Author Archives: Ian Levy

Sacred Transitions: A Conversation with Tamir Goodman

In 1999, a feature in Sports Illustrated introduced the wider basketball ball world to “The Jewish Jordan,” Tamir Goodman. At that point he was a high school junior, notable for both his 35.6 points per game scoring average and his orthodox Jewish faith. After graduating, he chose to forgo a scholarship offer to the University of Maryland because of an expectation that he would have to play on the Sabbath. Goodman spent one year at Towson University, before embarking on a professional career in Israel that ended in 2009. Now 31, Goodman was nice enough to carve some time out of his busy summer schedule to talk with Hardwood Paroxysm about both his career and retirement.

Hardwood Paroxysm: When you look back on your basketball career, what are some of the high points that stand out?

Tamir Goodman: The high point that stands out for me is that when I was a little kid everyone told me it was going to be impossible for me to play Division 1 basketball in college, or professional basketball, simply because I can’t play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday because I observe the Sabbath. But just looking back and knowing I was able to live out my dream, I’m so grateful. Every single day it hits me at some point, even without me trying to think about it. I’m just so thankful that I got to live out my dream. I’m so thankful for everyone that allowed me to do that and helped me do what I was told was impossible when I was a kid.

To get a chance to experience that, and everything basketball has taught me throughout my playing days, and be able to incorporate that into what I’m doing know, I’m just so grateful.

HP: You spent most of your professional career playing in Israel. Hypothetically, if you’d have the opportunity to play in the NBA, how do you think things might have worked out differently for you and would there have been more pressure on you playing in the NBA than you faced playing in Israel?

Goodman: I never really think that way. I always think that the way it is, or the way it was, is the way it was supposed to be. When I was in Israel I enjoyed every moment of it and it was just an incredible experience for me – both being able to play professionally and be sort of a mediator; there are so many American players who came over to play in Israel and I’m fluent in Hebrew but meanwhile I grew up in America. It was just a great role of being able to have a special relationship with both Israeli players and American players. The Israeli league has just grown up so quickly and so many players are ending up in the NBA from Israel, more and more every year.

I also got to serve in the Israeli Army, which was an incredible experience for me as well. All in all, I couldn’t imagine it ending up any better for me than the way it was.

HP: I’m wondering about your experience and your journey and whether you see parallels when you watch other players. For example, Jeremy Lin with the Knicks two years ago. He received a ton of attention because he was successful but he also received a lot of attention because he’s from a culture that’s really underrepresented in American professional sports. Did you see any parallels between his experiences and your own journey?

Goodman: You know when everything happened with me I was only 16 years old. I think there was one week where I had 700 media requests. You can’t really understand what that means.

I was just a kid that loved basketball and I loved being Jewish. I was just trying to be the best Jewish athlete that I could be. It was that simple. I loved my family. I loved my coach. I loved my team. I loved my school. That was it and I didn’t understand much more than that.

But here I am 31 years old and I go through the airport in some random city and the guy checking my bag says, “You’re the Jewish Jordan.” That affects the rest of your life and it happens so quickly.

The thing about me was that I was lucky because it wasn’t about me. It was something that was bigger than me. It allowed me to handle everything much better because it wasn’t about me personally. That allowed me to handle the ups and downs of my career much better. From what I understand with Jeremy Lin and definitely with Omri Casspi, who I’m close with and was the first Israeli player to play in the NBA, for them it’s also about something that’s bigger than themselves. If you have a lot of success, you say “This is not about me, it’s about something bigger than me.” If there are challenges you know how to get right back on track because it’s not about you, and that gives you extra motivation. I can’t quit now. There are a lot of things out there I need to accomplish so I can inspire other people. So that’s the mindset that allows them to handle these kinds of situations and I think that’s what Lin has done, and that’s what I see Omri doing almost on a daily basis.

The advice I would give them, not that I need to give them any advice, is play for something bigger than yourself. That will help you reach your potential and help everyone else around you reach their potential as well.

HP: So are you saying that basketball was made simpler for you, because of your faith?

Goodman: A hundred percent. I didn’t play for myself. I played for all the people who are told they won’t be able to do it, or that X, Y or Z was going on in their life and that was a constraint. But for me, I tried to say that I’m proud to be Jewish. Yeah, I can’t play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday but I believe my religion is an empowering religion. It doesn’t limit me, it gives me a blueprint for day-to-day living. Playing for that and trying to unite people through basketball, and playing to represent Israel and the Jewish people, all of that gave me much more motivation and guidance.  That’s something that basketball players really need. You always need to be motivated, never satisfied. You always need to be moving forward, whether you had a good game or a bad game. You always need to be able to bounce back and be strong, handle adversity, be a good listener, be dedicated, have organizational skills, you need to be able to respect people and have a strong identity, all of those things you need to be a successful player and I got that through my religion.

HP: I’m guessing I’ve heard the answer to this already, but has there ever been a time when you wished you got more attention for just being a “good basketball player” instead of being a “good Jewish basketball player?”

Goodman: The way I handle it now is the same as the way I handled it then. Everybody was so excited about the “Jewish Jordan” and all the media attention, but it wasn’t about me. It was always about how I could motivate you through that. I keep learning more and more about how can I take this game of basketball and the attention I’ve gotten in my life and use it as a tool to inspire other people around me.

I’ve never thought about what if it would have been different. My religion has taught me that you work with what you have, you don’t work with what you don’t have. There’s an old saying in Judaism, “Who’s considered a rich person? The person who’s happy with what they have.” If you always go around wishing you had this or wishing things had been like that, you might be missing blessings that are right in front of you.

HP: If I can venture off for a second, you mentioned Omri Casspi and I know you guys are close. He’s had kind of a rough go of it the past few seasons, but just signed a two-year deal with the Rockets. I assume he’s pretty excited. Do you see some things in place in Houston to help him be successful, and what can he give the Rockets?

Goodman: We’ve had our camps together the past couple of weeks, so I got a chance to help him work out and watch him work out. He looks like he’s in great shape. I’m so happy for him and he seems to be really happy to be going to Houston. I think it’s just such a great team, and a great organization for him. I think with their style of play and his style of play, I think he’ll really be able to contribute; not only with the three pointer, but his ability to get up and down the floor with his size. It’s going to be a really exciting opportunity for him.

HP: I know you battled back several times, but ultimately your career was cut short by injury. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about making that transition out of professional basketball. Specifically, I’m curious about the experience of spending you whole life building towards this career. You’re always working, training and getting better. So much of your time, energy and thought is spent working towards this goal and then all of a sudden you have to find a new goal to focus on.

