The NBA (and every major professional sports league) is composed of proud, competitive and supremely talented athletes who have worked extremely hard and sacrificed a great deal in order to attain (and maintain) their employment at the game’s highest level. This reality doesn’t stop sportswriters and fans from questioning the dedication or commitment of athletes or even entire teams to their craft, whether it’s “effort”, “heart”, “focus”, “energy” or any other euphemism.
Of course, coaches and players themselves will mention “effort,” “heart”,”focus,” and “energy”, often as buzzwords in stock answers to routine questions about why they’ve won or lost a particular game. After a victory, it’d be unbecoming to simply say, “Well, clearly we’re superior to the team we beat, we have better players, this really isn’t a surprise.” After a loss, it’d be disheartening to admit “We never really had a chance anyway, those guys are way better than we are.” So instead, everyone relies on effort-related jargon, vows to either improve (after a loss) or maintain (after a win) their level of intensity and focus when the next game rolls around.
Fans and media see the effort put forth on the basketball court and make judgments about players based on that alone; for coaches, however, games are only part of the equation. Exemplary effort or energy when the lights are on is one thing, but knowing the playbook and understanding the subtle aspects of your offensive and defensive assignments is another. Practice habits are key. A simple, cliched way to put it: the process is more important than the results, and people outside the locker room and front office are only afforded glimpses of the process.
Which brings us to Shabazz Muhammad. The Wolves’ second-year man out of UCLA put up 28 points in 29 minutes, shooting 12-of-17 from the floor while adding 5 rebounds (4 on the offensive glass) in Minnesota’s loss to Portland. He employed an array of post moves (a few even utilized his right hand) and weakside cuts to tally 20 of his 28 points in the painted area, an absurdly high amount for a 6’5 non-dribble-driver.
What’s endeared Muhammad to fans is his energy and fearlessness. He dives onto the floor and into baseline crowds to save loose balls. He fearlessly skies through the air for putbacks and rebounds, and aggressively takes the fight to his man on the low block. For these reasons, Wolves observers are beginning to murmur that Shabazz has earned more playing time, and perhaps even a promotion to the starting lineup as long as Kevin Martin is injured.
It’s a notion that Flip Saunders isn’t quite ready to buy. “I’m a big fan of (Shabazz), and I’ve told him this many times – if you don’t know plays, if you don’t know what we’re doing, it’s going to hurt you,” the Wolves’ coach said recently. “I’m hard on him. He has to understand where he’s supposed to be all of the time. I love his energy. But a lot of times he’s a little late on defensive rotations, he’s not quite there on our offensive sets, he starts in the wrong spot.”
Despite his nice statistical night, these problems reared their ugly heads in Portland on Sunday. On a couple of occasions, Corey Brewer had to let Muhammad know, mid-play, where he was supposed to be. At around the 8:00 mark of the 3rd quarter, this confusion led to poor spacing, a bad entry pass by Shabazz, and two easy points for the Blazers going the other direction when Muhammad turned it over.
In case you aren’t familiar with the show “The Boondocks”, pictured above are the protagonist Huey (left) and his friend Jazzmine (right); the two are planning a trip to visit Shabazz K. Milton Berle, a falsely imprisoned man. The show centers around the unjust nature of his incarceration and attempts to break him free, touching on several topics that are a bit too heavy for casual inclusion in a recap about a basketball game. I really only bring it up because of the coincidence of names and the banner in the background – a lot of fans want to Free Shabazz, turn him loose in the starting lineup, since good things seem to happen when he’s on the court.
But Muhammad isn’t being locked on the bench unjustly. The gates keeping him in are locked from the inside. He has abundant energy when he checks into games, which everybody loves, but until he brings that same energy, heart, focus and effort to learning offensive sets and the subtle elements of his game, he’ll keep being a role player. There’s a reason Muhammad’s cracked 30 minutes in a game just once in his entire career – if a coach doesn’t trust that you know what you’re doing, or doesn’t believe you value the process as much as the results, he has a hard time inserting you into the starting lineup.
In short, Shabazz’s energy and devotion to his craft (i.e. getting into amazing shape over the summer) is commendable, but until that effort manifests itself in all aspects of being a professional, including knowing the playbook, he’ll be stuck where he is
A few other notes:
– Speaking of effort, Corey Brewer might be the most valuable member of the team at the moment. He struggled last night (8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists on 4-of-11 field goals) but over his past 9 games, including 5 starts, the 7th-year man out of Florida is averaging 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.4 steals on 49% shooting. Granted, he can’t buy a bucket from beyond the three point line (2-for-20 on the season) but he’s sparked scoring runs by getting out in transition and either finishing or finding shooters. He earns his keep by being an energy guy but has a firm grasp of the offense – a quality example for the young players (Shabazz especially) to follow.
– Mo Williams returned to the Moda Center and had 21 points, 5 rebounds and 11 assists in 40 minutes. He had a fine night, but his defensive woes hurt the team late. The Wolves had managed to cut the lead to 8 with 4:30 to go when Williams was caught dawdling under the hoop on defense (for some reason), leaving Damian Lillard wide open. When the ball was swung to him, Mo hurried to close out and wound up fouling Dame on his (made) three, giving him an opportunity for a four point play. He struggled to contain Lillard on even the simplest of actions, and Minnesota paid dearly.
– Zach LaVine… 0-for-3, 0 assists, 2 turnovers and a minus-15 in 10:48 on the floor. Saunders has been tough on his rookie guard, who struggled mightily in the follow-up to his big night in Los Angeles. When Mo finally subbed out 14 minutes into the game, Minnesota was up 8. When he came back four and a half minutes later, the game was tied, and there was no slowing Portland from then on.
– Andrew Wiggins battled through what was described as “food poisoning” and clearly wasn’t himself, recording 7 points and 1 rebound in 18 minutes. Other than one nice play in transition, he was largely a non-factor.
– Minnesota dominated points in the paint (60 to 34),had more fastbreak points (15-to-13) and won the turnover battle (Portland 18, Minnesota 15) but ultimately couldn’t slow LeMarcus Aldridge in the midrange (26 points on 17 shots), Wes Matthews from beyond the arc (23 points on 13 shots, including 6 threes) or the Blazer point guards from breaking down the defense and dishing out assists (15 combined between Lillard and Steve Blake).
– The Wolves head back to Staples tonight to take on the Clippers. Hopefully, newcomer Jeff Adrien is up to speed enough to be available; if you thought the Minnesota frontline (Dieng, Bennett, Hummel) was overmatched against Robin Lopez and LeMarcus Aldridge, wait until they face off against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan… (shudders).