The Breaking Bad–to–NBA Translator

Steve McPherson/Grantland NBBA Breaking Bad - Steve McPherson/Grantland

[FAIR WARNING: There are spoilers here up through the current aired episodes. And one pretty graphic/gross Photoshop that’s also a spoiler.]

At first glance, it may not seem like there’s a lot in common between professional basketball and the story of a chemistry teacher turning to a life of crime in the face of a terminal illness. Maybe not on second or third glances, either. It’s entirely possible that Breaking Bad’s tight focus on a small core cast makes it not as natural a fit for this kind of thought exercise as, say, Game of Thrones. But let’s eschew the obvious (Marie Schrader as the Sacramento Kings because they wear purple; Saul Goodman as the Los Angeles Clippers because of benefiting from others’ misery; Lydia Rodarte-Quayle as, I don’t know, Czech basketball powerhouse ČEZ Basketball Nymburk) and press on regardless. As Walter White points out in the show’s very first episode, chemistry is not just the study of matter, but the study of change. The show is built on change: on how we try to control it, on how we fail, on how we deal with it.

The NBA — especially in the offseason — is not so different. What looks immutable or enduring one season can fall apart almost overnight. Just look at how fortunes have changed for Boston and Houston this summer. And of course, teams like the Heat have to figure out how to stay on top while everything churns around them.

The characters of Breaking Bad have had to build and rebuild themselves, forging new approaches, new deals, and even new lives over the course of the show’s four and a half seasons. With free agency largely done with, we can begin to see the shape of the upcoming NBA season, and how a few teams’ fortunes dovetail neatly with Breaking Bad’s principal characters. Fitting that we should start with the reigning champs and everyone’s favorite antihero.

Walter White :: Miami Heat


A master in his field embarks on a journey fraught with questionable moral decisions, infamy, and untold rewards because he fears his talents are going to waste away before he can secure his legacy. After some success, it blows up in his face, and he learns he has to come back harder, meaner, more ruthless than ever. Blood gets spilled along the way, but the point is he keeps winning. He is the one who knocks.

And yet. You can’t shake the feeling he’s just making it by the skin of his teeth. In spite of easily having the best product on the market, it always seems to be harder for him. We’ve watched his transformation from underdog to monster over the last several seasons, but there are signs his time of reckoning is nigh.

To say the least, there are plenty of people who still think a reckoning is coming for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. And that’s being generous to an entire aggrieved fan base: Rumor has it there are still pizzas on some roofs in Cleveland.

But for the less personally invested, it’s been a joy to watch James fulfill our wildest basketball dreams. Working within Erik Spoelstra’s system, he’s like a predator that can unhinge its jaw and swallow small mammals whole (or possibly execute a coordinated prison massacre). The strangest thing is how painfully dorky it has often been: the headband, the preemptive victory party, the coughing in the tunnel over Dirk Nowitzki’s illness. These things are the Heat’s Aztek, their Clarks, their calculator watch, their pressed, checked shirts.

But somehow, they’re also their porkpie hat (which, incidentally, is as good as a headband for covering up hair-related problems). Through sheer force of will the Heat have transformed their shortcomings — no traditional big man, Dwyane Wade’s slowly deteriorating body, a roster rounded out by veteran minimum guys and amnesty casualties — into their strengths and won back-to-back titles. But it wasn’t easy. We’re used to our villains — from Hans Gruber to Magneto — being driven, meticulous. But both Walt and the Heat often look strikingly vulnerable, which only serves to make the moments when they appear ruthless and bloodthirsty sharper and more terrifying.

In the final episode of the fifth season’s first half, “Gliding Over All,” Walt packed it in, but it seems inevitable that trouble will find him. The Heat can’t walk away from the expectations they’ve brought on themselves, either, and so the target stays on their back. Like Walt, they’re in the empire business, but every empire eventually falls.

Jesse Pinkman :: Boston Celtics


Jesse Pinkman started from the bottom. Like the Celtics teams of the mid-2000s, he was a disappointment to those who supported him and eventually his parents cut him off completely. But in 2008, things changed for both Jesse and the Celtics.

An infusion of veteran talent into their respective operations turned things around and suddenly they were champions, on top of the world, believing that anything was possible. But success has consequences, and staring down the possibility of watching it all explode spectacularly or else slowly fall to pieces, both Jesse and the Celtics decided they wanted out.

