Juwan A Blog #6: Dear Dikembe

Posted on Mon 13 February 2012 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey

Dear Burke Nixon,

Recently you pointed us to your blog (Dear Dikembe: Open Letters to the NBA). The blog's premise could strike someone - like me, for instance - as quite strange. Oh, it's interesting: on Dear Dikembe, you incorporate all the myriad reports and information out there about NBA players into your own experiences as fan and teacher. And then, when you have something interesting to say about a player, you address him directly in a long, open letter (like this one), generally made from long, open sentences (like this one).

What's odd about this premise is a bit hard to express. I write fictional pieces all the time about these same players and it doesn't feel strange and I can't really account for the difference between our approaches. Maybe it starts with the asymmetry of the fan experience: While this is so obvious it's barely worth saying, it's rare when fans are themselves objects of fandom (and especially rare when it's by the same celebrities they're fans of). So - for the most part - public fandom of players simply doesn't go both ways, or if it does, the "mutual" part is usually overly generalized for the players ("my wonderful fans") and overly individualized for the fans ("Marry me, Dirk"). It's a glaringly asymmetrical relation. King-Subject, King-Jester, Patron-Artist, etc.

And you, Burke Nixon - presumably the same Burke Nixon most well-known for authoring an interesting short story that won first prize in a short-story contest according to my cursory research - are not LeBron James' idol or even someone he acknowledges personally. I'm not in this group either (and I've never won a short story contest, either!). It's simply unlikely that LeBron James would decide to write you a personalized letter. And of course, this is assuming that LeBron had found your letter in the first place, which is mathematically unlikely. After all, why would he find you of all people - I could ask - instead of the hundreds of other incredibly articulate writers writing the same types of things, many presumably with the same or better acumen in marketing? And even if he did write something - to you - it would most likely not be in an open, long-form letter that would satisfy and add context to your original piece. Finally, even if he did write something in exactly the right format with some interesting substance, the letter would be bogged down by the self-censorship and self-promotion that comes with status as studied public figure: All his words would be shaped in various ways by his media empire and pressured by the possibility of litigation and ridicule. So yeah, responses are not happening, probably. Not systematically, at least.

But I also don't think you're shooting at a dartboard with a blindfold. I think you do want a response from these athletes, but you're also acutely aware of these asymmetries that make response unlikely. And I don't think one response by an NBA player would vindicate your enterprise by itself *. Finally, I don't think you're wasting your time. You write with lucid prose and apparently sound mind and a lifetime of earthy experiences. I suppose I could assume that despite all of this, you're consumed by delusion or you lack a theory of mind or you're otherwise possessed by something else that would allow you to miss the simple unlikelihood of a response. I mean, I've read enough blogs that it's tempting for me to explain away Dear Dikembe's entertainment and literary value by saying that you'd just missed the point entirely and fallen into an interesting obsession -- as I'm wont to do myself. And that would be a fine, neat, simple explanation, and there are enough intelligent people that fall into this trap that it's plenty plausible. But I can't in good conscience tell you that you missed the mark a little bit, or that you have all your ducks in a row but are swimming on the wrong lake, so to speak. No, I can't say anything to denigrate or marginalize what you've done. I can't make it strange, as strange as the premise is. Which is in itself incredibly strange.

Instead of missing the asymmetry of fandom or refusing to acknowledge it, you've met it head-on, and from there you've subverted this asymmetry to your own ends. By recognizing that a response from an NBA player is really incredibly unlikely, you are able to make statements that are so direct and uninhibited that you completely avoid the inherent strangeness of fandom in your writing. Yes, you may be a fan writing to athletes, but thanks to your format and your recipient-may-care approach, you don't write like a fan. I'm not saying you're writing as an anti-fan - that is, something like a surly, gossiping beat writer, a cynical analyst, a player-hater, a detached stats guru, or all of the above. No, that's not it; it's just that you're writing from an subjective angle that is - by design - absolutely independent from your fandom or lack thereof. Even when you're talking about, say, Ricky Rubio and how much you enjoy watching him (is there any sentiment more typical from the perspective of a fan?), your form is essentially an unblinking monologue of a fictional conversation with Rubio, which turns out to be subversive of a bunch of unstated conventions about fandom. "I like watching you, Ricky Rubio, and I'm assuming a specific soccer metaphor will help you understand some aspect of where I'm coming from here." That's the beginning and end of the social conventions pertinent to fandom in your work. It's as simple as anything, and it clarifies everything.

What I'm saying is that you've achieved with your form what all writers aspire to: You have a form where you can simply think out loud, with no middleman. I'm not trying to deny a potentially extensive editing process, I'm focusing on your end product, which is incredibly direct.