Goodman: I gave everything that I had, my entire life, my body, to basketball. Ultimately, in 2009 I had to retire due to the injuries. But I never quit. I came back from three career-ending injuries. I literally played until the day I just couldn’t physically play anymore. I’m in physical pain everyday, for the rest of my life. Both of my hands and my left knee are just really injured, but I’m glad that I played until the very last day I could.

I think the transition for me has been easy for several reasons. First, I know that I never quit and I left everything on the court. Second, it was only through my injuries and setbacks that I found some of my biggest lessons. It was only through those challenges of losing everything that I’d worked for my whole life that I found new creativity that I never knew, and new sensitivity that I never knew.

All those years I’d be in the game, without actually being in the game. From 2004-2009, I’d be on the bench just recovering from injuries and rehab. When I did finally get a chance to play and I did play well, it was literally the next game that I’d get hurt again. So when I was on the sidelines I wasn’t just down and out. If coach called a play, I was running that play in my head as if I was in the game. I still watched every pre-game scouting report, every film session, everything. I still lived the game one hundred percent, even though physically I couldn’t be there for the game and actually play most of the time. But being in that type of environment and finding, through that, ways to still be involved in the game and inspire other people through the game, without me physically playing, that’s what I do now.

I never would have been able to do that if it had not been for the injuries. How can you inspire someone if you, yourself, have never really been challenged? Up until that point in my life I had a lot of success, thank god. I got to live out my dream, but I wouldn’t be able to work with the campers I work with now and have that sensitivity to help them in their lives, with whatever they’re overcoming, had I not lost my dream, so to speak. It’s given me a sensitivity to struggle and creativity. It drove me to finish school and get my degree. It allowed me to write the book (The Jewish Jordan’s Triple Threat: Physical, Mental and Spiritual Lessons from the Court) and combine spiritual and physical basketball together.

And now, with Zone 190, I would never have been able to come up with this concept without the injuries. The only way I came up with Zone 190 was because I was in the gym, for hours, by myself trying to come back. The doctors weren’t giving me a chance. The coaches weren’t there to help me. The players weren’t there to help me. I was in there saying, “I wish I had someone to pass me the ball from that angle. I wish I had someone who could put their hand up in my face while I’m shooting. I wish I could come off a screen and have someone pass me the ball.” There was nobody out there.

Sometimes in life it’s not just about overcoming the challenges, but it’s about picking up the pieces of what each challenge in life is teaching you and where it’s directing you, then flipping all that negativity into something positive. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to doing. I’m very appreciative for every day that I got to live out my dream, but I’m also very appreciative that I’ve been able to take everything that I’ve experienced and use it as a tool to hopefully better the next generation of young athletes.

HP: Can you give us a little more detail about Zone 190?

Goodman: Basically, Zone 190 is a multi-angle pitch back tool for basketball, with a defensive hand configuration. It allows a player to replicate game scenarios without anybody else in the gym. It’s shaped in a unique 190-degree frame that can be easily moved anywhere. You can place it at the top of the key and practice getting the ball from the right wing or the left wing, or coming of a screen passing it off and getting the ball back at unique angles. Then when you shoot there’s a defensive hand in your face that let’s you practice shooting a contested shot. There’s also two other defensive hands that you can dribble underneath and make a move, sweeping underneath. It’s also great for post players, it forces you to stay low. Basically, you can replicate all sorts of game-like situations with this one apparatus.

I’m very glad that the feedback has been so great and I feel like it really gives players an opportunity to train and get ready for game situations, even when they’re in a gym all by themselves. When I found myself in the gym all by myself with the hope that I’d be able to play again. I took that negativity and turned into Zone 19o.

HP: Now that you’ve had some distance from your playing career, fifteen or twenty years down the road, what would you like to be remembered for?

Goodman: That I reached as much as possible of the potential in what god was expecting me to contribute to this world. That I was able to see the positive potential in everyone that I come across and help them reach the potential that god created in men, without any limitations. We find ourselves in this world that’s sometimes dark and scary, and kind of negative sometimes, but if we can bring as much light as possible into our lives and help other people see the light in their own lives, and for me specifically to be doing this through sport and basketball, I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I think my soul was brought down to this world to do as much good as I can through this game and that’s what I’m committed to doing every day.

You find out more about Tamir Goodman and Zone190 at his website, TamirGoodman.com, and follow him on Twitter, @TamirGoodman.

The Long Walk Home

I’ve been watching the NBA closely for nearly twenty years now. Over those two decades careers have begun and ended, burst and fizzled, and in some cases traced full and glorious arcs across my horizon. Having the chance to watch a player’s entire career from beginning to end is a strange experience. In the most detailed and elaborate cases, youthful exuberance gives way to the balance of guile and physicality, until the body drops away and wit alone can no longer sustain. There are some similarities to following a favorite character on a TV show, but the passage of time and the inexorable crawl of decay are either illusions or features fully ignored on a television show. In the NBA they are inescapably real.

That final chapter of a player’s career, from the peak to the exit takes an infinite number of forms. If you watch the league long enough you may think that you’ve literally seen it all. But what I’ve learned over the past two decades is professional basketball can always give you something new.

After their Game 7 loss, the question of retirement came up for more than one member of the San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili’s answer was remarkably candid and revealed how emotionally raw the series’ difficult ending had left him:

“For three quarters of the season it was the physical part,” Ginobili said. “I’d say, ‘No, I can’t deal with this anymore. I’m tired of rehab and trying to be in shape all the time.’

“But at this point I’m fine physically, so you are a little more optimistic. But you know, it’s been 18 years doing this. You kind of get tired and you want to enjoy a little more time at home sometimes. You go back to Argentina to see your people, and you think about it. I’m going to have time for that, too.”

Ginobili is one of those players whose entire career I’ve had the opportunity to observe. I certainly hope this wasn’t the last time we see him in an NBA uniform but his performance in the NBA Finals was clearly that of a character entering his final act. And the scene he set at the end of Game 7 was painfully original.

From the moment he stepped on the stage Ginobili has been described as a swashbuckling daredevil, one who flits past risk with a roguish charm. Of all the skills and characteristics which make up his basketball abilities none is more central than the power to skate the fine line between conquest and collapse, sprinting full speed into the maw of destruction, snatching victory from the jaws of chaos at the very last moment. Nothing he did on the court looked like it was going to work until the moment it actually did. LeBron routinely accomplishes the impossible,but with blazingly authentic speed and brute force. Ginobili is more serpentine, slithering and euro-stepping his way through the barriers of plausibility.

