Chocolate Lasagna is Not Always The Answer

One of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard during an NBA broacast was during a pre-revolution Warriors game a little while back. The Warriors had recently signed enigmatic ex-prospect Nikoloz Tskitishvilli. (I believe that the reason they signed Nikoloz, who went #5 in the 2003 draft, was to send a message to the fans that they could have made a worse pick than Mike Dunleavy at #3.) In any case, Nikoloz was on the DNP-CD train, just like he always had been, and the broadcasters said, "It's odd with him-in practice, he might be the best shooter on the team, but he just can't seem to do it in games." Apparently Nikoloz had disappointed Mike Montgomery by not flicking in 3s while he was sitting on the bench. Not that I think Nikoloz is an NBA-quality player, but if he'd been getting it done in practice, what the hell else was he supposed to do to get himself in the game?

As fans, we believe fairly strongly that NBA teams screw a lot of things up pretty regularly; they screw up draft picks, screw up trades, screw up free agent signings, screw up time-out management, screw up everything. But we all, more or less, believe that the NBA is made up of the best 324 basketball players in the world, save for the occasional FIBA star, and that the best players in the NBA, with the exceptions of a few young guys who aren't ready for extended minutes yet, are the ones who get the most playing time.

Consider for a second how that idea, that opportunities are handed out based pure merit alone, makes sports different from almost everything else in America. If you were to tell someone who was really into music that the best bands today were the ones who sell the most albums, you'd sound ridiculous. Likewise, if you were to suggest to a movie critic that there's no overlooked movie that deserves the kind of marketing push that Alvin and The Chipmunks is getting, or that every CEO earned his position through sheer market savvy, or that every prime-time show on now is better than all the shows that couldn't get their pilot approved or find a following, you'd be in the minority. Hell, if you said that the President is the world's smartest man, you'd be lucky to get out of the room. But we accept to a wide extent that in professional sports, especially basketball, opportunities are fairly handed out.

The counter-argument to that would be that success in sports is far more objective than success in most areas, at the end of the day, there's a clear winner and a clear loser, and players are judged on how well they advance their team towards that concrete goal, not accomplish the far more nebulous goal of sounding good or enthralling Middle America or running the country; in essence, there's no way an NBA player can be a terrible show that stays on because of great ratings.

However, aren't there plenty of examples of great players nearly getting missed because the right people, network-exec like, deemed them unworthy of having the opportunities that the players they liked did? Steve Nash was barely recruited, and ended up going to Santa Clara instead of one of the colleges he really wanted to go to. Bill Russell was an 11th-hour recruit to USF when a scout saw him playing volleyball and thought that a guy who could jump like that might be useful on a basketball court.

Usually the guys who come from out of absolutely nowhere to become NBA stars or rotation players are guys who get on the court with the intention of squeezing the absolute most out of every possible minute they get on the floor: Big Ben, Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and now Jemario, players who make their fortune without needing plays called for them or the ball in their hands; they play defense, get on loose balls, hustle their asses off, rebound everything, and become effective without anybody needing to give them anything. For those players, every minute is an opportunity, but for the rest of the league, it's not so simple.

Nearly every player good enough to even sniff the NBA has been the best player on the floor for their entire lives. Hence, even marginal players are going to be at their best when they're allowed to play their game, which often means getting the ball in their hands. I'm not suggesting every team give each player on the team, the D-League team, and random guys they find in Rucker Park a 10-day contract and let them shoot 20 times a game for a week, but there are some guys whose talents, while considerable, do not translate to the micro success in a limited role most deem necessary in order to have the opportunity to obtain macro success. If Allen Iverson isn't given an opportunity, then he's not much of a player-he doesn't really play great defense, doesn't rebound, doesn't make the extra pass all that well, and isn't a fantastic outside shooter. But when allowed to shine, his skills with the ball allow him to do so.

Iverson was fortunate enough to get his opportunities because confidence-making is perpetual, and Iverson has had success everywhere he went. But for lesser players who need the ball to be successful but don't have an Iverson-like pedigree to justify getting the ball that much, like Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Gilbert himself, Nash, and those who still haven't gotten an opportunity like Telfair, Shannon Brown, Jared Jordan, and Lenny Cooke, they have to wait longer to get their opportunities to play their game; for Lenny, it never came, and the sun is setting on Telfair.

