Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Jorga's Question

Jorga wrote the following regarding the Triangle/Square post below. It was in the comment section but I lifted it up here:

>>As a former teacher (mini-prof?) I like the triangle. I see this triangle spinning - with none of those three as the absolute apex. You've analyzed three current/recent Blazers and I'd like to read your opinion of more. I'm also curious as to what former Blazers you think were strong in all three (when they were with us, not after they bloomed elsewhere) And a question: can effort be taught once a player reaches the NBA? If so, who among current players had their effort questioned in college play but proved those reports false? Who gets the credit - the coach - the player - or the synergy?<<


--I like the idea of no apex to the triangle. Though you almost have to go with talent on top because it's easily observable/measurable, so often things in the other two categories play critical roles in pivotal moments. In certain situations you might want a Khryapa out there over a Miles. Dallas has as many obviously talented guys as anybody, but how often do you see them (or any team) just throw five stars on the court, especially in game-deciding moments?

--My opinion of most of the current players is that they need more time in the oven before we'll know. Of the guys we do know about, I'd say Zach was solid in the talent department but he never was a hustle, "give it all" guy even during his 20-10, Most Improved Player season. People differ on the character side, so I think it's fair to say there are questions. Even so, he clearly doesn't prosper in all points of the triangle, so he's not a guy I think can ever lead us to a deep run, even though he's a good (probably not great) NBA player. Joel and Theo are both solid on the character/hustle marks, but their talent, though great, is so specific that they don't qualify as well-rounded. Again, good players, not great. If we're going to develop any truly great players from the current crop, it'll have to be either Martell, Jack, or Bassy (roughly in that order). All have shown promise, but it will depend on how much they want to be great and how hard they work at it.

--As far as past Blazers who have been all-around great, I think Bill Walton and Buck Williams (remembering that his main talents were defense and rebounding) stand as the most shining examples, with Clyde right in there too. Those three would obviously rate very high in all three categories. After them you have a few players that were extremely high in one or two and still good in the remainder, like Maurice Lucas, Jim Paxson, and Terry Porter. Danny Ainge and Scottie Pippen would also count, though they were more rented players.

--Can effort be taught? I'd say yes, certainly, just like any other skill. I think every player needs to up his effort just to go from the lower levels to the pros, so you could say everybody learns at least a little. But many fail (or underachieve) because they can't sustain the professional level of effort. The problem is not that guys can't learn, rather that relatively few see the need or know how to gain the discipline if they do see it. It's easy to see how to improve your jumper. It's harder to train yourself where to be on the court, how and when to exert energy, and to have that indomitable will that the ball and the court are yours, period. I think character is equally teachable, but also lacks willing disciples sometimes. If we're lucky we reach the point where we realize that our job and lives are about more than us and the money we make...they're about being part of something that affects the world in a positive way. That's part of growing up. I think between the shoe contracts, the hangers-on, and the folks whispering in their ear from the time they're in 5th grade, a lot of these guys don't get the chance to do that growing up.

As to who gets the credit when these things do happen, I have a hard time imagining there's a coach in the world who's not trying to teach his or her young players to play hard and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. We've heard several examples of that from Nate himself. So coaches do get some credit. But they're saying those things to twelve guys and sometimes only two get it, so when I see players who do those things, I tend to really admire them. Say what you want about Tim Duncan, but that guy is good and a winner. I hated Jordan because we lost to him, but he's also the exemplar extraordinaire for excelling at all points of this triangle. I am ready to throw buckets of praise at Martell and Jarrett too, if given the chance. Between the huge, guaranteed contracts and the star system that's been in force for the last two decades, the league just isn't set up to train winners. Anybody who can overcome that environment and make these gains deserves some admiration in my book.

There's something to the synergy argument as well. The amount of player movement around the league is making it increasingly obvious that good teams have a chance to shape contributing players out of disappointing ones, or at least to compensate for their inadequacies. Bad teams, however, tend to diminish whoever joins them. Again, I see this as a leadership issue...on the court especially but also on the bench and in the front office.

Thanks for the great questions and comments Jorga!

--Dave (


Anonymous Brian said...

Hey Dave, Great stuff! A very interesting discussion, although I have to say I respectfully disagree with a few of your points here.
First, I don't think either effort or character can be taught (although I think they can be learned). Effort is something that is preached over and over again in many areas of life and yet rarely does this constant stream of positive reinforcement suddenly cause someone to go from being a person who brings it 80% (or less) of the time to a 110% type guy. Think about it in your own life; how many times I did you enroll in a class thinking "This time I'm going to attend every day, do a great job on all my assignments, study hard for the exams, and get that A." Only to find a couple of weeks later, you've missed 3 classes, rushed through several assignments, and are having to cram for the exam because you haven't even started reading the material yet. You know what you need to do for success, but you're just lacking the discipline to make yourself do it. I don't think anyone can be taught that. It has to come from within. There has to be an intrinsic realization on the part of the individual that this is what is necessary to make it to the next level and then a corresponding shift in the psyche has to occur to make it happen.
Same thing with character. In a basketball sense, character comes down to where a guy falls on the continuum between playing out of greed or selfishness and a willingness to sacrifce personal glory and agendas for the sake of the team. I believe this "me vs. we" mentality is developed at a young age long before players reach the NBA. I think you can easily find examples of both types of people in everyday life and it's hard to imagine the "me" types ever changing until they have some sort of personal epiphany that shows them the light.
Recent Blazer cases in point would be Zach and Bonzi. When both players arrived in Portland, we had several good character guys, Pippen, Sabonis, Damon (regardless of his weed smoking, I would say in terms of being a team player, he was a good guy), and Steve Kerr to name a few. In Bonzi's case, you also had guys like Steve Smith and Detlef Schrempf. So with all these great character guys around, who did Bonzi and Zach become closest with? Rasheed (in Bonzi's case) and Qyntel Woods and Darius Miles (in Zach's case). Pippen was even known to visit Bonzi in his hotel room to try to offer guidance, but it just didn't sink in.
This understanding is one of the key things that separates good GMs from mediocre or bad ones. Good GM's won't touch a guy like D. Miles because they understand the team can't instill effort and character into a guy that doesn't have it already. I think one of the things that has killed Portland in the last few years is taking on guys like this thinking that the coach will be able to turn them around (Miles, Wallace, Rider, etc..). Of course, we got Wallace before anyone really knew what he would be like, but how many years did we stay with him after it became apparent he wasn't an A list guy when it came to effort and character?
In closing, I'll just say that I think this is one area where the Spurs are a couple steps ahead of everyone else. They've always been very quick to dump guys who were shaky on either character (Stephen Jackson) or effort (Derek Anderson) and add guys with a strong track record in both areas (Steve Kerr, Steve Smith, Robert Horry, etc...)