We’ve seen Manu Ginobili struggle before. We’ve seen him hobbled and limited, we’ve seen him play without the fully array of his talents available. What we, or at least I, hadn’t seen was him so utterly impotent in a moment of extreme importance. The blocked layup. The jump-pass turnover. The airballed three-pointer. The most emotional jarring piece of the whole affair was that he looked exactly like the Ginobili we’ve seen a thousand times before. But when the penultimate moment of each possession came, screaming for his patented magic, the spell fizzled.

It was a little like seeing your dad cry for the first time. Every interaction up until that point is revealed to have been saturated with naivete. Your dad is not just a dad, because “dad” is nothing more than a cultural archetype. Your dad is a human being with a full range of emotions, with a unique mix of strengths and flaws just like any other member of our species. But what looks identical, now has a new dimension. Where people, places and things were once pleasantly and placidly flat, there is now depth to deal with. It’s an understanding that you can’t shake, and it reflects the past in an entirely new light.

In watching these professional career arcs pass before our eyes we are sometimes blessed with a revealing moment of humanity. It could be a moment of authentic celebratory joy, a stomach-turning off the court incident or, as in Ginobili’s case, a tragic failure. This was not a failure of effort or decision-making, it was the failure of a man reaching for what had always been there and coming up empty-handed. There is a new complexity now to Ginobili’s public face. Whether or not this is the end, we won’t have the luxury of watching him pass before our eyes as a two-dimensional caraciture, Zorro in a jersey.

A Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is collectible trading card game that consumed countless weekends as I worked my way through middle school. Other people had sports, or girls, or even art. I had fantasy. It’s almost certain that you had a group of Magic devotees (or something comparable, depending on the era) at your middle school. In case you were too intimidated to venture over to that table in the dark and distant corner of the lunchroom to find out exactly how the whole thing worked, here’s the basics from the Magic: The Gathering Wikipedia entry:

In a game of Magic, two or more players are engaged in a battle as powerful wizards called “planeswalkers“. A player starts the game with twenty “life points” and loses when he or she is reduced to zero. Players lose life when they are dealt “damage” by being attacked with summoned creatures or when spells or other cards cause them to lose life directly. A player can also lose if he or she must draw from an empty deck (called the “library” during the game), or if they have acquired 10 “poison counters”. In addition, some cards specify other ways to win or lose the game.

. . .

The two basic card types in Magic are “spells” and “lands”. Lands provide “mana“, or magical energy, which is used as magical fuel when the player attempts to cast spells. Players may only play one land per turn. More powerful spells cost more mana, so as the game progresses more mana becomes available, and the quantity and relative power of the spells played tends to increase. Some spells also require the payment of additional resources, such as cards in play or life points. Spells come in several varieties: “sorceries” and “instants” have a single, one-time effect before they go to the “graveyard” (discard pile); “enchantments” and “artifacts” are “permanents” that remain in play after being cast to provide a lasting magical effect; “creature” spells summon monsters that can attack and damage an opponent.

The game is complicated and nuanced, and a perfect metaphor for all sorts of things that happen outside the confines of a teenager’s imagination. Inspired by an editor here at Hardwood Paroxysm I thought I’d see if I could draw some parallels to NBA basketball and this year’s Finals matchup between the Heat and the Spurs.

I built a deck for each organization, designed to reflect their stylistic tendencies and idiosyncrasies. Before the comments become weighed down with criticism about my tactical choices, I stopped playing Magic in the mid-90s and my deck construction is limited to cards with which I was familiar. They also may not be the most potent decks in the context of actual gameplay, but they were chosen to reflect the identities of each team, not to win the informal tournament that takes place at The Yankee Clipper card shop in Rochester, NY every Saturday afternoon.

_____

Miami Heat

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 2.56.03 PM

 

This is what’s known as a Burn Deck, at least it used to be when I played. The basic premise is to do massive damage as quickly as possible. Often that damage comes from a distance in the form of spells like Lightning Bolts and Fireballs, but the deck also has some powerful creatures capable of injuring an opponent. Here’s how some of those elements reflect directly on the Heat

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.26.43 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.26.06 PM

Lightning Bolt, Fireball, Chain Lightning

These powerful attack spells represent the Heat’s outside shooting. They require  a very small cost of energy but allow them to quickly do huge amounts of damage to an opponent. There’s more than a little symbolism in that fact that each spell does it’s damage in multiples of threes.

The Heat’s three-point shooting suffered greatly against the Pacers and it often short-circuited their entire offense. When Ray Allen and Shane Battier aren’t making shots from the wings and from the corner the Heat lose an efficient offensive weapon, but it also allows the defense to collapse on the interior reducing the effectiveness of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and their ability to penetrate. It’s no accident that some of their most crucial runs in the Conference Finals coincided with clusters of made three-pointers by Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Ray Allen.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.37.29 PMDragon Whelps

These creatures represent the Heat’s point guard rotation, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. The Dragon Whelp is a creature of moderate offensive and defensive power, with a relatively high cost to summon. However, when a slightly higher cost is applied it’s offensive rating can become slightly higher.

This card perfectly represents the offensive contributions of Chalmers and Cole. It’s not there all the time, but when it comes, it comes and it’s been integral to their success this postseason. Against the Pacers, Chalmers shot 48.5% from the field and 50.0% from on three-pointers in their four wins. In their three losses he was 39.3% from the field and 28.6% on three-pointers. Cole’s win/loss split on three-point percentage against the Pacers was 50.0%/33.3%. The ability to summon this little bit of extra offense when the team needs it most gives adds another dimension of danger to the Heat’s attack.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.38.30 PMMijae Djinni

This creature represents the variability of the Heat’s entire supporting cast. The Mijae Djinn has the capability of dealing as much damage to an opponent as any other card in this deck, but every time an attack begins there is an even chance of it failing completely.

Despite their resurgence in Game 7 against the Pacers, Chris Bosh, Wade, Battier, Allen, Cole and Chalmers have all become huge variables. When the system is working and shots are falling they combine with LeBron to make the Heat essentially unstoppable. But they’ve also demonstrated over the past few weeks that they can bumped off course and forced out of the action. Wade, in particular could be what this entire series rests on for the Heat. If he plays up to the ceiling of his capabilities it’s difficult to imagine the Heat losing four out of seven games. But a track record has been established and the potential is there for a complete no-show. For Miami to win this series they will have to win more than a few of these random coin flips, receiving the best of what each player can offer.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.37.43 PMShivan Dragon

This creature represents LeBron James. At the time I stopped playing Magic, this was the most powerful creature in the game and there is simply no questioning the fact that LeBron is the most powerful player in the league. The Shivan Dragon is very costly to enter into play, but once it’s there it’s almost unstoppable. It has incredible ratings, both offensively and defensively, as well as the ability to increase it’s offensive output when necessary. But most importantly it has the ability of flight, which makes it’s offensive attack only defensible by other flying creatures.

