Author: Matt Moore

Ben Wallace, Jordan Williams

The Inbounds: Retro-veterans and the once-and-future rim protector


In 2006, signing Ben Wallace to a deal would have been in an incredible franchise-changing move to radically alter the outlook of your defense.

In 2009, trading for him would have been seen as a desperate and flawed move towards overpaying for an unproductive and underwhelming player.

In 2012, it’s a pretty solid move which can shore up your bench, bring veteran leadership (VETERAN LEADERSHIP ALERT) to your locker room and provide you with a strong-willed icon to rally behind.


In 2007, Marcus Camby was a shot-blocking machine, the Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Star candidate and considered a superb all-around player.

In 2010, Camby was considered an overrated defender who helped too much, gave up too many points at the rim, and relied too much on his shot-blocking to be considered actually that good of a defender.

In 2012, he’s a solid addition and a huge upgrade to the Knicks’ bench, bringing the kind of tough defense at the rim and rebounding they’ve been missing for several years down low. He and Tyson Chandler should prove to be quite the conundrum for teams.


And so it goes.  People like to blame the 24-second news-cycle for the way we tend to lose perspective on things, but it’s always been this way. Go back through the articles all the way back to the archive about anyone whose game went up or down, and you’re going to find things which look ridiculous in hindsight. That’s pretty standard. You write what you know at the time and some things in this world are just unforeseeable. Look at Stephon Marbury’s career and tell me if during it you would have thought he’d wind up eating Vaseline on UStream. It happens all the time. But particularly with big men defenders, we see a different loping arc.

Tyson Chandler was once thought of as just an athlete who couldn’t put it together. Then all of a sudden in New Orleans, he put it together, and while dunking CP3 alley-oops, it turned out he was a pretty great defender. Three years later, he wins a title with the Mavericks as the biggest difference-maker on a team that had been great for a decade.

Wallace was such a pivotal part of the Pistons’ championship, it’s almost impossible to overrate his performance. He was everywhere. Then in Chicago, he was slow-footed, slow-healing, and just slow. Scott Skiles’ decision in 2008 to repeatedly play him over Joakim Noah was the stuff to drive your hair out. But then he returned to Detroit after a sting with Cleveland where he was just dead money, and he was that lovable veteran who handled the defense as well as he could with the team falling apart around him. The Pistons have moved on this season, after it was thought Wallace would retire, but he’s reportedly thinking about giving it another go. He was still productive last season, still a good defender, but the expectations have changed. That’s the big differential.

It’s the same with Camby. There was a huge backlash against Camby right before he was traded to the Clippers from Denver, based on his tendency to pursue the block instead of keeping with the smart rotation. But since then, he’s been a good defender in Los Angeles, a great defender in Portland, and a pretty good one in Houston. He re-joins the Knicks and should make a substantial impact… for a guy his age. The expectation has changed, and that allows us to view him either more accurately or more favorably, depending on your inclination.

It makes you wonder about the future of so many players we routinely flambe on the internet stove. JaVale McGee could change his identity defensively four times over the next eight years of his career. Joakim Noah could reach DPOY status and then plummet to overrated, injury-prone joke-butt before finishing his career in Chicago a hero. Serge Ibaka laughably wound up second in Defensive Player of the Year votes last year, largely based on the same reasoning Camby wound up winning it in 2007. But he’s going to improve, just like Chandler and Camby did. What then?

The point, as always, is that an NBA career is almost never the same year-in-and-year out. It’s a topographical map with texture, peaks and valleys. Defensive big men are more prone to latter development we’re discovering, because of the amount of mental improvement and wisdom needed to excel in the NBAs new “all-help-all-the-time” defensive structure. You can label a player fairly as a poor defender now, but don’t let it sink in so much that you forget to watch their improvement, even as they get older. Point guards must improve younger, big men almost always make a jump later in their careers. And their continuing evolution makes up a significant impact on how team defenses, and legacies, can change.

Ben Wallace the leader, Camby the rock, Chandler the icon. What will McGee, DeAndre Jordan, and Ibaka become, before they become what they will even later?

