A Tale of Two Basketball Players (and every other one)

Jonathan Weiler is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. His first book, Human Rights in Russia, was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2004. His second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published by Cambridge University Press in August 2009.  Jonathan is a frequent contributor to Huffington Post.  He also has a blog, theESPNwatch.  The following story appeared at Jonathan’s blog today:

A couple of months ago, Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony were rumored to have been at the center of trade talks between the Clippers and the Knicks. As it happens, I think LA would have been insane if they’d made that deal. In the interim, Griffin’s and Anthony’s divergent fortunes have garnered lots of attention. The coverage of their very different seasons provides a nice object lesson in what’s wrong with mainstream sports media coverage of basketball in particular and sports in general.

Earlier this year, Colin Cowherd made what he intended to be a somewhat disparaging remark about Griffin’s game. Cowherd said that there wasn’t a whole lot more to it than getting a lot of easy shots inside of eight feet. Last week, though, Cowherd had done a 180. On Mike and Mike, he joined the growing chorus of commentators wondering whether Griffin is now the third best player in the league. As it happens, Griffin’s production is almost identical to what it was a year ago.  He’s taking a few more shots per game and his scoring is up a few points per game. Since that’s the coin of the realm in standard NBA conversations, he’s being treated as if he’s experienced a quantum leap in performance. If I may be permitted a Simmonsian digression for a moment: remember those old Grecian hair formula commercials, where the guy got rid of some gray and somehow, people he’d worked with for years thought he was fifteen years younger and had lost weight. Griffin’s kind of like that. In fact, he is almost exactly what he was this time last year – a very productive, though not great player (he does, of course, have an awesome highlight reel). But because his scoring totals are up some, he looks unrecognizable to onlookers (I know the Grecian formula reference isn’t a great one).

Cowherd’s earlier comment about Griffin is revealing, however. Getting high percentage shots close to the rim that are easy to convert – and trying to prevent the other team from doing the same – is pretty much the whole point of the sport. A bizarre inclination to evaluate basketball players as if they are figure skaters – where degree of difficulty is actually part of the score – is a big reason guys like Tyson Chandler and De’Andre Jordan tend to be undervalued. It’s also why guys like Colin Cowherd sometimes engage in silly harrumphing about players that no one can stop from dunking when they please. One heard these “criticisms” of Barkley early in his career, too, by the way.

While Griffin’s star is on a somewhat unwarranted rise, ‘Melo is experiencing a different fate. As I’ve said before, unbeknownst to most of the sports punditocracy, he’s having his best season, mainly on the strength of better rebounding and, for the first time in his career, outstanding three point shooting.

To the extent that Anthony usually comes in for criticism, it’s because he’s regarded as something of a selfish player (though commentators often fail to square the circle between adjudging that a player shoots too much on the one hand and high scoring totals being overvalued on the other). In ‘Melo’s case, I don’t think selfish is a fair word, at least in the way that talking heads usually use it, because I don’t buy at all the premise that he doesn’t care about his team’s record. He plays hard, he obviously wants to win and he’s clearly dismayed by the Knicks’ abysmal performance this season, despite the fact that he’s getting his, points-wise, just like he always does.

We know that’s not about money, because ‘Melo is going to score a max contract this summer no matter how putrid the Knicks are.  Anthony’s not shooting as much as he does because he’s thinking “I don’t give a damn about my team; I just want to pad my scoring totals.” He’s making, I believe, the best decision he can in a given possession about the best shot for his team. And while he’s not a great defender; that is not from a lack of effort, either. Anthony is not indifferent to getting burned, after all.

Does he have a big ego? Sure. That tends to come with being a megastar athlete. The bottom line is that Anthony’s problem isn’t his attitude. His judgment is. And good judgment – the ability to make split second athletic decisions that benefit your team, under intense pressure while being guarded by other world class athletes – is a *skill.* Or more properly, it’s part of a package of skills. Anthony has some wonderful athletic gifts. But quite clearly, he just can’t see the play unfolding with the acuity that Chris Paul does. Nor is he the pure shooter that KD is. And no one possesses the remarkable combination of power and quickness that makes Lebron such an unstoppable force. There is no crime in any of those (relative) deficits. Those three guys, each playing a very different kind of game, all appear to possess, in addition to the abilities we normally associate with great athletes, exceptional athletic *judgment,* which allows them to maximize their teams’ chances of success over the course of the large accumulation of possessions that comprises an NBA season. That combination of skills and aptitudes is arguably what makes them the three best players in the sport, the recent silliness about Griffin notwithstanding. And there are plenty of other players who do more to help their team win than Anthony does even in this, his best season. The point, though, is that Carmelo isn’t a lesser player than those three – or others – because he’s selfish in some moral sense. This isn’t about the man’s character. It’s about a skill set. His just doesn’t translate into wins the way theirs do, no matter how good he looks doing what he does.

There’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing both in Blake Griffin’s ascendancy to superstardom this year and in the flummoxed handwringing about Anthony’s place in the game’s pantheon. Underlying the Griffin and Anthony stories is a reductionist view both of statistics and “approach,”, contributing to frequently pointless psychologizing about why some players seem to underperform and others over perform. It’s fine for Coach Eric Taylor to see sports as a test of will and character. But in the real world of elite athletic competition, its skill, properly understood, that usually prevails.

- Jonathan Weiler

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