And while I didn't think of this originally, re-reading this review a few days later I can't help but notice the similarity to another sort of open letter. You see, it looks like Tim Duncan has you beat by about fifteen years stylistically. Check this out. That's a comparison that has to be made, right now. Almost straight out of college, Tim Duncan decided to take on a rather collegiate assignment, just before he got his first NBA title: He psychoanalyzed himself for a magazine (nothing is more collegiate than that without adding "for his ethnic studies requirement"). On some level I feel that "The Psychoanalysis of Tim Duncan" largely explains Dear Dikembe: Tim Duncan in the comfortable position of explaining himself in a fun essay, being bound only by basic social conventions, has a style and an earnest exploration that directly mirrors your own style. The only obligation Tim had was to describe himself using anecdotes and ideas he'd had, and to do it in an interesting way that would keep his readers reading (it is literally impossible to tell if he had a substantive editor for his piece). The only obligation you have is to be real: to obey the most cursory journalistic expectations of honesty, sincerity, and organization, and to do it in a way that keeps your readers reading.

You just write naturally to these athletes, set everything on the table, and let the sentiment flow. You ignore or acknowledge only abstractly the fame and fortune of your recipient, but also acknowledge directly their existence as a well-documented personality, as a creator of beauty, as a moral actor with the possibility for redemption from sin and for going against their stated values, etc. You focus on certain details of flesh and spirit, and thereby establish slightly-constructed-and-fictionalized versions of individuals that exist on the same metaphysical plane as you do, so as to compare. And then you do compare yourself and your experiences with the athlete in question, and the end result is a set of sentiments common and interesting enough that anyone can enjoy them.

Don't get me wrong: The differences between author and recipient - in fame, objective achievements, and towering athleticism - are still there, palpable as the words themselves, but at some point - as the words pile up - the letter leaves only the artifacts of fandom and the artifacts are tightly-honed observations that do nothing other than to help the rest of the piece to testify to the larger sentiment of the letter. I'm much more familiar with open letters in the realm of politics, and it's an instructive comparison: An open letter to a politician is usually a fertile excuse to censure or commend that politician and the issues and values the politician is made to embody. In Dear Dikembe, the same trick is given literary and journalistic function in basketball culture. Open letters give us a way to directly access and then testify to our own stated values and the well-documented values of that athlete in order to propose a synthesis or a fertile juxtaposition in the minds of our readers. That's what jumps off the page. That's the power of the open letter.

Literature embodies more than can be embodied by your format of open letters, but Dear Dikembe makes me wonder just how much of the fan experience consists of these unwritten - heck, unvocalized? - sentiments towards athletes and the implicit expectation that our athletes respond, at least on the field of play, as if they'd heard us.

As someone who has obsessed about the art and science of reasoning and process (stated in another way: math and computer science, which just happen to have been my majors), it's fascinating to me that it all starts with your having a more direct approach than mine to the same problems I've had with - for instance - writing reviews of blogs written by people I actually know. So I've learned something from your sparse, ten-entry blog, and I can't say that to everyone. I think you're doing well, and I hope you can continue to do so with the same intelligence and personality. Best of luck to you.

-- Alex Dewey

* Though surely if this occurred you would be forgiven for looking in the mirror and pretending to pick yourself up at a bar by way of self-congratulation: "Damn, [insert own name], you fine: I say, 'Damn, you fine.'" is fine pick-up parlance; you can borrow that one, but only to yourself and only for this one specific circumstance. Don't use it, say, to try to pick up a police officer who is at the moment writing a citation within earshot. It would be literally true, of course, assuming that police officer had your exact name.

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Juwan a Book? #1: 101 Basketball Out-of-Bounds Drills

Posted on Sun 29 January 2012 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey

Lately I've been reading George Karl's 101 Basketball Out-of-Bounds Drills. This is a virtually unavailable book from 1999: I only found it through the Borgesian library of the Internet's darker channels. It's not impossible to find, but if (work with me here) 100 of you went out and bought it, I feel like that would actually prevent the next 100 of you from trying to get it. But despite this, I think Karl's book is worth talking about, if only as a lead-in to talking about halfcourt offense as a whole. After all, the book delivers exactly what its title promises, nothing more, nothing less -- the whole thing is about 115 pages long, and about 14 of those pages are non-drill pages, if you catch my drift. And while each of these pages contains a "drill," the drills are mostly full, workable descriptions of set plays with a couple extremely helpful diagrams per description.