Regardless of the state of his supporting cast, LeBron is clearly playing at the height of his powers. He is versatile and potent, capable of single-handedly destroying an opponent for significant stretches. Like the Shivan Dragon, he will need to put all of his destructive capabilities into effect to beat the Spurs, offensively and defensively. Simply put, he can’t just be the best. He has to play the best.

_____

San Antonio Spurs

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 2.58.08 PM

Unlike the Heat’s deck, which is focused entirely on the destructive powers of the color red, the Spurs are playing with a prismatic deck. Despite their uniform colors, the Spurs’ style of play actual matches up with the colors of blue and white. This is a counter deck, unlike the Heat’s deck which focuses on rapid damage, these cards are collected to disrupt and distort their opponent’s intentions. Allowing for a slightly more elegant and leisurely form of destruction.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.26.43 PMLightning Bolt

Although most of the Spurs’ deck is drawn from the colors white and blue, there is a little red mixed and the ability to hit back from a distance. Like the Heat, three-point shooting is both a huge component and huge barometer of offensive success. The work for corner three-pointers as well as any team in the league and it’s one place where their offense really explodes quickly into runs. The multi-dimensional lands that are included in this deck allow the Spurs to utilize these spells without sacrificing their fundamental identity of disruption and distortion.

 

 

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 4.19.03 PMCounterspell

These spells are the heart of this deck. For an extremely low cost of mana energy it allows the Spurs to quickly dismiss any action taken by an opponent. Offensive, defensive and anything in between is simply cast-aside with a wave of the hand.

The Spurs are among the most creative and thoughtful teams in the history of the NBA. It starts with Gregg Popovich, but the players on the floor are integral as well and make many adjustments on the fly. Their schemes are so well planned and executed that often stymieing an opponent’s desired course of action at either end of the floor seems as simple as Popovich waving his hand. The Heat’s talent level is incredible and they are nearly the Spurs equal in creativity. But when LeBron was still in high school Tim Duncan and Popovich were already masters at out-planning and out-executing opponents.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 4.12.35 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 4.12.45 PM

Phantasmal Forces and Serendib Efreeti

These creatures have a relatively low cost, with a very high offensive capability. However, they trade-off is that they can damage you in other ways, necessitate continuous upkeep, or provide very little in the way of defense. They seem to me to be a perfect metaphor for the Spurs’ role players.

Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Cory Joseph and Boris Diaw all provide significant skill in certain areas but are lacking in others. Whether it’s being a defensive liability, relative inexperience or over-exuberance keeping their skills on the floor requires a cost and a sacrifice. Popovich is a master at managing those costs and hiding those shortcomings, but if he is forced to rely too heavily on these sorts of contributors, the costs begin to stack up and can become difficult to overcome.

_____

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 4.12.25 PMSerra Angel

I included three Serra Angels in the Spurs’ deck, to represent Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. However, these are really a reflection of Tim Duncan. The Serra Angel is unique in it’s ability to attack without being tapped. What that means is that it is capable to both attack and defend on a single turn. The Serra Angels also have the ability to fly, which means the potential to counter LeBron’s Shivan Dragon.

These cards represent the responsibility of the Spurs’ big three, even if they don’t totally reflect their vulnerabilities in health and age. Duncan especially bears a huge burden in this series with the responsibility of holding his team together at both ends of the floor. For Parker and Ginobili the task is to meet LeBron in the air, not literally, but metaphorically. They have no hope of keeping him from the rim, but they need to rise to his level of production and be his equals in greatness. These three cards and these three players are the key on the Spurs’ side.

____

Let the match begin . . .

My Finals Memory: Seven-Foot Tall Boys

In January of 2011, I was invited to become a contributor at The Two Man Game, writing about the Dallas Mavericks. Although I didn’t know the Mavericks much better than any other team in the league, I had been presented with a fortuitous, gift-wrapped excuse for hopping on the bandwagon just before things started filling up. As I was getting to familiar with the Mavericks, they were getting familiar with each other and their own limitations, preparing for a remarkable playoff run.

At that point, my wife and I were nearing the end of a seven-year run as East Coast transplants in Idaho. The NBA playoffs that season coincided with our last two months out west, before schlepping our lives and accumulated flotsam back across the country.

During the NBA Finals we were travelling around the state on a ‘farewell tour’ with my in-laws. We were camping and hiking and there was a scramble every other night trying to find a place to watch the games. I would drift into a coffee shop for an hour or so to submit my pieces to The Two Man Game, but never with enough time to delve into the coverage other writers were providing. On the day of Game 6 we rolled into Stanley, Idaho, population: 57. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and where my wife and I got married, but not the kind of place where you can count on the conveniences of modern life. We were in luck because someone had wheeled the enormous and archaic big screen from their own living room down to the local honky-tonk, The Kasino Club. NBA basketball is not a hot ticket in rural Idaho and the regular crowd doesn’t roll in until much later. For the entirety of the game we were the only ones in the joint.

I remember that series, and that game in particular, for the sheer incongruity of it all. In retrospect we remember that series as the exposure of the Heat as an undeveloped, unfamiliar and misaligned collection of talent. But at the time it felt completely and utterly improbable, right up until the final buzzer sounded. The picture was fuzzy, but the wings were hot and the PBR tall boys were cold. As Dirk Nowtizki and Jason Terry capped off their stunning destruction of Miami, I sat in disbelief at a table in the center of the emptiest restaurant, in the emptiest town, in the emptiest state in the Union.

Always A Bridesmaid

I’ve had three days to let it percolate, but the Pacers’ disastrous showing in Game 7 against the Heat still aches. As Evans Clinchy alluded to yesterday, their performance in the first few games quickly inflated expectations to an almost unrecognizable point. Going into the series I thought the Pacers had a chance, but not a large one. I had hoped they could push through to the NBA Finals, but my expectations were both probabilistic and pessimistic. On some level it’s silly to feel so emotionally thrashed just because what had I expected to happen two weeks ago, did indeed come to pass. But in a shining example of Bayesian fortitude the Pacers had changed the odds and converted my sense of rationality. Regardless of how over-matched they were on paper, or in practice, to begin the series, prior probabilities had been mutated. The Pacers had a real, significant chance to advance to the NBA Finals on Monday, but fell flat on their faces.

