Author Archives: Steve McPherson

The Sound of One Hand Tanking

The fundamental point-counterpoint of the debate about tanking in the NBA goes something like this. Point: It is offensive to the spirit of competition and sportsmanship that teams would do anything less than do everything they can to win all the time. Counterpoint: The system is set up to reward tanking and therefore it’s only logical that teams will do what they can within the system they have to help them win. There are subpoints and follow-ups, of course. You can say the system should be changed, or you can argue that trying to win all the time simply breeds mediocrity, particularly for small market teams.

But at the heart of this debate—which has recently been stoked by the Boston Celtics’ decision to send cornerstone players Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn for draft picks and expiring contracts, plus their rumored desire to move Rajon Rondo as well—is a question that is largely moral versus practical. We value quality play and winning, and therefore we disdain tanking, unless we decide that practical considerations override moral ones. You rarely hear anyone make a moral defense of tanking, but that’s what I’m going to do.

To do so, we’re going to look to the East, and I don’t mean the Eastern Conference. We’re going to shift the paradigm and look at tanking through the prism of Buddhism and its views on suffering, impermanence and attachment.

At the core of Buddhist thought are the Four Noble Truths, which are (1) the truth of suffering, or dukkha in Pali; (2) the truth of the origin of suffering; (3) the truth of the end of suffering; (4) the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Now, this might immediately ring true to fans of teams that have engaged in tanking, particularly with regards to the first two and maybe less to the last two. But hold up. Suffering in Buddhist thought arises from the endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth of every living thing—or saṃsāra—and our inability to see that cycle for what it is. Instead of understanding everything as temporary, as the dust of the world, we try to cling to things, to make them permanent.

Across the many schools of Buddhism—from Zen to Pure Land to Tibetan—there are many different ways to deal with this, but what they’re all fundamentally about is release from this cycle. This is where it gets a little tricky, though, because at first glance it might seem like this means eliminating bad things and focusing on good things, but that’s a more traditionally Western way of thinking about the perfection of the soul.

In Buddhism, you’re not trying to change the way the world works. You’re working towards an acceptance of the fact that change is the way the world works. Pain is impermanent, but so is happiness. Attachment to our desires—for success, for championships—is what causes suffering.

So if tanking means recognizing that attachment to certain star players or to out-of-reach ideas about championships is going to cause suffering, Buddhism would say let go. To be clear, I don’t think Buddhism endorses not giving it your all in any given game—not with its emphasis on mindfulness, on being completely present inside of whatever task you have before you. But that only means that it’s the ultimate process-oriented philosophy or way of life. If a team is working towards winning championships as the Celtics were for years, they should be mindful of that process and focused on it completely. But as soon as they’re not, it’s best to become completely focused on the next task, to not hold on to the things of the world. In this way, Danny Ainge has attained bodhisattva status; freed from the cycle of life and death, he can now engage in the work of the world without attachment.

If it’s not clear already, this is way harder than it looks. Sports are, especially in the offseason, all about trying to see the future by looking deeply into the past. The offseason is about the least Buddhist place you can be, especially for fans. There is no task to set before yourself, no clear present in which to live. This makes it an ideal time to focus on your meditative practice. Find a quiet place to work on following your breath in and out of your body. It may help to recite the following poem.

Breathing in, I see myself as cap space
Breathing out, I feel like a free agent

There Is No Headband

Photo by martha sarah on Flickr

LeBron James’ headband didn’t matter in the Heat’s victory in Game 6. But it also didn’t not matter. Any attempt to quantify and compare LeBron with and without headband via numbers is a fool’s errand; the sample size is too small, the panoply of variables too titanically staggering. There’s just nothing concrete to hold onto there, but it doesn’t mean we can’t gather together an understanding of it. LeBron’s headband exists at the nexus where adherence to tradition collides with the need to navigate an ever-shifting landscape based on instinct, where a primitive desire for order and repeatable outcomes runs headlong into the need for a contingency plan. James came to two roads that diverged in a yellow wood and he took the one less traveled by. Simple as that.

To begin to see this, it’s helpful to see how professional basketball players work in different ways from most people. Their job is, first and foremost, creative in nature. Although they are in some sense following the order put in place by their coach, players—especially at James’ level—are primarily problem solvers. The framework gives them roles and rules, but they have to maximize those roles, stretch those rules each and every time they go out on the court under diverse circumstances often designed to thwart their creativity.

Furthermore, they are asked to do it with consistency while living a lifestyle that demands near-constant travel and physical wear and tear. And yes, the monetary compensation is often lush and can lessen the impact, but they’re still people, and people in a situation with little consistency crave it. While you or I might long for excitement to shake up our repetitive daily schedules, players establish routines, rituals and habits in order to control their world as best they can. Eating the same meal, taking a nap at a specific time, never wearing the same shoes twice, always wearing the same shoes exactly four times before switching: these things bring a measure of stability to an inherently unstable existence.

But they only work so long as they feel like they work, if that makes any sense. They are not, after all, things like ingraining a repeatable jump shot motion in practice or conditioning drills. They are not things that will improve a player’s game regardless of how a player thinks about them. But when it comes time to create, to empty your mind, how you think about something matters a great deal. When that process isn’t working, it can be difficult to get down at the root of what’s wrong. It can be easy to start out-thinking yourself, to over-think. When it’s possible to change a controllable, external pattern—a reliance, for instance, on a particular piece of headgear—it can force a kind of mental reset, a return to primal things that the ritual has suddenly gotten in the way of.

