As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Daequan Cook, Brandon Roy, and Jeff Foster.
It's a well-worn trope -- "don't let the stars beat you." Don't let Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant kill you, so goes the wisdom. You can't just let Tony Parker and Tim Duncan tear you up. It's simply uncouth to let Melo score all of the points he needs. You need to accomplish the inconceivable. You need to shut down the stars, or make their shots impossible, and in the wake of so doing you need to allow everyone else on the team to beat you. If a good team is going to beat you, your chance will be "higher" if you simply shut down a team's stars and force the roleplayers to produce instead! Never fails, any time! Tried and true. Basketball gospel, not basketball lore -- it's reached the same apocryphal wisdom status as such hits as "shoot for the win on the road and shoot for OT at home" (regardless of, you know, age of your pieces and how harmful OT could potentially be), "bench a guy after 3 fouls even if they haven't fouled out in years (hello, LeBron), or "experience wins championships" (good players win championships -- experience alone wins you bingo night at the retirement home).
Here's the thing. Wisdom or not, I've never totally bought the idea. I understand the goal, here -- you want the defense to cordon off the star players to such a degree that a reasonably well-guarded shot by a great player's teammate becomes preferable to the great player's shot. In practice, there are two ways this turns out. In a world where a team is defensively dominant enough to "make [the roleplayers] beat you" without resorting to tricky double teams that leave incredibly high percentage options on the wings or the weakside, the whole trope is just stating the obvious -- "try to guard star players well." But in the other situation, the trope becomes actively harmful for defensive teams when they're even slightly outside the realm of "best-in-class". Because when you aren't a great defensive team, there's only one real way to effectively "shut down" a great player. Double teams. Simple, clean, ridiculous double teams to try and strip the ball or force the pass-out. Strategically, this tends to be a pretty poor play except in extremely important, high-leverage situations -- and I'd look at it thusly, even then. Let's say that a star player is such a good scorer that a single defender -- even a really good one! -- barely changes the bottom line for that player's scoring efficiency. So one-on-one coverage is useless, so to speak -- they'll be around peak efficiency even with a single very-good defender on him. You have to do double coverage or you derive no benefit. That's what most elite scorers do to defense, and where the "you need to shut him down" idea comes from.
Then you have Scrubs #1-4, surrounding the great player. Single coverage -- at least when players actually stick to their man -- generally bottles them up pretty well. None are great shakes at making contested shots, usually making around 10-20% of them... at best. But as with any NBA player, all of them can make a wide-open shot. Every single one. With relatively good percentages, too. And indeed, that's the problem! Superstars are great, but unless you're giving Durant wide-open threes on every single possession, a constant diet of double teams is going to lead you to give up dozens and dozens of wide-open shots for everyone else. And yes, maybe Durant's efficiency goes down enough to really give you a shot at pulling it out, if you double him viciously and everyone has a terrible shooting night. But when you're giving threes and layups that are open enough, there's no reason for that to be the assumption -- in fact, for the opposing team, leaving a bunch of open role-players may actually play the percentages a tiny bit better! What's the problem with actually letting Durant beat you? What's to say, in fact, that the chances of the star scoring 50 in a must-win game are probably slightly lower than NBA shooting scrubs converting 50-60% from three if you're leaving them completely wide open in efforts to double up and stifle the star?
I've yet to hear a particularly compelling argument otherwise. Perhaps the best argument in my favor would be the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, where Stan Van Gundy made the at-the-time inexplicable decision to go single coverage on LeBron, trusting that the Cavaliers would have more trouble scoring if he took away every non-LeBron option than if he doubled LeBron into oblivion. Mike Brown did the inverse, doubling Howard and trying to make anyone-but-Howard beat the Cavs. As it turned out, Rafer Alston, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu were more than happy to oblige if left open enough, and prove the somewhat obvious fact that NBA players can make wide open shooting practice threes if you shade too strongly on Howard. And Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas proved the also somewhat obvious NBA fact that if you simply stay at home on roleplayers and refuse to give them any open space, they have trouble producing you any offense whatsoever and your team will fold even with a godlike performance from your single-coverage guarded superstar. Needless to say, I don't think "letting the scrubs beat you" is a good strategy, at least not as it tends to be applied for below-elite defensive teams. But there's another problem as well. This one is more ephemeral, and more fandom-based.
