The Pyramid: The Seven Deadly Ways To Cut an NBA Story

Ever had a really bad case of writer's block? I had one when I started this post. It was possibly the worst block of my life. I was unusually absent not just on here, but also on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et cetera -- not by design, but because I quite literally couldn't write anything. I'd tweets and delete them for being too banal. I'd write Facebook status updates and balk at the ill-fitting verbiage. I'd try to write something for ANY of the sites I write for -- here, 48 Minutes of Hell, Goodspeed and Poe, etc. -- and it just ended up being unfit for editing. I'd delete it and start over, and kept deleting it until I'd spent hours at a keyboard with naught but a cute little phrase to show for it. That's where I was for quite some time. And it was incredibly frustrating. Breaking out of writer's block is a difficult task, partially because you keep illogically raising the bar for yourself. You may know the type. I kept telling myself "to make up for this block, I need to make sure my first piece back changes the game. It needs to be one of the greatest things I've ever written. Because if it isn't, I'm letting down the readers who took the time out of their day to read my work." And then you get the yips, and you can't write anything even remotely close to your expectations. The cycle continues.

So this was my best effort yet to wrest myself out of my block, back in the block. I went going back to the basics. The very basics. Today I'll examine the main reason -- in my view -- that the NBA produces such a wealth of fun narratives in every game and every season. In pursuit of this, I drew together a pyramid of examples to examine what makes team sports -- and specifically the NBA -- so easy to frame into entertaining narratives. To pare the pyramid to its essentials: there are seven basic levels of granularity by which you can analyze the NBA. The levels range from dynastic narratives -- spanning multiple years and a full career -- to possessional narratives -- spanning singular possessions on offense and defense between component players and teams. In between, we have five different levels of granularity. And there's a split in each level between stories centered on players and stories centered on teams. I've put together a graphical representation of these types of stories -- with examples -- and will be discussing them in full, level by level. Let's begin. Continue reading

HoopIdea: Ending the Beneficial Foul

ESPN's Truehoop has had a strong few weeks. They've been rolling out an excellent ad-hoc series based around rule improvements and other game enhancements to the game of basketball that could make things better for the players and the fans, titled HoopIdea. Today, Adam will share his own idea to make the game better: ending the beneficial foul. 

A series of good passes leaves a player wide open for a three. He catches the ball, rises, and hits the shot. But before that can happen, the refs blow the whistle, and the ref gives his team the ball out-of-bounds. You see, a reach-in foul on the floor a second earlier had stopped the play. It hadn't stop the passer, it hadn't stopped the play, but it was a foul nonetheless. Sometimes the fouled team gets an extra free throw, but usually this kind of foul ends with a side-out and nothing else.

Later, in the same game, a big man catches the ball near the rim. He goes up, only to be pummeled. The player sighs loudly going to the free throw line. After all, he hates shooting free throws. And as two shots clank off the rim, the opposing coach applauds his player, while the announcers swoon about how good a foul that was. The fouled team loses the game by two points, two points that they could've spared had their big man not been forced to shoot pressure free throws. Do you know any other sport where breaking the rules, committing a foul actually benefits a team? Where a foul is a strategic device rather than a mistake with grave consequences? I don't. I propose that basketball shouldn't be such a sport either. What's more, the changes couldn't be easier to make.

Let's sketch out the two major situations, and how I'd tweak the rules. Continue reading

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Making the Impossible Probable

Audiences know what they expect, and that is all that they're prepared to believe in.

A good friend of mine went nuclear on my productivity the other day through a stream of Twitter links to articles on Berfrois, an extremely interesting (though dense) site that I'd never had the pleasure of browsing before. One article in particular that demanded my undivided attention was this one, outlining the Kierkegaardian perspective on the concept of theodicy. Fully unpacking the ideas at play in Aylat-Yaguri's article is somewhat beyond the scope of this blog, and frankly, beyond my depth as a thinker. I don't intend this to be a discourse on a thinker I've always found difficult to parse, and as such, there will be little more mention of Kierkegaard today. Instead, I'd like to discuss an old Aristotelian prescription parenthetically outlined in that Berfrois article.

In Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, he prescribes that poets should in all work "prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities" while excluding entirely all that in the realm of irrationality. It's been quite a while since I've read any Aristotle -- at least two years, probably more -- but I distinctly remember being impressed by that quote when I read it the first time. It distills the heart of writing a serious fictional narrative into a simple either/or statement, and manages to encapsulate the real reason many writers flounder when pushed into action with their readership's imagination. It's not that they are poor writers, or that their ideas aren't excellent -- it's that they simply never get that inherent buy-in from the reader. They can't ford the gap between the improbable and the impossible in a way that satisfies the reader. And they leave many readers wanting, knowing the story lacks that simple buy-in that improves everything. Despite the brilliance of their work, oftentimes, they simply can't bring the reader in. One of the best writers of the last decade was a basketball player. His rival? Lesser in the eyes of the populace, greater in his own mind's eye, free from the audience at hand.

Yep. We're talking about Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, once again. Continue reading

The New York Knicks and Basketball Hell

To be a lifelong Knicks fan is to know failure. And we're not talking about your ordinary run-of-the-mill failure, but a deep, overarching failure that is so prevalent throughout your life that you begin to question all sorts of things.

You begin to become a bit of a solipsist – perhaps you are the only real person in the world and it is impossible for you to ever know hoops happiness. Perhaps you are the subject of a grand experiment in which some deity wants to give you a Job-like tribulation to see if your dedication to the great sport of basketball never wavers in the face of adversity. It's as if some sort of malevolent god has singled you out for punishment in an eternal Basketball Hell.

Maybe the city of New York struck a deal with the sporting Devil since it seems as if the Giants and Yankees will be extremely successful as long as the Knicks never are – from the beginning of the 2000/2001 NBA season, the Yankees and Giants have combined to win more championships than the Knicks have won playoff games. Hell, the Knicks have made as many playoff appearances as their city counterparts have won titles in that timeframe. This makes the ineptitude of the Knicks that much worse for a New York sports fan - in the face of the sporting success of New York’s other two most popular teams, the Knicks’ constant failure is so bad that it doesn’t feel like it could be real.

And it's exactly that sense of surrealism that has permeated this Knicks season and Mike D’Antoni’s firing for me. Continue reading

Trading Spaces with the Jester and the Knight

With no definite purpose, JaVale McGee stepped heavily upon the March snow that lined the Denver streets. He told his new teammates that he needed a day to himself, to look for houses and neighborhoods. But if you could just see his face -- could follow his gaze as it moved upward to the vague mountainous altitudes in the distance -- you'd never see a glance to a realtor's name or the height of a ceiling.

Now JaVale was walking along a smoothly paved sidewalk. As he walked along the perfectly smooth concrete, JaVale nevertheless felt no surprise at tripping slightly over his feet every fifty paces or so. That was custom for him. But on his brows were gratitude and shock. For despite all his customary tripping, he hadn't yet fallen and scraped his knees. This was something new. Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bandwagon

I spent a lot of time this weekend wondering why, exactly, March Madness captivates the nation. It's not an easy question, especially when you consider people like me. Context: I really don't like college basketball. Earnestly, honestly don't. Partly it's because I went to Duke. I didn't have the greatest undergraduate experience in the world, and my distaste for my school's administration and the overlying social schema of the university significantly tempered my enthusiasm for the basketball team. As did my general dislike of Coach Krzyzewski's style of coaching and Duke's occasionally-deserved poor reputation. Outside of Duke, I'm not really a fan of any college teams, and as I just outlined, my Duke fan credentials may be among the weakest out of any sports I actively follow.

And in terms of the actual play quality, March Madness (as with all college basketball) is lacking. There are a myriad of problems with the college game. There's the distastefully long shot clock, the uninteresting offensive strategies, the low talent level, the unnecessarily gimmicky contracted three point line, and the overall low intensity level compared to the best NBA games. The only thing that the college game really has over an NBA game is the crowd effect, but really, that doesn't at all impact how fun to watch a college game is, except perhaps in the last few minutes. Despite all this? I love the first four days of the NCAA tournament. I really do enjoy it. I find it captivating, and I can look past the college game's obvious flaws. If only for four days. But... why?

After some rumination, I think I've solved the puzzle.

Continue reading

Mike Brown and Mike Woodson Talk Shop

At the deadline on Thursday, the Spurs made a trade for Stephen Jackson that also ended the Richard Jefferson era. I started writing and seriously covering what the Spurs were doing right around the original RJ-to-San-Antonio trade in the summer of 2009. After an seemingly endless series of varying horrible and decent pieces, I finally "broke through" with some quality pieces that winter. The following piece - written in January 2010, to an audience consisting solely of Aaron and myself - is probably my favorite. It tells of the story of Richard Jefferson's off-season courting by Mike Brown (who was coaching LeBron's Cavs at the time) and his doppelganger coach of the Hawks, Mike Woodson.