The Inbounds: The NBA Hierarchy of Needs Part II, the Basketball Collective and success


In Part 1, we talked about the individual’s needs in order to play at the highest level they can, those transcendent performances that defy logic and make us love the game. But a player reaching a status as self-actualized doesn’t just sometimes fail to lead to victories, it often times does. The ability to play at the highest level you personally can doesn’t always mean it’s going to lead to the most team success. That lesson is maybe the hardest for star players to accept, because if you’re self-actualized, you feel like you’ve given the absolute most you can. You just scored 50 points. What more does anyone want from you? But it’s not even about the individual game, it’s about the season, the larger sample, it’s about the whole record.

So how do you translate those things? We talked on Monday about how star players have to actually de-actualize themselves in order to make the entire team better, specifically pointing out how Kobe Bryant may have to emulate what Dwyane Wade did with the Heat now that he has Steve Nash and Dwight Howard on board. But what’s the framework for a team success? Why does it need sacrifice? And what actually makes up a team that reaches its potential vs. one that has all the talent and falls apart?

Let’s start with what it needs. In Part 1 we introduced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in the pyramid form, then adjusted it to the individual. Here’s what a team concept looks like using the same model.



We’ll breeze through these real quick.

Physiological: Well, if you’re not actually good at basketball, you can only go so far. Long is the list of teams that genuinely liked each other who didn’t win any games because they were inherently not good enough at playing NBA basketball. You have to have talent and ability if you want to win in this league, and that extends to things like athleticism and size. You can have ten guards as good as any in the league but you’ll still be limited if you don’t have any bigs on the roster, even in a league that’s gone smallball. You also need everyone healthy, obviously, but not just because those players are missing, but because their absence causes the other players to adapt to roles win which they’re not best-suited. The Heat are the obvious counter-example to this, but in reality, the injury to Chis Bosh last year helped them understand their team concept much better.

Safety: Teams going through emotional turmoil struggle. We saw it with the Nuggets in 2011 and the Magic in 2012. If there’s a concern about a team being “blown up’ and several players traded, there’s clearly already problems, but it’s also going to make matters worse by affecting the players’ concentration and ability to work together. Players will start working to protect their own interest, or struggling out of a sense of distraction due to the concerns. These effects aren’t obvious, but subtle yet impactful.

Love/Belonging: Chemistry. That rarified concept that is talked about so much. You need the players to enjoy hanging out with one another, or at least be modeled around a central identity. Whether it’s “all business” or the fun and happy-go-lucky Thunder, you need to know who you are and have everyone buy-in. The players at the end-of-the-bench aren’t as important as the role players, who aren’t as important as the stars, but you need the majority to enjoy being there. It’s like any work environment. If you’re unhappy, then time with your coworkers will be less productive and more prone to challenges throughout the course of the day. You want people to feel like they can succeed there, but more importantly to buy into the idea that the team concept is worth believing in.

The 2011 Mavericks are a great example of this. If you talked to the players, they honestly believed that having the veterans that they did gave them an advantage over opponents. Their entire attitude was one built around the strength of their team’s identity. And while Dirk Nowitzki was the sun and moon for them, Shawn Marion talked about getting in Nowitzki’s face in the playoffs and telling him to go to the rim. The team was reliant upon itself, not its individual accomplishments or abilities.

Similarly, the Heat found a similar identity in “create havoc defensively with our athleticism, then run like hell.” That model really became something their team bought into, not just from a tactical perspective, but for a team concept. And that’s pretty impressive for a team with that kind of starpower. They liked playing together, more than they did in 2011, and the success came with it.

Esteem: This is as simple as having the belief that you are better than your opponent and can beat him. You can believe in what you do and love the guys you’re playing with, but without that experience and confidence, you’re the 2010 Thunder.

How many times have we seen a young team come up short because they looked shellshocked. Teams have to believe without a doubt that they can win. Otherwise you’re hoping for a statistical outlier, and no one feels comfortable when they’re thinking of the odds stacked against them.

Team-Actualization: The best example of this? 

A team that didn’t have players who self-actualized, because they were ravaged by injury. Instead, the team believed in what it did, sacrificed to create opportunities for the entire roster on the floor, and won a ton of games.

