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You’ve either seen this a hundred times already or you’re living under a rock. Or you don’t care about basketball, in which case, why are you even here? But no matter which one of those categories you belong to, you should really watch Blake Griffin’s comprehensive audit of Kendrick Perkins’ tax returns from FY 1984–2012.

Zach Harper already (of course) wrote a great paean to the dunk in discussing this particular dunk. He pointed out that time didn’t stop after a great dunk like this, “it just simply didn’t matter anymore.” To me, the fact that time doesn’t stop for a dunk is in fact the key to what makes a dunk so viscerally satisfying, and the reason why dunk contests so seldom live up to their hype, and (incidentally) the reason why dunks are so much better than home runs and kick returns.

Let’s start with that last point and work back. Dunks, first of all, rarely end games in the NBA. Aside from the exceedingly rare alley-oop with virtually no time left, most game-winning shots are jumpers, or maybe tip-ins. And a buzzer beating three is really only great because it wins the game. Kevin Love’s game-winner against the Clippers last week, had it taken place on a sideline out-of-bounds play in the middle of the second quarter, would have been a risky shot that lucked its way into the hoop. No way it makes SportsCenter’s Top Ten. By that same token, home runs in baseball are almost entirely contextual. One might be higher or go farther than another, but unless something truly wacky or historic happens, a home run’s significance only matters insofar as it shifts the balance of the game itself.

A kick return for a touchdown, on the other hand, can always be dramatic, even in a losing cause. But a kick return is also something that happens under very specific circumstances (special teams plays), and there are only two general outcomes for a kickoff or punt that is returned (as opposed to fair caught): the return man is brought down somewhere on the field of play or he scores. As we watch, we sit in anticipation of one of these two outcomes and are rewarded or not depending on our rooting interest.

But dunks explode spectacularly from within the framework of the game, still bearing the scorch marks of violent invention they have worn since coming into the league. I mean, imagine the audacity of foregoing the customary route of launching the ball from a spot on the floor in a perfect arc and instead simply rising up and putting it directly through that distant goal, hanging suspended up in the air. A dunk is worth no more or less than any two-point jumper, but instead of diminishing it, this fact is what allows it to mean so much more to us precisely because it is unbounded by the cold mathematics of the game.

When we observe a dunk like Griffin’s on Perkins, we enter the realm of the sublime. Ray Allen’s jumper is beautiful, at least according to Immanuel Kant’s definition, whereby the beautiful “is connected with the form of the object” and has “boundaries.” It is a model of efficiency and timing, and we know that a three-point jumper by Allen is better than a two-point jumper because it creates more points. Even in a buzzer beating situation, where the difference between two and three points might be moot, his jumper is bound by the clock and our enjoyment of it is predicated on it being accomplished before the end of the game.

By contrast, take Jeremy Evans’ dunk over Gerald Wallace. That it was called an offensive foul diminishes it within the framework of the game, but it in no way diminishes the simple physical act of what Evans did. Although there are graceful dunks, dunks like Evans’ and Griffin’s and Shawn Kemp’s are violent things that highlight our own physical shortcomings. Griffin is, in short, a force of nature, and nature is just what Edmund Burke had in mind when he associated the sublime with vastness, with infinity. Rather than being tied down to the measurable quantities of points, of wins and losses, a dunk is simply an eruption of pure athleticism from inside an orderly procession of possessions. Its unexpectedness is key to its impact.

Based on this, it’s easy to see why dunk contests mostly fail. Like your funny friends who would make terrible comedians in front of an audience fervently expecting jokes, dunk contest participants are beholden to our expectations of them. They’ve now been reduced to tricks and pageantry, costumes and props, and it all just feels a little hokey and canned, a little controlled. In-game dunks are patently out-of-control at their best and more than showing us what achievements athletes are capable of, they weirdly show us our limitations. Michael Jordan may have given us the dream of flight, but a dunk like Griffin’s gives us nightmares.

Steve McPherson

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It’s common to hear about the “blueprint” of a team’s success, about how a coach is the “architect” of that success, how a key player is a “building block.” But I’m not an architect, I’m a writer, and last night’s Timberwolves’ win over the Spurs had me thinking about a team as a novel, with various stages in their development as drafts.

