The NBA GM Survey
is one of my favorite yearly traditions, I’m not sure why but there’s something fascinating about general managers (or assistant GMs or whoever they hand the job off too) giving their anonymous and honest opinion about the league. Much like player ranking, there’s trivial fun in examining what other people think about our favorite team and players.
I’m personally fond of seeing who has some of the worst votes, displaying favoritism towards their own team or doing a favor for a GM friend. One great example was last year when Miami only received 96.7% of the votes for “What team will win the Southeast Division?”. Thankfully Ernie Grunfeld came to his senses and Miami was voted 100% to win the division in this year’s voting.
One of the categories that always irritates me is the “Which player does the most with limited ability”, in previous years this was titled “Who does the most with less?” and some other variations of the same point — which NBA player is good despite having a lack of athletic ability.
The troubling trend with this award and the way it’s voted on is how white-dominated the award is. Kevin Love is a two-time winner taking home this year’s crown in addition to last year’s. Luis Scola took home honors in 2010-11 and Mehmet Okur in 2009-10.
Why is this award so dominated by white players? Is this an example of racism in the NBA and well, sports in general? Daniel Lewis and I had a conversation to discuss.
Daniel Lewis: Rich, did you read the NBA GM survey? One of the questions (Which player makes the most of limited natural ability?) got some of us at Hickory-High thinking about an issue in the NBA. The general managers answered Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Matt Bonner, Jared Dudley, and J.J. Barea.
Is this an example of racism, or is it a racial issue, in the NBA?
Rich Kraetsch: I did read the survey and the question mentioned is one that grinds my gears on a yearly basis because as you eluded to it displays inherent racism. It shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore, as Ethan Sherwood Strauss pointed out last year, the award almost always skews white:
In 2010-2011, four of the five leading vote getters were not black. In 2009-2010, six of the seven leading vote getters were not black. In 08-09, it was four of six. The names change, but the pattern remains: A disproportionate amount of Caucasian players get cited as wringing their potential for all it’s worth.
Regardless, it’s hard not to be a bit weary of exactly what the criteria for the award is. I always find it somewhat weird that Kevin Love finds himself listed despite being born to a former NBA player. What are your thoughts on it? I believe this type of thought goes far beyond the NBA and into all sports really.
Daniel: It isn’t just a NBA issue. Analysts are dumbfounded at Andrew Luck’s running ability (he’s sneaky fast), blown away by Simone Biles power, or Seth Jones breaking down barriers in the NHL. What’s so amazing about Johnny Manziel? That’s he able to do incredibly athletic feats on the football field, or that he’s white and able to do that?
It’s unfortunate that our society is still stubbornly holding on to stereotypes like “limited natural ability.” Kevin Love is a really athletic power forward, and if Tim Duncan was correctly labeled as a center, I think Love would be the best power forward in the game. At least Love has a good sense of humor about the whole situation. I have no problem with J.J. Barea being on the list – he’s what, 5’6″?
If it is racism, what can the NBA do to help counter that? Does Grant Hill need to do another series of commercials with Jared Dudley (also on this list!)?
Rich: I find it fascinating that Marc Gasol, one of the better defenders in the NBA and a big that can legitimately guard 1-5 received 13.1% of the votes, while his teammate Zach Randolph is, in my opinion, the poster-child for doing the most with less. Randolph was, in year’s past, a legitimate NBA pseudo-star at 6’9, 250 pounds putting up ridiculous flat footed shots out of the post. Of course, he received zero votes this year. He did however receive votes in the NBA’s “Toughest Player” category. An award that was dominated by black players this year (13 of the 15 listed are black — Kobe Bryant won at 31%)
Anyway, to your point on how to counter the “white guy” = “doing more with less” racism we see in this award, I’m not sure. It’s become the token answer for a lot of NBA questions lately but I wonder if SportsVU will shine some light on who really is athletic and quick and who isn’t. Raw data from the system will have no underlying prejudice that permeates sports narratives. We will have no choice but to accept that, no, Gasol is faster than Andre Drummond (just throwing out an example, I’m not sure about that).
