I finally got a chance to read the Ric Bucher article on Shaun Livingston in the Mag this weekend. (I've had the flu, if you're wondering about the relative dearth of ClipperSteve posts. What's that? You didn't notice? <sigh>) Citizen John R posted the link in the diaries on Friday, so most of you have probably read it by now. It's an interesting piece. Bucher's main point seems to be this:
The long answer is one short word: fear. But not of success. Livingston's fear is that everyone will see him racking up stats and think it's all about the extension and the adulation. Or that even a hint of selfishness will prompt cold shoulders from his teammates. Or that he'll walk into the locker room one day and it'll be Richwoods High all over again, with sideways glances and newspaper stories about a hotshot who's all about himself....
So Shaun Livingston has a conscience.
Fear of racking up too many stats? Wow, am I not scared of that. This is an interesting take, and certainly there is some evidence to support it. But if it's true, it's going to be a real problem - the last thing an NBA point guard needs is a conscience.
Point guards share the ball for the good of the team, not to make their teammates like them. Usually it works out that way - if you have confidence that you'll get the pass, you'll run harder to fill the lane, and when you get the pass, you run hard again the next time. But if someone thinks they should be getting the ball more often and the point guard thinks otherwise, well tough.
Interestingly, all the things we thought could hold Shaun back haven't really been problems. Remember the 'He's too skinny and weak, he'll get pushed around' argument? When was the last time Shaun got pushed around? He's a great defender, and even does a good job when he gets switched onto small forwards. Most of the time, he's the one doing the pushing (and getting whistled for offensive fouls). Has his frail build contributed to his injury trouble? Maybe, but then again he's only missed 2 games in the last 118, so maybe it's time to put the injury knock to bed also. As for his shooting ability, it certainly looks like he can shoot - he just tends not to.
So if those were the only things that could possibly stop him from being a superstar, then why isn't he a superstar?
In this age of shoot first point guards, point guards who are called that primarily because they are the shortest player on their team and no other reason (think Gulbert Arenas), Shaun is a throw back. A true pass first point. But all the great pass first point guards were also significant scoring threats. Magic Johnson was a 20 point per game scorer most of his career. Even John Stockton, the ultimate pass-first point guard, was the second or third leading scorer for the Jazz for 12 consecutive seasons. And of course Steve Nash is so effective as a passer because he also happens to be the best pure shooter in the NBA. So you can be a pass-first point guard, but you can't be a pass-only point guard. A pass-only point guard is Brevin Knight.
We've spent some time comparing Shaun to other young point guards. This may or may not be fair, but it's valid as long as the Clippers use the `Point guard is a tough position to learn' argument. Certainly all of these young guys came into the league with more of a scoring mentality, which may explain why they seem to have transitioned to the NBA more readily. So Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton and maybe even Jarrett Jack seem to be ahead of him on the curve, and maybe it's because they are all more comfortable creating shots for themselves. But consider this: In 136 NBA games Shaun Livingston's NBA career high in scoring is 21 (Dec. 17, 2006 versus Houston). Here is a partial list of young point guards who have scored more in the NBA:
Steve Blake 25
Rajon Rondo 23 (twice)
Marcus Williams 27
TJ Ford 28
Monta Ellis 31
Jameer Nelson 29
Jose Calderon 24
Sergio Rodriguez 23
Sebastian Telfair 27
You could argue that all of these players have gotten the chance to be the starting point guard at some point. Well, so has Shaun of course. How is it possible that Shaun Livingston, with all his evident talent, has never scored more than 21 points in an NBA game? Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Shaun had two different 18 point games in April of his rookie year. 18 points as a 19 year old rookie, 21 as a 21 year old 3rd year player. At this rate, he'll put up a 30 point game in another 9 years.
Obviously, career high in points is a one-off stat (Sergio Rodriguez had one great game, big deal), but it speaks to Shaun's demeanor. He won't take over a game, even when he can't miss. 8 for 10 against the Wizards in January - why only 10 shots? 5 for 5 against the Raptors. Shaun needs to take over a game and he needs to get downright cocky about it.
Three plays in the last week illustrate my point.
The Dunk -
This happened during an encouraging sequence in which Shaun came as close to taking over as we have seen. In the fourth quarter of a two point game, with the Clippers struggling to score, Shaun blows by Ben Gordon of the Bulls and throws down one of the great dunks of the season, ducking his head under the backboard as he goes by. He celebrates by taking the ball, throwing it to the ref, and playing defense. What? Even Elton Brand, the most low key superstar in the NBA, let's out a yell when he dunks. The expression on Shaun's face never changed. Point guards have attitude. They let people know how good they are.
The Overpass -
In the fourth quarter of the Raptors loss, he had a wide open 10 footer, but instead passed the ball to Kaman, who took the exact same shot. Part of being a point guard is understanding the people around you and the situation - Shaun hadn't missed a shot in the game, and Kaman had missed 8 in a row. Why give him the ball in that situation? Is this a case of Shaun wanting Chris to like him? Screw that. Shoot the ball. Any time you make a pass, there is the potential for mishandling the ball - by definition, you should only pass up an open shot for a better shot. You should never pass up an open shot for the same shot, less so when it's a poorer shooter, and less still when it's a poorer shooter who is ice cold. Part of being a point guard is knowing all that, but first and foremost, shoot the ball when you have a good shot!
The Slow Down -
In the same game, after a steal, Shaun got the ball on the wing with only one defender back - a big, I think it was Nesterovic. Rather than take the ball right by him to the rim, he slowed everything down and set up the offense. Why? Are we really going to get a better shot than Livingston one on one in transition against Nesterovic? That's at least two points, and hopefully three.
I don't like to steal things from Mike Smith, traditional ball (© Michael Smith) notwithstanding, but he is right about Shaun's tendency to mope. TJ Ford almost stole an inbounds pass, and blew by him another time, as Shaun was muttering to himself about something or other. In the Celtics game, he missed an easy post up shot, and was shaking his head as Rondo sped past him for a lay up. The fact that he can't let himself get beat while he's moping being an obvious problem, it's also true that great point guards have short memories regarding their mistakes, and let everyone know about their triumphs. Shaun is the opposite. Shaun is the most humble and self-effacing player in the NBA right now. Point guards aren't humble.
Because these things seem to be personality traits, there is a frightening though real possibility that he will not overcome them. Although his body, skill and vision scream `All Pro', his personality whispers `whatever.'
He has a conscience. Point guards do not. He is humble. Point guards are not. I don't know if you can change those things.