On September 26th, Bill Duffy made a bold statement. He claimed his client, Klay Thompson, was the "top two-way, two-guard in basketball". And just like that, a new term was born.
This comment would spark discussion across the league and throughout the media. Lists were created, debated, and created again. Players started using it. Wesley Matthews even called himself the best two-way, two guard in basketball. It became a ‘thing' as things tend to do.
The problem is, it doesn't make sense.
In 2004, the New England Patriots had a rash of injuries that would make even Blazers fans blush. Decimated in their secondary, the Pats turned to undrafted free agents, linebackers and, eventually, to wide receiver Troy Brown. For the first time in his career, Brown was playing both wide receiver and cornerback. He was now a rarity in the NFL -- a two way player.
Basketball isn't football. Players don't have the luxury of learning a specific skillset and ignoring entire swaths of their profession. That's not an indictment on football -- both sports are entertaining in different ways -- but it's one of the main reasons I find basketball so captivating. Any player can find themselves in any situation at any time.
Can't defend the post? Guess where your opponent is going to put you. Can't use your left? Watch defenders cut-off your preferred driving lanes. Can't shoot? That's fine until your opponent stops guarding you completely (RIP Tony "First Team All-Defense" Allen). Players can only be truly successful if they have well rounded games. This is especially true in the playoffs when scouting becomes more intense and creative schemes are more common. It's just the way the sport works.
It also adds a richness to individual matchups. In no way is Wesley Matthews a better player than James Harden. Yet, he used his strengths and Harden's weaknesses to outplay The Beard for a whole series. It was a brilliant approach and one of the most fascinating dynamics I've ever seen. Matthews forced Harden into an inefficient performance night after night by taking him into the post and keeping him off the line.
Many claim Harden isn't a two-way player, but he is. He has to be and that's part of why they lost. You could say the same thing about Damian Lillard or Tony Allen this year. This is basketball. Everyone is a two-way player. If you're the best two-way player then you're the best player. Period.
People were generous and interpreted Duffy's statement as "Within the subset of players that are above average at both offense and defense, Klay Thompson is the best two-guard". It's crude, but it shows how defense is becoming a bigger part of a player's perceived value.
With the exception of a few historical legends, the best players have always been considered such based on their offensive talents. You could point to any number of reasons but offense is more fun, its quality is more obvious, and there are widely respected stats to back it up. Of course offensive qualities would dominate perceptions of quality.
Things are changing. Fans are getting smarter and have a thirst to understand the game at a deeper level. The league is releasing new data, allowing writers and statisticians to construct new measuring sticks. I think these undercurrents explain why the term "two-way" struck such a chord. People were excited to talk about quality in a new way.
This thirst to understand and appreciate the game is at the core of fandom. There's a sense of what a "true" fan is or should be. Jumping on the bandwagon has long carried a negative connotation but the virtues extend well beyond loyalty. Watching the game just for the dunks or highlight blocks would seem shallow since it misses the beauty of the small things. It misses the courage of a hustle play or the importance of a solidly set screen. It neglects the brilliance of precise footwork and the creativity of a crosscourt bounce pass. It reduces a game filled with numerous and diverse virtues down to a vain few.
The term "two-way player" has a similar, if less poetic and expansive, effect. I'm speculating the term exploded because of an unsatisfied desire to understand and discuss the game at a deeper level. If that's true, then "two-way player" is a positive sign but a crude misstep.
Why create a coarse, new category of player if the goal is to recognize the nuance between them? Why not challenge ourselves to fully incorporate defense into all our discussions about player quality? Is Harden really the best two-guard if he can't guard his position? How dependent is his superiority on context? If he was teamed with a ball dominant and defensively challenged point guard would he have the same value?
These are the types of question we are trending toward (and in many cases already asking). It's an exciting time to be a fan and a writer. We have more tools than ever before and more opportunities to improve our understanding of the game. These are the things that enrich the game and our experience as fans. I hope we focus on them rather than fixating on an arbitrary category that misrepresents the nature of the sport and was only invented to inflate a player's value.