Soft: A Novel About Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, And Understanding NBA Superstars

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers posts up Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Pau Gasol is "soft" according to some, but to others, that label's unfair for anyone. Dirk Nowitzki used to be "soft" too, and now he's the toast of the NBA. So which is it? Can you call a player like Gasol "soft", or is calling him soft a sign of ignorance?

On the occasion of Pau Gasol's collapse, Dirk Nowitzki's renewed ascent, and Chris Bosh's existence, Andrew Sharp and I engaged in a discourse of the very essence of "soft" in pro basketball. This is that discourse.

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ZILLER: Pau Gasol had a bad series against the Mavericks, and it just killed the Lakers. So naturally, everyone killed Pau. But the thing that bugged me was repeated use of the adjective "soft" to describe Pau's play. The fact that he was being punked by Dirk Nowitzki -- a player who has fought the "soft" label for eternity -- makes me even more squeamish.

My biggest problem with the word "soft": in a sports context, I'm not even really sure what it means. Weak? Low pain threshold? Not "mentally tough"? You think "soft" is a reasonable adjective to use in assessing athletes -- what's it mean to you?

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SHARP: Wooooo! Three cheers for debate among NBA Nerds! But seriously, you hit on the biggest problem with the word right there. "Soft" can mean anything, and unfortunately, there's not a shared understanding of certain parameters when we talk about professional athletes being soft. For instance, NBA writers may hear "soft" and think of a guy getting pushed off the block too easily on offense, or battered in the post at the other end. Those are tangible ways in which "soft" manifests itself.

On the other hand, some people hear "soft" and think a guy's weak. They question his masculinity, and call him a fraud, or a clown, or, in special cases, a clownfraud. In that context, it's stupid and over-simplified. For two reasons:

  1. Anybody that plays in the NBA is tougher than the fans and writers that criticize them. That's just a fact. Pau Gasol could kick Snoop Dogg's ass, for instance. So on some level, it's misleading.
  2. People are dumb, those Miller Lite "Man Up!" commercials are disturbingly popular, and we don't need to fan flames of stupidity if we can avoid it.

So I understand where writers are coming from with criticisms of "soft" like this one.

Having said all that, as an NBA fan, how else do you describe Pau Gasol's weaknesses? Skill-wise, he's the best big man in basketball. He's also easily pushed around, and liable to A) crack under pressure and B) Get taken out of his game by some physical play. If only we had a word for a player like that ...

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ZILLER: I'm not sure it's fair to say he is easily knocked off of his game with some physical play -- he went toe-to-toe with the most intense big man of this era (Kevin Garnett) in the NBA Finals last year, and had 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 7. (Garnett had all of three rebounds in that game, by the way.)

Pau isn't the strongest player alive, and I bet his brother whipped him at arm-wrestling repeatedly as a kid. But he stood toe-to-toe with Kevin F'n Garnett in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals and came out ahead. If that doesn't earn a lifetime pass from "gets taken out of the game with some physical play" criticism, what does? Does he need to get punched in the face by Kermit Washington to get some respect?

And there's the rub: Pau is a bit wispy, and he isn't the most physical player out there. So that leads to the generalization that he can't handle contact despite evidence he can and has, at the very highest levels of basketball. Our perception of Pau and the most very recent results (getting pounded by the Mavs) erase all previous evidence. And there starts the slippery slope: Pau can't handle contact, so he must be soft. Pau is soft, so he must be, as Snoop would say, a bitch. All along the way, he loses respect by less sophisticated basketball fans because of the connotations of toughness and softness.

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SHARP: Well, before we get too far... These are two different arguments, albeit intertwined. "Is Pau Gasol soft?" and "Is it okay to call players soft without being a mouth-breathing douchebag?" To the first question, you raise a good point with last year's Game 7. But what about two years before, when Gasol got eaten alive by KG and co.? Or what about the past month of basketball, where Pau's wilted like never before?

2008's when he first earned the label in the mainstream, and he absolutely did get taken out of his game that year--at least statistically--with physical play. This year's more complicated, and we'll probably never know exactly what sparked his collapse. As far his reputation's concerned, though... Couldn't you make an argument that a performance like Game 7 last year is akin to the sort of statistical aberration we see when someone like Jason Terry plays out of his mind for an entire Game 4? When that happens, we don't suddenly think Terry's a reliable superstar. It's just ... sometimes everything falls in place. Reputation doesn't always define performance, ya know?

