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Being Dissatisfied with Your NBA Role is Not a Bad Thing

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From the outside, playing in the NBA is a dream job. Sometimes it’s more job than dream.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In the shadows of All-Star success stories, inspiring championship team slogans, and brilliantly-motivational coaching speeches, lies another, more sinister NBA trope: the saga of the disgruntled player. Inevitably the tale begins with whispers, the stray and cryptic tweet of a local columnist, or a subtle eye roll from the coach in a post-game presser. Somebody speaks publicly, the echo chamber reverberates, and suddenly the player is included in every trade rumor available amid warnings to kick the tires first.

We all know the drill, but one Blazer’s Edge reader wants to know why it happens in the first place. How can players making millions possibly complain about a thing? Let’s dig in.

Dave,

I’m not a basketball expert so be kind please. I don’t understand why players have hard times perfecting their game and filling the roles they need to fill. I don’t get how a player can be unprepared or even really unhappy that much as long as they’re playing. Give me $5 million and I promise you I’ll come off the bench and shoot threes all day long and not complain once. I probably wouldn’t miss many either if it was my job and I had nothing else to do all day! Why isn’t it like that for many players?

Call Me Gramps

I think the vast majority of NBA players would express great satisfaction being in the league, so let’s start by modifying “many players” down to “a few”. Sometimes things don’t work out, but that’s true in any field.

Your NBA Shooting Drill

The easier of your two assertions to address is the “wouldn’t miss many”. I’m guessing with your experience, you’re a pretty crack shot. That’s the first prerequisite. If you’re under 6’7”, you’d better be lightning fast too. Even forgetting the stature and speed, though, shooting in the NBA isn’t the same as at your playground or local YMCA.

Before you can do the following experiment, you need to shoot 80% or better from NBA three-point range standing still, relatively unguarded. If you can’t do that, forget it. You’re not going to make it as an NBA shooter at your age.

After you’re consistently shooting 80% or above from the correct distance, get four friends to help you. Start about 15 feet from your designated three-point shooting spot.

  • Friend 1 runs with you to the spot, bumping into you while clubbing their arm across your shoulder and bicep as you go. (If they’re smart, they’ll hit your shooting arm!) About three feet before you reach your spot, Friend 1 peels off.
  • Meanwhile Friend 2 fires a bullet pass as hard as they can in your direction.
  • Friend 3 starts a stopwatch the second the ball hits your hand. If you fail to release the shot in 1.5 seconds, the attempt doesn’t count.
  • As you catch, Friend 4 comes running straight at you with a broom extended over their head, intent on swatting your shot.

If you can perform this routine 100 times—going from extremely hard pass reception to pure release over an oncoming crazy-broom in 1.5 seconds or less—and maintain a 40% success rate, you might have a claim to pro-level shooting skill. If your friends take their jobs seriously, my guess is that you’ll never reach that level of consistency, even if you practice every single day for the rest of your life. Most of us wouldn’t even make it past the “80% unguarded” phase. And that’s only one of the factors needed to get you onto the hardwood.

The Role-Playing Game

As for filling roles, I’m with you completely. Give me $5 million, or even $1 million, and I’ll sign whatever NBA contract you wish! But we approach that scenario as completely unqualified outsiders. We haven’t earned that position. For us, it’d be like winning the lottery while being asked to wear our favorite team’s jersey. It’s a dream come true!

When you’re actually a professional in the field, the view is different. I’m a pastor in my “other” life, so I’m going to use that as my example. Substitute your own vocation as needed.

Let’s say I graduated college, went to seminary, got my advanced degrees, studied Greek, developed some exegetical chops, and honed my craft in my first call to the point that I was recognized as one of the finest young ministers in all the land. Maybe I have books published, maybe I’m a great public speaker...use whatever criteria for “fine young minister” you wish.

At that point, I get recognized. The Lead Pastor of a huge church in a large metropolitan area calls me and says, “Dave, we want you to join our staff. We’re going to guarantee you four years of employment, minimum, and your salary will be more than fair. Come join us!”

Real-life caveat: this is not my dream scenario, but for the sake of the example, let’s assume my reaction is, “Woohoo!” I’m paid well, I’m fulfilling my call, I have public recognition, and I’m now the envy of many of my peers. To the outside world, I have everything.

But wait a minute... when I get there the lead pastor says, “We’re going to let you do the first and second reading every Sunday. Also you can lead a Bible Study using our prepared material.” That’s it. I don’t get to preach. I don’t get to help plan ministries. And every time I come up with an idea of my own to share in the Bible Study, the lead pastor says, “Just stick to the script we’re giving you.”

The tasks I’m performing are important to the overall process. I may even be good at them! But you can see where, at some point, I’d probably say, “I could do so much more than this. No matter how much you’re paying me, I’m not fulfilling the role my gifts were meant for.” At that point, I’d probably want out no matter how nice the paycheck was. Hearing a guy say, “That’s way more than I make at McDonald’s! I’d kill for the chance to earn a living reading a few paragraphs and teaching from an outline!” wouldn’t change the calculus for me. If he really were in my shoes instead of dreaming what they fit like, he’d probably reach the same conclusion.

Why Settle for Less?

Players who compete for rotation spots in the NBA are the best of the best. The vast majority of them didn’t come up through the system as specialized role-players; they were stars. They touched the ball. Teammates deferred to them. The system revolved around their skills and they prospered.

Almost everyone knows that playing alongside other similarly-skilled players will impact their role, but I don’t imagine it’s ever easy to hear, “Bust your butt getting down the court, get out of the way of the scoring star, then try to sweep up the offensive rebound if there is one.” If your degree prepared you to do so much more and you had already demonstrated success doing it, wouldn’t you be frustrated with that kind of mandate...especially if the chance to make your mark faded after only a few seasons? Why should I spend my entire career rebounding for you (or standing in the corner waiting for you to notice me) when I could be you?

Generally three types of players seem to have built-in contentment with roles.

  1. Players who did make the league because of a single, overwhelming skill, who already know that their career is likely to be 18 minutes per game for 8-10 years with enough money to retire on at 32.
  2. Players on the margins to begin with, who need to fill any role available to stick in the league.
  3. Veterans who have already made their mark—and in most cases, their money—who only need team success to complete the trifecta.

Many players who don’t fit those descriptions are either happy with their roles or see enough of an opening ahead to work through them anyway.

For the rest, dissatisfaction with a given role isn’t a character flaw. It can be motivation to get better. When it becomes apparent that the role isn’t going to change no matter how much the player evolves, I don’t blame players one bit for seeking change. Nobody is ultimately responsible for shepherding their career, or making the most possible out of their talents, except them.

Thanks for the question, Gramps! Anybody can send them to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll work our way through them during the season!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com