There’s a storm coming in basketball that has been brewing for quite some time. It originates from something far older than myself (or likely anyone else who will read this), but will take on a completely different level of significance in the coming years.
Simply put, there are three types of players in the NBA: the athletically gifted, the basketball savants, and the players that are both. For all intents and purposes, the players that are both (like Lebron, Kobe, and Chris Paul, among others) are not at issue here, but these individuals are few and far between in the league at large. As such, there are essentially two types of players at issue. Now don’t get me wrong, these are not classifications that are clearly separated; there are plenty of shades of gray here, but the aggregate differences are substantial enough to discuss the topic more generally.
One of the biggest issues with sports in my generation is the “ESPNization” of team sports. Simply put, we are living in a world where sports are entertainment (and there’s no argument from me that this is right), but the difference is that the individuals rewarded in terms of endorsements and many of the individual accolades are players whose play values individual success and highlights more than team success. People who care about this issue all have their own favorite example, with mine being Gerald Green, who can make SportsCenter more frequently than he can make a competent team play, which is part of the reason why he’ll keep bouncing from team to team.
That said, coming from an economics background, there is a more important factor that largely gets ignored, which is the economic incentive of this behavior. Certain people complain incessantly about how the game has changed for the worse, but the reason why is far more important because it is impossible to fix the systemic problems without identifying the cause. Simply put, kids growing up at the same time as me saw that they could make significantly more money by focusing on dunks and no-look passes.
And who could blame them? The Michael Jordan that was immortalized was the one who won dunk contests and stuck out the tongue instead of the top-tier defensive player who passed on Finals-clinching shots to give John Paxson and Steve Kerr easier shots to win those games. This isn’t to say that the athletic kids in this world can’t be savvy basketball players; the problem is that they don’t see the benefit from it at a young age, so they work on what will get them on TV. It’s clear that a portion of this blame goes on the sports outlets that glorify elements of the game that lead to the appalling McDonald’s All-American games that we see now, but the responsibility goes in a few other directions as well. We consistently see team owners rewards the players who focus on these elements of the game with disproportionately large contracts (see: Martin, Kenyon) and GM’s overdrafting these kids.
All of these sources tell part of the story, and another component is the NBA itself. No league has been more culpable in the changes their league has undertaken than David Stern and his minions. For the last five years, they consistently have ignored the teams that play excellent team basketball in the games and teams that get coverage on the outlets. It is simply unforgivable to have a group of individuals like the Miami Heat get multiple prime time games in the same week when teams like the Utah Jazz get largely ignored in terms of meaningful coverage. What is even more astounding is that good team basketball is often even more fan-friendly than the no-defense teams, but the networks have never cared enough to emphasize these elements of the game that make it so beautiful, whether that be through highlight packages or hiring announcers who actually know how team basketball works, which is part of what makes Jeff Van Gundy such a phenomenal announcer. Furthermore, guys like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard could have been household names in the league at least a year ago, but their games never get national coverage so those without NBA have to just listen to pundits talk about them when they’re not writing MVP articles ignoring Chris Paul completely (I’m looking at YOU Adande!).
One of the most interesting case studies of this era of basketball is Vince Carter. By all accounts, he came into the league as one of the most physically gifted players in the history of the NBA, with his dunk contest domination in Oakland serving as one of the most dramatic examples of this. The other side of the coin for his legacy is his inconsistent effort and blatant tanking at the end of his time in Toronto. Both of these arguments are compelling, but what makes him a great case study is that he actually is an incredibly savvy basketball player who is an underrated passer and defender for his position. That said, he’s one of those guys who I’ll always wonder how much better he could have been, which is a hallmark of the 90’s and beyond. It is unquestionable that the league is much more athletic than it has ever been dispite dilution by overexpansion, but that does not mean it is “better”.
Why this is more relevant than ever is because of the incoming crop of kids into the college and NBA ranks. There are the Tyrus Thomas-esque physical freaks like Michael Beasley, the savants like Kevin Love, and a smattering of players who have both like Derrick Rose and Jrue Holliday. What makes now different is that the lines of separation seem much stronger than previously. Take Kevin Love and DeAndre Jordan as examples. Deandre Jordan is a fascinating talent with the size and athleticism that makes every scout drool and dream of his potential, thus rocketing his stock, while a guy like Kevin Love languishes lower on boards because he is perceived as a lower-upside guy because of his sub-par basketball body. I’m not knocking DeAndre Jordan in any way, but when you’re talking about return on an investment, there is simply no contest. Love’s skills will be his skills in the pros, and what’s astonishing is how unique they are. I’ve seen him play in person numerous times and on TV a ton as well, and he is simply one of the best passers I’ve ever seen regardless of height. However, we’ve learned over the years that passing isn’t all that’s involved in that process; a player needs to WANT to pass the ball and get others involved. OJ Mayo is a phenomenal talent, but I’m concerned that his confidence on the offensive end will lead to more ball-domination than he should have, though he could be nasty if he could play PG with a swingman who handles the ball well and he respects as a form of a mentor for the formative years.
But back to DeAndre Jordan. While Love is putting up productive minutes (probably in a backup role as the first big off the bench), Jordan will be “learning how to play”, much like Jermaine O’Neal before him. The problem is that the drafting team will be lucky if they have any sense of where he’ll be long-term by the time he finishes his rookie contract, typically forcing them to either overpay him to roll the dice (like Nene) or let him go (Darko). As such, the only benefit they’ll likely reap is the chance to have Bird rights if he breaks out or it looks like he will. As someone who’s a fan of the team who drafted Patrick O’Bryant directly after Rudy Gay, I know how this process can be.
I’ll close this with a little definition.
The Eric Weddle Corollary: Players who do not have the “sexiness” as draft prospects (typically because of physical attributes) but just love to play the game and produce regardless.
(note: Eric Weddle was a defensive back for the Utah football team who had no draft hype originally but has already become a starter in his second year in the NFL):
Some people like Bill Simmons talk about the undersized PF’s like Paul Millsap and Carl Landry doing well in the NBA right now because of the Phoenix influence and the changing body type of the NBA Power Forward, and he’s partially right. The other piece of the puzzle is that the guys who are good enough to get noticed like that usually have these other attributes which makes them significantly more likely to succeed in the pros. Think about Paul Millsap for a second. The guy has known for four years exactly what his role on the court is and relishes it. There’s no sales job necessary to have him do the yeoman’s work and he knows that with rebounding as his calling card he’ll be able to stay in the league for eons.
There are Eric Weddle players at every position in the league and a multitude of them in college basketball right now. Over the next couple weeks I’m going to try and compile them (as I have for my own personal reference the past few) so you can follow their progress as we move forward.