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Thursday, October 17, 2013
Kevin Durant, and expertise

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Beyond ranking James Harden above Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant is also pulling rank on we media folks who never played.

Players should rate players..just like the nfl do..these analysts never played at this level before! Just being real

— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) October 16, 2013

The tweet might be in reference to Kobe Bryant coming in at No. 25 on #NBArank, or it might be a more general statement. In any event, it’s a sentiment many athletes share.

This is an old argument, often rebutted during the days when “Moneyball” was considered an affront to the baseball establishment. The rebuttals aren't especially difficult to come up with. In the basketball world, Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas have done much to dispel the notion that only jocks can accurately assess jocks.

But I don’t want to argue with Durant, even if I do disagree with him. I’d rather talk about why NBA players feel this way, and how their feelings aren’t just wrapped up in ego. NBA players know more than we do.

Let’s start with the locker room white board, a document I’m not allowed to take pictures of or discuss with readers in any specific capacity. That’s fine, because, man, would readers be bored by what’s up there. It’s a mix of inscrutable jargon and motivational pablum. Maybe the jargon would make sense to some of you, but I doubt it’d connect with most. It looks like instructions on how to fly an alien spaceship. Actually, that’s too cool a description. It looks like instructions on how to install a stereo on an alien spaceship.

I often saunter up to players and ask that they explain this or that on the board. Except I’m not really asking that they explain. I’m asking that they translate the foreign language that looks all the more foreign because coaches write as if they’re stabbing the board to death.

After doing this for a while, I came to realize how mashed together the whole NBA lexicon is. There are multiple phrases for how defenses “ice” a screen, for instance. Even if the words describe roughly all the same stuff, the jargon can be team-specific. Nobody ever sat down and unified basketball’s language. Not only does an experienced NBA vet know concepts you don’t, he also knows wholly different vocabularies for those concepts based on his time with different teams.

These guys are professionals not just in terms of talent, but also in terms of knowledge. Basketball is a craft, and the players do a lot more thinking about their craft than performing it for us.

When I was first in the locker room, I got such boring and banal answers to questions -- you could kind of see why people have the notion that NBA players are stupid. It took a shift in topic -- to game strategy -- for the intellect to reveal itself. Ask a guy, “How’d it feel to hit that shot?” and you’ll get some barely coherent false humility. Ask a guy, “Why’d you go away from side pick-and-roll?” and you might get a dizzying dissertation.

“How’d it feel to hit that shot?” gets a terrible answer in part because it’s really hard to sound smart in response to a stupid question. Imagine if great scientists got such questions. “So how’s the lab’s confidence? Will you ride this momentum to the Nobel Prize? How’d it feel to get that federal grant?”

Thankfully, fans and media are smartening up, looking for coverage that’s a little more in-depth than “they just wanted it more.” There’s also a large contingent of viewers and readers who don’t want basketball to be about that at all. They don’t want to conceive of a game that’s decided by a bloodless mix of strategy and luck. They want an opera, wherein the hungriest, angriest, most confident star seizes victory through sheer force of will.

So there’s a lot of incentive to make basketball about something that it isn’t -- something simple and dramatic rather than intricate and nerdy. I once asked Richard Jefferson about whether he was bothered by the information gap between what players know and what the media says. His response: “No, we get that you’re basically writing for seventh-graders.”

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you passed the seventh grade long ago, but there’s something to the idea that sports fandom taps into a middle school id. I’ve seen doctors and lawyers represent themselves like seventh-graders when hollering about their favorite team. I didn’t think Jefferson was being entirely fair, but I also understood his perspective. I don’t think Durant is being entirely fair, but I understand his perspective.

In the past I’d look at a comment like Durant’s and assume he meant that media can’t judge because we lacked visceral experience of what it’s like to jump that high, run that fast or dunk that hard. I’d probably get annoyed because such kinesthetic experience is pretty worthless as basketball commentary. Also, it just sounds like bragging. Yes, I get it, you can do things your critics can’t. You’re the man in the arena, and we’re not. Don’t you get enough praise?

Now I see Durant’s comment as something different. We haven’t studied what he’s studied, read the scouting he’s read, learned the schemes he’s learned. There’s a knowledge gap between us, and KD justifiably believes he’s more informed to make such choices.

I still think he’s wrong that only players can really weigh in. There’s value in the writer’s detachment. We also just have more time to think globally about the league as Durant travels the globe. Players might put too much stock in a peer’s ability to perfect a niche skill that they themselves can’t ever seem to add. The impact of, say, defensive big men could get underrated because so few NBA players -- they're mostly guards and wings -- can relate well to the role of someone like Omer Asik.

Based on those considerations, combined with the experience of watching players occasionally rank each other, I trust the writers at places such as Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and here at ESPN. Durant might react to that with “What does he know?”

And the answer to that rhetorical question would be: “Not much, compared to Kevin Durant.”