SB Nation

Paul Flannery | November 17, 2013

Sunday Shootaround

The impossibility of playing to lose in the NBA

Where tank is a four-letter word

Arron Afflalo hates to lose. The very thought consumes him. It bothers him at night and it frustrates him during the day. Winning to him is little more than a temporary solution. That doesn’t make Afflalo unique in the NBA. Nobody makes it to the league because they’re comfortable with losing.

Yet circumstances beyond their control can thrust players into difficult situations, like the one Afflalo is in with the Orlando Magic. For the first five years of his career, Afflalo was part of a steady winner in Denver. As part of the Dwight Howard trade, he has had to adjust to lowered expectations and the reality of a rebuilding process. He understands that, but does he accept it? No.

"I don’t think I will ever grow into accepting losing. It’s just not my makeup," Afflalo said after the Magic were crushed by the Celtics on Monday. "People can tell you to harness your frustration or it’s a process, and those things are very true, but day in and day out I’m just a person who doesn’t like to lose."

Scattered among teams like the Magic are veterans like Afflalo who are trying to make the best of their situations. He’s the player who sets an example, both on the court and off, for his younger teammates to emulate. It’s part of the game and a cruel one at that.

Afflalo is in the prime of his career and playing excellent basketball. In the offseason he altered his diet and got in peak condition. Primed for a big season, he came into the weekend averaging better than 21 points a game while shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc. Known as a quintessential 3-and-D player, Afflalo has increased his rebounding percentage and playmaking numbers. Put him on a contender and he’d be a household name.

Just 28, Afflalo is not old in any conventional sense, not even by the standards of the NBA that fetishizes young players and potential more than experience and results. But on the Magic, he’s an elder statesman on a team where six of the Magic’s top nine rotation players are 24 years and younger.

"Sometimes that’s the reality of the situation," Afflalo said. "In my eyes, I expect to win no matter what team I’m on. I expect to be in the playoffs. I don’t care if I’m the first or eighth seed, I just expect to be there. Last year was a first for me and that was tough to handle. I don’t want to play basketball that way again."

It’s paramount for teams like the Magic to have veterans like Afflalo and Jameer Nelson around to show the young players what life is really like in the NBA. For years teams have tried to get away with simply letting the kids run wild and, unless there’s a Kevin Durant on hand, the results have generally been disastrous. The key is getting vets who 1) can still play and 2) handle their business like pros.

"We have a good mix where the young guys see veterans who have been there before and we have really good veterans who have a really good influence on our locker room," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "Their approach to the game, how they carry themselves, has been great for our young guys to see. But our young guys have been able to play and it’s nothing like playing. You can’t duplicate that except by being on the floor."

No, you can’t. And that’s the trick. The veterans can help, but they can’t do so at the expense of the younger players who need time on the court to develop. While Afflalo, Nelson and Jason Maxiell all start, Vaughn has received solid contributions from second-year players Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson. Center Nikola Vucevic established himself last season as a double-double machine and rookie Victor Oladipo is getting quality minutes off the bench.

That’s the core of whatever the Magic will be in the future and, Monday night’s loss to the Celtics aside, they have been more competitive than last season thanks in large part to a defense that has tightened up considerably. That’s a huge part of the learning curve. While the focus is on the lottery for many fans and observers, there’s work to be done during the season and the draft is the furthest thing from veteran players’ minds.

"Professional guys don’t go out and play to lose. I know that for a fact." -Al Jefferson

Take Charlotte forward Al Jefferson, who has been part of multiple rebuilding projects throughout his career. Once he was part of the Celtics’ youth movement that bottomed out in 2006-07 with a 24-win team."I try to forget about it," Jefferson said when the Bobcats came through Boston. "It was a rebuilding year, that’s all I can say. It was a lot of long nights."

The specters of Durant and Greg Oden hung over the Celtics that season from start to finish. Everyone knew it, including the players who didn’t want to hear about losing games and ping pong balls.

"Professional guys don’t go out and play to lose," Jefferson said. "I know that for a fact. Everybody wants to win."

The Bobcats got Jefferson because he can score, but they also got him to help their young players improve. It’s not just about getting minutes and scoring points. Development has to take place at a team level, as well as a personal one.

"That’s one of the misnomers about player development," said Charlotte coach Steve Clifford. "People look at player development like a guy shoots better, or his ballhandling gets better. There are a lot of guys who have the talent to play in the league but they never grasp the team concept. Although their skills may get better, it doesn’t matter if they can’t function with the other four guys on the floor. To me it all goes together."

Jefferson helps make the Bobcats a functioning team and Clifford has been encouraged by what he has seen from the big man, who returned to the lineup after missing the first five games with a sprained ankle. It’s not just on the court, but behind the scenes as well. He likes how his team practices and prepares, which may not sound like much, but it’s actually an important first step in creating a culture.