That's why I'm still okay with calling Pau soft, regardless of certain examples that suggest otherwise. My question is: Why are other NBA writers so reluctant to brand him that way?

And that brings us back to the original discussion, where "soft" is supposed to be this horribly incriminating scarlet letter among NBA fans. But... What if I'm not questioning anyone's masculinity? What if I'm just saying, "you can't build a team around Pau Gasol and expect to win a championship"? Or, "against equally-talented, less-soft players, he'll get eaten alive." You could say the same of Chris Bosh, who's proven it all year long.

Even if Bosh played well against Boston in Game 4, it's not like Miami can suddenly count on him to show up going forward. And more importantly, Bosh is proof that pretending psychology has no role in all this comes with a price. For instance... If Miami had taken "soft" into account, couldn't they have spent their money better this past summer? And if it matters for NBA teams, why would we treat it as a sign of ignorance in fans?

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ZILLER:There are separate issues: "soft" as a Scarlet letter and "soft" as an actual thing. My problem with the latter is its lack of specificity and its abuse, which has created the former issue. When Snoop is tweeting about Pau playing "like a bitch" and dropping "soft" in the same breath, that's when the problems collide for me. That's when it gets too real.

You talk about the examples of Pau's softness, and suggest Game 7 last year is perhaps the aberration. What about Dirk? Is this postseason the aberration? Is he a soft player masquerading as a brawny dude because he has Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood -- a man once branded with the name "Brenda Haywood" by angry Wizards fans, mind you -- next to him? The thing is: Dirk hasn't changed! He still takes jumpers, he still doesn't give hard fouls, he still doesn't defend particularly strongly, he'd still roll around on the court if he had Carl Landry's teeth embedded in his arm. He is the same exact player, except his shots are going in and his team is winning. So he's not soft right now, just like Pau wasn't soft in the Finals last season. But as soon as the Mavs start losing again, those catcalls will be right back.

That's the problem with anything fuzzy like this -- it's 100 percent conjecture, which is a nice way of saying it's 100 percent bulls--t. Think of David Eckstein's scrappiness. What's the difference between softness and scrappiness? Bosh, Gasol and Garnett have almost identical numbers in the second round. Only one of those guys isn't called soft. Identical measurables ... divergent reputations. It's like the reverse of Derek Jeter's intangibles. It's why everyone would give Kobe the ball for the final shot despite overwhelming evidence he's not the best option. It's why so many people picked against LeBron this season and this series. It's why Peyton Manning was a choker until he won a Super Bowl, and then he was magically not a choker.

The focus on fuzzy, undefinable criticisms and compliments is the saddest trope of modern sportswriting; it's what Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock and Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti live off of. If you criticize an athlete for something nebulous and gray like "being soft," then when he's no longer soft, you can write about how he changed his ways. And no one can dispute it, because it's almost all fiction.

That's why I'd rather we criticize a player for a measurable concern like rebounding, drawing contact or bad shot selection. You'd said "soft" is a good marker for "bad at defense, suffers when the game is physical" -- but the connotations and trigger-happy labeling completely destroy any sincere attempt to make a reasonable critique. This is one of the nicer end-results of the improvement of Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. The best critiques on those players were concrete: Rose didn't draw contact and had a questionable jumper, Howard lacked any semblance of face-up game and had too few moves. Meanwhile, Bayless and Simmons were busy yelling about how Howard doesn't have the will to take over a game ... which critique is more conducive to meaningful discussion?

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SHARP: You're point about Dirk is well taken. It's hard to say what happened there, except that his reputation was always a little bit exaggerated because of the way the '06 Finals and '07 Warriors series played out. Speaking of overreacting... He just went to another level playing against a guy in the throes of a full-fledged, nationally televised meltdown. I'm rooting for Dirk because he's awesome, but I'll be interested to see what happens when someone like Serge Ibaka or Tony Allen guards him in the next round.

