Scottie Barnes and Effort – Black Box Report

Scottie Barnes' sophomore season continues to drum up fervor. Let's add context to that.

December 21, four days until Christmas and fourth night of Hanukkah. Scottie Barnes shoots 1-for-10 from field and is benched for most of fourth quarter of Toronto Raptors’ win over New York Knicks. It’s warm outside. December 23, two days until Christmas and sixth night of Hanukkah. Scottie Barnes makes first six shots from field and scores 11 first-quarter points. Storm, wind grinding down the chimney, drowns Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong.

If any Raptor deserves a Rorschach journal dedicated to his delights and disasters, it’s Scottie Barnes. He is what you make of him. Hard to say why he can look like Sonny Weems on one night and Magic Johnson the next.

The explanation for the triumphant return of this formerly weekly column at Raptors Republic, called The Black Box Report, is fairly simple. We explicate the under-examined and explain what went, goes, and maybe even will go, on under the hood. The black box is the vessel inside of which all information is stored, and it’s known for its opacity. Hopefully, this column can add some transparency to what actually puts the points on the board.

There’s nothing more opaque in the NBA than effort. It’s a stick lazy or ignorant writers use to bludgeon players on cold shooting streaks, and it’s the first tool fans pull out of the box with which to pillory their former favourite players. But, even if the usage of “effort” as a descriptor is miserable, it is also real. Players do have better or worse effort games, seasons, or even careers.

So what are you supposed to do with effort? Should you ignore it as impossible to understand? Should you dive in and join the crowd of the ignoble and use effort as a lash? Or perhaps something different.

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Zatzman – Intelligent effort

In my recent piece about James Harden using slowness as a weapon, I came across an interesting stat: Of the 10 players who most rarely move fast on an NBA court, nine are stars. Of the 10 players who most often move fast on an NBA court, zero are.

There is a whole boatload of causative or correlative explanations, but one of the least likely possibilities is that James Wiseman and Chris Duarte are simply trying harder than Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic. It’s always possible, but it’s doubtful. And even if they are trying harder, it’s clearly not helping them a ton; Doncic and Jokic are at the absolute peaks of their professions. 

Running fast may not be the only component of trying hard, but it’s a pretty good indicator. And so many of the players flying around the NBA court on any given night are on the fringe of the league. It’s not like Wiseman, for example, is less athletic or less skilled than some of the better centers in the league. And if running quickly is any indication, nor does he offer less effort.

Scottie Barnes, by most fitness-based measures, is among the players who tries hardest in the NBA. He is among the league leaders in distance traveled, just like he was last season. (His fitness measures, such as average speed or acceleration or deceleration, are all slightly below last year’s marks, but only by miniscule percentages.) He’s among the league leaders (and is the leader among the Raptors) in contesting the most shots and closing out the most across the court. He tries hard. 

So what’s actually going on when Barnes gives up blowbys on the perimeter? And yes, he gives up a lot of those. Why does he sometimes turn invisible on the offensive end?

The first 10 or 20 moves of chess games at the highest level are a contest of memorization. And most of those “book” games, played 50 or 150 years ago, and studied to death by both players and their teams, have forced draws available at points in the game. So when chess players need a win, they need to ignore the correct moves and make intentional inaccuracies, defenestrating the book, and forcing both players into a game of tactics rather than memory.

The Raptors intentionally make mistakes on the defensive end. They will put themselves in rotation by choice, not as a reaction to events but purely to put the ball in play and see what happens from there. It is a means of defenestrating the book, forcing the game out of memory, of execution, and into a tactical contest. They think they have a better chance there. 

Not to say Barnes correctly chooses when to stop the ball and when to rotate behind it, or that he is good at hucking the book out the window while still retaining defensive principles, but there is method to his madness. Or at least, he’s not being mad entirely as a freelancer. 

