Practicing with the unknown
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.