The Man Whose Head Expanded

On Wednesday night, LeBron James took 27 shots on his way to 39 points and a Cavs loss. While it’s difficult to chastise the man for not getting the Lebronettes involved given that he had 14 assists, that sort of behavior, when it comes from a lesser player, is usually termed selfishness. Another of the league’s beacons of hope, Kevin Durant, regularly shoots a sub-40 percentage in losing causes. Once again, that performance will not go criticized. The selfish ballplayer remains one of the strongest mainstream clichés of the Association, but we refuse to accept it in regards to our superstars and brightest prospects. How can something so often reviled become a necessary characteristic of the most appreciated people in the NBA?

LeBron’s situation can be handled fairly easily. As Preordained Messiah #1, he operates within an almost-limitless field — the high volume of shots he takes, particularly on this talent-deprived edition of the Cleve, is simply a manifestation of his divinely foreseen narrative. It is quite telling that LBJ has been criticized most often for not taking shots in crunch time. For him, selfishness is a birthright, the refutation of which represents a loogie in the face of the order that has developed him since his youth. A powerful drive into traffic symbolizes the fulfillment of the prophecy, not egotistical exhibitions.

Durant presents a trickier case, but his acceptance also partially hinges on the establishment. In a way, KD’s smoothness renders all arguments against him moot; it doesn’t matter what he forces as long as the jumpers and drives remain effortless. On a deeper level, though, Durant’s shot-taking is built into the Sonics’ system. Presti’s Purge effectively handed the team over to the young star, expressing a need to see him grow into the role of savior laterally instead of vertically. On a team of Delontes and Wallies, Durant must learn how to be The Man on his own instead of by learning from a veteran. Without his selfishness, Seattle would have no culturally acceptable identity or purpose.

For a successful star-driven team, then, selfishness is in some way a prerequisite. (Nash and Duncan are the obvious counterarguments, but I’d submit that their selflessness has become so necessary to the propagation of their myths that the need to maintain those perceptions has somehow become selfish. Alas, those are stories for other times.) The alpha dog who thrives within that structure acts selfishly in that he takes the majority of the shots and gets most of the credit, but he cannot be termed as such unless he goes well beyond the parameters (in either direction) of his role. For instance, Kobe Bryant often gets called ballswine for taking many shots with few assists, even if the latter stat depends on the performances of his frequently inept (in the past, at least) teammates. Additionally, Kobe’s panoramic assertiveness is more identifiable as selfishness in the strictest definition of the term. His obsessive need to transcend history through his game – as argued on this site before, to rewrite tradition – can be seen as pompous even though he clearly respects those who came before him. The deeply personal nature of Kobe’s struggle causes it to read as much more selfish than the systematically accepted roles of LBJ and KD. However, as is the case with LeBron and Durant, the style and narrative in which Kobe – or any superstar – carries out the selfish impulse affect our willingness to accept that necessary character trait.

Lesser players function along similar lines, although they must be more strenuously pilloried for their transgressions against the system. JR Smith’s questionable shots in last year’s playoffs would not have been rejected quite so fervently if they’d come from Melo. Yet JR’s actions were damning because he failed, not because he went beyond his presumed role.

Victories, then, must play some part in the reception of the selfish player, and it is here that we turn to unsuccessful teams. The hierarchies of lottery teams are necessarily vaguer than those of contenders, but they do still exist. Teams like the Sonics – and, not so long ago, the Cavs – tailor these systems to their presumed next-wave heroes, the players who will bring clarity to these murky franchises once they ascend to higher levels of stardom.

More unlucky teams create their own very different ways of legitimizing behavior that respect the difficulties they face as perennial losers. A few years ago, Junior Dunleavy took on the role of late-game assassin for the Warriors. Scores of airballs later, I found myself upset at him for missing those potential game-winners, yet not for his chucking those shots in the first place. The team’s lackluster personnel demanded that he play a role in crunch time – the onus for that problem rested on the front office’s collective shoulders. Simultaneously selfish and limited players on terrible teams act out of necessity far more often than similar players, which necessarily mitigates the perceived obscenity of the act.

