Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Underrated Tools

I was skimming the O-Live Blazer forum yesterday and there were a couple of interesting conversations going on.

First, "Caproom7" posed a question: Are there five tools in basketball comparable to those in baseball (hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, throwing) by which a player can be judged? A couple people took stabs at it, including some form of defense, rebounding, passing, shooting, dribbling, and (more nebulously) IQ.

The second post that caught my eye was from a guy named, charmingly enough, "Smelmyfinger" (*cough*) who was watching the playoffs and realized how far away our current team is from that level of ball. And he's right. We're a world away from good right now, and being good is still another world away from being great.

I don't know if you watched the end of the Pistons/Cavaliers game last night, but if you didn't, you may be surprised to know who won the game for the Cavs. In a tight contest--one or two points down to the final seconds--it wasn't LeBron James that captured the win. It was a guy named Anderson Varejao. And he didn't do it by hitting a decisive shot. He did it by rotating off his man when Cavs guard Eric Snow slipped and lost the ball-handler in a final-minute possession. Varejo slid over, shut off the drive, and drew a charge. He also helped in another key last-second stop. Without that big effort to make a little play, the Cavs stand a good chance of losing. Even though the Cavs have LBJ, I can't help but notice this kid whenever I watch them. He plays playoff basketball all season long.

That got me thinking that there's a dovetail between the two forum topics. So here's my list of the Top 5 Underrated Basketball Tools. I'm not saying these take the place of shooting, passing, and the like. In some ways they're refinements of them. They're things that good teams and players do that people might not notice.

1. Drawing Charges
The point here is not so much forcing the turnover, though that is nice. If a guy draws charges it means one of two things: he's either helping out quickly and decisively in the halfcourt defensive set (you seldom draw charges on your own man) or he's hustling his butt back in transition. You need both of those to make a defensive scheme work. It also shows that a player is aware of more than just his own assignment and has a good sense of what's happening on the floor.

2. Blocking Out
Dennis Rodman was the best rebounder of the modern era. I don't think he got more than three inches off the floor on most of those boards. Everybody wants to sky for boards nowadays. This is one of the little disciplines that has fallen by the wayside. You know who it's usually hardest to rebound against on the playground? Pound-for-pound it's the women, because usually women with enough confidence to come out and mix it up with the guys have played organized ball somewhere, and that means they learned to block out. The guys may be bigger and stronger and jump higher, but it doesn't matter when she's throwing the body into you right. (I've seen more weekend warriors reduced to passive perimeter observers that way. Quite a blow to the old ego...) Someday one of these kids is going to figure out there's about 20 rebounds a game and the attending multi-million dollar contract to be had out there simply by putting your body in the right place when the ball goes up.

3. Setting/Using Screens
With the pick and roll such a staple in NBA offenses, it's horrendous how poorly many players run the play! Big guys don't stand in strong, either offering a token presence or setting hard but then rolling for their own shot before the guard gets by. And guards often don't come anywhere near the screener off the dribble. Utah prospered for more than a decade largely off of this one set. And that was with everybody and their uncle knowing what they were going to run! Part of it was talent, but I also heard that Jerry Sloan used to make his guys run the play over and over, jumping down their throats if the pick was slow and soft or the guard didn't brush the big guy on his way by. This is where guys like Joel Przybilla can really help your offense even if they're not volume scorers themselves.

4. Moving Hands and Feet on Defense
Much is made of lateral quickness, but plenty of guys who leave you tripping over your jock on offense couldn't guard the corner mailbox. Why? Because defense isn't just about speed and talent, it's about exerting the effort to keep your feet and hands moving so you can react quickly to what your opponent (or the ball) does. It's a lot easier to move when you're already moving than it is to start moving when you're slow or still. But how many guys do you see out there trotting, or worse, standing flat-footed? And when was the last time you saw a whole team with their hands away from their sides except for maybe the last possession of a game? Busy hands and feet on defense make it harder to drive against you and harder to execute clean passes. That interferes with at least two-thirds of the opponent's offense...basically all of the easy stuff.

