Minute Basketball: Inertia
|Louis Zatzman and Samson Folk||Jan 7|
Inertia could be the most powerful force in human society. We take the path of least resistance for as long as it can lift our loping bodies. It’s not criticism. It’s the way we are. It’s true in sports, politics, romance, you name it. Humans can get used to practically anything. And when we’re used to something, we do nothing to change the way it is. Sometimes even fight to keep it the same.
We see it in every level of the NBA. We see NBA teams like the New York Knicks trying desperately to sell the broken husks of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, or Andrea Bargnani, or Tracy McGrady, Rasheed Wallace, or Mike Bibby. It’s easier to sign a star with broken knees than build a team the right way. It’s a shortcut, but one that takes the better part of a decade to get to the other side and build a winner. The Knicks have been Knicksing for long that they’ve become a caricature of themselves, leaning into the dysfunction. It’s what they know.
It doesn’t just take hold of entire teams. We see NBA players subsumed by inertia. Kenneth Faried was once a star in the making, a Team USA player, who failed to adapt to a changing league and never fulfilled his promise. He was one of the aesthetically coolest players around, who lived on dunks, blocks, and locs, and even he couldn’t cut it after the league passed him by.
That’s part of inertia: losing, falling behind. When you hold the line and the world passes you by regardless. Some respond poorly, with violence. Others improve themselves.
Inertia can also be a powerful force on the court, when players make no choice at all and allow defenders to fly by, their overeagerness their undoing. Think Andre Miller or Kyle Anderson or sometimes even LeBron James.
This week in Minute Basketball, we’re diving into the successes and the failures of inertia.
The Raptors might not be the Raptors anymore
Inertia could be part of the problem with the Toronto Raptors. You can be so good for so long that you can believe it’ll last forever. But Toronto’s slowly bled talent over the years. DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. All come and gone. They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow.
And that’s not necessarily a problem! The team still has plenty of talent. Like, reigning All-NBA Second Team wing Pascal Siakam, or six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, or soon-to-be first-time All-Star Fred VanVleet. (Calling my shot now.) OG Anunoby hasn’t had a great start to the season, but his defense is earth-shattering.
And beyond that? The team has been holding pat for what’s seemed like an eternity, but it’s left the cupboard barer than expected. Toronto’s brand new starting center seems a pale shadow of himself from past years. He clogs the offensive lanes rather than opening them for teammates, and he can’t catch a rebound if there’s even minimal competition.
Last year was a career year for approximately half the Toronto roster. That's an unprecedented improvement, but it’s not sustainable. So the team hired stopgap solutions coming into 2020-21, expected internal improvement, and hoped to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo in what was planned to be the only coup of 2021. None of that happened.
Instead Toronto seems subsumed by inertia. They remain exceptionally talented at the top end of the roster, but the bench doesn’t have enough two-way players to fill the cracks. And the team coasts along, now at 1-6, still sprinting towards a plan A that stopped existing the second Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee.
At the same time, the players themselves must be feeling some sort of inertia. Being traded is always hard for NBA players because they have to uproot their lives and move to a new city; imagine a team full of players facing that problem. They could feel lost, powerless. Without actionable choices. The Raptors aren’t doing nothing as much as having nothing foisted upon them.
That’s why Fred VanVleet told me, “I do worry about guys’ mental health as a brother and a teammate and a friend. It’s not an easy situation. I don’t want to discard that. But at the same time it’s a situation we’re in, and the season is not gonna stop. We can hang our hats on that. We’ve gotta find a way to get through it. It’s definitely different from being in Toronto, obviously, but here we are.”
The Raptors have plenty of time to make strides. Pascal Siakam exploded against the Phoenix Suns, and the Raptors would have won were it not for an unseasonably warm shooting night in Phoenix. That happens. But if you’re looking for one off-the-court reason why Toronto sits at 1-6, look no further than inertia.
Waiting patiently to win, and harmony in Minute Basketball
Be it Bowling Green (a real college) in the Mid-American Conference, the tragique 2015-16 Sixers - that had Elton Brand of course, but… as a player. Carl Landry was there, as was Tony Wroten, and get this, even Sonny Weems - an underperforming Phoenix Suns team, or these Sacramento Kings, Richaun Holmes has held up his end of the bargain. He comes in, and provides winning basketball at the Center position.
Holmes is a borderline top-60 player hiding in plain sight. He hasn’t dipped below 85th percentile in points-per-shot-attempt since his rookie year, flexing a remarkable short-roll pedigree that features one of the NBA’s most unique and potent floaters. He’s rugged at the rim and finishes above it. He’s got active hands to swat away and steal interior passes, he contests well at the rim, and he improves your rebounding on both sides of the floor. If that sounds like an extremely well-rounded big man to you, it’s because it is. And if the Kings don’t fancy themselves contenders this year, it would be wise to trade him because they likely won’t be able to match the offers he’ll receive in free agency this year due to cap restrictions.
The Sacramento Kings, despite all of their dysfunction, are actually a winning team with him on the floor, and they were last year, too. He’s one of my favourite players in the league because he can oscillate between a cog in the machine and the machine. He can provide real punctuation to an offensive possession as a high-flyer, or grease the wheels as a screener. Of his 8 games this year, he’s made over 10 shots in 3 of them at an absurd efficiency (10-13, 10-13, 10-11). He will mash you. Contest him at the rim? Catch a poster. Drop too low defending the short-roll? Watch as his feathery touch guides the ball in over your head repeatedly. He does the “Charlie Work” on most teams, only without the rapidly declining mental health.
The harmony? Holmes is a picture perfect fit alongside the Toronto starting lineup. A stimulus check for the bankrupt economy that Louis described as the Raptors front-court. Ideally, Holmes will continue to do his thing, and eventually we’ll see him on a team that can maximize his talents.
A pal of mine, and friend of the newsletter, Joe Wolfond messaged me at 2 in the morning roughly 3 weeks ago to talk about hypothetical Richaun Holmes trades to the Raptors. Strange? Not at all. We talk basketball all the time, it doesn’t matter if it’s 2am. The strange part was that while I was messaging back and forth with Joe, drawing up hypotheticals, there was a shootout within 500-feet of me. Handguns, machine guns, the whole deal. The ex-governor of Jalisco was assassinated in a restaurant very close to where I live. Followed into the bathroom and shot in the back. When his body guards attempted to escort him to the hospital they were met with gunfire from their foes (the cartel). Loud, intruding bangs crackling everywhere. Cars peeling away in reverse to get away. And me, on my balcony with my view obstructed by a large tree - that I know an iguana lives in - telling Joe what I thought of his hypothetical trade.
I wish I had been clever enough to make some comment about inertia. It was my insistence to go on talking basketball no matter the circumstance. Instead I settled on:
“Quarreling gangs shoot each other, Joe and I shoot the shit.”