The headband had nothing to do with James’ shooting problems in Game 6. But ditching the headband after it got knocked off might have had everything to do with letting him get past whatever undiagnosable problem he was having. A player as thoughtful and multi-faceted as James can struggle with being given too many options. We saw the Spurs use that to their advantage by backing off of him, by allowing him to survey the court while limiting his options, by letting him take good but not great open shots. The result was an often tentative James who was picking his way around the problem of how to get himself going.

Ditching the headband had very little to do with the headband and everything to do with the often complex and deceptively frail way we jury-rig how we do things to how we understand how we do things. It can be hard to let go of that structure, composed as it is of rituals and totems we hold dear, but LeBron deciding to forego his headband in order to shake things up in ways he likely didn’t even understand was the living epitome of one of my favorite aphorisms: “When the horse you’re riding dies, get off.”

The Regular Season Is Better Than The Playoffs

I am suffering, for the second straight year, from playoffs-induced writer’s block. It seems to be something that grips a fairly large percentage of the Hardwood Paroxysm writers. It got to the point last season that Matt Moore upbraided us on the blog’s daily email thread, saying he couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed that we couldn’t find more to say about all the storylines going on or proud that we generally write about such weirdo backwaters of the NBA that we were flummoxed by the postseason and all the general media attention lavished on it.

I’d like to think it’s the latter. Much as it is for teams, the regular season is a nearly bottomless place for writers, where so many things happen that many fly by unnoticed. If one team has another team’s number on a given night, the tables could just as easily be reversed a month down the line. It’s how the Wolves can lose to the Spurs 104-94 in early February and then turn around and hang 107 on San Antonio while giving up 83 a month later.

But in the playoffs, the character of the games changes dramatically, and not just in intensity. Weird things happen in a seven-game series. Ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks about it. Their 67-15 season and #1 seed in the West ended with a 4-2 first round defeat at the hands of the 42-40 Warriors. Were they exposed, or just victims of chance?

Or ask a player like Jerome James. After averaging 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game for his whole career, he played 11 postseason games for the Sonics in 2005 where he averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Knicks promptly signed him to a 6 year, $30 million deal. In 2008 he played five minutes of basketball and made $5.8 million.

Or consider Nate Robinson in this year’s playoffs, where he went from sparkplug to starter. Last year he was on the Warriors. The year before that, he was an add-on in the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics to the Thunder to add size to the team. Chances are they weren’t after Nate. That was his second mid-season trade in a row, having been moved from the Knicks to the Celtics the year before.

But this postseason he averaged 16.3 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a PER of 15.8 for a Bulls team no one expected much out of without Derrick Rose. Having spent a good twenty minutes in a Chicago Bulls locker room while Nate held court and clowned, I know that in addition to knowing his team was depending on him, he knew his own personal price tag was going up with that tremendous display of grit and determination.

There’s a reason that some people only watch the playoffs. It’s some of the same reason that people say it’s only the last five minutes of a basketball game that matter. Storylines crystallize, outcomes hinge on a few crisp passes or one blown defensive assignment. It can feel for all the world like we’re seeing the real basketball at those moments, the best basketball.

But are we?

This year’s New York Knicks thrived in the regular season on a combination of relentless 3-point shooting (taking a league-leading 2,371 3-point shots and making them at a rate of 37.6%, good for fourth in the league) and small ball principles driven by Carmelo Anthony’s move to the power forward position. But in the playoffs, when the chips were down against the Pacers’ considerable length and defensive acumen, Mike Woodson went away from what had worked so well. He moved Anthony back to the small forward position and filled the paint with traditional bigs. This meant less driving room for J.R. Smith, who regressed to his worst shooting habits, and a sky-high usage rate of 37.7% for Anthony. They bowed out in the second round.

Were the Knicks we saw against the Pacers the true Knicks in some sense? They certainly weren’t the best Knicks, but then again, “true” and “best” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, much as we wish they would.

Of course, if you’ve been following the leading lights of the daily basketball writing world—people like Zach Lowe at Grantland, Dan Devine and Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie, Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver at Sports Illustrated, Zach Harper and our founding father Matt Moore at CBS’ Eye on Sports, or Henry Abbott and the other great minds at TrueHoop, just to name a few—you already know about the Knicks’ devolution. You already know about Scott Brooks’ failure to adapt or innovate in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. You already know how the Spurs frustrated and stymied Zach Randolph in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals. I mean, jeez: I just found out from Kelly Dwyer how the Memphis Grizzlies have a historically large number of left-handed players.

Trying to pull a good, overlooked angle out of the playoffs is a lot like being a good rebounder who’s 5’10” in a pickup game when a bunch of 6’4” guys show up to play. I know this because that’s exactly the guy I am. Rebounding goes from a matter of effort and determination to simply being physically impossible. As the number of teams gets cut in half, then in half again, then again, as the number of games on any given night goes from six to four to three to two to one, fewer and fewer things slip between the cracks of the hardwood.

But I love the cracks in the hardwood. Baseball diamonds don’t have cracks; football fields don’t have cracks. Whenever I watch those sports, I’m struck by how moments of play are always followed by moments of repose, by time to reset and prepare again. Basketball has those moments as well, but it also has a way of relentlessly piling things on top of each other, of collaging players and playsets and stats and patterns and then leaving it to all of us to pick apart and make sense of.

At least, it does in the regular season. As a fan, I love the playoffs. I love the wanton ridiculousness of them and the epic breakdowns and heroic comebacks and the way a series of games becomes a chess match of adjustments, an illustration of the way humans adapt and learn.

But as a writer, I might just love the regular season more, where the games stretch off into the distance. Where I can tell my wife the season is almost over—just 15 games left—and have her tell me, “That seems like a lot of games.” Where you can excavate meaning from meaninglessness, where some stats are valuable and other aren’t, where some storylines are short and others long. Where some things that seem very important for a few games can end up not being very important at all. Where the last week of the season for a lottery-bound team becomes an existential crisis. When it comes to the playoffs, I miss the inattentiveness, the corpulence, the slog, the torpor of the regular season.

