Is Nature or Nurture more important in the NBA?

Even though it looks like it here, Tim Duncan is NOT a bully. - Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs ride their Big Three to a comeback win against a surprising Kings squad, but the game's action brought up thoughts about DeMarcus Cousins, Amare Stoudemire and the question of Nature vs. Nurture as answered by the Sacramento Kings.

Nature and nurture on a Sunday night

"I've never been taught defense in my whole career."

- Amar'e Stoudemire

Amar'e Stoudemire's candid confession regarding his defensive shortcomings is one of the best NBA quotes you'll ever hear. It's certainly easy to see what made it an instant classic. One of the most well known athletes in the league casually remarks that in his decade-long career he never improved at a full 50% of the game that made him famous. It's quite a stunning revelation.

But while it certainly elicited giggles and snickers when it first circulated, Stoudemire's statement is subtly intriguing in the question it posits regarding NBA talent. Perhaps without realizing it, Stoudemire proposed a view of the league where player development occurs only within a structure. NBA athletes, Stoudemire seems to suggest, can only go as far as their environment will take them. Put simply, for players in this league, it's nurture over nature.

This thought crossed my mind on Sunday night as I watched the wonderfully jumbled mess that is the Kings roster take to the court. Comprised of players offering unique skills who were brought to a team without identity or structural cohesion, this Kings squad seems doomed from the tip. But with the team's talent - even if as unfocused as Rudy Gay's - nights and moments of high quality competition are possible.

That didn't seem the case Sunday, as the Spurs looked to be in control throughout the first half. It was a bit closer than fans would have liked, but the Spurs appeared well on their way to an easy victory as the second quarter closed with the Kings down nine points. But the third quarter was a very different story, as the Kings rang up the Spurs defense to the tune of 38 (THIRTY-EIGHT!) points to enter the final frame with a six point lead.

For twelve brief minutes, all of those seemingly mismatched parts worked for the Kings. The NBA's island of misfit shooters appeared as a cohesive doppelganger, forcing the Spurs to adapt their pick and roll strategy, as Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas, and DeMarcus Cousins carved up the Spurs. Tough shots went in, balls bounced to purple jerseys, but mostly it was pieces clicking, roles being filled, and talent fitting.

It wouldn't hold for long, as the Spurs clawed back to tie the game late in the fourth and eventually eke out a win on the backs of their Big Three. Manu Ginobili had an absolute monster of a game, finishing with 28 points. Tony Parker added 22 points and seven assists, and Tim Duncan chipped in a ho-hum 17/13 night, as the Spurs continued their dominance of the NBA's non-contenders.

While the game was more exciting than anticipated, it ended as most expected. The Spurs won. The Kings lost. Joey Crawford made sure he was noticed. But when the final buzzer sounded, all I could do was watch DeMarcus Cousins and wonder:

Was Amar'e Stoudemire right?

Are players only as good as the systems in which they're placed? Tim Duncan was considered a lock entering the NBA, a guaranteed contributor on both sides of the court. But surely he benefited immensely developing under David Robinson and Gregg Popovich. How much of that was intrinsic? How much does Duncan owe to the Spurs? Put differently, if Duncan took up, say, water polo, would he still be one of history's best? Is his drive to improve at his craft an innate part of what defines his greatness?

Apply similar questions to this Kings roster, and the answers are murky and even a bit depressing. Is there any hope for a player like DeMarcus Cousins, who spent formative years surrounded by turmoil, operating under the shaky guide of three different head coaches in four years? Cousins plays with intensity, but even as he improves his offensive game, he regularly betrays a roughness around the edges that seems more and more permanent by the game. But how would he operate under a coach like Popovich? What would Cousins' career look like to this point had he been drafted by a stable Kings organization that had a decade's worth of success in Sacramento?

Grappling with nature and nurture is not the most constructive exercise for an NBA game, but watching a player as crazy talented as DeMarcus Cousins get increasingly frustrated by a growing pile of blown defensive assignments, dumb fouls, and mental errors is enough to lead you down the rabbit hole. He was an absolute beast Sunday night, but in the end, it was Tim Duncan's quiet effectiveness that ruled the day.

On the surface, that seems unfair. Few NBA talents are fortunate enough to land in the environment that Duncan did. But his development wasn't exactly spoon fed to him, either. Duncan's work ethic is the stuff of legend, the most obvious example being how he's slimmed down his body to save his knees so late in his career. Nobody "taught" him that. Perhaps the organization encouraged it. Maybe he witnessed an example of it in the final stages of David Robinson's career. But nobody walked him through that kind of work. He sought it out himself. He put in the time. The most crucial part of his development, at least, was intrinsic to Tim Duncan, basketball player.

And it's that drive that DeMarcus Cousins can learn the most from. It's clear that he does not have the benefit of working with an organization as well structured as the Spurs to nurture his development, but really, most of his peers don't either. To make another leap, to maximize his growing talent, to become the leader the Kings need, he'll have to take a page out of Duncan's book and lead himself. Until then, the Kings will survive as best they can, an island of misfit shooters waiting for the guy who'll lead them home.