As someone in the throes of finishing his MFA thesis in creative writing, I feel I know a few things about rough drafts—even if I still don’t really know how to get to a genuine final draft. If all you’ve ever written are papers for school, you’re lucky if you ever got some sense of how to truly write a rough draft. If you’re like me, you probably wrote a “rough” draft, lightly edited it, and called it final. But what I’ve learned from working in fiction is that turning a rough draft into a final draft doesn’t mean just taking out the bad and leaving the good; it means sacrificing the good to achieve the great.

It means that all the pieces have to work together, and that’s something that’s never happening in a complete way in a rough draft. Take the Timberwolves of last season as an example. The team had assembled a lot of parts, but it was never clear how they were going to add up to something greater. It was assumed that Wes Johnson was a key piece because he was a high draft pick. Michael Beasley had all the elements that should make him an essential offensive weapon. Darko Milicic was a still-promising veteran who could block shots and score well on a good night. And on and on: so many pieces that could be the right fit, depending. Jonny Flynn, Wayne Ellington, Martell Webster.

But the trick is that any individual good piece of a novel—a great scene, some dialogue that clearly defines the relationship between two key characters, a fantastic chapter—only matters if it works in the novel as a whole, and that requires knowing what the story is about. And the Timberwolves under Rambis had no idea what the story was. Depending on the situation, different parts could look great, even compelling, as Beasley did before he tweaked his ankle, as Love did when he got 31 points and 31 rebounds. But how were they going to make sense together?

The Wolves are not at the final draft this season. Not by a long shot. It goes without saying that championship teams are almost always final draft teams. They’re the teams with rock solid primary and secondary options, but also guys like Bruce Bowen, Derek Fisher, John Paxson, heck, even Mark Madsen (maybe, maybe not)—guys who on another team might not make sense. If players like Kobe and Jordan are the parts that everyone quotes—the “boats … borne back ceaselessly into the past”—those other guys are the parts that do the hard work of characterization, of moving the plot forward. They make sense because they make the whole thing make sense.

This season, the Timberwolves are looking more and more like a good second or third draft. Beasley returned from his sprained foot last night, playing 22 minutes and scoring 7 points but only shooting 27%. There were the head fakes and jab steps and spinning fadeaways that still managed to fall, sometimes. There was even a drive to the hoop that resulted in free throws, and he even passed the ball once. Sure, it resulted in a turnover, but it was a pass, dammit. Beasley can be a fun and electrifying player, and it was good to see him back on the floor. But he needs to be cut from the final draft of this team.

That fact and many others came into clearer focus in the fourth quarter. The Spurs and Wolves were tied at 64 heading into the final frame, and the game to that point was reminiscent of the game against the Kings two weeks before where Minnesota just couldn’t put the hammer down through three quarters. Forgetting for a moment the disparity in quality between the Spurs (12-8) and Kings (6-13), the question was: could the Timberwolves once again clamp down and beat a team they had managed but not dominated for three quarters?

They did, holding the Spurs to 15 points, and this is where this draft of the story started coming into focus. Wayne Ellington made sense in the fourth quarter off the bench. He only scored four measly points, but his energy has increasingly worked well with Rubio’s style. For all of Nikola Pekovic’s shortcomings with regard to traveling and offensive and defensive fouls and three-second calls, his bullying, physical style works better for this team than Darko’s neutral, workmanlike efforts in the paint. Ridnour works much better as a secondary point guard and occasional floor general when Rubio is getting a breather.

The cohesion the Timberwolves showed in the fourth quarter is evidence of the team beginning to make sense. Whatever their individual abilities, Darko, Wes, and Beasley don’t seem destined for inclusion in the final draft. The guys like Webster, Ellington, Pekovic, and Tolliver provide better support for the main characters—Love and Rubio—here. And so the Timberwolves need to keep rewriting and refining but at least in this second or perhaps third draft, there’s a glimmer of hope that they’re working on something closer to The Great Gatsby than A Shore Thing.

Steve McPherson

The Timberwolves were kind enough to select the Wu-Tang themed Michael Beasley wallpaper I designed for their #votetwolves Wallpaper Contest as one of the winners, but I thought I’d post the other design I made with Ricky Rubio for your personal enjoyment right here. You can click on the one on the left for a 1280 x 1024 version and on the one on the right for a 1440 x 900 version.

