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A Guide to NBA Fandom Islands

Do you still believe in Anthony Randolph? Welcome to the NBA Island. You can check out, but you can never leave.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Over the years, I have stayed on many different islands. Barren, rocky places where life struggles to take root. Jungles teeming with disease. Frozen rocks. Desolate atolls, scraped clean by tradewinds. Life on these islands is trying and lonely, and survival oftentimes requires embarrassing contortions of logic and morality. However, the dangers are far outweighed by an enervating sense of lightness, of hope.

How could I forget, for instance, the adventure-filled days on the forested terrain of far-flung Maciej Lampe Island in 2003. Euro Fever gripped the planet in those years. Symptoms included wild, mispronounced chanting of Slavic cognate names; stammering “Chad Ford says” before projectile vomiting anecdotes about players you had never seen (“Chad Ford says Darko is stronger than Pau Gasol and has been playing against men since he was 14!”), reflexively comparing things to Dirk Nowitzki, and, of course, bad takes.

I had the bug myself. I was convinced that the Knicks lucked out when the Polish Lampe, projected by many to be a top-10 prospect, slipped to 30th. He averaged 17 points and seven rebounds in summer league. I immediately moved to the island, where I built a grass hut and covered my genitals in seashells. I made a customized roster in NBA Live 2004 so that Lampe could be the Knicks starting small forward. I spent many hours hacking open coconuts with a rusty bolo, confidently opining that the Knicks had erred by trading the then-18-year-old Lampe to the Suns as part of the deal that sent Stephon Marbury to New York and Antonio McDyess to Phoenix. (McDyess would go on to shatter his kneecap in the preseason.) “An NBA insider in New York,” declared a breathless report in the Arizona Republic, “is saying that in five years, the recent multiplayer trade between the Knicks and Suns will be known as the Lampe trade, not the Marbury trade.” (Let’s call this prediction a push.) No matter, I would stay on the island, come what may. Lampe Land’s future was distant, but its population, for a very, very short time, was booming and vociferous.

My God, Lampe Land was so lit.

Contrast Lampe’s draft welcome with the Knicks’ selection of Kristaps Porzingis with the no. 4 pick 13 years later. Instead of wild cheers, the Barclays Center was filled with boos. Rather than a jubilant meathead brandishing a “LIGHT THE LAMPE” sign, the telecast was dominated by the image of a weeping child. Never underestimate the capacity of human beings to be absolutely shit-house wrong, especially when they seem totally confident. Humble thyself before thine takes. [Spins a stick between both palms to start a fire.]

An NBA island is where fans of like ideals gather to profess their belief in players who are not surefire stars or rotation players, but, also, not easy-to-mark busts. These hopeful pilgrims carry the faith long after statistics, court time, and the eye test label a player a disappointment. There are three types of NBA islands: colonial outposts, future nations, and fantasy islands.

Colonial outposts are an extension of the prevailing basketball culture and its traditional values. These are places to extol the virtues of players who fit into age-old roles — the back-to-the-basket big, the pure point guard — or those who can only be described using vague (sometimes racially coded) terms. The colonial outpost is the place for statements like “I would take Shane Battier at no. 1. He’s just a winner.” Kevin Love is a colonial outpost who blossomed into a real, functional city-state. Justise Winslow has some characteristics of a colonial outpost (went to Duke, thought of as a “winner,” can’t shoot, plays like he’s been in the league for five years). If you have ever referred to a player with unappealing stats and dishwater-dull athletic metrics as “ready to contribute immediately” or “gritty,” or talked about their “heart,” then you have spent time on a colonial outpost.

Future nations are islands where bold, forward-facing visionaries champion players who they deem capable of upending the status quo. Oftentimes, these players are from overseas and are shrouded in mystery. Darko Island is certainly the most famous example of the future nation. Lampe Land was a future nation. These are places where people gather to paint their bodies, share grainy YouTube clips around the bonfire, and whisper “Dante Exum is faster than Russell Westbrook” or “Anthony Randolph is the evolutionary Kevin Garnett.”

Fantasy islands are where basketball fans go to manifest their unspoken biases and most closely held beliefs about the game. These are doomed places for those overcome by the powerful emotions of homerism and the romance of lost causes. On a fantasy island, style always defeats substance, and national pundits just don’t watch your team enough. I am currently subleasing waterfront property on Brandon Jennings Island. J.R. Smith is the rare fantasy island success story. Dion Waiters, whose career thus far has been defined by a maddening thirst for the ball, is a fantasy island.

Without further ado, here is a list of my favorite NBA Islands.

