Aussies in NBA: Does Matthew Dellavedova deserve all that hate?

Hate is such a strong word.

Here's a question for you: do you hate Matthew Dellavedova?

I mean, think about it. Do you really hate him?

Ever since Taylor Swift helped to immortalise the notion of hating in pop culture, it has become a part of everyday vernacular. But what Tay-Tay also highlighted (and perfectly encapsulated through a catchy tune) was the pervasive nature of online hate.

Better known as trolling, the notion of haters sprouting venomous insults at public figures, often unfounded and uninformed, is the scourge of the internet.

The haters gonna hate, right?

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Even so, why are there fans and players alike, who seem to despise the very notion of Matthew Dellavedova gracing the NBA hardwood? Why does the thought of Delly playing alongside the greatest basketball players on Earth conjure such vitriol?

I recently wrote about Dellavedova deserving mention within the NBA’s Most Improved Player narrative, and was unsurprisingly met with venomous rebuttal.

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So, why is there such scorn with all things Delly?

The Stigma of Dirtiness

The dirty tag is a powerful one.

It precedes your reputation. It overrides all else, achievements included. It becomes who you are.

Remember Bill Laimbeer?

If Isiah Thomas was the epicentre of greatness that characterised the 80's Detroit Pistons, Bill Laimbeer was the poster child for Bad Boy infamy.

The former Pistons big man cultivated a career and reputation out of dirty plays on the court, all in the name of winning. Off-the-ball haymakers and mid-air takedowns were stock fare, all designed to gain an edge, both physically and psychologically.

And win they did, nabbing back-to-back NBA titles from 1989-90.

But that came at a cost. That dirty reputation Laimbeer carried with him throughout his career has stuck with him, even to today.

In Kate Fagan’s brilliant piece outlining Laimbeer’s NBA reputation and WNBA credentials, Isiah Thomas told Fagan that despite a brilliant WNBA coaching career, Laimbeer’s reputation potentially made him an outcast from the NBA, neutering any ambitions towards a dream head coaching role.

Said Thomas: "I think people respected Bill's playing career, but there are some people who are still mad because he beat them, and they may never get over that."

Fagan herself rationalised that people tended to see Laimbeer "more as a bully than a champion". In her eyes, there seemed to be disagreement on his path to victory, that his methods were viewed as "guerrilla warfare", an option that wasn't necessarily palatable to everyone.

Later in the piece, Katie Smith, a future WNBA Hall-of-Famer, also spoke of the stigma attached to playing under Laimbeer.

"But when I went to Detroit, all of a sudden I became one of the Bad Girls," she said. "All of a sudden, I was a dirty player. Just because of who was coaching that team, all of us got that label. I was like, 'Wait, but I'm playing the exact same way I've always played.'"

What does this mean for Matthew Dellavedova, and what other ways could such hate manifest itself?

Perception is everything

For everyone else, a 50/50 call is gifted with the benefit of the doubt, and relative freedom from public scrutiny.

For someone with a reputation, that call instantly invites speculation of dirtiness. We are quick to grade their actions as below the belt, rather than viewing it as an ordinary play churned from a normal basketball sequence.

In this day and age of social media commentary and citizen journalism, the vitriol spreads far and wide, faster than ever before.

What could be worse, is that hate pervades within the people that truly matter: the players, coaches and team executives within the league itself. Like Laimbeer, this negativity has the potential to stigmatise one well after their playing years.

Why do people hate Delly?

So why doesn’t Matthew Dellavedova, of all people, get a “fair go”?

In order to understand this, we need to look at the origins of this sea of contempt.

We’re not covering old ground here. We’re not debating (and defending) Delly and the dirty player label he’s been largely consigned to. What we’re more interested in exploring is the hate narrative, and more specifically, why there are so many who detest Matthew Dellavedova.

Where is ground zero, when it comes to hating on Matthew Dellavedova?

Much can be traced back to last year’s fateful Conference Finals series when the Cavaliers swept the Hawks. That heated series included that injury to Kyle Korver, with many blaming Dellavedova, and the way he supposedly fell onto Korver’s ankle. Many insinuated that it was a deliberate act.

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From thereon in, tensions simmered.

It all crested within a single moment when the normally mild-mannered Al Horford took exception to some perceived Dellavedova rough play, and sought his own brand of retribution.

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That hammer fist/elbow to Dellly’s neck area resulted in a flagrant-2 foul, and an automatic ejection.

Still convinced that it was instigated by Dellavedova? Here’s a different angle.