The looks of disbelief have abated somewhat this season in the wake of Ricky Rubio’s arrival, but I had gotten pretty used to the dismissive comments that came along with admitting I was a Timberwolves fan over the last several years. “Oh really? I didn’t know there were any left,” was a typical one. But then again, I see Laker fans bemoaning their two-year drought since a championship and I think to myself, “At least I don’t have it as bad as they do.”

When it comes to Laker fans (or Yankee fans—you know what I mean: fans of perennially successful franchises), there seem to be only two settings: championship or immense disappointment. Anything less than the ultimate prize is worthless, the regular season doesn’t count, when are they going to turn it on, will they even be able to turn it on this season, etc. They must look at a team like the Timberwolves and wonder why we even bother. Sometimes I may have even wondered myself.

But there I was last Friday night, watching the Timberwolves struggle out of the gate against the newly ascendant Los Angeles Clippers. And they struggled and struggled before tying the game on a Rubio three on their penultimate possession and winning it on a Kevin Love three at the buzzer. The victory was sweet, but what made it sweet was not just the win, but the little things that went into it.

Rubio had been 0-10 from the floor up until that three dropped, scoring all of his points from the line. But when the ball rotated to him on the wing, taking the shot was the right thing to do and he let it sail with a hint of an expectant smile on his face. Even if he had missed it, it was the right shot to take, and not him forcing the action. It’s been apparent for some time, but that shot dropping was yet more evidence that Rubio has a real competitiveness lurking beneath his calm demeanor, a fire that helps him step up when it counts. That was part of it.

The other part was Love catching the inbounds pass and hitting that three as time expired. Credit Adelman with a beautifully drawn up play that had Rubio and Wayne Ellington screening DeAndre Jordan and thank ex-Wolf Randy Foye for not switching onto Love, but Love was the one who drilled the shot when he had missed a couple other shots that could have won them games earlier in the season. As he turned and strode towards mid-court, arms stretched out and his teammates running to mob him, it felt, well, not like a championship, but great.

And for now, a great feeling like that is all I need. Being a fan of an underdog means embracing the moment for what it is. Beating the Clippers in a regular season game, especially with Chris Paul out, doesn’t mean the Wolves have arrived, or even that they’re making the playoffs. Following that victory, the Timberwolves have dropped two in a row, but I’m still remembering the joy of that moment following Love’s three. No matter how well or poorly the Wolves end up faring in the future, I hope I never forget about the little happinesses.

Steve McPherson

There are three storyline going on in the NBA currently that do some damage to our tried and true notions of what it means to be the best player or the best team. Two of these narratives collided head-on last night when the Miami Heat roundly trounced the Los Angeles Lakers. On one side we had the Dwyane Wade-less Heat who have gone 5-0 since losing their star SG and on the other we have Kobe Bryant and the torn lunotriquetral ligament in his wrist. In spite of the injury, Kobe’s hoisting more shots per game (24.6) than at any other time in his career, save for the ’05-’06 season when he averaged 27.2 per game. The Lakers are 10-6 now, but it hasn’t been pretty.

I can’t sum up what the Heat’s 5-0 streak mean any better than Matt Moore over at CBS Sports already did, but what struck me about his post was the idea that while LeBron James is a better LeBron James without Wade on the floor, that might not be the best thing in the long run. “His mind is set free,” writes Moore, “his game has the shackles removed and he’s allowed to roam and own a game in the way he was created to do. But that’s the funny thing: LeBron might not ever have won a championship being the clear, indisputable best player in basketball.”

Determining the best player in basketball is a pastime beloved of sports fans, and we usually see it as inextricably linked to winning championships. After all, Michael Jordan was the best player in basketball while the Bulls were winning championships, right? James is constantly attacked for not being clutch or not being as good as Kobe, but the Heat’s victory last night made something clear: LeBron unleashed is a world destroyer. As Moore points out, the Heat without Wade are a better team than the Cavs ever were when LeBron was in Cleveland. Before the game, Twitter was aflutter with people saying James would sit because he was scared of Kobe. In imagining the most harmless James they could, it looks like those Lakers fans summoned the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

And Kobe just kept chucking in a manner you could call either heroic or stubborn. Today came word that Bryant has been talking to Dwight Howard about getting Howard to the Lakers, but the report also included the tidbit that Howard got the impression from Bryant that “he wouldn’t be the Lakers’ top offensive option, that it was in fact Bryant’s team.” There’s little doubt that no matter his injuries, no matter what it does to the team, Bryant is just not going to go gently into that good night.

