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

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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.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.