Somewhere in New York this week, someone may have said that it’s raining cats and dogs. To most Americans, this strange phrase would make perfect sense. But it is purely an English creation, utterly meaningless in most non-English speaking countries, and useless outside of making the locals think you’re lost and confused. In his book Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, polyglot, professor, and master wordsmith Umberto Eco dissects the realities and difficulties of translating a work of art from language to language, or even from art form to art form. Eco ponders whether a modern day Italian reading the Divine Comedy in its original form, outdated connotations of words and phrases included, has any advantage in understanding the text over an American student reading a translation that has converted those same words and phrases to their modern English equivalents. Trying to navigate a clear path to the translation is not easy. It’s a negotiation, a compromise; a translator can stay true to the actual words or try and replicate the ideas, trying to find the ground that validates the author’s intentions.
In Eco’s case, his abilities as a linguist allow him to translate his books into languages outside his native Italian. For those languages in which he feels his vocabulary is insufficient, he hand-picks a translator and work with them to recreate his ideas as accurately as possible. Much effort is spent on the idea of translation in the NBA as well, especially in establishing how a rookie’s skills will translate to the NBA from its collegiate equivalent, or how a player’s skills might translate from one squad or system to another. But unlike the author and professor, basketball players are not always making their own choices in regards to where they end up. They’re not always translating their own work. If a player’s previously shown ability in college or another team is the original text, then the coach and the GM are the translators that manipulate those words into the language of their team.
The Mavericks game against the Lakers on opening night was a perfect case study on this subject, with a focus on the performance of two point guards. Both teams went into this game with marked changes to their respective rosters. For the Mavericks, those changes were largely believed to be to the detriment of the team (or at the very least, not to Dallas’ advantage). For the Lakers, the additions came by way of adding a two-time MVP and the best center in the league to their starting five. The future did not look bright for Dallas as Dwight Howard has as many Defensive Player of the Year awards as Dallas had starters who had never played a regular season game as a Maverick. And yet the team that, on paper, improved the most, seemed at times lost.
The off-season had swapped Rick Carlisle’s own Hall of Fame point guard for a virtual throw-away from Indiana. However, it was not just the adjustment of new Maverick Darren Collison to the Mavericks system that ended with Collison scoring more points in his debut than Jason Kidd had done in any single game last season. As much as Collison’s determination from the day he heard he was going to be a Maverick may have improved his performance, the Dallas offense had also adjusted itself to him. Collison’s speed had pulled in its wake a team and coach that understands how to adjust. Carlisle, a master translator, had correctly understood the underlying meaning of the talent available.
Former Maverick Steve Nash made waves with his own performance. Surely Steve Nash is another year older, and no young buck. But I believe all were shocked by his ineffectiveness. According to NBA.com, it was the first time Nash had been held below 10 points and five assists while playing at least 20 minutes in a game. Regardless of how this season goes, Nash’s MVP’s will not be rescinded, nor will his years of running the top offenses in the league be forgotten. Still, there surely could have been a better outcome to Nash’s debut.
Compare Nash’s case with James Harden’s first game in Houston. With a newly signed $80 million contract, the Beard was asked to change rosters, game plans, and roles with less than week before tip-off. Now Houston’s highest paid player and imminent star, Harden exceeded any rational expectation. The key was his coach’s understanding. “I thought it was a challenge for James to kind of figure out what we were doing,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “We put some plays in that he was comfortable with that they ran at Oklahoma City.”
Outside the scale of season openers, a coach’s interpretation of what a player can and does bring to the table can make or break whole careers. Last season during the playoffs, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy offered some words of his own on the effect a coach can have on a player. ”
“If I had one regret about my time coaching Steve Francis [in Houston] is I tried to change too much too soon. That’s why I love what Scott Brooks has done. Russell Westbrook has gotten better rapidly…And the point is he has improved. He’s improved dramatically.”
In retrospect, Van Gundy realized that something was lost in the translation; he had failed to safeguard the fiery eloquence of Francis, and had lessened the future of the team and of the franchise with restrictive structure.
For the Mavericks, Don Nelson had played an opposite role with Dirk Nowitzki. Nelson couldn’t have cared less about Nowitzki’s height and wasn’t sold on the argument that Dirk needed a post-up game. Instead of being forced to play a role in which he might have lost confidence or failed outright, Dirk was free to play as a seven-foot shooting guard, unbridled by weighty defensive assignments or offensive touches that weren’t to his liking. Even while regarded as the future of the team, last second shots weren’t forced upon Nowitzki. Don Nelson was writing a new manuscript for the Mavericks that incorporated Nowitzki rather than force Dirk’s unique skills into a plot already rigidly defined.
And perhaps that is what I found so off-putting about watching Nash play with the Lakers on Tuesday night. I knew the character of Steve Nash from a thousand readings, but the actions were wrong, like the writer of the evening’s script was unfamiliar with the words that define him.
Roland Barthes wrote that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author,” and Umberto Eco would surely agree. My own claim to the intended reaction in thought and emotion that reading this piece inspires is irrelevant; the reader’s past and experiences will shape the light in which my words are read and it will be a different experience for everyone who does so. In that same way, my interpretation of how Rick Carlisle compels this new Mavericks roster into action or how Mike Brown was translating Steve Nash is just that: my interpretation. I know what these players have done in the past and that the compromise between player and coach can work to the betterment of the team. As reinforced by the events of this week, I believe Carlisle to be a master of such negotiation. But on Tuesday, it seemed that Mike Brown and the Lakers were standing in front of Trevi Fountain, telling everyone that it’s raining cats and dogs.
Shay Christian Vance is getting his feet wet in writing here at The Two Man Game. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.