In the end, I can, and will, come to grips with the fact the my team’s season ended a little bit before someone else’s. I mean I’ve had nearly twenty years of experience grappling with this exact phenomenon. But I think what troubles me the most is a more nuanced awareness of memory and narrative. I’m afraid the fact that they lost Game 7, and the way in which they lost, robs them of their accomplishments. Not that they will be forgotten, but that they have been looted by the Heat. The Pacers built themselves up in a tremendous way but in doing so, may have served only to make the Heat’s victory more impressive.

There is a film genre known as hyperlink cinema, which include films like 21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Babel, Magnolia, and Traffic. A central characteristic of these films and this genre is several parallel narratives, eventually binding themselves together in the service of a single unifying theme or message. In the beginning each character’s experiences and storyline is equal in value to every other and engagement is driven with the methodical revelation of how each piece fits together to create the larger image. It’s a beautiful and alluring method of storytelling and it works in especially successful ways when the overall message or theme is suitably and intrinsically profound.

In many ways the NBA has a similar narrative structure. Each season begins with 30 teams separately weaving together the individual narratives of their players, fans and organizations. As the regular-season progresses, those stories are melted together into a larger league-wide narrative. But as the playoffs begin those stories lose their individual identity more quickly and get folded into the remaining elements. The beautifully symmetry this process creates in film feels painfully reductionist in the context of the NBA. In cinema the end product is a lesson about a single, usually universal theme. At the end of an NBA season the narrative has been winnowed to the successful struggle of a single team, with everyone else standing as obstacles overcome.

The Pacers had an incredible season. They built an elite defense with effort and execution. They nurtured and cared for two budding young stars in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, and were rewarded with beautiful blossoms for their efforts. They forged an identity, ravaged the league’s lower tier, rebuilt a fanbase, and dashed the playoff aspirations of both the Hawks and Knicks. But in the end this season’s defining narrative will be the story of either the Heat or the Spurs. Everything the Pacers accomplished this year, everything they put in place to help them extend and embolden their playoff run is ultimately a part of someone else’s story.

If the Heat end up winning their second consecutive championship, the Pacers will stand in as their narrative arch-nemesis. In two straight seasons the Pacers will have pushed the Heat down and kicked dirt in their face. They are the stylistic antithesis of the Heat and have displayed all the requisite malice of an historically epic arch-villain. The Pacers provided the tension and the rising action, backing the Heat out onto the narrative edge from which only a monumentally heroic effort could save and redeem them.

All of those same  elements will hold true if the Spurs win the title, but the impact will be spun off in a different direction. Now the Pacers aren’t the arch-villain, but the tragically flawed third-wheel. They are the team that bloodied the Heat with a thousand tiny cuts, ripped back their veil of invulnerability, exposing their hubris and soft underbelly to the Lawful-Good protagonist Spurs; the team that in a hopeless battle against evil went out in a flaming blaze of glory leaving the Heat exhausted beyond recovery.

I’ll remember this Pacers’ season because of how it felt to watch. I’ll remember Lance Stephenson shedding his skin and emerging Re-Born Ready. I’ll remember the right side of Paul George’s face slowly being drawn up into a permanent snarl. I’ll remember Frank Vogel’s soothing confidence, David West’s shoulders and Roy Hibbert’s verticality. I’ll remember a defense that deserves a place in the annals of history and an offense, that for much of the season, deserved to be drowned in a bathtub. I’ll remember statistical nuance and emotional bludgeoning. But it aches that most of those things will fade for a public that paid the franchise notice for the first time in years. For the masses the Pacers will mostly be remembered as a final and stout, stage-setting, barrier foreshadowing the Finals to come.

The only thing more painful than a 23 point loss to end your season is knowing that it will ultimately be remembered not for ending your season, but as a conquered challenge in someone else’s.

Raindrops Keep Falling

For the past 36 hours, criticism has been raining down on Frank Vogel and his decision to keep Roy Hibbert off the floor for the two final defensive possessions of Wednesday night’s loss to the Heat. That rain of criticism has also sprouted a veritable forest of Vogel defenders, arguing that the ability to switch everything on those possessions was imperative and thus necessitated gluing Hibbert to the bench. I’m assuming that anyone who finds their way to Hardwood Paroxysm early on a Friday morning already knows that both possessions resulted in layups for LeBron, securing their one point margin of victory. I’m also assuming that you’ve already read at least a handful of various opinions falling on both sides of the issue.

The argument about whether Vogel properly evaluated the situation, weighed the variables and made the correct tactical decision is irreparably influenced by the results. Even in such a simple and brief situation, there were a hundred different scenarios that could have manifested, leaving the Pacers’ lead intact. If any of those had actually happened, criticism of Vogel’s decision would been rendered almost entirely moot. In that context it’s a little unfair that he’s under the microscope because Paul George overplayed LeBron so badly on the catch and that Sam Young volunteered no resistance to his layup attempt.

If Hibbert had been on the floor he very well may have been unable to prevent a basket. LeBron had an angle, a head of steam and all the prerequisite finishing ability to lay that one in, regardless of who was in front of, or beside him. Even if Hibbert had been able to get his body between LeBron and the basket, dissuading him from a shot, he could have easily dumped it off to Bosh for 12-footer. Here’s the rub, those two outcomes are exactly what the Pacers’ defense is built on. If there’s going to be a shot at the rim, they’ll make it difficult. But if they can force you to take a mid-range jumper they’re even happier.

But that’s neither here nor there. Evaluating the situation in either direction seems defensible to me, although the ultimate outcome lends more credence to the argument for keeping Hibbert on the floor. I think arguing this point misses the main issue – I’m not sure Vogel should have been deciding based on the exact confines of this situation. If that statement feels ludicrous to read, trust me, it feels just as ludicrous to type.

By looking at that scenario and making a decision on just what lay in front of him, Vogel forced the Pacers away from their principles. Not their micro X’s-and-O’s principles, but their macro ‘this-is-how-we-do-business’ principles. All season long the Pacers’ defense has been playing the percentages. They make opponents to take tough shots and they live with the results. They survive miraculous makes because they know that in the long run the percentages will settle in their favor. However he evaluated the X’s-and-O’s, Vogel’s option to adjust for the Heat went counter to how the Pacers have approached nearly every opponent all season long.

It may be somewhat obtuse and short-sighted for me to suggest ignoring the very real demands of a specific situation in pursuit of higher, over-arching ideals. But that’s precisely what the Pacers have done this year. They don’t adjust to you. You adjust to them. The run their best five guys out there and dare you to beat them. If you do, they dust themselves off and dare you to run it back. They make you shoot over and around them. They take what you do best and make you uncomfortable doing it, in a way that’s splendidly predictable. Everything the Pacers defense has stood for this season would have been represented by parking Hibbert in front of the rim and letting the chips fall where they may.

