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In NBA caste system, it's good to be "untouchable"
by Dennis Hans / November 10, 2006

The NBA is rightfully proud of its missionary role in spreading the game of basketball to the four corners of the earth. But international influence can be a two-way street, and in recent years the NBA has absorbed and replicated, perhaps unwittingly, the worst excesses of one of the world’s worst systems: the caste system of India.

A league that once was an equal-opportunity meritocracy where every player, regardless of position, had a fair shot at greatness, now features a rules regime and style of play that grants privileges to perimeter players while rendering interior players – even Shaquille O’Neal – nothing more than dime-a-dozen, foul-plagued grunts.

In the dishearteningly resilient caste system of India, “Untouchables” are, in the words of a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, “the lowest of the low.” Numbering 160 million people – one sixth of the population – they’re “discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection.”

In the caste system of the modern NBA, however, Untouchables are the highest of the high.

The NBA’s Untouchable caste came into being at the start of the 2004-05 season, when the league responded to the very real problem of excessive grabbing and holding by going too far in the other direction, making it a foul merely to touch offensive players on the perimeter. The rule change has dramatically increased the effectiveness and statistical output – not to mention market value – of a certain class of players to such an extent that historians are likely to place asterisks next to their scoring marks in each of their untouched seasons.

Thus, comparisons of such Untouchable greats of today as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson with their hand-checked counterparts of yesteryear – e.g., Jerry West, George Gervin, Oscar Robertson, Paul Westphal, World B. Free and Michael Jordan — can be made by observation only. My eyes tell me that there are fabulous talents in every decade, including this one. Still, the wildly different playing conditions – including the absurd number of steps and hops after picking up the dribble the modern guys have been granted – invalidate statistical comparisons.

Another privileged NBA caste, the “Bonus Babies” (BBs), are awarded an extra point for most of their field goals – despite the fact that they only shoot when wide open and rarely are capable of creating a shot for themselves. Many BBs, including Steve Kerr, Damon Jones, Matt Bullard, Jason Kapono, Richie Frahm, Tim Legler and Kyle Korver, might never have played a minute of NBA ball in a non-caste league (though Korver is finally starting to develop the well-rounded arsenal he would have mastered in college if he hadn’t grown up in the stultifying trey era).

BBs have been around since 1979, when the NBA instituted the three-point field goal. But they’ve taken a giant step up the caste ladder the past two seasons in conjunction with the Untouchables, who now have a much easier time “driving and kicking” – penetrating the no-touch defense, forcing other defenders to react, and then passing out to a rested and waiting BB for an easy three-point shot. That’s why today’s trey attempts are easier and more plentiful than in the pre-2004-05 period – and why so many of these fortunate, one-talent BBs are highly efficient (if not prolific) scorers.

UBB EQUALS MVP

The most privileged of the modern NBA players comprise a subset of the Untouchable caste: the UBBs, or Untouchables with Bonus-Baby range. Start with ball-handling brilliance and sports-car maneuverability in a touch-free environment, add oodles of bonus points from his own treys and those of his spotting-up BB teammates, and it’s easy to see why the value of a UBB has soared to the stratosphere.

The UBB formula transformed Steve Nash – an aging occasional All-Star and defensive liability – into a two-time MVP. It has made Chauncey Billups – who never made an All-Star team in the hand-check era though he probably should have been a reserve once or twice – a legitimate MVP candidate. It may well do the same in a season or two for Jameer Nelson.

But enough about the winners in David Stern’s unholy caste system. It’s time to look at the losers, the lowest of the low, the “Disposables.”

Disposables used to be called “centers,” as they were the center of attention in bygone days, the hub around which the offense revolved. Today, the duties of many (not all) Disposables are largely confined to setting picks, flopping, committing intentional fouls to prevent easy baskets and creating block/charge collisions. This results in an astronomical fouling rate and frequent games where they’re limited to 10-to-25 minutes. You can’t count on them for 30 minutes, let alone the 40 an Untouchable can easily log without foul-trouble worries. So a coach needs a few Disposables at his disposal.

