The greatest thing about basketball to me is its poetry. The number one reason great ball-handlers and defenders are easily spotted is because, when they move, there is poetry in their motion. The concept is very organic. Certain motions are so pure, so fluid, they appear to us as transcendent in a way that’s almost inexplicable. A move can appear as a force of preparation, motion, imagination, grace, explosion, poise and execution. These aspects of a great move come together in ways that seem as if they could never have been fully premeditated by a player. For these brief moments, great players seem to step outside of themselves.
As the process happens, the force of motion seems as if it could only occur under a highly specific confluence of influences converging in such a way that what's occurring seems altogether spontaneous. Yet, as we watch the move on replay, we see the fluid movement in its completeness. We see a structure from A to B. We see the offensive player take what the defense gives him, or, on the flip side, we see the defensive player show the offensive player something and take it away. If we are astute as we watch the game, we learn to see these things coming. With great players, even when others can see a set of moves coming, there seems to be no doubt certain ones will lead to inevitable conclusions. Here are some Iverson and Hakeem highlights to help illustrate what I mean. The Iverson ones seem especially dramatic.
On the basketball court, many people can learn how to cock-back and shoot, many people can learn how to keep themselves between their man and the basket at a level that is adequate for championship quality basketball. What makes any one player dangerous and ultimately transcendent is a particular illusive quality, which is often referred to as "the shake." There is no denying people who have this quality because they are, as Jake Shuttlesworth--Denzel Washington’s character from He Got Game-- would say, "the truth." I think of people like Jordan, Dream, Dr. J, Magic, the Pearl, Isaiah, Kobe, Lebron and Iverson. In addition to having mental focus and a pure shot, the shake is what allows stars to put teams on their back and dominate in crunch time. For the game of basketball, "the shake" is the mark of good poetry.
I’m going to poorly paraphrase Billy Collins who talks about the way good poetry makes us see the truth. He basically says that somehow good poetry is like removing a person’s heart and placing it on a stick so an arrow may shoot through it more easily. That’s what I love about basketball. In good moves, we see this type of clarity. They demonstrate how the game is supposed to be played. They are what transcendent players do. In the right time, and the right context, moves like these rip out other players’ hearts in true competitive fashion. And, after these moves are done, competing players often bemoan themselves as if they should have seen the process coming all along, which of course they couldn‘t because the choices being made on both sides only came as a result of advantages formed through a complex type of dance. There is art to these successes, and that’s why when we speak about great players, we talk in terms of craftiness. A great move--to borrow a few words from John Dewey’s Art as Experience--constitutes having "an experience."
Lots of experiences pass us by in the fluid motion of life, but having an experience stands out and is clearly demarcated from the rest. In games, we come to find that having an experience means finding unique ways of applying creativity through play with others. Sometimes it gets overlooked, but this creative aspect of play is central. An offensive player may walk a defender one way, just to see how the other team’s defense will respond. The offensive player may throw a jab step, just to see how their defender will react. The defender may jab at the ball, and, when this happens, the offensive player may get more advanced and throw two jab steps, a hesitation, spin, and counter dribble. They then will have options to finish in different ways, which the defender will need to read in a snap judgment, and that‘s when great offensive players throw in a pump fake or a quick jump. This is how good players toy with one another. Transcendent players navigate all these different forms of motion as basic options in reaching an ultimate goal--putting the ball in the hole. On a mechanical level, this whole business of creative play comes down to footwork, timing, mistiming, and fluid explosion, which all require high levels of intelligence to coordinate--intelligence of a specific variety.
If we were to boil down the game to a basic essence, we could see that (aside from fundamental execution) the very thing that allows us to play with each others’ movements, imaginations, and expectations of what will happen next is this thing I have been referring to as "the shake." Playing as a point guard growing up, I appreciated this aspect of the game from an early age.
Moving to real point of this post, every year when the draft nears, I turn to potential draft picks with my eye searching for this particular quality in an up-and-comer. On boards like these, I hardly ever see the subject of "the shake" talked about. But, amongst my friends, that’s the first thing we ask when evaluating a player. Does he have "the shake?" Only once that quality has been established (when trying to identify a star) do we move onto other things: the purity of their shooting stroke, their ability to cock back, their post game, their creative ways of finishing around the basket, their uncanny knack for finding teammates, their ability to shoot the passing lanes, time the dribble, take away air space and recover on defense.
At the forefront of all of these things is "the shake." The shake is a dance. That dance is what allows you to do something unexpected even when others are dialed in. To go even further, the shake is how you get easy shots. Along with teamwork, floor-spreading, and unselfishness, it is how you win the game of basketball. Tony Parker has been beating people with it for years, including Lillard this year.
For all the talk about how our bench was worse than the Spurs’ bench, the game came down to Lillard being outplayed by Parker/Mills and Aldridge being outplayed by Splitter/Duncan. Our stars will get better, but I think adding a bench only takes us so far. Unless that bench includes guys like Pau Gasol and Shawn Marion who were once transcendent players at their position and still have something left in the tank. Either of these guys would bring elements of craftiness that are missing from our team-play, but neither one really has the shake, and thus both can be negated by the best of the best. Still, for this off season, either one would feel like a dream come true. Hawes dynamic shooting would also be amazing for a number of reasons, but even he can be negated by an elite team, since he is also not transcendent and would better thrive with stronger defensive pieces around him. Stepping back from a grand scheme perspective, my suggestion would be to look to make a bigger move for a player with the one illusive quality we need.
