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On- and Off-Brand Basketball

Nick Young stealing a ball from his teammate? On brand. But what about Nick Young drilling a game-winning shot?

(Ringer GIF)

Something can be described as “on brand” if it is philosophically aligned with the person completing it. Something can be described as “off brand” if it is not philosophically aligned with the person completing it.

In 2010, Lil Wayne, who, if you can even believe this, was very good at rapping at the time, had a fun single called “6 Foot 7 Foot.” In it, he rapped the following line: “Had my heart broken by this woman named Tammy / But hoes gon’ be hoes so I couldn’t blame Tammy.” I mention it here, to begin an article that will eventually be about basketball, because it’s a very succinct and powerful example of identifying actions that are on brand and off brand. Wayne is sad that Tammy broke his heart, yes, but he is not surprised because, according to Wayne, it was a very on-brand move for her (“But hoes gon’ be hoes …”). Wayne developing feelings for Tammy, however, was very much an off-brand move for him (he’d spent a large part of his career offhandedly mentioning all the women he’d slept with without care), which was really why he was upset with the situation.

That’s how the on brand/off brand thing works there, and how it works for everything, even basketball (and sometimes especially basketball). As such, let’s grab a few plays and moments from this season and figure out whether they were on brand or off brand.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

David West Not Body Slamming Someone

A little over a month ago, Larry Nance Jr., a younger player for the Lakers, dunked on David West, an older and respected player for the Warriors. The Lakers had the ball, and Nance was trailing the play. As he steamed down the center of the court, Jordan Clarkson whipped the ball to him at just the right time. Nance caught it, took two big steps, then jumped, only it wasn’t a normal jump, it was a mega jump. It was a jump like he’d decided, “Nah, you know what? Fuck it. I just live in the air now.” David West, who’d gotten stuck between two players, ended up in Nance’s flight path as Nance dunked.

Now, it’s not a big thing for David West to get dunked on. It’s happened to him before, as it’s happened to everyone in the league. That’s fine. That’s what happens when you play defense. The weird part was that Nance, for a reason that I don’t know (and, I’m willing to bet, for a reason he doesn’t know either), ended up rubbing his hand across the back of West’s head as he skied over him. It was remarkable. Here’s a slo-mo clip:

West, of course, has a well-earned reputation as a fiery guy. (Remember the time he got into it with Pero Antic, or the time he got into it with Zaza Pachulia, or the time he got into it with Blake Griffin, or …) So when it happened, I remember thinking, “Well, let’s all gather hands and pay our last respects to Larry Nance, because David West is about to rip his head off his shoulders.” But that didn’t happen. What happened was even more surprising, because what happened was nothing. West just stood there for a second in a state of semi-shock, and then he turned and ran up court for the next possession. David West not retaliating after getting his head caressed by a person while that person dunked on him in an especially showy and ostentatious manner was very off brand.

Steph Curry Hitting 13 3s in a Game

Steph Curry hit 13 3s in a game against the Pelicans in November. It was, and is, more 3s than anyone had ever hit during a game in the history of the NBA. That being the case, there’s at least a tiny argument to be made that it was off brand: It was a thing that literally no other human had ever done.

BUT, I mean, let me tell you this: Steph Curry has also hit 12 3s in a game, and 11 3s in a game, and 10 3s in a game, and nine 3s in a game, and eight 3s in a game. Him hitting 13 doesn’t feel like that big of a thing, even though it absolutely is a gigantic thing. So this was an on-brand move for him.

Sidebar: When I read the headline about Steph hitting 13 3s in a game, my immediate reaction was, “That’s neat.” There was not a single, tiny piece of doubt in my mind that he’d actually done so. I wonder what the number would have to be for people to read the headline and be like, “No way he actually did that. I need proof.” Is it 16 3s in a game? 18 3s in a game? I think I could get all the way up to reading that he hit 20 3s in a game before I started to question whether or not it was actually true. Steph Curry is really unreal.

Nick Young Stealing a Pass Intended for a Teammate and Then Hitting a Game-Winning Three

Let’s set the stage: With the Lakers down one to the Thunder and less than 14 seconds to go in the game, Brandon Ingram inbounded the ball to Larry Nance. Nance immediately gave it back to Ingram, who then tossed it to Lou Williams, who then passed it back to Ingram as he slid over to the left wing. The motion caused the Thunder defenders to be just enough out of place that Ingram was able to pump-fake-and-then-spin his way into the lane, collapsing the perimeter defense. Ingram, seeing that doing so had resulted in Williams being wide open, flipped the ball out to him behind the line. It was a good play and a smart play because Williams is shooting 40 percent from 3 this season, which is the highest of his career. But it ended up being a play that never actually happened, because Nick Young, patron saint of the best kind of fuckery, stole the pass from Williams, his teammate. He squared himself up as Williams stood there in disbelief, then he rose, and then he buried what would prove to be the game-winning 3.

