Hustle Plays

Food, foreign policy, and the full court press.

Teaching Mom to Cook: Tools of the Trade

My mom is incredibly difficult to buy gifts for.  I’ve already chronicled her food constraints, so gift baskets inevitably contain ingredients she’s allergic to.  Flowers mostly make her sneeze.  Jewelry is no good, since anything I’d buy her she could make better herself (and would love to explain to me how, in intricate detail).  So imagine my relief a couple weeks ago when I was video chatting with her in my kitchen, and she noticed something on my stove.  “Oh, is that your Dutch oven?  I really should get one of those.”

A Dutch oven is a thick walled pot with a tight-fitting lid.  Most are made out of enameled cast iron, meaning they’re oven-safe, nonstick, and can handle enough heat on a burner for deep-frying.  They’re incredibly versatile, and probably my most-used piece of cookware.  You can sauté vegetables, simmer soups, and even bake beautiful bread in a Dutch oven.  My favorite thing to do with a Dutch oven though, is braise.

Michael Ruhlman calls braising an “emblem of a true cook,” since it allows you to transform tough, inexpensive meats into tender, fully flavored treasures.  Fundamentally, braising is the process of cooking meats or vegetables in liquid in an oven.  The basic steps to braise anything are almost always the same, whether you’re making coq au vin or Guinness short ribs.  First, sear the meat in very hot oil.  The goal should be to create a crust on the outside of the meat, and it’s usually best to dredge the meat in flour before dropping it in the oil.  Remove the meat and let it sit, while leaving only a bit of the oil and rendered fat in the pot.

Next, add diced aromatic vegetables (called a mirepoix) over medium heat.  Aromatic vegetables- traditionally onion, carrots, and celery, though there are many possible permutations- flavor the braising liquid and meat.  First, sauté the vegetables until the onions turn translucent but don’t brown.  This process, called sweating, renders the water from the vegetables and concentrates their flavors.  Then stir in any spices or seasonings that you want to flavor the braising liquid.  Finally, add the braising liquid, and nestle the meat so that it’s mostly submerged, put the lid on (slightly ajar, so the braising liquid evaporates and cooks down) and stick it in a 275-300 degree oven until the meat is fork tender.

Braising is incredibly modular.  You can braise in stock, wine, beer, even water, and get delectable results.  Switch the aromatics or seasonings and you’ll end up with completely different dishes.  Further, you never have to worry about overcooking- the meat will only become more tender, and the flavors more intense.  These characteristics make braising ideal for a home cook experimenting with different flavors and or regional cuisines.  Get comfortable making braised short ribs in red wine, and you’re ready to make the best Moroccan lamb shanks you’ve ever eaten.  Start with the Bittman chicken dinner (I insist), and you’ve got all the skills you need to make Szechuan braised pork belly.

In a world focused on constantly increasing consumption and specialization, where Williams-Sonoma is trying to sell me a $40 meat pounder (just put a cutting board over the meat and pound it flat with a hammer), it’s important to remember that most delicious cooking comes down to a few techniques, tools, and ingredients.  Braising is an important weapon for the home cook, since it means you’ll never be presented with a cut of meat that can’t be turned into something delicious with a little care and time.

Burn On

Within 20 minutes of pulling into town I’m eating one of the best meals of my life.  Crop Bistro is a restaurant that could only exist in Cleveland and combines a lot of the city’s best qualities.  In a renovated bank building, it’s a breathtakingly massive space with 30-foot ceilings, marble columns and floors, and a private room in the old vault.  Large spaces between tables encourage a private atmosphere despite the cavernous interior.  The food, like the restaurant itself, is both decadent and elegant- a lobe of foie gras perfectly seared with blackberry gastrique, a lamb rack so tender the texture most resembled an egg yolk, and a surprise dessert: more foie gras served on a crisp waffle garnished with rosemary, honey, and black pepper ice cream.  Accompanied by a beautiful Black Bulleit cocktail, every aspect of the meal was remarkable.

The first thing that strikes you about people in Cleveland is the prominent chip on their shoulders, which with just a little effort immediately recedes to reveal some of the warmest and most generous souls I’ve ever encountered.  The character of the people shines through in the food and drinks- a wonderful thing in Cleveland, which in DC just results in a Chop’t on every corner.  Walking into a bar or restaurant with a local, and the first 10 minutes are spent on introductions- to the bartenders, to the servers, to the patrons who are often bartenders, servers, or cooks themselves. Then you’re offered whatever that particular establishment is best known for, like a rust belt San Sebastian.  Duck fat fries at Bar Cento, chicken wings at the Greenhouse Tavern, pickles and steam buns at Noodle Cat, a burger and Noble Savage cocktail at Lolita- seemingly everyone in Cleveland is doing something innovative and interesting and most are excited to talk about it.