Of course, "the shake" is not everything. CJ McCollum has the shake, and a bit of a shot, but he lacks the lower base and mental focus that we have seen with Damian Lillard to put together his entire offensive game in a consistently effective way. He could also use a bit more hop to his step when exploding for finishes. Lillard’s shake, on the other hand, is an interesting case as it is less wild than CJ‘s and has more hop underneath, but timing-wise it is not as honed as Tony Parker’s, leaving him with less high-risk high-reward off-the-dribble moves than either of those guys--not that he doesn’t have similar moves in his arsenal. Lillard does what he needs to get to his spots, but he would be well served to add in a mistimed-outstretched-to-the-side arm-reach finish to quick jump bigs and find more angles to gash the paint.
Watching Dame's high school tapes, we get to see some of Lillard’s street ball craftiness and clever finishing ability. The potential for greatness is there. But, he rarely displays his heavier shake moves and clever finishes on the NBA level. Instead, he has channeled his craftiness to become more cold-blooded, calculated, and explosive. Through his college years, he became this way by working to keep his dribble "tight," as he often mentions in interviews when being asked about turnovers. Keeping his dribble tight, along with having a solidly developed lower base, helps him to maintain proper posture and alignment as he rises up into his devastating shooting motion.
The other thing Lillard has going for him is extreme mental focus. This quality is largely the product of mental preparation. Lillard has attributed his honing-in ability to the time he spent at practice in college, imagining himself finding extra energy from a spot between his eyebrows whenever his body got tired. This type of focus has allowed Lillard to draw extra energy from his mind and hone in on his form. This sharply developed quality is why guys like Gary Payton have said he has "more in the tank" than any other Oakland point guard. Here, I emphasize the differences between Damian, CJ, and Tony Parker as a basis for comparison. So far, what this discussion has shown is when we pick apart a player by dissecting their shake and mental focus, we can identify a player’s ability to shake others on a spectrum in terms of how they coordinate other requisite fundamental winning basketball actions together with their dribble. So a sense of balance, poise, and well-rounded coordination has to be taken into account when we talk about any player’s shake.
For my money, there is one player in the 2014 NBA Draft who has both terrific fundamentals and "the shake"-- 6’6" point guard Dante Exum. Wiggins, for all his athletic ability, doesn’t have it. His motion when he is not shooting or jumping lacks poetry, which essentially makes him a shooting guard version of Harrison Barnes--good but not transcendent, unless he proves me wrong by making a big metaphoric leap and not just literal ones. Randle is a very skilled bruiser--again, good but not transcendent. Jabari has a bit of a shake but will get abused defensively for many years in the mold of Melo. Embiid has the requisite footwork to potentially learn the shake, but his offensive game is raw and undeveloped. He doesn’t do anything on the offensive end that is better than Amare besides being taller, and that comparison is where I pin his offensive ceiling. The Hakeem comparisons are just unfair. Smart might have the shake, but he has it in the same way as Dion Waiters--unpoised and erratic. Exum, on the other hand, appears to be a winner. He is smart and calculated. I predict him becoming a Tony Parker type from the shooting guard position--especially if he’s paired with a floor spacing point guard like Lillard. All he needs is a couple years to add necessary lower body strength so he can adequately guard the NBA shooting guard position. Then he will be all that and a bag of potato chips.
I’d like to mention, as part of my impetus for writing this post, that I love ziggythebeagle’s analysis of this year’s draft picks, but I feel Exum for whatever reason has been severely underrated. This is where the discrepancy between fantastic statistical analysis and feeling something golden in your gut rears its ugly head.
I’m sad Exum’s hype is continuing to grow because I was hoping the Blazers would be able to swoop in on a trade for the Kings pick and scoop him up--even if it meant costing us Batum, but it looks like we would need to trade up even higher. My take is, as long as Lamarcus is onboard to resign, give up anybody without the nickname Omen or L-Train along with any available future draft picks to land Exum if the opportunity is there. If Neil wants to make the needle move, this is it. Exum, at his full potential, puts the Blazers over the top by giving us a total of three unselfish, transcendent players with differing skill sets. The only reason he is the "mystery" of this draft is because he has gone mostly unseen, and that is why Neil should strike while the iron is hot--even if it means giving up some of the intangibles we may miss by trading other non-transcendent players and future 1st round picks. For all the talk of how Portland needs a bench, there are lots of ways to fill those holes as many of us may remember from the Trader Bob years. The bigger picture is one more transcendent player paired with Lillard, Aldridge, and the right supporting cast of MLEers puts us over the top. The best way to get this last transcendent piece is by stealing him from under people’s noses.
Essentially, I am advocating for Neil to think like Wayne Gretzky at this stage in the Blazers incarnation. To complete this team, he can’t just focus on going where the puck is. He needs to focus on keeping us going where the puck is going to be.
What do you guys think? Any player on the Blazer roster not named Lillard or Lamarcus + future draft picks for Exum if the opportunity presents itself? Am I crazy for putting so much stock into this one aspect of the game and caring so much about the Blazers adding more of "the shake" to their arsenal? I’ll let you guys decide.