There has to be a balance between self-actualization and team-actualization, though. You need those moments in the playoffs where one guy takes over. That’s why the Rockets fell to the Lakers in that series after Yao Ming went down. It’s why the Nuggets lost in seven to the Lakers last year despite a much stronger team concept. You have to have those players to lift you over.

So while Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade may have to adjust their games to make their squads better, moving off-ball and maximizing their individual abilities inside of the team’s offense, there will still be times for them to take over.

As with anything, it’s a matter of balance.

The Inbounds: The NBA Hierarchy of Needs Part I, the Star-Builder

2009 NBA All-Star Game

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

The following is a work of theory and more of a thought exercise than anything else. It’s not based on clinical research, nor is it meant to reveal some sort of deeply hidden truth about the game. It’s just an exposition on ideas meant to give you something to think about on a Wednesday with training camp still 18 days a way. Don’t take it too seriously. (But you can take it a little seriously.)

On Monday, we talked about self-actualization and volume scorers, within the framework of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. I wanted to extend upon that a bit by talking about something that came out of the work published on self-actualization, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Quick and dirty: Abraham Maslow talked a lot about self-actualization, which is the development of that old cliche “be all that you can be.” It’s about maximizing your potential, basically. To get there, Maslow talked about needs. You weren’t ever going to be able to fulfill your greatest potential as a person if you were constantly worrying about where your next meal came from, or when your job was going to leave you homeless (wondering where your next meal came from) or if you were always having personal problems (which could lead to you losing your job and wondering where your next meal was going to come from). At some point, someone took Maslow’s research and plopped it into a pyramid. Voila:


I know, I know, you want basketball, not psychology. I’m getting there.

If we’re talking about players, we usually evaluate them based on one of three criteria: production, performance, or earning potential. Production is simply, what you do on the court. Modern basketball evaluation leans heavily on this in the metrics sense. Does he score, rebound, assist, steal, block, and defend? A more simple manner of production is “does he produce wins?” (#CountTheRings). Performance is how we view him, and his stylistic approach. Is his game fun to watch? Does he seem great at what he does? Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan are kind of the bookends on this. Iverson looked awesome at what he did, but wasn’t efficient, and didn’t produce a lot of wins, compared to a lot of the superstars we identify. Duncan, on the other hand, wins, rebounds, scores, blocks, can pass, and is an excellent defender, plus, you know, he won a ton of rings. Kobe Bryant is some sort of weird balancing Cheshire Cat on this parallel, where you can argue that he doesn’t have the production in a game, but his team won, or you can argue that he had his production, but the team didn’t win, either because of how bad his teammates were or because of how he was unable to make his teammates better. The truth on those is usually one, the other, or both, and there’s no way to tell which.

Earning potential is just the ability to translate those talents to dollars. Agents really like evaluating players on this scale.

Getting back to self-actualization, we can kind of see the formula for how the above hierarchy of needs leads to both it, and what I referred to on Monday as “team-actualization” which is a team reaching its maximum potential. Let’s look at it on the individual level first. If you want a player to self-actualize, or if the player himself wants to become self-actualized, that is, capable of those moments where he just absolutely takes over a game (I refer to these moments as “going Nova”), then he’s also got to be in a position to build up to where he’s capable of that. If the elements which make up his ability to get there are not in place, then it’s very unlikely that he’ll be able to, consistently. (There will always be outliers, i.e. “the Flu Game,” but we’ll get there.)



So this is pretty self-explanatory, but we’ll go through it just in case. It’s a bottom-up structure, so you need the lower level to sustain the ones above it, else the entire thing collapses in and then you’re a draft bust.

Physiological: Kind of hard to reach your potential if you have an injury. We see this often in the form of “he’s bothered by a(n injury).” But it also has to do with conditioning. You’re not going to be able to take the game over if you’re not in shape. Not to the best of your ability. Shaquille O’Neal stands as the biggest exception to this rule, but even then, his best moments were when he was in shape and the further he got from that, the more difficult it became. Paul Pierce routinely struggles in the early-goings of a season, because he tends to wait to get his conditioning right. But it also has to do with why players wear the shooting sleeves and tights to keep their arms warm. You have to be physically able to perform the functions at the strongest level you can.