My favorite aspect of Cleveland, and why it’s so important to me, is the way people have welcomed me as a part of their lives.  It seems completely foreign coming from DC, where so few people have real ties, but Clevelanders all feel like family.  People love like family, and fight like family, and it’s so natural, strong, and visceral because their relationships have been built over decades.  Most of all they’re proud of and passionate about their city, even when they’re bitching about it.  Every trip, I meet special people who take time out of their day to show me their favorite parts of the city.  I’ve been lucky to see so many perspectives of what people find compelling about their city and their lives.  So as long as I’m welcome, Cleveland will be my port in the storm, and I can’t wait to be back.

Bouncing the Ball

Larry Bird was recently asked what the biggest difference was between basketball today and when he first came in the league.  His answer should be obvious to anyone who has watched an NBA Hardwood Classic recently.  “Ball handling,” Larry said, “Guys handle the ball so much better these days.”  He’s clearly right.  Watch a game from the 1980s and the most striking visual is how…well, goofy most of the guys look while dribbling.  They lope up the court, bouncing the ball too high and struggling with their off-hand.  The development of ball handling in basketball has been, perhaps, the most fundamental aesthetic change to the sport over the past 30 years.  The reasons for this evolution are countless, intertwined, and reinforcing, but three stand out.

1)    The institutionalization of youth basketball

By the time players reach the NBA, the foundation for their ball handling abilities is already established.  Subtle adjustments and developments can make huge impacts on the professional level, but fundamental ball handling mechanics like the height of their dribble, or their basic crossovers, are shaped at a young age.  25 years ago, an epoch in the professional basketball timeline, talented young players honed their skills on playgrounds, and with their local junior high and high school teams during basketball season.  Most of the time they played basketball, it was unstructured playground pickup.  Today, most talented basketball players are scouted from elementary school and pulled into the AAU system, a union of amateur teams and leagues of all ages, where they’re ferried across the country to tournaments.  While the summer circuits have been criticized as destructive to team play and overly focused on publicizing star players, they’re extremely effective tools for individual skill development.  Players that would otherwise be playing baseball or hanging out at the pool are instead playing hundreds of games and practices against top competition from around the world. 

2)    The positional revolution

Lebron James, according to reliable accounts, has added at least 40 pounds of muscle in recent years, which would make him 30 pounds heavier than Karl Malone during his playing days.  But Lebron handles the ball as much, and as gracefully, as any point guard.  The disparity between the ball handling abilities of point guards and other positions has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades.  ESPN writer Chris Broussard recently penned an article lamenting the lack of quality traditional big men in the NBA.  His hypothesis is that those AAU teams I mentioned previously put a premium on perimeter individual skills, rather than the coordinated offensive sets that lead to quality post opportunities.  Big men, who would be firmly planted in the low post on a strictly coached team, are instead fighting for touches with greedy guards in freewheeling AAU games.  To ensure they get shots they have to develop games away from the basket.

3)    The rise of long-range shooting

Basketball commentators love nothing more than lamenting the demise of midrange jump shooting in the NBA.  They romanticize the few players left who dart around screens like a maze, only to plant, pivot, and fire from the elbow extended.  But here’s the thing about those shots- THEY’RE THE LEAST EFFICIENT SHOT IN BASKETBALL.  Almost every player in basketball would be better-served by stepping further out and taking a three-pointer or figuring out a way to get closer to the basket.  Basketball tactics took a remarkably long time to catch on to this basic mathematical reality- Larry Bird, who many would consider the most talented shooter of all-time, averaged 1.9 three-point attempts per game in his career.  In contrast, Ryan Anderson led the league with 6.9 attempts this season.  All these long-range bombers spread defenses, encouraging those talented ball handlers to exploit gaps and draw and kick.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Blake Griffin

By Maxwell Kuhl

Kevin Arnovitz interviewed Clippers GM Neil Olshey on the NBA Today podcast on Friday and much of the conversation involved Blake Griffin. Olshey is rather politic when responding to questions about players’ and fans’ responses to Griffin this year, only addressing the narrowest and most selfish criticism of the player. He says, to paraphrase, that other players are jealous and embarrassed about getting dunked on, and that (non-Clipper) fans are angry because this season those dunks are contributing more to victories than to highlight-heavy losses.

Olshey’s right, to an extent. It’s certainly embarrassing for players caught in Griffin’s wake, and it’s certainly true that teams take the Clippers more seriously this year. But those are simplified and reductive explanations for something more nuanced, and they don’t exactly address what frustrates, or outright angers, players and fans about Griffin’s antics. People aren’t outraged, as Olshey puts it, because Griffin is being indulgent. If they do then a) they’re wrong, and b) the guy plays on an NBA team in LA…who cares? They’re angry, in part, because he’s using his off-hand to half-strangle defenders when he elevates for a dunk in traffic, which, if it isn’t a foul, isn’t far from it. They’re angry because he’s violently hurling his body at people, and increasingly using them as speed bumps, and then looking down at them as though they were. Then he scowls, snarls, and throws up his hands if he does not get a foul call.

