I never know how to sum up my taste in movies. It’s not a big problem, but it is a mildly vexing one whenever I find myself talking motion pictures with friends. I adore the screwballs of Lubitsch, Hawks and Sturges and the silent comedies of Buster Keaton; John Ford’s poetic westerns as well as basically every classic noir ever made; Wong Kar-wai’s portraits of longing and Ozu’s snapshots of family life. If there is a unifying characteristic of these unique genres and styles, I’m not sure what it is. But there is one thing that I look for and value: the feeling that a film was crafted by individuals. Auteur theory goes too far in some ways considering what a collaborative medium film is — especially during the Golden Age of Hollywood — but in spite of that it does pay tribute to how many of the greatest films are imbued with personal touches, an enlivening spirit that makes it what it is.
I do not enjoy watching the Dallas Mavericks. I will readily admit that Luka Doncic is a marvel, one of the rare players capable of transforming any franchise into a playoff team by himself. And though I am often left in awe of his individual achievements, I’m left cold by the context they are performed in. Watching the Mavericks, everything seems to come down to one question: Will their role players make enough 3’s to make up for the fact that they are a top-heavy team lacking in stylistic diversity or flexibility? It is true that basketball is always a make-or-miss game, but it is so extreme in the Mavericks case that it seems boring, somehow cynical.
Many of the Mavericks’ supporting players — Dorian Finney-Smith, Davis Bertans and Maxi Kleber — all strike me as indistinct in spite of their obvious ability. They mostly just stand and wait for Luka to pass it to them, which makes it hard to get excited about them even though they’re all quite good at what they do. In the Mavericks offensive system, all of them are sanded down until they become one-dimensional. Of Reggie Bullock’s 104 field-goal attempts this postseason, 90 have been three’s, as have 83 of Finney-Smith’s 115, 59 of Kleber’s 80, 20 of Josh Green’s 24 and every single one of Davis Bertans’ 37. At least Reggie Bullock is doing something interesting with his hair.
I know this likely makes me sound like a luddite, a curmudgeon bemoaning a lost era that was never as romantic as nostalgia would make it seem. But it is not that I decry the general direction of the NBA, with its ever growing emphasis on three-pointers. That war was lost years ago. The three-point revolution itself is over and we’re bound to forever live in its wake. However, while there is a general homogeneity of priorities with everyone taking more three’s than ever before, that is no reason to be concerned about this leading to every team playing the same. Despite the surface similarities, each team takes different steps to creating those looks, and some do it in more beautiful ways than others.
The Golden State Warriors — the Mavericks’ Conference Finals opponent — also shoot three’s at a heavy clip. In fact, Golden State averaged more three-point attempts per game than the Mavericks did this year. But their manner could hardly be more different. While the Warriors do have several catch-and-shoot players, they are led by Stephen Curry, whose off-ball movement and methods of creating space in isolation are as creative and delightful as anyone’s. There is also the smooth artfulness of Klay and the twitchy freneticism of Jordan Poole. Even if one could recreate their contributions, they could never replace them. It’s less a question of substance than style, less about what shots are being attempted than how they are being taken. Is it brutally efficient or full of verve and elan?
When I watch a basketball game, I want to see a personal touch, a style that marks the performance as that of a unique individual. Despite Doncic’s personal mastery, I do not see this when I watch the Mavericks. Their approach is certainly effective, but it nevertheless strikes me as artless. What the Mavericks are betting on is that, on a plurality of nights, the percentages will shake out in their favor and enough of their shooters will catch fire simultaneously to carry them to victory. This wager has paid off so far, leading them to the Conference Finals, but I am not eager to see it continue. I know that the goal of playing a sport is winning, not creating beauty. Though as a fan, I am much more interested in the latter than the former.
I will be pulling for Golden State throughout the Conference Finals, and not only because I once lived in the East Bay. The Warriors are a bundle of distinctive and talented players, whose gifts are brought to full fruition within the context of Steve Kerr’s motion offense — the disparate parts working as a unit while still retaining what makes them uniquely themselves. It’s not quite the same as the old studio system, but at its best, it’s able to conjure up a similar sort of magic.