Amateur Documentarians

April 14th, 2013 by Colin McGowan

As a Cavs fan, what I want more than anything, and what I probably don’t deserve, is access to the inner workings of the organization: its front office, its locker room, its phone lines. A few months ago, on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, Stan Van Gundy complained the NBA forces teams to give the media too much useless access. I’m paraphrasing here, but Van Gundy said that on a game day, the head coach meets with the media four or five times—pre-walkthrough, post-walkthrough, pre-game, in-game, post-game—and most of those times, the coach really has nothing to say to them. What new quotes can you offer your team’s newspaper writers and bloggers when you just talked to them two hours ago? “Well Jim, since last we spoke, the team has played a few games of Mario Kart, gotten really into friendship bracelets, and staged a low-rent production of ‘Othello.’ Oh, and Tyler Zeller has converted to Tengriism. I continue to think the Celtics will be a tough opponent.”

It’s probably unpleasant for everyone involved to rephrase nothing five times or to have to spin nothing into a column that won’t read like sand tastes. I’m not imagining that excruciating kind of access, but something more substantive and therefore unrealistic: fly-on-the-wall type stuff. I’m curious how effectively and how much the front office communicates with the coaching staff, the type of instruction Byron Scott gives his players in practice, how hands-on Dan Gilbert is on draft day or during free agency. I would expect most of this stuff to be minutiae: front office drones clicking around Synergy, Scott yelling at Dion Waiters about a botched defensive rotation, Alonzo Gee and Boobie Gibson comparing ink. I would just like to know how the whole machine operates, and which parts are hopelessly corroded.

It would make this whole fandom endeavor, if not necessarily happier (it could turn out the Cavs are incredibly dysfunctional), then less suspenseful. I could do with a modicum of certainty as to what this team is working with and where it’s going after three years spent in the deep space of a slow rebuild. I’m not uneasy because I think the team is on the verge of failure; I’m uneasy because this sort of thing—tearing down and remaking and not being consulted about it—inspires unease.

But here we are. The Cavs, aside from a decent run of health and form in February, were pretty bad. Of course, “bad” is reductive. The team improved only marginally in the win column, but then this isn’t a team so much as it is a collection of bodies auditioning to play for an actual team—one that makes sense positionally and doesn’t get blown out by lottery teams—that will exist in the near future. Through narrow prisms, hope is visible: Tristan Thompson nearly averaged a double-double, when at this point last year he was playing basketball as if being constantly pelted with invisible water balloons. Dion Waiters curbed his penchant for step-back 19-footers and learned the free throw line is his friend. Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving, though the Cavs’ equipment staff might consider fashioning some sort of bubblewrap armsleeve to keep the young star preserved. There are other reasons for hope, maybe. People disagree about them. It gets loud and stupid. We’re moving on.

Because we only get glimpses into how the team functions, we can’t get the answers we want most—whether Scott will be back next year, Gilbert’s level of trust in Chris Grant, how the players feel about the direction of the team—and so have trouble prognosticating or rendering judgments that don’t feel woefully underinformed. Want my full analysis of the Scott situation? He has the comportment of a consternated waterbed salesman, puzzled as to why his “sleep solutions” aren’t moving as they should, and I’m not nuts about my favorite team being coached by a man who, in the fantastical one-act plays that happen in my head, is kind of a doof. I don’t like the faces dude makes, is more or less my reason for being okay with his prospective firing. There are other factors to consider, certainly, but I have a hard time knowing whether they’re his fault or not—do we blame him for Irving’s lack of interest in defense or is that someone else’s failure? I just know he’s the head coach, and he’s the guy with whom fault lies when the team makes like a street-side fruit stand in a chase scene. So my take on Scott’s fate is based on the half-bemused, half-ponderous look he affects when the team gets down by fifteen. It’s about as useful as any of the other information I have.

Which is why I have a hard time claiming with any conviction that the Cavs should fire him. What I understand just as incompletely but feel more comfortable commenting on is Chris Grant’s tenure as general manager. I know being an NBA GM entails a lot more than just making personnel moves (though, quick: ask me to delineate them before I dive out this window), but that’s ultimately what determines how we perceive the job they do.

