Posted by Romy
Above: Courtney Lee, smiling, as always.
You can’t help but notice that Courtney Lee is one of the genuinely good guys in the NBA. He’s polite, soft-mannered and well spoken. In other words, he’s an NBA agent’s wet dream — the kind of dream that’s allowed to go on uninterrupted without any surprise calls from the slammer.
When Ainge engineered the sign-and-trade that brought Lee to Boston, I quickly scoured the web eager to unearth any under-the-radar facts that would confirm (to me, eager fan) Lee’s soon-to-be runaway success in Boston*. Instead, the most revealing thing I found was an interview of a younger Lee boasting his “strong character” to an interviewer. Which is strange enough to hear from a player himself — agents are usually the ones spinning this stuff in overdrive to quell wary GMs — but even more conspicuous because it came in response to a question about what Lee brings to the table three years into his NBA career. Not athleticism, defense, or effort, but a strong character. Interesting.
Even if Lee was just feeding us vapid tidbits with a knowing wink, his choice of manufactured content — even in today’s self-aware NBA — was somewhat peculiar.
You see, “nice” has become something of a dirty word in our society; a qualifier that we hesitate to use, and reserve for those uncomfortable situations when honesty is not an option and instead, you find yourself grasping at stumpy, slippery straws for a substantive descriptor.
Friend, with pleading eyes: “Well, what did you think of Robert?”.
You, desperate: “Oh, you know… he’s really, … niiiiiice”.
That, in a seemingly harmless monosyllabic word, represents a social death knell. For the usage of “nice” (which leaves behind it more a trail of cowardice than any kind of a punctuation mark) reveals a serious deficiency of any memorable or salient quality in someone. Because “nice” is just a placeholder, you see.
In MTV reality dating TV show parlance, it’s synonymous with sending a contestant back to the bus with a booming “NEXT!”.
Things are only exacerbated in the NBA’s predatory world. Making it in the NBA usually hinges on a confluence of factors including talent, an unrelenting work ethic, a tough psychological makeup and a healthy dose of luck. How many more-nice-than-anything-else guys can you think of that withstood the inevitable ups and downs that accompany most NBA careers? Grant Hill, Steve Nash**, Tim Duncan? Whether or not character traits loosely correlate to holes in a player’s game is not a disprovable hypothesis, but the fact remains that nice guys generally don’t rise to the top in a sink-or-swim league.
What is the opposite of nice, anyways? In the NBA ecosystem, I would argue it’s stubborn aggressiveness. Aggression is by definition an “act intended to increase your relative social dominance”, which requires you to at least contextually suspend your niceness in the parallel moral world that NBA athletes inhabit. We can also glean some insights into high intensity players from behavioral studies:
Studies of testosterone levels of male athletes before and after a competition revealed that testosterone levels rise shortly before their matches, as if in anticipation of the competition, and are dependent on the outcome of the event: testosterone levels of winners are high relative to those of losers.
Perhaps more than a blanket assessment about what someone’s Niceness Quotient indicates, success in the NBA depends on your ability to compartmentalize your behavior. I thought it was telling in Scalabrine’s November BS Report when Scal refuted Simmons’ assertion about KG’s rule of terror. Despite the Epic (and messy) Myth of KG, Scal scoffed at the idea that KG is that rare Culture Changer because he instills fear in his subjects, say, like the way God’s children are afraid to fornicate out of wedlock lest God target them with lethal voltage lightning.
Consider this: 62 minutes before a game, a docile and friendly KG is howling while watching Family Guy and shooting the shit with everyone in his vicinity. But at the 60 minute mark, everything changes. KG gets in the zone. No one dares approach him. What’s fascinating here, and that Scal points to, is the fact that KG has to work himself into the zone. It’s a deliberate and conscious act. A switching of personas.
And here’s the thing: It’s not as easy as you think. Take it from Jeff Green, a recovering nice guy, emphasizing in his interview with Jackie MacMullan how nature has a way of undoing others’ prescripts:
You can’t teach someone to be more aggressive. You’ve got to make up your mind you’re going to do it … Everyone tells me, ‘Be this way.’ So I’ve got that in my mind, but then the game starts and sometimes I revert back to what got me to the pros in the first place.
