Introducing the "Steve Nash Equilibrium"

Posted on Wed 21 December 2011 in Uncategorized by Alex Dewey

"The Italians have a phrase, inventa la partita. Translated, it means to “invent the game.” A phrase often used by soccer coaches and journalists, it is now, more often than not, used as a lament. For in watching modern players with polished but plastic skills, they wonder at the passing of soccer genius—Pele, di Stefano, Puskas—players whose minds and bodies in not so rare moments created something unfound in coaching manuals, a new and continuously changing game for others to aspire to."

--Ken Dryden, "The Game"

A couple weeks ago, Aaron wrote this must-read piece about tenacious Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard that got a lot of traction. The money quote is probably this take on Duncan:

"Never mind that Duncan on defense has always been one of the most beautiful things the league has to offer. The defensive structure of the Spurs as a whole, really, but Duncan especially: Tim’s defense has always inhabited a brave world oscillating between the bounds of reactive and impressionistic fluidity on one end to a prescriptive and predictive rigidity on the other. Duncan’s defense has always been equal parts shutting down what the offense gives him and preventing the offense from giving him anything he can’t handle in the first place, through reputation and savvy alone."

This quote hints at what makes a player great or interesting, as opposed to merely good or simply lacking. When we're making projections and figuring out which team will hold the trophy in June, we sometimes talk about where in the rotation the D-league players come up. We also like to talk about the black holes on offense, the players that make terrible rotations on defense, the players that can't buy a rebound, and so on. And this makes sense: Often when a team gets eliminated you can point to a single thing that went wrong, a single matchup or difference in depth at a position that got exploited over and over. But this is only half the story.

Basketball is not just a game of mistakes, of - you might say - mere violations in the fabric of a designated right way. We all know about players that defend a star perfectly and have to live with a mismatch or an offensive clinic. It's that Dirk triple-move on poor Nick Collison and more generally it's Dirk's greatness in creating space. It's Chris Paul slowing the game to a halt or bringing it to its true, blistering speed. Skills and creativity determine far more than mistakes and holes at the highest level of play. There's a affirmative, creative, impressionistic, reactive part of basketball that brooks no law and finds no need of patterns, and it's where the soul of a great basketball player is found. It's the oscillation between the reactive/impressionistic and prescriptive/prepared - and the total, competitively-motivated embrace of both tendencies - that seems to me the essence of a baller and the poverty of a scrub.

• • •

What do I mean? Well, take Manu Ginobili. Or Kobe. Or Wade. They are all students of the game, all with relatively great vision. All of them are fundamentally solid and laden with substance and knowledge in every facet of the game. They know when to set screens, they all can play in the marginal inches of space enough that tiny rules changes actually mean something big to them, and (most tellingly) they all troll for free throws and any cheap, marginal advantages they can get without being dirty. They all seem to love contact, and besides a nasty tendency towards the heat-check three, each of them is about as efficient on offense as you could imagine shooting guards of their respective builds to be. Opponents regard the trio well, or, at the very least, begrudgingly regard them as great competitors. They are about as solid and as substantive as possible for players whose job is to hurl a ball 30 feet at a rim with roughly 38% accuracy. They all understand the game and have - through practice and dedication - simply plugged all the holes. They don't often make mental mistakes because the rulebook and the playbook are burnt into their brains.

And yet, if that was all these players did, well, they wouldn't be so familiar to us. It's not just that their minds and actions are one dull stream of hit-your-free-throws-and-pass-to-get-a-better-shot-and-set-a-screen-to-get-open straight out of Hoosiers. No, they live in the moment and see the floor in its totality and use their intelligence, the perceived "flow" of the game and how they can change it, the observed behavior of their opponents, and their creativity: all of it they use to react to the situation at hand and create plays and strategies that no one has ever seen before, and possibly that no one ever will see again. They put their individual (and in the case of great tandems, their collective) stamps on the game and in doing so embody both the letter and the spirit of the game. That's what it means to be a baller. If you could take out the outcome, the possibility of injury, and all the exogenous factors, these guys would still be appointment viewing in a 5v5 scrimmage, because they can still make goals for themselves and plans for the team and then execute them with frightening intelligence, efficiency, tenacity, and creativity.

A scrub, on the other hand, lacks some great deal of either the improvisational or the prescriptive. There are a lot of endogenous and exogenous reasons for a player to be a scrub: Maybe it's because they're cynically jacking up threes for the stats and a big payday. Maybe they lack the fundamentals or a strong grasp of the flow of the game. Maybe their style (especially in the short term) clashes with that of their teammates or the officiating crew. Maybe they just don't live too much in the moment and have drilled a lot of shots in practice and in college without thinking about say, the inefficiency of a contested 20-footer. There are a lot of solid reasons, yes, but in the end tally (almost without exception) all the discerning viewer will note is a note of disgust or boredom, perhaps with a side of vexed confusion. Examples: "Why did you screen that random player on the weakside after passing to the wing, Mike Bibby? What possible purpose could that serve?" or "Why did you jack up that three, Antawn Jamison? Don't you realize there are much better shots your All-Star-level point could have helped you with?" or "Why are you in the game, Roger Mason Jr.? Is this the end of days?"