4:12 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I agree with pretty much everything you said. I think the "taught/learned" thing is a matter of semantics. It does, indeed, have to come from within. Nobody can make you do it if you don't see the need. And I, too, have noticed that very few players seem to see the need if they're not inclined that way already. Coaches can try to change that, but they're not often successful.

However, we also need coaches/parents/mentors to remind us of the need for effort and character and to model it for us, otherwise how would we know what it looks like? (Similarly, you need somebody to critique the form on your jumper but you still have to do the shooting yourself.) I guess that's what I meant by "can be taught". I think Nate is a good reminder of all these things, and thus a good coach for a very young team like ours.

I also think you're 100% correct that this doesn't happen just individually, but organizationally. Players get better in San Antonio because the organization promotes that. It's probably not an accident that a former key San Antonio player has now transformed Dallas from a good collection of talent into Finals-quality.

Thanks Brian! Great contribution!


9:36 AM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Dave, Brian - thank you. Now I want to take this discussion off into a couple of other directions which is sort of hard in this format, but Dave, do with it what you please...

Since no one came up with a name as answer to my query about "has anyone whose effort was questionable in college, changed since arriving in the NBA" I am going to assume that it's pretty rare. I suppose that it is way too far-fetched to imagine some sort of merit based contracts. I understand that some contracts include bonuses for making the all-star team (which I think is way over-rated since the fans are now in charge). Don't you think that we'd see a difference in effort if contracts were set at a low base with bonuses at the end of the season for certain accomplishments? Going back to the triangle - the base salary could be determined by talent/potential, with bonuses for the other two - character meaning staying out of legal trouble, showing up on time, etc. And then another bonus for effort - for all those things previously mentioned. As it is, if the opposite isn't already built in by role models from early years, guys with huge long contracts are going to think "why bother to exert myself - I'm getting my paycheck" (why does this sound familiar???) Obviously fines are no deterrent to "bad" behavior.

And I suppose that even if I bought the team with my lottery winnings no agent would allow his clients to sign contracts like that. I think in my Fantasy NBA I'm going to do away with traditional free-agency. The only way you can leave the team that drafted you is to be traded by them or granted "free agency" by them. Contracts would be year-to-year.

My other question is a tanget on the triangle. It's about scouting college players. I know that scouts watch games in person, many more games on tv/video. What I don't know - are scouts allowed to talk to college coaches? And if they are, are the coaches upfront or loyal to their players? Do scouts talk to local sportswriters about players? Where does the information about the "intangibles" (things not visible from watching a game) come from? Or can a good scout tell these things just by watching and knowing about a coach and a particular program?

Thanks for educating me. Between everyone here and "Basketball for Dummies" I'm going to be so much smarter come November.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I was trying to think of some specific players that obviously increased their effort level, but none are popping to mind. I think that most of it is set within the first 3-4 years when you'd expect them to blossom anyway. After about the 5th year you don't see non-hustle guys transform into hustle guys, etc. because they've already made their bones in the league doing what they do. Can anyone else help with late effort bloomers?

As far as the contracts, the problem is that effort and character are harder to quantify statistically, and therefore to measure to dollars. You just know it when you see it (or don't, as the case may be). Should Zach have gotten that rebound or not?

I think the long-term solution is shorter and/or non-guaranteed contracts. But good luck getting the union to go for that.

Scouts and GMs can, and I assume always do, contact college coaches and other folks surrounding the player as long as that player has officially declared for the draft. Otherwise I think it's considered tampering. Can anyone else help with this angle too?


1:26 PM  
Anonymous brian said...

The contract structure definitely needs to change if we want guys to put more emphasis on character and effort.
I agree with Dave that non-guaranteed contracts might have that effect. In theory, I generally support this idea because of the crippling effect bad contracts can have on teams that are trying to rebuild. Think of how much more excited fans of teams like the Knicks and Blazers would be if we could be going into the off season knowing that the guys who weren't earning their keep would be gone or paid considerably less next season. A couple of bad, long term deals can basically stall a team's rebuilding process for years. Also, I think non-guaranteed player deals would also give coaches back a lot of the leverage they seemed to have lost in recent years.
Having said that, I wonder what the effect of having all your players playing for their next season's contract would have on the chemistry and locker room cohesion. It seems like it would instigate a lot more griping over playing time, rotations, coaching philosophy, etc...
Perhaps a three year max on the length of contracts would be a the way to go.

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