• • •

As an exercise, I turned off all of the lights last night (last night when I wrote this, i.e. December 3) and got into an improvisational reverie and just tried to visualize and memorize a few of the inbounds plays. After doing so - despite the sparse nature of the book's coverage (I run through a couple of the plays below) - I was able to formulate some general principles from what I'd read. Some of the mostly implicit principles behind the plays were:

  • Have a "safe" option on the wing in case the play (or even the initial inbounds pass) fails. Kind of obvious in retrospect; if you're coming out of a timeout you don't want a 24-second violation or even a turnover.
  • Use a screen or an unscreened flare-out to the corner in order to create space for the inbounds pass.
  • Use screens constantly to force mismatches and confusion, and realize how powerful rolling towards the basket off a pick is, even when neither player has the ball (as in a P&R). It's the old wisdom: "If you want to get open, set a screen," presented in its full generality.
  • Use v-cuts and backdoors with quicker, smaller players in order to keep the defense honest and positioned to the offense's advantage.
  • Use motion across and down the lane in order to force the defense to make bad or inconsistent switches that the offense can exploit for an easy path to the rim.
  • As in folk basketball wisdom, the inbounder is extremely dangerous and useful to an inbounds play, but this is only true if the other four players can create the spacing or the screens to allow him to work after he comes inbounds, and only if he's actually suited and prepared for the action called for by the play (usually Karl seems to use PGs when he needs a lot of motion by an inbounding player).
  • Passing the ball around the perimeter is powerful and works to the advantage of 3-point shooting teams and dominant driving players. Having great passing big men (like Tim Duncan) and oversized points (like Andre Miller) is a huge competitive advantage on inbounds plays, enabling lobs and post-ups that use their extra skills, which the defense must compensate for or (to the bane of every defense) simply must allow to happen.

And so on. There are so many little tidbits of understanding, so much domain expertise encoded in these diagrams and descriptions. I'm sure this is obvious to many of you that played basketball for your high school or college. But for those of us that played gritty street ball at recess, this book (and no doubt, the hundreds of others like it) is a revelation.

One of my biggest concrete takeaways is that, in sheer basketball terms, Dirk is an offensive coach's dream, and the book demystified to an extent Dirk's apparently miraculous comebacks these playoffs. With all of the marginal advantages Dirk has, both in iso and two-man plays, it's little bit less of a wonder that a loaded staff, an experienced supporting cast, and Dirk's basketball knowledge were able to beat the all-world Heat defense so consistently at the ends of games.

But Dirk's just a concrete example of why Karl's book fascinates me: Making and defending an inbounds play near a team's own basket sort of captures the whole problem of team basketball in a short microcosm of process, with fewer passes, seconds, opportunities, and with a much smaller margin for error on everyone's part. The competitive processes of inbounds plays don't of course match exactly those of team basketball as a whole. No, it's not a perfect microcosm. And there are plenty of elements of basketball that the inbounds play doesn't really cover: Transition, iso plays, rebounding, and perimeter passing come to mind. All of these form tangential considerations in an inbounds play. But just as in team basketball as a whole, the basic process of moving the ball and getting a good shot is the central question.

As with basketball as a whole, an inbounds play gives the advantage - the serve, so to speak - to the offense. However, just like basketball as a whole, this advantage is marginal and contextual. What's more, any number of factors such as poor execution, a lagging fifth player, great defensive rotations, and a bad matchup can instantly and rather decisively tip the scales towards the defense. To ensure that the players have a chance to win the serve, Karl's plays deploy all possible resources: Aside from last-second plays, spot-up shots and quick lobs, Karl uses at least 3 players actively. Most of the plays use 4, and quite a few use 5. It's fair to say that all the drills covered use all five players at least as decoys and for spacing purposes. I mean, most of the plays use 3 players just on the inbounds pass, much less the play as a whole. So these drills really do encapsulate the problem of committing totally to an offensive possession.

Above, I sketched the general principles of all of the plays in the book, but reading that bulleted list again, I note there's a principle I'm still missing. It's of the more abstract variety and it goes like this: Through a decent amount of practice, dedication, focus, and intelligence, a normal, decent offensive team can take on a normal, decent defense, and - through a topology of holes in time and space created at the moments when defensive players must decide to switch - can utterly destroy that defense.

• • •

Drill #53

Now let's go through a couple of drills. We're gonna start out nice and easy with this first drill, and by the end we're going to be nice... and rough (yes, I'm referencing Tina Turner's spoken-word intro to "Proud Mary"). For each of these drills I'm going to show you an image copy of the page, my thoughts, and a gif sequence showing the options of the play that I made from the diagram. Warning: gifs may be canon.

Drill #53 is quite simple. Straight up, your team will use a double screen to sweep out the free throw circle and make a switch at least difficult, creating space for a jumper from the top of the key. And if the defense eventually switches on the double screen, the two big men (conveniently located at the baseline) can start a solid post-up or lob situation as a fine second option.

It's very simple, yes, but note the subtleties of resource management: a double screen is about creating a wall of space more than it's about size*, so the size (PF and C) goes to making and receiving the inbounds pass. The center flares out to give him space to receive the inbounds pass but also to give him an angle to the top of the key. The power forward runs a suggestive route with an establishing cut, so the defender can't avoid the lob question. At best, PF's defender is looking at a battle in the post and not much else.

