I recently received a copy of “The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Life and Work,” by Ted Leonsis, the soon-to-be full owner of the Washington Wizards. I’ve yet to delve into reading, but I get the premise: true success is making money from doing something you enjoy while allowing for yourself and those around you (family, friends and employees/co-workers) to be happy. Doesn’t sound like the easiest task in the world given the constraints of our society today, but that’s why Leonsis wrote the book, to help others understand what he has learned.
“The Business of Happiness” could also apply to the upcoming free-agency of Shaun Livingston. It would certainly make Wizards fans and Flip Saunders happy if Ernie Grunfeld found a way to retain the revitalized guard at a fair price. And it goes unquestioned that Livingston’s basketball presence would also be good for business. But it will ultimately be Shaun’s decision to make, what really matters is his business of happiness.
The guy obviously wants, and needs, to get paid. When you’ve been through a devastating injury like Livingston has, you want some career security, especially when the 24-year old’s athletic skills will continue to diminish with age. But before we get into the balance of playing basketball as a profession and making as much money as possible while putting yourself in a situation to succeed, let’s rewind to look at the player-coach relationship that developed between Livingston and Saunders toward the end of the season.
The Making of a Point Guard Leader
After breaking their 16-game losing streak in New Orleans at the 11th hour in March (so as not to lose every game in the month), the Wizards returned home to play their first game in April against the Chicago Bulls. Dealing with injuries, Chicago’s Luol Deng was making a return to the court for the first time in about three weeks and Joakim Noah returned to the starting lineup for the first time since early February. Aside from the obvious chemistry issues, the Bulls didn’t look all that great. Kirk Hinrich struggled and Derrick Rose wasn’t aggressive enough on offense.
Nonetheless, Chicago won 95-87, pulling within 1.5 games of the Toronto Raptors for the final playoff spot in the East; the victory against Washington served as win number five in Chicago’s season-ending 10-4 run, which preceded by a 10-game losing streak that spanned from late February and into March.
But the Bulls won more so because of what the Wizards did, or didn’t do, than what they did. In the fourth quarter of that Friday night game, selfish, do-it-yourself play and laggardly offensive execution once again reared its ugly head for Washington, the main culprits being the usual suspects — Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. The Wizards only made two field-goals and scored just 12 points in the final period.
After the loss, I asked Coach Saunders if he looked to Livingston, his point guard and offensive leader, to keep guys, such as the aforementioned, in check and within the system during crucial moments of the game.
“Well you try to,” Saunders said, “Shaun, you gotta realize, here’s a guy that hasn’t played in three years. He’s trying, but he’s got a lot of things to worry about himself too.” Not quite the answer you’d like to hear, but it’s understandable to curb expectations with so much on Livingston’s plate.
Click here to listen to Flip Saunders on Shaun Livingston (April 2, 2010).
Washington’s next opponent was the New Jersey Nets at home two days later. As the team with the worst record in the NBA, the Nets were obviously a different caliber match-up from the Bulls, who eventually found themselves playoff bound. But still, New Jersey was no pushover. Heading into the game, they’d won four of their previous six. And keep in mind that the Wizards, as Saunders would often say toward the end of the season, were more concerned with what they are doing, not necessarily the opponent. Essentially it didn’t matter who they were playing, they had to bring their ‘A’ game.
Taking a nine point lead into the fourth quarter, Washington out-scored New Jersey 29-28 in the period, winning the game 109-99, also ending a nine-game home court losing streak. Six assists on six field-goals in the fourth pushed the Wizards to 28 assists for the game, tying the second most dimes the team achieved all season. Washington also scored over 100 points for the first time since an overtime loss against the New York Knicks on February 26th. Guess the Nets were just what a slightly worse Washington team needed to get them going.
That being said, what did the Wizards do to ensure victory against the NBA’s worst? Part was the result of Saunders moving to a two-guard offense in mid-March, which in the coach’s words, was implemented to, “take a little bit pressure off our point and try to initiate our offense a little quicker,” and part of it involved Andray Blatche setting a tone of passing early in the game that was perhaps contagious to his teammates (remember, the New Jersey game was the night of Blatche’s failed triple-double attempt where he had eight assists in the first quarter). But perhaps the most important aspect was the grooming of Livingston as a young point guard leader.
After the game Saunders was asked about the differences between the fourth quarter against New Jersey and the one against Chicago. The coach said, “We had a talk with Shaun. We tried to keep the pace up, and even though we got into a stretch when they came back because we started playing too much one-on-one, keep moving the basketball and don’t become so easy for people to lock down on you.”
Click below to hear what Flip said about the fourth quarter offensive differences and more on what he had to say about Livingston.
Being more vocal. Gaining the trust of teammates. Gaining the trust of the coach. And of course, the one thing Randy Foye can’t do (and not many young point guards either for that matter), make the right instinctual decisions while keeping within the flow of the game. All signs of a keeper.
