Watch any Miami Heat game on national television and listen to the way the announcers talk about the team’s players. They’ll often elegize LeBron James’ inhuman greatness, and with good reason — the “man” is a cyborg alien robot created to dominate the NBA. When they finish with LeBron, they’ll start to talk about how many contributions Shane Battier makes that will never show up in the box score. They might mention the brilliance of Dwyane Wade, a superstar cyborg alien in his own right, then soliloquize the heart and toughness of reserve forward Udonis Haslem. For the most part, there’ll be nary a word about Chris Bosh unless he plays a particularly spectacular game. And that’s the general rule of thumb for talking about the NBA. Super-duper stars are at the forefront of the conversation, and whatever breath is left over is reserved for role players with a penchant for making clever hustle plays. “Secondary stars” may as well not exist.
Some guys, like Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, and Derek Fisher, have made entire careers — and post-career careers — out of being useful bit players on successful teams. Objectively speaking, Robert Horry is a decidedly inferior player to, let’s say, Indiana’s David West. West is a more skilled offensive player, just as good (if not better) defensively, and just as unselfish as Horry, the consummate good teammate. But West will likely retire into obscurity save for true NBA die-hards, even though he’s a better player than Big Shot Bob, whose late-game exploits made him a borderline-household name.
Why the NBA conversation forms this way is an interesting question. To identify the answer, one must first dig all the way down to the very reasons humans interact with each other. Why did the cavemen and cavewomen have conversations? Why did they paint on the walls? Why does man seek out his brother?
One simple answer to that question is that we communicate to entertain, and to inform, usually in that order. And we talk about superstars to entertain. LeBron James is the best player in the world, playing for the best team in the world. He could have the personality of a filing cabinet and still lead SportsCenter every night, simply because he’s spectacular and dominant. We want to watch and hear about the best. Meanwhile, we talk about the role players because of the urge to inform. Or, that is, those who know their stuff talk about role players to inform the rest of us. The media doesn’t need to “inform” us that LeBron James is good at basketball. We already know that. But some fans might not be aware of the ways role players can help win games. So the experts are there to offer perspective, and in some cases, exaggerate their enthusiasm to make a point. That’s how you end up with a 9,000-word feature on Shane Battier in The New York Times or ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy proclaiming that he wants to adopt Kirk Hinrich, or Bill Simmons in his Book of Basketball asserting that Horry deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Chris Bosh doesn’t quite fit under either of those umbrellas. Neither did Lamar Odom for the championship Lakers, Manu Ginobili for the mid-decade Spurs, Tyson Chandler for today’s Knicks, or a slew of other “secondary stars” from around the league. Those guys, though obviously not completely anonymous, get left out of the hype cycle.
But these players, lest we forget, can still be the best at what they do. Take Bosh as an example. His combination of skills are unique in today’s NBA and perhaps not matched by any player in history. First, he shoots an unheard of 52.8% on long two-point jump shots (from 16-23 feet). The league average on those shots hovers around 38%. However, when teams rotate back and close out on his jump shot, he’s able to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim, where he converts 74.8% of his attempts. For reference, here’s the list of current players that shoot at least 50% on long twos AND at least 70% at the rim:
1. Chris Bosh
That’s it. That’s the whole list. That’s amazing.
Jeff Van Gundy no doubt knows this about Chris Bosh. But neither Van Gundy nor the producers of SportsCenter think they have the luxury to explore this kind of thing in depth. It’s not as spectacular as showing a replay of LeBron nor as clever as showing Shane Battier sneaking into open shooting position three passes before the ball finds him. It’s understandable that this happens, but that doesn’t mean we’re not missing out on some of the fun of basketball when we fail to celebrate or appreciate the unique excellence of world-class athletes like Bosh, or Chandler, or West. They might not have the all-around game to become LeBron-level stars, but they are spectacular at the things they do well. And they ultimately are more important to their teams than the role players, so anyone looking to understand the game — to be informed — is advised not to forget about them either.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we’re still making progress as a basketball-appreciating civilization. When we think back to the great Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s, most people only reference Jordan, Pippen, and coach Phil Jackson. The overwhelming majority of the populace wouldn’t be able to tell you the Shane Battier/Derek Fisher/Robert Horry equivalent of the 1991 Bulls, or even be able to hazard a guess if asked (the correct answer: John Paxson — yes, I need to get out more). Maybe this means that the parameters of the conversation are expanding — raising the level of conversation from “only the star player matters” to “the star player and these role players matter.” The next step, obviously, is “all the players matter.”
So the next time you find should yourself in a rousing debate about the inner workings of a professional basketball team, take some time to talk about the stars, take some time to talk about the ninth man, but don’t forget everyone in between. David West needs some love too.