"In this league, with your best players particularly, it’s a partnership," Clifford said. "These guys are pro players. They’re men, grown men. How well you practice, how hard you work is dictated much more by their outlook than how much impact a coach has on them. You have your role in setting a tone, but it’s the relationship you develop so they will embrace the work part of it. You’re relying on the better players in the locker room so they will set the tone."

Of course there’s nothing better than leading by example on the court and in games. In a win over the Celtics that put them at 4-4, Jefferson went for 22 and 11 and was the best player on the court.

"He's an elite low-post scorer," Clifford said. "He’s a much, much better defender than I had realized, but the thing that’s coming through now is his competitiveness. He badly wants to win."

Back in Orlando after the disappointing loss to the Celtics, Afflalo scored a career-high 36 points, making eight of 11 three-pointers on Wednesday in a win over the Bucks. Vaughn praised his player’s effort, calling it "courageous" after the Magic came out with low energy. It was a reminder to his young teammates about professionalism from a player who hates to lose.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

Over the summer, Damian Lillard took a long look at his game. On the surface there was a lot to like about a season that saw him average 19 points and six assists en route to a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection. He was a precocious rookie who walked right into Portland’s starting lineup and took control with a veteran’s mastery of the pick and roll. But Lillard was looking deeper than raw numbers and highlights.

"I saw that I was pre-determining with a lot of things," Lillard said after a pregame workout in Boston. "I’m coming off to score this time, or I’m coming off to pass this time. I think now I’m better at coming off and making a read and feeling the game out. Last year I was like, man I got to make an impact. Just try to help win games. Now that I’ve got a year under my belt, now I understand what I need to do to make us a good team. I understand what I do to make myself effective. It all comes a lot easier this year."

Not all improvements are made in the gym. The step he felt like he had to make was more mental than physical. If last season was about working through situations, this year is about making things easier on himself and for his teammates.

"Last year I was like, man I got to make an impact ... Now I understand what I need to do to make us a good team." -Damian Lillard

"The game is a lot slower." Lillard said. "Last year was in a rush for me. I was using my speed and my quickness. Now it’s more change of pace. I don’t have to work as hard because now everything is slowing down and I see things faster than I would have last year."

It helps that Lillard has been with the Blazers’ core group of players for a full season. It also helps that GM Neil Olshey brought in reinforcements in the offseason to beef up a bench that was one of the worst in the league. Better depth means slightly fewer minutes, but it also means fewer difficult minutes.

"He’s a smart young man and a smart basketball player," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "Last year I think he did it out of sheer will and this year he’s taking more of a cerebral approach to it. He willed himself last year with the minutes he played and the level he played and the way he bounced back from a subpar game. He was criticized for his defense, which I think was not as deserving as it was built up. He gave good effort but he had to play a lot of minutes and he had to give a lot on the offensive end."

Not that there weren’t tangible things that Lillard sought to improve. He worked on his mid-range game and added a floater. He wanted to cut down on his turnovers, which he has done through the early part of the season, and also improve his efficiency. That last part is a work in progress, but while his field goal percentage is down, his three-point accuracy is up and he’s trying to take better shots within the flow of the system.

"Last year I was looking for my shot," he said. "Not in a selfish way, but I was trying to impact the game. Now I’m getting easier shots because I’m coming out and getting other guys going. My rhythm gets easier being more of a floor general to start the game and letting it come to me."

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Blazers at Nets

Is it too early to worry about the Nets? More specifically, at what point do we begin to worry seriously about Kevin Garnett? KG is barely shooting 30 percent and looking very much like a player who is on his last legs. Having lived through the last half-dozen KG years, there is never a good time to declare that Garnett has lost it. See: 2012, "I hear you all calling me old." Garnett will always get the benefit of the doubt from this corner, but concern? There’s always concern.

TUESDAY Hawks at Heat

The Eastern Conference is top heavy, weak at the bottom and larded with mediocrity in the middle. Somewhere in that mix are the Hawks, who boast an excellent player in Al Horford, a decent supporting cast and a top-10 offense and a better than average defense. There’s an opening here for Atlanta to emerge, but the Hawks are perpetually stuck in neutral.

WEDNESDAY Pacers at Knicks

It’s funny how things work out in this game. Chris Copeland was a cause celebre during last May’s playoff series, the fulcrum on whom all debates about Mike Woodson’s lineups revolved. Indiana gave him a nice chunk of change to be a floor-spacing big, but he has been buried behind Luis Scola in the rotation. At least there’s a reason he’s not playing.

THURSDAY Clippers at Thunder

Petition to have the Clippers play every Thursday night … oh wait, they already are.

FRIDAY Spurs at Grizzlies

Speaking of getting worried, the Grizzlies have been a shambles to start the season. Their offense is still stuck in a morass of poor shooting, spacing and lack of playmakers. But it’s their defense that’s been an even bigger problem, ranking in the lower fifth in points allowed and fouling way too much. There’s no room to take even a tiny step back in the West.