Kevin Durant is being allowed a chance to go for stardom without serving time as a role player first; if he was a 2nd-round pick, his low rebounding, low shooting percentage, and poor defense would mean that he'd be all the way at the end of the bench, and might never get a chance to be a team's offensive focal point; instead, he's taking his lumps and being allowed to find his game. If more players were given that type of opportunity instead of repeatedly being set up to fail by a system that has already made up its mind about who its best players are, we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised by what we find.


At 12/15/2007 12:39 AM, Blogger Shane Murphy said...

To me this sounds almost like an argument against the draft. If players felt they could develop from the bench, they would sign up to play for top teams, while if they felt they needed the ball in their hands, they would look to lower teams willing to take a risk.

The increased popularity of FIBA and NBDL mean that beyond two rounds, many players are getting this chance (going from college to free agent).

At 12/15/2007 1:31 AM, Blogger Martin said...

totally unrelated to the post but I just watched the Warriors/Lakers game and man is Baron Davis cold-blooded. How does he keep making those off-balance three point daggers? And I thought he only did that in the playoffs?

At 12/15/2007 1:58 AM, Blogger Ian said...

First of all, posts like these are the reason I come to this site.

I hate to be the lame asshole who says "But who decides if a player is good?" but I just want to throw it out there. NBA GMs have a different view of "good" than, say, John Hollinger. Or even that bastard Dave Berri. In a "Moneyball" sense, are we looking at all the wrong factors that makes a basketball player good?

Probably not. I still think, for the most part, the players who get the most playing time are the best players on the court.

At 12/15/2007 2:16 AM, Blogger 800# said...

The Firefly reference blew my mind. Imma go and pull out my Lego's.

I'm not sure if dudes like Telfair can handle more looks though. Durant was inhuman during his year at UT, and whether or not he deserves the spotlight he still produces on the score board and oozes confidence. He moves differently than everyone else. He might not be the next #23, but I'd be damned it you didn't place him and Telfair in a staring contest that Durant would posterize the dude. I'm not saying that the NBA is a meritocracy... if that were the case no one would have heard of Grant Hill. However, certain players shine early and are placed in their positions because they demanded it.

At 12/15/2007 11:19 AM, Blogger Gregory Thelen said...

I used to hear how great a practie floor shooter Skita was here in Denver. Which would be fine, except he can't move his feet. My goodness is he slow. He has only one real skill, and it doesn't match his body. You can get away with that against kids. Against pros, a player has to be excellent at one thing or competent at several.

At 12/15/2007 12:52 PM, Blogger Sean said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12/15/2007 12:53 PM, Blogger Sean said...

Would Glen Davis fit into this category? He was a second-round afterthought who's become a key bench player for a championship contender, yet he was still a somewhat famous college baller.

At 12/15/2007 1:29 PM, Blogger Colonel D. Williams (Ret.) said...

Beno Udrih seems to have found a niche in Sacramento after languishing in San Antonio, and he has thrived because he's been allowed to have the ball in his hands. If not for getting picked up by the right time in the right circumstance his NBA career might have been over.

At 12/15/2007 1:58 PM, Blogger Jack Brown said...

Pining for a meritocracy can lead to some tough questions, which is why only the most competent feel safe enough to do it. That's roundabout props to Freedarko, and I guess Alexander Hamilton.

I think a hard truth is that while there are players for every system, there is not a system for every player. Most players then, will never show anywhere close to their full potential.

At 12/15/2007 4:32 PM, Blogger Tom said...

In a roundabout way, this makes me realize just how important the NCAA tournament is. Players legitimately do make or break their names in that field. Unless you put up rediculous numbers in the regular season that are noticed by national media (like Durant), that really is your one chance to get enough "famous" enough to have a legit shot in the league.

To illustrate my point, remember the kind of record-setting numbers Sczerbiak (sp?) put up while at Miami (OH) in getting his team a couple upsets. Despite not being particularly athletic, he was able to become a top 10 pick, and developed into a "steady" player with a huge contract.

Contrast that with every high school kid that came outta nowhere before the rule change and never got a shot.

Big Baby fits this category perfectly- guy can't even dunk, but is getting an opportunity (mostly because the C's had to completely deplete their roster to get KG). There's a lot of guys in the "undersized college PF" mold that could be doing what he's doing right now.

At 12/15/2007 5:19 PM, Blogger Krolik1157 said...

Jack Brown doing that thing where he says what I was trying to say, but more eloquently. Nice.

At 12/15/2007 5:42 PM, Blogger personalmathgenius said...

