Coast to Coast is my bi-weekly column here at Fansided. Each week I’ll be taking a look at an interesting topic in the NBA, and giving my own spin on it. Feel free to disagree, because you most likely will anyways.
”The SportVU cameras track every player and the basketball 25 times a second. The data the cameras collect can tell how fast a player moves, how close he was defended on a shot, how many times he dribbled and a plethora of other fascinating nuggets.” That’s an excerpt from John Schuhmann’s article on NBA.com about the new SportVU cameras that will be in NBA arenas starting this season. Essentially, this means that teams will have access to new stats and data, and can use them to help coach, build, and improve their team. Although not all teams will use it the same, it means teams are only going to get smarter. Schuhmann gives more insight on to how it can be used:
"How useful that stuff is to a coach — and in making players better — is an interesting question, but there are some obvious and simple ways to translate the data into coaching. For instance, Mike Woodson could tell J.R. Smith that he shoots 41 percent from 3-point range off the catch, but just 21 percent off the dribble.While teams are still figuring out what advantages they can get by mining the data, fans and analysts can just dig in and explore. We already have what we see with our eyes, what we find in the box scores and what we discover in advanced stats. Now we can add more context to everything."
In the grand scheme of things, it will take sometime to start really seeing an impact on decisions, but nonetheless, it’s out there now. GM’s are starting to sign players and build teams around advanced stats and analytics–check out an excerpt from Bo Churney on Hawks Hoop:
"“Well over the last year and a half since I’ve been here,” Ferry opined, “we’ve started to implement more of an area that uses statistical data probably more than has been in the past.”Now, the previous administrations weren’t armed crusaders against analytics, accosting their users and labeling them as “NERDS!” They simply didn’t use them and that was their biggest mistake.“The analytics part,” said Ferry, “is an important part of [the NBA] now and you’re at a big disadvantage if you don’t use it.”"
So, what’s the harm to adding analytics and having smarter administrations? We could be seeing the death of the journeyman in the NBA.
What do Eddie House, Mike James, Chris Gatling, Tim Thomas, Joe Smith, Juwan Howard, and Jim Jackson all have in common? They are the definition of an NBA journeyman. A journeyman is a player who was usually drafted high, didn’t fill his potential, and bounced around the league for a decade. There are different versions, as some players weren’t drafted high, and some actually added a lot of value. The league is in a unique position. The ratings are the highest they’ve been in a long time, and attention is skyrocketing. When you add in the microwave society we’re in, with the 24/7 news cycle, teams are under more pressure than ever before. Every decision is analyzed by twitter, TV, blogs, sports radio, and is chewed up and spit out 400 times before it disappears. Because of this, we see less development on players, and you see guys like Thomas Robinson putting 3 teams on his résumé before he starts his second season. If you don’t show the skills early like Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, James Harden, or Stephen Curry, you could be looking at a trade before your 4th season–just ask Brandon Knight.
We can already see the signs of a dying breed in the journeyman. Ivan Johnson, Devin Ebanks, Luke Babbitt, Tyrus Thomas, Cole Aldrich, and Rodrigue Beaubois are all young players that will most likely not suit up in the NBA season after having a job last year. Teams are becoming smarter, and are running out of time to take chances on guys. If Michael Beasley doesn’t make the Heat this season, or plays poorly, he will be out of the league. If Ricky Davis played 13 seasons in the NBA, and Michael Beasley may not make it to 5, that shows that the league is changing. GM’s will be more likely to sign someone who looks better through advanced stats, then take a chance on someone just because they have talent and potential. Teams will see that Kevin Seraphin has great per 36 minutes stats, and tell a guy like Beasley to take a hike.
