Posted by Neil Paine on February 26, 2010
This essay is a rather extreme case of late-night rambling -- just warning you ahead of time.
In case you stumbled upon this website and have no understanding of basketball, sports, or American culture in general, let me just say that the players in the NBA are really good at hoops. I mean, ridiculously good: so good that they have been dominant players their entire lives, at virtually every level. I always laugh when some fans are watching a game and say "I could do that!"... Well, no, you couldn't. The average fan seems to have a shaky grasp at times on the vast, gaping, astronomical chasm that exists between their own abilities (or even the abilities of the best basketball player they've ever known/played with) and those of the worst NBA player who ever played. There's simply no comparison there, as I learned the hard way when future D-Leaguer Patrick Ewing Jr. dunked over me, Freddy Weis style, in a high school AAU game in 2003. I was on a mediocre lower-tier HS team, we were playing the best crop of prospects in the state of Georgia (which at the time included Ewing, Stanford/Washington G Tim Morris, Evansville C Bradley Strickland, & Georgia Tech PG Matt Causey), and they beat us by nearly 100 points. And Ewing is the only player on that team with even a remote shot at the NBA! Talk about a harsh dose of reality.
Of course, when we put our fan hats on we tend to say things like, "Player A sucks," or "Player B needs to be cut from the team," but we also need to remember that these statements only make sense relative to other NBA-caliber players. For instance, Terrence Williams of the Nets is last in the league in Win Shares and is scoring 6.1 PPG on 36.5% shooting; by any NBA standard, he's stinking up the joint right now on one of the worst teams in league history. But he was also arguably the best all-around player on a team that went 31-6 in the Big East and came within a game of reaching the Final Four. The point is, if you met him on the street, odds are Terrence Williams would be the best basketball player you knew, and he's been one of the NBA's worst performers this season.
Also, it bears noting that in order to be one of the worst NBA players by any cumulative metric like WS, you have to actually be good enough to convince the coach to leave you on the floor long enough to play that poorly. I once wrote about how Barry Parkhill and Adam Morrison were the worst players in NBA history by WS per minute, but the simple truth is that the real worst player in NBA history is probably one of these guys who could count their career minutes on one hand. For all the talk about how various players "would be great if they only had the chance", the NBA's method of funneling talent does a decent enough job of identifying the best available players in the world, putting them on rosters, and allocating playing time among them. Or, put another way, getting enough minutes to become Adam Morrison in the first place automatically means you're at least riding that line between the lowest 150 or so rungs on the NBA ladder and the top slots in the minor leagues.
Then again, it is interesting to think about the "natural selection" of the talent evaluation process from grade-school kids just starting out playing to NBAers at the pinnacle of the sport. As I said earlier, even the least talented NBA-caliber player was The Man in high school and likely college as well -- he was the quintessential BMOC, posting dominant numbers against lumbering, talentless 6'3" forwards like myself at every stop along the way to the pros. Now, sometimes APBRmetricians will decry the way mainstream hoops analysis has overvalued scoring at the expense of all else (and that may in fact be true at the NBA level), but the ability to create your own shot and maintain a good level of efficiency has always been the scarcest talent in the game and the most difficult one to retain when a player moves up to a greater degree of competition. Just think about the level of basketball you maxed out at; for instance, I was the MVP of my 8th-grade team and scored nearly 20 PPG in 7-minute quarters, but in high school I was an end-of-the-bench scrub on a middling team. What was the difference? Scoring ability -- when everyone was suddenly my size, my penchant for destroying undersized waifs in the post became irrelevant. In other words, at pre-NBA levels, few players fail to move on to the next step because they can't rebound or can't pass -- it's always about scoring, and as long as a guy can create, there will be a place for him on the roster.
Paradoxically, though, the "best scorer moves up" rule dries up when you get to the NBA level. Look at somebody like Steve Alford: great scorer in college, even good per-minute scoring ability in the pros, but it wasn't good enough for him to stick around as a pro. When you reach the NBA, everyone can score at a basic level, so it's what you do beyond shot-creation that has value to teams -- hence the presence of rebounding specialists, 3-point marksmen, defensive stoppers, sideline cheerleaders, etc. Sure, there are still megascorers like Kobe Bryant who distinguish themselves through an otherworldly ability to produce points, and salaries have been shown to correlate strongly with scoring averages, but when it comes to being one of those bottom 150 players who keep an NBA job vs. those who entertain the fine people of Yakima, the ability to score is almost irrelevant if you haven't carved out a niche in another area. Among the rank and file of the NBA, role players rule.
That's why it's ironic that the filtering system used to funnel players uses scoring ability as essentially the sole criteria for advancement at lower levels but not at the precipice of the NBA. Top college teams are essentially exercises in "let's throw as many McDonald's All-Americans together as possible and see what happens", sorting out the roles later among a group of HS studs, but the NBA doesn't work that way. Oftentimes players in that bottom 150 are selected precisely because of their one-dimensionality -- it's just that they're better at that one dimension than almost anyone else on the planet. So here's a crazy thought: why not just groom these role players from grade school on? I mean, if they're not in the NBA to score points, does it really make sense for the pool of possible future NBA role players to be limited at lower levels because scoring ability is a requisite to move up? Could teams instead develop a stable of, say, top defensive prospects who never touch a basketball in their lives and focus all of their time and energy on D, starting as 8- and 9-year-olds?
Well -- shooting down my own insane idea -- probably not. Putting the absurdity of "test tube role players" aside, remember how I said even role players were scorers at one time or another? Perhaps the baseline ability to score is simply taken for granted, and players who fall below that threshold would simply be unable to function at the NBA level no matter how well-honed another of their skills may be. Obviously a player who never touches a basketball would be a severe offensive liability, forcing a team to essentially play 4-on-5 at one end of the floor, so it's possible that even the greatest defensive player imaginable (trained in the fine art of KobeStopping™ since before he can remember) would not be worth it to a team in the long run when they could probably scour the NBDL instead and find a somewhat worse defender who can actually dribble and shoot. In other words, the cost of losing the greatest defender who ever lived would be more than made up for by the fact that his replacement was a viable entity on offense.
Now, it would be bizarre and interesting to think of an alternate universe where boys moved up to higher levels of basketball based on skills like defense or rebounding instead of scoring, but again we come back to the question of scarcity -- is scoring the "gatekeeper" because it's glamorous, or because fewer and fewer people can do it at every checkpoint along the path to the NBA? And why is scoring the glamour activity of basketball anyway? Some analysts act like that was an arbitrary decision as soon as Naismith nailed up a peach basket, but it could be because scoring points (and preventing them on defense) is the primary goal of a basketball team in any given game, and a team of role players is worthless if they're not complimenting players who can actually score.
But I digress. It's pretty obvious that I think the talent pool is a fascinating topic of discussion; when slicing and dicing NBA numbers, sometimes it's easy to forget that The Association represents only the tip of a very large iceberg made up of collegians, high schoolers, dominant 8th-grade ballers, all the way down to everyone who ever picked up a basketball and sized up a shot. Even those of us who played the game and failed against players who failed against players who failed against guys that might make the D-League someday have a tendency to fall into the delusion that NBA players aren't that much better than the rest of us, but regardless of the quirks of the player-selection process, they're playing a game with which most of us are only familiar at an extreme distance. That's why it's always useful to think from time to time about where the NBA fits in the grand scheme of the game -- it's both remarkable to imagine your own small connection to the greatest players in the world, and humbling to realize just how amazing these players really are.