I don't know if the NBA is even the best 324 players from America. Think about the 5-10 players who go unemployed each year because they value themselves higher than the market. Is Sprewell worth whatever he's asking? No, but is he better than say, Kirk Snyder? I think so. Is Danny Fortson better than Carl Landry? It's at least debatable.
Would the 9th-15th guy on the Jazz make the rosters of a lot of other teams? Maybe not- I would assume to make that roster you've got to show Sloan something beyond highlight potential.
Is the end of the Suns bench really populated with NBA-quality players, or does it reflect how much of the salary cap is taken up with their 7 key players?
Was Yaroslav Korolev really better than any random NCAA senior from his rookie year that went undrafted but was in the top 20 in a key statistical category? Hell no. If it's a league of personalities, then that is writ large in the roster and is a reflection of the personality of the GM and his evaluation staff.

Here's a question- would Bruce Bowen make all defensive team without playing on a team with Big Boring? Would he shoot as well?

Shannon Brown is a weird addition to a list that includes Telfair, Lenny Cooke, and Jared Jordan. When he was at MSU, he was like the co-The Man with Moe Ager, who while a good player, is not so good that he was taking money out of Brown's pocket by representing 10-15 shots that he wouldn't get to take.
Telfair is a high school product, so imo, he's never proved himself as much as JJordan, a seasoned D-I product.

I think Big Baby's skillset isn't immediately obvious. He's always been overweight, as noted he's no jumper, so how was he successful even in college? Soft hands and deceptively nimble feet. Coordination, in a word. It's something a lot of seven foot projects never develop, so when you get 300 lbs of it, its worth taking a flyer. He literally represents space other players can't occupy (new nickname: The Exclusion Principle), and that's what seperates him from other undersized 4s and 5s.

I suspect some non-Lego parts were used on some of that Serenity...

At 12/15/2007 6:15 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

One implication of this I can't quite think through: That some players can be perfectly valid pro prospects while being all-or-nothing deals. Monta Ellis is either a major part of your franchise's future or he's useless.

I think this post also relates to something I've thought about—and probably written about—a lot: How circumstantial player hierarchy is. The classic example of this is, duh, J.R. Smith. He'd lost his "potential starter/star" status until he was shipped to Denver. How many other players in the league don't start or get minutes just because their first few years, or the situation they're drafted into, doesn't allow for them to get those minutes?

Yes, I realize that Smith is complicated example to use.

At 12/15/2007 7:59 PM, Blogger jawaan oldham said...

Another relevant Smith: Josh. Atlanta was willing to go far enough out on a limb in the hopes that this 12 yr old who could jump through the stratosphere would be able to grow (and it worked too; his stats are like lies you tell after your 5th post-pickup-game beer).

But a lot of players never get that chance. How much blood do rookie-killers like Pat Riley and Larry Brown have on their hands? Immense talents left to sit on the bench for a couple years get stale, and lose their career momentum, and unless an expansion team just happens to be opening up, those guys end up out of the league in 3-4 years.

At 12/15/2007 8:54 PM, Blogger Jack Brown said...

Krolik, your post definitely primed that out of me. Plus you motivated me to finally write that Bassy post I've been wanting to do for a while.

At 12/16/2007 9:28 AM, Blogger Handel said...

Not really related to this post but wanted to see how FD this Chinese Nike commercial was:


At 12/16/2007 1:38 PM, Blogger EL MIZ said...

that YI commercial was downright fascinating. the lebron-esque dunk followed by the weird-ass symbol yi was making in front of the dude on the baseline was bizarre.

great post, and great reply by jack brown re: the systems and the players. systems are quite perplexing, some people get caught up with the wrong crowd (drafted by the wrong team) and before you know it they are playing for the filipino hot dogs (lenny cooke).

what about rodney white? that guy dropped some CRAZY lines, but was arguably the most inconsistent player in the NBA, a title which now carried by jamal crawford.

At 12/16/2007 4:18 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who's amused that a guy whose first name is sometimes mispronounced as "Nazi" was traded for an Argentine of German descent. Makes me want to break out the Too bad Primoz Brezec isn't Iranian or some shit.

At 12/16/2007 4:22 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

uh, mangled the shit out of my comment. You know what I mean. Or not.

WV: wmovtw = Who moved the Weezy?

At 12/16/2007 9:06 PM, Blogger T. said...

