Not in the Box Score: The Best Intangibles in the NBA
When looking at some of the best players in any professional sport there’s usually more to their talent than meets the eye.
As with any great professional athlete, there is always a delicate balance of inherent ability and hard work.
And while almost every player who has reached the pinnacle of their respective sport has natural ability and has put in a lot of hard work, there are some guys who have a little something extra to their game which separates them from their peers.
It’s easy to point out who the best scorers or rebounders in the NBA are; in most cases, all you have to do is look at the season averages and see who has the best numbers.
But what usually separates the good from the great are the little things that don’t always show up in the box score at the end of the night.
These are things like; hustle, heart, and intensity which can make an average player good and a good player great.
The players with these intangibles are generally appreciated by the die-hard fan because there’s something rare about the way they approach the game which you don’t see everyday.
Perhaps the thing serious sports fans like about intangibles is that, in most cases, it’s more of a mindset than anything physical and it’s almost as if these players are willing themselves to be great by the power of their minds.
You’ll notice that a lot of the guys on this list were or still are some of the best players in the NBA and it goes to show that you need more than just talent to be a great player.
Kobe Bryant’s Clutch Shooting:
We’ve all seen Kobe do it on a seemingly endless number of occasions; he has the ball with time winding down, feels out the defense, manages to wriggle free of the double team, and buries the game winner.
Recently there have been some people who have doubted whether or not Kobe is actually as clutch as people make him out to be.
They have used formulas and definitions which set out to show him as another average player in the clutch.
What most of the numbers show is that Kobe has taken the most shots with the game on the line, missed the most shots with the game on the line, and also made the most shots with the game on the line.
So while it’s difficult to argue with the numbers, it’s also difficult to argue with what we’ve all seen.
Especially this past season, when Kobe hit six game winners against the Heat, Celtics, Raptors, Bucks, Kings, and Grizzlies.
Kobe’s one of the most polarizing players in the game today and there are sure to be people on both sides of the argument, but I’ll ask this question; when the game is on the line who would you want shooting the ball?
I know my answer, and it’s the guy with five rings on his shooting hand.
Steve Nash’s Playmaking Ability and Vision:
While it’s true that Steve Nash playing defense might be more of a disaster than Jamarcus Russell at an Oakland A’s game on dollar hot dog night, the 36-year-old is the best facilitator in the NBA.
Over the years, Nash has transformed himself from a guy who could barely sniff the court in Dallas to one of the league’s premier point guards.
If you look only at his assist numbers (while impressive), they don’t really do Nash’s playmaking ability and vision justice.
But if you’ve ever watched him play a game, it’s pretty incredible to observe the way he weaves through defenders and makes impossible passes look like child’s play, all the while setting his teammates up for easy baskets.
It would appear that Nash is able to see two and three moves ahead on the basketball court, and this allows him to effortlessly deliver the ball exactly where it needs to be.
Throughout his career, many players have benefited from Nash’s talents, and he seemingly has the ability to turn average players into offensive threats as soon as they step onto the floor with him.
Ron Artest’s Toughness:
The 6’7", 260 pound small forward has made his living in the NBA pushing guys around, all the while never shying away from contact or a hard foul.
Artest is so tough, he seems like he could sand a 2X4 with his bare hands.
Lumber aside, as he’s gotten older, he seems to have gotten stronger and more physical in his style of play, and watching Artest intimidate opposing teams with his toughness and physicality has become a nightly occurrence in the NBA.
His style of play and mentality are a big reason why Artest has become recognized as one of the best defenders in the league and this past season, he brought some much needed grit to a Lakers roster, which helped the team win another championship.
One of the defining moments of the 2010 NBA Finals took place at the very start of game one, when Artest and Paul Pierce got tangled up and fell to the floor.
Going into the series, many had made a big deal out of the Celtics being a much tougher team than the Lakers, but Artest sent a message at the very beginning of the series that neither he nor his team were intimidated by the Celtics.
Joakim Noah’s Hustle
Noah is one of the most easily recognizable players in the NBA today.
Not only is he a lanky 6’11" big man who sports longer hair than most women, but he can also be seen flying around the court every second he’s on it.
While you might find Noah annoying and while his shot is the basketball equivalent of someone running their nails over a chalkboard, there’s little denying how hard the guy plays on a nightly basis.
Diving after loose balls, setting picks, boxing out, and taking charges are just some of the hustle plays that make up a big part of Noah’s game.
When you combine Noah’s hustle with his size, youth, and athleticism, you have a solid center who will anchor Chicago’s front court for many seasons to come.
Don’t get me wrong, Noah is a fairly talented player, but what sets him apart from other players of his size and skill level is that he’s willing to do the dirty work to help make his team better.
Jason Kidd’s Knowledge
He might not be a Rhodes Scholar off the court (see his 360 degree quote), but on the court he’s one of the league’s most knowledgeable players.
Kidd recently completed his 16th season in the NBA and the veteran point guard has played in almost 1,200 games over the course of his long and immensely successful career.
He has been in the NBA since 1994, meaning Kidd has probably seen everything that can happen on a basketball court and he is the living definition of a wily veteran.
As a starting point guard for his 16 years of service in the NBA, Kidd has played the most cerebral position in the game.
Every night he has taken the floor, Kidd has made hundreds of decisions every game; whether to slow it down or push it, which teammate to pass to etc., are all decisions he makes every game.
Despite his advanced age of 37, Kidd is still a productive player at the NBA-level in large part because of how much he knows about the game of basketball.
While intangibles generally don’t show up in the box score, his rebounding and steals numbers from this past season show how much basketball knowledge he has.