The Conference Finals are upon us. The intensity is ramping up. It’s win or go home and that’s the reason everyone is watching this, the final five minutes of the NBA season. This is, after all, where amazing happens. I guess I just like when amazing plays hard-to-get.

Well, there’s always next year.

Hold Them or Fold Them: The Van Halen/Guns n’ Roses Franchise Player Decision Matrix

Amidst the thunder of the playoffs (which, incidentally, sorry, Oklahoma City), there’s another storm brewing for several teams. As far as weather events go, it’s the kind of thing that rain-starved teams like Charlotte, New Orleans or Detroit would kill for, and it goes something like this: How long do you hold on to your franchise player?

I know, right? Fans of small market teams would KILL to have this problem, but it’s a very real one for teams like the Celtics and the Lakers. How do you wind down one era while spooling up for another? Rumblings have been issuing from Boston this week that Paul Pierce expects to either be traded or released, and the resolution of that situation will definitely have a bearing on what happens with Kevin Garnett. The team that was assembled to win a championship and did in 2008 seemed, at the time, to have a short shelf life, but has instead lasted far longer than anyone anticipated.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and the $30.4 million of cap space room he takes up looms large over the Lakers. While fans and the media sometimes toss around amnesty as an option for Kobe, it doesn’t seem likely when Bryant has been the face of the franchise for over a decade.

But as it is with Pierce, many of the things that argue against moves like trade or amnesty are not strictly basketball decisions, but instead reside in the squishier, more sentimental side of the game. They involve questions of legacy, loyalty, the core cultural values of a team. Neither Pierce nor Bryant has ever played for another team. Pierce was the guy who got stabbed ELEVEN TIMES just a little over a month before the 2001 season and yet went on to be the only Celtic to start all 82 games that year. And as far as Bryant goes, it’s safe to say that are a lot of Laker “fans” out there who can’t name another player on the team.

There are plenty of examples to draw on from the NBA of teams that either quit on their stars too early or hung on to them too long. But that’s not very much fun. As I see it, teams like the Lakers and Celtics essentially have two models to draw on: the Van Halen model or the Guns n’ Roses model.

The Van Halen model says that it’s fine to get rid of the face of the franchise. When Van Halen fired David Lee Roth following the massive success of their album 1984, they’d already been a band for over a decade. Nobody was getting along, everyone was doing a lot of drugs, and Eddie Van Halen wanted to push their music in more complex directions while Roth was content to drop solo tracks like his covers of “California Girls” and “Just A Gigolo” and play the cad. The Van Halen dynasty as represented by their early success had—at least according to Eddie Van Halen—run its course, and rather than soldier through a rocky decline they opted to rebuild with Sammy Hagar.

And it sucked, right? Everyone knows that the original Van Halen is the GOOD Van Halen. Except people didn’t really react that way at the time. Yes, Van Halen with Sammy Hagar was not as much fun, but their next four albums (5150, OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance) all went to #1 on Billboard—despite having some incredibly dreadful names. That song “Right Now” was EVERYWHERE from Crystal Pepsi to sporting events (where it still haunts the PA). It has to be the most uplifting song to ever come from an album with an expanded-curse-word-as-acronym title.

Sadly, in spite of this success, it seem like few people look on Hagar’s days with the band as the halcyon ones. Music fans are no less attached to ideas of authenticity than are sports fans, and there will always be something about the idea of the ORIGINAL lineup of a band that strikes a chord with us.

And so maybe Kobe and Pierce aren’t—technically—part of the original lineups of their respective teams. But for a generation of fans, those players are part of the emotional origin of those teams for those fans. More than production, more than efficiency, more even than the possibility of future rings, this emotional attachment is why even if these players are soon gone the future looks dimmer for fans.

But it’s not all bread and roses on the other side of the coin. In fact, it’s Guns n’ Roses. After what amounts to back-to-back championship with Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991, Guns n’ Roses were on top of the world. Their gritty, greasy hard rock had evolved into something cinematic and sometimes orchestral while retaining their hard edge and lawless image. It was like nothing could possiblye go wrong.

But instead of going wrong, it just sort of went nowhere. Never the most stable of bands—having gone through a drummer and a rhythm guitarist on the way to the mid-’90s—their lineup grew increasingly hazy over the next decade as the flow of music dwindled to a covers album, a few singles, and then nothing.

In the dystopian future that Guns n’ Roses is now living in, the face of the franchise has well overstayed his welcome. In attempting to fulfill his own vision of a band of which so many young fans felt themselves to be co-owners (which also happens in sports), Axl Rose has employed a guy with a bucket on his head and a guitarist who took his nickname from a bacterial infection. (An especially awesome sidenote: In 2010 this guy released a 15th Anniversary Edition of an album he recorded in his “parents’ basement” with a 200 page book of guitar transcriptions. This guy is absolutely the Sasha Vujacic of G’n’R.)

What Rose and his “band” show is how holding onto something doesn’t keep it from changing, nor does it keep the memories fresh or vivid. It just lets you watch as that thing rots away to nothing. Yes, that’s cold and no, Kobe Bryant—for example—isn’t done for, not even with a devastating Achilles injury to return from. But someday he will be. Do you just hope that day comes conveniently between seasons? Do you hope he knows when that happens? Michael Jordan certainly didn’t. It would be terrific if these ultra-competitive athletes could somehow blow past their own limitations right up until the exact moment when their bodies tell them enough is enough, but that’s sadly not usually how it happens.

