Defending Basketball Mysticism
I know I should be talking about Four Loko or Thomas Friedman’s latest column on the horrors of deliberative democracy, but the start of a really compelling NBA season demands some sports blogging.
Despite a pathological hatred for pretty much everything related to numbers, I find advanced basketball statistics pretty interesting. Part of this can be explained by wanting to learn how things tick – a sports team is pretty complex, and it’s endlessly fascinating to break down the component parts to find what works (Michael Lewis’s widely-cited profile of Shane Battier – a vital player whose contributions don’t show up in a traditional basketball box score – is a pretty good example of how this process can be so engrossing). Another point in favor of statistical analysis is the shallowness of most sports commentary – you can only go so long hearing sports writers credit “intangibles” or “mental toughness” for a team’s success without wanting to pull your hair out.
[Brief aside: Some sports-literate political pundit should really explore the parallels between commentary over an extended NBA season and political punditry. Basketball beat writers and campaign reporters are basically in the same boat – they have to craft a compelling narrative about day-to-day happenings (games or political events) that bear little to no relation to underlying factors that determine a candidate or a team’s success. A close Lakers loss to the Memphis Grizzlies doesn’t alter the balance of power in the Western Conference any more than a minor gaffe spells the end of a political career. But losing to a mediocre team inevitably provokes a spate of commentary about bellwethers and turning points, much like the occasional political gaffe is blown wildly out of proportion despite looking absolutely trivial in hindsight.]
But here’s the rub: the most celebrated collection of basketball talent on the planet is making a mockery out of our most sophisticated projections. After signing three of the best players in the NBA to long-term contracts, the Miami Heat were widely expected to win 60-plus games and contend for an NBA title. Fast forward a month or so into the season and Miami is hovering around .500 while rumors of an impending coaching change routinely circulate on ESPN. It’s the basketball equivalent of a soap opera, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
Why are the Heat losing? They’ve had a few injuries, but Bosh, Wade, and LeBron James remain healthy. All three players are in the prime of their careers, so any age-related drop-off is far enough into the future that we can discount that as a factor.
So what gives? Ask a stat-head and he’ll tell you that the Heat’s star players are under-performing. Of course, anyone with access to a few box scores or cable television can tell you that much – we’re still left wondering why LeBron, Wade, and Bosh are suddenly losing to the Indiana Pacers (a decent ball club to be sure, but we’re not talking about the ’97 Bulls here).
The Miami Heat are the revenge of every mediocre sports broadcaster who told you intangibles and chemistry matter just as much as talent. Their on-court performance vindicates every traditionalist, every basketball troglodyte who tut-tutted Pat Riley for throwing together a mish-mash of All Stars instead of building a team.
Of course, it’s wildly premature to declare Miami dead and advanced basketball statistics obsolete. The Heat are a work in progress. In a season or two, I predict that they will be formidable. They may even have enough talent to overcome a slow start and win a title this year . And it’s worth remembering that no one – not even the doubters – could have predicted that Miami would start 10-8.
But despite my interest in stats, I’m also a little happy that the numbers can’t explain why the Heat continue to struggle. In no small part, the joy of watching sports comes from arguing over questions that will never be definitively resolved. Magic or Bird? Brady or Manning? These topics have been debated for years and show no signs of losing steam, and frankly, I like it that way. I like ascribing mystical powers like “toughness” or “character” to the athletes I root for. I like imagining that something beyond the box score – or the Excel spreadsheet – explains greatness. Statistics are a great corrective to the idiocy of your typical sports broadcaster, but I’m in no hurry to totally demystify our national pastimes. Without the great, interminable arguments about Player X or Team Y, sports fandom loses much of its appeal. And if a less talented team never beat the favorite, there wouldn’t be much point to watching at all.