Why a Change of Scenery in NBA Rarely Fixes the Problem

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: Jan Vesely #24 of the Washington Wizards drives against Earl Clark #6 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game at the Verizon Center on November 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

How many times have you heard something along the lines of "he just needs a change of scenery" used to describe an NBA player? 

Too many times, if you ask me. 

Sometimes, a fresh start can be beneficial for the struggling career of a young player. There's no doubt about that.

Most of the time, though, that isn't the case. The right change of scenery will usually benefit a slumping player, but just moving to a new squad won't do the trick. 

Even when a player changes jerseys and home arenas, the problems that plagued him in the original location can be carried along as well. Baggage is hard to get rid of. 

That's especially relevant on the heels of the NBA trade deadline, as plenty of guys are now starting to suit up for different teams. Optimism abounds, but it's a mistake to blindly expect all new acquisitions to suddenly improve or turn their careers around. 

Generally, Problems Exist for a Reason

When players either fail to stick with teams or end up needing a move to a different squad, there's usually a logical explanation. 

Perhaps they're feuding with coaches or beset by injuries. That's what happened to MarShon Brooks during his time with the Brooklyn Nets before he was traded to the Boston Celtics, then the Golden State Warriors and now the Los Angeles Lakers. Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News has the scoop:

Brooks knows exactly when things started to go wrong. He was part of the rotation to start the season and then he sprained his ankle at the morning shootaround before the third game.

Brooks healed but remained on the bench. While Jerry Stackhouse was getting the minutes, Avery Johnson was discussing Brooks’ defensive deficiencies on the team’s reality show, “The Association.”

This was after a season in which Brooks earned minimal Rookie of the Year votes and made the All-Rookie Second Team, and he never recovered. He was practically glued to the bench during the first season in the Barclays Center until he was traded.

The shooting guard has failed to earn a spot in any rotation since then. 

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 10: MarShon Brooks #2 of the Golden State Warriors in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 10, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

That said, this is an aberration. It's worth bringing up because Brooks is one of those guys who might defy the overall rule that a change in scenery rarely fixes a problem, but he is only an exception. 

If you put the names of 10 young busts into a hat and draw one out, chances are you'll find a story that falls in line with this upcoming principle. 

When young players have struggling careers, it's usually because they either have poor attitudes or just aren't as good as they were heralded as coming into the Association. 

Take Jan Vesely, for example. 

The Denver Nuggets will certainly be hoping that The Dunking Ninja manages to jump-start his career in the Mile High City, but they certainly shouldn't be counting on it. After all, Vesely needed a change in scenery because he played terrible basketball with the Washington Wizards. 

"Jan showed some signs. He wasn’t consistent enough for us," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld revealed after the trade, as relayed by The Washington Post's Michael Lee. "I think he has some abilities, as far as athleticism and strength and running the floor and defensive abilities. Offensively, he was very inconsistent for us."

But that wasn't it. 

Grunfeld also said, "He had some good moments for us, but we had some better players [in front of him] and his playing time went down. I think he got frustrated by that somewhat."

That's as close as you'll ever get to an admission that, hey, this guy isn't very good. 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 27: Jan Vesely #24 of the Washington Wizards shoots against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 27, 2013 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Newsflash: Vesely wasn't very good. 

During the 2013-14 season, his third go-round in the NBA, the Czech forward was averaging 3.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He was shooting 52.2 percent from the field, but his 26.7 percent mark from the line and crippling fear of being exposed at the charity stripe held him back in a big way.

Basketball-Reference.com shows that he had posted an 11.5 PER with Washington, which ties for the best mark of his career. 

When a player like Vesely needs a change of scenery, it's generally because he isn't getting a chance to shine with his current team. And if he is getting a chance, it isn't going well. 

More often than not, the reason for the struggle is similar to the one that applies for the former Wizard. It's quite possible that a player just isn't cut out to be a solid contributor in the NBA.  

Draft Picks are Sunk Costs

Jun 27, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; NBA commissioner David Stern speaks after the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When a player is drafted in the lottery, it's both a positive and a negative for his development. Financial positives exist as well, but those are irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. 

On one hand, an organization is going to be willing to give that player more shots at success. A high draft pick was used on him, after all, so it's worth doing everything possible to ensure that it didn't go to waste. 

But on the other hand, the expectations might be unrealistically high. Even when there are clear indications that struggle will rule the day, organizations aren't willing to give up on that player, and he keeps lessening his reputation.

In general, NBA teams have trouble with sunk costs, an economic term referring to costs that were incurred in the past and shouldn't be allowed to shape the future. When I was taught about such things, the example used revolved around movie tickets. 

If you're looking to go to the movies, the cost of a ticket should play a part in your decision. You haven't spent that money yet, so it's a big determining factor.

However, if you've already paid for the ticket, and then you're deciding whether or not to go, the fact that money has already been spent shouldn't matter. The ticket price is now a sunk cost. 

As humans, we often let it nonetheless, but that money has already been lost and thus shouldn't be used as a basis for the decision. You're down $10 (or whatever the cost of the ticket is in this situation), so you should choose whether or not to go based on present factors. 

The principle is unfortunately lost on NBA teams. 

How many times have you heard someone argue that Team X should play Player Y because he has such a high salary? Well, that salary is being paid to him regardless, so it shouldn't be used as a reason for earning time on the court. Only present factors, like his performance, should do that. 

Draft picks can be considered sunk costs as well. 

Feb 12, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) moves past Miami Heat guard Ray Allen (34) in the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Heat defeated the Warriors 111-110. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Golden State Warriors selected Harrison Barnes at No. 7 in the 2012 NBA draft, there was no turning back. Once David Stern announced the selection, nothing could change it, though the Dubs certainly could've traded his rights in the aftermath. 

That status as a top-10 pick should no longer affect how he's treated—with the exception of unrealized potential's effect—but it does. Barnes continues to be considered nearly untouchable as a tradable asset, and there's a prevailing belief that he'll eventually break out. 

There's a chance he does, even if his first two seasons in the NBA have been largely unimpressive, but the chance he might not often gets overlooked. 

Fact is, the draft is largely a crapshoot once you get past the first few picks, and busts litter the landscape. 

When a high draft pick changes hands, fans get excited about that number associated with his name. That number represents the slot in which he was selected, but it's no longer all that important. 

On top of that, it's sometimes tough to break into a rotation. Other players are more established, and those incumbents tend to have an upper hand on the newcomers.  

Now, some players are late bloomers. Some players get to became reclamation projects for the San Antonio Spurs. Some players manage to land in a perfect situation and scheme when they change locations. 

But those are the exceptions. 

Successful transitions tend to get more publicity than the ones that don't go as smoothly, which is why there's a large crowd that believes a change of scenery is often all that's necessary for the reversal of a career arc.

Call it availability bias, if you will. 

February 9, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) dunks to score a basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In a way, it's similar to the myth that Blake Griffin is only a dunker. Because casual fans only see the slams on YouTube and the throwdowns when watching SportsCenter, the rest of his development gets overlooked. We can only see what's made available to us, after all. 

Take clutch shooting as another example. 

Which do you see pop up in videos: Kobe Bryant's made buzzer-beater, or the four attempts he missed in the final minute the week prior? What we see taints our perspective of what actually happens, and it's our responsibility to dig deeper. 

If you truly look at the entire landscape of players who change teams in an effort to break out, you'll be surprised. It's a landscape littered with failed attempts, though the successful bids are the ones that get highlighted and tend to shake our perspective. 

There's always a chance your team's new player is going to be one of the positive stories, but don't be shocked when he's not.

Changing scenery is not the NBA's panacea. 


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