Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Watching J.J. Redick plunder the half-court for open looks is, in a unique and impressively uncomfortable way, a reflection of the burden of guarding him. He'll square dance with you under the basket, and then dart away like a pickpocket. Catch the Clippers guard in the corner and he'll squirt away, over a pin down and then around the wing. Chasing him is an anxiety nightmare that plays out as a war of attrition. You may stop looking, but he won't stop running.
Or forget it and just enjoy watching DeAndre Jordan making gravitational waves, or Chris Paul hypnotizing some poor seven-footer stuck on a switch. Redick's teammates give violent expression to the sublime, and his functional, terrestrial ethic silently underwrites the operation. It's what he does, and it's what they need. For the past few months of Redick's renaissance season, the payoff has become impossible to miss.
He's not doing anything new, really—wholesale additions to one's offensive repertoire don't usually happen at age 31. He's just doing all the old things better, and better than everyone else. Redick is second in the NBA in three-point accuracy at a semiautomatic 47.7 percent, and is averaging career highs in scoring and PER. He hasn't been this hot since he was J.J. Redick, college basketball's inimitable proto-troll and quintessential Dukie.Back then, Redick was the diabolical pong star who drilled spontaneous thirty-footers and wrote poetry about his haters—the type of generational amateur talent whose professional chops scouts often have difficulty parsing from cult of personality. (Redick himself didn't know if he would stick, and took three semesters of Italian anticipating a career overseas.) In the 2006 NBA Draft, Redick went to Orlando eight picks after another one of those college superstars, the sweat-beaded sadstache Adam Morrison, went third.
The average NBA career lasts about five seasons. Redick is now playing his tenth, which means he's seen two full cycles of Adam Morrisons and Jimmer Fredettes come and go while he steadily tills the parquet. Redick could just have easily been one of them; the main reason he's not is what he does in floppy or horns or pistol sets—the fitness and the form (though he was also fortunate not to be drafted by an owner who was literally the Michael Jordan of distressed jeans).A certain proclivity for personal development has made Redick a more complete player, and thus one who deserved more minutes. He didn't crack the rotation in Orlando until he shook his rep for rec league defense, and he wouldn't be nearly as effective a shooter if he didn't have a counter for every hard closeout. For most guys who make it to the NBA, the end of their prime means the end of their career. Not only has Redick managed to stave off the end of his prime; by improving every season, he is somehow still defining his own ceiling.He's also kept the Clippers' ship from scuttling as the team saw Blake Griffin succumb first to a quad injury and next to the sort of idiotic late-onset belligerence that can fracture a team, not just the metacarpals of its star player. Since Griffin went down in late December, Redick has settled into a zone normally reserved for Kia Optima pitchmen—scoring 17.8 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting from the field, and throwing in a preposterous 49.7 percent of his three-point attempts. It may not fortify the Clippers against their inevitable May collapse, but his virtuosic play in the past few weeks has at least preserved the likelihood of them making it that far.
Like the narrative arc of any Clipper campaign, Redick's aesthetic toggles between flipbook art and Yakkety Sax. But it is a winning style. In Detroit, Redick set a down screen at the elbow, and then sprinted to the opposite wing, drifted to the corner, caught, faked, rhythm-dribbled, and hopped into a three that sent the game to overtime; in the extra frame, he punched another triple that put the team up for good. He doesn't always have to work that hard for buckets, but when he does, he seems to relish it—both the toil itself, and exposing those who lack the spirit to keep up. The nine threes he dropped in an overtime win over Houston played like an extended James Harden diss track. As Redick stunts on his opponents, so have the Clippers, who have gone 20-6 in his breakout stretch.
The stats testify to the relentless incrementalism through which Redick has perfected his craft. He's the picture of lean play on a team that fetishizes "clutter-free basketball," arduously winnowing the chaff from his game to hone a more precise sense of timing and ever more flaw-free mechanics. If Redick is getting more open this year, it's the result of barely sharper feints, subtly tighter curls, a slightly quicker release. Redick leads the league in points per touch, which is both a fact and an unbeatable metaphor.It's hard to notice, much less appreciate, tiny steps forward, which get thoroughly overshadowed by players and teams making near unprecedented leaps forward. Paul George cast away his crutches and made the All-Star team; Steph's aerial assault on the NBA has ushered in an era of cultural chaos and perhaps ended fandom as we once understood it. By comparison, Redick sniffing at a 50-50-90 season will likely be a humble footnote, and infographic fodder at best if he achieves it. This is more or less by design, considering that the Clippers' clutter-free ethos pursues hoops perfection in the least radical way. For Redick, and ultimately for his team, it's the only way forward.Redick is playing the best ball of his life at 31, but the Clippers are suddenly contemplating their mortality. They are woefully in-between: they're not as good as the Spurs or the Warriors—Redick himself admitted as much back in November—and yet they function too well as a unit to be blown up. They're capped out going on played out; dealing Lance Stephenson and a pick for Jeff Green is about as dramatic a move as they could've made. Like Redick, the Clippers are stuck being tremendously competent and ultimately irrelevant.With a title effectively out of the picture, the team has to reinvent the thrill of the chase, and find meaning in being the best possible iteration of whatever they are. For this they can turn to Redick for inspiration. Tracing perfect circles in doomed and elegant futility may be their lot; for Redick, it will certainly look a lot like that. But maybe all that work will transform itself into something special, as Redick has, first slowly and then all at once.GIFs are by the author