There are a few things in sport that are universally understood and respected. Foremost among them is the clarity of a simple win. You score more points than your opponent? You win. They lose. In virtually any sport! No partiality at play, no subsectionality to grapple with -- it's binary, it's Bernoulli, it's beautiful. Sure, there are different types of wins -- distilled to its core, sports analytics is primarily the process of determining probabilities behind the binary outcomes presented to us. It's all about taking binary outcomes and converting them into a continuous scale that allows for more gradation. Which win was a better win? Which pitcher is more than the sum of his direct outcomes? Which team was blessed by luck? Analytics let us answer these questions. They let us find the threads of continuity that underline the binary outcomes we respect and live by as fans. It takes the all-too-simple framework of winners and losers and lets us expand into the types of winners and types of losers. It lets us go deeper.
Smart people use smart analytics and deepen their understanding of the games we watch. That seems self-evident to most of us. But there's a funny element to following sports. As much as we try to look past binary outcomes and analyze on a deeper level, we're still following sports. We're still looking at a world of wins and losses, and that binary thinking is omnipresent in all we assess. And the funny thing is, the idea of wins and losses and the principled understanding of binary outcomes as they relate to sports actively harms our ability as fans to properly assess common scenarios and situations. Take this motivating example. Today, the Houston Rockets traded Chase Budinger to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the #18th pick in the draft. And I propose to you this: neither team lost.
Let's say you're a GM for an NBA team. Your team just came off a dismal 25-57 season, which is probably about right given all the D-Leaguers you called up near the end and the decent-but-flawed players at the top of the roster. Particularly the injured ones. All that sound and fury, signifying... the fifth pick in the draft! Your owner is excited, you are wary. As expected, on draft night, the top three players on your draft board are gone after the 3rd pick. You know where the 4th pick is going, so you cross that guy out too. No matter, you weren't really expecting anything different. But you look on that sparkling fifth pick with indecision even at this absolute moment of truth. Maybe this is the year you hit lucky five, where (by sheer coincidence) several present and future HOFers have landed.
Because, really. Look at the history! Maybe you'll get Kevin Love. Or Kevin Garnett. Or Ray Allen. Or Dwyane Wade! Devin Harris wouldn't be so bad. All of them (including Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley) were 5th picks at one point. Statistically the fifth pick is the only one that has yielded close to the All-Stars as the big #1 pick in the last 25 years. You didn't know that until a few days after the lottery, but now it feels like the only thing you've said in years. Your mind dances with one part anticipation, ten parts dread. Your reputation as a GM is on the line, and you might lose your job when all's said and done if this pick never pans out. Nothing like playing roulette with your job, right? You find you have two realistic options. Open the doors, Vanna. Continue reading
Heartbreak. Noun. A special pain, reserved only for those who care the most.
So blurry, yet so clear. A lawnmower, a mailbox, a white picket fence. A teacup pig, amidst a menagerie of lovable creatures. A kick, a cry, a child. Future, family, friends. Lunches at home, vacations to paris, a wedding. These are things -- previously discussed, dissected, distended -- that flooded my thoughts after the words flashed across the screen. It was a silly time to reflect on that. We'd had about two years to think about those kinds of things. But no longer. She would not vocalize it. She would not say it over the phone, not this time.
"Aaron, I don't think this is going to work long term." We talked. I sniffled. She left.
And things fell apart, as they are wont to do.
Nature, nurture, heaven and home
Sum of all and by them driven
To conquer every mountain shown
But have never crossed the river
Braved the forest braved the stone
Braved the icy winds and fire
Braved and beat them on my own
Yet I'm helpless by the river
Angel, angel what have I done?
I've faced the quakes the wind, the fire
I've conquered country, crown, and throne
Why can't I cross this river?
In terms of raw talent and ability, LeBron might be the best player to have graced our game. The questions always concerned his psyche, his drive, his motivation. He won trophies, accolades, but always lacked the one attribute everyone associates with the best – those damned rings. With expectations from his rookie season, being a star from age 16, it’s hard to say whether he ever found himself within the huge body he inhabited. I know that when I was 16, I was pretty confused, and I didn’t have a documentary about me anywhere. I’m not a student of psychology. I don’t know LeBron. But from my (albeit limited) experience, I can tell you: that much attention, that much hype, that much expectations? Never does good for a person’s personality, never. Especially one that never had much of a life aside of them. And yet, he played through those, and yet he dominated, with no regard for human life. And the new basketball great showed he was ready to become the new basketball legend.
