Ya, the Lakers are the best team on paper. Just look at all those big names! Or is Miami dominating the ink canvas? The Heat won last year’s title with their famous big three, so that’s probably the best team on paper, right? Combine the young star power of Ibaka, Westbrook, Harden, Durant…hey, that might be the best team on paper. On paper. On paper.
Paper–a substance we rarely use to convey anything about this sport–is oft referenced in conveying something about this sport. I just don’t quite know what that something is.
Recently, Chris Bosh created headlines by saying the following on electromagnetic radio waves:
“The Lakers, I think, right now, I mean on paper, they probably have the best team in the West and probably the league right now.”
Bosh further modified with: “On paper. I’m saying on paper.”
Either Chris means that Los Angeles has the best team, or that it just seems like they do. He could also mean that it seems like they do because that judgment was rendered via the suspicious practice of looking at paper. As in, you shouldn’t trust the fool’s superficial reading of anything on paper. For all I know, Bosh could be saying, “Ya, this carney game looks winnable to the naked eye. It’s a carney game, you idiot.”
Chris Bosh wasn’t the only one to connect Lakers to paper like an origami boat, or Los Angeles to paper like William Randolph Hearst. Kevin Durant reiterated Bosh’s wood pulp vagaries:
“People outside, fans, media, of course they are going to say [the Lakers are the favorites] because on paper they have the best lineup in the league. But you still got to play the games. We respect everybody. We are going to go through the league respecting everybody as well.”
Shorter Durant: Dumb outsiders will think L.A. preeminent, but the Lakers still have to prove that those people aren’t stupid. Also shorter Durant: His on-paper playing card height.
I surveyed the TrueHoop Network for a standard on-Internet definition of “on paper,” looking for consensus. Here’s a smattering of the responses:
Nate Drexler, MagicBasketball: “To me it means they have all the pieces in the right place, so they only thing that could cause them to fail is themselves and/or intangibles. More specifically, I think it means the same thing as ‘in a vacuum.’ Like if no outside force causes any major changes then they will succeed. So I guess it just means expectations. ‘On paper,’ then, would mean, ‘what we expect of them based on their personnel.’”
Devin Kharpertian, Ballad Of Moe Harkless: The obvious subtext to ‘looking good on paper’ is that the team ‘may not be good off paper,’ and that those bits of info we call ‘paper’ hide underlying issues (how the pieces fit together, if the players aren’t as good as advertised, et al). I also think it can be abused/mistakenly used as a cop-out argument when someone has nothing left to say to defend their position.”
Curtis Harris, NBA Historian: ”‘On paper’ seems to imply a team that’s a bit too good to be true and may be premature in celebrating as a complete unstoppable success. I imagine Leonardo di Vinci’s sketches on rudimentary helicopters and tanks as something that was awesome on paper, but didn’t quite work out at the time.”
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: “I’d always thought of it as a swipe at the team, shorthand for ‘some of those guys put up pretty numbers, but they can’t win.’ It’s also, and this is probably the bigger point, a swipe at numbers themselves. ‘Good on paper’ being different than just ‘good.’ What really counts can’t be captured on paper, is the subtext.”
Jared Dubin, Shumpertologist: “I always just thought it meant, ‘These guys have recognizable names so that team should be good.’”
Charlie Widdoes, Clipperblog: It’s funny, because ‘on paper’ occurs to me as something that actually means ‘in my imagination.’ How I/we picture things might play out, based on what we know about individuals — with the need to qualify because there is an element of unknown when individuals are thrown together and asked to perform as a group.
Noam Schiller, HardwoodParoxysm: “Interesting to see that most of you guys refer to ‘good on paper’ as fool’s gold. I never thought the on paper moniker had anything to do with actual results – rather, I see it as a declaration that while a team looks good (for whatever reason), actually proclaiming they are good is premature, regardless of why that is the case.”
Ian Levy, Hickory High: “My video game days petered out with NBA LIVE 97, but I think video game simulations provides the best analogy. A team that is good on paper is a team that has ton of players who are individually great. When that happens in a video game the team is incredible because the simulation engines don’t handle context very well, things like chemistry, coaching and complimentary skill sets. In real life a thousand variables besides the collection of talent influence whether a team will actually succeed. Actual success requires ‘on paper talent’ and favorable resolution of context.”
Beckley Mason, guy who founded this site one day in a Kubla Khan fever dream: ”There is a cloud of connotation regarding the phrase, but primarily it’s meant to indicate where you’re seeing the team — that is, ‘on paper’ and not ‘on the court.’”
I can’t lend much else to what “on paper” means, but I can theorize as to why it’s used. Perhaps paper is the thin barrier between a man and his statement. Chris Bosh may think the Lakers roster impressive, possibly more impressive than Miami’s. “On paper” lets Chris talk about this without really talking about it–without owning it. Paper allows for some honesty while protecting against the contamination of accountability in a 24 hour news cycle. Paper distorts just enough so that people comfortably espouse clarity.