Players Who Make the NBA Smarter

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2013

Players Who Make the NBA Smarter

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    Whoever thinks that all jocks are dumb must not be a fan of the NBA. The world's top basketball league sports its fair share of blockheads and goons, but, by and large, is replete with guys whose agility is as mental as it is physical.

    Such is the nature of the game itself. You can be a star in The Association by running faster, jumping higher and dunking harder than most. Just ask Blake Griffin, the depth of whose game is often overshadowed by his nightly aerial acrobatics with the Los Angeles Clippers.

    But true superstardom in the NBA requires a certain cerebral brilliance and psychological edge. Michael Jordan was always an elite athlete, but what set him apart from high-flying contemporaries like Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler was his psychopathic competitive drive and otherworldly understanding of the history and complexities of basketball.

    The same goes for these seven guys—All-Stars, all-time greats and role players alike—who've hung around the league by way of brains as much as brawn, if not more so.

Tim Duncan

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    They don't call Tim Duncan "The Big Fundamental" for nothing. The long-time star of the San Antonio Spurs has always demonstrated a keen understanding of timing and spacing on both ends of the floor. Even as a rookie, Duncan dominated the paint, blocking shots and altering countless others next to David Robinson.

    Since then, Timmy's become an All-Defensive and All-NBA performer all his own and established himself as arguably the greatest power forward to ever play the game. He's done a masterful job of quietly-but-efficiently adapting to changing times with the San Antonio Spurs. Where once he was the centerpiece of an inside-out attack, he's since stepped aside to become a brilliant part of San Antonio's fast-paced, guard-oriented, spread pick-and-roll offense.

    Not that the change in roles has been smooth sailing all along for The Big Fundamental. He seems to have carved out a new, more comfortable niche within San Antonio's new universe this season. His scoring (17.6 points), rebounding (9.6 boards), shooting (.509 from the field) and blocking (2.5 swats) numbers are at their highest levels since 2009-10.

    In other words, Duncan, at the age of 36, is enjoying a late-career renaissance, thanks in no small part to a perpetually selfless and cerebral approach to the game and his team.

Kobe Bryant

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    Tim Duncan would be without peer as the greatest player of his generation if not for Kobe Bryant.

    While Duncan has dominated for the better part of two decades as a big man—like so many greats before him—Kobe has managed to maintain relevance at or near the top of the NBA well into his 17th season as a pro. 

    Part of this is due to a level of mental toughness, the likes of which has rarely before been seen. The Black Mamba has persevered through all manner of injuries, from sprained wrists and ankles to arthritis in his knees and fingers, and adjusted time and again, seemingly on the fly.

    Part of this is also due to a Jordan-esque competitive streak that underlies his almost-bionic tolerance of pain and discomfort. He still works harder than the vast majority of his peers in the offseason and never takes nights off, even when such might be considered acceptable for a 34-year-old with his considerable mileage.

    But beyond the machismo, Bryant is a truly thoughtful player. He studies the game itself almost maniacally and soaks up moves and strategies like a sponge. He was among the first players to pioneer the practice of spending time in the summer with Hakeem Olajuwon, and added the bank shot to his arsenal with help from Tim Duncan during the All-Star break one year.

    It's that constant expansion, that search for new ways to ply his trade, that's allowed Bryant to hang around as arguably the most feared scorer in the NBA today, despite the infringement of Father Time.

Steve Nash

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    To be sure, intelligence alone isn't enough to lift a team to victory. If that were the case, the Los Angeles Lakers would be ripping off win after win, even with Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill sidelined by injuries.

    The NBA's oldest backcourt also happens to be arguably its smartest, with Steve Nash serving as the brainiac point guard next to the linguistically luminous Bryant.

    Individually, Nash's intelligence can be seen in the way he toys with opposing defenses, despite no longer sporting much in the way of quickness and athleticism as he nears his 40th birthday. He seems to see plays as they're developing and delivers pinpoint passes in times and at places that few would even dare.

    It's a wonder, too, that Nash averaged double-digit assists in each of the previous three seasons and actually led the league in that category in two of them. His low, crafty dribble allows him to keep his handle alive to set up passing lanes and make the impossible appear possible.

    Without the benefit of superior agility or speed, no less.

    But Nash's role as a player who makes the NBA "smarter" extends far beyond his own abilities. He played a pivotal part in popularizing a more intelligent brand of basketball in the league with the Phoenix Suns under Mike D'Antoni. He ran D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll to perfection and proved that pushing the pace, jacking up three-pointers and asking big men to move rather than post up can be both fun and successful.

Chris Paul

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    But Steve Nash's days as the best point guard in basketball have long since passed, and his days as the best point guard in Los Angeles may never come unless Chris Paul finds a new home via free agency this summer.

    Paul currently owns the title of "Point God," but there's much more to him than just being the best at what he does on planet Earth...or being the twin brother of a State Farm agent.

