‘Trying hard,’ long celebrated, is an act so metaphysical that it eludes even those most comprehensive of contemporary NBA analytics. The oft-mysterious rise and/or fall in a plaeyer’s—or, more importantly, a team’s—actual exertion toward winning is also a maker or breaker of any prognostication, however Hollingerian it may be.
And trying, more than anything, is what pushes teams through the long, dog day months of the season, which we’re deep into from Christmas until the moment for final playoff pushes comes. While it may seem granted that millionaire professionals are giving it their all, all the time, a true NBA fan knows better; this is a taxing season played by relatively small rosters, and no amount of money or physical training can change that. And a true NBA fan knows, further, that there’s a wide range of effort throughout the league.
I’ve forced myself to take a look at the standings, and ask myself how effort is and isn’t effecting them—how the art of trying is confounding and/or reinforcing our typical understandings of collective talent. Here is a sampling of this year’s more illustrative cases of effort as a component of team success and failure.
A team that hasn’t tried, seemingly, in years; which has acted merely as a canvas for John Wall posterizations, since its playoff-fighter squads cored by Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, the once-brilliant Larry Hughes, and Caron Butler—teams which regularly pushed LeBron’s Cavaliers to the brink. But now that Wall’s injured, the roster looks like even less; it looks the make of a salary dumping ground, and they’ve got a coach who’s publicly saying things like ‘I might be dumb.’ In such a case, we need to consider the Broken windows theory, which suggests that contexts which appear broken rarely encourage growth. Andray Blatche is Exhibit A. Wasting away in basketball-stale Washington, last year, Blatche is now trying much harder in his new context of Brooklyn, nearing league-tops with his 23.8 PER.
As with Blatche, this transplanted franchise, with its cool new looks (and overzealous Jay-Z and Kanye West home-game sound-bytes) has acted as a lifting ground for many a career, young and old, with Brook Lopez and Jerry Stackhouse’s performances leading the way along with Blatche’s. The season’s relatively mediocre performance from their core trio of Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, and Joe Johnson can likely be attributed to Williams’ losing speed (and his corresponding descent into Baronism), injury problems, and Iso-Joe being Iso-Joe, respectively. While the expectations leveled at this $330 million-payrolled team have been crippling for some (particularly Avery Johnson), the fresh NBA city, uniforms, and state-of-the-art stadium have instilled a new energy into enough of its players to bring the team to its best campaign in several years.
Tom Thibodeau’s latest version of the Bulls has him proving himself, evermore, to be his league’s rival to Bill Belichick; no matter what the personnel changes, Coach Thibodeau puts a consistently stifling defensive unit on the floor, that’s sure to win most of its games. After losing Derrick Rose and almost totally restructuring its crucial bench unit, Chicago is currently a 3-to-5 seed in the East, who can easily rise to a 1 or 2 upon a successful return of their superstar. All in large part due to Thibodeau’s unparalleled—excepting, perhaps, in the case of Greg Popovich—ability toward that elusive roster-wide ‘buy-in,’ which seems granted on this team that exhausts itself nightly with its effort.
Golden State Warriors
Mark Jackson seems to have created a similar atmosphere, here. While the Warriors get their points a different way—Chicago relies on interior pounding and excellent passing to overcome their lack of 1-on-1 talent, while the Warriors are one of the best pure shooting squads within recent memory—the sudden team buy-in is crucial to the teeming defensive effort that’s been winning them their games. But, unlike Thibodeau, Popovich, or Scott Brooks (the only other coach whose motivational skills are never questioned), Jackson’s relying on a fairly unseen brand of positivity as a coach. In a fashion that bespeaks its endlessly loyal fan-base, Jackson has been attributing some of the Warriors’ breakthrough to the amount of prayers the team is receiving, and he’s time and again espousing his ‘belief’ in his players. It’s an attitude that’s worked, so far, but this team boasts a unique collection of young talent and skillful veterans who finally have the space to prove their worth. One wonders if this freshness can push through a whole season, or into coming ones. NBA spirits can be difficult to summon consistently—just ask recently ousted Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles, who’s inspired hard work and marked improvement in standings from each team he’s coached, until his intense approach undisputedly wears out its welcome. But early into Jackson’s coaching career, his Warriors have showed no signs of slacking.
The Warriors’ Northern California brethren provide an even worse frame of Broken Windows Basketball. This one’s a lot more literal, though: their home is crumbling. The city’s mayor (former Sun and All-Star Kevin Johnson) has called the team’s situation ‘a slow death.’ Their most gifted player might have chemical issues, he’s so immature; DeMarcus Cousins’ most recent suspension of play was leveled in the vein of ‘general behavior.’ No one seems to have a leash on this riff-raff (albeit talented) crew, and what’s the use? If they felt like they had a home, something could be made of this group; they might even fight for a playoff spot. But nine months from now, they’ll probably be scattered around a league that no longer includes their team, with just a few of them playing for a retrospective new club called The SuperSonics. Maybe then they’ll start trying.
Perhaps the most compelling case in effort studies, here’s a team that, some might argue, owes the league a lot more of the stuff. LeBron, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade stand central in a generation of players whose physical and mental talents transcend anything before them, and value not just winning championships, but a legitimate evolution of the game as we know it. Playing positionless, synergistic basketball is the only way to go for the most talented team in the universe, and when they’re clicking and working to win games, the Heat are truly breath-taking. But one wonders why they’re evolution must exclude the constant sense of showmanship that the 1990’s Chicago Bulls felt when they trampled through all phases of the regular season, winning 72 and 69 games in the ’95-’96 and ’96-’97 seasons. They were the most popular entertainment troupe in America since The Beatles, and they were worth whatever the price of ticket was, every night. We haven’t called this Miami team The Heatles for a couple of years, and it’s because their night-in, night-out play has never been quite as amazing as the media spectacle they pulled off by getting together. It’s time for Miami to stop letting teams like Washington, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Utah off the hook for a night, and impose a stronger will onto a league that is, by all basketball means, theirs.
A highly-motivated, hard-working team. No one saw it coming from this sudden assortment of cast-offs, but everyone should have: their roster’s loaded with players at the ends of their contracts. And they’re talented players, at that. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, and, of course, Josh Smith, are all set to be free agents at the end of the year. And in all stratum below that of Established Superstar, every NBA player’s got plenty to prove about himself. Smith’s in it to justify the 12-million he’s making this season, so he can demand it from a contention-hungry suitor like Dallas (or his own Hawks)—and the biggest knock on him is that he’s not concerned enough with winning. Teague’s still on a rookie contract, and maintaining the surprising pace he set when team injuries forced him into a starting role opposite Derrick Rose in the Eastern semi-finals two seasons ago—so there’s a larger pay-day in store for him, so long as he keeps it up. Kyle Korver’s efforts to prove his all-around effectiveness have been fruitful, too; long considered as only an ace-shooter, Korver began to develop further at the tail-end of last season, with Chicago. This (likely) economic imperative toward improvement for a team that was assembled as a salary bay has meshed well with the in-it-to-win-it seriousness of workhorse all-star Al Horford (still one of the most overlooked players in the league) and the spark of sixth-man extraordinaire Lou Williams—a lion’s share of these players have bought in on a team in hopes of teams buying in on them. Facing the unlikelihood of a Chris Paul or Dwight Howard coup, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta designing a more energetic, competitive team for next year than the one it’s mustered this year, by accident.