Where Damon Stoudamire gets his pot.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

McLuhan and Team Dynamics

After Friday's move away from basketball and into the finer points of club security and interior design, this post resumes with hoops content, albeit somewhat academic. Please excuse the academic nature, I'll try to lace my finer points with the requisite sarcasm and criticism you'd expect.

This morning, while lying in bed half-asleep, I was thinking of team dynamics in basketball. (Morning sleep-ins usually consist of surrealist imagery and boners, so I'm not sure what Marshall McLuhan was doing in there.) Specifically I was thinking of the Boston Celtics, hailed by the media as a great 'team' and the embodiment of twelve players buying into a system where personal statistics were secondary and winning came before everything. This is about when it occurred to me that the Celtics, despite being the best 'team' in the NBA last year, really weren't a team in the least. Same goes for the Lakers, Spurs, and any other respectable team. Basketball is a sport about one or two superstars and a host of other guys filling specialized roles. Fortunately for the Celtics both Garnett and Pierce were the thoroughbreds you could mount a team's expectations upon. Any notion of 'team' seems a bit ridiculous when dudes like Scalabrine couldn't even get any burn. I'm sure having a tall, Irish-looking goofy white guy on the team is good for morale, but I'd hardly call that a specialized role within a team. Look at some of those great Suns teams from the previous few post-seasons when they were working with an eight-man rotation. One-third of team only saw the court when the outcome of the game was a foregone conclusion (ie. Pat Burke!). Their hopes depended upon Nash, Stoudemire, and one or two guys on each night stepping up and contributing beyond their usual means, whether it was Barbosa, Diaw, or Bell.

In a podcast earlier this year between Bill Simmons and Bill Walton, Walton bemoaned how basketball players these days are only able to do one or two things on the court. (Walton was also unhinged for the duration of the hour-length interview. Simmons probably had a nap mid-way through as Waltron drove that thing from one tangent to the next. I'm thinking ABC gives Walton a shock in order to reign him in on their telecasts.) And you can't really argue with Walton on that. In another example, Paul Shirley speaks about the differences between European and American basketball in his book Can I Keep My Jersey?, mostly the American brand of specialization is non-existent in Europe, where a "Why not?" attitude is adopted by most coaches. (As in, "Why not let our big man learn how to shoot threes?") Shirley chalks it up to laziness on the part of coaches who want to peg guys and teach them a limited skill set. Let's take a guy like Raja Bell. In terms of his team role, his most important assignment is this: defending the other team's best perimeter player (ie. Kobe, Manu, etc.). The Suns brass wouldn't readily admit that's his one function on the team, but knocking down threes is a distant second. Anything other than defense is a bonus. When Bell gets hot and cans 20 points, it's a relief for other players who carry the offensive load. But that's not his job. His job, on a defensively weak team, is to be the guy who is a defensive stalwart and make up for the deficiencies of Nash and Stoudemire. Without defense Bell would be without a job.

So the whole notion of team dynamics becomes an interesting one when players are limited in the breadth of their abilities. (Here's where I get academic, so bear with me.) The 'team' model we see today is a reflection of the fragmentation seen in the mechanized era following the invention of the printing press. McLuhan coined the terms 'hot' and 'cool' mediums; 'hot' being a medium without audience participation and high-definition, 'cool' being a participatory medium and low-definition. In the sense of relations between different systems within the larger whole, the mechanical era ushered in specialization whereby certain parts existed for the sake of completing one set purpose or goal. In tribal or electrical societies, participatory models have been the norm, yet in our electrical society, basketball hasn't taken the lead of participatory media, which I think is the antithesis of the 'team' labels being hammered into us by the print/web/broadcast media concerning teams like the Celtics, Suns, etc. If we're comparing basketball to free jazz, then the electrical model holds up. Jazz and its interplay amongst players conjures up participatory, 'cool' models, something that can certainly be applied to basketball. But on the whole, especially when we're seeing players pigeon-holed into certain roles, the game becomes a reflection of a mechanized society where people exist to fulfill one role. Football is perhaps a better example. Teams draft for need (this occurs in basketball, though not to the hyper-extent of a sport like football, where the need for an offensive guard with a specific skill set becomes such a draft-day priority). Each year there are holes within an NFL team's roster and the draft serves as an opportunity to fill those roles and peg draftees into specified roles. Look, my arguments here can be refuted on so many levels. There is always a certain amount of interplay between the individuals (ie. parts) within a team (ie. whole system), otherwise the game would be unwatchable. Further, to take the Raja Bell example, he isn't only there for defense, but that is his chief purpose. That's what earns him a role in the starting line-up and big minutes. His role almost has more to do with the offensive abilities of his opponents rather than his own. The whole concept of 'role' players best explains my argument. Certain players in the league are known for the 'role' they bring to their team. Robert Horry's role on various teams has been to take big shots in big moments. Similarly Michael Finley and Brent Barry have become largely three-point specialists for the Spurs. Often, teams like the Spurs, are lauded as a team for having such a formidable number of 'role' players. But that notion seems paradoxical. Role players seems to refute the notion of team in a tribal or electrical context. There are a lot of holes in my argument, but team dynamics, at least for me, comes down the ability of cogs to carry out their specialized functions.

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