It’s one thing for teams facing the prospect of building more or less from scratch, or even recovering from modest success. But it’s another thing entirely to shepherd a franchise from the heights of one or more championships and a roster with an all-time great player to whatever comes next.

The evolution of advanced stats may help teams develop better ways to understand player development and decline, but they can’t tell us anything about how to make this transition when it comes to the cultural, emotional and historical part of the game. How these teams handle these changes sends a message to their fanbase, other teams and the league’s players about who they are as organizations. To cop a line from The Terminator, the Lakers and Celtics are looking into the distance at dark clouds while a young Mexican boy says something in Spanish. Mitch Kupchak leans over and asks the gas station attendant, “What did he just say?” And the attendant says, “He said there’s a storm coming in.”

Danny Ainge sighs.

“I know.”

Up Up Down Down Kevin Durant B A Select Start

In case you hadn’t noticed in the overwhelming deluge of attention that’s been rightly lavished on Steph Curry’s tremendous work in the playoffs so far, Kevin Durant is—still—completely out of his mind. Having watched him in person this season at Timberwolves’ games, it’s tempting to crib from Bobby Jones’ analysis of Jack Nicklaus following his win in the 1965 Masters and say that Durant plays a game with which I am not familiar.

Except I am. I’ve seen it before, just not in real life. Durant’s closest antecedent is Rashard Lewis in NBA 2K2.

Hear me out. Lewis was drafted out of Alief Elsik High School in Houston, Texas, in 1998, a few years before the zenith of the preps-to-pros trend in 2001 when Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop all went in the top ten. Expected to go in the lottery, Lewis instead slid and slid until he was the last guy in the green room, finally taken by the Seattle Supersonics with the 32nd pick.

His first couple seasons were fairly unremarkable. His rookie year he only logged 145 minutes, managing a Filene’s Basement-esque 4.5 PER. In 2000 he came off the bench and looked a lot better, improving his PER to 16.5 and recording a .521 effective field goal percentage.

When he broke out in his third year as a starter with the Sonics, he looked good. And by good I mean GOOD. His per 36 stats didn’t make a huge jump, but when his minutes per game jumped from 19.2 to 34.9, he went from scoring 8.2 ppg to 14.8. His FT% jumped from .683 to .826 and his 3P% leapt dramatically from a solid .333 to a sterling .432. The advanced stats looked good as well: a PER of 17.3, an offensive rating of 114, and a true shooting percentage of .587. Although his usage rate was well below Durant’s, Lewis’ 2000-01 season is fairly comparable to Durant’s sophomore season in 2008-09.

2K Sports clearly thought of Lewis’ 2001 season as a harbinger, not a high water mark. In NBA 2K2, Lewis was a scoring MACHINE. At 6’10” and blessed by the game’s makers with guard-level speed and preternatural 3-pt shooting, Lewis could easily play shooting guard or small forward. He could shoot over just about any guard and was fast enough to get past any forward. He could finish hard at the rim and make his free throws. When he put it on the floor, he opened things up for the other shooters on the Sonics, which in 2002 included Brent Barry and video game Vladimir Radmanovic (who was very good). I scored 100 points with him once. He was, in short, a polygonal fever dream of beautiful basketball.

But then, it turned out that Lewis’ 2001 was both more illusory and more concrete than NBA 2K2 made it look. It was ephemeral in the sense that 2K Sports had to look at his play from the year before and see what it augured. Where they saw growth, we instead got stability. His PER inched up to 18.5 in 2002 and his wins shares per 48 rose to .160, but that’s about as high as they ever got. Through the peak of his career between 2004 and 2007, he would be named an All-Star and his PER would hover around 20 as his usage rate increased to around 24%.

And that’s good. That’s very, very good. But it’s also not Durant-good, and not Lewis-in-NBA-2K2 good. Rashard Lewis’ points per game peaked at 20.6, his rebounds per game peaked early on in 2000 at 7.7, and his assists per game never got higher than 2.6.  Consider that this season Durant averaged 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, plus notched a career-high PER at 28.3, and he’s very possibly going to get better.

And while the numbers are impressive enough, they have a hard time the uncanniness of Durant on the court. His jumper is so smooth it looks lathed, his crossover so startlingly fast across such a broad reach that it looks like a canned animation. As he threads through the lane on a fast break to throw down a dunk, you question the collision detection. He’s a living, breathing cheat code, rubberband AI made flesh.

To put it simply: real-life Kevin Durant is what video games dream of becoming.

Jason Collins: Brought to You by the WNBA?

Photo by Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office on Flickr

Photo by Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office on Flickr

When NBA journeyman Jason Collins came out in Sports Illustrated, reactions were all over the map, although hearteningly more positive than negative—on Twitter, he gained more than 9,000 followers in the first hour after the article was published. A common sentiment went: “This shouldn’t even be news—there are and have been openly gay players in the WNBA for years.” This is a valid point: the number one pick in this year’s WNBA draft, Baylor standout Brittney Griner, came out almost casually and to little fanfare. Her inking of an endorsement deal with Nike stirred little more discussion. She follows multiple openly gay WNBA stars like Chamique Holdsclaw, Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus, but all that barrier breaking combined still received only a fraction of the attention given to Collins.

But what if the WNBA played a part in making Collins’ announcement possible?

Consider: There is no WNFL. No WNHL or WMLB. For all the league’s struggles for attention and financial success, the WNBA has been a parallel professional league to the NBA for almost two decades. And before players get to the WNBA, they play at the college level, where they have their own closely followed March Madness tournament and storied teams like UConn and Tennessee led by legendary coaches like Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. Although the women’s and men’s programs might not directly compete on the court, in the NCAA 3-point shooting competition, the women’s and men’s winners finish by competing against each other. On the sidelines of this event, male and female athletes cheer together for their schools. They high five and pound each other on the backs.