Arnovitz, who is just about as NBA realpolitik as anyone, doesn’t push Olshey on the borderline-offensive-fouls, or the flops, or the larger sense of entitlement the Clippers exude (and haven’t earned). Maybe the setting is wrong. Or maybe Arnovitz actually thinks that what’s going on is just that the Clippers are getting “a little nasty,” which is a necessary step in the direction of becoming a contender. But, while there are some inevitable growing pains to becoming a more serious and more respected basketball team, people aren’t often angered by generalities; they’re angered by specific events, like a flop, or a wild, possibly very dangerous move to the basket. If players get angry, or he gets a strong bump, it’s just as much because he’s flailed his body at them than dunked over them.  

Collectively, all those flops, flails, and protests make some people uneasy. They suggest, again, a surprising sense of entitlement from a team that hasn’t done much yet. But all those dunks and clever plays and wins also make (probably a lot more) people happy. I suspect that the reason more players haven’t tried to lay Griffin out is because he has not—until recently—seemed to take the game personally. Even now his most electric dunks are, as Olshey points out, “the best basketball move” to make at the time. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite of what Olshey thinks people are angry about: rather than indulgently preening his way to the basket, and making everyone aware of him, Griffin seems entirely unconcerned with the defenders around him. It’s always struck me that he’s not trying to embarrass anyone; he’s not even acknowledging they’re there. I think it’s that, more than jealously, that offends players.

The most obvious response to all this is that Griffin, rather than toning it down, diversify his game a little, and learn how to make free throws. Those would be unquestionably good things: the lane would open up more, and players would be less likely to foul him (hard). He’d also probably fade less toward the end of games. But diversifying his game wouldn’t necessarily resolve the actual issues, and wouldn’t necessarily make him a more sophisticated player emotionally, aesthetically, or rhythmically. “Diversifying his game,” in other words, won’t give him a better attitude, improve his decision making, or teach him when to take over a game. Griffin can have a jump shot, and good free throw numbers, and pass out of a double team and still be a one sided player. In fact, that might be just what Chris Paul needs.

Teaching mom to cook: first steps

Frantic.  Stressful.  Anxious.  These are words that many people associate with cooking.  Economists use the term “barriers to entry” when describing the relative difficulties in breaking into a given market or industry.  Cooking often seems to have a lot of barriers to entry.  Traditionally, you need a semi-operable kitchen with a stove and an oven.  Then there’s pots and pans, a good knife, maybe even plates and silverware.  You’ll need enough time to shop for food, and some way of getting to and from a grocer.  With all these investments, stakes can seem high to those who want to take the plunge and make their own meals.  And your reward, at least initially, for all this trouble?  Too often we feel bewildered and overwhelmed: the water’s boiling over on the stovetop, the roast burned while you were cleaning up the water, everything tastes bland and uninspired, and looks nothing like the picture.  Experience will resolve many of these tensions, of course.  But in hopes of speeding up the process, here are a few things I learned the hard way that I wish somebody had just told me.

1)    Prepare everything before you heat anything

There’s a reason recipes list the ingredients required before discussing the actual steps of cooking.  When I was just starting to cook, I’d be so excited to start applying fire to stuff, like an impetuous caveman, that I’d just plunge into the first step of whatever I was making, thinking that I could peel, chop, or mince everything else on the fly.  Inevitably, something would take too long to chop, or I’d get distracted trying to multi-task and would burn whatever was on the stove.  Above all, everything would feel rushed and my anticipated sense of satisfaction was replaced by adrenaline and stress.  In professional kitchens, organizing and arranging ingredients at a station is called mise en place, and is one of first lessons of culinary school.  The essential lesson of mise en place is that by investing time in getting yourself organized early, you’ll save time and minimize the risk of screwing something up.

2)    Prep smarter not harder

Prep can be a pain in the ass.  While the simple rituals of dicing or chopping can be quite satisfying – I’m reminded of a girl at a Zen monastery who once told my friend Dave, “My soul is most quiet while chopping vegetables,” - only the most obsessive-compulsive among us enjoys peeling potatoes or stripping thyme leaves from their stems.  Thankfully, there are a couple simple tips to making prep as easy as possible.  First, invest in a set of cheap mixing bowls.  There’s nothing more annoying than trying to keep things organized and work cleanly when you don’t have anywhere to put your finished ingredients.  Second, use one of those bowls as a countertop trash.  You’ll find it immeasurably easier to dice an onion or peel a carrot when you’re not constantly ferrying back and forth between the trashcan and the countertop.  Third, a sharp chef’s knife is an essential investment for any semi-serious cooking.  You don’t need a $150 set of Miyabis (though they’re AWESOME), but you do need one simple $30 chef’s knife, like this one.  The first time you cut with a decent knife will be revelatory- like the first time driving a car with power steering. 

