Practicing with the unknown



(Photo credit: Daniel Amaral)

We as observers expect NBA players to dedicate their entire offseasons to improving themselves; they should have an insatiable desire to get better. Players should be fixing holes in their games, adding to their skill sets and becoming better athletes. The phrase “out-working your opponent” is often bandied around.These are not unreasonable requests. As fans and critics, we work our 40-hour weeks and squeeze leisure time where we can between obligations. Oftentimes, that downtime is spent watching a two-and-a-half hour basketball game on TV featuring those same NBA players. To some viewers, the game you see on TV is the bulk of players’ work, but most realize that the game is simply the finished product, just like there is more to baking than the time a pie spends in the oven. But unlike most of us, athletes do enjoy the luxury of an offseason with ample time dedicated to professional improvement.

The problem lies, however, in the unknown. It’s nice that a player will go to the gym and workout everyday during the summer. Said player can shoot 500 jumpshots a day and reasonably expect to become a better shooter. Those repetitions are a dedication to honing his craft and improving himself. We should all be content with that.

Unbeknownst to him, though, is that his division rival is shooting 1000 shots a day and adding the ability to shoot off the dribble when going to his left. Can you fault the 500 shot-a-day player for this? For all he knows, he’s doing well. He’s getting better. He’s oblivious to the fact that his opponent is out-working him. Our 500-a-day player is trucking along with the warm and fuzzy feeling that he’s going to be a better player when next season starts.

Let’s use me as another example. Right now, on a good week I’m posting two or three pieces of content. That’s not too bad considering the lack of worthwhile Spurs news during the lockout. But I don’t know what some other Spurs blogger is up to. Maybe he’s posting the same number of pieces per week as I am, but he could be doing a lot of other writing that he’s not posting. So while I think I’m doing well during this lockout and improving myself, I could be falling behind without even knowing it.

The variable quality to offseason development is a powerful factor. Michael Jordan understood it so much that he supposedly avoided playing on the second Dream Team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, fearful that the league’s younger players would find out how hard he worked and ratchet up their own practice habits. (Note: This is a rumor that has been passed around over the years. I couldn’t find a story that confirmed it, so take it with a grain of salt.)

Kobe Bryant didn’t take the same precautions in 2008 and played on the US Olympic team with LeBron James, who was apparently stunned at the work Kobe put in.

By contrast, remember what happened to LeBron last summer during the Redeem Team practices? He watched Kobe getting up at 6 a.m. every day to train for three grueling hours, then said to himself, “All right, this guy works harder than me. I need to step it up.” And he did. And that exposure had a profound effect on his career, just like every splendid Michael Lewis story probably keeps you on your toes.

LeBron James won the MVP the next two seasons. James was due to win the MVP at some point, so you can’t attribute his back-to-back MVPs to seeing Kobe’s work ethic — but it didn’t hurt his chances.

The mysteriousness around offseason development is one reason we as observers can’t be quick to criticize players for the lack of improvement in certain areas. Unless it’s clear that a player neglected to improve himself over the summer and reported to the team out of shape — like a Shawn Kemp or Boris Diaw — we can’t jump to conclusions and simply brand that player as lazy for simply not improving as much as we’d hoped.

Likewise, it’s not enough to say that when a young player improves after one or two years in the league that it’s simply part of his development cycle or that things finally “clicked.” There are hours and hours of identifying weaknesses and improving upon them. Some simply spend more hours doing so than others.

For these reasons I’m especially excited that Tim Duncan was spotted working out with James Anderson and Danny Green earlier this summer. Duncan is one of the hardest workers in the league; you don’t get to be that polished and knowledgeable without without being so. Duncan’s near pitch perfect reactions and adjustments come from years of repetitions, not simply innate ability. And although Green is in Slovenia for the time being, him and Anderson experiencing the workout habits of Duncan can spark both of their development exponentially. Taking care of their bodies and working on skills they didn’t know they should be working on, things that are actually worthwhile. That is what offseason training is all about.

When the offseason comes, we expect players to hit the gym and address weaknesses. For the most part, they do. Problems arise, however, when players are unaware of where their hard work stands in comparison to others. One man’s workout is another’s warmup. Navigating through the thick for of offseason uncertainty is tough, made tougher still when some of the coaches and trainers who can guide players are unavailable because of a lockout.

  • TheRed&Black

    Good read. Thanks. I find the best place to start, is to assume there is always somebody working harder than you.

  • Tyler

    Great photo. I’ve witnessed Ray Allen’s pregame workout several times, and it’s no wonder why he’s the game’s all-time leader in made 3’s. I always try to get to games hours ahead of time just to watch pregame workouts, and Ray’s is easily one of the most strenuous. Makes it a lot easier to root for guys like him. 

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    Honestly, I was just looking for a a photo with a creative commons license so I didn’t run into any copyright problems, but I thought that one got the idea across.

  • Anonymous

    I’m routinely amazed, during any regular season, about how much of the game is still unknown and unseen to me, even though I’ve been a fan for decades.  

  • Bob

    I wonder if Bonner developed a work ethic like that it would help at playoff time. The guy’s only job is to shoot so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to shoot better when it matters. He’s got to hit close to 50% during playoffs to be useful and with a hand in his face.

  • Travischristal

    can you guys take the FB/Twitter/RSS buttons off the left side of the screen.  unbelievably annoying.

  • DorieStreet

    Could we see this happening in a couple of weeks–Spurs players not committed to playing for teams in leagues overseas—coming together on their own to facilitate some sort of training camp (extended through the non-start of the regular season), where the sessions start slow and gradually increase in number and intensity as (hopefully) a resolution for a new CBA comes about?