During yesterday’s Sunday afternoon matchup between the Mavericks and Lakers, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen got onto the topic of the improved screening of Dwight Howard.
Van Gundy: A screen is just a different form of an assist. We keep track of passes that lead to an assist, but screens are the same thing. It’s giving yourself up to free a teammate or get a teammate a shot.”
Breen: It’s funny, Reggie Evans of Brooklyn, he recently said that. That he thinks there should be a stat for that [screens] because he thinks it’s just as important as an assist.”
It was an interesting exchange on a topic that the coach in me would love to see get more attention. Whether the casual fan appreciates them or not, screens are often at the center of great offensive basketball. Unfortunately, there are few incentives for the most talented players to become expert screeners.
Let’s add this to the list of TrueHoop HoopIdeas: a stat for screeners.
It may seem crazy to think it, but the addition of one metric could cause a chain reaction that improves the quality of the game at the NBA level for the better. It’s just a simple matter of emphasis.
NBA players are combination of who they are and what type of atmosphere surrounded them during their formative basketball years. Whenever you see a guy shamelessly gunning at the rim, part of the reason he does that is the people around him — parents, coaches, friends and family — during his youth, high school and AAU days judged his talents by the stats they know are universally respected throughout the highest levels of the game: rebounds, assists and most importantly, points.
Screens, on the other hand, are often a blue-collar job done without fanfare for the overall ‘good’ of the team. And while we like to think of the world as a place filled with selfless individuals (news flash, it’s not) who happily sacrifice themselves so others can reap the praise, the reality is the ones that do so are very rare. More often than not, players are motivated and evaluated by external factors rather than some innate pull to “do the right thing.”
It’s not that only selfish players need something measurable to improve the subtle areas of their games. One of the high school players I work with, who is a great kid, teammate and worker in every respect, still recaps his contribution to games with me by focusing on how many points he scored. And why shouldn’t he? Scoring points is what his coach asks him to do, the reason why his family/friends praise him after games and the draw for Division I college coaches to come recruit him.
Reaching the next level always requires some degree of selfishness — of time, of effort and energy. Let’s change the incentive so that young players are selfishly motivated to be better teammates.
In the ugly, amoral meat-grinder that is the basketball industry, players — even low D1 prospects like that high school player — are also increasingly coming up as brands. At first they are marketed to college programs by AAU coaches and should they excel at that stage, they are then pitched to NBA front offices by agents. The best way to sell a brand is to hit on indicators — points, rebounds and assists — that link the player to thriving NBA player brands. Simply adding a screening stat won’t immediately fix all of this, but it would quantify an important act that coaches pull their hair out trying to get their players to accomplish.
You can’t improve what you don’t measure. The formation of such a stat shows emphasis, that players are getting noticed — and possibly even praised — for doing it. And with the way NBA trends filter down to the lower ranks, there is a chance that more kids come out taking pride in their screening ability. All because the box score finally gives them a reason to do so.