“I just signed onto twitter to complain about billups. Then saw your fine work”
This is the text message I received at 4:14 PM today as I watched the United States’ men’s basketball team go down to the wire against the hot-shooting Brazilians. Its sender is a friend of mine from high school, a brilliant Swarthmore graduate and the biggest, most knowledgeable basketball fan I know. He is to the Knicks what I am to the Yankees, except he deserves far more credit due to an obvious difference in strength of schedule.
Evidently he had stumbled onto my Twitter feed and its maniacal real-time documentation of Chauncey Billups’ persistently questionable decision-making. He also evidently agreed with my complaints (as did ESPN’s Jorge Arangure), which helped assuage any fears I had of me being too hard on Billups. Now, from reading my tweets and my past thoughts on Billups, you might assume that I hate him as a person and as a player. But that’s not true. It’s what he symbolizes and elicits that I dislike so strongly. He embodies the needless and exaggerated fawning over leadership, experience, and clutchitude that pervades not only the NBA, but every single professional sports league that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Broadcasters and analysts dependably rush to ascribe these qualities to Billups, then spend the remainder of the game overlooking his errors while praising his accomplishments. It’s the worst kind of sportscasting possible – the worst kind of journalism possible? – when the totality of the facts are ushered aside in favor of just those that support a hackneyed narrative. This practice isn’t just limited to Billups, either. You can find athletes in any sport, professional or amateur, that elicit this kind of reaction from mainstream media types. And it’s not the athletes’ fault.
Today’s game against Brazil showed that this practice is still alive and well. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, whom I generally like because of his obvious dedication to and knowledge of the international game, presented a striking example of analytical double-standards throughout the contest. Like his colleagues, he established early on that Chauncey Billups is a leader, a veteran, and a steadying presence on the men’s national team. Then he watched Billups put together a performance that was by no means disastrous (15 points on 5/12 shooting, although 1/7 from three), but shaky enough to make the observant viewer wonder if Fraschilla wasn’t totally full of it. Billups took deep shots early in the shot clock. He missed an open layup late in the game. He made several stagnating, one-on-one forays to the basket. He committed a charging foul at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter. He failed to rotate defensively at least once, allowing an open and successful three-point shot. He clearly engineered a play in which Lamar Odom attacked the basket from an impossible angle in the left corner, causing Odom to step out of bounds and turn the ball over. In general, his performance was mediocre.
Mediocre play is, of course, part of sports. Even the best players have tough games. But the striking part was the way Fraschilla rationalized, explained away, or outright ignored each of Billups’ follies. Fraschilla did not criticize Billups directly for any of his hasty long jump shots, instead saying things like “the team can get a better shot than that” (he criticized Derrick Rose by name for doing the exact same thing at another point in the game). Having spent much of the first half saying that the United States should stay away from one-on-one, isolation basketball, he was silent on the subject when Billups did just that (unless Billups made the basket, of course, in which case he had “excellent strength and body control”). When Billups messed up a defensive rotation, Fraschilla blamed it on Kevin Durant being too eager to help out in the lane. After Odom stepped out of bounds on his ill-fated and Billups-designed drive, Fraschilla said “I’m not sure that’s what the US wants here.” But not once, in any of these situations, did Fraschilla or his partner attribute errors in judgment to Billups by name in the same way that they did repeatedly to Rose. It’s hard to argue that this disparity is rooted in anything other than reputation, age, and experience. Billups is the veteran so he knows what he’s doing. Rose is still young and he has a lot to learn. Fin.
I have a dirty little secret that I’d like to share with you: I buy the idea of experience and leadership being real assets in basketball. Basketball is an emotional and physical game. An extroverted and fiery (it’s trite, but true) motivator can extract marginally improved performances from teammates. Kevin Garnett’s effect on the Boston Celtics is an outstanding example of this. More tangibly, a leader with knowledge of opponents’ tendencies and tactics can orchestrate an offensive or defensive possession to maximize success. A leader can show or tell players where to be on the court, and if he’s a good one, his teammates will listen. Leadership exists in basketball. If done correctly, it can win a team games.
But leadership has a dirty little secret too, and that’s that it is always less important than talent, skill, and production. A player can lead and holler as much as he’d like, but if he can’t dribble, shoot, pass, or make good decisions himself, then whatever steadiness he lends to the team is negated by outright ineffectiveness. Of course, if I had two identical players who shot the same percentages, rebounded at the same rates, and turned the ball over with the same frequency, I would choose the player with superior motivational skills and perhaps even the one with more experience. But the reality is that actual basketball skills that equate to real and measurable production are way higher up on the totem pole of assets than amorphous qualities like leadership and steadiness.
This brings me back to Chauncey Billups. His reputation as a great and steady leader is cemented at this point. It’s not going to change unless he does something flagrantly subversive. It remains entirely possible that he is a gifted leader, that he does propel his team and teammates to greater heights through his words and organizational skills. But as Joe Sheehan recently said, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” And the facts that we have about Billups indicate that whatever leadership qualities he has are mitigated by his weaknesses as a pure basketball player. Over the last two years, the Denver Nuggets have been just as good with him on the bench as with him on the court. He makes questionable decisions, as we saw in today’s game against Brazil. He’s no better in the clutch than he is in a regular situation. This is not to say that he is a bad player, but he has limitations, and these limitations are continually ignored because they do not fit the incumbent narrative.
It’s not personal with Chauncey Billups. It really isn’t. His case just perfectly illustrates the lengths to which analysts will go to make the facts with the narrative, instead of the narrative being determined by the facts.