The Elements of Style

Basketball's New Grammar
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Anyone who’s run a term paper or Christmas letter through Microsoft Word’s grammar and spell checker is familiar with the passive voice, if only because of being scolded for using it. That, actually, was it right there: I suppose I should have figured out how to say “The grammar and spell checker scolded you,” making “you” the object and not the subject so as to keep the verb active. In a statistically significant number of situations, it’s a good thing to do. It keeps the writing, you know, active. Tighter, more urgent, more efficient. Efficiency is good.

For related reasons, there are a host of other pitfalls writers (maybe especially fiction writers) are urged to skirt: adverbs, gerunds, people doing things as they do something else. (For what it’s worth: The last one compresses physical events in a way that dulls them, the second one suspends actions in time and makes them more vague, the first paradoxically weakens the language by bloating it and awkwardly supplanting the reader’s imagination. To wit: “She stared at him intensely, walking towards him across the room as he weeped pitifully in the corner” vs. “She stared at him, then walked towards him. In the corner, he wept.”) Staying away from these things will make your language weightier, heavier.

All these writerly no-no’s are thus kind of like long two-pointers in basketball, especially now, in the midst of the analytical revolution. A good editor will ferret them out and make you question the utility of every use, just like a good analyst working with SportVU or Synergy will pore over each play to see how it could have worked better. Better spacing could have led to an open 3-pointer or a lane to the rim. A crisper rotation could have forced a tougher midrange shot instead of allowing a drive to the basket. It could have been done more efficiently. And efficiency is good.

And of course, yes, more efficient basketball (and writing) is a worthy goal and all, but no matter your efforts, sometimes a certain slackness will prevail in shot or word selection, whether by design or will. The manifest goal of a game is to win; a team’s clearest goal in a season is a title. And writing’s most explicit goal is communication with clarity, yet there’s a reason we don’t only read manuals and airplane evacuation cards, and there’s a reason we don’t only follow the frontrunning teams.

It’s why coaches have such varied approaches to incorporating the findings of analytics into how they approach the game. These are professionals who have been embedded inside of this game for longer than some of us have been alive. When Stan Van Gundy finds that analytics back up his sense that the most effective shots are 3-pointers, dunks and trips to the line, when Tom Thibodeau starts blitzing pick and rolls to force them towards the baseline and the rest of the league starts following his lead, it’s not because the analytic “rules” are right: it’s because the results are desirable. The rules are good when they produce good results.

Good writers aren’t thinking all the time about whether they’re using too many adverbs. Years of experience means they know how good writing sounds, how it feels. They’ve gotten good at producing it on the spot and likely even better at revising it to make it truly hum. They have their flaws as well, but those flaws are so integrated into the identity of their work as to be inextricable from the marrow of it.

It’s not just writers and coaches. All this is to some extent true of any discipline that requires consistent execution of a task under ever-changing circumstances over which you have often limited control. But for coaches, there are further layers of complexity heaped on top. Their vision of the game is executed not directly by them, but by a team of individuals, all with their own ideas and motivations, their own ups and downs, their own skillsets. They don’t have the luxury of revising plays after they go awry and in the midst of the season there are shockingly few full practices for teams. Coaches, then, are forever engaged in rewriting rough drafts.

None of this is to say that coaches should be beyond criticism. Ideally, any coach—even a very experienced one—should be open to reconsidering his craft, to seeing the game with fresh eyes via a new lens. As Gregg Popovich’s Spurs’ teams have aged and changed, he’s worked more or less seamlessly to adapt to the players at hand, often with the help of advanced analytics. As the team’s ability to provide lockdown defense waned, he loosened up Tony Parker to create on the fly. The tempo jumped, but the wins kept coming. The language of the Spurs’ game changed, in effect: long, involuted sentences that held clarity at arm’s length became shorter and sharper, without sacrificing the fundamental voice.

Not every coach is Popovich, obviously. That doesn’t make their resistance to aspects of analytics defensible, necessarily, but it can make it easier to understand. A coach’s approach to the game is not a flowchart or a set of rules but an only partly conscious machine built on years of experience, either on the court or on the sidelines or both. Their attachment to it is not only intellectual but emotional and maybe even moral or spiritual, and no less so than a writer’s to his or her process.

If you’re a good writer and stick to the letter of watching out for the passive voice, adverbs, etc., your writing will likely end up effective and efficient. In terms of maximizing impact and minimizing wanton lassitude with crisp execution, Hemingway is like the Miami Heat of writing. But I don’t want to read Hemingway all the time. Flaws are as much a part of craft as flawlessness and the way a team navigates between its strengths and weaknesses over time is its own story. Teams that are following some of these analytic trends to build new approaches in terms of putting rosters together (the Rockets, the Warriors) are interesting, but so are teams like the Blazers that break some of these new “rules” about efficiency by finding space in the midrange.

There’s an old joke about a professor giving a lecture about the use of double negatives. You can say there’s “no wrong way” to do something, he says, or that an actor’s performance was “not unimpressive.” Although they’re grammatically incorrect, we can understand double negatives as positives, even though—weirdly—we never use double positives as negatives. To which one student loudly replies, “Yeah, right.”

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him across the room as he weeped pitifully in the corner” vs. “She stared at him, then walked towards him. In the corner, he wept.”) Staying away from these things will make your language weightier, heavier.
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