Specialization. It's an attribute that we have come to believe would be the savior in an ever changing world that presents more complex problems by the minute. And while specialization has certainly been responsible for great leaps forward over once seemingly unconquerable obstacles, it seems so obvious now that it will also be the limiting factor for some of the NBA playoff teams as they rapidly approach the end of their line.
I'm old enough to remember an NBA where basketball players were chosen on their ability to play ball and were then encouraged to develop physical bulk and strength through cross training, nutritional enhancement and lifestyle adjustments. Things started to change -- along with so much else in the early 1980s -- when ever-optimistic and self-confident coaches deluded themselves into thinking they could teach almost anyone who had a special or unique body how to play the game of basketball, the most complex and demanding game of skill imaginable.
Quantifiable physical talent became the key long, long ago. How tall? How fast? How high can you jump? How much steel can you push? Those are now the first, and often only, questions of the day, rather than, "Can you play?" And while it is commonplace and simplistic to point to league-wide expansion and salary-cap limitations as primary culprits in the decline of the powerful teams that have dictated the great history of the NBA, it cannot be overlooked that limited skills and incomplete rosters are the biggest reasons why the New Jersey Nets and the Miami Heat find themselves in such disastrous predicaments.
Finer people and more dedicated team guys cannot be found throughout the league than Brian Grant, Jason Collins and Aaron Williams. But they, like their counterparts in Minnesota (Ervin Johnson, Michael Olowokandi and Mark Madsen), are being asked to do something now that is most probably already beyond the reach of their capabilities.
The limited scope of the coach's vision can be so stifling to long-term development and growth. So often, coaches who have been fortunate enough to acquire men of immense physical gifts fail to teach the necessary skills that will enable these most fortunate genetic-lottery winners to become true champions. How often have we heard, "Just go out there and be big, and when the ball comes your way -- simply grab it and jam it through the basket?"
There is no greater fallacy in basketball than that this game is all about, size, strength, will and power. Shaquille O'Neal certainly appears bigger and stronger than he's ever been, yet he seems to have more than he can handle in the quicker, more versatile and more mobile Spurs. Rasho Nesterovic is clearly not the poster child for the next generation of great ball players but it is the coaching and encouragement that he has received from Gregg Popovich and his teammates that has eliminated the hesitation and reluctance that previously defined his game. This San Antonio phenomenon is the same story as Bruce Bowen, just a different guy and position.
Basketball is a game of relentless attack. Just look at Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Mike Bibby, Sam Cassell, Ron Artest, Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Peja Stojakovic, Reggie Miller, Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. They never stop. The threat is always there. And it is that threat that opens everything up. When even one guy on the team is holding back because of his own self-imposed limitations or on the instructions of an all-too-conservative coach, it makes it impossible to succeed at the highest levels of this game.
And that is the daunting challenge now facing the Heat, Nets and Timberwolves. How do you change something overnight that is now so ingrained into the mind-set of players who have been told for so long to let other people get your kicks for you? Is there anything more frustrating or disappointing in the world's most perfect game -- where the only thing that you really have to wait for is the opening tip -- than to see some exquisitely chiseled specimen coming to a dead stop so that he can simply hand the ball off to someone else? Or when a guard has to run up next to a guy in an embarrassing attempt to rescue someone who simply can't do anything with the ball himself?
I was so very lucky in my life. I had the privilege to play for terrific coaches, in an era and on teams where the only impact size and strength had on your game was where you played on the court -- not how. From John Wooden to Lenny Wilkens to Jack Ramsay to Gene Shue to Paul Silas to Jim Lynam to Don Chaney to Don Casey to K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach -- they all taught everyone the same. And they taught the same drills, the same moves, the same thought processes for guards, forwards and centers alike because those master teachers all knew that everyone had to have the complete game if ultimate success was to be had. You never know how any one game is going to play out. You never know where your edge may come, or what matchup will determine fate and history. But rest assured, if your game is based on size and strength alone, you will ultimately fail the minute Shaq walks through the door.
The Indiana Pacers' Jeff Foster is a classic example of what a man can do with his available but clearly limited-by-comparison physical talent. No one (except maybe Jeff's own mother) would pick Jeff as the ultimate big man in today's game. Giving up size and strength to nearly every opponent, Jeff has made a nice career for himself because he can handle the ball, make shots, think, execute fundamental moves like screens, rebound, dribble hand-offs and passes -- and he never stops moving. Foster, like Nesterovic, is willing to take open shots and get on the offensive glass. His relentless pursuit of opportunities (whatever and whenever they may be) ultimately creates opportunities for others. He is certainly not running away from the ball like it has a contagious disease.
Detroit's Ben Wallace has expanded his game under the direction of Larry Brown to the point where he is actually looking to shoot the ball now and put it on the floor to take it to the rim. This places ever more pressure on the Nets' already overstretched and out-matched defense. The minute someone either won't or can't shoot or handle the ball, his team finds itself playing at best four on five -- an unwinnable scenario.
Notice how when push comes to shove the real elite teams quickly go to their most skilled lineup. The Spurs put Duncan at the hub and come with Robert Horry and Ginobili. Indiana rotates seamlessly to Al Harrington. Sacramento never has a player on the court that can't do everything. The Lakers go with a three-guard lineup when their small forwards can't tell night from day. It is surprising that with as far as the Heat and Wolves have come in such a short period that they rarely (if ever) go with Lamar Odom and Kevin Garnett as their pivot so that Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders, respectively, can get more polish and fluidity on the floor.
So much of the game has changed over the years: The incessant dribbling to create one's own shot; the requirement to look over one's shoulder requesting direction if not permission from the sideline; the walk-it-up nature of a competition that rewards endless running; the mind-numbing strategic and video sessions that ignores skill development; the bulging musculature and blood-gorged veins of competitors who look more suited to a men's muscle magazine than to the art, grace, movement and dance of basketball.
Imagine what would happen to the careers of players like Bob McAdoo and Dave Cowens if they came along today. Someone along the line would undoubtedly tell them that you're not like anyone else -- therefore you can't be any good. Bob and Dave would also be told that they weren't big and strong enough, that they didn't have the requisite power to play at this level or at best that they would have to be small forwards or maybe even guards if they wanted to make it in this league. McAdoo and Cowens, as centers, hubs and pivots, only went on to become NBA MVPs, world champions and Hall of Famers. And neither one had the measurable physical skills of even a Jeff Foster.
One too many mornings ago and thousands of miles gone by, there was a telling moment involving Kevin McHale -- the second greatest low-post player (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) that I ever competed against. A bunch of players -- both current and retired -- were milling around while some old videos of McHale droned on in the background. As the conversation and attention turned to Kevin's exploits, captured for eternity on the tape, with everyone a critic, most of the contemporary players began taunting Kevin as an out-dated, walking antique who with those skinny arms and legs would have absolutely no chance whatsoever in the modern game. Kevin's quiet response seemed to catch his tormentors and detractors off guard.
"Hey guys. You know all that time that you spend in the weight room getting to look like you do?" he said. "Well, I spent all that time -- and more -- working on my game!"