3)    Don’t Underseason

Read any introductory cookbook or listen to any professional chef talk about the common mistakes of home cooks and you’re bound to hear about the importance of proper seasoning.  Simply put, the easiest thing you can do right now to make your food taste better is to use proper amounts of salt and pepper.  Salt is an incredible tool that changes everything it touches on a molecular level.  It permeates organic materials and extracts water, concentrating the flavors of meats, fruits, and vegetables.  It gives depth and flavor to sauces and soups.  It makes savory food more savory, and sweets sweeter.  So season aggressively, and season continuously.  Sensitivities to salt differ, so the easiest way to control salt levels is to add it throughout cooking.  But if you’re wondering why the food you cook tastes flat, the most likely answer is that it is underseasoned.  Finally, don’t use table salt or iodized salts, since they have additives that can leave an unpleasant, coppery flavor.  Rather, use a coarse kosher salt, like Morton’s.

Teaching Mom to Cook Part One: Meet Momma Wu

I love food.  I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food.  Often, while at lunch, I find myself pondering where and what I’ll eat for dinner.  I’ve only grown more obsessed the past couple years, as I’ve started cooking for fun (and relaxation) instead of the sheer survival instinct the drives most of us to the kitchen in college.  While before my repertoire consisted of eggs and microwaved quesadillas, now I’ll spend a day making veal stock so I can spend another day making a Ragu Bolognese.  My dad’s mostly like me - my parents’ best friend once said it was good we had each other because nobody else could stand how much we think and talk about food.

My mom has never shared our passion for food (besides chocolate).  There are a few reasons for this.  First, her food choices are extraordinarily constrained.  When she was in college she learned that she was allergic to a wide range of foods, including mainstays of American culinary culture like pork, barley, soy, salmon, lamb, and coffee.  A couple years ago she got tested again, and learned that she was highly allergic to beef.  Finally, a few months ago she learned she could no longer eat wheat.  Obviously, with so few choices it becomes much harder to eat at restaurants.  But it also requires thought, technique, and creativity to even get enough nutrition cooking at home

Recently we were talking about another cause of my mom’s indifference to food: growing up in an era when food culture was all about convenience.  With TV dinners, Rice-a-Roni, Hamburger Helper, the food industry became the food-industrial complex while she was growing up, as companies sought to increase profits while faced with the “fixed stomach” of America’s steady 1% annual population growth.  Her mom worked throughout her childhood and the kids had to make dinner, which usually meant boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese. And my mom’s always had a demanding career, so she’s always placed a premium on the convenience promised by Eggo Waffles, Poptarts, and Lean Cuisines. 

Since she’s abandoned the office to make beautiful things, she’s also becoming more interested in cooking.  While I suspect her newfound interest might be a ploy to get me to call home more often, I’m certainly not complaining.  In the series of posts that follows, I’ll talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned while growing as an amateur cook, and chronicle my mom’s adventures in the culinary arts.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Asking the Warriors to trade their top scorer in order to establish a strategic vision for the future of the team without posing some suggestions for what to actually trade him for would be a little like writing about foreign policy for Newsweek.  So I asked my friend Brian Bottari, the Cézanne of tradecrafting, to propose a few possible directions for the team. 

N.B.: Links to the trades are the involved teams in bold

By Brian Bottari

Disclaimer: As a 49er fan/Laker fan/new father I have watched approximately 90 minutes of NBA basketball this year.  At first, I blamed this fact on the 49er fan/new father traits. In actuality, it is the Laker fan in me who is putting the kibosh on my NBA enjoyment.

No, it isn’t because they suck this year. They’ve played slow, unentertaining basketball for practically the entire Kobe 3.0 era.  And they’ve had more than enough success to allow them a good decade or so of mediocrity.  The fact is I’m still furious about the Chris Paul hijacking.  Since the games started every NBA fan has completely forgotten about this travesty, probably because it is the Lakers (who cares if the Evil Empire gets dicked, right?).  I didn’t even like the trade for the Lake Show, but I just cannot shake my feelings that the Association is completely illegitimate now.  As much as I love what is going on this year (especially in Minnesota), it’s like watching the WWE in the glory days of my youth. The Rock and Stone Cold are fun, but I can’t summon anything more than detached bemusement when I watch.

That said, I’ll never resist an opportunity to mess with the trade machine.  Here are some Monta deals that likely make no sense at all but sure are fun to talk about:

Makes the team better/ About the same

Warriors-Trailblazers

PRO: Makes them better immediately. Love the Beans to Camby upgrade. Long term is more of a question but it unloads Beans’ deal.

CON: This may cost them their draft pick this year (top 7 protected) if Camby has enough left in the tank. Creates a Felton/Steph problem in the backcourt.

MMW Take:  I love this trade for a number of reasons.  First, it makes the Blazers an incredibly fun team, conceptually.  They’d have no true point guard, but a plethora of fast, long, athletic players that could press and trap on the wings, much as the Memphis Grizzlies did so effectively in last year’s playoffs.  That said, I don’t know if the Blazers would be willing to piss off LaMarcus Aldridge by making this trade.  He’s already been lamenting the loss of Andre Miller and the stream of easy lobs he got in years past.  For the Warriors, this is a no-brainer.  They clear an extra $20 million in cap space leaving them with just $26 million in guaranteed salaries for next year.  That means they would have room to add two max contracts.  Even in an iffy year for free agency, that much room, wisely spent, could transform the Warriors while they retain Steph and David Lee.

