Already a lightning rod for criticism in the Jazz fan community, forward Richard Jefferson probably didn’t do himself many favors by announcing on Thursday that he plans on going “championship hunting” as a free agent next summer. Like DeMarre Carroll last season, Jefferson shared that he’s playing for 29 other teams — or at least the subset of those 29 who are contenders.
Fans probably took the declaration a little better from Carroll, who was on a minimum contract playing an off-the-bench role. Jefferson is fourth on the team in minutes (was 3rd until Wednesday), so his overt declaration that he’s gone in July sits differently. At the very least, it reignites a discussion on the reasoning behind doling out roles to players who aren’t part of the team’s future.
Should Jefferson be top four in minutes if he’s already plotting his departure? What about other likely-to-depart vets like Andris Biedrins? The minutes discussion will be part of the Jazz fan dialogue all year, so here are some thoughts about how and why coaches make minute allocation decisions.
The Zero-Sum Game of Minutes
The discussion about minutes wouldn’t be as heated if they were in infinite supply. But every minute that Jefferson or Biedrins plays is one minute less for the likes of Burks or fan favorite Rudy Gobert. And since we all have our personal favorites, our pet project young guys, you don’t have to look far to see this mad-lib filled in by angsty fans: “Why is _____ (veteran) playing over _____ (intriguing if somewhat raw young guy)?”
I have my guys, too, so I understand the sentiment. But I don’t think it’s as linear as the rhetoric (“So-and-so obviously has more potential than what’s-his-face, so there’s no reason to play what’s-his-face that much!”) suggests. To the contrary, I think there are a plethora of tempting reasons to play someone whose ceiling is lower but whose game you know.
I’m not saying any of those reasons are justification for playing someone who obviously doesn’t help the team improve or win, but those are some reasons why for many coaches — the Jazz’s included — certain vets get the benefit of the doubt.
Minutes & Development
Someday, someone is going to figure out how to quantitatively define the relationship between playing time and development. This is unfortunately not that piece.
But I do have strong opinions on the correlation, and they’re generally unpopular.
Core to many minutes squabbles is the idea that if players get PT, they’ll naturally get better. Minutes lead to development. Most of the scouts and development guys I’ve spoken to over the years have quite the opposite take: that growing is how you get minutes (not the other way around) that if a guy isn’t ready before his number is called, it doesn’t really do you any favors as far as establishing the right behaviors.
No, I’m not talking about Nabisco cookie brands, so relax. But several basketball people have told me that the NBA game moves so fast that it’s tough to glean much learning unless you’ve already mastered some of those skills to the point where they’re second nature.
One of my favorite tweeps to debate this topic with is @YuccaManHoops, a passionate, heady and respectful fan who happens to be a teacher, so he understands a lot about learning theory. He’s a great follow, even though we tend to disagree on this topic. His position is that for learning of any kind to take root, a new skill must be applied in authentic situations, and for him that means actual NBA game time is the only way to fully develop talent.
I agree with the notion that authentic reps are the best way to learn, but I think there is a graduating scale of authentic experiences, especially in the case of NBA basketball. To learn any given skill, a player has at his disposal individual sessions with a skills coach, the video room, team drills, scrimmage, then opportunities like summer league, preseason and even regular season garbage time. If they can’t master those skills in those settings, how will they able to master it on the fly in meaningful stretches of real NBA games?
I imagine that landing a plane on a flight simulator is nowhere near authentic. But if you got on a flight and overheard your captain saying, “I didn’t do too well on the simulator, but I think I can get the landing right today,” you’d grab your things and return to the gate. Same thing if your heart surgeon said, “I didn’t feel like wasting time working on cadavers in med school. I figure the best way to learn how to perform a quadruple bypass is just by doing it. Now lie on the table.” Yes, there are more authentic ways to hone a skill that simulations and cold corpses, but until someone is consistently succeeding in a practice scenario, they don’t have a lot of right to demand a more authentic situation.
Oddly enough, this philosophy – that growing as a player earns you minutes instead of minutes automatically leading to player growth – is a very Jerry Sloan-esque mindset. Yet even some of the staunchest Sloan disciples in Jazzland seem to ask for the default solution of more minutes for young guys, readiness level notwithstanding.
Plea for humanity
I’ll end with a reminder that these are actual people we’re talking about, and lately I’ve been discouraged by the de-humanizing way we sometimes talk about players and coaches who don’t do what we want them to do.
For example, Corbin doesn’t always do what I would do, either, but he’s certainly not the bumbling, in-over-his-head guy that some paint him as. We’re talking about a guy who has a college degree, to say nothing of a 16-year career as an NBA player followed by a coaching career where he was signaled out by Jazz legend Sloan to be the leader of the new generation. Disagreeing with him is fine, questioning whether he’s the coach of this franchise’s future is natural, but talking about him like he’s a moron says much more about the speaker than the subject.
Same for Jefferson. I personally would be fine if he played less and I don’t think I’d start talking publicly about free agency with 54 games left to go in the current season. But he’s not a bad guy. Same is true on the other end of the spectrum. When a young guy messes up, it doesn’t mean they’re talentless, incompetent or a lost cause; it means they have skills they haven’t fully developed yet. Remember that these guys are somebody’s son, somebody’s brother. They’re not characters in a Greek tragedy you can simplify down to ad hominem character attacks.
Even I need reminders of this sometimes, and I got one last week. I was interacting with Jazz fans as to some theories why Biedrins was getting minutes over promising rookie Gobert, and I expressed that Gobert doesn’t always make the right play within the team scheme. As the conversation wore on and all parties dug in their heels, I strained a little too hard at my point and exaggerated Gobert’s position on the system learning curve. I then set my phone down, and when I picked it up a while later I saw that Gobert had favorited my critical tweet. My stomach instantly sank at the thought that this athlete with whom I occasionally interact (and for whom I’m genuinely pulling) saw my comment and probably interpreted it as a slight. I deleted my harsher-than-intended post and send a direct tweet to Gobert letting him know how much I believe in his future and his growth as a player. It was a gut-check moment for me, and a good reminder that, while the NBA is played out for all of us to enjoy and analyze, these are not TV characters that are separated from our reality. They’re real dudes.
So, Jazz fans, let’s be passionate, let’s engage in conversation, let’s disagree, let’s analyze… but let’s do it in a way that is worthy of the kind of fans we are.