Shrink the Hummer

The bruiser is a Right Way archetype on the level of the unselfish shooter or the unathletic defender – players who, by hard work and borderline illegal activities, just help their teams win basketball games. A physical team enforces its will on the opponent through a series of grabs, hard fouls, and anything else that causes bruises. The accompanying (assumed) lack of athleticism requires a slower pace to work. In theory, the physical team will grind out the opponent, wearing them down before crunch time and taking over in the final minutes. Recently, though, several athletic teams and players have redefined the parameters of physicality with high-tempo systems and swarming defense. These players and teams accomplish the goals of a slower physical team at high speeds, thus bringing the figure of the bruiser into an entirely new context. Physical play does not require a particular system; it can, in fact, change with the times.

That description presents this sort of physicality as a relatively new phenomenon, but it has been a characteristic of some of the league’s best players for years. For instance, physical punishment is one of the biggest parts of LeBron’s game; on certain plays, there is simply no way to deny him from getting into the lane. That is certainly easy for LBJ because of his unreal strength, but slighter stars can achieve the same types of moments, albeit less frequently. Kobe Bryant is not thought of as an especially big player, yet he overpowers multiple defenders several times a game. While it might seem like I’m cherry-picking the two best players in the league to prove a point, the fact of the matter is that a superstar depends on a manner of physical dominance that is married to his athleticism. The earthbound bruiser has never occupied the domain of physical play on his own.

At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the new physicality is reserved for players blessed with both the physical tools and talent required for superstardom. Kyle Lowry regularly bulls his way to the basket even though he’s 6-0 175 with a disreputable jumper. Yet Lowry’s good qualities (his rebounds, his drives, his free throws) are accompanied by a number of bad ones (his turnovers, his fouls). Whereas LeBron doles out his physicality with precision, Lowry and players of his ilk are primarily at the mercy of theirs. A superstar can survive in any environment, but the newly physical complementary player needs some institutional support to be viable long-term.

Memphis, thankfully, has given that to Kyle Lowry with their fast-paced system. However, the best example of a running team that plays physically is the Warriors, whose undeniable swag has been described on this site and others many times since last spring. What remains particularly impressive about the Warriors’ physicality is that they can do it without players (outside of Baron Davis) who could be termed physical on their own. Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson, and Al Harrington are all underweight for their positions, but, as a unit, they become something vicious and imposing.

To a certain extent, that’s because of the pace the Warriors create; certain bigger teams (e.g. Houston) simply can’t keep up with them, tire, and lose by more than they would in Strat-o-Matic versions of the same games. But speed cannot create physicality on its own. The Suns, for example, will never be mistaken for a physical team because they circumvent the issues of size and toughness almost entirely. I do not mean to suggest that Golden State is better than Phoenix – that would be silly – but the Warriors use a more viable model for the league at-large. The Suns succeed primarily because they have a few perfect pieces for D’Antoni’s system, but the Warriors have created a solid second-tier team mostly through scraps and fallen stars.

If speed isn’t the only answer, then what exactly does Golden State do to be physical? On defense, length is of great importance, especially as a team concept. Nellieball runs one of the few defenses that can legitimately be called “swarming” – five rotating pairs of clawing, grabbing, flying arms can certainly exhaust over the course of 48 minutes. Additionally, the team’s focus on steals and blocks can be demoralizing, if only for statistical purposes. Ultimately, though, the new physicality cannot survive without mental commitment to it. A size disadvantage will always bring up problems, but they can be mitigated as long as the smaller team keeps attacking and never backs down. The Warriors are nothing without tenacity – they are, quite frankly, one of the least watchable garbage time teams in the league. When they turn off their intensity, either after long stretches of frustration or after the game’s out of hand, they’re just another undersized team.

That paragraph contained a ton of basketball cliches, but cliches still work. In the debate between the Right Way and the Fun Way, each characteristic of winning basketball is too often placed on one side of the argument with little regard for how it might apply to the other. Physicality is a tried and true component of many great teams, and it need not be thrown out of a running team’s arsenal any more than a dynamic offense should be cast away from a halfcourt team’s game plan.


At 12/10/2007 1:40 AM, Blogger El Presidente said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12/10/2007 2:17 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

No offense to those of you who call the Bay home, but tonight it started to bug me that Golden State plays there.

And because I can, another plug for myself: Heaven and Here hath returned.

At 12/10/2007 10:46 AM, Blogger db said...

Great work from Ty in this post.

One thing I was just thinking today watching the Warriors is how much pressure they put on the referees, especially at home. They're grabbing, slapping, pushing, checking relentlessly, riding some kind of a line that the NBA has always hovered uncomfortably over: a historically "non-contact" sport is in fact all about physical dominance, but the referees are forced into making judgement calls whenever there are "contact events". The pace that the Warriors create these events must be just plain tiring for the referees, which probably accounts for the fact that I see more bad calls (both directions) during a Warriors game than almost any other. I'd hate to officiate one.