As for Bosh, Gasol, and Garnett, and divergent reputations. You're comparing two guys in their prime with a player who's fossilizing before our eyes. Chris Bosh is in his eight season in the NBA, averaging 16 and 10 in the playoffs, plus one assist. When Kevin Garnett was in his eighth season in the playoffs, he averaged 28, 16, and 5 in a matchup vs. Shaq and the Lakers. The next year, he nearly carried Minnesota to the Finals. Let's not carried away comparing a dying wolf to healthy (and really talented) lambs.

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SHARP: From a broader perspective... Maybe It's true that you can't prove "soft," but that doesn't mean it's not real. Building arguments solely around intangibles is one of the things I hate about mainstream sportswriting too, but likewise, one of the things I can't stand about the blogosphere is the idea that intangibles don't exist. I'll offer a case study as my example.

The first player loves basketball more than anything and practices all the time. He's a good shooter, but hates going in the lane because he isn't very strong, and has a tendency to panic in traps. He can shoot as well as anyone on the team, but he gets tight during the fourth quarter. He'll call for the ball when he's open--because that's what shooters do--but secretly hopes it'll go elsewhere, because missing open jumpers would mean people might realize he's not actually that great of a shooter in games, and that hurts his reputation among teammates.

Meanwhile, player number two doesn't care about basketball. He hardly ever practices, and doesn't think twice when the game's overwith. But as apathetic as he is about the game itself, he hates losing more than anything in the world, and in key moments, that makes him the most aggressive player on the court. He's not a great shooter, he doesn't know the plays, and he's not very skilled, but his sheer makes him a royal pain in the ass for opponents in the fourth quarter. (More useful than a three-point shooter that can't shoot, anyway.)

So how would you describe the first and second players? Easy, right?

The first one's terrycloth soft, and the second one's scrappy as hell. Well, the first one is me playing high school basketball, and the second one's my brother.

In other words, as a basketball player... I WAS SOFT.

And I don't mean to turn this column into some JV Basketball therapy session (too late!), but here's the point--those dynamics between different players don't suddenly disappear once you hit the NBA. There are still guys that make a living being scrappy and competitive, and others that don't quite have the killer instinct. In fact, because the threshold for skill is so high in the NBA, there's more of the second category.

Particularly when you're talking about superstars with insane natural gifts, it's entirely possible to get to the NBA without that killer instinct. When you put someone like Chris Bosh on the court with Andray Blatche, he'll be fine. But in big games against players just as big, just as fast, just as skilled, and a whole lot tougher? He's shown that he gets eaten alive.

As for what place this has in basketball discussions? You're right, this gray area is impossible to quantify, and leads us astray as often as it ever enlightens people. But that gray area is also a million times more fascinating than someone's true shooting percentage or Pau's post moves. And at the end of the day, nobody picked the Lakers to be swept by the Mavericks--including all the people who focus on the stuff you can count. No matter what you focus on, the game surprises everyone.

So in that case, is it really that much more ignorant to focus on stuff that's actually interesting from a human perspective? ... Speaking of humans, and sympathizing with the poor souls that might still be reading, we should wrap this up. I'll give you the final word.

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ZILLER: Your point about Garnett is well-taken, though I'll note that he's still terrifying and Bosh still killed him in the second half of Game 4.

Point also taken about a man's soul being more interesting to assess than a man's efficiency, given that one is definable and the other is completely ambiguous. But that's where I beg beg beg for caution: we act like we know what's in these mens' chests -- like you know what was in yours -- and we don't know anything. We think we know why Pau fell apart, and we think we know what that means about his toughness. But we don't know anything, and we're likely to be proven wrong.

Sure, that happens with data, too. The Lakers were projected to win their series handily; instead, they got smoked in four. The best formula couldn't project the NBA Playoffs 100 percent accurately, because s--t happens. Pau happens. Jason Terry in Game 4 happens. To me, even if it's more fascinating to conjecture about souls than analyze numbers and Xs and Os -- that's a valid position; it's not mine, but it's understandable -- one can enjoy basketball a great deal without tapping their inner psychology major. Different strokes, that's what this all is.

You can hear more Ziller and Sharp debates on their new podcast Basketball Nerds Argue About Boring S--t, available in the iTunes Store.

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