You know that feeling you get when an elite player runs roughshod over your team? Imagine Jordan running over the 90s Cavaliers, Kobe over the 2010 Suns, LeBron over the 2012 Celtics. et cetera. It's not wonderful, but it's ever-present. A sort of "we can't really beat you" feeling you can't shake, but you can't really feel all that bad about either. But on the other hand? How hard is it to watch scrubs pick apart your team? Really! Do you have any idea how insanely awful it felt during the 2009 finals to watch Rashard Lewis, Rafer Freaking Alston (who was out of the league in two years!), and Hedo Turkoglu pick the Cavs apart? Do you comprehend just how awful it was to watch then-backup Goran Dragic completely obliterate the Spurs in a fourth quarter that very well seemed to end the Duncan years, at the time? And thus, we finally get to the actual subject of this capsule -- do you have even the slightest inkling of how freaking excruciating it was to watch when Daequan Cook buried two completely wide-open threes in a row in game 5 of the 2012 WCF, and ended up making up the entirety of the Thunder's final margin in just four minutes of burn?
Look. Much respect for Cook. He's carved out a patently decent career as a shooting specialist out of a relatively bare cupboard of talent. That's quite respectable. He's put in the hours and worked on his game and made himself into about as good an NBA player as anyone could've really hoped. He was a somewhat marginal player in Thad Matta's "Thad Five" at Ohio State. He won a three-point shootout. There are very few things he can do at an NBA level beyond the obvious "shoot three pointers" racket. But how am I supposed to really feel better about a loss if we get this loss because we triple-teamed Durant only to leave someone like Cook completely and utterly wide open in the same corner on two consecutive possessions? "Oh, wow, good thing we didn't let Durant beat us!" Why am I supposed to simply accept the conventional wisdom that letting Durant shoot a one-on-one jumper would've had a higher probability of success than two consecutive "it is virtually impossible you miss this" threes from one of the better three point shooters in the entire league? Because, well. I don't. I can't. And the conventional wisdom -- at least in this case -- is wrong. A team that isn't defensively dominant doesn't need to double just to explicitly "shut down" a specific player. It needs to figure out the best way to play the percentages and the best way to shade without throwing a full double team or leaving shots that are virtually impossible to miss. It needs to react like Stan Van Gundy reacted to the problem of the 2009 Cavaliers offense, not how Mike Brown reacted to the 2009 Magic offense. And it needs to stop giving Daequan Cook wide open threes.
They were wide open. THEY WERE COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY OPEN.
(... look, I really loved the 2012 Spurs, okay?)
Don't follow Brandon Roy's current game. Remember how he was, instead.
There's a certain ephemeral quality to a person's image that's always a bit tough to internalize, at least for me. I look back at the people who have left my life -- through death, drift, or decision -- and consider the way I look at them. It's never really fully representative to the depth of our prior relationship. Perhaps I'm thinking only of the good times and inexplicably gliding past the bad, as with my recent ex or my beloved departed grandparents. Perhaps I'm thinking of the bad alone, letting the sins override all comers in a mental leap for the sake of keeping things simple and eviscerating nuance. Perhaps I'm just forgetting, without any real internal subconscious motive or purpose. It all happens, and as far as I can tell, it all has the same internal reason. I'm -- in a strange way -- trying to come to terms with my own mortality, and a realization of my own flickering image through the realization of how inaccurate our snap impressions at any one moment are to begin with.
There are many things in this world we simply can't control, but chief among them is our inability to truly manage our own image. Sure, the rich and famous can try the good try, but in the end people will think of you as they'll think of you and you don't really have much control one way or the other. And as your skills fall off, your sins grow many, your life piles up and you can't do everything quite as well as you used to... things change. People lose their patience, people drift. And someday, you die -- and your image is no longer under your own power at all. People will think as they will and the only thing dissuading them from recency bias and knowledge of only your final, waning years will be unreliable second-party accounts of what you did or what you didn't do. Someday, your footprint fades. People may remember a few things you discovered, if you're really smart or really great. But they will completely forget who you really were.
But even while you're living large, nobody really knows who you are on the inside but you. By isolating my inability to provide correct and fully-nuanced snap judgments myself, I'm slowly realizing that death's treatment of your image is hardly that much worse than life's. To some extent, we're all actors in a limited-release play with no script and no real guidance to tell the audience what we're trying to do. Might as well try to enthrall while we're on stage and hope for the best, because there's never going to be an encore. And that brings us to today's second player -- Brandon Roy, the now oft-injured kneeless wonder. Image is extremely important to discuss a player like Roy. And it's important to use it to provide both a cautionary tale and adequate appreciation for who he really is. Brandon Roy is one of my favorite players ever. I also never -- EVER -- wanted to see him come back like this. I never wanted to watch as he struggles up the court, getting torched on defense and unable to get his legs under his shot. I never wanted to see what it would be like to watch a man with a truly arthritic knee fall victim to health and provide a dark reminder of how quickly a promising career can crumble to dust.
