“He poured everything into it”
Can your team inspire greatness?
BY HENRY ABBOTT
I can only imagine what watching Friday night’s incredible Bucks-Celtics Game 6 was like for Joel Embiid. That game had five, ten, fifteen players who burn with Embiid’s brand of wild intensity. Before tipoff, they asked Marcus Smart how he felt, and he said “desperate.” Then, like Embiid, Smart launched his body all over the court, and the Celtics forced Game 7.
The Heat’s Jimmy Butler plays like that too, and Butler used to play with Embiid in Philadelphia. After the 76ers were eliminated, Butler said he wanted Embiid to know that “I love him,” and that he wished they could still play together. Embiid said “that’s my guy.”
Love is more central to winning than you might think. Courage and success in battle follow soldiers who love each other. Sebastian Junger summarized extensive military research in his book War:
That choreography—you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up—is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gitigal.
The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what's best for him, but on what's best for the group.
If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.
Here’s an alternate theory: Even if they’d kept Butler under contract, the 76ers never would have had this supernova star of the Miami Heat. Because Butler, in Philadelphia, was not showing the kind of love that leads to victory in war and basketball. He chafed with Brett Brown like he had chafed with nearly every one of his NBA coaches. A lot of players fail to fall in love with the 76ers.
Watch the post-game press conferences of everyone after the 76ers season ended, and through all the words of Doc Rivers, Tobias Harris, James Harden, Embiid and the like it’s hard to find much other than studious avoidance of blame. Everyone dances on the head of a pin, using vagaries. Rivers says they lose as a team, and that he doesn’t want to make it a referendum on Harden. Embiid says “I’m not the GM,” too many times to count, batting away questions about how he really feels about the roster. Embiid also says he thinks Daryl Morey is a good GM because he brought in guys like Seth Curry … who isn’t a 76er anymore, and left in the Harden trade. He remembers former teammate Mike Scott. It’s the opposite of “that’s my guy.” When did Philadelphia become the city of brotherly indifference?
THEORY: The Heat aren’t better than the 76ers because they acquired more talent. (They have eight undrafted players on the roster right now.) They’re better than the 76ers and most of the NBA because they have an organization that has earned the right to light the hearts of players on fire.
After Game 6, Erik Spoelstra told a story about the man who had just completed a marvelous run filling in for an injured Kyle Lowry: Gabe Vincent. He’s a 25-year-old second-year NBA player from UC Santa Barbara who was cut by the Sacramento Kings about a day after they had signed him and wasn’t even starting in the G-League when the Heat called. In other words, he’s yet another player that every NBA franchise could have had, but who put in special effort for the right team.
A couple of months ago, Vincent started in place of injured Jimmy Butler. The second-year guard made one-of-eight shots. The Wolves outscored the Heat by 22 while Vincent was on the court, and Miami lost by nine. The next game, a few days later in Detroit, Vincent missed all three of his shots. Then he made one of his nine shots against the Thunder, completing a week of turning 20 real NBA shots into four piddling points.
Whatever you’re thinking about that, Spoelstra doesn’t want to hear it—not until you appreciate the bigger picture. “It’s a long journey; it's a tough journey. You have to commit to something that’s bigger than yourselves.”
Spoelstra is talking about how the Heat develop players, and how they have come to have eight undrafted players like Vincent on this season’s roster. He’s talking about offseason workouts, progress on the court with the Nigerian national team, and being all-in on a vision the team had for him years earlier:
Sometimes it was really productive for a young player, and sometimes they were figuring things out, and then all people were talking about was Gabe’s shooting percentage. Things that just did not resonate with me. I saw a player that was changing a position, which was really tough to do. From being a gunslinger two-guard—playing off screens and off the ball—to somebody that we were going to develop into a combo guard, backup point guard, and a defensive irritant. He never was that before. But he embraced it.
He poured everything into it.
One of the best-established principles in social psychology is fundamental attribution error. Wikipedia says it’s “the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while overemphasizing dispositional- and personality-based explanations.” We think it’s your nature, when really it’s the circumstances.
There has been a lot of lamenting that the 76ers opted to prioritize Ben Simmons over Butler, back in the day. But Yaron Weitzman, who wrote an incredible book on the 76ers, says it was more about Al Horford’s contract. To 76ers fans, Horford is still seen largely as a punchline—as a 76er, he was seen as old and overpaid—but that’s not funny either. Horford has been guarding Giannis and draining 3s—a lynch pin of one of the playoffs’ best teams. (Maybe he’ll guard Butler in the conference finals, completing a portrait of 76ers’ screwups.)
Horford joins too many players to list—Pat Connaughton, Jordan Poole, Jalen Brunson—who have been let go or passed over by bad teams, or every team, and are now helping fantastic teams make deep playoff runs.
I learn every day from David Thorpe, whose career is not about what players are, but what they could become. He talks about leadership as breathing spirit into the hearts of others. He sees a thousand Gabe Vincents out there, and too few teams that know how to get the best out of players like the Heat did with Vincent. The 76ers are far from alone.
For part of the second half of the final game of the 76ers season, their taller, more coveted, first-round [correction: 54th pick] version of Gabe Vincent—Shake Milton—became one of the only Philadelphia players who could score. For a time, Milton worked like crazy, and carried the offense as the 76ers flirted with a comeback. In the sad post-game press conferences, a beat reporter seemed to fish for a compliment for Milton, who had done so much. Lobbed a softball question, teeing Rivers to love up Milton’s effort, Rivers could only say that “it’s not a good situation” if Milton is leading the way.
Spoelstra had taken many minutes to breathe spirit into his backup point guard Vincent. If you were Milton, where would you rather play?
An average NBA team would win a title once every 30 years. In the 27 years Pat Riley has been running the Heat, they’ve won three championships; this is their ninth trip to the conference finals. The Heat overperform. You might say that’s because they get better players—after all, Miami is where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh chose to join forces. Or maybe it’s because they have a way into their players’ hearts. Are the 76ers missing Jimmy Butler, or are they missing a way to get Jimmy Butler to believe?
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