I never played Little League.
As a kid, I actually never played Little League baseball. I didn’t go to Disneyworld either. I’m not entirely sure what that says about my childhood, but that’s besides the point.
When all of my friends talked about the best players in Little League, it was usually the same thing: he could hit homeruns, was a pretty good fielder, and he was also the team’s best pitcher. That’s a funny thing. In the majors, there aren’t any players that fit the bill of best hitters and best pitchers on the team. We just don’t see this anymore in the majors.
Much like our society at large, everything has become specialized. From the clothes that we buy to the food that we eat, certain places and certain people make certain items to be bought/sold all over the world. We have specialized because it is efficient: we reduce the amount of waste produced (in terms of time and money; not actual physical waste) and therefore companies maximize profits. We specialize because it’s the way to succeed.
Why am I talking about the social ramifications of specialization? Because we see specialization in sports. Strangely enough, we are seeing it in basketball. We are seeing grand similarities in how GMs and owners run their teams and how companies run their businesses in the marketplace.
Basketball is a much different sport than baseball and football, and therefore requires different kinds of athletes with different kinds of skill sets. In football, a wide receiver really gets paid to do a few things: run fast, catch a ball, and remember patterns. That’s it. Wide receivers don’t need to know how to tackle, or how to read the opposing offense. Baseball players are in a similar position: a pitcher gets paid to pitch. Even if you’re in the NL, no one is expecting a pitcher to be one of the best hitters in the lineup– there’s a reason almost all NL pitchers hit 9th in the batting order. Outfielders don’t need to work on their agility/reaction time to go to their left and right like infielders. Outfielders arms get worked differently than infielders, which get worked differently than pitchers. Baseball players are very specialized. The best example? The designated hitter.
Those ideas make sense in baseball and football, but it’s much more difficult to hide your athletic flaws in basketball: you are what you are and everyone knows it… and everyone sees it. We are all witnesses to basketball players athletic capabilities and limitations. If you can’t jump, we see it. If you can’t dribble, we see it. Basketball players, in general, have to play all facets of the game because at any given point, they are put in a position to react to that kind of play. And more importantly, this can occur with high frequency during a given game.
You’d imagine then that to build a winning basketball team, you would need to just assemble a team by plucking the best possible players, teaching them how to work together, and to build chemistry around a game-plan. After all, this is the sport that demands all of its athletes to be competent in all aspects of the game. But somewhere along the way, basketball GMs started building teams like they were acquiring unique pieces to a puzzle: get a lockdown defender on the bench that can guard multiple positions and find a shooter that can create space in order to create his own shots. We’ve started treating basketball players like baseball and football players: we trade and acquire players for specific roles.
This has become most evident during this off-season as we hear rumors flying left and right about Rondo and Ray potentially getting moved. Fans have been conditioned to compartmentalize players to certain roles and can’t see past that. For instance, when we gauge a possible Rondo trade, we first think about what #9 gives us right now: good ball-handling skills, lightening quick speed, ability to penetrate and either create his own shots near the rim or dish, great court vision, the ability to say yes/no to his 3 veteran future hall of famers when they all want the ball, amazing athletic ability to block shots and rip down rebounds, and a perimeter defender that gambles with the house’s money but often wins. Then we look at what he doesn’t have: no jump shot, apparently a piss-poor attitude, stubbornness, inconsistency, and at times the tendency to make very bad decisions during crucial moments in a game. When you compare Mike Conley or Steve Nash to Rondo, we as fans can’t help but think that we are losing out. Conley and Nash don’t fill the role that Rondo currently fills. Conley’s vision isn’t as great, neither is his speed. Nash isn’t known as a stellar defender and he’s getting old. Neither Conley nor Nash fit the role that Rondo has created as the Celtics point guard.
That’s precisely the problem: we are trying to compare what one point guard does in one system against what another point guard does in a different system. If both players don’t possess similar skills, we feel that we on the losing end of the trade. What we fail to see at times is the larger picture and the possibility of what the team could become with a different player.
How did we get here? What happened to just throwing the best possible players on the floor and teaching them how to play with each other and how to stick to a game-plan? Bill Simmons brought up a similar idea in a podcast a few weeks ago when he talked about Orlando’s thought to just throw out 5 good players and hope for the best. Everyone claimed that they had a big man that wasn’t an offensive power, yet they advanced to the Finals. Everyone claimed that they gunned up too many threes, yet they advanced to the Finals. Everyone claimed that they didn’t have a go-to player that could close out a game, yet they advanced to the Finals. What the hell?
Is this really the only way we think a team can win? By assigning players to very specific roles? By assuming that each player can bring a skill or two and then find other players to compliment that? What happens when your lockdown defender from the bench gets hurt? Or better yet, when the opposing teams goes small/quick and both guards are far too fast for your bigger defender? What happens when your “pure” shooter can’t get open or gets ice cold for games at a time?
