Talking about LeBron – as many people have been doing recently – brings up lots of conversations that are worth exploring on their own. When he was on the Cavs, lots of people said that his “supporting cast” wasn’t good enough to win with (a view that I disagreed with, as I’ve stated many times on this blog). Then, when he joined up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, lots of people predicted that they’d be a dominant team, and, when they started the season slowly, lots of people spoke about the “chemistry issues” that the team was having.
In order to really delve into a discussion that tests the validity of any of those opinions, it’s first worthwhile to have a more general discussion about how to construct a good team. I’ve already blogged about the importance of having players who fit particular basketball roles. (Here.) That’s an important part of the process, but it’s only part.
The other important part of the process of constructing a good team is having a roster of guys who, for a lack of a better phrase, “are where they belong.” You want the best guy on your roster to be someone built to be the lead dog on a good team. You want your second best guy to be suited to be second best, your third guy to be suited to be third best, etc.
True hoopsters undertstand that this is hard to accomplish. Not everyone who’s suited to be a #1 guy on a roster can simply become a #2 guy on a roster successfully. And not everyone who’s great at being a #2 can necessarily become a viable #1. The same is true of players up and down the roster. And it’s important to have guys in the right “slots”; if the players on a team are merely one slot “off” it can be the difference between a terrible team and a championship competitor.
Speaking generally, the guys who are best suited to fill the “lower roles” on a team are able to make contributions without dominating the ball on offense. That doesn’t mean they can’t be scorers; some of them might be spot up shooters or guys who do most of their scoring in the paint. Or, they can be guys who contribute without scoring much at all, usually by blocking shots and rebounding.
One of the players who illustrates this most clearly is Scottie Pippen. Pippen was a great #2 – perhaps a perfect #2. He was an adequate #1, but not fantastic, and certainly not great. The Bulls teams he played on without Jordan never made the Finals, and the talented Blazers teams that he played on never did, either. (Nor did the Rockets teams that he was on, but I don’t think of him as the “#1 guy” on those teams.)
In today’s game, there are multiple guys who illustrate the point. To name a few:
Ben Wallace. Not long ago, he started for – and was an important contributor to – a championship team. But, put him on a bad team, and he’s not capable of making them competitive. I think that, even now, towards the end of his career, there’s still a role for him to play on a good team. But Detroit might be the worst team in the league, and having him in the starting lineup does next-to-nothing to make them competitive.
Ray Allen. During his time on the Sonics, he was only a mediocre “top dog.” (There’s a reason they traded him in his prime.) On the Celtics, where he has generally been the #2 guy (while Garnett was hobbling and Rondo was ascending) or the #3 guy (since Rondo’s ascension), he is a great weapon.
Nate Robinson. On a bad Knicks team, his inconsistency was crippling. They didn’t have enough to win when he wasn’t scooting around the court like Sonic the Hedgehog, but he wasn’t consistent enough for them to depend on. Coming off the bench for the Celtics, he is a valuable asset.
Moving “up” on the totem pole obviously has its risks; Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are not nearly effective as a 1/2 punch (sorry, Rodney Stuckey) as they were when Chauncey was the top dog. Going the other direction, Shawn Merion used to be an All-Star as the #2 on Phoenix, but isn’t making much of a contribution being lower on the Mavericks’ totem pole.
Seeing basketball through this prism helps explain the successes, failures, and difficulties of a number of NBA teams this season. That’s the subject of the next posting. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your comments!