So one side we have the superstar reining himself in in pursuit of a championship he might not be able to win playing all out and on the other, we have a superstar insisting that there is no way to win other than having the ball go through him. The third storyline here has to do with Michael Beasley and how the Timberwolves have played in his absence. Prior to the sprained foot that’s kept him out of the lineup, the Wolves were 2-5. Since, they’re 4-3. Now, a lot of things have happened since then, including Rubio being moved to the starting lineup, so I’m not saying correlation equals causation here.

But it’s plain that without Beasley, there’s been more ball movement and fewer contested midrange jumpers. OK, maybe not fewer teamwide, but fewer after a flurry of jab steps and head fakes from the left elbow. Last year, when Beasley was on his game, it felt like he was Minnesota’s best offensive option, the one guy who could at least sort of create his own shot when the game was on the line. And there are times during his absence this year that the Wolves have missed that element from the offense. But we’ve also seen Rubio, Love, and even Ridnour and Ellington step up their offense during this time. Like Beasley’s cut finger revealed his bone (not really, but there’s no reason not to link to that clip), his ankle sprain may be revealing something about the Timberwolves.

Beasley’s ceiling as a player is unmistakably lower than James’ or Bryant’s. But there’s reason to hope that when he does come back, the team will have evolved into a unit that opens up the floor more for his particular game. In the same way that Wade’s injury has both revealed how spectacularly good James is and how important a roster with more balance will be in the long run, Beasley’s injury may be helping the Timberwolves turn into a team that will fit him better when he returns. Bryant’s refusal to change his approach to fit the team the Lakers will become may not be hurting them badly now but it seems, ultimately, an approach doomed to fail.

Steve McPherson

As it stands, sources have the Timberwolves ready to offer Kevin Love a 4 year contract extension for a total of $60 million. In the new, post-lockout world of NBA contract negotiations, this basically means they’re offering him what any other team could offer him in free agency, but less than what the Timberwolves, as the team he’s currently under contract to, could. They can offer him 5 years at around $80 million—the offer that the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook just accepted.

Amazingly enough, the numbers are actually kind of beside the point here. Much more important than the dollars and cents is the idea of the “max contract” and whether or not Love is a “max” guy. People who think he’s not argue that he can’t create his own shot, can’t be the go-to guy on a championship team. People who think he is point to his historic numbers, the work ethic that led to him dropping 25 pounds in the offseason and developing his stepback jumper, the fact that he was the flashpoint for reinvigorating this franchise last year, even though Ricky Rubio has unquestionably brought the excitement.

And there’s the rub. Giving Love the max (that 5 year deal) means giving him the “designated player” tag, a new wrinkle in the CBA akin to the NFL’s franchise tag. It allows a team to pick one player they give that extra year and more money to and it was part of trying to make smaller market teams like the Timberwolves more competitive. But a team can only give that designation to one guy, so what happens when it’s Rubio’s turn to get that big contract?

There are about a dozen ways to look at this. People who’ve followed the Timberwolves will remember how they gave a huge contract to Kevin Garnett (6 years at $126 million), a deal that by most accounts led to the lockout of 1998 and also hamstrung the Wolves as they searched for help to put around Garnett. Nobody wants that again.

But the Wolves also can’t let Love walk away. They can’t worry about what will happen with Rubio in three and a half years when it’s his turn. Giving Love that max deal sends a signal that they support his hard work. You make the deal you can make today and worry about the deals down the road when they come up. If they support Love with this deal and things continue to get better and better in Minnesota, it will draw in veterans who will play for less and maybe even convince Rubio to stick around without that designated player tag.

Love’s in need of love today. The Timberwolves should offer him the max and do it now.

Steve McPherson