Stan Van Gundy had a rant, one that decried Gary Williams’ Kentucky choice in a “Wildcats vs. Wizards” hypothetical. The dismissive response was cheered by NBA writers the world over, as so many thanked him for putting to rest an obviously “absurd” idea with the derision such supposed blather deserves. Though I would certainly bet on a Nene-Wall team to win such a matchup, I think the backlash is overblown, and more ridiculous than anything Gary Williams said.
While I love the hypothetical of “UK vs. an NBA team,” I’m surprised that the topic has gotten such traction. I’m also a bit shocked by the uniform resistance among NBA lovers to even entertain the notion, and I especially don’t get why this money quote from Van Gundy received so much praise:
“’Oh, Kentucky, you know, has got four N.B.A. players.’ Yeah, well the other team’s got 13.”
SVG’s a smart guy, but this isn’t an entirely intelligent argument. It’s specious reasoning, based on the idea that the NBA has a higher level of aggregate play, so therefore, 13 NBA players must trump a college lineup. It’s a tautology of, “NBA players are better because they are NBA players, so obviously NBA players would be better than college players.”
Here is my issue: Van Gundy and others are bestowing a special, lofty status on “NBA player,” per a league where only a few guys really matter at all. And, as Doug Gottlieb put it on the NBA Today podcast: “It’s easier to make the league than we think.”
I’ll cite my hometown Warriors. The team is taking a flier on Jeremy Tyler, hoping that he can parlay physical prowess into eventual NBA skills. Tyler is fresh from Japan’s second best league, and has struggled mightily, even hilariously, at the NBA level. He’s also Golden State’s starting center now that Andris Biedrins is out and Ekpe Udoh’s been traded. Mickell Gladness of Alabama A&M fame and Keith Benson of Oakland (not that Oakland) College have also been getting minutes in the Golden State rotation. Gladness shot 44% as a college center, numbers Benson would scoff at, had he not compiled his superior stats in the fightin’ Summit League. These guys are all technically “NBA players,” but would any see more than spot minutes on the UK roster? This gives lie to the notion that “the worst NBA player would kill it on the best college team.” The NBA is comprised of a few megawatt actors and many, many extras.
GSW’s current starting point guard is a rookie out of Hofstra, and nobody’s quite sure if he’s NBA-caliber yet. Klay Thompson, another rookie starter for Golden State, is doing his best Monta impression by averaging 14.5 field goals in March. Thompson wasn’t named to either Rising Stars challenge team, by the way. This is not to say that either rookie is bad, but simply to point out that both are receiving big minutes a short while after leaving respective college campuses.
Golden State is not the worst team in basketball, and they have more than a few players who might not start on the Kentucky roster. Absorb that for a moment. Once that seeps into your pores, then the prospect of Kentucky beating an NBA team becomes not so preposterous.
I’ve suggested the Bobcats as possible fodder for Kentucky, only to keep hearing that Kemba Walker was a great college star who looks pretty ordinary in the NBA. This is an argument made by those who wish to demonstrate how supposedly great UK players might get exposed in the pro game. One problem, there: Shaky rookie Kemba might be Charlotte’s best dude. Walker currently leads the team with a 15.38 PER, the only above average efficiency mark on the whole roster. Once you posit that Charlotte’s franchise face might be the guy who looked feeble against Butler last year, Kemba’s flaws become less a cudgel against Kentucky and more a teardown of Charlotte’s edifice.
Statistics-able Warriors blogger Evan Zamir added some analytical perspective on this hypothetical battle. Keep in mind, five Kentucky players are projected to be drafted in 2012. Marquis Teague is not among this lot, though he was projected as a first round prospect in the preseason. Anyway, here is Zamir:
“If we look at Charlotte’s power rating of -7.4, determined by using Las Vegas spreads (as reliable a predictor as you’re likely to find anywhere), and we assume that a team full of rookies would have an average rating of roughly -10 (based on estimates of average rookie rating over the years), we can hypothesize that on a neutral court Charlotte would be about a 2 1/2 point favorite. At Rupp Arena, it’s possible that such a game might even be called a push. It should be noted that not every UK player is going to be an actual NBA rookie (although it feels that way). If UK doesn’t play it’s top 6 the entire game, we would need to take into account the relatively worse rating of the bench players on the current team, which could make the spread more in Charlotte’s favor.”
I find that to be an interesting, informed take, though it can only be consumed by those who don’t reject the premise as absurd and idiotic. So why the widespread anti-intellectual rejection? Why kill a fun topic before it can even be broached? Why act like an NBA snob, insisting that only ignorance can compel somebody to believe a college team could hang with a drecky pro squad?
My suspicion is that UK vs. (NBA team) became such an emotional issue for the NBA-connected, in part, because they want to believe that the league exists on an ethereal plan, that they’re part of something uniquely spectacular. The good news? They are indeed part of something uniquely spectacular. You can see that whenever Wade throws an alley oop to LeBron, whenever Durant pulls up from deep, and whenever DeMarcus Cousins manages to optimize and squander all of his talent within a single possession. You just can’t see it whenever Derek Fisher trudges down the court slower than a standing man on an airport walkway.
The league is defined by its stars, but that does not mean all who play in it are transcendent by definition. A lot of bad NBA players stay on rosters because they’re well-liked, well-known, well-connected, not exposed yet, or just tall. A lot of bad NBA players stay on rosters because it really doesn’t matter who fills those spots. And there are, when you add it all up, a lot of bad NBA players. So while we love this league, let us not overrate or flatter it. “NBA player” is often more a temporary job description than signifier of uniquely unassailable talent.