At the professional level, there are further connections. Half the teams in the WNBA are independently owned, but the other half are affiliated with NBA franchises, sharing operations, ticketing and promotions budgets. They share arenas and workout facilities. Towards the end of the NBA season, it was not uncommon to see Lindsay Whalen in the tunnels of the Target Center on Minnesota Timberwolves game days, still dressed from practice. At the All-Star Game, WNBA players team up with current and former NBA players for the Shooting Stars Competition.

And yes: Many of these interactions between NBA and WNBA players (or men’s and women’s NCAA players) are forced by cross-marketing and can come off as awkward or insincere. (Pretty much everyone hates the Shooting Stars Competition.) But if these events are set up outwardly just to sell something, there’s little doubt that these athletes—for the most part—respect each other. After all, the life of an elite athlete is strange and peripatetic. They likely understand the odd demands of that life better than non-athletes can.

It can be difficult to put a finger on the precise environmental factors that made Collins’ decision possible. They’re diffuse and develop over such a long time-frame that even a 12-year veteran like Collins is too close to the events to pull back far enough to see all of it. But in the Sports Illustrated article, he did write, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.” Sheryl Swoopes—the first woman to have her own Nike shoe—came out in 2005. The reactions to her revelation were a notch above those to Griner’s, but still well below the reaction to Collins’.

What those reactions showed was that the WNBA was going to be a tolerant and supportive place, a model for what the NBA can grow into as it goes forward. There will be bumps in that road, but the men’s game has a model in its women’s counterpart. That’s something that professional football, hockey and basketball don’t have, and it might just be why this was always going to happen first in the NBA.

Now You Know and Knowing Is Half the Battle

When I was a lad and enamored of cartoons like Voltron and G.I. Joe and Transformers, my TV watching schedule would often conflict with things my mom wanted to get done. She’d be trying to rush me out the door and I’d be protesting that the show wasn’t over, even though a Robeast had already been split asunder.

“But it’s basically over,” she’d say. “Do you really need to see the day-new-ma?”

At least, that’s what it sounded like. What she was talking about, though, was the denouement. It comes from Middle French and literally means “the untying” (from the verb desnouer, “to untie”), and generally refers to the part of any story where things settle down after the climax. It’s the falling action, the part where (at least in Thundercats and M.A.S.K.) the good guys reflect on what they’ve learned, or else express concern about the future plans of Mumm-Ra or V.E.N.O.M. (which I just looked up and is amazingly an acronym for Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem).

My mom’s position (which was almost certainly right with regard to these advertisements masquerading as entertainment) was that the denouement was vestigial—all the important stuff had already happened. But we have a hard time dealing with narratives that end without falling action. Maybe we need the time to sort everything out. Maybe we just like to know where everything stands.

And that’s one of the problems with narrative in basketball: a shocking lack of denouement.

After all, basketball gives us so many other things we recognize from our favorite stories: drama, tension, conflict, rising action. Although maybe not inherent in the structure of the game, we also like to assign good guys and bad guys. Less obviously, the structure of the season creates a window of time, a sense of chapters and episodes. This comes into high relief in the playoffs.

Each round becomes a multi-tiered story with layers of conflict that play themselves out over the games. Granted, some series never resolve themselves into clear stories. Sweeps, especially with blowout wins, don’t put their hooks in us. But a hard-fought seven-game series sows expectations inside us as it develops. When one team inevitably wins, their story goes on into the next round. The completed series becomes a chapter in a longer story.

But for the losing team, the story ends without denouement. Where is their falling action? You can see it in the flat, dead way an arena reacts when the visiting team wins a Game 7 on the road. You can practically hear all those little internal narratives breaking off, crashing mid-flight. The team that eventually wins the championship gets a trophy presentation at mid-court, gets champagne baths in the locker room, gets a victory parade. But the losing teams along the way get the equivalent of that choose-your-own adventure page that says, “The giant scorpion attacks. Its sting will be fatal.”

You want an even better example of how narratively problematic sports can become? Let’s take a spoiler-free look at the series premiere and the series finale of Friday Night Lights.

Everything about the first episode of Friday Night Lights is gauged towards building anticipation for the big first game of the new football season in Dillon, Texas. It being Texas, high school football is huge and the stakes are high for new coach Eric Taylor. Expectations are huge for quarterback Jason Street and running back phenom Brian “Smash” Williams. By the time the game arrives at the end of the episode, we’re practically sweating with anticipation.

But because this is the first episode and not the last, the football game—while it’s the climax of the episode—is actually just the thing that puts into motion the storylines that will guide the first season. There’s very little denouement to the climactic game in this episode because things aren’t getting wrapped up—they’re just getting started.

The series’ final episode also hinges around a very important game. Even more important, in fact, because it’s the state championship. The anticipation is even more excruciating because it’s been building over the whole season, reaching fever pitch over the last few episodes as the future of football in Dillon hangs in the balance.

And then, just as the game begins, we cut to the aftermath.

You see, Friday Night Lights knew. They knew that the big game provides little in the way of resolution, even as it creates a winner and a loser. The consequences of that win or that loss play out over weeks and months. As the season fades, the tangible results become just one thread of the braided fabric that makes up any player, any fan.

We may not be able to stop seeing basketball games and playoff series as stories, especially as stories about us. But our stories about ourselves—even the players’ stories about themselves—need the kind of resolution that’s rarely provided on the court, rarely found within the action of the game itself. Falling action is important. So yes, mom, I need to see the denouement.