I don't like being this dark about an NBA player -- after all, it's simply basketball. But I find it viscerally awful and horrifying to watch Roy on the court right now. I honestly have had to turn some Wolves games off this year. Any higher power up there who has any say or vision into this must be a misanthrope. Only someone who hates us all would take from a man like Roy his beautiful gifts, adored by so many. He was one of the most captivating players I ever watched, and taking an eye to his current game is like being forced to grapple with the image of a person you don't want to change. A friend who's descending into depravity and horrors for no apparent reason. A loved one who no longer loves you back. A family member falling prey to madness and dementia. Nobody wants to change their image. But sometimes it's forced upon you. And all you can really hope for is that you never quite forget the electric feelings and love you held before -- the important moments, the exalted truths, the highlights of your lives together. Because you need that. I need that. We all need that.
Brandon Roy will never again be as I described just one year ago. He decided to come back. Love of the game, love of the sport, love of the roundball. A happy story, that. But the tragedy here -- insofar as basketball can provide -- is unmistakeable. A reminder of the things we'll all face, one day. Roy will have his moments. Nights of fleeting glory, possessions a shadow of the ones he used to have all day. But all things change, and nothing's static. He will never be the man he once was. He will never provide the same way he used to. He will never be Trouble B-Roy again -- he's fated to wander, a ghastly shell, a reminder of the fates no man can truly dodge.
And for that, we all suffer.
Follow Jeff Foster by practicing your mean-mugging banker face.
Around March of last season, Jeff Foster retired. This was met around the league with an air of general indifference, a sense that most had accepted him gone long ago. And perhaps that was apt. After all, although Foster was able to carve out a long and prosperous $50 million dollar career as an NBA player, he wasn't exactly a high-magnitude, high-impact player. He was a lucky man who ended up in the right situation with the right attitude over his entire career, and never really seemed to be on the verge of leaving even though he never had more than one or two NBA talents. Foster did two things -- he played physical post defense (although physical did not always mean good) and he rebounded the ball. That was it. Five of the top ten seasons for offensive rebounding over the duration of Foster's career belong to Foster. He was a phenomenal offensive rebounder, a shaky-but-sometimes-beastly sharp-elbowed defender, and about as utterly dismal from every other area of the court as a player could be without getting hoist by their own petard and thrown out the door immediately.
Were it not for Foster's fundamentally rare situation, we probably wouldn't be talking about him right now. I probably would've simply let the exclusion criteria for these 370 players leave him out, as it almost did. But in Foster's case, his situation with the Pacers demands he merit inclusion, a final note before he takes his leave and packs up into the wilderness. Jeff Foster, in the final tally, played 13 years with the Indiana Pacers. One team, his entire career. In those 13 years, Foster has managed to make a mark -- however small -- on every single important Pacers team of his era, good and bad. He was on the 2000 team, the motley crew that forced six games against a very good Laker team. He was on the 2004 team, the one that pushed the eventual champions more than a not very good Laker team did and the team that looked anointed before the 2005 season. He was also there for the fall, the nadir, and the long road back -- he suffered as any fan did with the aftermath of the brawl, and as the Pacers tore down and rebuilt, Foster eventually became the only core member of the Pacers with any experience playing winning basketball.
Longevity has its place. Foster became the Pacers' moral center, insofar as a basketball team could have one -- he became their soul. And as the Pacers crawled out of the muck and shambled towards relevance, Foster was their guidepost. He was the core of the team's identity, and the main reason they became what they were at their peak to finish last season -- a tough, gritty team with a bit of an edge but an always-respectable undercurrent guiding it. Jeff Foster isn't just a player. He's an insect set in amber, a carefully preserved reminder of the road the Pacers traveled and the direction they wanted to go. He's a player who -- despite, again, only having a single elite skill in a 13 year career -- inspired beautiful heartfelt appreciations and begrudging acceptance of his importance from Bulls fans who despised him. Jeff Foster is worth writing about, and he's worth remembering. He may not have been important on his own merits, but his impact on the overall attitude that this Pacers team brings to the table when it's rolling and his impact on the league as a whole is worth noting, remembering, and appreciating. If only just. Godspeed, Jeff Foster. May you become the greatest wingman in the world, using your single talent to lead many a-dumped men to the best rebounds of their lives.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Good work to Mike L, our lone 3/3 guess.
- Player #295 would look awfully nice in the forum blue and gold, at least in D'Antoni's eyes. He might be washed up, honestly, but he'd likely be a far sight better than some of the refuse on their bench.
- Player #296 is the single best perimeter defender in the NBA. And in my opinion, nobody comes close.
- Player #297 is probably out of the league at this point. Goodbye, Spawn of Muggsy.
Happy weekdays. Surprise -- gonna be trying to get two sets of these things out per day, at least this week while I'm on vacation from work. Don't know how successful I'll be, but let's see if I can't get this next set up by around 3:00 ET today.
• • •