By Bethlehem Shoals
Left-handedness is not a curable medical condition. It doesn't warrant an entry in the latest DSM. But the lefties among us have always had an air of being different, even mysterious. They're just like us righties, but reversed -- mirror images that throw our very souls into sharp relief.
In basketball, there's a clear tactical advantage to lefties. They do everything righties do, just backward. It's hard to match up against, and almost reflexively, lefties get labeled "crafty." There's a touch of exoticism in there, too. The Memphis Grizzlies, otherwise hard-nosed and gritty, have achieved a certain mystique due in no small part to all the left-handedness on their roster. A right-handed Zach Randolph would be a far lesser man.
This week, the Detroit Pistons engineered a trade for left-handed point guard Brandon Jennings, a former lottery pick whose charisma and creativity are matched only by his inconsistency and lousy judgment. Jennings falls in the cracks between selfish and unselfish, lousy and transcendent, distributor and gunner. He's a natural point guard who might not even be comfortable with the position.
Some might see Jennings as a bust or a tease; I prefer to think of him as, in true southpaw fashion, perplexing, imperfect, and at his fleeting best, an original. That's the curse of the NBA lefty: They're outsiders whose very presence sows chaos but who rarely rise to the level of self-definition. That same madness they can inflict upon others also infects their game. Yet there's no angst to it. Jennings is a ghost who hasn't quite figured out the meaning of death.
In Detroit, Jennings isn't an isolated incident. Their biggest score this summer was signing Josh Smith, the mercurial shot-blocking, dunk-contest-winning, all-purpose forward who is at times both a team's greatest strength and its most obvious liability. With the Atlanta Hawks, the team that drafted him in 2005, Smith was often the best player on the floor -- except for when the team tried badly to structure him. Smith's on-again, off-again addiction to outside shooting is offset by his defensive prowess. He'll follow a very smart season, where maturity rules his game, with something like utter regression.
Now entering his ninth NBA season, Smith has entered a bizarre kind of stasis. He does what he does; sometimes it results in catastrophe, sometimes brilliance. It's almost like he doesn't know, or care about, the difference.
With Jennings and Smith, the Pistons aren't just heavily investing in the Gospel of the Lefty. They are also on a fast track to becoming the league's only authentically left-handed team. Imagine the Grizzlies weirdness, which owes more than a little to their host city, shot through with real confusion and dissent from prevailing basketball logic. Greg Monroe, their third year big man whose game is equal parts finesse skill and inside fundamentals, is also left-handerd. Certainly, it's fitting that a lefty would have this kind of screwy hybrid game -- the same applies to Smith and Jennings. What's most exciting, though, is that the team itself seems ready to subscribe to this philosophy.
Put aside, for a second, the ever-vexing Jennings. The Pistons frontline of Smith, Monroe and uber-athletic pogo stick Andre Drummond, is as big as any in the league. It also can't shoot to save its life. And yet
between Smith and Monroe, there's more than enough versatility to put some less evolved backcourts to shame. Hyperbole, perhaps. But when a team decides to ride into action with an oversized pair of forwards whose skill set often places them at odds with the dictates of size, you're in left-handed country.
This offseason we've witnessed the Nets load up with safe veterans in an attempt to make a title run; the entire league line up for the privilege of hosting The Dwight Howard show -- the NBA's premier player at the most sought-after and foundational position; and the Heat and Thunder trying to shore up their rosters in the face of salary cap challenges. It's been about playing it safe, maintaining the status quo, and for a lot of us, giving us very little discernibly new to look forward to.
The Pistons couldn't be further from this trend. They're a monkey wrench unto themselves, unto others, and unto all of us who spend a lot of our time watching basketball. They're also easily one of the NBA's must-watch teams for next year, even if the end result is mediocrity with long bouts of rot. The Pistons will spend all season trying to make sense of themselves, with key players whose very approach to the game is a microcosm of that inner war.
The best part? They won't let it go to their heads. The first rule of Left-Handedness: These players are always just a little off, never totally coherent. Rajon Rondo, who plays as if he learned the game on another planet and would prefer to speak a foreign language of his own invention, is not left-handed. Drummond, a raw youngster, is what one friend referred to as "no-handed." The end result is less important than the ride. And in a season that's way too long to begin with, this kind of team is the perfect antidote to the inevitability we've increasingly come to expect around the league.
-- Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland, Ore. He is the co-author of two books about basketball. Follow him on Twitter @freedarko.
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