The Spurs-Mavericks back-to-back last week was interesting. With Harden out, the Rockets three remaining guards were more aggressive (again, no data, you’ll just have to take my word for it). Not only Lin and Brooks, but also Beverley was penetrating with regularity. He even showed off a spin move I didn’t know he had. Motiejunas went into Lithuanian lion mode. He crashed the boards (19 in 44 combined minutes) and showed some tenacity defensively. The team as a whole was much less talented with Harden out, but I’m positive each player felt more ownership over the final product.
That cohesion continued into the Cavs game, in which the Rockets bench ignited two runs and were clearly the difference in the game. My favorite sequence came in the third quarter immediately after Howard was whistled for a 3-seconds violation. On the previous defensive possession, Motiejunas was called for a blocking foul. While Kyrie Irving shot his technical free throw, I could clearly see Beverley talking to Motiejunas and demonstrating defensive positioning techniques. On the ensuing inbounds play, Motiejunas drew a charge on Irving. On the next defensive possession, he made a stop by himself.
My favorite single moment from the Cavs game was immediately after Lin got his triple double. The camera panned over to the elated Rockets bench. The most elated player, who was jumping up and down like a three year old kid, was Aaron Brooks. He played exactly 0 minutes that game but was acting like he just got his own triple double and his mom was cooking dinner for him back home.
What I’m talking about isn’t a mystery. In his book, Bill Simmons calls it “the secret.” Basically, the secret of winning basketball is that it’s not about basketball. It’s about guys who want to be on a team with each other, who want each other to succeed, and are willing to kill themselves for each other. We always hear about players who make other players better. We hear about locker room leaders and glue guys. But you know what? We don’t actually see this happen that often. In fact, we see dysfunction and complete chaos a lot more frequently.
And before anyone suggests that it’s purely a matter of individual ego, consider San Antonio and Miami. It’s awe inspiring how washed up or seemingly middling players go to these teams and magically become indispensable role players. Marco Belinelli is shooting 51% and 48% on threes this year while playing more minutes. He shot 43% last year on the Bulls. Miami’s vaunted bench currently includes two certified nut cases in Chris Andersen and Michael Beasley. In Beasley’s case, he even got a haircut and seemed go through emotional puberty overnight.
Does anyone think Belinelli would be shooting 48% on threes on the Rockets? Does anyone think Birdman and Beasley would be upstanding citizens on the Rockets bench? Their talent is allowing them to succeed, but it’s the institutional culture around them that’s making everything work. Fun thought exercise, do you think Asik would still throw a fit if he had to back up Duncan on the Spurs?
The question is how does a team build that type of cohesive institutional culture? What, you think I have an answer? I don’t. I consider it an accomplishment if I don’t get chosen last for a pick-up game at the Y. That’s the extent of my basketball knowledge as a player.
I do know that that a team’s best players and coaches, the visionaries if you will (though they should never be dumb enough to call themselves that), have more responsibility in this than anyone else. It’s not just about minutes (though minutes help). It’s about how they value their teammates’ roles and the contributions that they do make. OK, so Ronnie Brewer isn’t playing much, but how can he still be put in positions to meaningfully contribute to his team’s performance? Is he valued in as someone to practice with/against? Are his suggestions listened to during team meetings?
Remember 5-6 years ago when Nate Robinson was a bench warmer on the Ubuntu Celtics? Early in the season, Doc Rivers said that, despite riding pine at that time, Nate was going to win a playoff game for them. And then he blew up during a playoff game later that year. Now, Nate Robinson isn’t exactly known as a level headed team player. He’s not just going to say, “Cool. I’ll just sit here and do jack shit, not even get into games, and be perfectly happy with it.” During that season, the Celtics were doing something behind the scenes to actually make Nate feel valued, to allow him contribute, to make him keep trying and wait patiently for his opportunity. Maybe they asked him about his experience playing against certain opponents. Maybe his advice made it into the game plan. Maybe Kevin Garnett thanked Nate for his scouting contributions after a game in which Nate played 0 minutes. I don’t know. These are just ideas I’m making up, but they make sense to me.
That’s why I write about concepts such as selfishness, heroball, and bench minutes. And that’s why I personally focus so much on coaches and Harden. They’re the ones with the most capacity to affect the team’s culture, to make everyone feel valued in their roles and want to contribute. I find it troubling that Harden’s teammates seem to play more freely and rally around each other when he’s not playing. I find it troubling that the coaches haven’t seemed to pick up on this.
The Rockets bench players are valuable contributors, not inconvenient mouths that need feeding. Hopefully this past week was a harbinger of things to come, and not just a happy hour away from the bosses.