Ty doesn't really say it up front but I'll take the risk of being more reductive than I usually would: GS are a distinctly black physicality, which I would characterise as essentially anti-systemic; a recognition that the "system" (aka The Man) is something that is designed to take the life-force from humans, as it has done since it went down to West Africa and picked up its human labour for the plantations. A system of physical dominance (for some reason I'm just thinking of Utah) offers no collective hope for those who have been told they are never going to make it in the system.

I hate racial primitivism, and I kinda don't like the piranha and pit bull imagery associated with the post in relation to the point I want to make. It just seems to me that rather than anything "natural", GS actually base their physicality on a sense of brotherhood, freedom, and awareness of the symbolic value of swag. Not traits of the blood, but politically and historically motivated values that have some connection to the different day-to-day reality of Black (as opposed to White) America for most of its history.

At 12/10/2007 1:44 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

So are you saying being physical includes only being big and strong, or are you saying that being physical includes all other sorts of attributes (long arms, etc.)? Everyone in the league possesses some dimension of physicality.

It seems to me that if a Bruiser is a certain archetype, it doesn't make sense to say that Golden State players, for swarming the ball with long arms, are some type of New Bruisers. Muggsy Bogues' physicality was of a short, quick, annoying persuasion, but that doesn't mean he redefined anything that already existed.

At 12/10/2007 2:22 PM, Blogger DJ Slick Watts said...

Does what Henry Abbott points out today--that Denver is second-best in the league in defensive points/possession--stand as an example here?

At 12/10/2007 5:11 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

@db: I have trouble with that racial characterization. I don't think it's racist or anything, but the Warriors' physicality reads as systematic to me just like that of the Jazz is. I can't help but think that Nellie plays a huge part in creating that system, and he ain't black. Unless we're saying he's a black coach like Clinton's a black president, and I've never liked that characterization.

@salt_bagel: Well, yes, everyone has to be physical in some way just because they're all playing a physical game. Much of the point was that there are ways to work those different kinds of physicalities into systems that wouldn't seem physical just by the sum of their parts. A team of Muggsies might not work, but that doesn't mean you can't make Muggsy part of a physical system just because he doesn't fit the bruiser mold.

At 12/10/2007 5:25 PM, Blogger personalmathgenius said...

A system of physical dominance (for some reason I'm just thinking of Utah) offers no collective hope for those who have been told they are never going to make it in the system.

Thanks for playing, but if Utah doesn't lead the league in second round picks and undrafted players, they're surely only 2nd or 3rd. The Jazz welcome huddled masses, provided you assimilate into the 'right way'. Golden State gives hope to the hopeless* in the same way the lottery does, that doesn't make it a viable ticket (literally) out of the ghetto/off the bench|into the league.

*Al Harrington is an underdog? Baron? Stevejack? Uh, no. MAYBE Matt Barnes.

At 12/10/2007 6:07 PM, Blogger db said...

@personalmathgenius: your comment provides support for my point- GS's goal is not merely to succeed in the league as it stands today, but is a play (we might even call it revolutionary) for the whole system of basketball. Not a ticket for today, but for a future where freedom is a viable path to success.

@Ty: I think that just because GS are as systematic as the Jazz doesn't mean that they have the same relationship to the league-wide system. I guess what I'm trying to get at (and I think your post does it well) is that it's a different system. Nelson as Clinton is an interesting thought -this angle is relevant to the comments by Weezy on Cuban the other day - it's not so much about Nelson being black, but his level of comfort and experience with players who "play black". Personally, I see the biggest contribution of Nellie to GS being a negative one - letting the team run itself to a large extent. Of course there are plays that get people to the right spots, but also an incredible amount of latitude for offensive and defensive freelancing. We can say that Nelson might provide an environment which is relatively (compared to other white AND black coaches) open to the emergence of a black game. That is not the same as being a black coach, but might be more important in some, but not all, respects in changing the racial structure of the league. Race gives you the colour of your skin, but what happens to you because of it is a cultural issue.

At 12/10/2007 7:08 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

I can get behind that. I guess my issue was this: I see it as more of a loose, non-militaristic physicality, which is almost certainly easier to read as "black" than "white." But Biedrins fits in fine and he takes horsedrawn carriage rides through NYC with Zarko and Skita.

I think it comes down to the difference between intent and effect, and I probably lazily read too much talk about intent into your initial comment.

At 12/10/2007 7:42 PM, Blogger silent.e said...

This post just reminds me how sad I am that Golden State cut Stephane Lasme - a player who seemed destined to play for them, and then got drafted by them last June. All arms and blocks and rebounds... Too much physicality?

