A Unified Theory of Basketball: In search of perfection

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images /

In physics, the unified field theory explains it all. It’s the framework for clarifying everything about the interaction between all matter and energy in the universe, reconciling the currently irreconcilable differences between quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of relativity. At present, it’s also hypothetical.

This scientific reality — theories that make perfect sense in isolation but crumble when held up next to each other — is also an apt analogy for the world of basketball.

Ultimate talent doesn’t always win the ultimate prize. For a nearly a decade the Phoenix Suns were the most exciting team in the NBA because they ran relentlessly and fired up 3-pointers. The Houston Rockets took that formula to the extreme and what seems to be a plurality of NBA fans find them to be an unwatchable aesthetic train wreck. Players who don’t impact the game get paid like stars and leverage reputation into things like starting at shooting guard for the defending Eastern Conference champion. Character and chemistry continue to be absolute mysteries. The stories we tell about basketball players past and present don’t line up with the historical record.

We spend an inordinate amount of time unpacking all these different ideas, but I think there’s probably a lot more work that could be done connecting them to each other.

Basketball truths can maintain their inherent truthiness as long as you don’t look to hard or ask to many questions. I have questions and this season, I’d like to put some of that work in, searching for answers. Searching for A Unified Theory of Basketball.

To be clear, I don’t think such a thing — a paragraph that explains the entirety of basketball relationships between functional and conceptual tangles of physics, psychology, aesthetics, analytics, economics, narrative, mythology, etc. — actually exists. But I like the idea, and I like the name and think it makes for a nice way of #branding an intention to dig deeper into fundamental aspects of basketball across disciplines. So, this season, I’ll be here every week trying to stick a few more pieces of the puzzle together (even if it turns out they don’t actually make a picture).

Trying to define the perfect basketball player seems like a good place to start.

Chris Manning  — @cwmwrites — The perfect basketball player is…

Imagine you’ve been chosen to work with a special committee of scientists to design the “perfect” basketball player. You get a white lab coat, a laminated security badge, and an invitation to help choose from a menu of skills and physical, emotional and psychological attributes to create basketball perfection — Weird Science style.

What does the perfect basketball player look like, physically? What position do they play? How do they interact with their teammates; what kind of leader are they? Are they fiery or icy cold? What role do they play offensively? Who do they guard? Do aesthetics matter, or is basketball perfection all function over form?

For many of us, it’s much simpler to deal with familiar templates than it is to wade through these abstractions. Perfection takes the form of familiar players and their archetypes. If you’re an older NBA fan, this may be a bruising center in the mold of Wilt Chamberlain (or Shaquille O’Neal, the modern version), a player for whom agility and skill are amplified exponentially by an absurd advantage in size and strength. Maybe it’s Bill Russell, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, depending on how much you value sublimation of individual identity for the exaltation of the team, the clutch gene or a blissed-out aesthetic, respectively.

For present day NBA fans, Michael Jordan is probably the most familiar idealization of the perfect basketball player. Explosive athleticism and pristine aesthetics. Overwhelming offense and suffocating defense. Fire or ice, as the situation demanded, both manifested from an indomitable will that demanded winning above all else.

The Jordan template yielded an increasingly fuzzy set of carbon copies — Jordan begat Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, who birthed Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. We’re now down to a third or fourth generation, and while the Jordanistic is increasingly diluted in Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan or Devin Booker it’s still there.

The challenge of visualizing a perfect basketball player is not an entirely abstract task. The collective consciousness and unconsciousness of basketball fans, media and decision-makers works on this question endlessly, and even in a disconnected way tends to drift toward certain characteristics. There may not be an actual human being at the center of the target but the concentric ripples of decreasing perfection surrounding it capture actual basketball players.

Those closest to the center make more money, get more attention and command more endorsements. They shape the way the game is understood and the way it will be written down as history. They force changes in the way the game is actually played on the court and what moves 11-year-olds will be imitating in their driveways and on neighborhood courts. Some of those 11 year-olds will eventually become NBA players, invited to place their hands on the Oujia board planchette and start pushing that moving target of perfection around.

These elements are all intertwined — behavior, athletic performance and observation. The structure of a basketball game and the statistical tools that we use to measure it. The psychology of the 10 players on the court and the physics by which they make basketball plays. The stories we write about these games, the way those stories are cut and pasted together to make myths, the way those myths are stacked onto one another to build history. The economics that underpin it all, making it a viable profession for athletes and media, and a worthwhile entertainment product for those who watch.

