Like a hundred million other people, I loved the book Freakonomics. It was, to me, a completely original introduction to some of the hidden motivations and influences which shape society. By far, my favorite section of the book is the discussion of what makes a good parent. This enormous questions is attacked from several angles, but that chapter finishes with an exercise which has stuck with me.
A list of statements is displayed about parents and parenting behaviors. The readers are invited to guess at which statements have been shown to correlate, positively or negatively, with the academic success of children. The exercise is a cognitive trap - the statements most people, myself included, believe to be significant are things like ‘The child’s parents regularly take him to museums‘ and ‘The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.’ In fact, the study discussed in the book found that those parental behaviors had no correlation with a child’s test scores. The things that did affect a child’s test scores were factors like ‘The child has highly educated parents‘ and ‘The child has many books in the home‘. In the end the authors arrive at the evidence-supported generalization that, when it comes to parenting, what you are is more important than what you do. This idea itself is a tangled knot – how do you separate your actions from your identity? But complications aside, it’s a very unsettling reality to acknowledge, even partially. This is especially true in a culture where free will, responsibility and self-determination through hard work are such celebrated virtues.
In the years since I first read the book I’ve played with this idea off and on, frequently rolling it back into a dusty corner of my mind for lack of satisfying resolution. But, after watching Carmelo Anthony torch the world in the Olympics I felt the need to roll it back out and bounce it off the wall for a while.
Since their shotgun wedding, both Anthony and the Knicks have struggled to meet lofty expectations. While the Knicks’ reputation was fairly scuffed to begin with, their combined struggles have taken a bit of luster off of Anthony’s star. Although he is still generally regarded as one of the top players in basketball, in the minds of many he no longer resides in that top tier with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. (In the minds of some he has always resided quite a few tiers below that.) Although James and Durant will get the lion’s share of the credit for Team USA’s gold medal, Anthony did some serious spit-shining of his reputation during his three weeks in London.
In eight games, he scored a ridiculous 130 points in 142 minutes. On a per minute basis, no player in the London Olympics scored more than Anthony. He also put up those points with tremendous offensive efficiency, hitting 57.5% of his two-point shots and and 50% of his three-pointers, knocking down 23 in those eight games. Anthony played in a much more constrained role, spending a lot of time at power forward and hunting spot-up jumpshots created by his teammates, but it was an impressive performance to be sure.
All this scoring potency, exhibited in the framework of hyper-efficiency and solid role-adherence, has gotten Knicks’ fans understandably excited about the upcoming season. Some see his Olympic performance as an indication that Anthony is playing with renewed purpose, and by adjusting to a smaller role with Team USA may have exhibited a willingness to make changes to how he plays in New York. It may put me in the small minority, but I feel differently. I’m of the opinion that his Olympic supernova was a significant event, but that instead of being the impetus for change and growth it may serve to reinforce old patterns and rituals; and that Knicks fans may find themselves with an Anthony even more firmly set in his ways next season. The drain on my Anthony optimism goes back to the question of which is more important, being or doing?
I’ve never met or spoken to Carmelo Anthony but from a distance he seems to believe his NBA identity is ‘scorer.’ Which is good, because he is a scorer. However you feel about their relative implementation, his skills in this department are undeniable and dwarf his contributions in any other area of the game. Again, reverting to observation from a distance, he seems like a player for whom that identity of ‘scorer’ holds more weight than the actions it takes from him to acquire and retain that identity. I’m basing this on the fact that he has continually struggled with shot selection, balancing the use of his many offensive weapons, and finding ways for his scoring to make the game easier and more engaging for his teammates. It seems that Anthony’s view of himself is so colored by the self-definition of ‘scorer’ that the nuances of how those skills can best effect the game rate of secondary importance. The problem is that those nuances seem to be, in part, what has separated his teams from the highest level of success.
Although successful parenting may be about what you are, I think basketball has revealed itself to be a very different situation. Looking back through recent history, identity-driven players like Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Monta Ellis and Gilbert Arenas have been much more successful in the maintenance of that identity than they have been in the pursuit of championship-level basketball. Meanwhile process and method-driven players like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki have found themselves astride the NBA mountaintop. (I’ve purposefully not placed Kobe Bryant, as an entire book could be written analyzing where he sits on the ‘being or doing’ spectrum.)
Now, in these Olympics much of Anthony’s success sprung from his willingness to play a different role. He came off the bench, didn’t raise a stink about a dearth of isolation opportunities, and instead happily sat on the wing and knocked down outside shots created by the considerable talent around him. However, that understanding of his success requires an understanding of nuance, and as I said before Anthony doesn’t strike me as a nuance type of guy. Projecting from afar I imagine he may see his success differently, through the lens of identity instead of action.
Team USA experiences have held great weight in shaping the attitudes of the current NBA elite. There seems to be a direct line from the way James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Anthony have tried to orchestrate their collective combinations, back to the fun and success they’ve had playing together in international tournaments. I think in many ways Team USA represents the ideal team experience to these players, something they’ve tried to replicate in the NBA. If you consider that context, and cover your eyes to the details it seems likely that Anthony’s London experience may not be such a positive sign for the future.
Rather than seeing success born of flexibility, I think he may see success born of his identity being finally placed in the proper circumstances. During the Olympics Anthony averaged 23.8 field goal attempts per 36 minutes. That’s an incredibly high rate, significantly higher than he’s ever averaged during a full NBA season, and one which has only been matched once over the past 20 seasons (Kobe Bryant, 23.9 FGA/36, 2005-2006). When playing on the best team, surrounded by the best players, Anthony’s job was to shoot, and at a historically prolific rate. Setting up teammates, rebounding, defending, moving the ball were all the responsibility of his teammates. His job was to live out his identity, and score. Even when surrounded by some of the best scorers in the NBA, Anthony was the one asked to embody that identity to the fullest. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose he may see what occurred during the Olympics as less about his changing the way he played offensively, and more about his talented teammates recognizing his scoring talents and making sure he had opportunities to use them when he was on the floor.
What lesson is he more likely to carry into next season – that when surrounded by the best players in the NBA he may be asked to score in slightly different ways, or that when surrounded by the best players in the NBA his identity as a scorer will be appreciated above all else, and he’ll be asked to shoot as often as possible? Of course reality is not dichotomous. It’s possible that Anthony has absorbed some of both lessons, or none. For what it’s worth, I hope that his play this season is more like his Olympic self than what he his shown in his season and a half in New York. All fans of basketball lose when a talent on Anthony’s scale accomplishes less than what they are capable of. However, I still don’t think Anthony has resolved for himself the question of which is more important to him, being a scorer, or the specific and discrete ways in which his actions make that identity manifest. Until then he may be doomed to continue chasing scoring for the sake of winning, not realizing that there is another, deeper, layer to that battle.