The Flu Game, Rondo’s One-Arm Series and other moments of great physical accomplishment in the face of injury or illness seem to stand against this idea, but it’s because all of the above elements are in place for him to overcome that singular detriment. Also, there are exceptions. It’s basketball. It happens.

Safety: If a player feels he’s going to be traded, that causes anxiety which can affect a player’s ability concentration and thereby his game. If he’s playing for his contract life, he’s likely going to try really hard, but that doesn’t always translate to success, because you have to pace yourself and be in rhythm, which is hard at 120 mph. If you’re having problems with your coach and worried you’re going to lose minutes because he prefers another player, you’re in the same situation. Now, this doesn’t mean that a player can’t hit that top level if he’s in trade rumors. That happens all the time. But it’s typically a player who has the confidence (a higher level need that has been established previously by the lower needs being met) to know that even if he’s traded, he’s still going to be fine, still going to be a star, still going to have the job and life he wants.

Love/Belonging: It’s really hard for you to contribute to the best of your ability if your teammates hate you and won’t give you the ball, if your coach hates you and won’t call plays for you, and if you’re getting booed by the homecrowd just for existing. You can do it. But it’s going to be pretty hard to reach the maximum level of production. Think of it this way. Look at how good DeMarcus Cousins is right now. Now imagine if his coaches and teammates didn’t think he was a gigantic pain in the ass. As we get higher, you’ll notice the ability for guys to rise above a detriment to these needs. For example, do players really care if the media writes something harsh about them? They’ll say they don’t all the live-long day. But if you talk to a beatwriter who’s done this for more than a few years, you’re going to find that they’ve had players upset with what they’ve written. They don’t all care. But some do. And many care what the fans think. Dwight Howard’s apologies to the media and fans for the circus over the past year is a good indicator of that.

This also extends to a player’s personal life. If he’s having problems with his family or loved ones, that can spill out and distract a player.

Esteem: You have to believe you’re going to make it. There’s a reason shooting coaches emphasize visualizing making the shot. Confidence is talked about so often as such a crucial element, because it’s the biggest barrier between a player who has all the tools, but can’t put it together, and a star. Even if he’s just a roleplayer at best, he has to be confident that he can box out his man, help on the defensive rotation, hit that spot-up three. We’ve seen players get traded and suddenly detonate under new coaches, and this is in part because of how they’re coached, but also because they develop a sense of confidence in their new environments.

If Kobe Bryant (or Dwyane Wade) miss 20 out of their 25 shots on any given night, the next night they’re still going to put up 18-25 shots. Because they believe 100 percent that they will, not that they can, that they will make it.

Competitive spirit plays a part in this, too, the ability to reach a mindset of being driven to beat the other team. It’s hard to drop 40 on a team if you don’t really care about winning the game or at least about proving that you can. That fire has to be there, which is what makes playoff performances seem so much different.

Confidence can be a bad thing, no doubt. You don’t want J.R. Smith always having that confidence in himself, at least not if you’re George Karl or a Nuggets fan. But that has more to do with the team concept that we’ll talk about later, not the individual.

Self-Actualization: On a player’s level, if you’re still wondering what I’m talking about, here:

Self-actualization as a player doesn’t mean a victory. It doesn’t mean a loss, either. It’s part of the greater make-up and we’ll talk about that in the next post. But what we see from this is a design of what players need to reach their individual utmost potential, and how it translates to some classic psychological theory.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about how teams need to establish the meeting of their needs which often requires the sacrifice of players who have reached that special place of self-actualization, and like it.

The Inbounds: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and the actualization of scorers

2012 NBA All-Star Game

Does Kobe Bryant need to be more like Dwyane Wade? Or does Dwyane Wade need to be more like Kobe Bryant? Neither? Both? Hungry? Who’s hungry?

The biggest challenge for any player in the NBA is the same one so many children struggle with: how to play with others. Particularly those whose talents are self-mobilized. When you think about it, much of the NBA is centered around essentially de-actualizing human beings.

Self-actualization is a concept used in psychology usually in regards to the maximizing of one’s potential. It features ideas like “autonomy,” “spontanaeity,” “comfort with solitude,” and “peak experiences.” It’s built around the idea of being all that you can be, essentially. But the key there is that it’s you being all that you can be. It’s about lifting your personal potential to the fullest measure, while still being able to live comfortably with other human beings. And part of that is accepting who you are.

