Think about your favorite NBA player. Doesn’t matter who it is, really, although for the purposes of this exercise it would be nice if you picked a player who has played at least one game in the NBA prior to this year.
Now think about that player when they first arrived in the NBA. Were they the same player then that they are now? I bet they’re not.
Finding success in the NBA has a lot to do with growing and figuring out what you can do and what you can’t do. Some guys ignore their strengths and try to do things they’re not good at; they’re often out of the league within a few years. Some guys don’t actually have any strengths; they too end up out of the league very quickly. But the ones that last in the league are the guys who figure out who they are on the court and stick to that. Playing within yourself is a major plus in today’s NBA.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of growth and “know thyself” recently. My favorite musical artist, Gavin DeGraw, just released a new album, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I feel about it.
Wait, where are you going? Come back! I’m going somewhere with this, I promise!
The thing I keep coming back to about DeGraw’s new album is the sense of refinement that I get from it. Gavin DeGraw’s first four albums are all over the map, stylistically and thematically. But something seems to have clicked between number four — Sweeter, released November 2011 — and number five, Make A Move. This one feels a lot like the last one, but … better. He’s not looking for the magic formula anymore. He’s found it.
See? I told you there was a point here.
“He’s trying to do too much right now. That’s not his game.”
It’s an oft-used announcing complaint in the NBA, but it falls short of cliche, because it’s usually correct. Nine times out of ten, that phrase — or something very much like it — is applied to a young player, often a rookie and often on a team that’s not very good, who seems determined to win the game by himself. This generally takes the form of excessively difficult shots and/or passes, when much simpler plays would benefit the team more.
Dion Waiters comes to mind as a guy who fits that profile. He has obvious talent, but he struggles to harness it in the ways that would most benefit his team. There are countless others, often young wings like Waiters who are struggling to find an identity.
But the ultimate “tries to do too much” guy is DeMarcus Cousins. Your reaction to the news that Cousins had signed an extension for the maximum possible salary under the CBA probably indicates which side of the “production v. potential” line you fall on. If you thought it was a good move, you’re on the potential side. If you hated it, you’re on the production side. The problem with Cousins is that it’s not as simple as one or the other.
In the last two seasons, only four players have played 50 or more games at significant (>25) minutes and recorded 20 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference. Cousins is two of those. The other two are Kevin Love (11-12) and Tim Duncan (12-13). Feel free to read whatever you want into that.
On the other hand, Cousins’ awareness of his own skillset leaves a lot to be desired. Since arriving in the NBA, Cousins has taken about 30 percent of his shots outside of the paint, according to NBA.com. Which would be fine, if he were an elite shooter like Love or Dirk Nowitzki. But he is not, as he shot all of about 32 percent outside the paint last season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider Jimmy Butler, if for no other reason than that I will never pass up any excuse to write about Jimmy Butler. Butler, like Luol Deng before him, is a defensive ace who absolutely does not step outside of his niche on offense. He recorded the lowest usage rate of any player on the Bulls last year — below Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovic. He is good at a few things — shooting and finishing at the rim, mainly — and he does those things and nothing more.
Is Jimmy Butler better than DeMarcus Cousins? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. Even his most ardent admirer — that’d be me, thank you very much — wouldn’t say that. But Jimmy knows who and what he is on the court. I’m not sure you can say that about DMC.
Of course, it took Jimmy a full season — a “Thibs redshirt” year as it’s become known in Bulls circles — to get to that point. My memory’s hazy because it was a while ago and he didn’t play much, but I seem to remember Butler trying to create too much off the dribble and taking a lot of long twos. As a matter of fact, he still takes a lot of long twos, if we’re being honest, but he’s only in his third year and it is my hope that he will fix that eventually.
Similarly, DMC’s young and he’s got plenty of time to fix his bad habits. New coach Mike Malone is well-regarded enough to make me think he can help on that front, and Cousins’ play in the preseason has been encouraging. But Boogie is rapidly approaching a make-or-break point, where his knucklehead reputation might start to sabotage his career prospects if it’s not corrected. If he doesn’t “find himself” on the court, he’s going to find himself on the street.* No matter how talented the player, it’s generally more valuable to find someone who fits a specific role and doesn’t stray from it. With the harsher luxury tax penalties from the new CBA kicking in, teams can’t afford to carry around max contracts for guys who don’t play within themselves.
*Note: I’m not sure how much I actually believe that, since there’s no commodity in the NBA quite like size, but I’m sticking with it because I thought it was clever. You may disagree.
Listen, I’m ‘a tell you once
From an honest guy who has screwed it up.
Celebrate the one you’re with.
A little take and give never hurt no one.
Gavin DeGraw, “I’m Gonna Try”
It’s a lot of fun — for me, at least — to listen to DeGraw’s catalogue and track some of the subtle changes he’s made to his sound over time. His debut album came out a full 10 years ago, and the artist that released that album bears little resemblance to the one that released Make A Move.
So it is with NBA players. The destination can be really cool when a guy finds himself, but the journey is often as much fun, if not more.
The NBA’s a funny place. Players who seem destined for greatness often fall by the wayside for no discernible reason while others keep getting second chances for similarly indiscernible reasons. But no matter what their skillset, the players who figure out what that is and stick to it are the ones who find their way eventually.
Well, except for JR Smith. He’s the exception for every rule.