Tanking, Seeking, Basketball, And What We Can Learn About Things We Can't Change

Advanced statistics give us a new lens on basketball, and help us see things in new ways. This is good, but we shouldn't confuse all that new knowledge with understanding.
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In the television show Better Off Ted, a timeless classic and one of the all- time most popular comedies (among me and also my wife), there’s a great episode where Ted pretends a project—The Jabberwocky Project—exists in order to impress a girl. The joke is that he doesn’t get caught because no one else wants to get caught admitting that they don’t know about the project. If anyone could have brought themselves to admit they’d never heard of such a thing, Ted wouldn’t have gotten away with it. They didn’t, and he didn’t, and so Ted went galumphing on.

Advanced stats are…not like that. That’s because they are, for one thing, real and for another many are good and let us see inside our sports in new ways, and help teams make more intelligent decisions. But also they are kind of like that, at least from the outside. I don’t want to disagree publicly with people who do math, and the fact that I’m not onto it—the last math class I took was in the 11th grade, which was right before the beginning of the Spanish-American War—does not mean I am not into it. I’m enthusiastic about that watercolor class you’ve started going to at the Learning Annex too, and I’m a man whose stick figures have been roundly criticized. You’re great, advanced stats understanding person. Go you.

However, I do think I can add a little something to the discussion by zooming way, way out until the numbers look fuzzy and small. Because I don’t think anyone would disagree that, across the spectrum, advanced stats are about finding a smarter way to look at things, and that’s generally what they do. But they also, always and inevitably, over-promise. Because the pursuit of ever-smarter ways of looking at things is, at bottom, about the one thing humans have never had and never will have: control.

***

The sport I follow most is basketball and the Advanced Team-Building Technique I hear about most in that conversation is tanking. In the wake of the recent NBA Draft Lottery, the one that delivered the 76ers the first overall pick they’ve been gunning for throughout the Hinkie Process years, this seems like a nice place to start. Tanking was a new idea, which is rapidly becoming an old idea, but aesthetics and moral questions aside it’s a smart one, and one based on an observation: it is easier to do big things if you have one of the best players in the league on your team, and almost impossible to do them if you don’t.

And this is objectively  true. For pretty much the entire 90s, the only thing anyone could do to stop Michael Jordan from winning another title was convince him he could hit a curveball. And even that only worked if you had Hakeem!

It has not stopped being true since. If you are a basketball player who managed to be on Tim Duncan’s team at any time since 1998, first of all, congratulations on your long and rewarding career; second, you probably played in a lot of playoff games, which must have been pretty cool. In the early part of the last decade, my Mavericks committed so totally to building a Shaq-busting team they briefly made the surprisingly deep-voiced Raef LaFrentz relevant; they tried to do the same with the likes of University of Nevada’s own Nick Fazekas, who had a pretty normal speaking voice and sub-LaFrentz game. They never even played Shaq in the playoffs, but that’s what they were into, and what Shaq’s dominance forced upon them. And still, to this day, the only people to “bust” Shaq are his co-hosts on Inside the NBA, and in that case it’s only his chops. The whole rest of Shaq remains entirely unbusted! And just think about how much person, pound-for-pound, that is!

Even today, LeBron James is cruising towards his 17th straight NBA Finals or whatever. Same as it ever was. Even then, there is the sense that it’s not enough. You know this, because you follow basketball and because the subject of tanking has, to be generous, been discussed in some depth. The statement “you need a star and the best way to get a star is in the draft” is unquestioned, to the point that it buries the question that follows. Which is, “is that the best way, though, to get a star to play on your championship winning team some day?”

Because the early returns may actually suggest that it is not. Unless you have David Robinson in crutches, it really looks like any team that needs to draft that high is too far from being good to get within hailing distance of a ring. Shaq didn’t win it in Orlando, he won it in LA—and then only after a 13th-pick named Kobe Bryant morphed into a world-beating scorer. Tim went from twinning with that other no. 1 pick, David Robinson, who had never won a championship alone, to partnering with the 28th and 57th picks Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Now it’s about the 15th pick, Kawhi Leonard, who they stole in a trade with the Pacers, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who they bought fair and square on the free agent market.

If LeBron does it with his first team, it will be in his second tour with them, and with a roster that includes both an imported star in Kevin Love and one of those lottery-born tank-treasures in Kyrie Irving. Kevin Garnett couldn’t climb the mountain until Ray Allen and Paul Pierce gave him the right gear. The Wolves with Kevin Love didn’t even make the playoffs. Even Orlando with Shaq didn’t do it. For three years, the Thunder nailed the draft in a way no team ever has, ending up with three of the top five players in the game and Serge Ibaka. If Kevin Durant manages to lead the team past the heavily favored Warriors and Cavs to win a championship in his ninth season, it will be his first. He and the Thunder have only been to the Finals once.

This is what the Sixers were trying to solve, by having so many good draft picks all at once rather than over many years. But even they will have to decide, in a couple of years, who gets the big contract extensions: Nerlens? Joel? Dario? Jah? Ish Smith? How much does one pay Robert Covington, when it’s time to pay Robert Covington? The evidence so far suggests that, coming off a 10-win season, they won’t have figured all this out before they have to start gambling again. There is no easy answer to any of this. You knew that, too.

Tank advocates won’t like this assessment. If not this, they might very reasonably ask, what should a team like the Sixers do?

The answer is ripped out of a Bond film: nothing. I expect you to die. Since 1980, just ten franchises have won a ring. That figure is in double digits solely because of an ’83 Philly 76ers win, by the way. There are currently 30 teams. If you’re as old as I am, or even older, you haven’t seen two-thirds of the NBA’s teams win a title. We can assume it’s not for lack of trying.

The stars know this. Aldridge left an improving Portland team to join what seemed like an inevitable San Antonio one. There are rumors that Kevin Durant, after half a decade on the second or third best team in the West, may want to leave for…something a bit closer to guaranteed.

Except there are no guarantees. Not ever.

***

Illusions of control are a cottage industry, and maybe the cottage industry. I’ve worked in the education industry in a number of ways in my life and that’s what it’s about. Parents pay a lot of money so their kids will do well on tests, get into good colleges. When an industry fails, its corpse gives birth to a bloom of alternative industries. Some days you look out the window and all you see are the alternative careers. Nobody has a stable…anything.

But, compared to all generations which have ever lived in the world, we have become extremely good at describing what’s out there. In basketball, EFG% is a much better way to see who’s good at scoring than FG%. Total rebounds aren’t very good unless you know how the rebounds are out there to get. The recognition that the long two is a bad shot and that most any three-point attempt is a good one both gave us Steph Curry and a new appreciation of masters of the mid-range like Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge.

There is no going back, and really no reason to want to. It adds so much to the game, to life, to see it in sharper colors. You may not care to add the chemistry of the sunset to your appreciation of its poetry but at least knowing about it is not hurting anybody. But while all these things give you glasses, they don’t fix your eyes. There is no such thing as getting it 100 percent right, and there has never been such a thing. We struggle upwards because there’s nothing, finally, to take all the struggle away. Mostly, we struggle, period. That’s what we watch, and why.

No matter how much we know about everything there comes a point where you just have to hope. That you’ll win, that you’ll get that job, that the sun will keep coming up, all of that. There is not much we can do about any of it, at bottom, beyond that.


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