Watching the Lakers lose to the Mavs was quite a trip. In my mind, the Lakers were the favorite to win the whole thing — the only team with a superstar on the perimeter, and multiple quality big men.
My theory made perfect sense.
Until the games started.
Watching the Lakers big men be so inconsistent reminded me of a conversation I had during last year’s playoffs, with my friend JZ. JZ is a wise old hoopserver. In fact, he’s a member of the Jedi Council of Hoopserving Masters.
Around this time last year, I told JZ that I just couldn’t understand why some players were as inconsistent as they were. I can’t think of a different profession where someone who performs at a superstar level sometimes, an average level sometimes, and below average the rest of the time is still regarded as useful. Yet, in basketball, it happens frequently. We simply accept such players as “inconsistent.” It was flabbergasting to me, I told him, that such “inconsistent” players get paid millions of dollars and do not even exert 100% effort every time they play.
JZ explained that energy is a talent. I think it’s an excellent hoopservation, and would only add two points of clarification:
1. “Energy,” for purposes of this discussion, includes the thing we call “focus.” The inability to devote the same effort to every game includes “energy,” which refers to the physical component, and “focus,” which refers to the mental component.
2. When someone like, say, Lamar Odom, or Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol, looks like a superstar on Friday and a scrub on Sunday, it’s not because he isn’t trying, or stayed out too late on the Sunset Strip on Saturday night. It’s just that energy isn’t one of the talents that made him a professional basketball player, so, even though he is exerting 100% effort on Sunday, it is 100% of a different energy level than he had on Friday. In other words, the players who have the talent of high energy wake up every day with a high energy level, and when they exert 100% effort, it is 100% of an energy level that hardly changes. The players who do not have the talent of energy do not wake up with the same energy level every day, and when they exert 100% effort, it is 100% of a different energy level on different days. People who resent these players for not trying their hardest every game are missing the point.
Put a few guys on the same team who do not have the talent of high energy, and you’ll wind up with a team that looks like it has a personality disorder. Like, for example, the Lakers. The Lakers won two championships in a row, and looked, at times, like a juggernaut on their way to a third. But, when their superstar (Kobe) started to slip just a little bit, and one of their other high-energy players (Artest) lost a half a step, then, all of a sudden, the team was heavily dependent on its low-energy guys.
It can work, if a few of those guys are playing at a high level each game, but it’s a risky venture. There are lots of ways to try to win in the NBA, but talent usually wins out. And energy is a talent.
I find the concept of energy being considered a talent an interesing one. How does one distinguish between those with varying energy levels and those who simply don’t give 100% on a daily basis though? Is the assumption that all professional athletes give 100% of their energy every day? More than half the players in the league barely play defense so how could those players be giving 100%? On another note, maybe the Lakers didn’t win the series because Kobe isn’t as good as everyone says he is. If Lebron were in his place, they certainly wouldn’t have lost.
I think your point that energy/focus has a mental component is a crucial one. Unlike height or athleticism which are god-given talents, energy is primarily a learned skill. Some can learn it on their own, but others need coaching. Teaching players how to consistently focus is a coach’s most important job. The Lakers loss to the Mavs because of a lack of focus is therefore an indictment of Phil Jackson. One could argue that Gasol, Odom, Bynum, etc. are uncoachable, but I’d disagree. Almost all players are coachable, the coach just has to figure out how to reach each one or get rid of the ones that are truly obstinate. However, few truly obstinate individuals ever make it to highest level of their field. Gasol, Odom, and Bynum are all coachable. Phil Jackson just failed. Good thing for the Lakers that they will probably have a new coach next year.