Warriors-Grizzlies

PRO: This one has been discussed ad nauseum. Still think it makes sense for both teams basketball-wise.

CON: A cap-crippler. Would doom the Dubs to their patented mediocrity for the foreseeable future.  To take on $60M over 4 for Gay he’d better be the last piece you need. He isn’t.

MMW Take: I would be much more eager to acquire Rudy Gay before he got hurt last season.  Gay began last season playing much better defense and sharing the ball more on offense.  He’s regressed somewhat on the offensive end, relying again on his stepback isolation jumpshot instead of getting to the basket and racking up free throw attempts.  Still, this deal makes a lot of sense from a roster balance prospective.  Klay Thompson, after looking like a lost boy (and not Rufio) in the first quarter of the season, was extremely impressive in the past two weeks.  In fact, he’s the best shooter in the league this year when he doesn’t have to take a dribble, according to Synergy Sports.  If Klay/Dorrell/Brandon Rush can team with Gay on the wings, and Steph could stay healthy enough to run the point, it seems possible that core could develop in a positive direction.  Again, this does nothing to address the fundamental problems of the Warriors (like getting outrebounded by 20 against the hapless Anaheim Kings), but it would be a step in creating an NBA roster instead on an NBA sideshow.

 Warrior-Trailblazers-Suns

PRO: Nash makes Portland a title contender- goes home (ish) to the Pac Northwest; GSW gets a nice expiring deal/trade chip in Felton and a great backcourt mate for Curry; Sarver gets some talent to keep butts in the seats.

CON: Nash would have to demand the trade, because Sarver won’t blink.

MMW Take:  Now we’re talking.  This trade seems to benefit everyone.  First, the Warriors add a perfect compliment to Steph (and by all accounts one of the best people in the league) in Wesley Matthews.  Matthews is having an off-shooting season, but is an extremely efficient offensive player and a hardnosed defender.  According to 82games.com, Matthews is holding opposing 2s to an abysmal 11.1 PER.  They also clear enough cap room to offer a max free agent contract this offseason, and might be bad enough to retain their draft pick from Utah.  Most importantly, this trade gives the Warriors a clear set of assets and a way to maximize the value of those assets.  Portland would be a clear favorite to take on Oklahoma City in the West, and Phoenix would have a scorer to build around as they bottom out.  I’d feel bad for Monta since he would be playing for one of the worst teams in the league, but I’d get over it.

Makes the team worse

Warriors-Pacers 

PRO: Major salary dump with promising young SG in return in George. Makes team worse in the short term to hold on to 2012 1st rounder. Celts get to begin the rebuilding process with the most entertaining backcourt in the league. Ray Allen was born to shoot J’s in a barn in Indiana. Indiana gets to take a shot.

CON:  I love everything about this one. Indiana probably says no, right.

MMW Take:  While I love the idea of Ray Allen increasing his lead over Reggie Miller in career 3-point makes in a Pacer uniform, there’s no way this trade is happening.  Indiana is one of the best-positioned teams in the league for the next three years, and their problem is the lack of ball movement in their offense, not the lack of shooting.  Also, Paul George will be a star in three years, and the Pacers, unfortunately, know this.  If the 2011 draft were to take place today, George would be taken, at worst, 3rd behind John Wall and Greg Monroe (and 135 places before Ekpe Udoh).  Replace Paul George with George Hill, and the Pacers might think twice about this deal.  However, the Celtics seem to be back on track with Paul Pierce leading the charge back to relevancy, so I don’t see the Celts breaking things up before this offseason.

Warriors-Nuggets-Pacers

(1st Rd pick from DEN to GSW)

PRO:  Indiana gets the PG they need; Monta would be FUN in Denver; GSW gets a great young 2.

CON: Indiana may not want to part with Hill – substitute Paul George and it’s still a good deal for GSW.

MMW Take:  I love this deal, and I think it’s got a fair chance of happening.  Ty Lawson has been hurt pretty often this season, and Monta fits exactly what the Nuggets are trying to do.  George Karl is on record as a Monta Ellis fan.  The Pacers have been on a hunt for a true point guard, and Miller somehow manages to keep steadily performing despite an offseason regimen centered around, well… not picking up a basketball.  The Pacers would likely advance past the first round of the playoffs and have the most money to spend in free agency this offseason.  In fact, the only thing that would give me pause as the Warriors is the concern that any free agent I pursued (see Gordon, Eric) would be more likely to jump to Indianapolis than Oakland.  Then again, have you been to Indianapolis?

Warriors-Celtics 

PRO: Major fire sale. Gets rid of atrocious Lee deal and allows team to bottom out if KG lets it happen. Same as above for Celts.

CON: KG goes on killing spree around Bay Area and writes “UBUNTU” in the blood of virgins all over the walls of SF MOMA.