Unfortunately, that model assumes that every bad franchise functions like that directionless version of the Warriors. Most lottery teams, however dire their straits, attack with some sort of plan, even if they are often half-baked. The selfish player can easily run afoul of youth movements or shifts in strategy, as in the case of Ricky Davis in Minnesota. (The funniest thing about the Davis trade, of course, is that Minnesota got Walker back in return, but trading a roadblock for a traffic cone is still progress in the mind of an evolving team.)

If Ricky had stayed with the Wolves, though, could we really have gotten angry at him for taking lots of shots when the losses were all but guaranteed? After all, players can only work with what they’re given, and Davis would have been given a situation in which he was one of a few established players on a team grasping for positives. Furthermore, selfishness is not entirely determined by the genetic lottery – these players think highly of themselves due to years of success in church leagues, pickup games, grade school, middle school, high school, select camps, AAU tournaments, college ball, and, in the rarest of cases, the NBA. At some point, the majority of players are bound to realize that they’re no longer without peer, but that does not preclude a situation like that in Minnesota from unleashing old habits.

Any moderately successful professional athlete, no matter his stature, believes in his ability to be a worthwhile figure on any team; if he didn’t, he simply wouldn’t ever have become a member of the player’s association. On a basic level, someone has to score points on a bad team, but Ricky Davis’s compulsion to shoot goes well beyond necessity. His journey to his current status required selfishness, so it follows that, as one of the few established players on an awful team, he would enact the same personality traits that allowed him to succeed when similar lower levels of the game. Like a small-scale Kobe, Davis appears exceedingly more selfish than others on his level because he embraces the role of top dog with a bear hug instead of a weak handshake, but the baseline attribute still resides in all players.

With legitimate options in low supply, the selfish player must strive to prove his legitimacy when offered the chance to do so. Scold him for failing, if you must, but not for seizing the opportunity. The existence of that unfortunate situation is not the problem of the player; it is a sign of a lack of institutional control that forces these players into taking seemingly desperate measures. Selfishness is not an outlying characteristic, but it only becomes identifiable when the hierarchies of franchises fail the individuals they’re supposed to protect.


At 11/19/2007 11:16 AM, Blogger Marc said...

Are we really so far gone in the metaphysics of style that we can't even point out that right now Durant is a lousy player and Lebron is a great one?

I'm not sure "let the rook shoot 35%" is exactly the same as "let the rook learn the NBA game".

At 11/19/2007 11:19 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Ty can correct me on this, but I didn't read this as "Kevin Durant's FG% is okay because he's smooth and learning the game." I saw "Kevin Durant doesn't get shit for being selfish because of . . . "

At 11/19/2007 11:59 AM, Blogger Trey said...

I don't think a front office's ineptitude can justify the Ricky Davis Triple Double Fiasco.

At 11/19/2007 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I read it as "players who look pretty - players whose shots always look like they should go in - are cut tons of slack even if they miss tons of shots."

Durant's stroke is so nice, every shot he takes seems like a shot he should take.

At 11/19/2007 1:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Nice Fall shoutout in the title, though now I'm going to be pondering how FD Mark E. Smith is all goddamn day . . .

On topic, though, "selfishness" needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Someone who is the only scoring threat on his team---and can be trusted with rationally determining his own status as the alpha dog---can't be criticized for taking a large amount of shots. Why shouldn't a team's best asset be utilized?

Durant shoots a lot, and he does take lots of bad shots. He is not yet at the point where his own choices to shoot can be compared with veterans in terms of his ability to evaluate good/bad shots. He's also still a teenager, and teenagers learn best by repeatedly fucking up. Give him time.

At 11/19/2007 1:35 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

Yes, exactly, pretty=okay. Although I do think that teams are willing to take a lot of bad if the future stars show enough hints of greatness, and Durant has certainly done that so far.