When Vogel pulled Hibbert he was delving into a world of philosophical and tactical dabbling that he’s mostly stayed away from in his brief coaching tenure. The Miami Heat are an entirely different animal than the Knicks or Hawks. Moxie, fortitude and resoluteness may not be enough. But when Vogel started tinkering with his team’s identity, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. The Pacers are a process team, but I think the moment got the better of him and he was caught chasing results.

As I said above, criticizing this decision after the fact is complicated because we all know what happened. Perhaps Roy Hibbert’s presence wouldn’t have made a bit of difference and the Pacers were doomed to failure on that possession, regardless of what decision Vogel made. But if their destiny was set, I’d rather have seen them take the loss while holding fast to their principles and not compromising their basketball core.

The Vicious Law Of Averages

From an analytics perspective, a basketball game is a collection of thousands of intricately unique data points. At this moment in time we are able to measure and catalog a tremendous number of those data points, but many, many more still lie outside our reach. This enormous quantity of information simply can’t be held together in a useful way, with each point existing as a separate entity. Information is gleaned by looking for connections and patterns in those points. Often the simplest of statistical tools, like averages, are enough to smooth and group those separate points together. Like pulling back from a Magic Eye Poster, averaging data helps us make sense of the overwhelming stream of individual plays we watch unfold in front of us, creating an image, recognizable and comforting.

As a Pacers’ fan confidence can be an unfamiliar companion. The team has had plenty of success in the twenty years I’ve been watching them, but rarely can I remember cruising through a big game with any certainty of a positive outcome. The defining Pacers experience is still Reggie Miller’s late game heroics, but uncertainty is precisely what made them so enthralling. You always hoped the magic would be there, but you couldn’t ever quite count on it. However, as things began to unravel in the third quarter of Game 6 against the Knicks I found myself with an unexpected surge of calm because I saw a pattern developing in those disparate data points we call possessions.

In the third quarter the Knicks outscored the Pacers by eight, pulling dead even to begin the final quarter. New York had ridden a wave of absurdly accurate three-point shooting, making 6-of-7 in the quarter, but the real driving force was Carmelo Anthony. Through the first three quarters Anthony had scored 35 points, without a single turnover, on 13-of-22 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. If you don’t have a calculator handy that’s an average of 1.35 points per possession, an obscenely efficient mark and well above his season average of 1.02. That efficiency had manifested with a collection of mid-range pull-ups and fadeaways from the post. Every shot was contested, but it didn’t matter – Anthony had the look. He was locked in, ready to put the Knicks on his back and drag them to an epic win.

But he was also playing way above his head, scoring at a rate of efficiency far above his season average.

The Law of Averages is a common statistical expression, but often misinterpreted. When you flip a coin you have an equal chance of landing on heads as you do of landing on tails. Stretched out over a large enough span of time the actual results of your flipping will eventually settle around the 50/50 mark. This is the Law of Averages. However, people often forget about the element of sample size. Six heads in a row doesn’t mean you’re due for tails. If you’ve landed on heads six times in a row, the probability of getting a tails on your next flip hasn’t increased. It’s still 50/50. Streaks of improbability will inevitably happen, but given a suitably large sample size the results will end up exactly where you expect them.

Going back to Game 6, just because Anthony made five shots in a row didn’t change the likelihood of him making or missing any his upcoming shots. The first three quarters were undoubtedly a streak of improbability but if the Pacers’ defense could maintain the same pressure and keep the odds stacked against him, eventually Anthony’s improbability would melt away. The only question was whether or not it would happen before the end of the game.

As the fourth quarter began in Game 6, the Law of Averages burst from the wings, wrestling Anthony to the ground. Over the next twelve minutes Anthony went 2-of-7 with three turnovers and not a single free throw. The graph below shows his rolling efficiency for the game, charted by each of the 34 possessions he used. Each mark on the line shows his overall points per possession up to that point. I’m sure you can spot the beginning of the fourth quarter.

AnthonyAverage

In the end as his the game rolled along Anthony found himself right back where we’d expect him to be, at his season long-average. As his shots kept dropping, I saw this average lurking and creeping in the shadows, getting ready to work its magic.

Anthony’s average efficiency was at a very high level this season, but for a variety of reasons in this game they needed sustained offensive efficiency of an improbable level. Ironically, a lot of the Knicks’ offense this season was built around capturing and harnessing these bursts of improbability from him, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Averages are not created by the consistent reproduction of a single act, they are an amalgamation of highs and lows. When the Knicks were able to pile highs upon highs, they were nearly unbeatable this season. But asking improbability to arrive when you need it most is a dangerous game. Michael Jordan seemed to have this ability. LeBron James has shown it at times. But as much talent as his offensive game encapsulates, Anthony has shown himself to be as subject to the law of averages as any other mortal man.

In some ways, the foundational element of this Pacers’ defense is not Roy Hibbert or Paul George, but the Law of Averages. Everything revolves around the belief that if they force you to take tough shots, you’ll miss enough for them to beat you. Sometimes tough shots go in, but the Pacers are counting on the fact that each game is a long enough sample size for the Law of Averages to catch up with their opponents. As Anthony was knocking down turn-arounds and fall-aways over their outstretched arms, the Pacers’ were putting their faith in the long-game, plugging away and hoping that their would be enough possessions for average to make an appearance.

Time To Make The Sausage

There aren’t many certainties in today’s NBA, but beginning the month of May with MVP controversy is one thing you can always count on. There are no standardized qualifications for becoming the league’s official Most Valuable Player, and that creates a huge amount of inherent wiggle room, allowing voters to weigh different criteria in whatever way they see fit. That loose flexibility was shoved into the spotlight yesterday when Boston Globe columnist, Gary Washburn, revealed himself to be the lone voter who didn’t put LeBron James at the top of his ballot. Washburn went with Carmelo Anthony, and made his case public as part of yesterday’s announcement.

LeBron had an absolutely dominant season and it’s nigh impossible to find any reliable statistical metric by which he wasn’t the most productive player in the league this season. Washburn actually seemed to agree, and his argument was that although Anthony may not have been the better player, he was more important to his team. I’m not here to argue the merits of Washburn’s argument. But I would like to point out that this is an extreme example of separation between decision-making based on the power of statistics and the power of narrative. LeBron’s season presents some incredibly compelling storylines as well, but while there’s little space to argue against his statistical case, there’s plenty of room to argue about stories.

