Watching Shaun Livingston, The Definition of Redefinition

Shaun Livingston once looked like someone who could change the game of basketball. Now he's something more valuable: a player who understands how the game changes.

Dec 29 2015, 4:28pm

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The questions surrounding the Golden State Warriors, in their present stature, have less to do with the daily concerns of an ambitious NBA team than with a kind of general basketball morality. Standard pick-a-side prompts fail to gain any traction. Are they the game's best team? Do they have any real weaknesses? Will they win another title? Yes, no, probably, and, more broadly, whatever. The Warriors are on a frontier of their own making; they sometimes seem to have time-traveled from some future where their cycling, telepathic mode is simply the standard idiom. Watching these Warriors play the Brooklyn Nets is like watching the '96 Bulls play the St. Louis Hawks.

Just as the builder of a metropolis eventually scans its skyscrapers and asks what good do they really do, basketball fans let their minds drift amid the obvious excellence. Golden State is the league's present standard, but will its influence be wholly positive? Is the new viability of someone like Draymond Green, a thick but undersized 4 whose gift for cross-court passes makes him more useful to the Warriors than any back-to-the-basket grunt, worth the increasing obsolescence of someone like Zach Randolph, the arch-grunt of the early 2010s, who now comes off the bench for the Grizzlies as they try to soup up their plodding outfit?

These are not academic questions. The Warriors are really doing all this, they really are good enough that they might eliminate whole strains of hoops dialect as teams whittle away the portions of their rosters unfit to hang with those whirring lineups. More than that, the Warriors play prettily enough that most folks might not mind.

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Only the best teams prompt these sorts of concerns. It is less interesting—and more difficult—to think of how Golden State might lose than it is to consider what they portend. If classicists and futurists can squabble over whether the Warriors are finally good for the sport, then everyone should be able to agree on the righteousness of at least one part of their team. The present iteration of the Warriors makes possible the present iteration of Shaun Livingston, and there is nothing at all wrong with that.

In the Warriors' Finals rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day, Livingston scored 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting and chipped in three rebounds and two assists. That first number is well above his season average of five, but if you're familiar with Livingston's nightly style in his Golden State role, you can picture the ways in which he got his buckets. He has always had a vaguely amphibious presence; it's the thing that once made him a super-prospect, and even more fascinating as he evolved into an elite role player after a catastrophic early-career knee injury. He almost lost everything, up to and including his lower leg, but in the years since he's redefined himself as a player unlike any other in the league.

When you believe in safe landings. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Livingston is a large, thin tadpole of a man, slipping into the court's unoccupied eddies, turning in slender circles, moving the ball about his knees and ankles like a river pebble. He has that ability to be neither moving nor still, suspended in a state of kinetic patience. He has good vision, long arms, and a killer fadeaway.

On Christmas, the fadeaway was falling even more than usual. Late in the first quarter, Livingston drove from the left wing to the elbow, rose in a narrow line, and dropped one in over Iman Shumpert. He dedicated the rest of his 22 minutes of court time to variations on this theme. He posted up Mo Williams, took a breath, and spun over his left shoulder with the ball already cocked above his forehead. He feigned a drive against J.R. Smith, spun over his right shoulder, and released a shot in the patch of space the fade provided. Smith's defense was both textbook and wholly inadequate.

Here is the surest sign of the Warriors' opulence, the basketball equivalent of a taxidermied snow leopard with high-carat jewels in place of its torn-out toenails: teams tasked with chasing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Green also have to puzzle over the particulars of a 30-year-old backup point guard with 20-foot range. When the Cavaliers conspired against the turn-and-lean, Livingston responded with prompt applications of logic. Doubled in the post, he flicked a pass out to Andre Iguodala for an open three. With a hard close-out heading his way, he tiptoed past and swiveled himself to the backboard for a layup.

When you're just chilling in a very gangly way. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Livingston's career will always have as its centerpiece that brutal injury and the years of rehabilitation and short-term employment that followed. In light of this, his time with the NBA's best team will always have a redemptive slant. Indeed, as a parable of hard work and karmic balance, Livingston's professional life works better than most. His story does not rely on the concoctions of local media or dramatically lit television segments; it is plainly visible in the archives of his time on basketball courts. That horrific injury discontinued one promising future, and he pursued the fullest version of the lesser one offered in its stead. He gives good minutes to a nearly perfect squad. There are worse compromises to make.

Allegories of optimism and dedication to craft aside, Livingston also provides the vanguard-inhabiting Warriors a refreshing measure of the game's older rudiments. Curry throws arcing one-handed lobs; Livingston slings skip passes. Thompson comes to total and well-drilled halts behind screens to make room for his jumpers; Livingston shimmies and tilts.

It is not the Warriors' job, of course, to pursue stylistic breadth for its own sake, just as it is not their burden to worry whether their advances endanger other approaches. Sometimes, though, these things work out by accident. Harrison Barnes, one of those seemingly lab-built Golden State players, has been sidelined for a month with a sprained ankle. Livingston has played in his place as part of the Warriors' virtuosic ultra-small lineup.

Instead of Barnes's vaulting drives and wing threes, there have been Livingston's pauses and pivots. It works, but everything works for this Golden State team. If Livingston's inclusion has altered the group's approach, it has not hurt its production. He once seemed like someone who could change the game, but Livingston has found work as a player who simply, humbly completes it. It turns out that Shaun Livingston was born to fill in. He is a maestro of the adverse circumstance. He knows, maybe better than anyone, how vital and how quietly miraculous it is to be able to make those incomplete moments whole.