Do system players really exist? And what exactly is a system player?
Many use the term system player to refer to a player that has experienced some success as a player within the confines of a very well coached organization, typically one that makes exceptionally good use of that player’s skillset.
Viewed within that specific prism, the term makes sense. However, there is typically another implied connotation with system players, and that is the perception that the same player would be unlikely to experience success outside of that same system.
With the additional layer of that connotation, the term system player gets a bit harder to pin down as a coherent or useful term. In a literal sense, many players are more likely to succeed in some systems rather than others.
Contextualized in that manner, the term system player becomes useless. But fine, you can argue that goes against the spirit of how it is used, which is to indicate a player’s one-dimensional skillset that can only thrive in very specific or essentially tailor-made situations built upon their attributes.
This argument can be made about some players to some degree, but it is difficult to outline the parameters and quantify precisely to what extent is a player dependent on a system to the point that they deserve the label of a system player.
For one thing, seeing a player only within one system and suspecting their skills are not easily translatable to another does not provide sufficient evidence to determine that they are in fact a system player.
A point of comparison is crucial. And even in the context of having a comparison, it would still be difficult to isolate the external variables that would rule out other explanations. For example, a player could leave a team and start aging in the wrong direction.
Additionally, on the other end of the spectrum, it is difficult to turn a superstar into a role player just because of a different system. Talent usually finds a way. This logic somewhat substantiates the fact that system players can exist and be overrated as a result.
A counter to this, however, is that it is a coach’s job to maximize the skillset of his players and as a result, in theory, every player should be a system player to some extent. However, if there are players with redundant talents on a team, the more versatile players will succeed and those with a less all-around game will struggle.
Ideally, GMs and scouts will avoid this problem altogether, but that is entirely another conversation. The players whose skillset allow them to only play specific roles within a scheme, especially if that scheme also is dependent on them playing alongside other players with complementary skillsets, then that player can be more accurately described as a system player.
So how do you identify a system player? That is not necessarily an easy task. Player abilities tend to grow or erode over time – and as mentioned before, there will always be external variables at play. At one point or another, players such as Steve Nash, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard have all been referred to as system players, but I will get back to them in a minute.
Comparing a player’s performance while they are playing with or without specific teammates, sudden upwards or downwards spike in performance after a coaching change, or even a change in performance if a player is suddenly given a different role in the same offense can be tell-tale signs of a system player.
This is not to be confused with a player being given an unrealistic role in an offense and performing worse than expected. Giving a wing player point guard responsibilities if they have never run the point before, only to find out they make a subpar point guard, does not provide any evidence of that player being a system player.
Yes, there are players that would be able to make that adjustment rather smoothly, but even as we head towards a more homogenized player position system, we are not at the point yet, we still for the most part have specific roles for specific players.
Some will argue that the label system player makes no sense, because even superstar players have weaknesses and if forced to play in a system that requires them to rely on a weakness in their game, even known superstar players will struggle.
This logic does not make sense to me, primarily because a player with superstar level talent can usually find a way to get it done on the court, which may mean ignoring some of their coach’s directives, but if the desired outcome is attained, even the strictest coach will allow a player some latitude for bending their system.
But the argument that a system that forces someone like Shaquille O’Neal to be a catch and shoot guy on the perimeter will guarantee his failure, thus rendering the term system player null makes no sense, as Shaq would simply make his way to the post and dominate.
System players do exist in the sense that the system props them up, rather then the other way around. For example, a system that ultimately works to create room in the post for the big to get easy buckets, will be beneficial for a lot of bigs with decent footwork and post moves. However, to use Shaq again as an example, a system like that would look good because of him, as that was where he was elite.
As far as the previously mentioned players, Steve Nash is an example of a guy that was labeled as a potential system player due to his relative late prime. However, checking the stats on Steve Nash will show that his strengths were always there, he was always an elite passer and shooter.
The biggest jump in his numbers during his time with D’Antoni were his assists. Yes, this was partially due to the system that Nash was now running, but it was also due to playing with better teammates that could shoot and finish around the rim effectively. D’Antoni’s system did in fact help Nash’s numbers, but that falls more under the category of Nash playing in an ideal situation rather than the only situation where Nash could thrive.
Kawhi Leonard was somewhat understandably, but mistakenly labeled as a role player as member of the Spurs, as they do in fact have a great system and culture in San Antonio that preceded Kawhi’s rise or even presence.
However, not only does Kawhi’s success as the go to option in Toronto lay waste to the notion that he was ever just a system player, but a close look at his numbers tell the tale of a player who has been consistent his entire career. His improvement has aligned more with increased opportunities than anything else.
Lastly, Draymond Green is probably most closely viewed as the very embodiment of a system player. He lacks obvious talents that scream superstar to the naked eye, and as a result it is quite easy to write off his success in Golden State as him being in the right place at the right time.
Draymond however does have excellent defensive instincts and though he is undersized at his position, has excellent timing and is able to cover a lot of ground defensively and guard multiple positions. Those attributes probably do not just “go away” if he is transplanted to another team. That being said, being surrounded by two of the best shooters ever will have the impact of diminishing his contributions.
I would argue however that the relationship is symbiotic. He is a perfect pick and roll partner for Steph and his defensive prowess allows him to compensate for some of Steph’s deficiencies in that department as well. Of course, it is easier to approximate what Draymond brings to the table with another defensive specialist, but it is difficult to substantiate the argument that Draymond is just a system player.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.