I don’t mean to imply that Washburn’s choice is somehow immature or incorrect because he gave more weight to the narrative elements of Anthony’s case. Stories are part of basketball; how we watch it, understand it, talk about it, and certainly how the media covers it. Stories are important and have always been a part of how the MVP award is decided. My own experiences as a basketball fan and amateur analyst are a constant balancing act between the narrative and the numeric. It’s an indelicate art and the line between the two moves constantly. One of the questions that the whole Washburn rigamarole raised for me was, exactly where that line falls for MVP voters in the aggregate. How much of MVP voting is based on statistics, literal or implied, and how much is based on a compelling story?

Narrative is an extremely complex idea to measure, but tracking the statistical case for MVP candidates is a little more straightforward. I began at Basketball-Reference’s Award Page, looking at the players who have received MVP votes over the last 10 seasons. Basketball-Reference is nice enough to include a limited statistical profile right alongside each player. The listed categories are age, games played, minutes per game, points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, Win Shares and win shares per 48 minutes. My intuition is that any MVP voter who does include statistics in their decision making probably doesn’t look much further than these categories, and so they seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The one category which is conspicuously absent from a voting perspective is team win percentage, which I added. The other changes I made were dropping total Win Shares, keeping just the per 48 minute version, and converting total games played to percentage of games played, adjusting for the lockout shortened season. I then regressed those categories onto the share of total possible points that each player received from the voters. The result was an R^2 value of 0.516, which means just over half the variation in MVP voting can be explained by players’ performance in those categories I mentioned above.

While that explains a significant block of variability, it still leaves nearly half of the story untold. That 0.484 is where the narrative comes in. The results of the regression analysis also include an equation by which you can project the share of possible MVP voting points a player should have received, based on those numbers. I did that for each of the top five vote-getters from those 10 seasons and put them in to this Tableau Visualization, along with the actual share of MVP vote they received.

[iframe]<iframe src=”http://public.tableausoftware.com/views/NBAsMostValuablePlayerResults/MVPVotingDashboard?:embed=y&:display_count=no” style=”border:0px #FFFFFF none;” name=”MVP Voting” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”1″ marginheight=”0px” marginwidth=”0px” height=”663px” width=”663px”></iframe>[/iframe]

You can play around and sort by year, looking at how each race shook out. The higher a player is on the vertical axis the more compelling their statistical case was. I’m making an assumption here, but the implication is that the difference between a player’s projected share and their actual share represents the power of their narrative. Player’s who fall low on the vertical axis, but far to the right on the horizontal axis would appear to be the ones with the most compelling narratives.

I put this visualization together for you to draw your own conclusions, but I’ll share I few seasons I found particularly interesting.

2013

2013 MVP

This was a year where the narrative component of the MVP voting went hand-in-hand with the statistical rationale. LeBron and Durant had big statistical edges and it was clearly reflected in the results. But those numbers also fell in with the storyline of two dominant stars elevating their games and leading their teams to a new level. I also thought it was interesting how much of a difference narrative made in the case of Carmelo Anthony. We already discussed how his story swayed Gary Washburn, but he apparently wasn’t the only one. Anthony finished third in this year’s voting despite a weaker statistical component to his case than either LeBron, Durant, Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul.

_____

2011

2011

This was one of the most memorable MVP votes for me and really exemplified the divide between analytic-minded decision makers, who advocated for Dwight Howard, and those drawn to the compelling one-against-the-world narrative of Derrick Rose’s season. In the end the award went to Rose, by a healthy margin. Amazingly, the regression equation seems to indicate that LeBron had a much stronger statistical case than either Rose or Howard, despite finishing third. This is a case where the negative narrative of the Heat’s ‘front-running’ and the ‘post-Decision’ backlash probably kept LeBron out of the top two spots.

_____

2008

2008

2008 was another fascinating year in terms of balancing narrative and production. There was a lot of push for Chris Paul who jumped several levels in production, leading the New Orleans Hornets’ to the second-best record in the Western Conference, along with building the most compelling statistical resume of the candidates. In the end he lost out to Kobe Bryant, who trumped Paul’s narrative with a career of dominance, that had at that point been unrecognized with an MVP award. Kevin Garnett finished third for his work in coalescing the Big Three in Boston and leading the Celtics to the best record in the league. LeBron James finished fourth, with the second-most compelling statistical resume but no enticing story to attach it to.

_____

2006

2006

This is another infamous award season. It was Nash’s second consecutive MVP, despite being the worst for the Nash-D’Antoni Suns, both in terms of wins and offensive efficiency. But it was a remarkable and, at the time, almost unbelievable duplication of what they had done in their first season together. This was especially true when you consider that Amare Stoudemire played just three games all season long. That the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ philosophy was able to sustain into a second season and prove a viable offensive strategy that wouldn’t dissipate once it was “figured out” by NBA defenses was the narrative that drove Nash to this award. LeBron finished second in the voting, but he was one of three players, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups who had a more compelling statistical case.

_____

People on both sides of the narrative-numerical divide often seem to get their hackles up around the MVP Award, depending on which side prevails in a given year. While middle ground we currently walk always leaves someone frustrated, it’s by far preferable to the alternative. There is a place for logic and reason in the NBA and no one would be satisfied by a world where postseason awards were handed willy-nilly with no verifiable, objective reasoning to support those decisions. At the same time, making decisions with a formula only denies our human instinct to create, tell and consume stories. It may be a bumpy ride, but you can enjoy the MVP award both for what it is and for what it is not.

Commonly Absurd

On Sunday night the Heat completed a four-game, first round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks. The outcome was never really in doubt for any of those games and LeBron was able to lead the Heat through with a series of solid, understated performances. Of course, by solid and understated I mean 24.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, shooting 62.5% from the field and playing elite defense. Of all the things LeBron has done this season, making the absurd seem common may be the most impressive.

Consistency is a challenge in the NBA, for any player of any skill level. Competition, situation, travel, health, luck; there are innumerable moving variables between a player and regular, repeatable success. Over the last 82 games LeBron stepped over each of those variables, multiple times. This was one of the most dominant regular seasons in recent memory, but by the time the playoffs rolled around that storyline was completely lost in the stew of Kobe’s achilles tendon, Derrick Rose’s knee, the grinding playoff race at the bottom of the Western Conference and the fact that LeBron made excellence so . . . expected.

I love graphs and I wanted to tackle a visual representation of LeBron’s transition from usually great to always great. I started with his statistics from every regular season game he’s played in his entire career. For each game I calculated the number of possessions he used and his scoring efficiency, measured by points per possession. Below is a Google Motion chart that shows all of those numbers. Press the play button and the graph will scroll through each game in his career marking exactly where it falls on each axis. Each dot is colored by the calendar year in which it fell. I would also recommend clicking to highlight the first circle before pressing play, so that all the marks show up cumulatively. Adjusting the play speed, which is right next to the play button, may also save your eyes from some undue strain.

