In the last installment of the Clipperblogger summit, Steve Perrin got to the heart of the matter when he wrote …
That’s a pretty astounding collection of talent on paper. So why did they only win 19 games last season? And why are expectations so low for this season?
If the Clippers’ current state is not due to a deficiency of talent, then how do we begin to explain what’s going on? What does it mean to say that the Clippers have chemistry or cultural issues, which prevailing wisdom tells us are the reasons why a team with an excess of talent loses 63 games.
A number of clubs with impulsive personalities have succeeded in the NBA. Didn’t a Warriors team in 2006-07 composed of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Monte Ellis, et al, shock the world in defeating arguably one of the best regular season teams of recent memory? In that same spirit, a number of improvisational players have succeeded in rigid systems — to wit, Allen Iverson and Larry Brown. I’d argue that the Clippers’ three primary scoring options last season, Baron Davis, Zach Randolph, and Eric Gordon all have strong attributes that appeal to Mike Dunleavy’s coaching philosophy. Still, the team’s failures are dramatic. The Clippers weren’t merely underachievers in 2008-09; they were sensationally awful.
In 1953, philosopher Isaiah Berlin took an old adage credited to a Greek poet named Archilochus and created one of the academic world’s great parlor games. The saying goes, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin explains in the beginning of the essay:
…taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel–a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance–and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes…
Berlin theorized that history’s great thinkers and artists — except for Leo Tolstoy — could be divided into hedgehogs and foxes. According to Berlin, Dante’s allegiance to order made him a classic hedgehog, while Shakespeare’s expansiveness on everything from storytelling to language screamed “fox.” There’s a hilarious scene in Woody Allen’s Husbands & Wives where the neurotic Judy Davis mentally catalogues everyone in her life as either a hedgehog or fox while she’s busy screwing Liam Neeson.
It’s tempting to categorize most NBA superstars as hedgehogs because “single central vision” evokes the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but when the fox is a self-aware and skilled practitioner, he’s pretty amazing too! (think LeBron James and Larry Bird). Basketball players embody a lot of individual artistic talents, but they also have to assemble those features collectively if they want to win as a team. A good NBA squad usually has a healthy balance of types. The Lakers have hedgehogs in Bryant and Phil Jackson, who abide by what Berlin describes as “one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel,” even if Bryant and Jackson sometime disagree about the exact tenets of that system. But the Lakers didn’t win the title until they harnessed the centrifugal qualities of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza.
The Clippers, in contrast, are a prickle of hedgehogs without a common goal. Nobody works off anyone else. Like Jackson and Bryant, Mike Dunleavy and Baron Davis are both hedgehogs, yet each subscribes to a system in direct conflict with the other. Dunleavy likes to exploit the best one-on-one matchups on the floor (“the building blocks approach“), while Baron’s measurement of the game is velocity — the 3-on-2 break, the early pick-and-roll with a lightning-quick big, or maybe by driving to the hole before the defense gets set. Try to impose a competing vision on Baron and … you know the story.
Zach Randolph’s approach to basketball has a strong, singular focus to it. He likes to work below the mid-post area on the right side, face his guy up, take a jab step, then a dribble or two, creating space for himself to launch with his left hand — either with a step-back jumper or by muscling his way to the rim.
Al Thornton works inside the smallest vacuum in the league. He has only one pursuit: Isolation. Try for a blow-by, but usually settle for the mid-range jumper. If there was ever a player designed to be a primary scorer on a bad team, it’s Al Thornton.
On the surface, Chris Kaman might seem like a fox, but in practice, he’s a guy who lacks the adaptability to know more than one thing: Posting up in a one-on-one situation. We’ll catch an occasional glimpse of Kaman in the pick-and-roll, but he actually gets almost as many shots on offensive rebounds than he does as a “roll man” (11.6% of his offense vs. 13.6% of his offense). Kaman clings mightily to the structure of Dunleavy’s offense, and might be the player on the roster most dependent on a system to be effective.
Eric Gordon? Still figuring out his organizing principles as a shooting guard, but after one season he leans hedgehog — and even looks a little like one. Once he and Griffin become the primary options in the Clippers’ offense (the sooner, the better), we’ll have a better idea of how Gordon sees the game.
With the possible exception of Steve Novak, Marcus Camby is the lone member of the Clippers’ fox delegation. Novak — the one-dimensional shooter is a fox? How can that be?! Novak’s talent might be singular, but you can plug him into almost any system. Drive-and-kick? Check. A post-oriented offense with shooters scattered around the perimeter? Check. Can he play in transition? You bet. Every coach in the league, from Mike Dunleavy to Mike D’Antoni, can make constructive use of Novak.
Camby has a lot of self-contradictory features as a big man, and he pursues many ends — shot-blocker, rebounder, slingshot from 17 feet (for better or worse), high post facilitator. Camby’s greatest value comes when he protects the rim, and every system needs a basket defender. Everywhere he’s gone, Camby has adjusted his skill set to meet the common objective.
Is Blake Griffin a hedgehog or a fox? It’s far too early to tell. Griffin’s primary weakness (shooting range) and other perceived deficiencies (i.e., post defense) can be largely attributed to playing in a college game that didn’t encourage — and might have discouraged — the development of those skills. By the time Griffin arrives as a fully-formed big man ready to lead the Clippers to success, the likes of Zach Randolph, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby — and possibly Al Thornton and Baron Davis — will be footnotes. Since Griffin will be the big dog, the Clippers’ should maximize his strengths — racking ass in the paint, and being quicker than almost any 4 in the league. You do that in two ways: Designing a game plan suited to those talents, and by populating the roster with the appropriate role players.
Building a team is a careful process — one that’s far more precise than just “collecting talent.” Over the next 24 months, the Clippers’ brass needs to study Griffin and Gordon intently, quantify their on-court skills, assess what kind of environment will best develop those tools, and choose the complementary pieces accordingly. If they want a team of hedgehogs, that’s fine — just make sure everyone agrees on the “one big thing.” If Gordon and Griffin turn out to be fox-ish players whose athleticism is best deployed expansively, that’s cool too. More than likely, a successful Clippers’ future will demand an equilibrium of hedgehog and fox.