MMW Take:  For the safety of children throughout the Bay Area, let’s hope this doesn’t happen.

Trade Monta Now

Warriors fans have an appropriate soft spot for Monta Ellis.  After all, this precocious dynamo was sliding between defenders and gliding in for finger rolls during the height of contemporary Bay Area basketball.  We lived through his haughty hoops adolescence, as he struggled to carry a team that he never should have been asked to, as his friends and mentors were replaced with other teams’ spare parts, and his coach appeared more interested in Maui than player development.  Finally, we saw him mature and emerge as a leader.  But the vast majority of Golden State fans and NBA experts agree that the Warriors are going nowhere fast. 

At 7-12 despite a home-heavy early schedule, a short 66-game season to make up for lost time, and a tough Western Conference where 36-30 might be the cutoff for the playoffs, the Warriors’ chance to make the playoffs, according to John Hollinger’s calculations, is 2.3%.

Worse, the path to future improvement couldn’t be less clear.  Stephen Curry’s recurring ankle injuries have raised doubts about his chances for future superstardom.  The Mark Jackson regime has yet to find an offensive or defensive identity.  The Warriors, with their current roster, won’t have enough cap space to offer a max contract to a free agent this summer.  And in a draft loaded with the lanky, athletic, defensive-minded wings and big men, the Warriors won’t have a first round pick unless they land in the top-7 of the lottery.

The silver lining behind the 18-year cloud of Warriors mediocrity and incompetence is that there’s never been a better time for the big shakeup that Joe Lacob and the new ownership group have repeatedly promised.  That shakeup should begin with trading Monta Ellis as quickly as possible, and it doesn’t really matter what we get back for him.

Consider the three possible consequences of trading Ellis:

1)    The team improves

If the Warriors trade Monta for an established star, or a collection of useful veterans, then the team might improve this season.  That would be a positive outcome for Warriors fans for a couple reasons.  First, and most obviously, we’d like our team to win more now.  Second, the Warriors will probably have some cap space this offseason, and an improved team would be more attractive to free agent targets.  Finally, winning a few games would be helpful for a team with little experience of success and a recent history of late game collapses.

2)    The team gets worse

If the Warriors traded Monta for a package of unrealized assets (prospects, draft picks, and/or expiring contracts to clear cap space), then they would probably be awful the remainder of the season.  Anyone who has watched the Warriors this season should realize that Monta is the central driver of the Warriors offense.  He’s currently 6th in the league in Usage Rate, finishing 28.6% of Golden State possessions, which is a career high.  It’s tough to criticize Monta for his monopolization of the ball, given Steph’s injuries and the dearth of other teammates able to create offense. 

So the Warriors would be among the worst teams in the league.  The key point to remember is that Utah currently owns the rights to Golden State’s first-round draft pick unless it is in the top-7.  Therefore, any trade the Warriors make that guts the team would also give them a better shot at retaining that draft pick.  As I mentioned, draft experts consider this year’s class to be loaded, with nearly all the top prospects projected to improve the Warriors at key needs positions (basically, every position but point guard).  The case for tanking this season is overwhelmingly persuasive.  High lottery picks are incredibly valuable, since teams control the contracts of rookies for at least four years, and new evidence is that player performance actually peaks far earlier than previously believed.  Few teams around the league would trade a top-7 draft pick for Monta straight up, but that’s what the Warriors would be doing ostensibly if they packaged him for cap relief and/or future assets.

3)    The team plays about the same

It is, of course, possible that the Warriors trade Monta for roughly equal value and the team stays at its current pace.  But even then Monta’s value around the league, and his relatively reasonable contract, means that he could probably be packaged with one of the Warriors’ more onerous contracts to provide cap relief heading into free agency this summer, a move which became necessary after the Warriors exercised (squandered) their amnesty clause on Charlie Bell before the season.  Further, trading Monta would force the Warriors to try some new things.  Without Monta as sole creator, we could see if Steph could handle being the primary focus of the offense, whether any of our wing players could create on his own, or whether the team should focus more on half-court execution, offensively and defensively, instead of on turnovers and transition opportunities. 

It is important for the Warriors management to come to a decision soon.  Playoff teams looking for scoring (Portland, Dallas, Chicago, Philly, Memphis?) will want to give Monta a chance to adjust to a new role, and the Warriors need to improve or get worse very quickly in order to find a long-term strategic vision for the franchise.  Yet another season of mediocrity, rather than sheer dreadfulness, would be doubly disastrous this year because we would lose an extremely important opportunity to improve.  Thus far, the Lacob regime has rushed to make a big deal, sacrificing any sense of larger strategic focus.  This is the Warriors chance to shake things up in way that makes sense.

Real Talk: An NBA Dialogue

Lob Angeles?

MK: I want to start by asking you what you make of the Clippers so far? I’ve got specific questions, but first I wanted to get your general impression.