This type of data could go a long way in proving that white players are sometimes pretty athletic so the very idea of the self-deprecating “wow, look at how much that white guy is doing despite being white, we’re so proud of him!” will be dead. I do, however, think you might get the flip side narrative that white players are trying harder which plays a lot into this discussion in other sports including baseball .
Is there anything you can really do or is the narrative and prejudice just too strong?
Daniel: One thing we can stop doing is comparing players solely on physical appearance. Hickory-High has a great tool, the NBA Draft Similarity Scores, that compares incoming players to previous players, regardless of conference, position, color, background. We can also stop giving people labels – soft European is one that I think is galling. Jan Vesely can’t rebound because he is an awful basketball player, not because he’s soft.
I think that the narrative is beginning to change, slowly but steadily. It’s hard to combat racism, from all angles. Oftentimes, people don’t realize that they are making a racial judgment, because stereotypes come easily to people. When I say the phrase, “Business casual,” you probably thought of a collared shirt, jeans, and nice shoes, right? It’s not offensive, it’s just a label. Saying J.J. Redick is a limited defender, without being able to describe why without saying “well, look at him,” is an offensive label.
Columnists can help start the movement. Stop saying all African-American players “looked athletic.” Stop making jokes about Jeremy Lin (cough, cough Jason Whitlock). Stop complisulting Kevin Love by saying, “Look at how much success you’re having despite your limited athletic ability!”
I believe in the innate goodness of people, and that with education, people can change for the better.
What do you think is something that can be done to help reduce racism in the NBA (other than SportVU)? Also, which players are in your top 5 for “making the best out of limited athletic ability?” Here’s my list.
- Andre Miller – (slow, can’t jump)
- Zach Randolph – (slow, can’t jump)
- Matt Bonner, Steve Novak – (not strong, average speed)
- Kendrick Perkins, Hamed Haddadi – (all they do is scowl and be big)
- Derek Fisher – (not quick, old)
Here’s eight minutes of Steve Novak highlights that I hope never gets taken off the Internet:
Rich: I was thinking of my top 5 from the beginning of this discussion and it changes quite a lot from my original list as I thought of it more and dug into the question. Is this a list of most unathletic NBA players and be proxy we assume that by getting to the NBA they’ve “made the best out of limited athletic ability” or are we picking guys that are good but that we deem not athletic? It’s an interesting look. Judging by your list and the inclusion of Perkins and Haddadi it’s the former and essentially an unathletic NBA players list, which I’m totally fine with and in which case:
- Aaron Gray (can’t jump, can’t move laterally, slow)
- Andre Miller (slow, can’t jump whatsoever)
- Derek Fisher (slow feet, no vertical explosion)
- Zach Randolph (very slow, not vertical leap)
- Andris Biedrins (unfortunately born without ligaments makes it difficult for him to move shoot or do anything on an NBA court)
If it becomes a list where we dig deeper into athleticism relative to production, it becomes a whole new animal. Zach Randolph blows away the competition to me and guys like Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson may get into the conversation as well.
As far as combating racism in the NBA, that’s a tough question that I’m afraid I don’t have a clear answer to. The big reason why I don’t is the NBA has been a league filled with racism almost from its inception. The 70s were the most clear example of that as fans left in droves because “black guys on coke were ruining the league.” Suddenly, in 1979, those “black guys” seemed to not matter anymore as the white knight (literally) Larry Bird strolled in and dueled another white-friendly superstar, Magic Johnson.
In the post-Michael Jordan 2000s, cornrows, tattoos and thugs sent fans packing once again before a more suburban friendly NBA guard emerged. As long as the NBA remains 75%+ African-American that racism will survive. It’s sad in a sense, but it will always be known as the league filled and dominated by African-American players (whether justified or not). The by-product of that is white athletes heralded as the underdogs or, in the case of a guy like Kevin Love, champions for making the most out of being white in a black-dominated sport. I wish I had a more clear solution, I just think the narrative is too strong for any one solution to disrupt it.
As you mentioned, knowledge will slowly erode prejudice and bias but we’re very far away from that becoming a reality. The craziness of Jeremy Lin in 2011 and the collective amazement that a “Chinese” guy could “dominate” the NBA had the entire sports world going insane. I think that example showed just how far away we are from breaking that wall down.
Daniel: That whole episode with Lin was disrespectful to Yao Ming.