Jesse spent the first half of the fifth season trying to extricate himself, to kick his way free. The Celtics spent the offseason stripping their team down. This meant shipping Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, effectively completing the dismantling of the Big Three that began with Ray Allen’s move to Miami before last season.

The odd man out here is (and maybe always was) Rajon Rondo. Recovering from a torn ACL but expected back for the start of the season, Rondo is the wounded conscience of the Celtics, the part of Jesse that stays loyal to Walt. Rondo’s fierce competitive drive — which may be inextricable from a combative personality that has possibly played a part in alienating some teammates — brings an undeniable fire to the Celtics, but it’s one they may want to live without if they genuinely want to move forward into a new phase.

So long as Jesse remains attached to Walt — whether through a sense of loyalty, kindness, or by Walt’s manipulation — all the leather jackets and skinny jeans in the world can’t entirely strip him of those baggy skater jeans and awful all-over skull-print shirts he began the show in. If the Celtics do move Rondo before the season starts, it will be the clearest sign yet that they’ve put the past behind them.

Hank Schrader :: Houston Rockets


It seems like the Rockets have been this close to putting it all together for the last several seasons. Maybe they haven’t been championship contenders, but it has always looked like GM Daryl Morey has been inching his way toward serious success.

Maybe some of the early moves were baffling. There were jokes about Morey hoarding picks, and then jokes about hoarding tweeners. And he has not been infallible. Had the Rockets completed the deal for Pau Gasol that David Stern nixed in the summer of 2011, it seems unlikely they could have turned around and gotten James Harden.

But as eager as everyone was to start assessing Houston’s championship chances with Harden, Morey and the Rockets were just getting started. Landing Dwight Howard this offseason has vaulted the Rockets into serious Western Conference contention. But questions still remain about Howard’s health and fit. It feels like it’s all right there but that’s exactly when it can be so far away.

Just ask Hank Schrader. Over the last four-plus seasons he’s been circling closer and closer to the elusive Heisenberg. At times, he’s drifted away, lost his compass, but even when colleagues cheered him as a hero for taking out Tuco Salamanca, even when the blue meth disappeared, there was a little voice in the back of his head that said, “This isn’t finished yet.” Maybe he hasn’t built his case completely on analytics or levelheaded judgment. But then again, neither has Morey, for all his reputation as a numbers guy.

The numbers are just information and basketball is a flesh-and-blood game. They can help you understand what you need to do, but they can’t go out there and do it for you. Howard’s lost season in Los Angeles wasn’t something Morey could have banked on any more than Hank could have banked on Walt casually leaving the Gale-signed copy of Leaves of Grass in the bathroom. But just as the Rockets landed what looks to be a near-perfect complement to Harden’s pick-and-roll prowess, Hank has stumbled straight into a clue to the identity of Heisenberg. Sometimes, though, the last mile is the hardest.

Gus Fring :: Los Angeles Lakers


At the peak of his powers, Gustavo Fring made it look easy. When he entered the world of Breaking Bad in the second season, it was on little cat feet, quietly conveying that he was in absolute control of his domain but giving little hint of how he corralled so much power. It was only as his story unfolded that we saw what went into making him the powerhouse he became: the blood, the suffering, the sacrifice, the discipline, the perseverance.

The Lakers have long had a similar way of making it look easy — getting whatever free agent they desire; continually churning and remaking the roster with role players who actually fill specific roles; marching into the playoffs time and again and leaving with a championship or at least a renewed and somehow completely reasonable belief that they can get better next year. As much as it drives other fan bases crazy, there is something unmistakably manifest about the franchise’s destiny, a sense that a winning tradition can make anyone a winner. It’s an air that other teams covet. As Fring said, “One must learn to be rich.”

But seething under the Lakers’ placid surface are all the qualities that made Fring such a success. Mitch Kupchak is the savvy businessman who sees the tireless improvement of his product as superseding any lesser concerns. Kobe is the guy who won’t hesitate to slit the throat of Andrew Bynum or Howard or anyone else who stands in his way, even if they’re on his side. (Note: I don’t recommend watching that link.) And for years, Jerry Buss was the one who brought it all together, the smiling Pollos Hermanos manager who could glad-hand and work with just about anyone to get what he wanted.

But things change. The smooth hand of Buss has been replaced by the less steady hand of his son Jim. Bringing in Howard and Steve Nash last offseason looked like a consummate Lakers move; it put four All-Stars on the court. But from the outset, it looked ragged and no amount of threatening or concession could seem to bring Howard into the fold. Sure, there were flashes when everything seemed to work, when Howard looked healthy and put in the kind of work that made him an MVP candidate and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But at some point it became crystal clear that he just wasn’t going to fit, partly by his own design, partly by the design of the enterprise as a whole.