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From the video evidence, the case seemed clear cut. It appeared that Matthew Dellavedova’s only crime was his attention to detail – rotating over to Horford and boxing out diligently.

What followed next was a bizarre sequence in which Horford grabbed Delly’s left arm and pulled him backwards, over the top of a hapless DeMarre Carrol. Predictably, Dellavedova fell over. Horford then proceeded with his blow.

TNT commentator, Chris Webber, was quick to condemn Horford on national television, at the time.

“You can’t come down with that hammer.”

Curiously though, there was a distinct lack of noise surrounding the possible dirtiness of Horford’s actions after the incident. This, after all, was a clear attack to a man’s head, someone sprawled on the floor; someone who was completely defenseless at the time.

That lack of censure seemed almost unfathomable.

Horford explained his actions afterwards.

"We're out there competing," he said. "But he's gotta learn, I mean he's only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever, but he's gotta learn that at the end of the day it's a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other and, I don't think that it was malicious, but he's gotta learn."

"If it was on purpose or not, we don't know. Maybe it wasn't on purpose. But, you know, with just his track record, I just felt like it was."

That’s hardly a satisfactory response. And yet we don’t necessarily equate Big Al to be anything but first and foremost, a good basketball player, and secondly, a commendable human being who made a snap judgement – albeit a wrong one.

It appears his major gripe was the perception that Dellavedova was intentionally falling into his knee, instead of, you know, just falling.

The fact that he escaped the internet lynch mob is bemusing. Worse yet, the fallout appeared to be an indictment on Dellavedova, rather than public scrutiny of Horford’s actions.

Similarly, there are other examples of recent plays that either barely raised a blip on the social media scene, or failed to ignite a legacy of dirty narratives.

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And who could forget Nic Batum’s “all ball” play against Juan Carlos Navarro during the 2012 Olympics?

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Despite these clearly questionable plays, none of the above perpetrators developed a stigma of dirtiness.

DeAndre Jordan and Kyrie Irving did not fall headfirst into simmering pools of vitriol, despite making plays that were far more reckless and dangerous than anything that Delly has done. Nic Batum is considered a skilled wing, not a nut puncher.

What seems common amongst those examples cited above, are preconceptions.

Tom Haberstroh detailed in his wonderful exposé, a veritable cornucopia of underhanded NBA thuggery; featuring a history and repertoire of below-the-groin attacks that have occurred over the past twenty years. The list of perpetrators surprisingly, included players from a wide spectrum, not necessarily consigned to the names we know by association.

Low-blow luminaries, a list that included the NBA venerable to the borderline zany, ranged from the likes of Chris Paul and James Harden, to Jason Terry and J.R. Smith. Other names included Marcus Smart, Dennis Schröder, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic and Kevin Garnett.

Even the seemingly even-tempered Shaun Livingstone was not spared. His infamous nut-punch of Dirk Nowitzki last season, was an act that was both confusing and uncalled for.

Still, of all those names, most have largely escaped the stigma of a reputation as a dirty player, their questionable plays largely relegated to forgotten moments within hardwood history.

When the names of Chris Paul and James Harden come up in discussion, it is invariably discourse surrounding their greatness. Smart and Schröder? It’s all about their potential ceiling. Jason Terry and J.R. Smith might evoke thoughts of irrational and volatile on-court behaviour, but neither bear the burden of the dirty player label, and the trappings associated with that tag.

None of these players are mentioned with the undertones of a tenuous hold on sportsmanship, as if any minor incident will randomly trigger an act of thuggery.

What seems clear is that perceptions and double standards are rife. Dellavedova is judged and graded along a different scale than other players.

We return once more to the question of why people are so quick to judge and hate on Matthew Dellavedova.

Style of play

Since perception is reality, what exactly triggers this opinion of Delly?

Is it his playing style? Is it his confessions of going in hard?

In 2014, well before he entered the national spotlight, Dellavedova wrote about physicality in his blog. “...the harder you go in and attack the contest, the less likely you are to be the one who gets hurt.”

He recently told the Herald Sun, “In Australia, you are taught one way to play and that’s go in hard and get the loose ball. The first one on the floor and the person that goes in hardest wins the ball and doesn’t get hurt."

It’s hard to argue this point, when you actually watch him play.

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His Cavaliers teammates revere his toughness and selfless competitiveness. That toughness was revealed to Brian Windhorst last year, when Dellavedova spoke about playing through pain, exhaustion, and his absolute physical limits for the good of the team, during the 2015 NBA Finals.