So if you’re Dwyane Wade, or Kobe Bryant, or even Tyreke Evans, what is the most self-actualized that you can be as a basketball player? I’d argue that it’s clearly being an independent scorer who’s able to break down the defense and create offense based off your own isolation abilities. In other words, a volume shooter. In other words, a ball hog. We (rightfully) view that approach as negative when we talk about it conceptually. We want our players to be selfless, to make their teammates better, to be the kind of guy who always makes the right play.

At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

In reality, we reward results. Michael Jordan is lauded for being able to make his teammates so much better, essentially a revisionist history built around the fact that the jump he made starting in 1991 had more to do with efficiency and production as it did with selflessness and “getting it.” Kobe Bryant is put over the flames for the decisions that he makes, but only when they result in a loss. “It’s a make or miss league” extends to the way we view players as well. Bryant hits the game winner (which statistically, he doesn’t do very often), and no one’s going to criticize him for taking the shot, because, well, he made it. You look stupid talking about someone in those terms after he just stepped up and drained a jumpshot in the closing seconds of a professional basketball game that meant the difference in a win and a loss. You just do.

You know the difference between Kobe Bryant and Tyreke Evans in terms of how they play and the role they execute, at this point in their careers? Kobe’s a lot better at it. He’s not a different player than Evans, and while he’s got a lot more under the hood in terms of mental awareness and skills to turn to, they still do essentially the same thing. They have similar assist numbers (though Bryant has a higher assist rate, a more accurate determinant). They don’t always shoot, because that’s going to get you yanked (well, it would have, Bryant could have and often did completely ignore such ideas last season but no one was going to blame him, and also, at this point, it’s Kobe, who’s going to?). But what’s their instinct?

If these players were truly “self-actualized” in terms of their game, they would allowed to simply be autonomous, independent scorers.

Wade’s much the same way. Like Bryant and Evans, Wade is at his best when he’s using a pick to get a poor fool on an island. His best seasons came when the Heat were most reliant on him, dependent on his skills. I’m not saying that Wade, Evans, Bryant aren’t playmakers, they can be and often are. In fact, their teams are often at their best when they filter more of their skills towards playmaking while also using their unique scoring advantage. But if we’re talking about making them into the most they can be, those things are brilliant for them, but not conducive towards winning.

Which is what Wade discovered last year. Wade struggled last year due to injury and age, but he also shifted how he operated in the offense. Just because he wasn’t shooting didn’t mean that he turned into LeBron facilitator. If anything, James’ facilitated Wade the most (James assisted on Wade scores 85 times in the regular season, 33 times in the playoffs, more than double the next closest assist-maker for Wade – by comparison, Wade assisted James the most, but the margin between he and Mario Chalmers was much more narrow). But Wade moved to working off-ball, to working on offensive rebounds, to slashing to draw defenders and give James room. You can say it was because James is the superior player, but even if he wasn’t, Wade would have gone to that approach. Why? Because of that word again: results. It just worked.

Bryant faces a similar situation in Los Angeles this year. You can debate about whether Dwight Howard is a better player than Bryant, or whether Steve Nash is, or whether Pau Gasol is. But that shouldn’t be the determinant in how you approach your offense. It should be based on results. If giving Steve Nash the ball and letting him freelance is the best approach to the team, then that should be the model. If it’s running the pick and roll with Howard, then that’s the model. Equal distribution between Howard and Gasol, Nash and Bryant in the pick and roll, whatever it is, that’s the key. It’s not based off of what your best weapons are, because that doesn’t always work. Otherwise, the Bucks would be better.

It’s unlikely that a system that self-actualizes Bryant is going to be the optimal, is the point. More weapons creates more stresses on the defense, which produces easier mechanisms which produces higher percentage looks and easier shots, which is going to produce more efficiency. This seems like a really complicated way of saying “ball movement and playing as a team is better” which is a stupidly simple concept that’s been reinforced a million times in sports and sports film history. But the modern NBA demands a bit more exploration. Because we’ve specifically seen players self-actualizing their individual, anti-team talents and have great success. The Spurs’ championship offense began and ended with Tim Duncan. Yes, the terrific supporting players and ridiculously good system built by the coaching staff had an impact, but the model was for Tim Duncan to be the star that the Spurs’ universe rotated around. (2007 may be the exception to this, the year Parker rightfully earned Finals MVP status, but it wasn’t as if you could say Duncan wasn’t the focus, just that Parker was simultaneously splitting that role.)

