Warning: If you’ve never listened to Radiohead before, you’re about to be exposed to the song Pitchfork named the 4th best track of the 1990’s in the weirdest way possible.
In 1996, the English rock band Radiohead had reached a state of discontentment regarding who they had become as a band. This was not an unusual feeling for them, though this time it sounded heavier than before. They were holed up in Jane Seymour’s mansion without a producer or a deadline, endlessly tinkering with their sound into the early hours of the morning and their results were entering uncharted territory, to say the least. They were using string sections that started sounding closer to traffic accidents than to Eleanor Rigby; their guitar riffs became less about melody and more about irony.
It was then, in the midst of their artistic horror regarding the dehumanization of civilization, that they decided to title their lead single after Marvin the Paranoid Android (Note: consider that Radiohead wrote the song in 1996, before Coldplay happily blew semi-ironic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references squarely into the sphere of stereotypical British alt-rock). It served as something of a final, tongue-in-cheek offering to the world of mainstream alternative rock that they were about to eagerly leave behind.
Was it rock music? There was suddenly no question that could have mattered less to them. They had been coronated as the saviors of rock music and they no longer cared. Following OK Computer, the award-winning album that Paranoid Android graces, they ventured further still from conventional music genres and found fulfillment in developing forms untouched by anyone close to having their talent or resources, including their follow-up album, Kid A–recently named the best album of the past decade by Rolling Stone.
After his disappointingly so-so rookie season, Marvin Williams’ stock was on the rise. He crushed the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league with a flurry of athleticism and versatility that completely outmatched his opponents. Not to be a killjoy, but Hawks fans were saying similar things about him that Jazz fans are saying about Alec Burks now, only more so. He was named MVP of the Revue, and when hawks.com asked if that meant anything to him, he simply said, “Not really. I’m focused on the season.” He had shown a new slew of post moves and was working hard, ever the model of professionalism and courtesy.
What followed was a season delayed by a fracture in his hand before a sharp descent into a swirl of total inconsistency. Williams’ game log with Atlanta looks like an inflated version of Gordon Hayward’s stat lines from early this past season, when he was attributed with wavering confidence and followed up 19-point outbursts with only four shot attempts the next game. Hayward evened out and pulled it together mid-season. The dream of Marvin’s stardom wasn’t undone by body language or bad decisions, only by box scores. Regarding Williams, I don’t think Atlanta fans ever felt the terror during a Marvin shot attempt that Utah fans felt every time C.J. Miles let the shot clock wind down without hope of a better look at the basket, or the disgust when Carlos Boozer pouted on the sidelines nursing another injury that none of us had heard of. The reactions in Atlanta to the trades of Williams and Joe Johnson was telling; to Johnson, they were filled with nostalgia over the irritation he caused them and the sympathy for him that had been born out of those feelings. To Williams, they shrugged and walked away. They weren’t angry because he didn’t actually do anything wrong. They just said about him what we all say when we can’t really identify why someone doesn’t dominate: “He wasn’t assertive enough.”
By the time he was traded to Utah two weeks ago, the indifference of Atlanta’s fan base was suffocating. After the news broke, the comment thread on a popular Hawks blog went through hundreds of replies entertaining the sudden possibility of pursuing Chris Paul next offseason before anyone stopped and asked, “Wait, wasn’t Marvin pretty good? Wasn’t he a better player than Devin Harris?” Everyone waved him off and said, “Yeah… but next offseason is going to be great!”
Marvin is nothing like the Paranoid Android, though as Radiohead said so bluntly in their song of the same title, “ambition made him look pretty ugly.” In this case, said ambition evokes much more sympathy as it wasn’t his in the first place. Atlanta saw that he had the athleticism and the build to be great; his character checked out and he worked hard. Their expectations weren’t unfair, but their reaction to reality was. As Williams continued to refrain from being too aggressive and led- as he said in his press conference last week- by example more than anything else, his usage rate and minutes steadily declined from his third season forward despite the fact that he was subtly becoming more efficient and more well-rounded with each passing year. This past season, he set career highs with his rebound rate, defensive rating, and win shares per 48 minutes despite the fact that the fan base’s opinion of him had never been more indifferent. Why? Because his role as the true Marvin Williams hadn’t been developed. No one had let him turn the corner and be the basketball player that is the perfect combination of his skills, his character, and his personality–not just the culmination of his raw talents. Many Jazz fans will undoubtedly watch the highlight reels from a few of his first games this season and start to get excited as they recognize that same potential, but I hope that we quickly learn from Atlanta’s mistake.
Those of us who ask if Marvin Williams will become a star with the Jazz are asking the wrong question. Marvin Williams will never take 20 shots a game, so Al Jefferson can take a deep sigh of relief. The relevant question concerns the role he will be assigned to fill, and whether that happens to be a role that he can fill as well as anyone on the planet. This is Utah’s opportunity at redemption for being unable to give Andrei Kirilenko the minutes playing power forward in a run-and-gun offense that he needed to thrive. Maybe Williams will continue his current arc of progression to become a shut-down defender that Utah can utilize to slow down the LeBrons and Durants of the world. Maybe he will build off of his strong three-point shooting season last year and become the sharpshooter that the Jazz desperately need. Maybe he’ll become both of those things, or something else entirely. The real excitement of rooting for Marvin Williams is that we have no idea what he even wants to become as a basketball player, and yet we know that he has the tools to succeed in whatever way he chooses.
This is the journey that Marvin Williams now begins, and we all begin with him. Will he become the Marvin Williams that we will remember as a basketball player instead of as a draft pick? I hope so; there is something so human about his story that I feel like I have something personal riding on this one.
I want to believe Marvin Williams can succeed in some capacity in Utah. I want to believe that sometimes when things don’t go right, the problem is at least partially our circumstances and not just us. Radiohead were never meant to be the kings of 21st century rock, they recognized that, and they went in a completely different direction. The potential that they were assigned by others was never the potential they saw within themselves. This is Marvin’s opportunity to take whatever potential he sees in himself and be guided by that alone. Will he become a star? Mercifully, it no longer matters.