If J.J. Watt was an actor, who would he be?
What about James Harden? What if he was a musician?
I don’t know if anybody really thinks about that sort of thing, but I do. Or at least I did yesterday. In the middle of a Twitter war with Cody Stoots about how (a) Will Ferrell is Tim Tebow: dominant on the lower level (college, SNL), but on the big stage, outside of one or two moments (six-game winning streak, Anchorman and Step Brothers), the skill set never translated, leaving us with hype and truthers, and (b) if you consider the careers of Ferrell and, say, Adam Sandler, they’re actually pretty comparable. And yet, one is loved, the other loathed. Go figure.
Either way, the creative juices were churning. What if we were to take all the top sports personalities here in the city, and put their past, present and future in terms of the career arcs actors, musicians, and comedians? What would that look like? And would it help steer the conversation about what we have seen and will see? Who knows. Maybe I even get punched in the face by Brian Cushing for saying he’s one of the guys from that really bad Daredevil movie. Or stomped out by 15 guys for saying that Harden, while I love his work, is kind of a carbon copy of one of the least likable artists on the planet. Guess we’ll have to see.
So, since I happened to think of it, and to lighten the mood, here goes.
Houston coaches and athletes as Hollywood celebrities. Part Two.
James Harden — Justin Bieber
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Humble beginnings. Eventually discovered. Elevated to star status. But caved under the weight of their own achievement. It’s easy to forget, but Justin Bieber supposed to be a star. He wasn’t Justin Timberlake or Zac Efron, who were manufactured in the Disney Factory of Celebrity. Bieber was just a kid with a dream — and a YouTube channel. But that all changed when Usher found him. A record deal and a few hits later, Bieber was a sensation. He could sing. He could dance. 16 year old girls — THE demographic in pop music — thought he was dreamy. And so he was, for people in the industry, the complete package. Only problem, he was also immature as hell. Before long, Bieber was cranking out as many bad headlines as top 40 hits, and became less of an artist than source material for SNL. He wasn’t a criminal, or a bad guy. Just a knucklehead. And there was even a part of you that understood. Empathized for him. Yeah, he’s a schmuck, but if it’s me, am I any different? It was just frustrating, seeing so much talent wasted on frivolities. Wait, are we talking about Bieber? Or Harden? It feels that familiar. Harden might have been a top draft pick, and an underappreciated talent, but he was, lest we forget, once upon a time a sixth man. A more well-rounded and less head casey J.R. Smith. But Daryl Morey saw more in him, and pounced at the chance to make him the centerpiece of arguably the best and most creative deal in NBA history. Thus began Harden’s chance to be The Guy. And for a minute there, he was. For that brief, fleeting moment — the 2014-15 season — Harden looked to be on the cusp of greatness. MVP runner up. MVP as voted on by the players. $200M shoe deal. All seemingly from thin air. It felt like he’d made it. Which was kinda the problem. The following offseason, there wasn’t the same dedication. Instead of training with U.S. Men’s Basketball, he was getting hammered at clubs and hanging out of Cadillacs. Making questionable relationship choices. Cultivating not nearly enough sweat equity. Hence, last season. Between “Harden Defense Vines” becoming a thing and the overwhelming likelihood that he was responsible for Kevin McHale’s firing, Harden was no longer The Beard. He was The Punch Line. The Next Carmelo. The safest joke in all of sports. Much of the criticism was unfair, and like Bieber, largely a product of lazy media and his own “crew” — for Harden, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley, for varying reasons. But the perception was very real, and may or may not have had consequences. Like, say, missing out on top NBA free agents. Ultimately, Bieber got his life together and bounced back, cementing his brilliance by at one point holding each of the top two spots on the Billboard charts last year. Will Harden? I say yes, arguing that adding Mike D’Antoni and shedding Howard’s smothering personality will set him Harden much like Durant now without Russell Westbrook. But I still need to see it happen. Here’s to hoping it does. What a show that would be…