This reminds me of a couple things:

1. Professional basketball's best blogger (Gilbert who? Paul what?) Rod Benson (of toomuchrodbenson.com) put up a 28 and 28 last week in the NBDL. Please someone give Rod a shot.

2. For his years with the Rockets, Boki Nachbar often had the same "Best Practice Shooter Ever" sorbiquet. In fact, there's a list of Rockets practice records like "Most 3 pointers made in a minute" etc. that Boki broke, but the guy just wasn't made for Rudy T's ISO offense OR Van Gundy's defensive schemes. He often said he got his dunking skills by practicing on Yao. System means a lot of average NBA players. (How does Eric Snow still have a job?)

3. Re: the Yi commercial, I have no idea what that little hands crossed sign is - but I THINK it's his version of the Birdman or the Roc-A-Fella diamond, since he's doing it in his Chinese coke outdoor advertisements too.

Not related, but remember Bird/Jordan? We had these commercials running through the summer in China:


(The other player is PF Zhu Fangyu)

At 12/16/2007 9:07 PM, Blogger T. said...

er, system means a lot TO average NBA players

At 12/16/2007 9:12 PM, Blogger T. said...

sorry, the thoughts are coming in five minute increments now.

El Miz - Rodney White, I believe, is playing here in China now. As is former Cal star and lottery pick Lamond Murray.

At 12/16/2007 10:27 PM, Blogger Tom said...

T.: I think almost every problem I've ever had with the NBA comes down to that single question: "How does Eric Snow still have a job?"

I hate the idea of saying "that's so FD," or, "that's so not FD," but I'll make an exception here:

Eric Snow is the epitome of everything this blog rails against.

At 12/16/2007 10:40 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins (fka spinachdip) said...

Tom: Eric Snow is the epitome of everything this blog rails against.

Here's my counterpart, albeit not yet a fully formed one. If not for Eric Snow, Allen Iverson wouldn't have been a shooting guard on the 2001 Sixers team. A sub-6-footer playing 2-guard, in the sense that it was the system fitting the player rather than vice versa, is pretty FD in my mind. In a way, he enabled FDness by being so fucking Right Way.

Perhaps FD and RW are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather, two circles in a Venn diagram with a small intersection?

WV: qztip = Representing Queens and Brooklyn

At 12/16/2007 11:10 PM, Blogger jawaan oldham said...

Or maybe RW and FD are yin and yang? Maybe it takes stultifying, diagrammatic RW for hoops aesthetes to truly savor the full glory of FD?

At 12/17/2007 1:16 AM, Blogger T. said...

I don't know how opposite FDism is to RWism. I see them as two points on a triangle (the third point would represent lots of players who are neither FD nor RW - and here, I'm thinking about players who have neither style nor right way playing attributes. Say, Damien Wilkins or the already mentioned Crawford, or heck, half the Knicks)

At 12/17/2007 6:11 AM, Blogger Sean said...

The Knicks seem like a perfect example of basketball's "terrible show that stays on because of great ratings." Okay, they don't have great ratings. But according to reports, they make enough money being mediocre not to have to worry about being spectacular. Lots of teams just strive to be good enough to put fans butts in the seats. I think it depends how we measure success. Is success being the number one show on people's lips for a season or two, or is it simply remaining on the air for 10 seasons a la King of the Hill?

At 12/17/2007 12:45 PM, Blogger ab said...

great post. just wanted to add that there are players who are able to completely change their game so as to survive not being "the man" anymore. i watched kurt thomas play back for tcu and he was an offensive-minded juggernaut. most of his defense came from just being bigger and faster than everyone else. yet, once he entered the nba and no longer had that dominance and wasn't given the opportunity to initiate the offense - he developed into a very solid defensive presence. so, lack of opportunity plays a role in some failures, but so does lack of ability to adapt.

At 12/17/2007 8:59 PM, Blogger db said...

Enjoying these comments, and especially agree with Shoals' observation on what we might call the aporetic nature of systems: you choose one path and you can't choose another, and systems are a complex residue of coaching, management, drafting, audience, salary issues, etc. What I like about FD is perhaps that it (ironically) recognises the importance of system more than any other, through the reading of individual players and their fit or non-fit into their own environment, and the "mass culture" of the league.

On the other hand, I think that AI's success is not really just about confidence and finding the right place. His athleticism and drive really is on another level that few players reach. He almost bends a context toward him through sheer force.

In any case, the league as meritocracy begs the question of what "merit" is, and as we know from the statistics wars that's a very unstable scale of evaluation.


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