Basketball is an interesting place to examine hiring practices in the private sector. Hiring generalists who can do more things or specialists who are experts at a few essential tasks is a dilemma in human resource departments. This Forbes article compares these hiring decisions with the 2012 USA Women's Olympic Team. It is not terrible long or in-depth, but let me pull out a quote and we can begin to apply the concept to an NBA basketball team.
Teams beat individuals every time. We learn over and over again how much better it is to bridge someone’s gaps by pairing them with someone with complementary strengths than by trying to "fix" their opportunities. Károlyi built a team that was stronger than the individuals for this year’s Olympics. It was a joy to watch. Make sure your team is stronger than the individuals so being a part of it is a joy for all.
The bold sentence is really the kicker for me. It is more efficient to build around the weaknesses of individuals than to attempt to create the perfect employee by improving on those deficiencies.
Tom Ziller also touched on this in his Defense of the James Hardens. Specifically he focused on the desire for the stars of each team to be well-rounded basketball players; contributing substantially on offense and defense. James Harden, with his outright apathy towards effort on defense, has become quite the pariah around the league for failing to live up to that standard. As New Orleans Pelican fans we do not need to concern ourselves with the trials of a one-dimensional star, thank you Anthony Davis.
Everyone Wants to be a Generalist in the NBA
However, gone unsaid by Ziller is the expectation that role players need not be so well-rounded. Just after the season ended Michael McNamara and Brian Ball wrote contrasting articles on the need for Tyreke Evans to work on his jump shot. McNamara wrote that while having a more consistent jump shot would be nice, it should not be his top priority. Ball disagreed to a point stating that Tyreke's jump shot needed to improve to make the Pelicans' offense more dynamic.
The hope for improving jump shots did not end with Evans, as Austin Rivers stated that he worked on his mid range game the most this summer.
Working on weaknesses is natural for hyper competitive professional athletes. Undoubtedly in exit interviews and on tape throughout the season both Evans and Rivers inability to make jump shots were frequently brought up. In addition, throughout individual practice changing the focus to variety of tasks allows players to get more time on the court without succumbing to monotony or diminishing returns. Except Ray Allen, of course.
A player who can contribute in a variety of ways is the hallmark of super stardom in this league. For a player like Austin Rivers or Tyreke Evans to simply write off the possibility of achieving that goal before age 25 would be a stunning decision given their environment.
Limitations of Dell Demps Plan
Throughout the past three years of the New Orleans rebuild Dell Demps has focused on acquiring primarily young veterans. Experienced NBA players with three to five years of experience is a profile that Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Omer Asik all fit perfectly. The "young veteran" concept also has drawbacks.
While all these players are young with room to grow many also lack a clearly defined role to fill in the NBA. Sure, they have positions and strengths, but few of them have accepted a clear definition of what they bring to the court each night. Eric Gordon thinks he can be an All-Star and set the tone in his seventh season, despite a complete lack of evidence that assumption is correct. Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday both rightly see a variety of avenues to widen their impact in their still young NBA careers.
Others, and this appears to be a theme dividing big men from wings and guards, have already settled into clearly established NBA archetypes. Ryan Anderson is a stretch four, perhaps the quintessential stretch four, tasked with opening the lane with a barrage from behind the arc. Omer Asik and to a lesser extent Robin Lopez are defensive bruisers, denying entry to the paint and hoovering the glass (or boxing out at an elite level in Lopez's case).
What this roster continues to lack is the "3&D" role player. While Anthony Morrow last season and Jimmer Fredette this season provide established three point threats, neither is considered an average defender. Let alone a stopper on the wing. A glut of wings still trying to find their meal ticket to continued NBA employment fail to check the necessary boxes, although Darius Miller is the most likely candidate.
The Best Role Players are Typically Specialists
Bruce Bowen, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, Ben Wallace. All championship winning role players with very clearly defined archetypes. Bowen was one of the original 3&D players before the term became popular. Kerr eschewed the defensive responsibilties. Horry, beyond being Mr. Big Shot, was one of the earliest stretch fours. Wallace played defense, gathered rebounds, and passed the ball immediately to avoid trips to the foul line.
Evans and Rivers have elite NBA skills; few players can get to the basket with their consistency. Finishing those forays into the paint or creating shots for others is the other half of the equation, one to be worked on diligently. However, the simple task of beating a defender and collapsing a defense has quantifiable value in professional basketball. An Evans drive resulted in 1.14 points for the Pelicans. Rivers performed less efficiently, yet still produced 1.07 points per drive.
Furthermore, their production on a per minute basis is elite, both ranking in the top six in the league. This despite converting at below average rates. Getting to the basket ultimately produces points (winning games) even if the process is unsightly (losing eye tests, which only count in articles and comments). Evans, Rivers, and the rest of the Pelicans should concern themselves with winning basketball games.
These players have every right to want to be good at everything involving their craft. When the lights turn on in the Smoothie King Center the immediate goal should not be clouded by too many long term blueprints. Even if that means stashing away a meticulously rehearsed step back jump shot with thousands of repetitions.
Play to win the game.