Jeremy Lambert  — @jeremylambert88 — The perfect basketball player is…

Let’s go back to you and your white-coated colleagues in the lab of basketball perfection. You’re stuck on some fundamental disagreements, circling the same debates. As a way to push the work forward, someone suggests trying to identify the “most perfect” players among the current generation.

The present-day NBA provides some fascinating possibilities. The conversation would almost certainly start with LeBron James, moving then, perhaps, to Kevin Durant. From there, everything drifts to the massive and still largely unformed potential of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Ben Simmons.

Other than, perhaps, a height advantage over positional peers, there is very little that binds this group of players. The specialness of Porzingis and Embiid is emphasized by their shooting ability at the big man position. Giannis and Simmons don’t even pretend to be interested in 3-pointers. Jokic and Simmons are outlier passers but neither seems likely to ever become an elite defensive player, an area which may come to define the ultimate ceiling of Porzingis, Embiid and Giannis.

You and the other scientists can play the same game with Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Myles Turner, Devin Booker and any number of talented young players in the NBA (or the 2018 NBA Draft Class) if you’re so inclined.

Returning to the analogy of a target, and concentric rings of perfection, can help illustrate where this line of rhetoric leads.

In the center there is a perfect basketball player. Accepting that this center represents something hypothetical that can’t actually be defined, no player actually lands here. Based on their unique combinations of physical, emotional, aesthetic traits and basketball skills, every other player can be placed at some distance from this hypothetical center of perfection. Since each player represents a unique combination, even a pair of talents who are agreed to be equidistant from perfection would have to be placed in different areas of the target.

Similar quantities of perfection arrived at by different means.

This has always been the case — objectively, Bill Russell was no more perfect a basketball player than Michael Jordan. For as long as the idea of a perfect basketball player has been discussed our biases have been placed at the center of the target. (Sorry, your panel of committed scientists is doomed to fail, having been handed an impossible task.)

However, this doesn’t mean that our discussion of perfect basketball players is stuck in this same time warp, destined to repeat the failures of casual and concerned fans past. There is still new progress to be made, simply by recognizing and emphasizing the infinite variations of near perfection.

In his book, But What if We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman spends a few hundred pages wrestling with the disconnected ways in which the present generation (and, by extension, future generations) remembers and understands the past. In a section on literary legacies he posits, “When trying to project which contemporary books will still be relevant once our current population has crumbled into carbon dust and bone fragments, it’s hopeless to start by thinking about the quality of the works themselves. Quality will matter at the end of the argument, but not at the beginning, the main thing that matters is what the future world will be like. From there, you work in reverse.”

Aaron Fischman  — @byaaronfisch — The perfect basketball player is…

There’s not much to argue with in Klosterman’s thinking — what will eventually come to be thought of as the perfect basketball player for our present generation is a reflection of what basketball will look like in the future. There is evidence for it all around our discussion. Michael Jordan was viewed as an all-time great when he was still on the court but his legacy has been titanium-plated by the generation of players who came after him, the scores of young basketball players who tried to “Be Like Mike,” who borrowed his aesthetics and were eventually revealed to be, at best, imperfect (if often incredibly useful) knockoffs.

The shorthands used to measure perfection, those handy templates like Jordan, Wilt, Magic and Bird, were forged in the past and using them in the future means something is always missing. By the time there could conceivably be a “next Jordan” the game has already changed.

That’s why the modern era, and the way the current crop of future stars is being discussed, feels so revolutionary. In acknowledging the impending greatness of Giannis, Porzingis or Embiid, no one is holding them against historical templates (except, I suppose in a cut-and-paste, Hakeem’s footwork plus David Robinson’s body plus Magic’s court vision sort of way). Almost any discussion of their talents includes a reference to how they play the game unlike anyone we’ve ever seen before. These players are capturing our imaginations not just because of their proximity to hypothetical basketball perfection, but because they’re opening new and unexplored zones on the concentric rings of that target.

A perfect basketball player has always meant something different to different people. But there was a concrete underpinning, someone real and tangible and familiar to pin it to. It seems like we — fans, media, basketball decision-makers — are moving towards a future where we acknowledge that the perfect basketball player, the one we want to root for, or write about or pay to help us win championships, is not a specific formula of skills, physical and emotional attributes.

Basketball perfection is about infinite possibilities.