We’re into the second round of the NBA Playoffs, and since we’ve already rated each team in terms of overall likeability, it now seems we should assess the survivors in the most careful, analytical way possible: by comparing them to classic rock bands.
You say hip-hop is the music of today’s Association? Nonsense! Argue that basketball is jazz? Go Thelonius Monk yourself! Ditch your synthesizers and samplers and strap on this here Les Paul for a sold-out world tour of postseason basketball.
Golden State Warriors = Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin was not Jimmy Page’s first band, and this year’s Warriors are not Steph Curry’s first team, either. Page cut his teeth as a session musician in London and then joined the Yardbirds alongside Jeff Beck (sort of the Monta Ellis of this equation) after Eric Clapton had departed the band (he’s sort of the Baron Davis). But in spite of the prodigious talents of Page and Beck, that iteration of the Yardbirds wasn’t all that successful. After Beck left the group, the only Yardbirds record with Page as the sole guitarist, Little Games, peaked at Number 80 on Billboard’s Top 200. Much as it was with Curry early in his career, there was never a question of Page’s sheer skill – but simply whether it could be harnessed into something visionary.
Page, of course, had a much bigger hand in creating Led Zeppelin than Curry did in building the roster of the Warriors. But the identity of each group of players radiates outward from their foundational pieces. If the backcourt is the lead section and the frontcourt the rhythm section, Klay Thompson provides a counterweight to Curry, much as Robert Plant did for Page. He reinforces elements like spacing and attacking in transition and complements him with man-defense. (Thompson’s 37 points in one quarter was his “Black Dog”.) Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green each bear a portion of the responsibility given to John Bonham: hold down the back line and occasionally step out on offense with a 3-pointer or a pinpoint pass. (Green’s triple-double against the Raptors was his “When the Levee Breaks”.)
The role of Swiss Army Knife John Paul Jones – who played bass for Led Zeppelin, yes, but also piano, mandolin and eventually orchestrated the strings for R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People – is occupied on the Warriors by their modular gaggle of guards and forwards: Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and company.
Through the first round and the first game of the second, the Warriors looked every ounce as dominant as rock’s foremost powerhouse. In the second game against the Grizzlies, they faltered, but there’s every reason to believe we haven’t even seen their “Stairway to Heaven” yet.
Houston Rockets = Rush
People, by and large, don’t listen to rock music primarily for its virtuosity. They might appreciate it, but as it was for e.e. cummings, for most fans of music, feeling is first. Classical musicians may be judged primarily on precision and technique, but rock & roll is judged on sweat and swagger.
Except for Rush. They’re not alone as purveyors of technically impeccable rock by any means, but they’re the standard bearers for it. In terms of sheer musicality, they could shred most any other band with one hand, but the they’d be using the other one to shove their glasses back up their noses. And because of this, people who love Rush really fucking love Rush. Which is frankly kind of incredible. This is band geeks conquering the world, achieving a kind of swagger end-around by going through totally nerdy things like odd time signatures and rototoms instead of away from them.
The Rockets are the NBA’s Rush. They’re a basketball dork’s wet dream – one specific dork, to be exact – engaged in what, at first, appears to be a comprehensive campaign against traditional notions about how to build a contender. Often painted as a cousin to the Oakland A’s “Moneyball” approach, Houston’s “Moreyball” is supposed to be all about maximizing players’ skillsets within a framework that functions at maximum efficiency via a high rate of free throws generated by attacking the rim and 3-point looks generated by the same.
But it’s not as revolutionary as it at first appears. Houston still went out and spent big for two marquee free agents in James Harden and Dwight Howard, and if Harden is a new-age shooting guard as adept at distributing to the arc as scoring from there (he led the league by a wide margin in assists leading to 3-pointers), Howard is no lithe, sweet-shooting Euro-style center – but rather a shirt-splitting bruiser (when he’s healthy) who also can’t hit a barn door from the stripe.
That willingness to carefully construct a box out of principles and then crush it whenever it’s necessary is also very Rush, who don’t eschew melody or insist on convoluted concepts. They’ve created success on their own terms, but you don’t get to be one of the world’s foremost arena-packing acts without also playing to the cheap seats. Analytics might be at the core of what the Rockets do, but after a lackadaisical showing in their first game of the second round against the Clippers, Houston is going to need more power chords and fewer arpeggios if they want to get to the next round.
Memphis Grizzlies = AC/DC
AC/DC has never needed more than three chords to make big hits and neither do the Memphis Grizzlies. Three-point shots? Psssh. In the playoffs, the Grizzlies are attempting 12.7 3-pointers a game, compared to the Atlanta Hawks’ 32 and the Golden State Warriors’ 29.7. And pace? The Grizzlies are playing the third slowest and putting up the fourth-best defensive rating in the postseason. They play big, fat, distorted chords on both offense and defense, working the ball through Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph while Mike Conley duckwalks through defenses like Angus Young. Tony Allen plays the role of Malcolm Young, doing the dirty essential work and going largely unheralded.
The other guys? Well, they’re probably AC/DC’s bassist and drummer. I mean, look: comparing rock bands to basketball teams is not an exact science and neither are the Memphis Grizzlies. But just because it’s straightforward doesn’t mean there isn’t a sneaky grace to the way they do it. There are plenty of bar bands out there who’d kill to be AC/DC, but instead they’re just covering their hits. Like AC/DC, the Grizz can make the tough things look easy and make the easy things feel great.
Los Angeles Clippers = The Eagles
Did you know that the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits has sold more than 42 million copies worldwide? And that they’re the highest-selling American band of all time? They are massively popular and wrote one of the most ubiquitous radio hits ever in “Hotel California”, and all of this in spite of the fact that are completely and totally insufferable.
What makes them a good match for the Clippers beyond that simple fact is the depth of their insufferability. Plenty of bands have a frontman or particular member who can be a pretentious ass, but the Eagles roll deep with both Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
Don Henley sued a shirt company over a promotional email that said, “Don a henley and take it easy.” He threatened to sue Frank Ocean over “American Wedding” which samples “Hotel California.” He’s the Chris Paul of the group, immensely talented but completely aggravating.
When Glenn Frey discovered that the Dude wasn’t an Eagles fan in The Big Lebowski, he didn’t take too kindly to it. “I ran into him and he gave me some shit,” Jeff Bridges said. “I can’t remember what he said exactly, but my anus tightened a bit.” Frey and Don Felder nearly came to blows onstage, with Frey promising, “After we get off the stage, I’m gonna kick your ass.” He’s more in the Matt Barnes/Glen Davis/Spencer Hawes mold: an obnoxious dude who just wants to fight everybody.
Both groups, of course, have redeeming characters and characteristics. Joe Walsh seems like a down-to-earth guy with a pretty good perspective on things – the DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin (post-Kia makeover) of the equation. And both the Clippers and the Eagles are very, very good at what they do, as evidenced by the Clippers defeat of the reigning champion Spurs in the first round and the fact that you’ve probably heard “Hotel California” somewhere in the past week. But neither can seem to stop carping on perceived injustices against them. In both rock and basketball, talent and taste don’t always line up.