Defending Basketball Mysticism


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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32 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    I have to say I have my doubts that it’s going to be feasible to bring down the “Do-The-Players-On-The-Team-Score-Enough-Points?” school of NBA basketball analysis in favor of something stressing intangibles. It seems like a pretty unassailable analytic approach to me.Report

  2. gregiank says:

    How does this relate to the Cincy Bengals season?Report

  3. Wait. So Sepp Blatter and his cronies choose $#@!$%^ing Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, and you’re writing about….basketball? C’mon, man!

    I fart in Sepp Blatter’s general di-rection.

    I know we’re supposed to think that money shouldn’t matter and all, but, uhh, really? We’re going to think that so strongly that we’re going to have four straight World Cups in places that are either hard to reach or are lacking in fundamental infrastructure?

    I suppose I should at least take some consolation that Vladivostock was not one of the cities in Russia’s bid and all of the cities in that bid are west of the Ural Mountains and thus in Russia’s westernmost time zones…but still!Report

    • Will in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      Dude, this has got to be the worst thread hijacking of all time.

      And yes, real ‘murican sports take precedence over soccer.Report

    • Do we have any bikefans at the League? I expect a post on fixies and the Tour (in no particular order) within a month.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        Not within the month, but I’ll certainly blog about the Tour next year.

        Although I really prefer sprint cycling.Report

        • Heidegger in reply to James Hanley says:

          Hats off to you, James. You must have been one helluva great cyclist (even able to enter the “zone”). My bike messenger career in Boston lasted less than two weeks–sudden opening of car door and down I went–well, up then down–ended up with broken collar bone. Just loved the job though, while it lasted.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Heidegger says:

            Ow. The car door scenario was one of my greatest fears. I can still remember the bolt of ice that shot down my spine each time I heard that “click” as I was riding past a row of parked cars, but fortunately it never happened. I did have other car run-ins, but never that particular one that scared me the most.

            I do flatter myself that I was a good biker (at the time).Report

            • Heidegger in reply to James Hanley says:

              Ah, yes, that “click” sound–indeed, the sound of possible, immanent peril. I always thought (foolishly, as it turned out) that I could anticipate when someone would actually open the car door from their body language (I know–that makes no logical sense) but there was a certain way they’d look into the side mirror that usually meant, you’re safe, no need to slow down, they’re aware of you and the speed you’re going. Crunch. Not always. I really loved your story of the bike messenger experience–wonderfully written–I felt “right there”, racing heart and all! And how it all tied into the experience of being “in the zone”, mindfulness, the peace that “passeth all understanding” kind of moment. You should post it again–I think everyone here would enjoy reading it. I also seem to remember another great story you wrote–the blackberry brandy moment. I really love your writing when you stray away from the political issues. (Geez, can’t imagine why that would be!) You’re quite a fine essayist, and I find you’re at your very best when leave the political realm. Not that the political issues comments aren’t usually interesting–speaking of, are the chapters of your new book still available online?Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    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.

    Democrats lost, get over it.Report

  5. Pat Cahalan says:

    This is not news. See the 2003 Lakers for another case.

    Another example, if you had watched a lot of basketball in the late 90s (as opposed to just eating numbers, which I admit are tasty), you would have known that Glen Rice was a *horrible* pickup for the Lakers when they got him in 1998. The Hornets ran their entire offensive scheme off of “Get Glen Rice open shots off of high corner picks”. The Lakers were never going to re-engineer their team to do that.

    I never expected this triad to work out well in year 1. It’s possible that they can form up as a good team, but these three players weren’t going to work well together until the offensive scheme gets worked out.

    For a football example, you wouldn’t expect John Elway to flourish in a Run-n-Gun offense. Nor would Steve Young have worked quite so well in the vaunted West Coast Offense of the early 90’s 49ers… if the 9ers had never had a running back that could catch a ball in the flat.

    Any sports team isn’t just a collection of guys who play the game. It’s that *plus* the style of game the team, as a collective, runs.Report

    • Will in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      Pat, I want to give you a big freaking hug for writing something tangentially related to my (admittedly clumsy) post. The Glen Rice example is a good one. I would not have expected him to accept becoming the second or third option so readily.Report

      • Pat Cahalan in reply to Will says:

        If you’re a sports nutbar, basketball is the sport to follow. Baseball is more fun for raw statistics (and oddball events) and season-long strategy. Football is more fun for strategic in-game analysis.

        But basketball (in-game) is small unit tactics (like soccer), where both teams have to execute both offensive and defensive strategies in very short time frames. It has the season longevity of baseball (where team dynamics and player health is distributed over long stretches of time) as opposed to the nearly cataclysmic period of football. The scoring frequency in a game greatly reduces the impact of exception events (which is the weakness I see in soccer and hockey).

        I hated basketball as a kid, but got into basketball in college (I went to LMU from 89-93 and was there for the Paul Westhead/Hank Gathers team that scored 120 points a game). Started watching college ball, and had a roommate who was a huge Laker fan. Watched most of the games in the worst Laker season in history, and became a fan when they drafted Eddie Jones. With 2 kids, a full time job, and a doctorate program I don’t have the time to watch every Laker game of the season like I did back in the 90s, but I still watch when I can 🙂Report

  6. MFarmer says:

    If the big three of the Heat start playing well together, no one will stop them. That much talent in sync with one another will be awesome.Report

    • Pat Cahalan in reply to MFarmer says:

      If they mesh, they’ll be very hard to beat in the regular season. I’m not so sure they’ll be unstoppable, though, especially in the playoffs.