Chuck Hayes. My buddy CG loves Chuck Hayes and for good reasons: he’s a pretty hard-nosed player that can guard multiple positions, plays great defense, can do most of the fundamental duties of a big man (box out, rebound, take up space to congest the paint, etc.) except one thing: he can’t score. He cannot score. Again: he cannot score. Open layups are mostly do-able, but he cannot score. And I’m not talking can’t score when facing up or because he lacks post moves, he legitimately can’t score. Chuck can set a mean pick, but who’s going to guard him when he rolls? He cannot score. Don’t get me wrong, I’d pick this guy up for for $1 million dollars, but how on earth do you make it into the league without being able to make a shot that isn’t an open layup?
Daryl Morey, one of the leagues best GMs (according to me, so that is like solid gold), has talked about how he thinks a team wins in the NBA today: you have a franchise player (Yao), a player just below the franchise player level (T-Mac), and then a 3rd guy that is just below the level of just below the franchise player (Ron Artest). From there, you just surround players to fit certain roles that you know you need: a swingman defender (Shane Battier), a player that can do all of the intangibles that don’t appear in the box score (Shane Battier), players that can create their own shots (Aaron Brooks and Von Wafer), a post-presence (Hayes), a versatile big that can spread out the court (Luis Scola), and athletic guys that are decent at multiple tasks (Landry, Lowry, Cook).
Although this makes sense, there’s something inherently wrong with this method.
Then you have Mark Warkentien from Denver. Warkentien also picked up guys like Chris Anderson and Dahntay Jones for peanuts because he liked the way they played. There was no breakdown of crazy algorithms involving Bill James-like statistics to determine the value and validity of signing these players– Warkentien and the owners signed the players they thought were good. They watched and listened to their scouts: these guys were good players. Anderson and Jones were an integral part to Denver’s success… both at a combined $1.9 million. By the way, Tony Allen alone made $2.5 million and was signed as a “defensive specialist” and to add a little bit of slashing offensive from the bench. Think about that.
I’m not saying that Morey is wrong and Warkentien is right. But somewhere in there between Morey and Warkentien lies a GM that uses the model of assembling a team by parts (Morey) and the model of assembling a team by who you just think are good players (Warkentien).
Sam Presti of Oklahoma and Danny Ainge might be good examples. We know Ainge’s history. Think about what Presti has done in the last couple of years: drafted Durant, Westbrook, and Green. Presti has found three gems in the last couple of drafts that will be the cornerstone of the Thunder’s lineup for years to come. He also happened to draft three guys that get along, like playing with each other, are flexible in regards to position, and seem to have some integrity. They have not been afraid to try players at different positions to make it work. And with the 3rd pick in this year’s draft, they could steal Ricky Rubio from the crowed and take a chance on a player that seems to be encased in mystery. After Blake Griffin, you might as well take a chance on a kid that could turn out to be phenomenal (or a bust: but with high risk comes the possibility of high reward) because of the weak draft class. Presti seems to get players that he knows are unique and good, and then works to make IT work for the team. I think what Presti sees is what we all need to see: evaluating numbers and skills of a particular player is helpful, but we don’t always know what they will do when tossed into a new system. Maybe, just maybe, finding guys that are good players and force them to work into your system is how you create a winning team. Back to basics: find the best players possible, make them learn how to play with each other, and have them stick to a game-plan that maximizes the possibility of winning each night. It’s called creative management and good coaching. Crazy, I know.
I imagine that when Danny was chasing down Ray and KG, he wasn’t thinking, “Will these guys fit in with what we are trying to achieve?” No. Danny thought to himself, “Holy s••t, I could get KG and Ray alongside Pierce?” He got the best players possible and then let Doc and company figure out the rest. If you have a chance to get Lebron or D-Wade in 2010, you don’t sit there and think about what skills you want them to really accentuate on the team. You get them on the team and figure out along the way what works and what doesn’t work.
It will make me sad to see Ray and Rondo go, if they end up being moved this off-season. Not only did I just invest in an $80 Rondo jersey, but I’ll also say that he is by and far my favorite basketball player in years. I think that we have the top 2 starting lineups in the league (LA and Boston), and I’m smashing my head against my keyboard wondering WHY we would be thinking about tinkering with this core group. But, I also trust there’s a reason that Danny is the GM and I sit here and write about the Celtics. When it boils down to it, I’d rather see banner #18 than #9 handling the ball. But while rumors will continue to fly for the next couple of months, we need to really think about the arguments we are making about why certain trades will and will not work.
And for the record, I would have also made a damn good second baseman in Little League.