Playing for good teams, having been let go by bad teams

November, 10, 2009
11/10/09
1:53
PM ET
By Henry Abbott

Yesterday I asked for your help brainstorming a list of players who couldn't stick with bad teams, but went on to be major contributors to good teams.

I kicked the list off with talk of Josh Powell, Shelden Williams, Matt Bonner, Eddie House, Louis Amundson, Kyle Lowry, Kris Humphries, Steve Blake, Jared Dudley and Quinton Ross.

Several of you have made other suggestions, like Trevor Ariza who was once a Knick, but then won a title as a Laker.

Chauncey Billups might be the king of this category. He played for the Celtics, Raptors, Nuggets and T-Wolves before being seen as a winner in Detroit and now Denver.

How could this be? How could a top team be giving minutes to a player who couldn't even find a way to stick with a bad team?

There are several different phenomenons at play here. Based on conversations with NBA experts and TrueHoop readers, a collection of ideas:

An Imperfect Science: Picking Winners
No team is perfect in picking the players who will go on to greatness. It hardly seems fair to pick on poor teams here. Even the mighty Spurs let Luis Scola go. A huge percentage of the NBA's "good" players, however you define that, once played somewhere else. Assessing talent is a very imperfect science, and that just happens. There will always be some Trevor Arizas not finding their niche until later in their career.

Player Development
Sometimes, what we're seeing is a case of a player simply getting better. TrueHoop reader Doug points out that the Lakers had a big effect on Trevor Ariza, who didn't stick with the Knicks or Magic: "Phil Jackson's ability to get the most out of unheralded players often goes unnoticed. How many players did he get productive minutes from that never did the same elsewhere (Kwame Brown, Luc Longley, Smush Parker, D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell, Shannon Brown, Samaki Walker)."

Last season, Ariza did something very rare and laudable: He became a 3-point shooter mid-NBA career. That addition to his game, that bit of player development (which was encouraged by the team) contributed directly to the Lakers' playoff success that resulted in a title. "It's worth noting Jackson's ability to identify players' strengths and then get the most from them," says Doug. "If he can squeeze any milk from the stone that is Adam Morrison, then I'll truly be impressed."

Imagine, says David Thorpe, that you are a parent, and every time your child makes a mistake you scream at them. Imagine they fell nothing but disappointment from you when they try new things, or don't do things perfectly. "After six months," he says, "you'd have a very different child."

That happens to some NBA players, says Thorpe, who is a big believer in feeding players "the royal jelly." That's breathing spirit into players by helping them to envision what they might become. Just like bees in the hive can turn a regular bee into a queen with special food, so can teams help a player become something special with inspiration.

"Shelden Williams was drafted so high in Atlanta," says Thorpe. "Expectations were high. And for whatever reason, he lost his spirit. Then, when he was in Sacramento, maybe he just wasn't part of the long-term plan. But in Boston, they know the value of a player who can give them ten good minutes of the little things a game. They're so close to the top that those moment-to-moment contributions matter. And they can breathe spirit into a player like that, telling him how much he means to the team, and that matters."

In Williams' first few games as a Celtic -- it's likely these stats won't hold, with such a small sample -- Williams' true shooting percentage, PER, rebound rate are all well above his career averages. (He's also among the league leaders in terms of adjusted plus/minus and as much as that may seem like an artifact of playing with Celtic starters like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, it's worth noting those three have poor ratings over the same period.)

Is Shelden Williams playing like the lottery pick he was? Not really. He's doing well in a limited role, and that's helping a good team. Many good teams show a willingness to encourage players to do what they can well -- as opposed to punishing and discouraging them for not being what the team wanted them to be.

A very simple way to see this is that every team has human players, filled with strengths and weaknesses. Good teams see the good in their players, and bad teams focus on the flaws.

Defense
Several of the players on this list are good defenders. Really good teams are obsessed with defense, for obvious reasons. Bad teams, on the other hand, tend to want to use their roster spots to find the stars who will make them good again, which often means looking for dynamic offensive players, which these players tend not to be.

Also, bad teams tend to be bad defensive teams. One good defender in that setting is not so useful. It's like one sandbag against the flood.

However, good defensive teams have niche needs -- players who can plug holes here and there. One sandbag added to dozens more. That's useful.

What doesn't make sense, though, is if you're a bad team with one good defender ... how could you let that guy go? Don't you know you'll only be really good when you have the kind of team defense that relies on multiple good defenders?

Same Skills, Better Situation
Consider the San Antonio Spurs' Matt Bonner. Like Shelden Williams, he is also among the league leaders in adjusted plus/minus in this early season.

He's a key Spur. This season he has played more minutes than Tony Parker. Last year they won 54 games and he played more than Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili, Kurt Thomas and several others.

But he's not exactly the tale of a so-so player improving dramatically. By just about every kind of measure out there, he is pretty much the same player he was when was playing even more minutes for the 27-win Raptors. His PER, rebound rate, and true shooting percentage have bounced around a bit, and in some cases have gotten worse. It's no tale of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

Instead, he's a guy who can do some things. He can hit an open 3 (no small thing in a league where 3s correlate somewhat with winning). He can go long periods without needing the ball. He also seems to have a commitment to defense. There are various ways to back up that assertion, including the points the Spurs allow when he's on the court vs. off, and this random collection of Bonner photos in which he's often holding a hand in somebody's face around the rim.

How could it be that the Spurs could be an elite team giving key minutes to a guy doing the same things he did on a 27-win team?

I think of this like a really good waitperson. Waiters and waitresses, in general, in the big picture of the economy, are probably pretty replaceable. Restaurants don't close because they lose a good waitress -- there are usually other good ones waiting in the wings. (I'm speaking, by the way, as a former waiter with a high regard for the craft.)

Those employees, then are something of a commodity. But if you're going to have a great restaurant, you can't staff it entirely with superstar chefs. You have to have some people with the more common skills that belong to those who take the orders, and they have to be good at their jobs.

If the restaurant is top-notch -- the food, the location, the management, the architecture and all that have been tended to -- then the waiter can play a key role in turning a good experience into a great one, which is very valuable. Your $400 dinner might feel like it was worth $450 or $500 if the staff notices that your coffee is running low, doesn't interrupt the really good story someone is telling, steers you to some of the best food that kitchen can produce or gets the chef to make a really good vegetarian alternative etc. In a fancy restaurant, the difference between any old waitress and the best may be worth a thousand dollars a night in happy customers who'll not only tip well, but recommend the place, and return often.

On the other hand, the kind of perceptive human who can do all those things consistently, who happens to work at a 7-11 -- well, there's a limit to how much value such a food server can add there. If you're very attentive and customer-service oriented in that setting, how many extra slurpees can you really sell? I'm thinking it would be tough to realize the same kind of value, owing to the setting.

The same thing, I theorize, happens in the NBA. In Memphis, Shane Battier is a limited offensive player with a peculiar attachment to defense. In Houston, he's a superstar, because their system calls for an elite perimeter defender to get under the skin of players like Kobe Bryant, and he can do that.

I'm sure there are other players who fit this trend, and other reasons why the trend may exist at all. Keep the ideas coming.

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