MW: When I see the Clippers it just reinforces my impression of the importance of NBA coaching.  Too often, we’re told coaching and schemes don’t matter.  NBA offensive sets are usually designed to get guys the ball in space so they can create on their own.  So if you’re trying to judge the success of a particular NBA possession, the criteria should be whether Kobe or Dirk got the ball at the elbow, or whether Al Jefferson was able to get position on the left block, etc.  But where coaching really matters in the NBA is broader strategy.  

For example, Stan Van Gundy explicitly tells his other guys not to crash the offensive boards, because Dwight Howard can do it by himself, and stopping the opposing team’s fast break is paramount.  SVG also puts an extreme emphasis on getting the most efficient shots in basketball: 3-pointers in the corner or shots close to the rim.  The Clipper’s clearly outmatched Vinny Del Negro, on the other hand, seems unable to maintain that kind of strategic focus.  Rather, any offensive brilliance from the Clippers is due to CP3’s singular creative abilities- whether by breaking down his man and getting in the lane, as you noted in your article, or by getting his defender leaning back and hitting an open 18-footer.  I have few doubts that if you switched SVG and VDN the Clippers would be an elite team, and the Magic would be a fringe playoff team.  

MK: The strongest argument for you point, I think, is what’s happened with the Bulls since VDN left. Tom Thibodeau has taken largely the same personnel and turned it into an overwhelming defensive team, and a number one playoff seed. The most striking thing for me though, when I watch the Clippers play-and this may be a coaching thing as well-is that Blake Griffin will just disappear for long stretches, especially in the second halves of games. His virtues don’t seem to translate well into “taking over a game,” or, at least, getting points when his team begins to struggle. Last night, against the Timberwolves, towards the end of the the game he had a couple of nice kick-outs to Chauncey Billups…and that was about it. And then, defensively, he’s struggling to cover. Am I being too hard on him? Are things like, “taking over a game” just cliches?

MW:  Well Blake clearly can’t be viewed as an elite scorer yet. Despite being 12th in the league in scoring last year, he was 38th in “clutch scoring” according to 82games.com (defined as the last five minutes of the 4th quarter, with neither team up more than five).  He scores his points off his remarkable athleticism and hustle, which means that he will struggle to be a primary option in the way I was talking about earlier.  When you think about NBA offensive sets, they’re designed to get guys in positions where they’re comfortable scoring.  Where would you say that is for Blake?  He’s got the beginnings of a post game, with that hard dribble to the middle and spin back baseline.  He’s got the beginnings of a midrange game (though I think his shooting mechanics are going to hold him back from a Karl Malone-like transformation).  But none of that has really coalesced into a complete set of offensive tools.  I haven’t seen a counter-move for when guys overplay that spin in the post, or a triple-threat jab series to create space for a reliable mid-range jumper.  I imagine he’ll develop those tools within the next few years, much as Karl Malone or Amare Stoudemire did.  But without them, he can’t be relied on to score against tough, system-conscious defenders at the end of games.  

MK: Well I think that what’s really compelling about Griffin, and where he is really elite, is in his ability to change the space around himself. Vertically, horizontally, he can stretch open space farther than anyone else, turning a ho-hum pick and roll into something remarkable. The way he gets separation from other players is really unparalleled, but it’s also difficult to consistently include into an offensive set because the timing needs to be so precise. I don’t know how, or if, that translates into his being quiet in the second half, but he seems to drop off as the game goes on and the defense (he’s facing) settles into their rotations.

South Beach Toughness?

MW: So you were commenting on how tough the Heat seem to play this year- showing a nasty, physical streak you felt was missing last season.  Can you elaborate?

MK: Yeah, I noticed something in the Lakers-Heat game the other night I hadn’t noticed before, which is that the Heat centers and forwards bang really hard under the basket. I’m not saying that they play dirty, but the bump guys as the ball is going in the air and they contest every single rebound. The Lakers’ big men were getting frustrated, and at one point Mike Brown ran onto the court at the beginning of a timeout to scream at the refs. For a team that regularly plays small ball, probably better than any team in the NBA, they play very physically.

They also thrive in the open court, which is sort of paradoxical to their presence on the defensive glass. So what’s interesting to me is that no other fast paced, small ball/open court team has also gone with a bump-and-bang, lock down man-to-man defense (compare, Don Nelson or Mike D’Antoni’s teams). Typically those fast, pressing teams predicate their defense on steals and deflections, not on smothering players. But Miami switches aesthetics quickly, which catches their opponents off guard. Does that make sense?

MW: I think you’ve gotten to the heart of what makes the Heat so impressive and unique.  The Heat played at the 20th fastest pace in the league last year.  This year they’re 2nd.  As you mention, one would expect them to allow a higher field goal percentage as a result, since their opponents would be getting more fast breaks and putbacks with the Heat constantly getting out on the break.  Instead, they’re holding teams to 42.9% from the field, down from 43.4% last year.  Now some of that is because offenses are down league-wide due to the lockout (thanks again NBA owners).  But the Heat have also jumped from 28th in the league in forcing turnovers last season to 3rd this season.  So through a lot of double-teaming, and by having the 2nd most dominating defensive presence in basketball, they’re able to shut off the paint while still forcing turnovers and getting out on the break.