Daryl Morey — Aaron Sorkin
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Sharp. Innovative. But resented by fans, because fans think *they think* they’re, like, the smartest guy ever. Sorkin’s work speaks for itself. West Wing isn’t just one of the best TV shows of all time, it’s also one of the first of its kind. A well-researched and relatively accurate look at the inner workings of The Political Machine. Cutting edge. Same for Sorkin’s filmmaking. A Few Good Men. Charlie Wilson’s War. Social Network. Moneyball. He might not have the longest resume. But nearly every project he takes on becomes an achievement. He doesn’t make movies, as they say. He makes films. But ask most fans what they think of him, and they’ll curl their lip. Why? Sorkin’s just not all that relatable. He’s a director, and yet he highlights his hair. His writing is so strong, so witty, it leaves you wondering, Is that how he thinks? Or is he just rubbing his Syracuse education and superior intellect in my face? But that’s just who he is. He can’t help it. He’s dedicated to creating the best work possible, and to him, that’s how to create the best work possible. Which about sums up Morey, and Twitter’s perception of him. Most casual fans, they’re not buying it. The fancy pants stats. Analytics. Trades at the deadline and in the offseason and during the draft that don’t serve an immediate purpose, and so must be trades for the sake of trades. Just so he can remind everyone of how smart he is. It’s dumb, of course, and says more about people and their insecurities than it does Morey and his ability. But that’s the perception. Even though, it’s that same outside-the-box, so crazy it might work! ingenuity that made way for maybe the best trade in league history, for Harden. And let’s not forget about landing Dwight. A free agent megastar coming to a non-traditional free agent destination? Take a bow. Morey, who it’s worth noting ushered advanced metrics into the NBA, will never get the credit he deserves. Not in a league so top heavy, it’s got the team that beat the best regular season team ever (the Cavs) and the best regular season team ever that just added Durant (the Warriors). But does it really matter? Morey’s an artist. The Rockets are his canvas. You can choose to not appreciate the work. But imagine where the would be without him. Exactly. That’s the ultimate Morey masterpiece. The difference between that mental image, and what you see on the court.
Dwight Howard — Kanye West
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Raw talent as good as any we’ve seen. But thoroughly moody, insecure and impulsive. Maybe the neediest star in the industry. Early on, Kanye’s ability jumped off the (radio? iPod? YouTube? Spotify? whatever…). Ten seconds into “Slow Jamz” with Jamie Foxx and Twista, which Kanye produced and went in on back in 2003, and you knew he was special. Then, “Late Registration,” “Graduation,” “808s & Heartbreak,” and, musically, Kanye was off an running. Everything he touched was gold. Of course, he was also in a metaphorical dead sprint personally, running around wildly like the crazy person he may or may not be. Creating drama and conflict at every turn, and for no real purpose. Case in point: did he need to pull that stunt at the 2009 VMAs? Is his career any different (read: worse) without it? Of course not. He wasn’t an FM DJ who turned “shock jock” in the midst of a ratings battle. He’d already won. He sold records. He sold out tours. Other artists beat down his door trying to collaborate with him. Anyone else in his position, they’re just above that. But, Kanye needs the attention. Has to have it. And so, Kanye just does. Whatever pops into his zany little head, whether it’s helping Kim Kardashian start Deflategate 2.0, or everything found here, Kanye just… does. Dwight’s in a lot of ways the same guy. He’s not a jerk. (Far from it). But Dwight’s legacy is this: never in the history of sports has there been a star who craved approval more. Think about it. All the waffling in Orlando. Outrageously opting in (!!!) to the final year of his contract in 2012. Eventually pushing management to fire Stan Van Gundy. Bolting for the Lakers. Signing on in Houston, and cementing his status as the Most Vexing Player In The League. Starting over again this offseason with his hometown