The San Antonio Spurs are often credited for spotting difference-making talent where nobody else realizes such talent exists. Gary Neal is just the latest example—last year, Neal averaged 12.6 ppg in Spain. This year, he plays an important (if secondary) role for the Spurs, as a bench player who scores in bunches and shoots better than 41% from behind the arc. Neal’s not alone, either; the Spurs unearth these types of great finds seemingly every season. From Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker to George Hill to Gary Neal, the Spurs have made a habit of finding legitimate (or better) NBA players who other teams pass by.
But San Antonio’s success in picking up Rolex watches from garbage cans begs an age-old question which usually gets asked in areas outside of basketball—is such success due to nature or nurture?
Was Neal destined to become a solid NBA player no matter where he landed, or does he need the tutelage and leadership of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich to guide him? Should the Spurs get credit for an advanced scouting unit that scours foreign countries far and wide for NBA-ready talent, or should the Spurs get credit for coaxing production and improvement out of players who (for other NBA teams) would not maximize their skills? Is Neal good because he’s talented and driven, or is he talented and driven in part because of his circumstance? Did I really just compare Gary Neal to a Rolex watch?
In all probability, the answers to these questions are somewhere in the middle (except the answer to the last question is yes, I actually compared Neal to a Rolex watch—though in fairness to me, I was also lumping Neal with Ginobili and Parker, making my metaphor slightly less ludicrous). The Spurs have a keen eye for finding supreme talent, in both the NBA draft and free agency, and also an impressive, proven method of mentoring young players to reach their full potential. This is the NBA, where talent matters. But so does leadership, and so does building habits conducive to winning. Players who land in San Antonio tend to achieve a greater portion of their potential than, say, players who land on the Clippers.
I broach this subject because Kendrick Perkins recently discussed how his time in Boston helped him mature. Now grown, Perk has become a leader, which would surprise anyone who remembers an 18-year old or 19-year old Perk from his rookie year. During his time in Boston, Perk slowly evolved from a chubby, untalented rookie into one of the league’s premier low-post defenders and teammates. During the bad years, Perk was a hindrance to the cause. Then the Celtics got good, and suddenly Perk became a defensive force. He’s now in Oklahoma City, teaching a new team everything he has learned throughout the years.
But how much of that would he have learned, if Kevin Garnett had never been traded to the Celtics? If Tom Thibodeau had not been enticed to become the Celtics’ assistant coach? How much of Perkins’ ascent, which has left Perk a crucial element to the Thunder’s rebuilding process, has come because Perkins is the product of a successful, defensive-minded environment?
Perk talked about his leadership, and made sure to mention Garnett.
“I talk to K.G. a lot. One thing he told me is just lead by example,” Perk told the Oklahoman. “I try to come out and communicate and try to talk guys through things. I try to do less talking but more action.”
Perk talked about his defensive knowledge, and made sure to mention Boston.
“We have a rule, no layups,” he said. “I come from a system (in Boston) where everybody must look themselves in the mirror. There’s no pointing the finger.
“Everything is not going to be perfect. But at the end of the day I feel like you can talk your way out of things on the court. So as long as you can communicate and play hard, I think you can cover up for each other’s mistakes.”
He talked about the backbone of good defenses, and he made sure to mention lessons he learned in his formative years.
“One thing I learned about being a good defensive team is that your two big men got to be on the same page at all times,” Perkins said. “That means guarding pick and rolls and having each other backs.
“I want him to know at all ties he can trust me. If he takes my man, I’m going to take his. I’m going to have his back 110 percent. I think when you have two big men that can guard the pick-and-roll or lock up the paint, that’s what makes a good defensive team.”
Not everything Perkins has accomplished is due to his environment. Duh. For example, if I had become Boston’s starting center alongside Garnett and Garnett had taught me everything he knew, I promise I still wouldn’t have a chance of guarding Dwight Howard in single coverage. More talented players than Perkins (*cough* Patrick O’Bryant *cough*) have come through Boston’s system and been either a) too stupid, b) too lazy, c) too dumb or d) too all of the above to match Perk’s impact. Perkins has a desire to improve, impressive basketball knowledge, immense physical strength, and a competitive spirit that makes his mediocre (at best) skills seem mostly unimportant. Because of his own traits, Perkins was able to maximize his situation’s positive impact.
But what would have happened to Perk had the Celtics not magically become a championship contender in one offseason? Had he learned defensive techniques from Michael Olowokandi and Mark Blount, rather than Garnett? If he were not hardened by playing such physical playoff games?
If the Celtics continued to suck, and Perk had been stuck in a losing environment surrounded by young, inefficient players, would Perk have blossomed into the $35 million center he is today? Can we even say for sure?
The theory of circumstance extends beyond Perk and beyond the Spurs, of course. If Rajon Rondo had not been a beneficiary of Boston’s renaissance, his stock might not have rocketed from “Sebastian Telfair’s backup” to “All-Star point guard, NBA assists leader and All-NBA defender” so quickly. If Allan Ray had come along a few years later, he might have used Ray Allen’s instruction to become a top-flight backup guard. If Marty Conlon had—err, maybe Marty Conlon was destined for an uber-quick and uber-uninspiring NBA career no matter what. But the theory of circumstance can have greater consequence to NBA history, too.
How would NBA history have changed, if Kobe Bryant had not been traded from the Hornets to the Lakers on draft night? What could have become of Kwame Brown, if Michael Jordan had not broken him to the point of no return during his rookie year? Was Brown always destined for failure, or was he not treated the way he needed to be? How many championships would Jordan have won, if the Bulls never hired an inexperienced young coach named Phil Jackson? Or if Chicago had never taken a risk on an NAIA player from the University of Central Arkansas, Scottie Pippen? How would Bill Russell’s career have played out, were he not drafted onto a Boston Celtics team featuring Bob Cousy, coached by Red Auerbach? Would Larry Bird have become such a phenomenal basketball player, if he had not grown up in French Lick, Indiana with no money and nothing else to do?
Over the span of our lives, we become the cumulative result of our decisions, traits, and circumstance. And circumstance, from everything I can gather, has as heavy an effect on many NBA players’ careers as anything the players themselves can control.