@goathair: I don't know if I mean "justify" so much as "explain." If this post has a point, it's that the all-consuming competition and mythologizing of the sport breeds selfish players (or promotes selfishness, if we don't want to give that much agency to the system). And that's when you get things like the Ricky Davis rebound, which I actually don't find to be incredibly selfish (I didn't mention it because I think it's just bizarre). Honestly, I'm not sure what it was. That was a victimless crime; he wasn't really taking anything from anyone. More concerned in his own accomplishments than those of the team, certainly, but being concerned with yourself seems like a perfectly natural reaction when the W-L is hopeless.

This is something I should have said in the post, but I definitely think there's a spectrum of selfishness. But I also think that, in some way, everyone occupies a place on that spectrum.

@T.: Your question makes me think of another: Is Buying into the Team Concept a form of ego-stroking, at its heart? Something like "you will only be recognized for the talent that you are when you win, therefore you should sacrifice a small amount of stat success for the much greater potential boost from winning."

btobutwu: "Taking Care of Business"/"C.R.E.A.M." mash-up

At 11/19/2007 2:09 PM, Blogger Marc said...

Well, OK, I see the point about Durant. But it's definitely not having a "pretty shot". Ricky Davis is a pretty player too, he has that gliding athleticism. It's about potential. Every lousy play now is supposed to be the seed of a great play later. I'm frankly not sure I see that with Durant. But whatever.

At 11/19/2007 2:50 PM, Blogger Mavis Beacon said...

Your aside about Nash and Duncan strikes me as dangerously close the sloppy objectivism of young Randians. And your accusation that the goal of Nash and Duncan is the "propagation of their myths" and not, ya know, winning, is undermined by their successes and the occasional box score:



At 11/19/2007 3:29 PM, Blogger AR said...

Ricky Davis has great athleticism, but no handle. That is not pretty.

At 11/19/2007 3:30 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Kudos if the title is a reference to The Fall.

At 11/19/2007 3:56 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

@Marcus: Do you mean that you don't see the seeds of greatness in Durant at all, or you don't see it in every play? Because the former seems obvious, even if those seeds never grow.

@Mavis: In retrospect, that was sloppy. I definitely ascribed more agency to them then I probably should have. But I still think selfishness works there in an evolutionary sense (as it did in much of this post, if people couldn't tell), although moreso for Nash than Duncan. I'm of the opinion that no one wins for winning's sake, so it's worth looking into why players would want that in the first place.

The title is a Fall reference.

At 11/19/2007 4:30 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Cool, I just added the Marquis Cha Cha to my fantasy team.

At 11/19/2007 4:44 PM, Blogger MaxwellDemon said...

Not to cavalierly drop the paradigm, but I group "selfishness" with "running up the score" as concepts that don't apply on the professional level. Yes, a ballhog is a dick in a pickup game because everybody is playing to play--you want to win, but if you don't get to touch the ball occasionally you have wasted your afternoon. In the pros, the guy taking lots of shots tends to be a shooter by vocation. Selfishness accusations never seem to be thrown at rebounders for trying to grab every rebound; nobody ever calls out Nash, say, for insisting on bringing the ball down the court every time. As long as accumulating points is your job, I don't think you should be criticized for doing it.

If Shaq starts attempting 3's, I guess that would be different.

At 11/19/2007 5:10 PM, Blogger Nathaniel Jones said...

There is nothing FD about Phantom Menace.

At 11/19/2007 6:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Maxwell on this one. "Selfishness" is just a word misused quite a bit by writers who don't really understand the game. I don't profess to be an expert of any sort, either, but I acknowledge that a team's productivity is enhanced if everyone on said team has a specialized function. Said functions don't always need to be simplified to positions such as "point guard" or "centers"; they can be more dimensional than that.