MK: And they haven’t played a game that I’ve seen where they weren’t in a position to win. I understand that most NBA games are very close, I think the average margin is around three points a game, but they always look like the better team. During the first half of their loss to the Clippers it looked like they were playing against a great UNC or Kansas team: they made the Clippers look limited in a way that no other team has this year. In short, the Heat seem to be able to assert their game on their opponents, and dominate them on both sides of the ball, and really everywhere on the court. That sounds simple, but I mean literally everywhere: on the boards, on the break, in the paint, from distance. They never look rattled, even when they lose, and they frankly look angry, which they should be from getting so much shit thrown at them last season. I’m not saying that their attitude is responsible for their stats, but it’s part of their taking over every single aspect of the game. They are having success forcing their opponents out of rhythm, which is more than most of the best teams can say this year.

Run [To Dallas] DMC

Update: Never mind.

Sacramento Kings Coach Paul Westphal, an infamously nice guy still living off the glory years of the early 1990s Phoenix Suns (aren’t we all), has finally had enough of DeMarcus Cousins.  According to Westphal’s public statement, DeMarcus demanded a trade.  Westphal responded, “in the best interest of our team as we go forward, [DeMarcus] has been directed by me, with the support of management, to stay home from the New Orleans game.”  Most of the NBA punditry has interpreted Westphal’s statement to indicate that DeMarcus Cousins is unlikely to play another game in a Kings uniform.

DMC’s first year with the Kings was, by any measure, tumultuous.  He was kicked off the team plane and suspended after taking a swing at teammate Donte Greene for not passing him the ball on an inbounds play.  His suspension was the climactic conflict in a year where he was kicked out of practice and fined multiple times for arguing with assistant coaches and trainers.  And that’s just the stuff we know about.

And yet, someone will give him another chance.  They’ll be right to do it, too, because DeMarcus Cousins could be a superstar if he channeled his considerable talents.  He combines exceptional strength, quickness, and footwork with a tremendous wingspan and 7-foot frame.  He possesses a remarkable collection of skills; he has a fundamentally sound and repeatable jump shot, understands how and why to fake in the post, and is an aggressive rebounder.  Watch this video- there simply aren’t 10 basketball players in the world capable of making those moves.  On the other hand, John Hollinger described him as possibly “the most inefficient player in basketball.”  DMC shot 43% from the field, turned the ball over incessantly, and struggled to contain less talented players defensively because of lackluster conditioning and effort.

The Dallas Mavericks currently sit in last place in the Western Conference after winning the NBA title last season.  After an offseason that saw them lose their starting center and primary rim protector Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks planned to start Brendan Haywood and go small with Dirk Nowitzki at center more often.  The Mavs 1-4 start could be blamed on adjustments to the new system, or slow starts as their geriatric rotation rounds into shape, but I think they’re at a severe talent deficit.  The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were the weakest NBA Champion since the 1994-95 Houston Rockets.  They went 57-25, but had the scoring margin of a team winning only 53 games.  They were the classic “whole greater than the sum of its parts” collection that gelled at the right time and met a Miami Heat team before Erik Spoelstra met Chip Kelly.  Now that the parts are correctly tabulated, Dallas may need a talent infusion just to make the playoffs, much less contend to protect their crown.

Dallas should pursue a trade for DeMarcus Cousins.  DMC helps the Mavericks in every way they need it.  Teams are focusing on Nowitzki’s high post game, and with Brendan Haywood dropping every pass thrown his way teams have little incentive to stop running extra defenders at Nowitzki to protect the rim.  With Cousins, the Mavericks would have an enviable high-low post threat that would punish defenders leaving to double either player.  Cousins, an extremely talented, if somewhat reckless passer, would compliment the Mavericks offense predicated on passing angles from the high post to the baseline and corners, and from the low post to the opposite wings.  Moreover, Cousins would hopefully be catalyzed by playing in an offense that creates opportunities for bigs, instead of the Kings’ “glorified pickup game” offense.  Cousins was assisted on less than a third of his buckets at the rim last year, by far the lowest percentage among NBA big men, while Dallas had the second highest assist total in the league.

Without including a third team, this trade seems to be the only possible candidate.  Dallas has been extremely reluctant to discuss trading French speedster Roddy Beaubois, but with their season off to a terrible start, and with Beaubois the Mavs’ only young player coveted by other teams, acquiring the mercurial but gifted Cousins is a worthwhile risk.  For Sacramento, Beaubois provides the closest thing to a point guard on a team that starts inveterate gunner Marcus Thorton at the 1, and another asset in the backcourt to be developed for the future or flipped.  Above all, basketball fans win in this trade.  DeMarcus Cousins is one of the few young post threats left in a game increasingly driven by point guards free from hand checks and physical play, and seeing him waste such a collection of talents should pain anyone truly committed to the game.