Metacognition: Aesthetics, efficiency and the Brooklyn Nets

by Ian Levy

The Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — are a study in aesthetics, efficiency and the places they overlap.

The Brooklyn Nets feel like a mad scientist’s experiment. Can three of the greatest isolation scorers in NBA history coexist in a single offense? Can they create an offense historically efficient enough to compensate for their historically disastrous defense? And can three of the league’s most distinctive and, at times, mercurial personalities navigate those challenges together, while unpacking the tremendous baggage they bring to the franchise?

All of those questions, with answers TBD, are wrapped up in the ways those players are similar — the commonalities in their offensive skill sets, their approaches to the game, the frustrations, disappointments and criticism they’ve dealt with in their previous stops. But there is just as much to learn in examining the minute differences between the three stars, and I’m particularly fascinated by the ways in which the perception of each manifests as slightly different representations of the interplay between aesthetics and efficiency.

To help me work through my thinking, I posted a quick poll on Twitter last week. I asked readers to submit three adjectives to describe each of the three players, as well as quickly order them on a few different broad criteria. The questions were purposefully open and designed to get snap judgments. Here’s what you shared with me.

Kevin Durant is smooth

The most common descriptor, by far, for Kevin Durant was “smooth.” The word appeared 72 times on the survey results, which means it appeared on roughly half of the responses. That’s nearly twice as often as any other adjective from the survey. It’s also incredibly instructive because it specifically refers to aesthetics, the way Durant looks on a basketball court and the impression it creates. Of the 10 most common adjectives in the results, four others — long (13), effortless (12), easy (9), fluid (9) — could be classified in the same way, referring specifically to the look and feel of his game.

Of the other words in the top-10, three — efficient (38), unstoppable (19) and unguardable (15) — seem to target the practical results of Durant’s work on the court. And the last two — versatile (19) and skilled (9) — reference the mechanisms of his game. The ways in which I’m categorizing these adjectives is a bit fuzzy, but it makes a bit more sense when you compare them to the results for Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

James Harden is efficient

The most common descriptor for Harden was “efficient,” appearing 22 times in the survey results. There seemed to be a much broader range of opinions about Harden, as evidenced by less repetition among his most common results — even as the second-most common descriptor for Durant, efficient appeared nearly twice as many times on his list as it did on Harden’s.

Whereas Durant’s descriptors leaned heavily towards aesthetics, Harden’s were almost all about the mechanisms of his game. Seven of the words in his 10 most-common adjectives fit into this category — strong (13), smart (12), crafty (11), iso (9), creative (8), methodical (8) and skilled (7). There was one more — effective (8) — that spoke to the practical results of his game and just one — slow (10) — that referred to aesthetics.

It’s also worth noting that although his most common aesthetic adjective is purely descriptive in a certain sense, slow also has a somewhat negative connotation. I found just three negative adjectives in all of Kevin Durant’s results — cowardly, Mr. Unreliable, Mentally Feeble — all from the same respondent, presumably a jaded Thunder fan. But there were a ton of words on Harden’s list that hold a negative connotation, including selfish, boring, obnoxious, flopping, infuriating, maddening, mechanical, aggravating, cheating, choke, disgraceful, dumb, flailing, rote, stagnant, traveling, ugly and unwatchable.

Notably, all of those words seem to express complaints about the aesthetics and mechanisms of Harden’s game. No one is arguing with the results.

Kyrie Irving is flashy

Irving’s top descriptors are split fairly evenly between those that reference the look and feel of his game — flashy (24), smooth (17), exciting (9) — and those that referred to the mechanisms — creative (19), crafty (17), skilled (16), handles (13), quick (11), finisher (9), selfish (9). And like Harden, we have a negative that appears in the top-10 (selfish) along with a slew of others scattered throughout the list — erratic, inconsistent, overrated, frustrating, ineffective, misguided, overambitious, etc.

For both Harden and Durant, the word efficient appeared in their top-two. For Irving, there is no mention of the practical implications of his game in his top few descriptors and the first one that appears on the list is clutch, which refers to production with a very narrow context and, it could be argued, is heavily influenced by one legendary shot — his 3-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

Perception and purpose

The survey is far from comprehensive and the results aren’t necessarily clean, but they at least support an intuitive dynamic in how Durant, Harden and Irving are perceived and discussed. Durant is understood and perceived, primarily through his on-court production and how it makes us feel. For Harden, the most important variables are the mechanisms by which he produces, with an embedded acknowledgment of how effective he is. Of the three, Irving’s reputation is the most divorced from production — his reputation as a player is built on form, with function somewhere off in the distance.

In the second part of the survey, I asked respondents to rank the three players based on how good they were and how enjoyable they were to watch. (I also asked about who they found the most interesting but the results there were pretty close to an even split between the three players so I’m setting that aside for now).

Results for the ranking of “best” were pretty clear and consistent — 96 percent of respondents ranked Durant as the best, 86 percent ranked Harden as the second-best, 90 percent ranked Irving as third-best. When ranking who was the most enjoyable to watch, Irving and Harden basically swapped places — 62 percent picked Durant as the most enjoyable, 31 percent picked Irving and just 8 percent (12 of 147 respondents) picked Harden as the most enjoyable.

Nothing here is really breaking new ground, all of the results above seem to fit fairly neatly with conventional wisdom and traditional assessments of each player. We know, intuitively, that both efficiency and aesthetics are part of the understanding of each player and a guiding question will lead in predictable ways. If you ask someone which of the Brooklyn Nets they’d prefer to start an expansion team with, or to take a last-second shot or to watch in a setting like the All-Star game, you’ll get the answer you expect, in each case guided by a situational balance between aesthetics and production.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves that the starting point for each player is different. The totality of Kyrie Irving is present in any conversation about his impact and import, but the most striking thing about his game is his on-ball creativity and so that’s where the mind goes first. That’s where the conversation begins. Just like for Harden, with an aesthetic that seems to be generally less appealing, his unique efficiency is emphasized.

And it’s why a player like Kevin Durant will be remembered as one of the greatest of all-time, in a way that Harden likely won’t even though they’ve been comparably impactful on a per-possession basis over the course of their careers, with similar outlier peak seasons. Durant is unique in a variety of ways but being an outlier in both aesthetic beauty and absurd productivity puts him in the smallest group of NBA greats.

We love a beautiful game and a beautiful box score.

Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.

Ian Levy is creative editorial director for and manager of the basketball verticals The Step Black and Nylon Calculus. He has previously written for FiveThirtyEight, VICE Sports, ESPN, The Sporting News, and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.