Kobe Bryant sinks a jumper and all of a sudden, the Lakers are back within 12 points. But still, the Clippers are only eight and a half minutes away from their first ever division championship.
With an 88-76 lead, Eric Bledsoe powerfully puts the ball on the ground and drives toward the paint. Bledsoe seems to get to the rim so effortlessly. It’s not just his tight end build, but it’s also his explosive first step. Throw him up against a small guard and Bledsoe can physically dominate him. Put a bigger guard on him and Bledsoe can probably out-quick him.
This time isn’t much different than any other. Once again, Bledsoe finds himself at the rim for a good look, a running, open layup in penetration. Finish it off and the Clippers go back up by 14 against their hallway rivals.
But he misses it.
So naturally, here comes his slap on the wrist. At the next dead ball – nine seconds later – Chris Paul comes in, Eric Bledsoe goes out, and the Clipper backup point guard doesn’t see the floor again on that division-clinching night.
Maybe it wasn’t just Bledsoe’s missed layup that got him pulled. Surely, the missed shot compounded with a turnover on the previous play made Vinny Del Negro’s decision to pull him that much easier. But Bledsoe coming out of that game against the Lakers on a night in which he played a mere seven minutes spoke to a greater, more consistent issue about this Clippers team: young players are still getting “punished” for immediate poor play.
We’ve seen it all season with Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan. It’s discipline-on-the-go.
Bledsoe gets a turnover. He’s out.
DJ misses a couple of free throws. He’s gone.
Clipper wisdom says that if a young player makes an unfortunate basketball play, he deserves a vacation to the bench. Swap in an older veteran and those mistakes go away. But is that really true? Or is Del Negro stereotyping the inexperienced and the experienced alike?
The 24-year-old Jordan and the 23-year-old Bledsoe are young. And they’re “always” going to be young. That is, until they’re not. Hold on, I’ll start making sense in a second. There is nothing the young players can do about their youth. They can’t improve on it. They can’t age five years by the postseason. And this discipline-on-the-go won’t – and can’t – change that.
Here’s the problem with discipline-on-the-go: it instills a lack of confidence. On top of that, it takes away a player’s aggression on the floor. Athletes like DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe play so much better when they’re free to roam. Wild animals shouldn’t be caged up, especially if part of what makes them successful is their ferocity. But when Bledsoe starts getting pulled for every turnover he has, he stops making the passes that turn him into a quality contributor. When Jordan goes to the bench after every missed defensive rotation, he loses his aggressiveness. And then when those energizers get into the game, they’ve lost their energy purely because they don’t want to come out.
Basketball is a mental game. It’s as much about the mind as it is about the body. Just ask Brooklyn’s Gerald Wallace, a once All-Star caliber player who went 31 minutes the other night without even attempting a shot. After the game, he had this to say to the New York Post:
“My confidence is totally gone. I’m just at the point now…I’m in a situation where I feel like if I miss, I’m going to get pulled out of the game, you know what I’m saying? So my whole concept is just that you can’t come out of the game if you’re not missing shots. I think I lost the confidence of the coaching staff and my teammates.”
And there it is. When a coach conditions a player to think that one negative will have him headed to the bench, that player stops engaging in the same style of play that made him successful in the first place. It’s like a sick and twisted reverse version of Pavlov’s dog in which every time a bell rings, the dog gets his steak taken away. Eventually, the dog is going to do everything he can to make sure that bell doesn’t ring.
A perfect meritocracy is what the sports world should be. There’s an inherent flaw in playing veterans purely because they’re veterans, regardless of on-court performance. Once the younger players realize that there is nothing they can do to play more, they stop working. They lose motivation. They lose intensity. That happens when Jordan sees Lamar Odom consistently closing games over him. It’s something that has been veiled as a free throw issue, but in reality, that’s not true. It’s an age issue, a perceived on-court maturity issue. Teams can’t go to deck-a-DJ in the final two minutes – and even if they could, Odom is shooting only 47.5 percent from the charity stripe this season.
No matter how hard DJ and Bledsoe work, they can’t change that number in the age column. At least for now, they’re “always” going to be young. And at this point, they’ve been trained to believe that their youth is a pure negative.