The 20 Second Timeout: Making Your Teammates Better
Posted by David Friedman on 06.01.2007
What does it really mean when someone says that a player "makes his teammates better"?
It is often said that a particular player "makes his teammates better"--or sometimes it is asserted that a certain player is very talented but does not "make his teammates better." When people employ this misleading phrase they are trying to distinguish between selfish and unselfish playing methods. A selfish player cares primarily about his own statistics; an unselfish player cares primarily about team success--that entails doing what his team needs for him to do to have the best chance to win. It is not literally possible to "make someone better." Magic Johnson could not make anyone run faster, jump higher or shoot better than he previously could; what Magic did was pass the ball to players in positions where they could do what they were good at doing--and not pass the ball to players in positions where they were not likely to succeed. Magic would not throw an alley-oop to someone who was not a good leaper and he would not throw the ball to someone at the three point line if that player was not a good outside shooter.
Great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well. A truly great player cannot be guarded by one defender, so just by drawing double-team coverage he is providing an open shot for someone on his team even if he does not handle the ball at all prior to that player making the shot. You can see this with Tim Duncan; he is often guarded by a post player stationed behind him and a guard or forward dropping into his lap. This leaves a Spurs guard or forward wide open. Duncan is not making Michael Finley or Robert Horry "better"; those guys have the ability to shoot well from three point range and have been doing this at the NBA level before Duncan was even in the league. Duncan's greatness affords them an opportunity to play to their strengths--spot up shooting--and away from their weaknesses--creating open shots for themselves on their own. If Duncan were flanked by players who cannot make open three point shots then teams could double-team him without fear; Duncan would be no less of a great player in this situation than he is now but his team would win a lot less frequently.
It is very simplistic to just look a player's assist totals when trying to determine if he is selfish or not. Duncan's assist numbers are decent but hardly eyepopping and he has never averaged as much as 4 apg in a season. On the other hand, Stephon Marbury ranks 11th all-time in career apg, ahead of Steve Nash, Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald, Lenny Wilkens and Jerry West, among others. While Marbury may be making society better with his line of low cost basketball shoes, throughout his career several teams have become worse after he joined their roster and better after his departure; whatever "making your teammates better" means, he has not done a good job of it. Marbury has the ball in his hands all the time and plays a lot of minutes, so he accumulates assists--but his statistics correlate poorly with team success. Duncan is a good passer who delivers a variety of passes--bounce passes, outlet passes, crosscourt passes to open three point shooters. Many of those passes result in baskets but not assists because the recipient reverses the ball after the defense recovers; as Hubie Brown often points out, against a good defense the second pass out of the double-team leads to an open shot. Duncan's assist totals do not really reflect either his ability as a passer or how many open shots his presence creates. Every season there are several subpar point guards who accumulate more assists than Duncan ever will.
In addition to drawing double-teams and then reversing the ball to the open man, great players who pass the ball well do at least two other things that are not measured directly in assist totals: (1) they can see openings that other players do not and successfully pass the ball through those openings; (2) they pass the ball in a way that the recipient can catch it and make a basketball move--this is sometimes referred to by Doug Collins and others as "KYP," meaning "know your personnel." Some players have better hands than others, some players want to catch and dunk without having to dribble and some players want to catch and go straight into a shooting motion; a great player knows which kind of pass to throw to each of these types of players.
Duncan is also a good example of how a truly great player creates opportunities on defense for less talented teammates. The Spurs' perimeter players can close out on perimeter shooters without fear, knowing that Duncan will block or alter most shots that are attempted in the paint. He cannot "make" a bad defender good but he can improve his team's overall defense by erasing others' mistakes. Scottie Pippen had a similar effect as a perimeter defender. In his prime, Pippen was always guarding one and a half men--in other words, he was watching not only his assigned man but he also had his eye on either the post player or the nearest perimeter player. If someone else's man started to drive to the hoop or throw a pass, Pippen would slide over and take a charge or steal the pass; if the post player put the ball on the floor, Pippen would drop down and "dig" at his dribble. This did not "make" bad defenders good but it disrupted the opposing offense, much like Duncan drawing a double-team disrupts an opposing defense.
The consensus five best players in the NBA this season were Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Nowitzki's major impact derives primarily from his ability to score from many areas of the court; the defensive attention that he attracts creates scoring opportunities for his teammates. Nash is a very accurate shooter but his primary asset is his ability to deliver a variety of passes to different players in different situations. While he is the player in this group who is most often said to "make his teammates better" it is more accurate to say that he enables his teammates to do what they do well and avoid doing what they don't do well. He is surrounded by two gifted finishers (Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion) and several good three point shooters; Nash uses his dribbling ability to probe the opposing defense while his teammates move into their high percentage shooting areas. Nash is outstanding at delivering the ball to whoever pops open first in one of his "sweet spots." While Nash's dribbling and passing are an important part of this process those skills would go to waste if the recipients of the passes were not capable players in their own right. Bryant is the player in this quintet who is most likely to be considered "selfish" but it is impossible to watch him play with a discerning eye and come to this conclusion. His primary job is to put points on the board and his proficiency at that means that opposing teams must double-team him; this creates four on three opportunities for his teammates and Bryant makes the right reads and the correct passes in those situations. Of course, the results of those passes looked a lot better when he played alongside more skillful teammates than his current supporting cast. James has developed into an outstanding scorer while still maintaining a pass first mindset. He handles the ball in different areas of the court than Bryant or Duncan do, so James' first pass often leads directly to a shot, giving him more assist opportunities. Duncan's contributions were discussed above.
I love statistics but there is no getting around the fact that you cannot adequately measure a player's value by numbers alone; you have to watch him play with a trained eye and really analyze what he is doing and how it affects his teammates and the opposing team. Saying that someone "makes his teammates better" has become a convenient but overused shorthand. I'd prefer to hear a precise explanation of what exactly the player in question does that makes his team better.