So if Kobe's job (the ultimate subject in the properties of NBA "selfishness") is to hoist shot after shot because someone has to carry the team offensively, is he really selfish, or is just filling his role? What's the difference between Kobe shooting 2 attempts more per game than T-Mac, especially when T-Mac has another player (and just one, too often) to aid in scoring? Yet one is criticized for being a ballhog, and the other rarely receives such criticism.

Anyway, not to turn this into another discussion about Kobe, though I was surprised he didn't come up in this post.

wv: I really can't tell the difference between 2 v's or a w.

At 11/19/2007 8:08 PM, Blogger mdesus said...

Sloppy objectivism of young randians? Are you kidding me? this whole site screams post modernisms psuedo intellectualism. It doesn't have Rands clarity of purpose, but is somehow infinitely more human and presentable to the parents.

At 11/19/2007 8:17 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

please, name one thing more pseudo-intellecual than ayn rand.

worst. jew. ever. i'd take wolfowitz over her.

At 11/19/2007 8:23 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

also, it's pretty fucking obvious what two philosophers have had an effect on my basketball writing. and calling either of them "postmodern" is more than a little problematic.

-no one who has spent any time inside academic uses the term "pseudo-intellecual"

-no one who uses the term "pseudo-intellectual" would ever use "intellectual" in a positive sense. it's like "irregardless."

At 11/19/2007 8:24 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

inside academia, i mean.

At 11/19/2007 8:53 PM, Blogger ** said...

1. Hey, I didn't know that Rand was a Jewess. Rad! You learn something new every day, I guess.

2. Jason Kidd is/was another counterexample of the "selfish alpha dog"--a superstar (regionally, anyway) whose value was (i will write in the past tense because I am referring to the pre-VC Nets) derived from his ability to increase the value of his teammates, his grit, and his overall basketball savvy. A superstar in spite of the fact that his jump shot is ugly as fuck. Too bad he plays for the unsexiest franchise around. He really, really should have won the MVP in 03. If you went to a Nets game in that heady time and were able to witness him running the break flanked by RJ and KM like some fucking Valkyries or some shit, then you know what I'm talking about.

At 11/19/2007 10:45 PM, Blogger badly drawn boykins said...

I second SML and Maxwell on the stupidity of the concept of selfishness as it's used in sports commentary.

In basketball, selfish is a lazy descriptor for a player who is inefficient or lacks court vision.

I like to bring up Dennis Rodman when "right way" cavemen whine about selfishness. Rodman was about as self-absorbed and self-interested as a player got. But his selfishness came about in a way that, in conventional basketballspeak, was unselfish, i.e. not participating in offense.

WV: isipacer = Is I a Pacer?

At 11/19/2007 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had some brilliant stuff written up about KD's jumper, David Robinson, and the way KD's prettiness fits into a narrative of success and winning that Ricky Davis hasn't touched yet. In a nutshell, KD has always won gunning this way, so we expect the game to come to him if he keeps being him. Ricky Davis... has not, and so we do not.

Then blogger ate it, and I cried a bit.

So I'll just chime in to say that I agree with the pp about Nash vs. Kidd. The fact that he didn't get the MVP in 03 (though Duncan was hard to deny) remains a blight on the face of the award.

If Steve Nash is worthy of that award in ANY year, then Tim Hardaway has a serious bone to pick. Anyone want to pick up that argument for The XOver?

At 11/19/2007 10:59 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

I don't think the people who're saying that selfishness is irrelevant in pro sports are too far off from my opinion. It's a lazy descriptor that's so case-driven that it hardly even matters.

@T.: Mentioning Grigsby in that Kidd example was redundant. If it happened on a Cal basketball court in the 90s, Al Grigsby was there. Wasn't he 30 when he finally left?

Also, Dominic West (aka Det. James McNulty) is in Phantom Menace, so at least part of it is FD.

At 11/20/2007 12:20 AM, Blogger Leonardson Saratoga said...

Regarding bugbombs comment about Durant's stroke being so pretty that we cut him some slack...