The NBA and the Perennial Gale of Creative Destruction

Hey! You! Yeah, you. Come join me up here in this tree. Just come out here and sit on this limb with me. Did you bring sweatpants? Something comfortable? Good. Because you see the end of this limb? That’s where we’re going. And there’s basketball at the end.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Building off of Karl Marx’s idea of capitalist economies as essentially evolutionary, Schumpeter described how a capitalist economy—which is ever-reliant upon innovation and the development of new consumer goods and new methods of production—seeks not stability and maximally efficient production, but rather constant change and turmoil. Fundamentally, the natural state of such an economy is turbulent, and any attempt to develop stability is inevitably undercut by new developments.

This is not difficult to see, especially today when changing technologies are churning markets more than ever. Consider this: Right now, I’m writing this on a laptop in a coffee shop. As recently as ten years ago, a coffee shop that wanted to provide Internet access to customers would have to have Ethernet cables running all over the place. There were cafes set up with the specific purpose of providing desktop computers that people would pay for by the minute or hour to use. This meant these cafes needed to buy and install lots of wires, plus buy and maintain a half dozen or more desktop computers.

Now, people bring their laptops, ask for a WiFi password and they’re off. If I ever went to a coffee shop and was told that I had to pay for Internet access, I would leave. What was once commonplace has become almost unacceptable, and this happens all the time. The rise of digital photography means the decline of film processing. And improvements in the digital cameras in smartphones means a decline even in the importance of standalone digital cameras. I mean, do you remember how horribly awful cameras in phones were even five years ago? I’m now incredulous when I can’t instantly access nearly any album I want via Spotify or Rdio when only a few years ago I took great pride in how I had collected and organized my iTunes library.

This churn—what Schumpeter called “the perennial gale of creative destruction”—is at least as active in the NBA as in capitalist economies. Although the league has its share of socialist protections (revenue sharing, max contracts, the fact that teams more or less can’t go out of business), the fundamental work of building a successful team means buying low (either through getting great young players on rookie contracts or finding undervalued veterans who fit your team) and then selling high (moving big contracts for more young talent). If a team feels they’ve laid the groundwork correctly, they might make a large investment in a free agent or blockbuster trade in order to push themselves over the top and into contention for a championship.

Most fans can accept and understand this in the abstract, and yet teams are still constantly beset by demands for instant accountability, by demands to win now, by constant questioning about moment-to-moment decisions by coaches. It’s why I was really struck by this passage from Schumpeter’s book, which discusses the ramifications of understanding the role of creative destruction in economies.

[S]ince we are dealing with a process whose every element takes considerable time in revealing its true features and ultimate effects, there is no point in appraising the performance of that process ex visu of a given point of time; we must judge its performance over time, as it unfolds through decades or centuries. A system—any system, economic or other—that at every given point of time fully utilizes its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that does so at no given point of time, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition for the level or speed of long-run performance.

This is, at its core, what many at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference were arguing for when they called for an emphasis on the process over the results. What truly resonates here is the idea that making the optimal decision at every point along the way in a very long process is not going to give you the best results over that entire process versus an approach that takes into account how very long that process is.

The San Antonio Spurs are a banner example of this. Take Popovich’s predilection for resting his starters at various times during the regular season—even when his team is in a marquee matchup against the Miami Heat, say. In the extremely short term, the choice makes no sense. It doesn’t maximize the Spurs’ resources for the greatest chance of success. Many find this unacceptable, but it seems that a majority can understand this in the longer term view of having his best players ready for the postseason.

But there are even deeper, more subterranean considerations at work here. Having the team’s bench step up and start from time-to-time makes them comfortable with playing different kinds of roles. Furthermore, it’s an understood part of how the team operates that the starters will rest from time to time. The very fact that the express reason for it is to prepare for the postseason becomes evidence of how good the team is. The being-asked-to-step-up becomes a badge of honor, a marker of the quality of the team’s vision.

So yes, the Spurs are playing the long game in terms of team health, but in many ways, the simple mechanical reason for this strategy is a red herring. It’s an integral part of a sly kind of rebuilding that is constantly happening in San Antonio. Even the relatively stable elements of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have at different points in their tenure with the team occupied subtly different roles. Over the last several seasons the Spurs have pivoted from defensive and meticulous to more open and opportunistic. But even within that, they’ve found ways to once again get better defensively. At Sloan, Spurs GM R.C. Buford said

This summer we went to our defensive efficiency, which for years was very high and last year had fallen to the ten to fifteen range [in terms of ranking in the NBA]. And I think we were valuing some things that weren’t nearly as important as what the data showed. Like what worked for the Celtics was not necessarily defensive rebounding. They were really high in defensive efficiency and they weren’t really high in defensive rebounding. That was a big part of where our emphasis was and that made us question where we should be paying attention. Those were discussions that were then brought to Pop from our coaches and from our analytics team and some great discussions came from it that ended up having us re-evaluate what was important.

That work with analytics doesn’t just help them make on the spot decisions, nor even to make season-long decisions. It helps them build a culture that’s adaptable, flexible, yet rigorous. As Buford explained, “I think Pop got interested when he saw areas that weren’t traditional for lots of people that were supported by the data. And he started asking different questions.”

Asking the right questions is a result of seeing the landscape differently, and it’s something that Schumpeter addressed as well. “Since we are dealing with an organic process,” he writes, “analysis of what happens in any particular part of it may indeed clarify details of mechanism but is inconclusive beyond that.  Every piece … acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it.  It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it.”

It’s hard to do what’s demanded by this understanding. It’s hard enough to make the right decisions based only on what’s readily at hand, much less based on the entire background of an ever-evolving process and the environment it occurs in. Holding cognitive dissonances in balance is not something that comes naturally to most of us, but it’s often what’s required if we’re going to navigate more than just the next moment and the next.