You'd think -- after a game like last night -- I'd be raring to write a piece on Westbrook's enigma of a night. It was marvelous. Twenty field goals for Westbrook -- to put that in context, he made as many baskets as every other player on the Thunder combined. His distribution was crisp, for him. His defense was fine. His thirst was tangible. And then -- on the cusp of defeat, with a 95% probability of a loss -- he extinguishes the last of that 5% with a somewhat silly foul, one that erases the entire rest of his game. In some ways, I agree with Danny Chau's likening of Westbrook's classic to Rondo's incredible game two performance in this year's ECF. In others, I don't -- I actually don't think Rondo's was on the same level as Westbrook's, and the level of cosmic unfairness that permeates the current "well, he gave the game away" talk is vastly above anything Rondo has ever faced.
I'm not, though. These finals are still a sore subject, especially as a fan who feels the Spurs would both match up better with the Heat. I put many of my season-long impressions of the Thunder on hold after the conference finals. I thought they needed quite a bit more in the way of "unsustainable" developments to beat the Spurs than people tend to admit, I still think they absolutely lack a good organizational presence in their coach, and I firmly believe they desperately need a better playbook. After the Western Conference Finals, I thought they'd figured those out -- I put my negativity on hold. Of course, now, all of that stormed back to loom full-form over the proceedings. I still do think they can come back, but my lord -- 3-1 is a tough deficit in the Finals, and winning three straight against this Heat team is going to be a hell of a task. But. Alas. So, instead of writing a full-fledged piece about Westbrook, or Durant, or LeBron? I'll write a piece about possible transactions. The why, the what, the how -- a mini-primer of sorts on two of the popular Thunder trade rumors that have been floating about. Continue the jump. Continue reading
This post has virtually nothing to do with basketball. Fair warning.
I grew up exclusively in the southwest, but that's the past. Now I break bread in the east. Come college, I was eastward bound to Duke University -- when it came time to move to the professional sphere, my own pinecone didn't fall all that far from my alma mater. I work in Virginia now. I have a week of training this week. Not terribly relevant training to my job, but required and necessary. So last night, I took the long drive to Washington D.C. And, as I try to do once or twice a week, I called my dad up. It was late on the east coast -- I'd actually timed the drive so that I'd miss most of last night's finals game, because I'm not quite over the Western Conference Finals and it's still hard to watch these two teams. But dad's still in the southwest. So I grabbed the phone, dialed the number, and gave him a ring.
Last Monday, I was able to have dinner with my dad -- he had a meeting in D.C., and I had a conference in D.C. It was surprising for both of us -- despite everything, we were able to have a nice father's day dinner. A bit early, but still -- when you live thousands of miles away, you take your blessings where you find them. Most of what we talked about was current events, on Monday -- the situation in Syria, the presidential race, interesting medical breakthroughs, etc. Perhaps because we'd stuck to current events on Monday, we still had a bunch to talk about on last night's Father's Day drive, as the night air whipped past and the traffic morphed from the open Virginia drift to the dismal crush of the District's fare. We talked about his new projects for his company, his magazine, and his politics. We talked about my cousin's upcoming wedding, a little, and I surprised him by revealing I'd be home in Arizona for a week in July. Average stuff. Then, kind of out of nowhere, we talked about being an editor, and the mechanisms of writing. And for me, the memories spun. Continue reading
There's a sick twist to those in sports offered to those who enjoy constant, unending success. At Tiger's peak, one began to find themselves more compelled when he lost than when he won. Usain Bolt wins track championships every year -- the last time I saw him on the front page of ESPN was this shocking loss. Every medal Michael Phelps loses this year will only make him more compelling. When the 2011 University of Connecticut Women's Basketball team lost its first game in 90, it was national news. It's an interesting wrinkle to a legacy of consistent success. At some point, you actually invert the properties of selection bias. When you miss nearly every shot you take in a game, your makes are that much more memorable. When you make nearly every shot you take in a game, your misses are that much more memorable. Just ask Skip Bayless. And on that note, like clockwork, it's another LeBron post! Continue reading
Most of this week, we'll be ceding the floor to our resident Dewey and allowing him to examine NBA storylines through the vise of the first piece in the series, Chekhov's Compassionate Comedy of the NBA. In today's Part III, Alex will examine the complex and Chekhovian narratives surrounding the exit of his favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs.