I was reading SLAM tonight, and I came across the following passage, in which Hawks coach Mike Woodson addresses his team before an important Mavs road game:

“...I don’t give a shit about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The shit works, okay? The shit works, but you guys just have to have the pride and the heart to buy into it and do what we’re asking you to do every time down the court.”

Reading this reminded me of a little-known incident a few years back. Almost immediately after the 2009 Finals, Milwaukee small forward Richard Jefferson was being scouted for a possible trade to either the Cavs or the Hawks. Jefferson therefore had to make two private appointments with the head coaches of those teams, Mike Brown and Mike Woodson. Continue reading

3-on-3: Trade Deadline

After Aaron's four observations yesterday, we got a collection of our other writers together to talk shop about some of the other trades. Join Adam, Alex, and Alex the Second as they discuss the Rockets, the Spurs, and the Wizards. Along with a bonus discussion about the Nets. Which technically makes this a 3-on-4, but we won't tell anyone if you don't!

• • •

1. How did the Rockets get Marcus Camby and a late-first rounder for Jordan Hill and a late-second rounder? How in God's name did the Blazers still end up doing pretty well? 

Alex Arnon: It’s easy – Daryl Morey. Sure, you have to account for the fact that the Rockets also gave up Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn but this isn’t 2009 any more – as a sidenote, my favorite part of this trade is that during the 2008/2009 NCAA basketball season I lived in Eugene, Oregon surrounded by Blazers fans and if I was to see the Blazers’ 2012 roster of Oden, Flynn, and Thabeet I’d have instantly declared a Rip City dynasty. Instantly. In the end, Houston gave up nothing (and as a Knicks fan, in the case of Jordan Hill, less than nothing) to acquire the ghost of Marcus Camby and move up from their mid-2nd round pick to the Lakers’ late-1st round pick in a supposedly loaded draft. I don’t really see what Marcus Camby can do for the Rockets outside of giving them a veteran presence and an expiring contract, but you certainly can’t complain about moving up in the draft and knowing Morey, there’s someone he definitely has his eye on. Continue reading

Four Reactions to the Ides of March

This was an atrocious day of basketball in a lot of ways. The NCAA tournament had one of the least engaging first days it's had in the last 10 years, absolutely devoid of drama or underdog victories -- in today's action, only a single upset occurred (courtesy of 12th seeded VCU, a team I support and enjoy given that I currently live in Richmond). That was also quite literally the only compelling game, with a decent last few minutes for those who sat through a relatively boring first and a quiet second. Otherwise? Terrible tournament action, and barely worth the hype. Up until about mid-morning, it appeared the NBA's trade deadline would be as boring. Luckily for us, that didn't quite happen. Tomorrow we'll be featuring a 3-on-3 style post with Adam, Dewey, and one of our new writers going over some of the results. This is my contribution to the discussion, in the format of four reactions I had to the deals at hand. Hope they inspire some thoughts. Continue reading

A Brief History of Rolling the Dice

"I feel they have to roll the dice. It might be tough, but I feel we've got a great opportunity. But they've got to roll it." -- Dwight Howard, 48 hours prior to the 2012 Trade Deadline.

There was a general outrage at this comment, a persistent thread. Doubt, confusion, denial. Could Dwight Howard have really been so flip with the future of his franchise? With the emotions of his fans? It defied logic. Much like everything surrounding the Dwightmare that consumes us as we find ourselves barreling closer to the penultimate act in the sordid demise of Howard's everyman image. Nobody as nice as Howard portrays himself could've thought it wise to publicize that kind of a challenge. Unless, of course, it's an act -- a ruse not unlike that of every NBA General Manager in history.

You see, this comment is not one-of-a-kind. It's the latest in a long line of superstars asking their front offices to take a leap of faith. There is a secret handbook that every GM receives upon their ascension. It details many of the commonplace pitfalls and risks inherent in their new position. It tells of the failures of GMs long past, and the successes that they could emulate. It tells of the lines they cannot cross and the lines they can freely ignore. Most importantly? It contains a litany of warnings. One of them, word for word? "Thou shalt be forced to roll the dice. (Or, more likely, pressured into it by an unhappy star.)" True story. Otis Smith is not the first GM to be forced into taking his personal roll in the history of the league.

With this in mind, let's take a walk back through time and examine some prior rolls. Continue reading