It’s one of the ironies of this approach that it requires a kind of constant vigilance that’s based not on assessing all available information as completely as possible in that moment, but on crafting an overall flexibility that adheres to overarching principles. That ability was captured in no place better than The Hustler, the 1961 movie starring Paul Newman as pool shark Fast Eddie. As Eddie prepares to play Minnesota Fats, a contest in which he’ll not only have to read and react to an evolving situation but also put his faith in his own abilities and snap judgements, his partner Charlie Burns asks him, “How do you feel?”

“Fast and loose, man,” he replies.

“In the gut, I mean.”

“I feel tight, but good.”

Death Sets a Thing Significant

Stan Van Gundy was a bracing presence at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Neither a naysayer like ex-Toronto Maple Leafs GM and human Pluggers comic Brian Burke nor a fanatic booster intent on pushing process over results, Van Gundy offered something more than a counter-perspective to the advanced stats revolution: a humanist angle. Speaking at the Basketball Analytics panel, he reminded the audience that a coach is more than a conduit for an approach, whether analytical or not. He began by expanding on the way he treated 2-for-1 situations at the end of quarters while with the Heat and Magic:

I know that’s something that, by the numbers, we should do and we didn’t do it. And you can argue with this, but there’s another side to this that you have to at least consider. Whether you agree with 2-for-1 or not, [when] a guy races the ball up the floor and jacks up some horseshit shot, look at the other four guys on the floor. They don’t run back as hard. And now when you start the fourth quarter and a guy just did that in the third quarter, now the next guy gets the ball and says, “I’m jacking up the next one.” One of the things in coaching is you’re trying to create a style of play and a culture that this is how we play the game. Every time you make an exception to that and say, “This is how we play the game but not in this case: you’re allowed to throw up whatever crap you want,” then you’re breaking down your system a little bit.

It was an effective way to make the point that just because a coach has a set of data, and even a way to use that data effectively on the court, that coach is leading a team composed of individual players, all with their own approaches and ideas and prejudices and misunderstandings. Getting an entire team to buy into a philosophy takes more than strong support by data. It takes more than being right.

Coaches are, after all, professionals who have made their reputations by successfully getting diverse groups of people to buy into their idea about how to play the game, even when many of those people see it differently. You can’t tell me, for example, that the same approach to explaining analytics—or anything—is going to work equally well with Andrei Kirilenko and J.J. Barea. In a way, truth doesn’t enter into it. It’s about belief.

But things got a little strawman-ish when he veered deeper into the territory of working with a team:

There are coaches that are stuck on their system and there are people who are stuck on their way of doing things like, “It’s all gotta fit my analytics” more than they are on winning games. And the mark of a coach is not understanding the analytics. That may help you. As a coach, you’ve got to be able to go out and get a team to perform, OK? I know how important it is as a coach—and probably there are several coaches that do—that we limit layup attempts, that we limit free throw attempts, that we limit 3-point attempts. But some coaches can get their guys to actually do that and others can sit here like you guys and play it like a video game, but can’t actually get people to perform. The goal is to win, OK? We’re not playing video games here.

He was actually circling back to an earlier point he made about the audience (“A lot of you analytics people think that the game is a video game and so players will always react as your models say they will react”). I find his use of video games as an example both fascinating and a little off.

He’s clearly using “video games” as shorthand for something simplified, basic, dumb—a thing that makes you feel superpowered when in fact you’re just some drooling teenager on a beanbag chair. People, he’s saying, aren’t pixels or polygons.

I have no idea exactly what kind of experience Van Gundy has with video games—whether he’s talking about Double Dribble or Blazers vs. Bulls or NBA 2K13 (he’s not talking about NBA 2K13)—but there’s something to it, if not quite what he intends.

There are plenty of players who are great in video games, yet somehow less than great in the real NBA: Michael Beasley, Jamal Crawford, Anthony Randolph (he once won MVP of the Finals in a simmed Association I ran), Nick Young, and the list goes on. What they all have in common is that when you, the player, get to make decisions for them, their considerable physical skills seem to magically fall into place. For example, Beasley stops eating up isos on the left wing with endless head fakes and jab steps before taking fadeaway jumpers. Instead, he’s balancing his jumpshots with drives to the hoop and using his length to become a shutdown defender.

On the flip side, video games can’t quite seem to figure out what to make of a player like Andrei Kirilenko because so much of what makes him great comes from his creativity and trickiness off the ball. The artificial intelligence—even recent games like NBA 2K13—isn’t sophisticated enough to make Kirilenko take advantage of cuts along the baseline unless the play is being called for him. Simply put, making players in these games act human is a huge challenge. In some cases, it makes your job as the player easier. In others, tougher.

So Van Gundy’s right: video games can make it seem like players are just sets of ratings instead of living, breathing, often problematic human beings. But it’s important to realize that the shortcomings of sports video games are a failing, not a feature. With every passing year, the simulation aspect of video game basketball gets better and better. For a taste of that, look at this video explaining the way NBA 2K13 deals with the Horns set, layering options on top of options in an effort to replicate the kinds of read and react plays that are a hallmark of offenses like Rick Adelman’s corner and the triangle. Yes: you can just ramp the difficulty down and go nuts with Jamal Crawford if you so choose, but more and more, video games are striving to involve us in the complexity of the sport, not dumb it down.

It’s not quite the same in non-sports video games, though.

As the video game industry has gone more and more mainstream, there’s been a trend towards trimming back the unyielding difficulty of early games. Back before games could effectively tell a story, the primary appeal of them was ever-escalating difficulty. They were challenges to be overcome. But as the medium grew more concerned with story, with player experience, there’s been a rise in tutorials, in hand-holding, in ways to manipulate the game world without moral judgment.