Having smarter front offices isn’t the only reason we are seeing fewer and fewer journeymen, as it is much more complex. Basketball is now a global game thanks to David Stern. There are more leagues in more countries than there has ever been before. Passion for basketball has grown, especially in China. Stephon Marbury was considered too inefficient, and teams in the NBA gave up on him, but he has a statue in China because of his play out there. With this new found fascination with the game, it has now opened more options for American players who are scrapping to make an NBA roster. In other countries, guys who may only get a training camp invite can get millions. After a strong summer league, and a great shooting touch, Andrew Goudelock headed overseas where he can make a name for himself. He played only 3 seasons in the NBA between the D-League and the Laker bench. He signed for way more than the NBA minimum. You get guys like Ronnie Brewer, who signed a contract in Houston for only 100,000 guaranteed, who prove that playing in the NBA is more important than money. Ivan Johnson also decided that the minimum wasn’t good enough for him, so he went to China. Hey! Dennis Rodman is helping to build basketball over in North Korea! Everyone line up single file to play over there!
So what can draft busts and journeymen do to survive in the league? Find a role, and stick with it. When you look at guys like Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson, they have a hard time finding their role on a team. Beasley can score, but he doesn’t focus on one area and isn’t really great in one particular category. Compare him to Jordan Hill, and you have a strong contrast in their stories. Hill was drafted 8th overall by the Knicks in 2009, and he could never really find his footing. He was traded the same season to the Rockets in the Tracy Mcgrady deal. On the surface, it seems as if Hill was on the draft bust, journeyman trail. Hill was traded to the Lakers in 2012 for Derek Fisher, and he was viewed as a guy who wouldn’t get off the bench, and would go elsewhere in free agency. Hill came in and played well as an energy guy, who could rebound and defend well. He was a guy who sparked the Lakers when he was on the floor and his value skyrocketed. He focused on a role and a skill in the league, and signed a 3 year deal worth 9 million dollars with the Lakers. Knowing he wouldn’t be a franchise center like his lottery pick may have inferred, he honed in on being a great rebounder, and will likely have a nice career. Like Hill, Jared Dudley accepted his NBA role as well, and has had much success. Dudley was drafted 22nd overall by the Bobcats back in 2007, after an impressive career at Boston College. He was a guy who rebounded well, and could even play very well in the post. He was traded to the Suns in 2008, and averaged only 5 points before his trade. He became a key member of the Suns during their playoff run in 2010. He adapted his game, and became a spot up shooter. He is known as a great shooter now, and he was traded to the Clippers this off-season. He is viewed as a key piece on a championship contender. When guys like Dudley and Hill hone in on a skill and a role, it removes any bust label, and gives them a job in the NBA.
Another thing that could help, is the D-League. We see guys get 10 day contracts from the D-League throughout the season, and it is starting to gain more traction. If front offices will start to get on board, it could become a true farm system. Not every team has an official affiliate, but they need too. If they can use it to truly start to develop guys, it could help them in the future. The Suns need to use it on Alex Len this season, and there are many ways to do so. He can focus on strength training, and could use the practice time to improve on different things. If players are willing to accept there time there, the D-League could become the new habitat for the journeyman. Wolves’ President Flip Saunders described the D-League perefectly:
"I’m a proponent of minor leagues. I was there seven years and had 21 guys called up. It’s a good development league, it’s not a punishment league. Guys can get better and gain confidence. We’re going to try to utilize it. I don’t think we’ve used it very much here in the past. If we send somebody down, we’ll send somebody from our staff with them so they don’t feel we’ve forgotten about them. That’s the biggest thing: You don’t want anyone that goes there to feel they’ve been forgotten.Now saying that, we might not have anyone go down there this year, but we are very open about it and we’re going to have a very good relationship with our Iowa team."
If Meyers Leonard shows no improvement in Portland this season, would anybody be surprised if he was out of the league next year? Thomas Robinson could be facing the same fate. Derrick Williams in Minnesota has to show some sort of addition to his game in order to earn himself a job. Overall, the days of guys like Ricky Davis, Michael Olowokandi, and Jim Jackson playing a decade in the NBA may be over. With smarter front offices, more pressure to win, and more options overseas, the only journeymen we could see will be guys who would otherwise earn over 5 million in the past. Another blow to the journeyman is the fact that Isiah Thomas is no longer an executive in the league (see Curry, Eddy contract). There is so much talent on the planet, that the league is getting deeper and deeper. That means less and less roster spots for borderline guys, and less time to develop talent. It really is sad that guys will start to have a shorter leash, but this is a sign of the times. The league is getting smarter. Say hello to analytics, and goodbye to the journeyman.