Grades. Basketball fans love to give them. We like to grade trades and drafts and a team’s offseason moves and the first half of a coach’s season and players after a game based on their contributions. We tick off the pluses and minuses, give credit for a smart play, take off points for a late rotation and we feel like we’ve learned something. A B+ for that starter who went cold but hung in there, a D for the bench guy who kept chucking it up in the fourth as the lead evaporated.
Coaches often bear the brunt of the harshest game-to-game grading. Mike Woodson is currently being upbraided for sticking with the “big” starting lineup that features the underwhelming Andrea Bargnani alongside Tyson Chandler in the backcourt. It’s not totally unfair: the starting five is, according to stats from NBA.com, a -34.3 in net rating over the 24 minutes they’ve played together in the Knicks’ first three games, whereas the lineup with Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni in the backcourt and Carmelo Anthony at the 4 is +27.8 over 31 minutes. It can be baffling and frustrating for fans of a team when a coach seems unwilling or unable to see what seems so plain to them.
But coaches are doing their own kind of grading, and it’s a very different kind of grading than the fans in the arena or the audience at home or even the writers covering the game are doing. We don’t think about it often, but there are actually two different kinds of grading — or assessment — commonly used in the classroom: formative and summative. Most of us only care about the latter: it’s the letter, sometimes with a plus or minus, at the bottom of the last page of your final draft — you know, where you flip as soon as the professor hands it back. It assesses the totality of your work and effort on a single project.
In many ways, though, it’s completely useless. I teach freshman composition, and I can tell you that the moment that paper comes back with its big fat final grade is precisely the moment when the learning stops. Most of the time, any marks on an essay beyond that grade are totally ignored. Any suggestions for where to take the paper are effectively shut down once that grade gets recorded. This isn’t to say that summative assessment is pointless, but rather that it has its place, and that place is at the end of the unit, the process.
Formative grading is much more dynamic and, frankly, way more useful just a week into the NBA season. Coaches (okay: not all coaches) know this, and this is how they’re operating right now. Consider the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 93-92 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night. A casual fan responding to a #LeaguePassAlert when the Wolves managed to close what had at one point been a 23-point Cavs lead to just 3 points might have reasonably wondered why Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer were riding the pine while J.J. Barea and Derrick Williams tried (ultimately in vain) to deliver a road win that would have lifted the Wolves to 4-0 on the season.
A not-quite-as-casual fan might have noted there that the lineup on the floor in the game’s closing seconds was the one that brought them back from that deficit. You go with what’s working — that’s an old coaching maxim. But it’s not the entire story. At 3-0 and facing down a bad loss on the road in a back-to-back, head coach Rick Adelman was playing with house money. The Wolves’ first win was a blowout that turned into a knifefight with the Magic, eventually demanding a late 3 by Kevin Love to force overtime; their second was a resounding thrashing of the Thunder; their third against the Knicks was yet another romp that turned ugly before the Wolves managed to right the ship. Three games in they were, in essence, a flawed yet undefeated team, and the second night of a road back-to-back was an ideal place to make some formative assessments.
There were a few outcomes that were possible for Adelman and Minnesota as the game came down to its final moments. If he put Rubio back in for his playmaking and Brewer for his defense and the team won, it would have shown the bench a lack of trust — that even though they brought the team back, they weren’t going to get to bring it home. Had he put his underperforming starters in and they lost, it might have been even worse, planting a seed of dissent in the bench aimed at both the coach and the starters. Neither of these results would have been apocalyptic, but each sets a tone for the team in a still-young season.
In any case, he chose to leave Barea and Williams on the floor. Had they won, it would have bolstered the confidence of the entire team, letting the starters know the bench has their back and solidifying the identity of the second unit. But the actual result — a close first loss of the season on the road, heading back home — provides valuable formative feedback, both for Adelman and the players on the team. They learned about the cost of having to stave off a tough run in the first half of a back-to-back on the road; the starters saw that Adelman is not afraid to nail them to the bench if they’re not playing well; the bench learned Adelman is willing to put weight on their shoulders in a tight game. Can you assign a letter to those things? If you did, you might be stopping the process while it’s just getting going.
And this Wolves-Cavs game is only one example from across a league that’s learning and adjusting constantly. As fans, we want the W. We tend to think that every game should be played to win, with little regard for not only the dynamics that are already in place on a team, but equally heedless of how the moment to moment approach to a game can shift those dynamics. But coaches have to take the longview. Consider Gregg Popovich, who rests his starters for regular season games not just because they’re older and need to marshal energy wherever possible, but also to prepare his bench for extended run in the playoffs when it’s called for. The seeds he sows in the regular season bear fruit in the playoffs, when it’s actually time for summative assessment.
It can be tempting for us to look at the results of a single game and assign grades, to make that summative judgment about a team. But I would never look at a thesis statement or an outline or a rough draft and give it a letter grade. They’re steps along the path, just like each game in an 82-game season. Letter grades are for the end, and we’ve only just begun.