Are certain people wired differently than others or bound by biology? Maybe will is not the only thing keeping certain players from stepping into the booth and undergoing that transformation.
For whatever reason, Courtney Lee, well into his fifth season in the NBA, is still somewhat of an unknown quantity. This is hard to manage in a league replete with scouts and obscure million dollar algorithms that tease out the capable from the run-of-the-mill. I’ve seen a lot of confusion in the media about his defensive skills — some have touted him a defensive stalwart while others label him a defensive liability. John Hollinger had a similarly inconclusive assessment:
So we’re left with a conundrum. On past performance, Boston overpaid. But given his skill set, he offers the promise of a high-50s TS% and above-average defense — a player like that would be hugely valuable.
Promise, again, is not usually attributed to a 5th year player in a league where the spotlight shines brighter than in the scorching desert. Lee is that gifted but shy student who correctly answers questions when asked (TS% of 54.7) but doesn’t volunteer them.
Don’t get me wrong. Lee is a nice player and February has been his best and most consistent stretch as a Celtic. But the NBA is not for the faint of heart; There’s a reason why JR Smith can go 2-15 and 0-5 from the 3pt line before calmly drilling a heart-perforating three against the Celtics with a minute to go in the game (and maybe that reason is tied to similar trigger-happy instincts that lead to not-so-pretty-things off the court). Or why Jamal Crawford can be a complete non-factor for an entire game, then suck the life out of an arena with an absurdly high degree of difficulty floater. Conversely, that can also explain why a highly effective regular season player can inexplicably turn into a “hot potato” peon and disappear in the playoffs — where defensive rotations are that much crisper and closeouts come a fraction of a second sooner than you might be used to.
Allow me to borrow from the repository of nasty Republican idioms to draw a line in the sand between NBA players: in the zero-sum NBA, if you are not a Maker, if you don’t snatch the opportunity out of the ether regardless of whether it’s been handed to you or not, your fate will be that of the runt of the roster: Meek, hungry and unable to fend off your stronger litter-mates. And make no mistake about it: we’re talking about a mentality, and a mentality doesn’t waiver, irrespective of your role.
There’s a quiet little theory I’d been mulling over about the Celtics’ woes this year. I don’t think it’s because KG and Pierce are a year older, or because Ray Allen left town, or even because Doc Rivers can be as adept at establishing rotations as a retired b-grade juggler with glaucoma. I believe it’s because the Celtics’ trademark grit — the very fabric of the Celtics’ teams that have managed to remain threatening in the spring, regardless of what happened in the fall and winter — has been seriously compromised by a bunch of nice guys. The kind who show themselves when a play is called for them and otherwise stand in that lonely corner and only afterwards wonder why their usage rate has plummeted. The kind who cool the sting of a bad performance or disappointing loss under the shower right in time for their smiley post game interviews. Shrugging off hardship is necessary but not if it happens before allowing it to build a few layers of calluses that are requisite to succeed in a league where success rarely comes easy.
You’ve noticed the way Durant carries himself this year; He smiles less, he oozes scary quiet confidence and he’s been dunking on everyone, their mom and pet goats. Those changes are direct outgrowths from those same calluses.
Luckily, this has started to change. And the Celtics’ League of Fine Gentlemen seem to be shedding their, well, niceness. Together. There’s a reason, after all, why “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is an overused plot trajectory for sitcom episodes; it’s an arc we’re all familiar with, when the sheepish protagonist is fed up with being that guy that’s always shat on and decides it’s time for a change.
Being nice-more-than-anything-else is a great thing, it really is. Just leave it and your fanny pack behind in a locker before you board the rollercoaster. Don’t worry, it’ll be waiting for you when you get back.
* I was determined for it not to take much.
** Let’s disregard for a minute that he left his wife and twins for a socialite half his age, THEN used his abandoned girls as a pretext for jumping in bed with the enemy (“but L.A. is close to home….”). Or, more a Care Bears-level infraction, that Tim Duncan was caught brandishing a plush AK-47 in the face of a plush Joey Crawford at Halloween.