Friday, November 2, 2007

Belichick And The NBA

Here at Headband I think we do a pretty good job of steering away from the Red Sox and Patriots. But I have to make an exception today. That is because what Bill Belichick's Patriots are doing is something that could be talked about for a long, long time. And as I begin to glean the absolute brilliance of the Patriots this year, I cannot help but compare them to other things in sports, for comparing them to current fellow football teams seems fatuous and uninspired. I admit I might be wrong about how good the Patriot's are; I realize they could very well lose on Sunday to the Colts - but what this Pats team implies to me is a kind of sports perfection that is rarely seen, and a systematic approach that is unadulterated by the usual shortcomings of professional team sport in American society. In short, I feel I have to write about this, and at least make some kind of feeble attempt at linking it with the NBA. I hope others can follow my lead with more articulation.

Belichick has created an atmosphere of complete professionalism around the Patriots. There is no question ego has to be put aside for the sake of the greater good, because it is the only acceptable way for a Belichick team to operate. That is hardly to say that individual players are forced to give up their identity to succeed in his system - it is just that an individual player is never allowed to make himself seem more important than anyone else. Such beliefs seem inherently logical - we are taught to treat teams and teammates this way when we are in elementary school, and almost all of us have team values in mind when we watch sports. But the truth is that the team concept hardly ever translates well in professional sports - the gigantic commercial, capitalistic contraption that holds pro sports in its clutches would hardly seem to allow it. That is what makes these Patriots all the more astounding. It is not that suddenly Belichick has perfected his module - he certainly had it down by 2001 - it is just that never has a Belichick team been so loaded with so many stars. The fact that this team is so laden with talent and yet behaves in exactly the same way as all past Belichick Patriot teams has opened up a new dimension in my mind concerning how brilliant the Belichick method is.

In the past it was often assumed that the only way the Patriots could achieve greatness was by playing in Belichick's selfless system - the players they had were no better than anyone else's, and it was only Belichick's genius that was able to make them far superior. But it is safe to say that the current Patriots have such a talented roster that they could attain a high level of success without such a selfless ideology in place. Yet tossing out the Belichick system was clearly never considered, and the reason is abundantly clear: because the system works so well, and in many ways can be even better appreciated when it is utterly loaded with wealth. Greatness can resonate strongly because it reveals what is obvious but is normally concealed. In this particular instance a truth about professional sports is thrust forward : that the best teams always behave as one unified whole and become much greater because of this unity.

It is almost impossible, and to the laymen uninteresting, to talk about what the Patriots could achieve this year from a football standpoint. The brilliance of the Pats thus far encapsulates a much wider frame; the same way that Federer and Woods make us think about other things besides tennis and golf. The difference with the two aforementioned athletes is that they are only individuals, and the Patriots are a team. That is why we are watching maybe a monumental moment in modern American sport. If coaches in the NFL, NBA and MLB were smart they would be paying attention to everything the Patriots are doing. Like I said, to see it in pure football terms in disingenuous. For instance, the constant quibbling about the Patriots running up the score is almost completely irrelevant to me as a fan. The Patriots are better that that - not morally, but categorically. They are not thinking about rubbing it in, they are only thinking of execution, rubbing it in is far too petty a thought for this squad to pay attention to. The Patriots, like all great teams, are often playing against themselves. An eminent example of this was last Sunday when Brady went ballistic after Dan Koppen went offside inside the red zone. It was 38-0 in the fourth quarter. That is the kind of plane the Patriots are on. It is not that Kevin Faulk is as important as Randy Moss, it is just that it doesn't matter. Because you're better doesn't mean anything. It is only about winning; Belichick (and increasingly Brady) have declared this irrefutably.

And all this naturally has great relevance within the NBA - the ultimate league of stars. I don't want to knock the NBA - it is my favorite professional league in the world, and it is hardly alone in marketing its individuals over teams. It just interests me that the way the NBA system works is so glaringly against the team idea. By that I mean that stars are treated differently than role players by almost everyone around them, and in turn star players usually see themselves differently than role players. This is a problem that seems fixable. Without doubt you need stars to win in the NBA - and without doubt your stars need to be confident when they are on the court that they are the best at what they do. But the subjugation of individual ego for team ego is a trait that is too often lacking, and one which is rarely seriously talked about. Kobe, needless to say, is the most current and egregious example of this, but the obvious is not necessarily what is most interesting about such a dilemma. In the NFL there are so many players, and things are so strictly based upon a formulated set of plays, that it can be very easy to harness a player when he does not play well for the team. If your second receiver is not blocking downfield you simply pull him. The results probably will not be earth-shattering. In the NBA if you bench your second leading scorer for lazing on help defense, the results (supposedly) will be much more catastrophic. All of a sudden your offensive system very well might get out of whack. This has to do with the limited number of players on the court, the more free flowing nature of the game, and the somewhat unique idiosyncratic talents of each individual player. It seemingly makes it more difficult for NBA coaches to bench players for not being team-oriented, which is not the case in football.

Further complicating matters is the salary situation - in the NFL contracts are essentially year to year, in the NBA all the money is guaranteed. To punish a player for being too selfish risks his wrath, and with four more years left on his contract that could be a bigger risk than a NBA team wants to take. Plus many NBA players are often labeled as being "special" since they were young, something that certainly might hinder their selflessness on the court. All that said - the uniqueness of each NBA player and their huge guaranteed salaries - it is stupid to regularly capitulate to NBA players' egos. They are paid professionals, if they don't buy the team concept, they can take a seat. Do you really think there would be a public outcry if a respected coach benched a reckless player? I think that coach might actually be commended. And his team might start playing better. Back when Belichick started his reign as Patriots coach he was vociferated for standing up to Terry Glenn and then Drew Bledsoe. Both had large contracts and were big stars. Belichick sat them. We all know how that turned out. Few of today's NBA coaches, GM's and owners would dare pull such a stunt. Yet they should not be terrified of doing so.

Teams where players do not sacrifice for the larger goal do not win championships. The Spurs are rightly called the Patriots of the NBA, and a big reason is they appear smarter than anybody else. They understand team concept; Popovich and Duncan exude it. It is no coincidence that the best teams in today's NBA are also some of the most selfless. But frankly besides San Antonio I don't see any team that you can even begin to compare to the Patriots in terms of organizationally understanding what "team" really means. This is a shame. The greatest basketball was played by teams that overtly played together. To watch a great player is awesome, but to watch a great team is divine.

My point is not to just wax poetic about fantastic teams, something I'm afraid I'm doing. What I mean to argue is that there is a completely practical usage for the Belichick module in today's NBA. I'm fond of talking about how any NBA team can be half decent if they play within a good coach's system. This has as much gravity in this discussion as any pontification about eliteness. NBA professionalism means being smart about playing the game and disciplining yourself around the team framework. How many NBA teams actually do this well? It's fewer than we care to admit. The same can be said for all pro sports, but Belichick is revealing a secret in front of us, just like Billy Beane did at the beginning of the decade. People in the NBA should take notice.

4 comments:

Sorael said...

There is another team in the NBA that is really a "team". They're called the Raptors. So far this season not one player has played more than 35 minutes, with most starters averaging about 30. No one is complaining and they are winning.

Anonymous said...

Tim I think Phil Jackson read this blog and assigned the entire Lakers team to do the same. The Lakers truly played as a team last night, and they kicked the shit out of Shamrock's second favorite team. Even though this was just one game, it has to give Phoenix-- and the NBA as a whole-- a bit of a scare.

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