Dajuan Wagner Reef, 2002–07

Category: Fantasy Island

The greatest prep player in New Jersey history, Wagner is a muscular score-first, -second, and -last guard in the Iverson mold who once dropped 100 points in a high school game. This was the early aughts, before the Seven Seconds Suns, the efficiency revolution, and the revamped hand-check rules. “Advanced stats” was just a term whispered by part-time insurgents on low-traffic message boards. Wagner’s game seemed tailor-made for the era; as a pro, he dribbled too much, had an assist-to-turnover ratio that hovered perilously close to 1-to-1, and had absolutely no conscience despite shooting sub-40 percent. In his ninth game as a pro, he dropped 33 points on the Toronto Raptors on a series of drives, pull-ups, and bad 3s. His career was riddled with injuries and a serious battle with ulcerative colitis. Wagner, only 33, attempted a comeback two years ago. By then, I had long abandoned my small stilt-house on the reef.

Maciej Lampe Land, 2003–04

Category: Future Nation

Based Lampe was white and European. I was convinced that he was the next Dirk Nowitzki. I don’t think I had ever seen even a clip of one of his games before he was drafted. What’s that you say? Lampe isn’t known for his shooting prowess? Whatever. I’m over here hammering away at a rock that I think is a coconut.

Anthony Randolph Archipelago, 2008–Present

Category: Future Nation

Soak your eyeballs in this AR mix set perfectly to Chiddy Bang’s “Opposite of Adults.”

At 6-foot-10 with an all-encompassing wingspan and freak athleticism, Randolph should be in the league right now, if not for the fact that he had no idea how to play organized basketball. Randolph would just kind of run around and do stuff, unmoored by any awareness or concern for what other people on the court, teammates included, might be trying to accomplish. Still, he’s still just 27; if Hassan Whiteside can climb back into the league after plummeting to the world basketball sub-basement (the dude washed out of the Lebanese league only two years ago!), it’s not far-fetched to think that Randolph, currently plying his craft in Spain, might get a look from an NBA team. It’s 80 percent far-fetched, but not totally. [Builds an animal trap out of palm fronds and twine.]

Isla de Rudy Fernandez, 2008–12

Category: Colonial Outpost

The Blazers acquired Rudy’s rights from the Suns in the summer of 2007, right after selecting Greg Oden first overall. Portland fans were so pumped they mobbed the Spaniard at the airport. Fernandez, a mercury-heeled swingman with enough wiry athleticism to yam on Dwight Howard and the skills to make plays from the perimeter, would join a young team bursting with talent. The 2008–09 Blazers roster included LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy (he played 78 games that season), Oden (a shipwreck, though no one was sure of that at the time), and Nicolas Batum. In his rookie season, Rudy averaged about 15 points and three assists per 36 minutes and shot 40 percent from 3. Life on Isle la Rudy was looking increasingly sunny. Unfortunately, like the pioneers on his namesake island, Rudy couldn’t shake the homesickness. “It’s a tough situation for me,” Rudy told the Portland Tribune in 2010. “I miss my family and my friends. Yesterday was a hard day. My [25th] birthday, and I was by myself.” He would later demand a trade to a team in a city with direct flights to Spain. That’s honestly my favorite trade demand ever.

Thomas Robinson Rock, 2012–Present

Category: Colonial Outpost

Robinson, the fifth pick in the 2012 Anthony Davis draft, is a classic 6-foot-10 low-post energizer with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. At a minimum, [builds lean-to out of driftwood] he should have utility as a rebounder, rim protector, and small-ball roll-man hammer. Instead, he’s played for six teams in five years.

Some of that is beyond his control. Getting drafted by the Kings in the trans-Maloof-Vivek era is like getting caught outside at sundown during the Purge. In Houston, he joined a Rockets team that wanted Dwight Howard, which necessitated cutting Robinson, and his salary-cap number, adrift. In Portland, Robinson was never going to take minutes from LaMarcus Aldridge.

The rest is a mystery. Robinson is just 25, and has played 22 minutes total for the Lakers this season.

Current Potential NBA Islands:

Mario Hezonja Inlet, 2015–Present

Category: Fantasy Island

This season, Super Mario has four DNP-CDs (and counting) and is shooting 18 percent from 3. I will stay on this island until I die. [Drinks jar of urine.]

The Vale of Exum, 2014–Present

Category: Fantasy Island

Shouts to no. 1 islander Danny Chau! Dante Exum, still working his way back from his season-ending knee injury last year, has shown a burgeoning defensive prowess and a willingness to play within the Utah’s slow-it-to-a-crawl team framework. Still, 12 points per 36 and a PER of 10 is very island-ish.

Dragan Bender Beach, 2016–Present

Category: Colonial Outpost

Bender, the fourth pick in the 2016 draft, is 7-foot-1 and is shooting 42 percent from the field with 7.6 PER. Seeds do not flower on Bender Beach’s arid dunes.

Thon Maker Key, 2016–Present

Category: Future Nation

[Sharpening a stick into a spear] I’m basically sure that this guy is 19 and not 28. [Stabbing a squirrel] He’s also got a 31 PER right now (in 13 total minutes).