Josh Smith is the latest example of the confusing equations of basketball chemistry.
Early on in Season 1 of Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse melt a guy to destroy any evidence after one of their early blunders as meth cooks results in two dead traitorous drug dealers. They run into a problem when Jesse, being his typical lazy self, does not buy one of the flimsy containers that Walt recommends and instead tries to melt the guy in his “perfectly good tub.” Jesse does not understand chemistry, and as a result the acid eats through the tub and a disgusting mess of blood, bones, and viscera tumbles from the second story of his house, when the grim work would have been comfortably contained in one of the thin plastic containers that Walt had told Jesse to use.
True, Jesse was high when making his decision to use the tub, but anyone comparing the two items would probably take the tub over the container. Why wouldn’t it work?
Chemistry is a very complicated and precise science. Equally delicate is chemistry on sports teams. And, I would contend, no other sport relies on it quite so heavily as in basketball.
It is what Isaiah Thomas called The Secret. “The secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” His most famous example is when the 1989 Detroit Pistons traded Adrian Dantley, one of the best scorers in the league, for Mark Aguirre. Was Dantley a better player? Yes. But Aguirre was better for that team. It was a people move. As a result, the Pistons won the NBA Championship in 1989 and 1990. The Secret explains why numbers do not dictate which teams will win and lose. In a video game it might work to throw together the highest-rated players and let the computer simulate win after win for them, but assembling a roster in real life does not work like that.
The Secret is why Bill Russell is the greatest center of all-time and not Wilt Chamberlain, despite what most statistics might say. And it’s why the Detroit Pistons are 7-0 since waiving Josh Smith (more on that in a few paragraphs).
One of the things that makes basketball beautiful is how open-ended each trip up the court is. Five individuals, each with the freedom to do the same things, must work together to find a way to throw the ball into the hoop. There is a vast ocean of possibilities each time. This makes the inverse true, as the defense must work together to fend off any number of different attacks. Many people understand the best ways to score or prevent a score; what almost no one understands is how to use twelve guys five at a time with these ends in mind.
And, remarkably but perhaps not surprisingly, these concepts are found at all levels and forms of basketball. If I’m not with the right people in a game of pickup ball I become basically a neutral offensive player and barely hold my own on defense, especially if I’m on a team with space-eating big men and ball-dominating perimeter players. If the ballhogs on my team are good enough and scoring well, we may go on to win a few games, but we might just as easily lose. However, sometimes when I’m on a much less talented team I become one of the most potent offensive threats on the court and become a no-fly zone on defense. And, oftentimes, we win when this is the case. As pickup basketball standards in Northeast Wisconsin go, I’m decent. But, depending on the powers of the Secret, I can be below average or really quite good.
Failure to understand basketball chemistry results in coaches misguiding their teams, front office people making bad signings, players failing to improve their personal play and the play of their teammates, and fans totally misunderstanding how to evaluate players. Even advanced analytics in this data revolution, despite creating better measurements of player value, fail to credit the work of many players.
To use another personal example, my younger brother’s work on the offensive end of the court is greatly underappreciated. He’s a senior in high school, backing up a center who has some more polished scoring skills. My brother’s scoring abilities are limited outside of being able to knockdown midrange stand stills and foul shots when he gets to the line. However, the team often functions well on offense with him in the game, even if he does not score a single time or get credited with an assist. How? First, no one, and I mean no one, passes from the high post like my younger brother. While many players look to score the second they receive the ball and slow down the offense, my brother looks to make a quick, crisp pass to a teammate. The ball flies around when he’s in the game, forcing the defense to be on the move. He also sets excellent screens, routinely freeing shooters on flares, and he’s put people on the floor before with his linebacker build. So is my brother a good scorer? No. But he is a good offensive player, even if it doesn’t show up in the box score.
So now let’s talk a little about Josh Smith. Here’s the question: What is Josh Smith good at? Because, as has become fairly clear, he is not a good NBA player. His teams in Atlanta never made deep postseason runs and he was a disaster in Detroit. It seems to be clear that Josh Smith does not make his teams better. However, Josh Smith is both talented and athletic and he can do things on the basketball court that most NBA players cannot do. So what do you do with that? And what does his new team, the Houston Rockets, do with that? He is going to make plays for them in the Playoffs that will swing momentum and excite the crowd, plays that most other players could not make, like a monster dunk or a tremendous block. But he will also stall possessions or outright end them with a 17-foot jumper with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. How are teams supposed to know what to do with talented players that see their former teams improve after losing them?
One final quick tangent related to Josh Smith: think Rudy Gay from Toronto to Sacramento. While he was in Memphis, Gay was considered one of the league’s rising stars, and like Smith he could do things most other players could not. Then, in Toronto, he became a detriment to the team despite being one of their more talented players. Since trading Gay to Sacramento, Toronto has been one of the best teams in the East. But early in this season things seemed to be going well not only for Toronto but for Sacramento as well. Gay, coming off a nice end to last season and with a more reasonable contract, was playing at a very high level alongside the ascending DeMarcus Cousins and a slightly revamped roster. Sacramento may have even had a shot at the Playoffs. However, things have gone wrong in Sacramento since then, as the team struggled while Cousins battled illness and head coach Mike Malone was inexplicably fired. And while Sacramento may be quickly fading out of the Playoff hunt, this remains: Rudy Gay is playing well for only 12 million dollars a year. Once consigned to the analytics-driven scrapheap of volume-scorers-who-don’t-pass-or-play-defense-and-get-paid-to-much-money, he’s now one of the league’s best superstar sidekicks (to Cousins).
So, with all of that being said, while there is little way for the Rockets to be sure, maybe there is some hope for Josh Smith in Houston. Ironically, a player who has not made his teams better could make, at the same time, not one but two teams better.
Basketball is marvelous.
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Soli Deo Gloria