Ride-or-die players. Is the NBA driving them into extinction?
Perhaps nothing reflects how "soft" some in the game believe the NBA has become than a survey of players on who they'd want by their side playing in the park, based on who has the talent to keep the court and the toughness, if a disagreement broke out, to stand their ground.
The vast majority went with players better known for being irritants than excellent, while some of the league's best were barely mentioned. Even more telling: Draymond Green, at 28, was not only the most popular choice but the youngest of anyone nominated more than once. Why aren't NBA players of the newest generation playground-worthy in the eyes of their predecessors?
"It's hard to know because the league has so many rules," said Sacramento Kings guard Iman Shumpert when asked if he could name an under-25 squad he'd want by his side.
Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, 29, who is a connoisseur of ride-or-die talent, was more definitive. "No young guys have caught my eye," he said. "Yes, something has changed."
Golden State Warriors rookie Jordan Bell, 23, winced when he heard Beverley's critique, but he stopped short of challenging it. "I hate when they say that," said Bell, taking a sidelong look at Green and Kevin Durant in the lockers next to his, "because they made it this way. You do or say anything that's aggressive, it's viewed as dirty. We're just adapting to the game."
Bell wasn't blaming Green and Durant, specifically, but pointing to how the game has changed during their tenures. The league's ever-tightening rules on physicality and trash talk—redefined as taunting—and a social media world in which one video clip (silly, spectacular, embarrassing or dirty) can define a player, were cited as the primary factors. Bell knows firsthand; his dunk of an alley-oop to himself in garbage time against the Dallas Mavericks not only became a popular GIF but was also roundly criticized in several circles, including the Mavericks and Warriors coaching staffs.
Then, in his first game against the Chicago Bulls, who traded the second-round pick to the Warriors in exchange for $3.5 million, Bell completed an and-one after making a money sign with his hands and mouthing "Three-point-five!" That drew its share of public criticism as well.
"It is harder for younger guys to establish that kind of [ride-or-die] reputation because there is so much media attention," said New Orleans Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo, who was one of Beverley's and Green's picks. "Guys are afraid of that attention, afraid of the label, afraid of what endorsement may be afraid of them, because there's so much attention on every little thing."
Beverley agreed. "There's so much on social media you already have a bullseye on you," he said. "You don't want to do what anyone thinks is out of the ordinary. Or have a difficult altercation. But growing up, that's what happened all the time. Social media has made guys cautious of that, which takes away a lot."
Though he's been a three-time All-Star, a two-time All-NBA player and a Defensive Player of the Year, Green took an equal amount of pride in being a consensus pick for all-ride-or-die recognition because, as he sees it, they're connected.
"It means a lot because that's how I try to carry myself," Green said. "I try to be there for my teammates no matter what the situation is. I'm always trying to hold it down, to play with that toughness, that physicality and just ride for my guys. At the end of the day, do I want to continue to be as important as I am to teams and make All-NBA and be an All-Star but get a couple fines here and there? Or would I want to take all that away from me and just be an average guy?"
For all of Green's regular-season accomplishments, the most telling, and meaningful to the Warriors' two championships, is that his contributions across the board increase in the playoffs. Rondo is now known as "Playoff Rondo" for the way his game has similarly risen in the last two postseasons. Beverley believes the same qualities that have earned them all ride-or-die cred is why they flourish rather than flinch when the stakes are highest.
"It makes the playoffs easy," Beverley said. "That's why you see I have my best in the playoffs. There's no pressure. I've been through situations like this before. The edge, right? Me and my trainer call it the 'it factor,' right? You look at the guys I named. Those guys in the playoffs? When it's nitty-gritty time, you're a coach, you're putting those guys in."
What exactly is "it" that makes the playoff atmosphere so comfortable for these players? Rondo, 32, says it's familiarity with playing in the park, where you're not looking to a coach or an official or even a crowd to help you solve whatever challenge you may be facing.
"Things aren't always going to go your way," he said. "Me, personally, I was always one of the smallest guys and one of the youngest. After a while, my name got around, so I did get picked, but it wasn't always that way. It gives you heart. You're playing on concrete, so nothing soft about that. Cuts and bruises along the way. Nothing is given to you at all. You have to earn your respect, and then you might get into a fight, so you can't back down there, either."
While Beverley couldn't identify any under-25 players worthy of all-playground status, Rondo and several others named Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker and Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (who turns 26 in May) as candidates.
For Rondo, ride-or-die qualities are readily discernible.
"It's a guy who just wants the challenge," Rondo said. "Whoever has it going, he's like, 'OK, I got him.' A guy who is willing to do the dirty work—intangibles. You see it right away. It's not something you can fake. Some guys act a little more tough in a TV game, but it has nothing to do with beating your chest. It's how you play the game. It's the grit, the fight—maybe take a 'bow in the mouth, and you keep playing. You're not asking for nothing. You don't bitch and cry to the referees, which a lot of guys do. You get knocked down, you get up."
LeBron James, despite his willingness to tackle a defensive assignment or attack when a basket is needed most, was only mentioned once—by Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas, who picked James, Durant, Jamal Crawford and Kyrie Irving. Asked how that group would fare if a fight broke out, Thomas shrugged. "I'm just trying to win the damn game," he said.
James didn't get any other mentions apparently because of his perceived penchant for exaggerating contact and appealing to the referees. There is a difference, in the eyes of NBA players, between barking at officials (Green) and pleading with them (James). While Durant had Green on his squad—"You know he's got your back if something jumps off"—Green, surveying his own locker room for his squad, looked right past Durant and Stephen Curry, presumably because it's hard to imagine either of them in an actual fight. Instead, he took Warriors power forward David West along with Oladipo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook to join him in the park.
Green, however, pointed to Beverley as the all-ride-or-die king, someone whose entire NBA existence is built on that mentality.
"Pat Beverley made a career out of being just that," Green said. "When I pick Damian Lillard or Russell, I'm saying who can hold their own and also who can play at the top level. Now you talk about going into a dog fight, you're talking about taking Pat Beverley every time. That man [played] in the Ukraine. And he made a living doing that, just that. Some people get to a point, and they're like, 'All right, I got it. I don't have to be like that as much.' Nah. Not Pat Beverley. He's just that. You talk about a dog just holding his own? You've got to take him. Because that's who he is. He's going to thrive in that."
Green also credited former teammate Richard Jefferson with encouraging him to not let the league or public pressure persuade him to play any differently, either.
"The league was almost trying to tame me some," said Green, who has been called for 74 technical fouls in the regular season and playoffs over the course of his career. "I'm going to keep putting myself in a position where I can take those fines, take it on the chin and keep it moving. That's been my approach. I know RJ used to always tell me: 'Draymond, who cares if you get a tech? Who cares if you get into it and get fined? That is going to make you a living.' I still remember that."
As Green spoke, Bell sat directly behind him at his locker, cutting the tape off his ankles. Was he listening? We're going to find out.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.