At 12/10/2007 7:55 PM, Blogger rebar said...

may lasme show up in later years and better fortunes with a block crown or two, daring GSW to trumpet brandon wright above him.

wv rgofs: randy foye goes fast

At 12/10/2007 9:19 PM, Blogger padraig said...

db: really? you see nellie's hands-off gig as a negative? I mean, that to me is his genius. maybe I'm just a pandering fanboy but I've pretty much been in love with Nellie's whole warped vibe since the glory days of Run TMC. I'm too young to have seen him coach the Bucks but I'd guess it was also awesome (Sidney Moncrief+Paul Pressey+Craig Hodges?). I guess I don't really see Nellie's gig as a positive or a negative. It just is, and without that barely controlled chaos the whole thing would collapse in on itself. and he's certainly a grifter but at least he makes sure everyone has a hell of a good time while he's grifting them.

More than anything to me the Baron/S Jax Warriors are quintessentially Oakland in a way that previous GSW teams really weren't. The Oakland of the Black Panthers and The Mack, home to both The Coup and Too $hort, the town that produced both Ricky Henderson and Bill Russell (Nellie fitting into the mix somewhere on the East Bay's white hustler continuum between Jerry Brown and Sonny Barger). Early Tupac exemplifies that weird , contradictory mashup pretty well. So, I guess I see a regionalism in their style more than anything universally "black". But that's just me. Fine work though, mr. keenan.

I was hella bummed out when they cut Lasme - who was seemingly genetically constructed in a lab to be Nellie's version of a "big man". At least we still have Matt Barnes and his utterly insane and gratuitous behind the back fastbreak passes.

At 12/10/2007 9:29 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I wholly concur on those reference points. But while they're regional, they're also racialized in a way that distances them from other things about the Bay. And most of them harken back to long ago.

At 12/10/2007 9:45 PM, Blogger Martin said...

I think quickness blurs the line between acceptable and unacceptable physicality. Although the Warriors are often guilty of 'grabbing, slapping, pushing, checking relentlessly' as db describes it, they have quickness on their side. The same applies to Lebron's style of play. Similarly a young Shaq was very difficult to officiate. When Shaq was at his prime, every offensive or defensive foul was open to subjective interpretation. On one play down the court, a move identical to what was deemed an offensive foul a few plays ago would be rule a facial dunk plus one free-throw for the defensive foul. However with Shaq's current slow and decrepit state, the referees have the benefit of watching his moves in slow motion making it easy to determine what is or isn't an offensive foul.

WV rxfyj: prescription medication for Jason Kidd's migraines

At 12/10/2007 10:25 PM, Blogger db said...

@padraig: good call on the Oakland ref, but perhaps as an outsider, to take something Shoals suggests, isn't the history of Oakland also a major part of what we might take "black nationalism" to have been? Or perhaps, hasn't black nationalism been a (fraught, necessary) project to connect the Oakland reality to other "historically/identifiably black" experiences/realities? So I'm not sure there's a tension there.

I didn't say all I wanted to about Nellie - he isa force, and his skill at exploiting matchups is of course its own thing. But while he pursues that, he leaves many other kinds of "right way" (racial) questions open, so that's the negative/hanging back I'm talking about. I don't have any opinion yet about the way his matchup strategies can be read in the terms of this discussion.

At 12/11/2007 8:44 AM, Blogger rebar said...

maybe i'm just a dumb white boy, but i see a parallel between john brown leading the slaves in rebellion to nellie, as well as bill clinton. maybe it's just because nellie reminds me of both of them. with the exception of his unwillingness to play rookies, nellie's defining characteristic is a propensity to play the game fast and loose. he's not just going to leave in a starter because they're a starter.

it's like this: to use a vulgar analogy, most other coaches are like plantation owners, ruling over their team from the sideline. even if you are the next big thing, better know pj carlesimo will bench your ass.

nellie on the other hand, operates like he's a weed owner and the team are his weed carriers. yeah, they're a posse/crew, but nellie is something roughly approximating top dog. he's pretty hands off unless you fuck with his shit.

At 12/11/2007 2:12 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

As a resident by the Bay, I take umbrage!

There are a lot of ways to defend the W's place on the map, but I'm curious where you think they belong geographically and what about their mis-location annoys you.

At 12/12/2007 4:27 PM, Blogger Samuel said...

I see the Warriors and the Bay connection picking up where the Soul Patrol Raiders left off. The team and fans revel in a grimey, our way style of ball that has been a part of inspired Oakland teams from the get go.
Stack Jack and Baron are the new physicality.

@personalmathgenius: Baron and Jack may not be left out in the cold orphan underdogs but they certainly are declared worthless, cast off underdogs. Matt Barnes is undeniably the underdog story of last season...how can you not call him an underdog? Add Kelenna Azuibuke the D-League legend to the list too.

Baron, Stack and Matt are Method ballers.


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