    Like the first three guys on this list, CP3 has revealed his true intelligence through the way he's adapted to his shifting circumstances, both within and without. A devastating knee injury suffered during the 2009-10 season forced Paul to rethink the way he played. No longer could he afford to venture into the paint and attack the basket at every opportunity.

    Instead, it became imperative for CP3 to fool defenders rather than fly by them, to change speeds rather than try to go full-speed ahead. He learned how to pick and choose his spots—when to score and when to distribute, when to go the cup and when to pull the ball back out to the perimeter, when to dominate and when to facilitate.

    Don't forget about Paul's defensive acumen. His understanding of passing lanes translates beautifully to the defensive end, where he's prone to picking off the ball and starting the fast break. If CP3 continues his thievery at its current pace, he'll come away with his fifth steals title in six seasons.

    Above all else, though, Paul's value as a player and a thinker stems from his leadership. He's as good a manager of egos as there is among today's active players, with a keen comprehension of how to create chemistry both on and off the court. He's a veritable coach on the floor, and has rendered Vinny Del Negro's sideline deficiencies moot as a result.

LeBron James

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    It's only fitting that a true basketball savant like LeBron James would make the NBA game a smarter one for everyone.

    The three-time MVP sees the floor better than most point guards and certainly better than any other 6'8", 260-pound behemoth who spends most of his time at power forward. He seems to make the right basketball play, more often than not, even if it's not always the most glamorous one available.

    And even if doing so would've inspired harsh criticism if the result wasn't up to snuff. Case in point: LeBron was raked across the coals by the national media last season for being "too fearful in the clutch" following this bounce pass that resulted in a missed pick-and-pop jumper at the buzzer by Udonis Haslem against the Utah Jazz.

    Pundits berated LeBron for shrinking in the clutch when, really, he was making the smart play to an open shooter while also attempting to empower an important teammate.

    Nowadays, folks would probably go a bit easier on James for making such a pass. After all, he finally has a championship ring to validate his approach to the game.

    Not that James needs any jewelry to prove just how intelligent a player he truly is. College or no college, LeBron has demonstrated that he is smart and versatile enough to adapt to any number of roles, including his current incarnation as a multi-faceted forward who spends more time and effort in the low post than ever before.

Shane Battier

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    LeBron James might not have that weighty championship ring on his finger if not for the brainy brilliance of Shane Battier. Battier's uptick in productivity during the 2012 NBA Finals was crucial to the Miami Heat overcoming the younger Oklahoma City Thunder.

    But the entirety of Battier's contributions extend far beyond even the most complex measures, even more so the basic box score. An Academic All-American of the Year at Duke, Battier not only sees all the intricacies of the game that are nearly invisible to the naked eye; he practically embodies them, and acts upon them at every turn, at the very least.

    Battier has fashioned a formidable 12-year career for himself in the NBA, despite never averaging more than 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals in a season.

    Which he did as a rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001-02.

    Since then, Battier has carved out a niche as a jack-of-all-trades-type glue guy who thinks the game and encourages his teammates to do the same. He's whole-heartedly embraced the advanced-stats revolution in basketball—as Chris Ballard detailed in his book, The Art of a Beautiful Game—during his time with the Houston Rockets, under noted stat geek and general manager Daryl Morey.

    Such has allowed Battier to become a master of his opponents' tendencies and to play the odds properly on the court like a top-tier poker player.

    Because basketball, as it turns out, is as much an exercise in tiny details as anything.

Marc Gasol

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    Surely, Marc Gasol, a teammate of Battier's for 23 games during the 2010-11 season, would concur. The younger brother of Pau Gasol, a cerebral big man in his own right, has established himself as, perhaps, the best center in basketball.

    That is, until Dwight Howard regains his full complement of athletic faculties.

    Gasol has done so not with overwhelming strength, agility or productivity, though, at 7'1" and 265 pounds, he's a giant among men, whether he likes it or not. Rather, despite a struggle to get off the floor, Gasol has come to dominate at his position with fancy footwork, soft hands and a deft understanding of timing and spacing.

    This season, Marc's emerged as a prime Defensive Player of the Year candidate, more for his smart play and anchoring of an elite defense than for gaudy stats. To be sure, the fact that he's 10th overall in blocks and fourth among centers in steals is nothing at which to snub your nose.

    But it's how Gasol has directed the defensive efforts of his teammates along with his own, as though he were a maestro conducting an orchestra, that's made him such a darling in scouting circles.

    And, like the Gasol that he is, Marc is a terrific offensive player, if an understated one. He shares a magical chemistry with Zach Randolph in the middle with his soft touch on the interior. His high-post passing also happens to be superb, as his statistical status among his fellow centers—second in assists per game, third in assist rate (per Hoopdata)—would suggest.

    It's no wonder, then, that his name hasn't come up amidst recent trade rumors, even as the Memphis Grizzlies continue to shop Z-Bo and Rudy Gay. You can bet Gasol will have comfortable place in the Music City, so long as fellow brainiac John Hollinger is working in the front office.