(Note: If you can’t see the graph, refresh the page, occasionally the iframes are a pain. -Ed. Emeritus.)

Ideally, I would be able to separate these games by season instead of just year, but Google Motion is bound by the chronology of our calendar. What you should see though is the marks gradually begin to appear closer and closer together, clustering around the high efficiency end of the spectrum. The marks from 2013 are in red and represent the apex of LeBron’s dependable domination. What I’m attempting to illustrate in my own absurdly extravagant way is how consistent LeBron’s excellence has become this season.

Graphs can be fun, but we also have statistical tools to measure consistency, one of which is variance. Looking at an average incorporates all data points, smoothing out both the highs and lows, and rocketing across the middle ground. Variance (calculated by squaring the standard deviation) is a measure of how much a data set has bounced back and forth between those highs and lows. I took the same numbers from above, every regular season game LeBron has ever played, and split his average possessions per game and points per possession into two categories – this season, and everything else. I also calculated the variance for each, and the percentage change this season from his previous career.

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 12.40.27 PM

LeBron is using fewer possessions per game this season, 14% less to be exact. But that per game possession average has become about 40% more stable. He’s increased his offensive efficiency by 14% over his previous career average and that number has also stabilized considerably, showing 14% less variation. The leap in LeBron’s average efficiency has been absolutely incredible this season. But what these numbers tell us is that it has not just leapt but has been much more consistent at that higher level.

Those percentage changes might not seem huge but the story they tell undoubtedly is. A million and one words have been written about the way LeBron has transformed his game and pushed his production to absurd levels but the absurdity is not just in the level, it’s in the regularity. Stopping LeBron has always been a non-starter, but teams used to be able to count on an occasional off-night, a once-in-a-blue-moon bad performance. But those collected variables, the enemies of consistency, have been vanquished and it appears that the Heat’s opponents can no longer count on variance as an element of success.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com and LeBron’s unique blend of strength and speed

Men Six Through Ten

Yesterday J.R. Smith was selected and elected, beginning a twelve-month reign as the NBA’s Sixth Man Of The Year. Smith had one of the best seasons of his career scoring oodles of points for the Knicks, forgoing his trademark one-on-three jumpshots for large stretches of the season, getting extremely flirtatious with hid old nemesis, consistency, and even taking the time to play passable defense. But this tweet from the NBA.com stats department really sums up his case:

Yay Points! #KiaSixth!

The NBA’s post-season awards have become an incredibly flat affair with all the intrigue of a Sesame Street episode. Each award is voted on by a huge slate of media members, but still each has developed a predictable path for being won. The cobblestone route to winning the Sixth Man Award is simply coming off the bench and scoring points. But what frustrates and confuses me isn’t that Smith is this year’s winner. I’m long past the point where these arbitrary, whack-a-mole celebrations of the regular season can rise much ire. I’m also not going to waste time arguing that these awards are stupid and don’t reflect the reality of what happened all season long. You can read those articles at fifteen different blogs today. What bothers me is the incredibly narrow idea of what a sixth man is, and that this particularly narrow viewpoint extends well beyond the NBA post-season awards, pervading the actual construction of actual basketball teams.

Over the past half-decade offensive complexity seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. More versatile players fill more versatile systems. Analytics and critical thinking have bred both creativity and a focus on efficiency. Teams have by-and-large abandoned the pound-the-ball, isolations strategies that carried offenses in the late 90s and early 00s. But these last vestiges of go-it-alone, chest-thumping offensive bravado still seem to hang on in two places – close games and bench rotations. The perceived value of inefficient volume scorers has depreciated incredibly but a disturbing number of front offices still seem drawn to them when there is an uneven balance of offensive ability on the roster.

That the first player off the bench needs to be someone with individual scoring chops strikes me as ridiculous on several levels. First of all, if that need for individual offense was great enough to make it first priority for a substitution, it would seem to indicate some serious problems with both the talent and arrangement of the starting lineup. Second, there are a handful of notable exceptions, but bench units rarely exist as a distinct and separate entity. They are almost always an interweaving of starters and backups. If a team’s offensive system is built on the symphonic melodies of various talents and skill sets, why abandon that system completely when the parts are scattered or arranged differently? Shouldn’t bench units be a reflection of the starting lineup, covering holes when possible, but ultimately shaped by the team’s over-arching offensive and defensive goals? Obviously the Spurs offense can’t run quite the same without Tony Parker in the game, but you’ll notice that they’ve had quite a bit of success the past few seasons without employing Earl Boykins to go out and hoist shots whenever Parker needs a breather.

I’m a process guy. I like systems. I like thoughtful and all-encompassing structures. And I find it almost offensive that a team would carefully construct a plan of attack with the knowledge that it only works in certain situations, and will be largely abandoned whenever one of their five chosen starters needs to catch his breath. This is not entirely the case with the Knicks and J.R. Smith this season. But it is largely the case with teams that have retained the services of Corey Maggette over the past few years. Or Nate Robinson. Or Jamal Crawford. Or Marcus Thornton. Or Aaron Brooks. Or Ben Gordon. Or Von Wafer. Or Leandro Barbosa. I’m not arguing against a change-of-pace. I’m arguing against a compromise of values.

Setting aside the issue of actual skill sets, even enumerating and identifying a sixth man seems oddly anachronistic. The group of players that begins each game is the starting five, and should they ever be separated and numerically labelled it is by position not talent. But when we stretch to 5 + 1, the additional number becomes a label of talent, grouping that player with the starting five and at the same time separating them from their off-the-bench peers. At it’s core, it seems like the whole idea of sixth man is carving out something separate; separate from a system, separate from teammates, separate from everything that we know about successful basketball. Looking at someone as a sixth man inherently depresses the importance of the five who come before and and the six who come after.

This is not the first time I’ve waged a written battle against straw soldiers I construct myself, stand-ins for conventional wisdom. Sixth men may not actually exist in the way I’m describing them. Perhaps League Pass has fed me too much commentary from local broadcast teams, opinions that I’m carrying from the broadcast and ascribing to NBA front offices. But then I look again at the career of Corey Maggette and am left without a satisfying explanation, other than the one I’ve laid out here. The fact is that we keep using the phrase sixth man and attaching it to basketball players. Language shapes reality. Giving a name to this idea and using it repeatedly, perpetuates it’s existence. Awards are awards and I won’t begrudge anyone from receiving recognition that solid play deserves. But I would love more attention on basketball as a communal artform. When it comes to recognizing off-the-bench contributions, I’d prefer to celebrate the complimentary and collaborative affairs, the interplay of talent and skill among multiple players.