Here’s a GM’s role and responsibilities, in handy narrative form: you—you’re an NBA owner in this situation; enjoy your party yacht—put your faith and money in a person to build what fans and broadcasters will, employing mildly unnerving corporate-speak, call “the foundation for success”: that is, you count on him to draft young talent, find someone to coach ’em up, and perhaps make the odd off-brand free agent signing. You then, after three or four years, take stock of the situation. You’ve made your bed at this point—unless you want to trade away a bunch of players in their early 20s and start over again (and sell that plan to your anxious fanbase), you have to roll with the strategy your GM has half-implemented—but you can correct course slightly and decide to part ways with whoever drafted Jonny Flynn or thought Avery Johnson was much of anything besides loquacious because you’re better off hiring a GM that’s actually just a speak-and-spell with a picture of Danny Ferry’s face taped over the front of it than someone who believes in Avery Johnson.

Let’s say the rebuild process seems to be on the uptick. You dole out a contract extension, then hope the person you trusted to evaluate lottery-caliber young talent and find the coaching staff to develop that talent is also up to a task that’s not altogether similar: paying the right free agents the right amount of money, knowing when to flip an asset at peak value, and scrounging the middle and back end of the first round for rotation-quality prospects. Then you get old, eventually die, everyone who has ever met you dies, and, much later, the sun explodes.

I’m simplifying here, but that’s sort of the point: this is how I think general manager-dom works, and the limited information I have causes me to conceive of it that way. I’ll spare you the graf where I more or less slap grades on Chris Grant’s draft picks while comparing Tyler Zeller to a mop, but I think the rebuild is going about as well as one could hope, which is to say a bunch of dudes in their early 20s are running around stupidly and brilliantly; defensive technique is ritually murdered; I’m talking myself into Shaun Livingston. As a fan, I’m fatigued and not a little bit cranky, but as a rational being, I get that this pathetic outfit could soon grow into something watchable, even exciting.

We’re at what feels like the midpoint of the scenario I’ve laid out above. After three years of bottoming out and amassing good-at-basketball 20-year-olds—intellectual honesty alert!—I’m starting to resent having to watch this team three times a week and because of that am going to say the Cavs will finally make an earnest run at the playoffs in 2013-14. Plus, LeBron James is going to be a free agent next summer and a young team on the rise is a lot more enticing than a young team on the oh dear god C.J Miles just attempted to split a double team.

Here’s the part where I call next season a fulcrum and all the hypothetical good things happen. I think better of this because it feels lazy and disingenuous. Paragraph break.

I get the sensation watching this team that I imagine I would get watching raw footage from an incomplete documentary. Just interviews that go nowhere and the outsides of hotels and a bird landing on a statue and, interspersed, a few moments that vibrate, but then a lady talks in circles about her son for eight minutes, and I’m once again disoriented but mostly bored. I want the footage to tell me a story, but it doesn’t and I can only barely see what the story would be anyway because I’m not Errol Morris or Claude Lanzmann, who know a lot of things—most of them probably mundane and inside baseball-y—about how to tell a story using film. Plus they know why they record the things they record. They can see schematics and skeletons where I see only disjointed images.

I observe the Cavs, disoriented but mostly bored, trying to figure out what they are in the first place and what they can become. What’s missing, what needs to go away. I’m doing it without Chris Grant’s expertise or his extensive knowledge of the team’s inner workings. All I know is that, in the end, the Cavs are supposed to be good. This is a useless thing to know and only fosters anxiety. I find myself carving out time and psychic energy to weigh the pros and cons of resigning Mo Speights, which is as good an example that sports fandom is a ridiculous endeavor as any other.

All this vexation—over wanting to know stuff, over not knowing stuff—is at least something to do and proof enough that three years of excruciating basketball can’t kill whatever arbitrary but entirely real investment I have in this team, which I want to be entertaining, to surprise me, to feel proud of if and when they crawl out of their dismal crater. I’m still watching games, though more as source material for whimsy than anything. I think about Kyrie Irving’s facial hair in a way that he would probably find creepy, and I’ve drafted questions—mostly about pork and the eight movies BET runs on Sunday afternoons—for a Dion Waiters interview that will never happen. I’m not sure I’ve absorbed any of the games I’ve watched since mid-March, but they have happened to me. I know this because of all the books I haven’t read.

My analogy is flawed: even the most devoted cinéastes among us probably wouldn’t bother to endure hundreds of formless, meandering hours of raw documentary footage. If you’re a particularly masochistic Cavs fan, over the past three years, you have watched about 600-plus hours of intermittently thrilling but mostly awful basketball. Because your idiot heart wouldn’t let you do anything else. You’ve perhaps made something like sense out of those hours, but it’s the sort of sense that grows from too little sleep and a desire to feel anything but dull pangs. Maybe you’re like me and constantly, sort of insufferably kvetch over what you don’t know and all the unhelpful research you’ve compiled. You do this because you’re something like an amateur documentarian, but not exactly. You’re a fan, however better or worse that may be.