To be an athlete at the highest possible level means to be scrutinized by just about everyone with a keyboard and a platform. Unless you are Steph Curry, you will more than likely find an article or two that outline, in very specific detail, what you are doing wrong each and every time you play. These daily report cards are often claimed to be ignored by athletes, and asking about their reaction to words written about them will warrant a “no comment” or “I did not see that” more often than not.
That’s all good if you want to ignore the fact that it’s complete bullshit.
Let’s talk about the NBA specifically. More specifically, let’s talk about Damian Lillard. The Portland Trailblazer shooting guard had a career night last week when he scored 51 points against the aforementioned Curry and his Golden State Warriors en route to a commanding 137-104 victory. The 51 was a career high for the Weber State product, and prompted league-wide praise for his performance.
This game comes almost immediately following the All Star Break, which happened last weekend in Toronto. Damian Lillard, our boy, was not invited to partake in that All Star Game. Now, let me clear this up right away, this is not one of those articles proving why player XYZ did not deserve to be in the All Star Game, because there is too much talent league-wide to make that case. Much to the contrary, this is an article about why Damian Lillard scored 51 points against America’s sweetheart, and the reasoning behind it.
When Lillard, or any player with an ounce of competitive spirit, is doubted or looked over, it evokes a natural human reaction of athletic rage. This player now feels as if they have something to prove. It lights a fire in places that may once have been filled with a sense of security in assuming the NBA fan-driven-world is in your corner.
Lillard was, to lay it out simply, pretty fuckin’ pissed off. So, what better platform for him to shove it back in the faces of the 78 billion (maybe an exaggeration) NBA fans who voted Kobe Bryant into the All Star Game in his final season, than the game the other night against Golden State. The WORLD watches every Golden State game, so the WORLD will see Damian Lillard kick the shit out of Curry and come to see what they did wrong in not selecting him. Lillard was mad at his public perception, so he played out of his mind on the biggest stage to prove that.
What motivates Lillard, as we see throughout his entire career, is people undervaluing him. He laces his shoes up every single night for you, guy with a blog who thinks you can’t build a title contender around him. He laces them up for you, head scout who passed on him in high school. And, don’t forget, he does it for you Dan Gilbert, who drafted Dion Waiters ahead of him.
Another interesting case of motivation is Rajon Rondo. Being from Boston, I saw Rajon play a lot of games for the Celtics, and one of the common phrases that fans liked to use was “National TV Rondo” when talking about the enigmatic point guard. The title was used to describe, ahead of a game, the type of player we could expect playing point guard for us on any given day or night. The “National TV Rondo” was VERY different from the one we saw in locally broadcast games on obscure weeknight. Just look at this breakdown of his stats on national TV or on a random night given by Ryan Fortin of the Harvard Sports Analysis collective below.
Now, while this may be a little different from the case of Damian Lillard’s explosion, the root point is the same. These guys like to be admired and appreciated for their work. When guys like Rajon Rondo know the world is watching, they put on a show. When Lillard has your attention, he’s going to play a different style of basketball.
I think this is important to remember when describing James Harden and the Houston Rockets this season as well. People are wondering, “What happened to the Rockets this season?” and understandably so. They went from a team who challenged for the Western Conference to a team in the lottery (outside the playoff picture at this moment) without losing any impact players. Now, while I do think the Rockets get into the playoffs, there is an important conversation to be had about this team.
As anyone who follows the NBA knows, your team takes on a certain personality as the season progresses. Sometimes the personality is a player. Look at Golden State and you see Draymond Green pulling the emotional strings. Other times, coaches like Brad Stevens instill a certain tenacity you see reflected on the court. With Houston lacking a solid coaching influence, the task of building this team’s pulse rested on James Harden.
Last season, James Harden entered the NBA campaign fresh off his time spent with USA Basketball and Coach K. He came in fit, ready to play, and hungry. In my opinion, being in the gym with guys like Curry and, to an extent, Lebron James, really lit a fire under Harden and made him want to establish himself as a winner. He took his Houston team, and made it hungry. He became a superstar. He won over the public perception, became a staple of ADIDAS new advertising campaign, and was unanimously considered a star.
This offseason was spent with Khloe Kardashian and THAT family. Now, I am not assuming Harden was not in the gym. He is a professional basketball player. He probably worked on his physical game just as much.
I do believe his mindset shifted. He doesn’t have the Lillard haters right now. He gets his numbers, and is probably one of the best 3 shooting guards in the league. I just think he’s content being right there. No one is calling James Harden a loser, or overrated. No one is snubbing him from the All Star Game. Why does he even care what he does on any given night if it won’t change how you feel about him?
All of this was said to boil down to the main point. What motivates an NBA Superstar? I believe it is a very simple equation.
How Highly a Player Values Public Perception + Intrinsic Motivation to be a Champion = Performance
While anyone with an imagination can write a thousand words on intrinsic motivation, I think the more important piece of that equation is just how much a player cares about how the public feels about him. This is not a season by season equation either, but more a game by game. Rajon Rondo came to play in games that he knew the public was watching, because he cared how he was portrayed. Damian Lillard came to play the other night because he feels cheated by the publics evaluation of him not being an all-star.
If you take a player who feels disrespected (Lillard the other night, Rondo on national TV, Harden before he was James Hard-ashian) and you put him on the basketball court, he will perform. If you foster your players in a safe environment where nothing really pisses them off, and they don’t mind getting checks to put up their predetermined statistics, you are building a loser.
So, next time you hear a player say that they don’t read the press about them just keep in the back of your mind what you know about that player’s personality. A guy like Damian Lillard, not even recruited hard out of high school (went to Weber State), got drafted after Dion Waiters, and did not make the All Star Game, is going to take it personal.
What motivates an NBA Superstar? Just disrespect one and find out.
by MikeyFOLLOW THE OPEN FIELD