FORTUNATE DISPOSABLES

The transformation of this position from center to blocking sled is actually a blessing for many Disposables, who otherwise would rarely get off the bench or might never have been invited to training camp. Some have physical tools but are skill-deficient and remain so year after year, thanks to incompetent or negligent coaches. Some have so-so coordination or are otherwise athletically limited. Yet you’ll often see them in starting lineups or as rotation regulars, mocking the once-valid boast that NBA hoopsters are “the greatest athletes in the world.”

Consider the Collins twins, Jason and Jarron. On offense, their job is to be run into. On defense, their job is to be run into – and act like that even when barely touched. They can’t make plays with the ball, though Jarron, at least, is a decent mid-range shooter when left alone. They are reasonably mobile as Disposables go, but they have so-so reflexes, are slow off their feet and barely elevate when they do jump. Consequently, they are poor rebounders and woeful shot blockers.

In a meritocratic, non-caste league the Collins twins would be lucky to make a team as the 15th man.  In the modern NBA, they're effective players. The same bizarre system that over-rewards perimeter talent does the same for interior no-talents. Their myriad limitations are minimized because no-perimeter-touching allows an offense with a perimeter star to be effective with a stiff on the floor. Because the NBA rewards floppers and late-arriving help defenders with undeserved charging calls, grants six fouls to every player without regard to how few minutes he averages, and rarely imposes a harsher penalty for obvious intentional fouls (committed with great frequency by those without the ability to make a play on the ball) than for unintentional ones, a defensive stiff or trio of stiffs often can be just as effective as a quick, agile, crowd-pleasing swat-and-deflection machine.

So even though a Collins-style Disposable maintains a bottom-rung caste status as an unglamorous grunt, like the one-talent Bonus Baby he’s mighty fortunate to have an NBA job.

UNFORTUNATE DISPOSABLES

Another segment of the Disposable population is not so fortunate. It has never been more difficult for low-post players to put up numbers. Because of the way they and their defenders are coached, foul trouble is a constant for the likes of Shaq, Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eddy Curry. Thus, they don’t get enough court time to put up anywhere near the number of shots of the high-scoring Untouchables, and none of their un-fouled field goals are worth three points. They’re further hampered by zones and double-teams, and they both suffer and benefit in varying degrees from sumo-style low-post combat.

While Untouchables pile up 28-to-35 points-per-game seasons, Yao is the only Disposable who’s a good bet to average 20 in 2006-07.

As for Shaq, who even at 34 is by far the most gifted big man in the game, his rapid decline is a combination of poor coaching, the Untouchable takeover, worse-than-ever free-throw shooting and poetic justice. Let’s not forget that for several seasons he was the NBA’s premiere privileged character, allowed to dislodge defenders and camp in the three-seconds lane. He still has those privileges to a degree, but today he’s more likely to draw a foul for bulldozing or be victimized by a flop. His minutes plummeted to 30.6 per game last season because of those whistles as well as unnecessary fouls he committed on defense after Pat Riley turned him into “Shaq Doleac.” All the block/charge collisions the still-spry Shaq is foolishly creating means more fouls and pine time, and fewer points and rebounds. If the trend continues he’ll soon be saddled with this sad moniker: “The Disposable Diesel.”

As we’ve seen, the modern NBA dramatically under-values or over-values many of its players, depending on the whims of the league’s bigwigs. But is there any caste that is properly valued and for whom statistical comparisons with their forerunners are valid? Yes.

The Masters of the Midrange, men like Elton Brand and Kevin Garnett, eschew bonus points and special privileges. When Brand and Garnett venture into the low post, as they sometimes do, it’s as skilled artisans, not bulldozers. Brand is a power forward with a scoring style and repertoire that’s somewhat reminiscent of two elegant small forwards of the eighties, Bernard King and Alex English. All play or played a timeless, non-bruising style that needs no special treatment to be effective. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to say that about all NBA players.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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