      Chris Bosh is skinnier than I was in high school, and that’s saying something. I love Zydrunas, but he’s not a low-post powerhouse. The regular season is about dynamic play, but in the playoffs the refs call an entirely different game, and you can beat the hell out of the other team. Dexter’s big enough, but he’s young and inexperienced (plus, three hunnert pounders can have all the experience in the world but it don’t mean a thing if they don’t have knees of titanium).

      I’m hard pressed to imagine a team strategy with Bosh/Wade/James that is going to move a half-court offense slow enough to work against a real half-court team. Now, if they could pick up a journeyman rebounding/defensive specialist…Report

  7. James Hanley says:

    A great comparison case is the original Dream Team vs. the next set of guys who illegitimately adopted that monicker and proceeded to embarrass the U.S. There’s more than sheer talent involved, and it’s not just about hard work and mental toughness. It’s about willingness to really work with those around you. The original Dream Team had guys like Bird, Magic, and Barkley, guys whose will to win was far greater than their egos. Even Jordan, whose ego may outstrip the sum of all other egos on earth (based on his horrifying hall of fame introduction speech) wanted to win more than he wanted anything else. And, like Bird and Magic, he had a great knack for making the other players around him better.

    I think LeBron James may be the most physically talented player to ever step onto the hardwood, but he’s yet to demonstrate that he really can make other players around him better or that he puts winning above everything else. I’m less certain about Bosh and Wade, but if they’re essentially like James in their attitude, these three will never truly mesh. Maybe two of them could, but three always creates a strange dynamic that’s hard to manage (says the father of three children).Report

    • Will in reply to James Hanley says:

      I’m not sure I buy that LeBron doesn’t make other players around him better. Plenty of people have remarked that he’s an extremely gifted (and willing) passer, but the success of that facet of his game may depend on the type of players on the floor with him. In Cleveland, he was surrounded by spot-up shooters and guys who would run off screens and cut from the weak side all the time. Now he’s trying to run the offense with two other ball-dominant superstars, which necessarily limits his abilities as a playmaker.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Will says:

        I think LeBron can. I just don’t think that he regularly does. He’s a good passer, but he doesn’t necessarily pass in the right situations. Passing up a good shot for a pass to a poorer shooter–even if that shooter is in good position–doesn’t necessarily help the team.Report

      • RTod in reply to Will says:

        What he lacks, though, is the ability to be good without the ball – he often look lethargic when he is on the opposite wing. LeBron can shoot, he can drive, and he can dish – and he can do all of them crazy good. But all of those things mean that the ball always has to be in his hands. And that can be devastating in a regular season game. But in a 7 game series it is overly- predictable, and easy to coach against.Report

  8. Michael Drew says:

    Hey, how bout this Cam Newton story? How much you think NCAA officials got under the table from Auburn?Report

  9. RTod says:

    I think the most telling (though I’m guessing unintentionally Zen-like in its wisdom) phrase in your post was describing the Heat as “the most celebrated collection of basketball talent on the planet.” This phasing speaks on many levels, as they are – unquestionably – the most celebrated. But just as important is what this phrase doesn’t say: The best. The hardest working. The winningest.

    I have long held to the argument that basketball statistics are paradoxically the most dynamic and most meaningless is sports. Dynamic because the big shinies can indeed speak to long-term or momentary greatness: a back-to back triple double, a 20-20 night, 81. But they really aren’t meaningful in the way that, say, the baseball statistics are. And the Heat have two prime examples of that.

    The first is Bosh. He has obvious talent, and has great career stats. But talent alone is overrated. And, more to the point, he has great career stats on a team so historically bad that he was often facing opponents so disinterested as to only be going through the motions. Because fair or not, averaging 25 ppg on the Rapts, the Clips or the Griz is not the same as averaging 25 ppg on the Celts, the Spurs or the Lakers. Even if a good team loses to you, they just don’t give a crap. (See: every player who parlayed a great stat line from a crappy team into a quickly non-existent career at a potential title contender.)

    The second great example is the way that for the past five years, every statistical predicting model I’ve seen has shown whatever team LeBron is on has the team so miles ahead of everyone that they can’t be touched. And anyone who had watched any of his teams play against quality teams (of which there are few in the East) knew that they weren’t going to win a quality 7 game series against a tough-minded team. To a certain extent, I feel like those kinds of statistical models (such as the Hollinger model) are really created backwards – they look to reward the teams with the players that do well in fantasy play, but ignore intangibles – as they must. (Intangibles are, after all, intangible.) Look back at any stat-based predicting models over the past three seasons and see, before playoff time, where either the Celts or the Lakers ranked. Eighth? Tenth? Thirteenth? But what non-casual fan doubted they were going to beat the ugly off of, say, higher ranked Atlanta or Phoenix?

    Lastly, I think you are doing what everyone else is doing with LeBron: Giving him his parade before he’s earned it. Since before his rookie year, he has been dubbed as a dynasty waiting to happen – but that has always been based on the potential of talent, never on results, or even – far more telling – his work ethic. People compare him to Tiger all the time, but Tiger is an icon because he won sooner and faster than anyone had previously thought possible in his sport. LeBron is an icon because ESPN decided he was.

    The Heat aren’t struggling – they’re playing at a playoff making pace. They just aren’t playing like the greatest team on the planet. But that’s because they’re not the greatest, they’re the shiniest.Report