Trying to wrangle Walt into his business ultimately cost Fring his life (and his face). By hanging on to an ancient grudge against Hector Salamanca, Fring opened himself up to attack. The faultlessly prepared mastermind didn’t succumb to someone more disciplined and ingenious than himself, but rather to the belief that his own discipline could always protect him.

The Lakers’ considerable championship pedigree could not keep Howard there. It will not magically repair Kobe’s Achilles tendon, nor will it keep him from aging. By itself, it will not land them LeBron next season. One of Breaking Bad’s greatest triumphs is showing how success only seems to demand ever-greater sacrifice. For a long time now, the Lakers have seemingly had everything under control. We’re about to find out if they can right the ship without Hector Salamanca dinging his little bell and blowing it all to kingdom come.

Mike Ehrmantraut :: San Antonio Spurs


Is there a better model of stoic efficiency in modern popular entertainment than Mike Ehrmantraut? Where Lawrence Tierney’s Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs was all snub-nosed, bulldog tenacity and Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolfe in Pulp Fiction carried his well-worn expertise with a cool, unruffled air, Jonathan Banks’s hit man/problem solver combines aspects of both these approaches into something very close to the yawning world-weariness most of us bring to our jobs.

It just couldn’t be any more Spurs-y and Popovich-ian. San Antonio is built to deflect attention, to frustrate attempts to delve any more deeply than the team wants you to. The Spurs have a process, a way of doing things, and they like to stick to it. They’re not going to try to make the big play to change the landscape of the game. By sticking to their long rotation, their policy of resting starters and getting bench guys quality minutes all season, they made it to the NBA Finals and within a few seconds of winning it all.

Of course, the problem Mike ran into in the show’s fifth season was going against his better judgment and throwing in with Walter and Jesse when he was backed into a corner. For now, the Spurs are in no such corner, returning their experienced, solid core for another season and continuing to develop younger players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. But just like Mike, the Spurs may one day face a moment when they’re overextended, out on a limb. They’re just a few looming retirements or injuries away from getting knocked out and having to start again. They’re doing their best to make sure their rebuild doesn’t turn out as badly as Mike’s.

Skyler White :: Your team, when you hate your team


This is a little convoluted, but hear me out. If your team has missed the playoffs for at least five years (Wizards, Wolves, Raptors, Kings — I’m looking at you), then your team might be Skyler White. If your team has never won a playoff series (Bobcats), then your team might be Skyler White. If you’ve been penciling your team in for a first-round loss for the last several years (Hawks), then your team might be Skyler White.

This is because Skyler simply refuses to play ball the way we wish she would. Walt is (and by extension, we are) frustrated at every turn by her stubborn refusal to get with the program. To us, that means supporting Walt, understanding what he’s had to do to provide for his family, and allowing him the occasional high-end automobile lease to let him enjoy what he’s accomplished.

But our disdain for Skyler makes us complicit in Walt’s transgressions. If we step back just a bit, we can see things her way, can see what a monster Walt has become. But one of the show’s very best qualities is how it keeps our nose pressed hard against the glass, hand firmly on the back of our neck, as we get sucked into what is at first Walt’s desperation and then, slowly, his power-mad fantasy. If you hate Skyler, it’s because Vince Gilligan & Co. have managed so well to get you to buy into the fiction of the world.

It’s what sports is built to do as well. Every team talks the championship talk, more or less. And to us, they’re something at best to invest our fantasies in, at worst — if we’re fans — to check in on to see how badly they’re doing. But the actual organizations are made up of myriad departments, staffed with real human beings who have good days and bad days, who have humdrum concerns like shopping and doing the dishes. The concerns and pressures of the everyday are real and valid, and often have less to do with championships than with simply getting by.

If Skyler is a constant reminder of the cost of Walt’s decisions, of their intrinsic, unavoidable illegality, their wrongness, then all the teams that float near the bottom of their conferences, sometimes rising up high enough to get their fans’ hope up, are the reminder of just how hard and improbable it is to win it all.

Steve McPherson (@steventurous) is a contributor to the New York Times’s Off the Dribble blog and ESPN TrueHoop Network sites A Wolf Among Wolves and Hardwood Paroxysm.

Filed Under: Breaking Bad, NBA