins, Rubio, and LaVine with the right pieces, deciding whether to extend or deal role players (Dieng, Muhammad), and what buttons to push to get this group to reach their full potential.

Some of the best and brightest minds in the game ought to covet Minnesota’s head coach and President of Basketball Operations jobs. Given Glen’s history, is it really reasonable to expect all those options will be on the table, despite the involvement of a top-notch search firm? And if he does decide to go that route, is there any reason to believe he’ll handle it smoothly and gracefully? His “mandates” (such as his clear-headed edict that the coach and President of Basketball Operations should be two different people) are inexplicably malleable, and his definition of success is impossibly broad.

It’s far too soon to worry about failing to maximize Towns’ prime (he was still a teenager when the season began, after all), but there’s plenty of reason to fret about the idea of Glen Taylor holding such a precious prize in his clumsy hands. Even if he improves from being a bad owner to an adequate one, remember that adequate got the Wolves two playoff series victories in more than a decade with KG; “good enough” was the enemy of getting a great player the help he needed from his organization. We’ve seen this happen to the Timberwolves before. Twenty years later, could it happen again?

It’s time, Glen.

William “Bill” Bohl’s work is featured at A Wolf Among Wolves and Fear The Sword. He resides in the Twin Cities with his family. This is his first submission to The Diss. Follow him on Twitter at @BreakTheHuddle 

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A Steady, Dangerous Arrogance

Let’s get this out of the way right now, so that there’s no confusion: even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Grizzlies tonight, and are denied their 73rd win, this season has been, and will always be, an unimaginable success. Any individual who turns their nose up at 72-10 should not be accessed regularly for opinions on professional basketball; they should take their talents of prognostication elsewhere. Even in the event of an unlikely loss — the Grizzlies are down by 23 to the Clippers as I write this — the Warriors will be tied with the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls as the most accomplished regular season team of all time. I will let you search elsewhere for all of the records the Warriors have notched in a season that likely will never be replicated, by this team or any other one.  After all, we are talking about a team that started 24-0; a team that was 48-4 at the All-Star break; a team that owns the longest home winning streak in NBA history; a team that had to win 70 games just to secure home court for the rest of the playoffs. No, I will not suffer any opinion otherwise. I will not hear out your points to the contrary. In the not too distant past, I used to speak hesitatingly about the Warriors’ place among the elite teams in NBA history; brushing off questions about how comfortably they would sit alongside those units. I do not harbor any of that self-consciousness any longer. The Warriors are truly magnificent.

At the same time, let me share this with you: I do not recognize the Warriors at all. They are everywhere, on everyone’s commercials and at the tip of everyone’s tongues. They are the subject of discussion topics once confined to internet message boards and video games; potential seven-game series against the Chicago Bulls, angry discussions about how Steph would get his shot off against an impossibly lankly double-team from Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. They are a collection of commercials, hawkers of water filters and slippery Chinese basketball shoes. They are $335 tickets for the worst seats in the house (and that’s not even a playoff ticket, yet). They are the most palatable product of unbridled capitalism; the actualized vision of venture capitalists. Their owner boasts about losing millions of dollars in card games, and can barely contain his excitement about moving the team out of Oakland, to an arena with fewer seats for the have-nots but many more luxury boxes for the have-it-alls. They invite the ire of others; critiques which center on colonial themes of surveillance and hegemonic destruction, to sighing lamentations from fans whose teams haven’t fared well against Golden State. There is certainly a feeling of saturation that comes with this team now; all the games are filled to the brim with, well, stuff.

I haven’t felt much of a need to add to all this Warriors stuff over the last few months. This is a crowded space now, a cacophony of clattering noise and jostling bodies. The games have all bled together at this point; hundreds of hazy basketball miracles that just seem to come as a part of the entire experience. The hallmark half-court heaves and game-winners, which come with uncanny frequency for this team, have all become blurry; commonplace events which make a mostly surreal experience feel both solid and valid. The Warriors are big; they command your attention and demand to be noticed. And God, has it worked. The Warriors have blown up in every way; their value, their aura, and their entourage. And as countless of new participants in the Warriors experience stake their relative claims on this once pastoral land — the new lovers and new haters alike; both crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on their relative bandwagons– there is a hoarse feeling of congestion, and a deepening sense of claustrophobia. It feels like a wild ride every night; from trying to figure out how Steph Curry hits the shots that he takes, to how the average fan will ever find a reasonable seat on StubHub ever again. In nearly every way, it feels like we are being driven by forces mostly beyond our control.

There is a steady, dangerous arrogance that radiates from this team. It is symbolized in the rhythmic chew of a mouth-guard; of a raised finger in celebration before an airborne three even goes through the net. It is delicious and intoxicating, a strong cocktail that you can taste through the television screen and whose sinister warmth you feel deep in your belly. Any lead seem erasable, any opponent seems conquerable. It is a notion that seemingly is reinforced multiple times a week, as wins of all different shapes and sizes — absurd blowouts, teeth-gnashing comebacks, pitched shootouts and slogging grinds — come somewhat easily for the Warriors. The script always seems to be written in the team’s favor: the comeback completes itself automatically, the other team’s timely collapse aids in the cause. If Warriors fans seem arrogant as they enter a second round, it’s because they are following the lead of the team; bearing witness to the same absurdities the general populace is beholding. Because none of this makes sense, even now, on the precipice of the 73rd win of the season. There are no experimental designs that would replicate the results of this year’s team; no method to recreate the mastery. And while it is hardly beyond understanding, it is certainly above common forms of explanation. It is an object that simply produces slack jaws and dumbfounded grunts, a common refrain among both old and new fans alike: “the fucking Warriors.”

Certainly I do not dwell on “the bad days,” nor do I talk about them much anymore. Any chuckling remark about Chris Cohan or Robert Rowell is used mostly as an informal test to see when the person I’m making small-talk with started following the team. It has been four seasons since the Warriors were non-competitive, and I have happily put those days behind me. Similarly, while I occasionally consider the ways the Warriors could falter, those brooding thoughts don’t clutter my mind. I could be convinced that the Warriors remain a vulnerable outfit, despite the very favorable trends established in the regular season. The 4-0 mark against the Clippers, Rockets, Jazz, and the 3-1 mark against the Blazers, Mavericks, and, yes, the Spurs, enables Warriors denizens to rest relatively easy, at least at this point. I could panic, for sure. And I might just yet; the playoffs are long, and it’s a precipitous plunge to the bottom. But on the eve of what could be our 73rd win — and, without a doubt, the conclusion of a season that will end no worse than 72-10 – I find myself resting with relative ease. I assume the newest denizens of the Warriors experience are sleeping rather soundly, as well.

Yes, that discussion about the playoffs can wait. We don’t have to have it now, and frankly, I don’t intend to. The Warriors opponent is not even known; it could be either the stout but untested Utah Jazz, or the talented yet perpetually troubled Houston Rockets. At this point in the proceedings — on the doorstep of history, but facing a game of even more importance this coming weekend — the emotions are merging onto a fucked up Bay Area freeway at the heart of rush hour; mashing their fat little fingers on bleating horns. At this moment in time, it is best to just consider the reality of what has occurred, rather than the things that can’t be known until they actually occur, or the things that will continue to exist unanswered; forever obscured by the gnarled fabric of space, time and circumstance.

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