SATURDAY Blazers at Warriors

The Warriors are the best thing to happen to late night TV since Letterman started doing Stupid Human Tricks and becoming more than just a cult favorite. Should we take them seriously? Considering their lights out shooting, strong depth and top-five defense, a better question is, why aren’t you taking them seriously?

SUNDAY Suns at Magic

If you’re going to rebuild, play your young guys. If you’re going to play young guys, play fast on offense, sound on defense and let them learn from their mistakes. Basically, be more like the Suns and Magic.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

Everyone loves lists, especially completely arbitrary lists like this one. This week: Top five tanking teams.

Note: This is not about lottery positioning. This has nothing to do with losing games. This is about making the most of what many expect will be a lost season.

1. Phoenix: In the offseason, new GM Ryan McDonough traded every veteran he could and loaded up on draft picks and rookie contracts. He turned the team over to Eric Bledsoe and the results have been eye-opening. Bledsoe is thriving in first-year coach Jeff Hornacek’s free-flowing system and Markieff Morris been a revelation. McDonough is building something in the desert, but not at the expense of the long-range goal.

2. Orlando: There will be some bad nights of course, but the Magic are going about this the right way with six of their top nine rotation players under 24 years old. If the defense holds, this is a team that will catch a few people by surprise and continue to develop. It’s not just about getting that transcendent talent, it’s also about putting the right players around them. The Magic are figuring out what they have.

3. Boston: The best thing about the Celtics is that first-year coach Brad Stevens has been as advertised. He’s calm, cool and collected on the sidelines and is generating positive reviews from his players for his practice methods and gameplans. The C’s lack the top end development talent that Phoenix and Orlando have, so getting Stevens up to speed is the top priority this season. The most encouraging sign? A top-10 defense, emblematic of a team that plays hard and together.

4. Philadelphia: We all have jokes about the Sixers’ early-season success, but let’s be clear about one thing: There is no upside to losing 70 games. None. It’s demoralizing, horrible and can set a franchise back years. The Sixers have to be encouraged by rookie Michael-Carter Williams and the play of Evan Turner, who is turning himself into a potential trade possibility. That’s the idea. Those potential lottery picks at the end of the year are the bonus.

5. Charlotte: Steve Clifford has done a fine job with this Bobcats crew that for years lacked organization, direction and a clear purpose. Already he is getting solid production from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and has the Cats playing an entertaining style. Given time and talent, Clifford can turn this thing around, but the talent has a long way to go.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

The Chicago Convention

Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker all put on a show in Chicago on Tuesday night. Ricky O’Donnell was there for The Convention.

Thunder U

Jonathan Tjarks is bullish on the Thunder’s stash of young talent. This is how Sam Presti assembled the other pieces.

On the leaky Rockets

The Rockets are a sieve on defense and Mike Prada says it’s not all James Harden’s fault. He has pictures and everything.

Artists of the Trade Machine

Read The Hook. Read it every day, especially when Ziller goes deep on Omer Asik trades and impressionism.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"That (Jabari Parker) kid is amazing. I think he is the best player in the country. Him and (Andrew) Wiggins are like '1A' and '1B.' Those guys are going to do the one-and-done thing, do it early. They are going to do really well in college and lead their teams to, I think, the Final Four. That's kind of like, 'Close your eyes and pick one.' You're good with either one of those guys." -- Kevin Durant, to Yahoo!'s Marc Spears.

Reaction: The ‘Wiggins can be a Hall of Famer’ quote from Durant is getting all the attention, but this is actually a stronger point. The top pick will be debated all year long, but the top of this draft class is so strong that simply getting into the lottery is the play this season; not blowing up a season to try and get the top pick.

"I'm always in trouble with Twitter. I don't know what it is. Trying to shake it." -- J.R. Smith after a brief mini-feud with Brandon Jennings over social media.

Reaction: Maybe don't tweet?

"Obscene gesture?" -- Sam Cassell to ESPN’s Marc Stein, about the NBA fining players for his signature big shot move in which he congratulated himself on the size of his testicles.

Reaction: If the world isn’t safe for the Sam Cassell Dance, then that’s a world we don’t want to live in, honestly.

"As an American, I wouldn't like to think that an American team would want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose. I can't even fathom -- I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Maybe I'm naive and I'm going to go read a fairy tale after this." -- Mike Krzyzewski Reaction: The Russians don’t like to lose either, Mike. Same with Chileans, Italians and Zambians.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Xavier Henry

Jeff Withey's valor is a key piece of what makes the GIF great. Fruitless valor, alas.

Kevin Love

Mack Brown would recruit K-Love as a right tackle.

Andrea Bargnani

Juuuuust a bit off there, Bargs.

Halftime bliss

Only this can save us from a season without Red Panda

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.