You Can’t Always Blame Your Problems On DMZ

February 20th, 2009 by John Krolik

halloween[1]

In case you’re confused as to why this is here: sometimes I write essays that just don’t have a good place to go. Now I have a home for them. Enjoy. 

The effects of Michael Lewis’ article have been wide-ranging, and certainly seems to have more sticking power than when +/- articles started getting run back in 2005 with Jason Collins as the posterchild of defense-we can at least accept Shane Battier as a good basketball player. More than anything, a lot of us in the blogosphere have been putting some serious thought down as to just what it is a role player does and what they make. (Aside: I’m really glad that article used things that make actual sense instead of take a similar player, like James Posey, get a story of him shooting early in practice and telling Melvin Ely about how to shuffle his feet, and concluded that James Posey possesses a magical two-toned mouthguard of intangibles and his teams win because his warrior soul blinds less-worthy 1st-round picks in crunch time, and in fact Zach Randolph reported a sharp burning in his hand when he touched his skin.)
“Lego player” is a term used in the article that’s been thrown around a little bit since this happened, which is different from the already-existing term “glue player,” somehow. “Glue” seems to fit what Battier does, as he provides a ceasing of chaos on the court-he completes plays by getting in position for, and making, open shots, he makes smart drives and moves the ball, all that happy stuff, and defensively his job as a stopper is to more or less stop chaos from taking place. (Do not be misled by the article’s descriptions of Battier’s defensive effectiveness being a byproduct of his ability to disrupt the world of Kobe. Every word of that is true, but Kobe is a special case; few players can rain sulfur and destruction from the perimeter without requiring to cut deep into the defense and impart destruction from the key as the defense panics. Upswing: For those not scoring savants like Kobe is, havoc benefits offense.) 
Certainly the abilities of players like Battier are valuable to filling the gaps caused by the penetration of someone who cannot finish for himself, or a shooter who needs a spot opened up for him, or to hinder an offensive player looking to drive and pillage at the rim. But if we’re focusing on the subtle things players do to improve their teams, where is the mention of the players who go beyond glue and become expansive polymers, gloriously incomplete in their skills but blessed with explosive ability and length and a desire to become all things at all times, filling cracks that they create themselves on offense and defense and delighting in making new possibilities with or without the ball, on both ends, for every second they’re on the floor? Battier, and the players we have traditionally thought of as role players, solve puzzles. Spot-up shooters finish plays that create the opportunity. Rebounders finish a successful defensive sequence. Defensive rotators plug up a leak. 
While these players were and are integral to success, there is another breed that has arisen. The expansive polymers-those picked up in the great high-school inspired Quest For Length and left behind and made to forage their own way through sheer ingenuity and athletic ability, do not solve puzzles laid out to them but find previously-unseen connections in a field of chaos and dismay, or find paradoxes within the mundane. Simply put, they do not tie up but turn the chaos on its own head and find something only they can make order out of. 
Odom would have to be considered the patron saint of these types of players, turning a rebound into an instant fast-break, a post-up into a position to wheel and deal, a ball coming to an opposing center with position into a loose ball he will surely snatch up, a cut-off lane into something to stretch his arms around, a spot-up shot into a weak-side cut for a score. He thrives not by putting himself in the right position, but by making his opponents’ “right” positions into his own playground. And guess who leads the Lakers in +/-? (I AM AWARE THAT +/- IS NOT PERFECT. THAT DOES NOT MAKE THIS LESS COOL.)
In fact, guess who had the highest single-game +/- scores on their respective teams in tonight’s Laker-Warriors game? By far, Odom and Anthony Randolph, who was an absolutely glorious vision of expanding polymer tonight-stripping players bringing the ball up court, trying to jump straight over rotating players and reach over their heads, jumping on backs to try and get rebounds, filling lanes and flipping himself into bizzare spots and angles to find the basket and the ball again and again. There’s Josh Smith, who helps his team offensively with pure fury and is quietly a defensive ace. In fact, Hakim Warrick, Josh Smith, Andray Blatche, Russell Westbrook(who doesn’t quite fit the model but is very, very, intriguing) , Jemario Moon, and Odom all have higher +/- ratings that Battier. Now, most of them are on worse teams and it doesn’t make them better, but there are more ways to contribute beyond the stat sheet than quiet dignity; sometimes subtlety can wield a blazing hammer. 
Important distinction here-the Radioactive Mutants of Subtlety are, in fact, different from the “energy bigs” in that they create perpetual possibility within the cracks of plays; energy bigs find rotations and track down rebounds and snatch loose balls, but they rarely create turnovers with their defense and the ball in their hands often stagnates plays, and they don’t fly in between the seams to make sub-plays but exist in a realm outside the play, looking for scraps. The energy big/wings combine the ball-hawking with a sense of purpose and ball-handling/vision to see a new play before it happens, making the moment when they get the ball a link in a previously unseen chain. And perimeter players like Baron Davis create chaos, but it’s chaos they orchestrate and in some level is an offshoot of an island they create for themselves. This is making sense and crafting a coherent narrative out of a completely unseen and unintended tributary of the play that was already forming. Hopefully that’s clear. 
Some players are great for making things tidy and cleaning up the chaos that destroys a team, and it’s often that rather than the flashy crossover or step-back that proves the true difference in a game. But sometimes it’s the ultra-talented players who seemingly ooze unlived potential that are working behind the scenes and benefiting their teams by finding new and undiscovered paths that exist outside the scope of the game as we see it, on the court or in our minds when we seek to classify.