Jordan. Olajuwon. The model of having one guy go bonkers really did work from 1991 (maybe even further if you want to make the argument for Isiah’s Pistons), all the way to 2008. Then the Celtics kicked off this arms race, and here we are.

Think about it. How many times has a team won the title with their point guard the best player, with the facilitator the best player on the floor? We have to go back to either the 2007 Spurs team, and that one is clearly rife with mitigating factors, or to Isiah’s Pistons, dependent upon beating the crap out of the other team. What we’ve seen is self-actualization, letting guys do their thing, works.

But the environment has changed. And it’s less about all the other star-studded teams because those teams aren’t putting up 125 offensive ratings and having three guys score 40 a night. It’s not the talent. The defensive systems have changed, which kick-started the accumulation of talent to override that. But now the defenders are better, because the talent is better. It’s a vicious cycle. And the solution is to get back to the idea of ball movement and of team-actualization.

A key element in actualization is an “efficient perception of reality.” And on the singular level, this is difficult to translate to team success. This is manifested, essentially, as confidence. The “you want guys who aren’t afraid to take that shot?” is built out of their own knowledge that they can make that shot. They may not have an efficient perception of reality, but in that sense, those players are not self-actualized. This is essentially the difference between J.R. Smith and Kobe Bryant. Smith and Bryant both feel they can hit that shot. The difference is that Bryant has been able to. And the slide that’s occurred with Bryant’s standing in the league mirrors his ability to convert just those shots, the pull-up 40-foot three.

But on the team level, the best teams are those that have an efficient perception of reality when it comes to what they do well. The Mavericks in 2011, by example, knew what they did well. The Heat in 2012 discovered this very thing in the playoffs. They stopped trying to force their reality, to be the villains they said they wanted to be in 2011, to be a team that played with a traditional center, a team that resisted everything going through LeBron, and instead accepted reality. He is not just the best player, but the player most capable of creating quality offense.

Bryant may find himself in a similar situation as Wade this year, having to accept coming off screens to shoot, having to be used to spread the floor. It’s a test of what he has always said about himself, that he just wants to win. By his definition, for him to really be self-actualized, he must do whatever leads to victories. In the past, he’s always been able to justify his shooting as in pursuit of that goal, even if it was simply an extension of his own self-actualization as a player. Now he may have to de-actualize his own game to team-actualize and bring the title.

If we consider the hierarchy of needs, he has what he needs, but that’s a subject for tomorrow.

Three weeks to training camp… Kobe ain’t dead yet

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five

The wait is almost over. We’re three weeks and three days from training camp, and the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season. Basketball is almost back. As we get closer we’ll be bringing you reminders of why this game is awesome, what you’ve missed, and what to look forward to.

I get bugged a lot by highlight shows. It’s not that I don’t enjoy highlights, I love highlights. I grew up in the 90’s in an area without an NBA team anywhere close. Before the late season Sunday games began, highlight shows and newspaper box scores (related: Geebus, I’m old) were how I became obsessed with the league. I don’t mind over-the-top anchors, over-the-top human interest stories, or the way highlights slice apart the best parts of games. Show the flash. I mind when performances that weren’t efficient get tagged with all of the highlights. I mind when the other team who either won or were in it till the end get completely excluded from the package. I mind when simple numbers make something noteworthy, how a 40-point performance is this monstrous thing no matter how shot attempts were taken.

On a completely unrelated note, here’s Kobe Bryant dropping 40 points routinely last season. I will tell you emphatically that these weren’t Kobe’s best games, that often his best games were relatively quiet performances where he simply played so well in the offense, on defense, and helping to make the Lakers the best they could be. But we live in an age where help defense has dramatically decreased the ability of players to drop massive scoring totals like we saw in the mid-to-late 00’s, and dropping 40 is still very much cool. Kobe’s older. But he’s still deadly.