Talkin' About Praxis

What Antonio Gramsci can tell us about the slippery, difficult business of building a basketball team.
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Illustration by Ian Miley.

We don’t know this for sure, but Antonio Gramsci almost certainly never played basketball. The famed linguist and critical theorist was beset by spinal injuries as a child and lived his entire life with a severe hunchback. He was under five feet in height, and Italy didn’t even adopt basketball until after World War I, by which time Gramsci was busy enough hanging out with Vladimir Lenin and developing the communist party in Italy that it seems unlikely he had time even for a game of three on three.

This is not to say you can’t balance hoops and political public-figurehood -- there is a sitting President proving this as we speak -- but there is no evidence Gramsci ever played sports. Still, Gramsci has more to say about basketball than we might expect, with one aspect of his analysis especially illuminating with regard to today’s NBA. We talkin’, of course, about praxis.

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Praxis is its own sort of meta-theory, an assessment of the process through which theory moves off the page and into meatspace. Gramsci’s philosophy on the subject concentrated on political hegemony and struggle, and upon the particular juxtaposition of historical events within their epistemological contexts. Praxis, for Gramsci, was an unfogging and classification of the schemas, narratives, and theories of history that affected everyday political life. It’s sprawling and contingent, but less abstract than it seems.

Running an NBA team, for instance, is a constant attempt to reverse-engineer this process. A front office builds a tenuous architecture of facts -- what players do, how they do it, who they are -- and try to derive a unified theory of why certain players succeed while others plateau or fizzle. There is a lot of money to be made, for teams and the people that build them, in being able to ascertain if a prospect is more Kwame Brown or Roy Hibbert. NBA teams are built with a plan, not along an explicit template, and the whole process is dynamic, and dependent on effective opportunism.

After the Lakers’ first three-peat, the common refrain was that a championship team needed a perimeter scorer, preferably anchored to a big-butted post player. San Antonio reigned supreme for a while; that time, it was because they had three stars, that was how it was done. The prototype has done nothing but change since. With each successive champion doing it differently, each theory of how winners are built erodes a little more.

Detroit and Dallas’ championship squads were both ersatz, one immobile and strong and the other built on florid offensive virtuosity layered over a stout interior backbone. Designing a winning team isn’t math or science or art or Magic: The Gathering; neither is it a matter of grabbing X amount of star players and then smashing them into your opponents’ like action figures. Praxis shows us that it’s all of this and more. There are the tougher to calculate variables of chemistry and luck and health. The entire process is messy and alchemical.

In the 2013-14 season, we’ve seen the complexity of this play out less on winning teams and more on those presumed to be tanking the season. This practice isn’t as radically simple as, say, Robert Sarver pencilling in his Suns for 11 wins and scurrying off to look at $150,000 refrigerators. It happens on two different time scales, and at distinct echelons of an organization.

Initially, the team’s management makes a conscious decision to get young, swapping valuable and well-compensated veterans for picks and rough-edged youngsters, or simply not trying to sign any good players. This is actively working to make the team worse, but it’s removed a layer from losing basketball games. If all this putting together of parts is done with an eye towards the future, those parts are still competitive elite athletes in the present; as such, they aren’t simply going to roll over and play dead. Late in the season, when final standings are nearly cemented, teams will actively sit their best players and make Aaron Gray shoot three-pointers, but that all comes later, above the groundwork laid in the season’s first four months.

Phoenix and Philadelphia both came into this year clearly intending to bottom out, in hopes of building a new team around one of the prospective stars available in the 2014 draft. Instead, both teams have been far more competitive than their apparent (and intentional) architectural flaws would suggest.

The Suns, for instance, didn’t expect Markieff Morris to bag a Western Conference Player of the Week or for Miles Plumlee to reveal himself as a very solid rim protector, or for Jeff Hornacek and Mike Longabardi to install the fifth best defense in the NBA this early. Improvement and development were expected -- tanking is not strictly atavistic -- but not along this timetable. The Suns’ success thus far embodies the messy animation of NBA generally accepted theories on tanking: talent expresses itself on nonlinear timescales, and schemes and discipline can defeat superior talent, especially early in the season. Whatever the case, Phoenix doesn’t want to be this good, and may take practical steps to curb itself.

The praxis of tanking -- the real world pursuit and expression of hypothetical shittiness -- is a particularly fun manifestation of NBA theory because there is so much mystery involved. Since tanking teams are typically very young, there is a vibrant range of potentials, from brutally unwatchable and awful -- Charlotte during the past few years -- to silly and precocious, a la the early pre-competence Thunder or this year’s Suns and Sixers. If it’s unsatisfying in some sense to find that team-building theory has its limits, praxis is also about acknowledging multiplicities and seeking a holistic understanding of all potential paths. There is, in other words, more than one way to build a boat with holes in it.

While the early records of Philadelphia and Phoenix are the most surprising developments, other trends go against commonly held beliefs. Monta Ellis did not fit in Milwaukee, where he had to share the floor with a less-cool version of himself in Brandon Jennings and in an ostensibly defense-oriented system; on the Mavericks, Ellis is thriving because Rick Carlisle’s system has set him up to do so. He doesn’t have to repress his attacking tendencies as he was asked to in Milwaukee, and simply has to play adjacent to Dirk and invent new colors, while displaying a modicum of discipline. It’s working: Dallas has the fourth-best offense in the NBA, and Ellis is a big reason why. He isn’t the Deron or Dwight level star Dallas was hoping for, but he has deftly balanced creation and facilitation duties and been a subtly great (and reasonably priced) addition to the team. He is not a top dog, but proper usage and smart basketball has him playing very well.

There is no unilateralism to basketball, despite perceptions of Monta Ellis. Talent doesn’t always come home (Devin Harris, a former all star who has regressed to sub-average levels) but there are plenty of possible outcomes. Ellis is not hamstrung by his past days as a gunner, but he may not be an efficient cog in the Mavericks machine for the whole season. Evaluating the NBA landscape with an eye towards praxis inhibits the generation of tidy conclusions and encourages an understanding of basketball as shifting and as a process rather than anything static.

If Monta’s low-key second bloom is the year’s sweetest surprise, there are numerous other developments that defy conventionally predicted trajectories. The fantasy-team Nets’ awful start is reminiscent of the Lakers’ from a year ago -- subtraction by addition, compounded by injuries. Portland is playing great basketball a year after finishing its season on a draft-cognisant slide. DeMarcus Cousins is sporting the league’s highest usage rate, but playing excellent, controlled basketball; playing for an actual NBA team has helped him accelerate the actualization of his potential. These are this season’s unpredicted quirks, but -- for all the refinement of planning and theory, all the new ways to parse fact and stat -- every NBA season has its equivalent oddities.

The shorter way to say this, maybe, is that it’s the NBA being the NBA. It’s important to acknowledge praxis: that schemes and conceptions of the league don’t always come to life, and that the closest we can get is an educated guess. It’s in us, as thinking people, to try to get closer to understanding why these things happen and keep happening. The fun part, which the NBA delivers like no other league, is being shown over and over again how little we actually know.


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