You used to have to cheat to get 30 lives in Contra (say it with me) and then you were a cheater. But these days, the very idea of “lives” has been jettisoned from nearly every game. Designers want you to experience the whole game and studios invest millions of dollars in games that gamers want value from; the surest path to these results is to make sure gamers stick with the game all the way through.

In that sense, Van Gundy is dead on. As video games have increasingly focused on immersion, on experience, they have downplayed difficulty and consequences. Except for Dark Souls.

At first glance, Dark Souls might seem like a typical hack-and-slash fantasy adventure, but you don’t have to get further than the box to get the sense that there’s something different about it. In great big letters, it tells you: PREPARE TO DIE. And oh God will you die. Having just recently started it, I expected a certain amount of difficulty up front that would fall away as I gained the requisite experience and power.

Nope. Your character moves clumsily, especially if you weigh him or her down with the heaviest armor you can find, which won’t even be all that heavy to begin with. The swords take forever to swing; the bows are weak and ineffectual, good only for drawing the attention and ire of undead soldiers and skeletons. And if you don’t face down each one of those enemies like they’re a serious threat, they’re going to kill you. Repeatedly. The screen doesn’t simply fade to black, but nor are your myriad deaths overly cinematic. They are, however, unfailingly accompanied by deep red text rising on the screen and proclaiming YOU DIED.

And every time you die, the enemies come back. Hell, every time you even rest at a bonfire—the game’s shorthand for a save point—they come back. There’s not even any pretension to a full or thorough explanation of how this is possible within the game’s world. It’s just how it is, and you have to deal with it.

So what you learn from Dark Souls isn’t that someone has spent lots of money on this lavish game world for you to enjoy, has carefully crafted a story to make you feel heroic. It teaches you that all there is is the grind. Over at The Classical, Yago Colas penned a tremendous ode to the repetition that goes into making a shooter like Ray Allen great. That willingness to do things again and again is the writ-large version of the microwork of Dark Souls.

If you rush things, if you try to go through shortcuts, if your attention slips and you don’t treat every challenge with the gravity it demands, Dark Souls is going to kill you again and again and again. It can be immensely frustrating if you’re used to having the experience spoonfed to you, but if you adjust, you begin to find pleasure in the simplest things: you learn where your enemies lurk, you value the easy fights, like that dumb skeleton with the crossbow at the top of the tower with terrible aim. You learn that the dying is not something to avoid, but to embrace. You learn from a good death.

I know, I know. It’s kind of silly to liken the years of dedication and work that players and coaches in the NBA put into their careers to a frustrating video game, but I can’t help thinking that Stan Van Gundy might like Dark Souls. I think he could appreciate the way it refuses to concede to the prevailing trend in game design, but rather defines its own culture, creates its own style of play, and says, “This is how we play the game.”

The Future’s So Bright … Maybe

Photo by Jason A. Samfield

Photo by Jason A. Samfield

We, as human beings, have a problem with uncertainty. Not just basketball fans, not just sports fans, but just about all of us, almost all of the time. We might pay lip service to percentage chances, but deep down, we’re more Han Solo and C3PO: never tell us the odds.

Nate Silver knows a thing or two about this. As the 2012 election drew near this past fall and Barack Obama’s victory looked more and more sure, people wanted him to say that Obama having an 80% chance to win meant Obama was going to win. But he kept insisting that it didn’t: 2 out of 10 times he was going to lose. People hated that.

Silver was on a panel this afternoon at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference moderated by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey with Benjamin Alamar, Professor of Sport Management at Menlo College; Jeff Ma, CEO of tenXer and author of Bringing Down the House; Phil Birnbaum, editor of sabermetric publication “By the Numbers”; and Alec Scheiner, President of the Cleveland Browns. The title (“True Performance & the Science of Randomness) was one—like many of the panel titles this weekend—implied some kind of arrow towards or at least waypoint on the way to true understanding, but of course, the real thing was messier.

What was surprising was how much this was the actual point. It can be seductive to see number lined up neatly on a page, or converted sexily into a spray of points on a graph, and feel like you have a grip on the truth. When you encounter pushback from people invested in their strongly held beliefs about the eye-test, about their guts, about rings, it can be easy to get sucked into the kind of language they want to use.

At one point late in the panel, I believe it was Ma who said that when you argue with certainty, there’s the temptation to be certain, even if it’s not in your model. All the panelists had talked about how the way you had to look at assessing players involved probabilities: the analysis could be sound, grounded, built on a solid foundation, and yet still not be able to guarantee anything. And that’s not the fault of data, but the fault of a world where things are changing constantly.

Ma went on to say that something as basic as a small rule change can dramatically affect the models you’ve designed. For example, any model designed before the change in hand-checking rules in the NBA wouldn’t give you the same quality of data used now. It has nothing to do inherently with the model, but rather with things the model couldn’t have accounted for when it was created. The problem comes when this is viewed as a weakness of data.

In essence, the discussion at this point had veered into territory that’s normally the province of religion versus science. In its weak state as belief or in the stronger state of faith, religion is a way for us to deal with uncertainty by taking it out of our hands. When people doubt science, they often give the reason that science can’t provide all the answers, but this misapprehends it. Science isn’t just providing answers; it’s at least as much about creating questions.

What Ma’s point about arguing with certainty gets at is that there’s nothing so simple as truth about numbers. There’s an art in the way you frame them, in the way you tell their story so that your audience buys into them. It’s a mistake to try to make science do the work of religion, and it’s a mistake to fall prey to the language of absolute certainty in talking about analytics.

Ma predicted that the biggest move in the next ten years will be people who hate numbers getting involved in stats. If that’s going to be the case, it will be because they prove themselves on their own merits, not on the merits of the bloodier realm of guts and belief.