5. Moving Without the Ball on Offense
We're just barely seeing the front edge of the first generation to grow up after the era of the 1-3 person isolation set made famous by Michael Jordan and perfected in the mind-numblingly repetetive Charles Barkley-era Houston offense. For the better part of twenty years we watched two or three people dominate the ball on the strong side while everyone on the other side of the court stood winking at groupies or talking on their cel phones or whatever else NBA players do in their off-time. Then the rules changed a couple of years ago and now everybody wants to run a more wide-open offense. The problem is, nobody from that older era remembers how to move without the ball anymore. Guys will cut, to be sure, but it looks like they're going through the motions. Rare is the Reggie Miller-type who will actually hustle around curl screens and come out with hands ready to receive and shoot the ball. As Steve Jones used to say all the time, the more you stand still, the easier you are to defend. Learning to move well without the ball is what will make the difference between 13 and 21 ppg for guys like Martell.

None of these tools will replace talent. But they do define the boundary between good players and great ones. As we're seeing this year, the margin in a series between a decent playoff team and a serious championship contender can be razor thin. Somewhere along the line, one play will make a difference. And when it comes to that one play, things like this will determine the outcome more often than not.



Blogger Scott R said...

I agree with almost every point you make. It's all of those little things that make a good player great, or an average player "good". It really does remind me of when i was playing in high school. I'm not physically gifted by any means, and my 24" vertical leap really didn't scare a whole lot of people, but the fact that i knew how to use my body and be in the right spot that made my coaches appreciate what i brought to the table. I was so good at anticipating where the ball would go after the shot, and so great at using my leverage against bigger opponents that i recieved the nickname of "the worm" for all the rebounds i would grab. It was always great fun for me to hear coach yelling at our 6'8" "centers" about getting out-rebounded by a guy nearly a foot shorter than they were! beyond that though, my HS had a fairly successful program due to the coach preaching the little things like properly executing the pick and roll, boxing out, moving without the ball, and being on the balls of your feet on defense and constantly moving. Good job on putting that list together, it's really a very good one.

The other thing i can think of as to why these fundamentals are lost in the NBA today is to look at the "stars" of our league. none of these guys could hold a candle to Clyde, MJ, Bird, Magic or Kareem. Those guys always carried themselves with class, didn't get into the trends of everyone else around them, and conducted their business the right way. Todays young stars are so involved in what Puff Daddy or P. Diddy, or Diddy, or whatever he calls himself this week, is wearing or driving and how much bling they can collect and show off that they really don't care about the game and doing the little things anymore. These kids are being recruited and having their heads filled with lies and their egos blown up from a much earlier age now that they stop trying by the time they are finishing high school that they don't establish the building blocks of the fundamentals they should have. All of those things are really showing in what is becoming unwatchable NBA ball.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

As far as the second part, I agree that the "lifestyle" is the point for some of the players, but not all. Really, I think there always were players more concerned with image than the love of the game and there always will be. But it only takes one look at guys like Jarrett Jack and Juan Dixon to realize it's not everybody.

I totally agree on the first part. They kind of jokingly refer to Tim Duncan as the "Big Fundamental", but that guy has done nothing but win games since the moment he entered the league. You look back at Jordan and his athleticism allowed him to get shots few others could dream of, but his form and release on those shots was consistent and impeccable. And what a fundamentally sound defender! Pippen too. Without the work and the attention to detail, those guys wouldn't have been near the players they ended up being. You can be really good in certain areas of the game without the stuff mentioned in the post, but if you want to be championship great...all time great...I think you need some of it.

Thanks a LOT for the comment! It's been kind of quiet around here lately.


9:26 PM  
Blogger Scott R said...

yes...too quiet...The topics have been good though, but for me personally, i haven't had the time to put in my 2 cents lately...Keep on writing though, I am definitely reading and i enjoy the perspective you bring to the table.

Speaking of Jordan's shot though, as much as i thought he was over-rated(i'm a true blue blazers fan which meant my loyalty was 100% Clyde and his ugly "j") I spent hours studying his shot form and realease so i could make mine better. That was probably the most beautiful shot i've ever seen.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I know. As a true Blazer fan I also HATED Jordan when we were playing him. I still think he got way more than his share of the calls. (Of course, it's the David Stern NBA.) But looking back, you can really appreciate how good he was. He'd go up in positions you'd swear he'd never get the shot away, but somehow when he reached the top of his jump there was that pure release. And that was just his perimeter game which, until later in his career, wasn't even the best part of his arsenal. Amazing.

11:56 PM  

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