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A Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing

In a frigid vacuum, completely devoid of context, who would you say is a better player – Kyle Korver or Jimmy Butler?

In general I abhor evaluative basketball questions that are purposefully removed from context, but here the absence of additional information is exactly what piques my curiosity. I picked Butler and Korver because over the past two season their Advanced Statistical Plus/Minus ratings have been nearly identical. Suspending any disbelief you might have about the general descriptive power of that particular metric, let’s assume that in this case it’s an accurate reflection of two players who’s overall basketball contributions impact their teams to about the same positive degree. So the question then becomes, which contributive style do you find more appealing?

Korver is a specialist in the extreme. Although his team defense is underrated and he’s quietly become effective at attacking closeouts, almost every positive basketball contribution he makes can be traced back to his shooting. Whether it’s the implied threat of him stationed on the perimeter, tugging on the defense and facilitating the manipulation of space by his teammates, or Korver actually throwing the ball through the hoop himself; what he brings to the table, first and foremost, is a beautiful jump shot. Butler on the other hand brings a collection of worn and slightly less-refined tools. He is an individual defender, a transition threat, a developing playmaker and an outside shooter of steadily increasing renown. He rebounds well for his position, generates turnovers and in some situations will even initiate the Bulls offense. But there is literally nothing in his game that reflects as much precision or flair as Korver’s jump shot. Butler’s basketball value is completely wrapped up in his ability to do a little bit of everything.

So, I ask again. Devoid of context and in equal amounts of overall value, which do you prefer – specialization or versatility?

Butler and Korver, as a pair, illustrate this dichotomy perfectly, with each holding an equal piece of the puzzle. But the issue isn’t always neatly split into two individuals. If we look carefully at a handful of unique situations I think we can find the exact same divide swirled up into a single soul.

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I enjoy almost everything about basketball. I do not, however, enjoy watching Josh Smith play the game.

I usually avoid mentioning this fact. I don’t have a compelling explanation for my distaste and there is a certain amount of embarrassment that comes with the admission. I know there are plenty of other who share my feelings, but his fans and apologists are just as numerous and wield the cultural cache of aesthetic insiders. It’s similar to the inherent deficit in coolness created by my lack of appreciation for the music of  __insert hip band I’ve never heard of __ . Everyone says they’re great in an intellectually syncopated and intentionally offbeat way. Why can’t I see it? The implication is if you don’t appreciate it, it’s only because you don’t understand it. I don’t usually talk about Smith because not liking him makes me feel shallow and reactionary.

There is no mistaking his considerable talent or misconstruing the quantity and quality of his impact. He can be forcefully destructive at both ends of the floor and provides regular fodder for aficionados of the ethereal and airborne elements of basketball. But his contributions are all staccato, there is no smooth and extended control like you see with someone like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. He appears unexpectedly in a burst of vigor and athleticism. There is also a thorough divide between the contributions he makes that are conceived well in advance and those that are reactions to chaos, creating something from nothing with athleticism as the raw material (It’s imperative to note that there are infinitely more occurrences of the latter than the former).

Then of course there is his eye-gouging shot selection. This is certainly a huge part of my problem with Smith. The way he casually hoists and hurls outside shots at the rim feels willfully destructive, to both his own talent and to his team’s prospects. He’s shown no signs that he sees a problem with his shot distribution patterns, but I just can’t wrap my head around that understanding without attributing a certain level of selective blindness.

His shot selection is his biggest achilles heel but the magnitude of its place in discussions about him as a player seems incongruous with his myriad other abilities. Even a passing mention of Smith is usually formatted as some variation of “great basketball player, wouldn’t know recognize a good shot if it bit him on the hindquarters.” For how many players of his talent level do we feel the need to religiously modify their considerable strengths with their biggest weakness, often in the same sentence?

I brought this issue up on the HP email thread and one of my colleagues was nice enough to clarify it for me:

“. . . because it’s a massive glaring issue and should be mentioned.”

That blunt force gave me a shove in the direction of this chasm between versatility and specialization.

If we limit things to the positive spectrum, then versatility is undoubtedly Smith’s calling card. If you did nothing more than scan his box scores and peruse his YouTube highlights you’d be painting the picture of a player with limitless capabilities. But if you actually watch him play an entire game you find the versatility is actually a confusing jumble of strengths and weaknesses. The broad mix of skills he possess aren’t available in an even distribution. The holes in his game draw distinct boundaries around his different talents, walling them off from connecting to each other. In other words, he’s just versatile enough to get himself in trouble, versatile enough to create the illusions that he should be able to do everything on the court.

I don’t meant this judgement to diminish his talent, but his versatility just doesn’t create the overall impact we all expect, because of a web of deficits has been spread over the top of it. Which makes me wonder, if Smith were a little less talented or a little less athletic, would he actually be better off? Judging from the way he handles shot selection it’s difficult to argue that the limitations in his game actually affect the way he plays. But hypothetically, what would happen if he were a step slower, a bit less intuitive at the defensive end or blessed with hands a little less capable? Would we outside observers treat his talent with the same reductive disdain we do now? Would his coaches and teammates expect a little less from him, reigning in exploration of the outer reaches of his ability and allowing him to set up shop within the confines of those few things he does exquisitely well? Would Smith see himself differently? Would he recognize his own flaws with a little more clarity and allow his decision-making process to be guided by that clarity, instead of steamrolling it on his way to another 22ft. fallaway?

It seems blasphemous to suggest that a player could actually be a little better off by being a little worse, but I don’t know how else to solve the Smith conundrum. If he were perceived, handled, cultivated as a defensive specialist, with offensive contributions viewed as icing on the cake, I imagine his poor decision-making would somehow seem much less disturbing. The fact that he’s so richly talented and capable of doing so many things well is precisely what makes the few things he can’t so offensive to our fundamental basketball sensibilities. It’s what makes him an acquired taste, a favorite son of a particular portion of the basketball aesthete.

Smith is not the first player to be punished for not meeting expectations inflated by his own talent. But the way his situation reflects the divide between specialization and versatility feels especially unique. With players like Korver and Butler it’s easy to accept them for what they are. Their places on the versatility-specialization spectrum feel static and natural. But Smith’s talent makes his place feel somewhat transitory. Could he really be more by being less?

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.