It's time to deal with the Spurs. It's Chekhov Week here, and I think now is the time to plumb the Western Conference Finals for Chekhov's compassionate, biting comedy -- comedy that brews like an oil well right beneath the surface of the blog. It's a take as hot as the sun and we've been waiting for our emotions to cool down a bit.
Anyway, let's recap: The San Antonio Spurs have had the smartest, most effective players in the league for a decade. They have had the best coach, the best franchise player, the best management, the best scouting, and the best system for a decade and a half -- all of this despite limited financial resources. The Spurs dynasty in the Tim Duncan era has been nothing short of amazing. And, like all great things in life, everything hinged on a couple strokes of luck and a group of people that took full advantage of their luck, with the players and staff bringing to the table clockwork consistency and organizational excellence. This is the Spurs as a franchise, minus a few crucial instances when their key players and their role players took their play yet another step up to take basketball excellence into basketball transcendence seemingly through sheer force of will.
Most of this week, we'll be ceding the floor to our resident Dewey and allowing him to examine NBA storylines through the vise of the first piece in the series, Chekhov's Compassionate Comedy of the NBA. In today's Part II, Alex will examine the complex and Chekhovian narratives surrounding one LeBron James.
To get you up to speed as quickly as possible: In Part I, I gave an overview of Chekhov's life and works, specifically his dual-author persona as both compassionate storyteller and surgical comedian. I used this duality to get at a description of Chekhovian comedy, which blends compassion and absurdity in equal measure to give us an impressionistic case history of its characters, a prognosis, and by-and-large an open ending plot-wise from which we can draw our own conclusions. Then I stated that - on just about every imaginable level - the NBA with its absurd narratives is more like a Chekhovian comedy than a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy. I'd like to expand on this statement by taking on some prominent narratives. Today: LeBron James. Continue reading
Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov is one of the greatest dramatists to ever live. Born in 1860, Chekhov worked as a clerk in his father's store, absorbing stories and conversations from every segment of Russian culture. By the age of 20, the young medical student had established that he possessed all he necessary writer's talents: the gift of gab, an eye for detail, an ear for narrative, and a heart for compassion. A prolific author of tiny, clever humor pieces at first, Chekhov (on the advice of a noted writer of the time) began soon to focus more on quality over quantity. His stories grew organically into longer and more elaborate works until the day he died -- even his increasingly-less-frequent short stories became better, more potent, and ever more masterful in their craft. And by the end, the depth of his character studies required plays and novellas primarily. By the time he was struck down by a long bout of tuberculosis at the age of 44, Chekhov had given us an unfathomably long trail of personal letters, stories, and plays containing the framework for much of 20th century theater and short fiction.
In his most famous play "Uncle Vanya," Chekhov shows us Dr. Astrov, a compassionate and humanitarian doctor that knows no rest and whose only spare moments are consumed by an earnest attempt to preserve the forests of Russia for the people 100 years hence. Astrov harshly criticizes the other characters in the play as layabouts with a demon of destruction inside themselves that threaten one another's souls as surely as civilization threatens the forests. Dr. Astrov is basically Chekhov in all these senses. Get this: Chekhov was a fully-trained medical doctor that (as his prime as a writer was beginning) actually took an extended trip to the distant Sakhalin penal colony in the far east of Russia -- regions you'd only know from Risk -- to take a freaking census. This is Jordan-on-the-White-Sox stuff, except if Jordan were instead going to Pakistan to play cricket because he wanted to find a way to humanely apply an economics degree from UNC. Soon after this (by all accounts arduous and sorrowful) adventure into possibly the most miserable region of Russia, Chekhov went on to become a great and compassionate landlord in the waning years of his life.
Far from the philosophical long-form of his contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chekhov wrote impressionistic stories about all classes and situations in Russian life. This was no accident: His universal treatment of human nature was deliberate, for it allowed Chekhov's characters, almost from the outset of his career, to speak in his tender humanitarian voice without pretense or prejudice. An imperfect healer of his character's conflicts, Chekhov could put the most soothing, noble words in the mouths of his idealists, even as these characters were bound to struggle to live up to their ideals. From peasants yearning for sustenance to aristocrats in a dying estate to the parties to a love affair clinging to a desperate hope, Chekhov's characters successfully testified to their hopes and failings.
Thus was Chekhov's compassion manifested in his life and works.
• • •