How to Keep Livingston
So what will keep the promising young point guard in D.C.?
“When players have decisions, it’s based on money … money and opportunity. That’s pretty much what it is,” said Saunders when asked before the final game of the season if working with someone like Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who also tutored Livingston in the veteran ways of a point guard when they were both with the Los Angeles Clippers, might influence Shaun’s decision.
When asked about a potential return to the Wizards before an April 7th game in Orlando against the Magic, Livingston told the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, “Definitely — If I’m wanted. I hope everything works out right. I’m about winning and success. I’ve always based my career upon that. You got to obviously make the best decisions for your future and your career, so we’ll see what happens.”
Lee followed by specifically asking Shaun if the chance the Wizards took on him would have an affect. He said, “I appreciate it, but it’s business as usual. They were looking at me coming in to see if I could help them, to see what’s best for their team. I got to do the same thing on my side.”
So how does “business of usual” jibe with the “business of happiness”? Clearly Livingston is not proclaiming loyalty to the Wizards franchise like Mike Miller did. And that’s okay. There’s no reason for Shaun to be loyal to anyone but himself at this point.
In the mad scrum that served as the de facto exit interview media day after the last game of the season, I caught up with Livingston in the hallway outside of the locker room and asked him what factors, aside from the business of money, would have an influence on his free-agency, and how much of a factor the current system of Flip Saunders and coaching of both Flip and Sam Cassell is for him. Here’s the video of Shaun’s response:
Livingston’s factors: playing time, the system (what works for him), and the team (competing or rebuilding) — and in terms of Flip Saunders’ specific system, Livingston mentions how it exploits his strengths … all reasonable responses. Of course, part of it begs the questions of ‘How good can the Wizards be next season?’ and ‘What if they get John Wall or Evan Turner?’ … but we won’t consider those at this juncture, it’s much too early.
What are Livingston’s strengths, how were they exploited, and did they work?
One of Livingston’s strengths is executing the pick-and-roll offense, a staple of the NBA. He especially excels at this because his 6’7″ height (and 6’11″ wingspan) gives him the ability to see the passing lanes he’s already naturally adept at using.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Livingston ran the P&R as a ball handler on 19.2% of his offensive possessions, netting one point-per-possession, which is good enough to rank 8th in the NBA. Livingston shot 56.1% (23-41) on P&R FG attempts and turned the ball over on 12.2% of his 49 total P&R offensive possessions. Note: these numbers only account for plays that ended in FGAs, TOs or FTs for Livingston, not plays that got buckets for someone else, i.e., assists for Livingston.
Livingston saw 47 plays as a P&R ball handler who passes the ball. So, of the 96 total P&R plays Livingston ran with the Wizards, he sought offense for himself 51% of the time (49 plays) and offense for others 49% of the time. And the Wizards offense was even better when Livingston looked to pass out of the P&R, scoring 63.8% of the time, netting 1.34 points-per-possession, and only turning the ball over 4.3% of the time.
In total, when Livingston runs a P&R play, whether the end result is offense for him or someone else, the Wizards scored 57.3% of the time and netted 1.167 points-per-possession, which ranks in the 96th percentile of the NBA. I don’t need to tell you how good that number is.
Another strength of Livingston’s is his ability to use his height to post up smaller players. As skinny as he is, I was especially impressed by his ability to hold post position against strong point guards such as Deron Williams and Derrick Rose.
Post-up opportunities accounted for 15.3% of Livingston’s offensive chances, second most after P&Rs. On these, he produced 1.1 points-per-possession (ranked 10th in the league) and shot 60.6% from the field (20-33).
One area in which Livingston doesn’t have the best reputation is his ability to spot up shoot. However, in 35 spot-up opportunities, which accounted for 13.7% of his offensive chances, he didn’t fare too bad, making 15 out of 31 shots (48.4%) and getting 0.94 points-per-possession.
Isolation plays, however, are a problem. They accounted for 14.9% of his offensive chances and only produced 0.74 points-per-possession. In isolations, Livingston shot 34.6% from the field (9-26) and turned the ball over 18.4% of the time.
But keep in mind, many isolations result from either a break-down in the offense or when the shot clock is running down. Or, at times simply because of good defense, and other times because of the talent level of surrounding teammates. Also keep in mind that whole knee injury thing. As Livingston gains strength and more familiarity on the court, he will improve upon his abilities as an isolation offensive player.
Livingston’s return to basketball relevancy was easily the best story of the 2009-10 Wizards season. Give both Shaun and Flip credit for making it successful. Proof of potential continued happiness as business partners lies in the numbers.
NBA.com’s David Aldridge once wrote, “If I was Ernie Grunfeld, I think I’d figure out a way to get Shaun Livingston signed for next season. He knows how to play.” Wizards fans would happily agree … but no pressure to take care of business, Ernie.