Be sure to read Fred Silva's recap if you haven't already.

STANDARD POP QUOTE OF THE GAME

"There are things I like, but I'd rather not say what they are."

- Pop on the Green/Belinelli starting lineup swap (via Jeff McDonald)

GAME MVP

Manu

EMANUEL DAVID GINOBILI

PTS

FGM/FGA

AST

REB

STL

3PM/3PA

+/-

MIN

28

9/16

3

3

2

4/9

+13

30:15


It's been a major storyline for the Spurs this season: the offense struggles and Manu Ginobili comes in to right the ship. On a night when the Big Three took over to seal the game down the stretch, it was Ginobili that served as catalyst, setting up teammates, taking smart shots, and introducing his unique brand of controlled chaos. No player wants to lose, but Ginobili this season seems to hate the very notion that losing is even a possibility. The slam he gave the desk the night of the Christmas debacle was indicative of the passion he's shown for the game this whole season. From a player who seemed to have been dealt a crushing ego blow just six months ago, Ginobili's fire has been a revelation to fans and, I'm sure, teammates alike. There's still room on this #Manu6MoY bandwagon, so grab your things and hop aboard.

GAME LVP

Marco-belinelli-8-nba-20130412061144

MARCO STEFANO BELINELLI

PTS

FGM/FGA

AST

REB

STL

3PM/3PA

+/-

MIN

4

2/11

2

2

0

0/3

-3

16:00


Marco Belinelli has been fantastic for the Spurs off the bench this season. He's been good in the starting lineup. He was bad Sunday night. The way this Danny Green/Marco Belinelli swap has played out, it's becoming obvious that the spacing (or lack thereof) afforded by the starting lineup dampens the fire of the Spurs' three-point threats. Green has been playing very well off the bench as Belinelli's production has hit a bit of skid. Popovich says he has his reasons, because of course he does, but if the trade is a wash on offense, it's still a loss on defense. Belinelli isn't half the defender Green has become, and I'd be shocked if the lineup change lasted much longer. Belinelli's bad night isn't entirely indicative of his performance as a starter (eleven shots in sixteen minutes?!), but a simple cost/benefit analysis would suggest the team is likely best served with Green in the starting lineup. For his part, Green didn't have much of a shooting night either, but even when he's ice cold, he can offer enough outside of points to make for a decently effective gazpacho.

GAME NOTES

  • Really, the game was just a backdrop for the story unfolding on Pop's shoulders. What on earth is this?  Bcsfcxwcmaa2dfw
    Is it a metaphor for Popovich the man - each square a chain link holding back the beast within? Is his Technicolor Dreamcoat an optical illusion, meant to be seen through to perceive the image behind the pattern? Is it some kind of code, hiding within its squares the key to league domination? Or, is it just a really ugly blazer? It's impossible to tell. Decades later, and Popovich is still finding new ways to mystify us.
  • The arena was surprisingly alive on a cold Sunday night at the end of December. I was at the game with my friend from Chicago, who said that the arena seemed pretty loud to his ears. I've never been to a game in Chicago, but I'd imagine that they've been quieter than usual these past few seasons. :(
  • They're clearly a mess, but the Kings can be a lot of fun to watch. There's an understated elegance to DeMarcus Cousins' physically imposing offense, and Isaiah Thomas, who burst into flames for a few minutes, seems too good to be that small.
  • I miss Matt Bonner. :(
  • Should we call Isaiah "Thomas the Shank Engine"? He was slicing up the Spurs for most of the game. (I'm so, so sorry about this terrible joke.)

BIRD IS THE WORD

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 4: Spurs turnovers, a season low. One or two more, and the Spurs lose this game. Even better, the Spurs had 29 assists. That 29:4 is the best mark in the league this season.
  • 0: Number of ejections for DeMarcus Cousins this season. In my Kings season preview, my bold prediction was that the guy who nearly led the league last year in ejections wouldn't be kicked out of a game this season. So far, so good.
  • 38: Points scored by the Kings in the third quarter. After seeing similar quarters in recent games against the Thunder and the Rockets, I'm not sure the Spurs remember what it was like to not gift the other team with nearly forty points in a single frame.
  • 3: Number of head coaches DeMarcus Cousins has had in his four-year career
  • 1: Number of head coaches Tim Duncan has had in his seventeen-year career
  • 17: Approximate number of references (costumes, posters, Coyote gags) spotted at the AT&T Center to Manu Ginobili's bat slapping game against the Kings four years ago

THE GAME, IN SONG

"My dog got three legs / Your dog, he got none"

GOING FORWARD, THE SPURS NEED TO...

Show up. I mean, it's the Brooklyn Nets, right? And after that, they've got the New York Knicks. (I'm affectionately referring to these two games as the "Big Apple Bye.") They'll get challenged again when they play the Los Angeles Clippers on the 4th.

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