And offensively, Barnes has been doing a lot more for the Raptors than he did in his rookie season. He’s running almost twice as many pick and rolls. He’s posting up more. The Raptors have him doing more with the ball. So when the shot goes up, he’s often 30 feet away from the rim, rather than four, meaning offensive rebounds are harder for him to gather this season. Cuts are starting from different areas of the court. Shots are coming from different places, with different lead-ups prior to the catch. It takes time to adjust to change, especially for a player who hasn’t seen it all at the NBA level. How does effort manifest when you’re throwing more passes out of the pick and roll? (For Barnes, often in no-looks.)

All this to say: effort has not been the problem. (Perhaps it has been for some of his critics.) Adaptation hasn’t been ideal, and he hasn’t blended perfectly into a new role. He hasn’t been consistent in his decision-making and execution, of course, but what 21-year-old — in any area of life — is consistent? There are issues, sure. Not those of effort.

Folk – Unseen effort:

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the ultimate practice player. It could mean a lot of different things, of course. Some players are really great at operating as facsimiles of stars in practice, in order for defenses to prepare gameplans, rotations and all that. Some, no doubt hit a mind-numbing amount of shots, guide offensive possessions, and blow them up on the other end. Truly disruptive, truly great presences on the floor. And then, hardly any carry over. How confounding would it be for a coach to continue to have to make rotation decisions that go against what he sees in practice, but yield positive results on the court? Or vice versa? The Patrick McCaw Corollary, perhaps?

When we (the media) enter a practice to talk to players, it’s almost always at the end. All the hustle and bustle has stopped, players sort themselves into treatment and development/maintenance. As we wait to interview Nick Nurse, for example, Khem Birch can often be found working on the shots he usually takes out of the short-roll, and then extends out to the 3-point line. O.G. Anunoby typically shares that basket (though not always at the same time) and goes through form shooting, pull-ups, free throws – all the basic stuff.

What I mean to say, is that as far as I can tell we’re seeing very little. The lil’ media guy like myself? I hear very little, and that’s just me. I couldn’t possibly speak for others. A black box report on effort? The most opaque, of the opaque. There’s a reason why people accept the catch-all of effort as the diagnosis or prognosis of any failures or successes in the sporting world. Hell, even the economy with bootstraps, hustle culture etc. It seems like a variable you can control for — and you certainly can, to some degree — but it doesn’t guarantee outcomes. It does its best to go some of the way, but it has to be coupled with… literally everything else that goes into winning at the smallest aspects of things. Everyone understands what effort is, and thus the conversation becomes accessible and prolific.

If Nick Nurse talked about basketball to the public the way he talks about it privately, 98-percent of the audience is getting left behind. Players and coaches understand optics, so they play the hits. The quotes? Effort. The stories? Effort. If you win, you tried hard. If you lost, you didn’t. And you know what? That is totally okay. It only gets murky once you try to reverse engineer a lack of progress or outcomes (of the desired variety) back into that effort problem to draw conclusions based on, character, perhaps. It’s a tough line to walk.

The film is the film, of course. Passivity on film is passivity of sorts, at least. But, when Jayson Tatum says that gameplans have changed for Scottie Barnes, they have. When Louis outlines how much has changed on the Raptors side for him, they have. Some of that passivity has to be assumed as being processing. Sometimes, not attacking the lane with a stampede cut is lack of preparation and lack of conviction. Sometimes, it’s seeing the defense floating defenders into your driving lanes to play goalie, and zoning up the other spots. If you’re a player who isn’t used to seeing a super engaged second level and all the different machinations of defenses that are more purposeful in stopping you… passivity may come.

Most of the work is unseen. So, we watch and look at what can be. Sources have alluded to a lack of work, and conversations about effort have been abound. It could be true. But, as film nerds and stat nerds, Louis and I had to reflect on what we know about Barnes’ game and try and pull meaning from our point of view. And we don’t mind adding to the complexity in this case. Because, when it comes to how a player progresses and improves, there’s never one answer.

Have a blessed day.

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