The commentators laughed; the crowd roared; Nick Young roared, too. During the timeout after the play, Williams hugged Young and smiled and patted him on the back of the head because Nick Young is perfect and it’s kind of impossible not to be smitten with him, even when he’s doing something silly, like that time he did the 360 layup and threw the ball 17 feet in the air, or the time he just did a regular layup and threw the ball 17 feet in the air.

There are a few different ways to figure out if this was an on-brand move or an off-brand move for Nick. On the one hand, you can vote for on brand on account of the silliness of the situation, because that’s who Nick Young is and what he does. On the other hand, you can go literal and say that Nick Young has never averaged more than 0.8 steals a game during any year of his career, and this season he’s at 0.3 steals per game, his lowest tally ever, so him stealing the ball was off brand. Even if you take just the action of Nick Young shooting and making the game winner, it’s still hard to say exactly whether it’s on brand or off brand, given that (a) he’s historically not that great during clutch situations, but (b) he definitely did not miss the most important shots of his career (that flurry when the Clippers came back from down 24 with eight minutes left in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Grizzlies in 2012). I don’t know. I suppose it’s both, because with Nick Young things are never a straight line.

Karl-Anthony Towns Godzilla-Stomping Humans

Let’s go straight to the clip:


That was Towns during a game last week. My favorite part of the whole thing is Reggie Miller’s very-knowing “Uh oh” as Towns hurtles toward the rim like the Armageddon asteroid. The game was nearly a week ago, but I just read a story in the Toronto Sun about how they’re still searching the wreckage for the remaining missing parts of Jonas Valanciunas. I hope they find everything soon. His family deserves that closure.

But so the question: Is Karl-Anthony Towns Godzilla-stomping humans an on-brand thing or an off-brand thing? Well, here he is doing it to Joel Embiid and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot when the Timberwolves played the Sixers about a month ago:

What’s great about a Karl-Anthony Towns dunk is that he never does the thing where he just sort of throws it through the rim, like, say, Kevin Durant does or, if you’re looking for someone with a more comparable body size, like Blake Griffin does. Those dunks are of course great, but a Karl-Anthony Towns dunk feels different. A Karl-Anthony Towns dunk feels violent. He always grabs ahold of the rim and tries to yank it off the backboard, like Shaq did during the pickup game in Blue Chips, or like Shaq did during any game in the NBA. I love that about Towns. It increases the enjoyability of any dunk by, like, at least 25 percent.

At any rate, yes, Karl-Anthony Towns Godzilla-stomping humans is an on-brand move, much to the chagrin of other professional basketball players.

Russell Westbrook Not Getting a Triple-Double

There’s this scene in the first third of Predator, a movie about some mercenaries who fight a deadly alien in a Central American jungle, where one of the guys finally gets a good look at the Predator. It had been impossible for them to see him up to that point because he was super camouflaged, but Mac happened to be in just the right spot at just the right time to see him. Mac, of course terrified, shouted, “COOOOONNNNTAAAAAAAAAACT,” so as to let the others know he’d found him, and then started blindly firing his gun at all of the trees and vines and general shrubbery as the Predator vanished again.

All of the other mercs, who’d been scattered behind him canvassing the area, come running to Mac, and when they get there they just all start firing a trillion bullets into the jungle in hopes of accidentally shooting it and killing it. It’s gargantuan and impressively destructive. Look:

It’s a great scene for a number of reasons, but I mention it here because this, to me, is exactly how Russell Westbrook plays basketball. He’s just firing a giant gun into the jungle hoping to kill something, anything, everything. Sometimes it works out, like when he mashed a game-sealing dunk through Clint Capela’s forehead during a game against the Rockets, and sometimes it doesn’t, like when he burst into a ball of flames against Pat Beverley at the end of a different game against the Rockets, but it always feels like yes, that is the exact right thing that needs to be done right then because what other option even is there?

Anyway, Russell Westbrook, who is playing at an historic level right now (he’s averaging 31.1 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 11 assists per game), has gotten so good at gobbling up everything that him not getting a triple-double in a game is somehow off brand.