Standing at just 6’4" and having lost much of his quickness, Kidd still managed 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, based mostly on positioning and anticipation, which allows him to be in the right spot.
While Kidd has slowed down because of his age, he’s still productive, and at this rate he might just think his way into playing in the NBA until he’s 40.
Kevin Garnett’s Intensity
There are so many outstanding facets to Garnett’s game, but right at the top of the list is the intensity he brings to pretty much every game he is involved in.
After 15 years of terrorizing opposing power forwards in the NBA, we’ve all witnessed countless examples of Garnett’s intensity.
Whether he’s hyping up teammates, yelling at an official, celebrating, talking trash to an opponent, or simply going on a profanity laced tirade for no particular reason, Garnett is one of the most intense players the NBA has seen in a long time.
Perhaps the best example of his intensity took place during the 2009 playoffs, when Garnett was unable to play because of a knee injury.
Throughout the Celtics playoff run, Garnett was seen on the team’s bench in his suit and tie, not only cheering on his team but also scowling, cursing, and generally yelling about anything and everything that was taking place.
While it might have been a bit overdone, and some Americans who were sitting too close to their televisions probably got spit on, Garnett’s intensity for the game of basketball was out in full force during the 2009 playoffs, despite not even playing a single game.
Manu Ginobili’s Finesse:
Despite not being the biggest, strongest, or fastest player in the NBA, Ginobili somehow always seems to get exactly where he wants on the basketball court.
The 6’6" southpaw can be one of the most frustrating players to guard in the league because of the way he skillfully maneuvers through traffic and manages to get the shot that he wants.
It’s well known that Ginobili’s strength is going to his left, and while it sounds easy enough to simply make him drive right, very few defenders can.
As a player who isn’t as athletically gifted as many of his NBA counterparts, Ginobili simply finesses his way around the court leaving broken defenders in his wake.
At 33 years old, the Argentinean import has been dealing with injuries on and off for the past few seasons, but there’s no doubt that when healthy, Ginobili is a very difficult player to guard because of his finesse.
Derek Fisher’s Leadership:
Standing at only 6’1", the biggest part of Fisher’s game might very well be his leadership abilities.
Not only has Fisher been an integral part of five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, the 14-year NBA veteran is currently the president of the NBA’s Players Association.
When he’s on the court, Fisher commands the respect of his teammates as well as opponents and you can count of him to make the right decision when the game is on the line.
Perhaps the best part of his game is that Fisher tends to lead by example, and rather than doing a lot of talking, he goes out every night and takes care of business with his actions rather than his words.
Nate Robinson’s Heart:
After watching Robinson play, it doesn’t take long to realize that the pint-sized 5’9" Boston Celtics guard has one of the biggest hearts in sports.
Despite being written off for pretty much his entire life because of his height, Robinson has persevered and established himself as a solid NBA player.
Every time Nate takes the court, he knows that he will be going up against players who are well over a foot taller than him and outweigh him by more than 100 pounds.
But this doesn’t stop Robinson from being aggressive and driving the lane with fearlessness that few players in the league possess.
For more evidence of Robinson’s heart, you need look no further than game six of the Eastern Conference Finals this past season.
Despite being a seldom used backup for most of the playoffs, he scored 13 points in just 13 minutes of play and helped provide the spark which brought the Celtics back to the NBA Finals.
Nate Robinson’s heart is one of the reasons he is an effective player in the NBA despite his size, and it is also a big reason why he has made it this far.
Tim Duncan’s Consistency
Tim Duncan is celebrated for many things in his illustrious NBA career; he is a four-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP, two-time regular season MVP, has been voted to 12 All-Star games, and is widely considered one of the best power forwards to ever play the game.
But one of the best things about Duncan’s game that people rarely talk about is how ridiculously consistent he has been over his 13-year NBA career.
Unlike some players who need time to adjust to the NBA, Duncan hit the ground running his rookie season and hasn’t looked back since.
Despite intangibles not being about numbers, you could set your watch to Tim Duncan’s consistency over the last 13 seasons:
1. He has averaged a double-double for every season of his career.
2. He averaged 20 plus points per game for the first eight seasons of his career, and hasn’t averaged less than 17.9 points per game for a season.
3. He has averaged at least 2.4 assists per game for every season of his career.
4. He has never shot lower than 48 percent from the field in a season.
5. He averaged over two blocks per game for the first 10 seasons of his career.
6. He has missed a total of 57 games over his 13 year career.
Looking over those stats, it's entirely possible that Tim Duncan is nothing more than an incredibly sophisticated basketball playing robot.
On top of all the impressively consistent numbers Duncan has put together, his play is equally as consistent.
He rarely has a bad game or off shooting night, and you can almost always count on him to show up whether it’s November or June.
A list about NBA intangibles wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Battier, who seems to possess many of the aforementioned attributes in one package.
While his numbers will never jump off the page, the 6’8" small forward does so many little things that help his team win, it’s nearly impossible to quantify exactly what he means to his team.
Despite his pedestrian defensive numbers, he’s a great defender, who will consistently harass whomever he’s matched up against.
He’s also one of the most intelligent players in the NBA, who knows how to make everyone around him better and more efficient in the way they play the game.
On top of that, Battier rarely takes bad shots and rarely turns the ball over, making him a player who can coexist with superstars and raise the level of their games as well.
Battier is the closest definition of an “intangibles guy,” who, on paper, looks like an average NBA player at best.
But if you dig a little deeper into what he brings to a team, he’s much more valuable than the numbers indicate.