Few things in the NBA are more dismissive than the shrug. The most famous — most enduring — is Jordan’s in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, but the motion has become an instant Twitter highlight synonymous with a few things:
- Befuddlement at your own abilities. This is a variation of Shaq staring at his hand as he runs down the floor. This is Boogie discovering he can shoot threes. This is Baby’s First 40-Point Game. This is the origin story for a superhero.
- Disregard for the other team, usually done during a hot shooting streak. It is the equivalent of yelling “They can’t guard me!” as you jog by your own bench. It’s the middle part of a superhero movie before the hero gets beaten into the ground by the main villain and is brimming with confidence.
- Confusion about the other team’s defense. This differs from 2 in the level of defensive intensity. While Disregard usually comes from high defensive pressure, Confusion comes from a lack of dedicated defense on the shrugger.
- Acceptance that whatever you’re doing is beyond anyone’s control. This happens near the end of the game, and, sticking with superhero movie metaphors, it’s when the hero defeats the main villain on some crazy stroke of luck. In this shrug, there’s an element of resignation on both sides. These things just happen, says the fourth shrug.
In Game 3 of the Warriors-Jazz series, Kevin Durant did a shrug of the second variety. The Jazz had been winning (wow!) and Steph Curry was in “Briefly Playing Bad to Seem Mortal” mode, so Kevin Durant decided that enough was enough with the BS, danced on Gordon Hayward like it was Footloose 2, and just sort of forced the ball to go through the rim on a pull-up fadeaway. It was as unholy as it was disrespectful.
So where does this shrug rank among the greats? Well, we have to assess a few things about the conditions of the shrug to generate an accurate ranking.
1) One of the primary criteria is setting. Durant pulled up to the sideline, surveyed the crowd, and hit all 1,000 residents of Salt Lake City with the “where ya team at?” shrug, as though he wasn’t sure if he was playing in the right stadium. It’s record-setting levels of disrespect, and Durant was sure to stir some extra Salt into the Lake. On the setting front, Kevin receives full marks, both for location and his interaction with fans.
2) The second indicator of a great shrug is the game context. Was the shrugger’s team losing? Is it high-stakes? Is this game an addition to a heated rivalry? The score Durant receives here is middling. The Warriors were up by 10 after he hit the shot, with under a minute to go in their third straight win against Utah. Utah had really challenged the Warriors, but it was still a three-year powerhouse Golden State team against a Jazz roster with a lot of first-time playoff players. KD had already killed the Jazz, so the shrug was less a salt-in-the-wound move than it was an unnecessary heaping-onto-these-poor-Utah-residents move. He should have done it when he and Draymond Green got back-to-back buckets to put the Warriors ahead permanently.
3) Third, how instrumental was the player to his team? A shrug is so much funnier when JR Smith goes 1/9 for 40 minutes of game time but hits his second shot to tie or win the game, but it’s more iconic when it’s spearheaded by a slew of great plays by the shrugger. Durant scored 16 points in the second half (11 in the fourth quarter) and covered for the inadequacies of Steph and Klay on the offensive end. As such, his shrug ranks moderately highly on the “instrumental to the win” ranking.
Durant’s is not the first to follow Jordan’s — many have imitated, and with varying degrees of success.
We have Yogi Ferrell’s from earlier this season when the once-Brooklyn player was on his first ten-day contract with the Mavericks:
Bringing the heat against perennial All-Star Snub Damian Lillard, Yogi hit 9 threes on the way to a tight Mavs win. This shrug falls into the third category, because Yogi is obviously befuddled by the lack of respect he’s received from Portland’s defense. He got his shrug on early in the game, though, which hurts this score, plus his lack of reputation makes this shrug feel a little unearned. To Yogi’s credit, the motion is minimal. He holds it for a beat, and then drops it and gets back to work. Ferrell does earn some points for an unbelievable performance, and for making the Nets look like idiots, which I believe is something that the new CBA requires to happen at least once every fiscal quarter.
Between Yogi and Kevin Durant sits John Wall, who tossed up a shrug against the Atlanta Hawks in their 2017 playoff series:
John Wall is terrific at all things basketball, especially the parts that involve embarrassing other players. In Game 1, Wall scored 15 points in the third quarter after scoring 13 in the first half, abusing all of the Atlanta defenders assigned to him. Bazemore was helpless. Tim Hardaway Jr. was reminded that he still lived in his dad’s shadow. Wall divided Dennis Schroder into East and West Dennis. There was no answer. This shrug sequence is of the fourth variety, and it’s perfect, because most of what John Wall does to spite people is perfect, like when he made fun of Schroder on Instagram in one of the best NBA long-con shots of all time.
With the ribbing that the Wizards are prone to, Wall actively flaunting his play was beautifully petty. Every perfect assist, every blow-by layup, and this highly improbable shot in the third was accompanied with Wall waving his arms to pump up the crowd, a smile plastered on his face, so, for context, it scores extremely well. The bounce it took on that pre-shrug shot was amazingly unlikely, and I love that Wall is cognizant of that. For setting, meh. The D.C. crowd was loud, but there’s no real interaction with fans. Wall just holds the shrug as he trots back down the court. As for importance, well, there’s no one more important than John Wall to the Wizards. He’s their motor, their heart, and their emotional firebrand (a role he shares with Markieff Morris), and he does everything that the team can ask of him. Ianic Roy Richard wrote an article after Wall’s 52-point loss about his value to that team, and the point still stands: the Wizards are nothing without their star PG. He’s earned this shrug, and possibly another one or two before the year is through.
One of my all-time favorites was Derrick Rose’s shrug after a wow-what-how-did-he-do-that shot in 2010:
The shot is only part of what makes this shrug so impressive, but it’s a crazy shot. You have your run-of-the-mill turnaround jumpers, and then you have this: a falling-out-of-bounds turnaround contested three that swishes through the rim like wind through wheatgrass.1 He’s Chicago’s star. These are the plays he needs to make.
In addition, you have everything else that plays into the context. This was Rose, the Chicago kid, in his MVP season, in the house that Jordan built, against the even-more-historic Lakers. This was fate, and he handled the moment with remarkable composure. His approach to the shrug is solid too: lands right in front of the Laker bench, turns, faces the crowd, and with a smile that puts this shrug firmly in the first category. This is Rose discovering his heights. It’s a beautiful thing.
1I’ve only seen two threes more impressively lucky than that: Derrick Rose’s banked game winner over Tristan Thompson in the 2015 ECSF, and LeBron’s banked fallaway three to tie the game against Washington this year. The latter might be the most amazing shot I’ve ever seen.
The above shrugs have covered a variety of scores. MJ’s is the gold standard, of course; it pioneered the movement. It ranks highly in almost every category. The stakes were as high as ever; Jordan, trying to prove his first Finals win was no fluke, was matched up against his predecessor, Clyde Drexler, in a six-game series where two were decided by five points or less. In that first game, Jordan set the tone: 6 threes in the first half (breaking the NBA playoff record). As for context, it was flawless. After nailing that sixth three, Jordan turned, looked at the looked at the broadcast trouble, and shrugged. This shrug is famous because it combined all three shrugs: discovery, confidence, and wonder. MJ was a force to be reckoned with. He scored four points in the second half, but he didn’t need any more than that. Chicago won by 33 points; the five other margins of victory only totaled 53 points. In addition, look how Chicago Stadium explodes after his sixth three. Look at the disrespect in Jordan’s face as he shakes his head prior to The Shrug. This is poetry in motion; this is human existence; this is the futility of life.
Ultimately, it all boils down to this: I love Michael Jordan so unbelievably much.