Deserve’s Got Nothing To Do With It

“Listen, I was always a guy that said for a player to be on a championship team that didn’t contribute, how can he feel like he deserved that ring?” McGrady said. “But look here, man, I’m in that situation and I tell you, my career has been something, especially after my injury. It’s been tough, and I can’t do nothing but appreciate this opportunity.”

via Tracy McGrady’s quest for one championship before the end of his career – Grantland.

“Deserved” is a tricky word. It’s often accompanied by discussions of fairness and equity. Laughable conversations, really, ensconced in a universe that’s chaotically biased toward entropy on the one hand and a foreboding omnipresence on the other, constantly reminding just how much the deck is rigged. Randomness begets destiny begets probability; the fickle fates tear asunder that which is deserved and that which is parceled to the victors. The spoils are won. To argue whether they’re deserved is the gloss of the silver medalist.

Yet that probabilistic fatalism is tricky, too, particularly when applied to team sports. So many things matter, to the point that everything matters. Everything that matters, though, is subject to the same muddying effects of uncertain outcomes played out just once. A jumper only happens once; never again will those exact same circumstances exist. A series may take place over seven games, but every moment is an event that blinks into existence to remind us just how lucky we are, then gives its dying breath to the next fleeting gorgeosity.

Both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs deserve to be here tonight, because neither of them deserves to be here tonight. Or at least, they simply deserve to be here to the same degree that they were able to control the outcome of their seasons. If the ball bounces but once, and a championship can ride on that bounce, all a team or a player can do is put themselves in the best possible position to win. It’s process — that word that won’t go away, that word that defines these teams, that word that looms over everything as the legacy that threatens to outlast even the majesty of the game. It’s the trust that were one to simulate any of these events 10,000 times, the optimal strategy would win out in the end, knowing full well that only one of those scenarios can ever really come true, chosen seemingly by divine providence (or the universe’s largest bingo hall barker).

Even the favorite, then, has the potential to be the universe’s underdog, an overqualified ring-bearer for championship teams, foil to dynasty and legacy. The upside to the travails of time is opportunity en masse; given enough pressure, that barrier to result has every chance of surrendering to the weathering nature of practiced persistence. But it also has every chance of withstanding all that willful application has to offer. Many players simply never win a title, regardless of their legend; Robert Horry became a Roman deity by hitting a parlay on a series of 65/35 bets at best. Windows in this league close with the fury of a sudden summer’s storm. Dynasties-to-be flame out and unstoppable behemoths meet their David. Matchups conquer talent, and chaos has no rival. To be plain, things happen in the NBA — peripheral, fringe events that make the Wow! signal look sustainable. Were it not for gruesome injuries and shattered dreams, this might be Game 7 of a Thunder/Bulls series, with talk of legacy giving way to glimpses of the future and positional revolutions set to evaporate old notions of what a point guard should be. The Spurs and Heat seem to be the best two teams in the league this year, but there was no guarantee we’d get to see them prove it, just as there’s no guarantee that Kawhi Leonard, for all of his precociousness and preternatural performance will make it back to this stage. Coaches and teammates retire. Bad decisions get rewarded; good deeds are punished.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, the team and everyone involved will be deserving, undoubtedly — and yes, that includes you, T-Mac. San Antonio and Miami earned every bit of their accolades, and they did as much as they could to weigh the odds in their favor, tenth of a percentage point by tenth of a percentage point. Through incomparable adjustments and sheer force of talent, these teams put the fates to work in their machinations. But they aren’t the only ones who might have deserved to be here. Let us not forget those who fell before the razor’s edge of probability’s sword. Their processes and doomed battles against the tempest of results shouldn’t be lost to the ravages of time. To recognize that Tracy McGrady deserves every bit of this championship is to celebrate those who might otherwise stand fit to be sized for new jewelry.

Image by alshepmcr via Flickr

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.