I think a lot of it has to do with attitude. That is why we all cut Arenas a lot of slack, because we like him so much (or used to). Durant seems like he wants so bad to be a transcendent player, and not only that, it almost feels like he wants it so that it pleases us, that we cut him slack. I think Yi has maybe the prettiest jumper I have ever seen, but because of his attitude so far (getting better rapidly it seems) i'm not sure how much slack I would cut him if he started gunning.

At 11/20/2007 12:23 AM, Blogger jtom said...

Where would you place someone like OJ Mayo? A guy who has been labeled selfish before he ever played a college game, mostly because of behavior ancillary to his actual style of play (bumping refs, taunting opponents, ballhogging in an all-star game). In reality, he has great vision and size and his game is just as unselfish as Lebron or KD. But as an NBA player on a college team (and a mediocre one at that), he'll still take his 25 shots and do nothing in his one year of college to shake the selfish label. When he enters the league on a shitty team like Philly and is given the same liberties and "save the franchise" role as KD and Lebron, will he maintain that selfish label that's followed him everywhere or shed it based on the model you've constructed? Or is such an outcome predicated on these signs of brilliance that franchise saviors must occasionally exhibit to get a free pass?

At 11/20/2007 12:28 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Jimmy Smits used to be FD.

No actor is ever really truly FD, but some have extended moments of FDness. Gary Oldman, John Malkovich, and, of course, Christopher Walken have all had their FD stages.

Tom Hanks is as un-FD as you can get. But he's SML's hero.

At 11/20/2007 3:46 AM, Blogger curryrice said...

@ Shoals,
-2 philosophers are Hegel and Nietzsche? Just a guess. It doesn't seem that obvious. Arguments could be made, etc. etc.
- How about quasi-intellectual? Sounds cooler right?

At 11/20/2007 4:54 AM, Blogger Phoebus said...

not at all relevant, go ahead and delete once you've read this, but:


y'alls are responsible writers, and responsible writers don't let the jump get them on revealing articles.

At 11/20/2007 8:14 AM, Blogger mdesus said...

Shoals. Wow. It's true I'm not currently a prof. I earned a masters in philosophy, but never wrote my dissertation. I rather enjoy Rand. If only because her impossibly unrealistic vision serves as an embodiment of the absurdity of philosophy in general. Nietzsche is pretty rad, but in the end as empty as all the rest. (beautiful writer though)

At 11/20/2007 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: Leonardson Saratoga

I dunno, I've never thought that KD's desire was the defining part of his game. It's the effortlessness.

I play ball with two brothers, high school varsity players. One is 15, 6-10, a good strong athlete and an incredibly coachable hard worker. The other is 16, 6-7, and the most graceful athlete I've ever seen.

The younger (bigger) brother earns every shot he takes, a combination if post moves and muscle. The older (smaller) brother basically shoots from anywhere he wants, in any context he wants, and more often than not, he drains it the twisting fadeaway and is back to play what little D he plays before the rest of the team finishes boxing out for the rebound.

KD inhabits this game like few I've ever seen. Kobe wants something beyond the game (transcendence), Lebron manipulates the game - he makes it into something else entirely - with his freakish body, and Arenas is uses his skill to irrigate his grudges. But Durant seems to just want to thrown the orange ball in the red hoop. It's easy for him.

That's what I, and I think many others, see in that kid. We're not waiting for him to bring up his shooting percentage; we're really questioning why any of his shots, taken with such singularity of purpose and ease, should ever miss.

Plus, he's such a nice kid.

At 11/20/2007 9:09 AM, Blogger mdesus said...

absolutely bomb. Kobe makes the game look so incredibly difficult. His skill and athleticism is breath taking, but KD (and maybea very few others Ray Allen amongst them) make the game look so very simple.

At 11/20/2007 10:22 AM, Blogger dizzle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11/20/2007 10:23 AM, Blogger dizzle said...

Only read the boxscore, couldn't watch the game, but Durant only took 8 shots and everyone on the sonics scored exactly 11 points.


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