Monday, May 19, 2014

The New Basketball Scorecard: Influence and Impact

The NCAA Basketball Tournament is over and the UConn Huskies have taken both the men's and women's trophies home. The NBA Playoffs have come down to their Final Four in the Conference Championships. Perhaps, once again, it is time to ask the question:   How do basketball players and teams get measured and evaluated?  How should they be measured?  What does it take to win?
Points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, fouls.  Double-doubles, Triple-doubles.  That is the traditional currency in basketball.

A further analysis might take a look at the numbers in a different way, such as:  vertical leap, speed, bench press, wingspan.  Those are the basic characteristics a scout or coach might look at when recruiting or drafting a player.  

However, I have been working with some talented players over the years and have begun to look very closely at what some coaches would consider to be the intangibles.  These are ways that players contribute to a team effort to produce results:  Wins and championships.

Let's break it down.  My observations have been focused on how to impact and influence a game, individually and collectively.   

It used to be called dirty work. What if you found a way to label it as something other than dirty work? Could it become more popular?  If you don't like dirty work, you don't like your sport. And you certainly will not excel. All sports require dirty work; lots of it. So, what are the other ways to influence and impact a game?  

Role Players.  What about  player who can consistently disrupt an offense or make an opponent miss a shot without necessarily blocking the shot or without getting a foul called on him/her?   What about a defender who is so annoying and disruptive that the other team begins to bicker among themselves rather than pay attention to their coach?  What about a team that values forcing an opponent to turnover the ball or throw a bad pass as much as making a 3-pointer?  What about a team that values and rewards a teammate who boxes out their opponent or executes an offensive play to perfection as much as a high-flying rebound or a ESPN highlight-worthy slam dunk?  

A good team has what it needs to meet the moment: A clutch performer, a grinder, a utility player, a flashy star. An effective team is one that finds places for each to make a contribution. When success ensues, everyone is happy.  

All winning teams need the kind of player whose skills and talent are matched or exceeded by his ability to distract an opponent, someone whose performance can be as upsetting as it is functional. Someone you love having on your side, but someone you can't stand when he's playing against you.  In the old days that was the San Antonio Spurs' Bruce Bowen, now, consider Patrick Beverly of the Houston Rockets.  

Feel and Touch for the Game. A basketball player makes countless decisions during the course of a game. Most of them are barely noticeable: When to drive, when to hold the ball, when to shoot, when to pass, when to attack, when to slow down, when to set a screen, when to clear out. The game is based on the ability to read-and-react quickly, yet many players never quite establish a feel for the game that enables them to be great. A true feel for the game allows a player to figure out how to help his team win.

The same, incidentally, applies to coaches. Lots of coaches are intelligent, hard-working and skilled at motivation and preparation. But the very best coaches can immerse themselves in a game, sense how things are unfolding, and make a substitution or adjustment that alters the game in their team's favor, even if that decision goes against the book or the percentages. If you ask these coaches afterward what was going through their minds at the time, they would be unable to answer. That's because they weren't thinking. They were feeling.  That is also a talent, whether in a coach or a player.  

Work Ethic and Discipline.  Work habits.  Nutrition and training habits.  Rule compliance. Willingness to work hard.  Not only are these things a part of talent, I would argue it's the most important part. A player who works hard can overcome athletic or physical limitations. If he doesn't, all the talent in the world will not make him successful.

Leadership. What, exactly, makes a good leader on and off the court? Yes, one should have charisma and the ability to inspire.   You've got to be able to call a team meeting and set a good example. But a great leader must also be willing to give constructive feedback, and say unpleasant things, even if the person hearing it is a more senior or better player.

It takes a special talent to be able to take charge of one's teammates.  Friendships are on the line as well as making one vulnerable, thereby risking ridicule and hostility. If a leader sees something that displeased him, he lets his teammates know.  See something, say something.    

Energy and Intensity. At first look, it appears that some players and teams have a lot of talent. Some players are tall and graceful and quick off their feet, which is why they might be effective as a shooter, a rebounder, defender, or shot blocker. But even if a player lacks some physical gifts, they can be effective if they play with optimal energy. In my eyes, that type of energy makes him or the team more talented.

Tell me before a game which team is going to play with more energy, and I don't have to ask which one has more physical talent, better runners and jumpers. Chances are, the team with more energy is going to win.

Focus and Concentration. Physical energy is one thing. Mental energy is quite another. Of course they are linked, but only to a point -- it's harder to focus and concentrate when you're fatigued -- but they are two separate abilities. Being an effective player requires the mental ability and conditioning to read game situations, see plays develop, recall the scouting report or a coach's tip (assuming the player has listened to the coach or taken the time to learn) and make instantaneous decisions. Physical quickness is a wonderful asset, but if a player can think and react quickly, he will get to his desired spot before his opponent does.

Think about the number of times you have seen a team lose a tournament or playoff game because of a careless mental error on a late possession. Such mistakes are less likely to occur early in the game when the legs are fresh and the mind is clear. It takes a talented player to keep his mind sharp even when his legs are dead.  Recent games between the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets, as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers, came down to last-second plays which decided the playoff series outcome.

Conditioning. Yes, this can be developed. If you work hard in the weight room, on the court and on the track, you are going to be in better shape. But some athletes have a physiological makeup that prevents them from getting tired the way others do. Much of this is due to biological and environmental factors.

Many basketball players put in the time to get into better condition, yet when a game enters its final minutes, some guys are tired, and others are not. The difference isn't always how hard they work. Some players are simply more talented.  But some players are more resilient and find something inside to meet the challenge and push themselves from within.

Footwork. This may not seem like an intangible, and maybe it isn't, but it is something that many players (and some coaches) ignore. The ability to react in a fraction of a second, move your feet, and apply your weight without losing balance is another rare and overlooked talent.  Footwork takes work and practice. Footwork is what made Hakeem Olajuwon great and many other centers, not so much.

Well, there they are; the intangibles.  Can you think of others?  I would love to hear about them? What else is there to impact and influence?   What intangibles do you consider as a player, coach or manager?