When I was bouncing previous drafts of the post off Aaron, he brought up the "teaching example" of Kevin Martin, who qualifies as a scrub despite being a legitimately above-average player. Every single one of his games he pulls out the same three tricks on offense built on a good mid/long-range shot with a high release point and an ability to get to the line. There's hardly any creative force behind it, and any narrative you try to project into his will as a competitor is probably false. He knows what to do with a pass and an open shot, and he can get open. Is Martin a bad player? Of course not, but he's not the force behind the points he gets. His highlight films are random sequences of mostly-assisted jump shots and lateral fades along with apologetic dunks. As Aaron puts it, "When Kevin Martin scores 10 points in the 4th quarter, he scores them. When Manu scores points in the 4th quarter, he causes them. They each are great shooters and may be equally assisted. But the way they score, the way they improvise, the way they read defenses? Drastically different. When Manu scores, you remember it. When Kevin Martin scores, the recap notes it." Extrapolating, I'll add that Kevin Martin is like shopping at K-Mart to buy one item, while watching Manu is like an eclectic imports store that has the same item. You'll remember to mention the imports store when you tell your friends where you got it.

P.S. In video-game circles, there's a pretty famous "Playing to Win" article which also designates "scrubs" by their approach. I mention it only because it's a similar, but mostly orthogonal take. The nearest analogous concepts in basketball would be Hack-a-Shaq, flopping, and other strategies on the margins of the rules or that conflict with the social conventions of basketball, and the "scrubs" there would be players with objections to these strategies. It's an interesting article, at least.

• • •

Okay, I think I've explored this dichotomy of ballers and scrubs enough, and I'd like to set the stage for a conclusion that actually uses the title. After all, I can hear your questions: "What's with that title? Do you think you're FreeDarko or something? Who the hell do you think you are? Are you just trying to drive traffic by using a popular athlete in your title? Come off it: it's not clever. Die or retire." Whoa, ouch. That's very painful, Internal Voice of Doubt. Let me explain the title: Steve Nash has led dozens of inexplicably awesome random regular season games in the last decade, more than any other player. And Nash is unquestionably a baller. Sure, his defense is hilarious sometimes, but on offense, and in terms of the general flow of a game, Nash is the consummate intelligent, fierce, grinding competitor, making scrubs legit, making already legit players into ballers, and taking ballers into another sphere entirely. When you have enough ballers like Nash, Ginobili, Kobe, Duncan, KG, CP3, and so on in a game, and their talents are allowed to flourish, and the talents involved on both sides are close enough in skill level, then you have the potential for a game to reach the highest emotional, logical, and spiritual heights that basketball has to offer.

John Nash's famous "Nash Equilibrium" is a concept from mathematical game theory. John Nash's games (and forgive the glossing-over) often involve developing strategies in the presence of perfect knowledge; that is, "knowing that your opponent knows that you know that he knows..." out to infinity, reaching an stable equilibrium in a surprising number of cases. Basketball (unlike John Nash's often simple, stark games) isn't a sport of perfect knowledge, but a sport where a discerning player's mind can create a gigantic space of possibilities at any moment that his willful body can navigate efficiently. When a game has 10 such discerning players, each pulling and tugging and pushing at the fulcrum points of a game with screens, cuts, switches, and flares, the game moves asymptotically towards a sort of equilibrium that is absurd and singular and revelatory and transcendent. That's the Steve Nash Equilibrium to me. And given all the incredible games he's given us (and given the sad possibility he might retire without an NBA title), I thought it'd be only fair to give Steve Nash the title of this concept. Call it a consolation prize if you must, but at worst it's a special, important consolation prize that captures what is great about Nash.

Of course, despite all this talk of transcendence, perfection, and stability, the element of chance is still present, even when you have 10 ballers at their peak abilities. There are always going to be factors the players can't control, like imperfect calculations and straight-up missing information in every player's literal blind spots (not to mention physical limitations), and chance is the natural outcome of such imperfect knowledge and control. And even the best game can hinge on the inches of chance. But the forces of chance present in the best games are not quite the same as the forces of chance present in those awful games filled with two teams full of scrubs jacking up threes. The mathematical probabilities might be identical, but the whole tenor and aspect and casual chains are different. Almost by definition, these scrubs rob these forces of chance of its connection to human intelligence and animal spirit, making chance into nothing but inelegant, dismal, impersonal luck, no different from a crap shoot or a hand of blackjack. By contrast, the type of chance that dominates a game of 10 ballers - in its look and its reach to the heights - aspires to the will of the gods.