"It's not something you're going to bring up in the middle of the series because you don't want to help the other team," Delly recounted. "There are things that guys probably went through in playoff series that people will never know. It's common in Australian football that you find out a month later a guy was playing with broken ribs. You don't want to complain about it, and you especially don't want to disclose it."

In a league where superstars reign supreme, does that workmanlike style and competitiveness rub people the wrong way?

"We play hard," Jae Crowder told Chris Forsberg of ESPN, when detailing the defensive competitiveness of the Boston Celtics. "Guys don't like that in this league. Guys want an easy, flowing game. But we play hard, and a lot of guys don't like it."

When Dellavedova was named as one of the dirtiest players in the league in a poll run by the Los Angeles Times, he garnered some unexpected support.

"He ain't dirty. He just plays hard," said one assistant coach. "See, guys resent people that play hard because they don't want to play hard. So if a guy plays hard, he's dirty. He's not dirty. He just plays hard."

Said another, "His stuff really ain't intentional. It's just like goofy.”

Fellow Boomer Andrew Bogut, who was also named in that poll, had his say during an appearance on a recent episode of Bill Simmons’ podcast.

“People think he’s dirty, but I know he’s actually a great fella,” said Bogut. “We get along really well, and I know he plays physical on the court but obviously when you play a team in a Finals series, the raw pressure and emotion, lots of stuff that goes on, and leaves both sides with a sour taste in their mouths.”

Still, Bogut stopped short of a recruitment pitch of Dellavedova, citing negative misconceptions of him within the Golden State Warriors' locker room. Perception is reality.

The media

The media is often to blame for perception. Narratives are often spun in the name of a good story.

Yet even amongst the informed observers, those with a worldview of the league at large, and not consigned to the insular narrow-mindedness of a locker room, the perception of Dellavedova is skewed.

Some NBA writers declined to comment on this story, with one citing that his opinion of Delly would not be publishable. Others were happy to offer their take on the divisive Aussie.

“There's nothing malicious about anything he does on the court,” says Olgun Uluc of Fox Sports. “But the way he throws himself at loose balls can - and has - caused a few injuries to opposing players.”

Does that confirm that Delly is judged on a different scale? Why would that be the case, even for the unbiased?

“He's not a 'sexy' player, by any means,” Uluc continued. “If you're a fan of watching 'fun' basketball, and not so much a fan of the whole 'grit and grind' style, then you generally wouldn't be a huge supporter of Delly.”

“He's a goofy, blue-collar dude who's found himself on a high-profile team and whose game doesn't necessarily have the same aesthetic appeal as some of his peers,” says Bruno Passos from the great Spurs blog, Pounding the Rock.

“I mostly consider him a bit reckless, a quality that doesn't mix well when a guy battles for as many 50/50 balls as he does,” says Passos. “I don't think he goes in with malice or intent to injure, though.”

Passos has seen his fair share of questionable plays when covering the San Antonio Spurs. Long forsaking style for substance, Bruce Bowen transformed himself into an indispensable cog for a championship team by being a pest, and in the process, ascended to the heights of NBA villain-hood.

Yet to him, Dellavedova has some ways to go, before he can be ordained as king of the hill.

“I'd say Bowen's methods were a bit more - let's say - sophisticated than Delly's. He probably earned the reputation of being "dirty" a bit more than the Aussie has so far.”

The notion of Delly fighting through the dirty player stigma is even more jarring, when you consider that Uluc had this to say of Delly, “I've spoken with him a few times, and he's genuinely just a nice person. He doesn't have a mean-spirited bone in his body.”

Shake it off

We've covered a lot of ground here.

What seems obvious is that there is a lot of misplaced hate when it comes to Matthew Dellavedova. That Delly is judged on a different scale because of perceptions just doesn't seem fair. Yet it's rare that public figures are afforded balanced reporting, and informed opinions, in the modern age of quick opinions and consumption, driven by the social media landscape.

Why spend time digging a little deeper at the expense of a good story and easy click bait?

Just know that much of the Delly hate is derived from misconceptions, and supplemented by skewed reporting. Not much will change that narrative, and not much will alter the groundswell of Delly hate that awaits the very next opportunity to strike. Perhaps it's best to listen to Taylor Swift after all, and just shake it off.

For his part, Matthew Dellavedova is not only oblivious to the hate, but also seemingly couldn’t care less about perceptions.

“I was so focused on the job I had to do that I really didn’t take any notice of what was being said about me," he said, when discussing public sentiment during the 2015 Finals run.

After all, he knows it as well as any other Taylor Swift fan out there.

Haters gonna hate, right?