team, Atlanta. All in hopes of padding his approval rating. Which is really ironic, because — as these things often go — when you’re that eager to please, you only turn people off. Your insecurity becomes a pet peeve. Like rubbernecking. Dwight’s career arc — have we ever seen that before? I argue no. And it’s one thing to let what (you think) people want dictate your career choices. It’s another to let it paralyze you at the office. For LeBron, becoming Public Enemy No. 1 enhanced his game. For Dwight, it destroyed him. Had a profound impact on his ceiling. There’s a good story about a famous radio personality who, when he started out in local, used to keep a manila folder full of all the bad press written about him. I’ll bet you a month’s worth of dirty laundry, Dwight has that folder. To this day, every time Dwight gives an interview, he’s sure to point out, Ya know, I really don’t know why people don’t like me. They say I don’t wanna win. They say I smile too much. They say — which Dwight can confidently cite, because he knows LITERALLY EVERYTHING THAT “THEY SAY”. It really is a shame, too, because even if Dwight’s a Hall of Famer (stop, he’s a Hall of Famer, it’s not even debatable), he never came close to hitting his ceiling. That physique, coupled with this era of small ball — Dwight could’ve been one of the best ever. He really could’ve been. Imagine Dwight with Draymond Green’s nastiness. That player is devastating in this NBA. Just lethal. But, we’ll never get to see that guy. Which is the type of thing you say about players who suffer debilitating injuries, not the ones that simply care too much what people think.
Mike D’Antoni — Billy Bob Thornton
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Totally honest, I got into this fully prepared to force a square peg into a round hole if need be. Was really just going for a laugh. When I first thought about it, I figured: I could listen to this guy talk all day, I could listen to this guy talk all day, and that was good enough for me. Purely superficial. But the more I looked into it, it actually kind of fits. People forget just how good Billy Bob Thornton was. Sling Blade? Monster’s Ball? Pushing Tin? He put out some fine work. But it just feels so distant. You know his name. But what’s he famous for, again? That’s kind of how Mike D’Antoni’s career feels. I criticized the hire initially, saying that the Rockets would’ve been better served getting either (a) a glorified life coach (Jeff Van Gundy), (b) the coach who just spent a half decade proving he could win with pretty much anybody (Frank Vogel), (c) someone on the cutting edge of basketball innovation (Dave Joerger), as opposed to someone who was last successful seven years ago. But the more you think about it, we really don’t appreciate how good those Suns teams were, and how pivotal D’Antoni’s was for them. Before he took over, the Suns won 21 games in 2003-04. The next season, his first at the helm, they won 62. In the Western Conference. Think about that. That single-season impact, it’s LeBron-like. To do what D’Antoni did, against that competition — right in the thick of Prime Pop, Prime Kobe, Prime Dirk, the Ray Allen Sonics winning 52 games that season, it’s beyond impressive. D’Antoni and Seven Seconds Or Less took the league by storm, and did it practically overnight. West Finals in Years 1 and 2. And if not for the second dumbest suspension in the history of sports (Deflategate is No. 1), they probably beat the Spurs in the 2007 West Semis, beat the Jazz in the Conference Finals and beat LeBron and the Cavs in the NBA Finals to win the title. Imagine if that happens. What then? D’Antoni probably never gets fired in 2008. Gets to groom Goran Dragic in his system. Gets another shot at a deep playoff run in 2010. Maybe wins another title. Who knows. Maybe he becomes the type of guy fans would say, Man, if only that guy were available! And yet, here he is in Houston. Maybe his stints with the Lakers and Knicks were forgettable, but who’s won with that Kobe and any Carmelo? No one. Give him Harden, who has the potential to be flat out better than Nash was, even at his peak, and D’Antoni has a real chance to recreate that magic with the Rockets, and remind us just why, exactly, he’s still a household name.
Matt Hammond hosts Saturdays from 11-3 pm on SportsRadio 610 and fill ins during the week. You can, and totally should, follow him on Twitter @MattHammondShow.