*Spurs fans might note that Popovich will often use double back-screens (with basically random players like RJ/Bonner/Hill) at the basket to allow Duncan to curl around for an easy two. One rather stark example is easily seen in Sebastian Pruiti's solid breakdown.

And that's just on the inbounds pass. The second pass from C-SF "starts" at the beginning of the play as a dangerous interior cross-court pass, right across the blocks, and when the SF v-cuts into the lane, the pass becomes just plausible enough to have to defend. An option Karl could have added would be an actual cut to the basket for a lob, and you have to think that the SF has to be a lob threat or a threat under the basket for this to work. But despite all of this, the "end game" of the pass is a relatively simple, uncontested pass between two players that have flared to safe spaces.

One of the reasons this review took so long to post was just the simple challenge that I had in making .gifs that didn't look like a child had drawn them -- specifically, a child like myself, with conspicuously poor motor skills and even more questionable design skills. If you must know the whole story of the .gifs, check out their alt-texts. Anyway, here are the .gif files, one for each option.


Anyway, both of these plays are fairly simple to execute and differ only in that in the second version, the SF hasn't gotten open, so the C goes to the PF as the second option.

Drill #19

Well, I chose one simple drill above: Now it's time for one hilariously convoluted (but possible) one.

Now, this drill is exactly as complicated as it looks. Just look at it: It's that complicated. It's probably the most complex and complicated drill in the book, for those of you into maddeningly pedantic distinctions. And there's no "use a screen as a means of confusion". This drill seems to assume that the defense will make perfect rotations. For my part I've only seen a few perimeter possessions where the defense honestly would stand a chance against this play if executed correctly. The only weaknesses I see are: its complexity, its dependence on dozens of quick passes, its length (it might be possible to execute the fourth option in 7 seconds, but realistically, this is an entire 14 or 15 second play).

To understand this drill it's important to see it in real time, as visualizing the above play takes quite a while from the book's description and diagrams. This is a cool thing if you're a reader trying to understand the geometry of basketball. It's not so cool if you're trying to convey the motion of this play to a blog reader. My final version of the fourth option .gif had 44 separate frames, almost all of which consisted of a screen or a perimeter pass, despite the staggered motions inherent to stop-motion animation. It's a very busy play involving all five players.

Above is the first option. The SF basically greases the wheels with three screens in the lane (and the center makes two screens on his way to the wing, too). This isn't a play built on deception, really. The SF stays around the elbow after the double screen for the PF to set a back-screen for that same PF. You can account for that, but you're asking the defense to make switch after switch, switching even as a switch is in progress. Note also that the center's pass in is essentially an open lob or an oop if the PF is open. Not all frontcourts are capable of this, but for me this immediately brings to mind set plays involving David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

In the second option the point guard comes from the wing and curls around and flares out off of a SF screen to the open jumper at the FT line. Notice that this second option is set up by the PG and SF following the PF into the lane from the first option. It's not hard to see a simple variation to salvage the first option in which the PG screens for the PF in a second attempt to allow the C-to-PF play, perhaps instead for a five-footer at the block. In either case, the PG can quickly finish the screen and end up with space for a jumper. But the PG-to-PF screen serves a second purpose:

For the third option, the pass to the PG wouldn't yield an open shot, so the C feeds the PF in the post and comes down to help for a two-man game. So long as the PF isn't dribbling and there's time on the shot clock, the PF can basically just hold while the C comes down to screen.

Astonishingly, as you can see, Karl includes yet a fourth option for this play: Supposing the two-man PF-C game doesn't work, the PF can reverse the ball around the perimeter again and immediately cut for the other side of the basket "around" the defense to complete the reverse. Notice that even here (on the fourth option of the play) there are other variations that could easily have worked and been incorporated: A SF jumper, (reward for all those screens in the first part, maybe!) a two-man game on the baseline with the SF-PF or on the wing with SG-PF, or a jumper at any point in the second reverse.

Yes, this play is mighty complicated, with a lot of moving parts and a lot of assignments. But it is also robust and expressive enough to encapsulate much of an offense's skill, is plenty able to be modified to reflect the different advantages and disadvantages that an offense might possess (as it is, this play with its lobs and center decision making seems more at home with a great frontcourt like Tim Duncan/D-Rob surrounded by decent shooters with limited driving ability).

• • •


It's hard to call George Karl an innovator - a... bridgelayer, so to speak - without having a robust knowledge of what came before. I've not heard him been mentioned in those terms before, so it may be safe to assume not. But whatever the case, it's just as hard to deny that George Karl is an incredibly solid coach in sheer basketball terms that has brought every type of lineup to high levels of achievement in his career. You get the sense that it doesn't matter all that much what players he has at his disposal: he will find a way to get the most out of them (though, of course, every player and lineup's ceiling is different) most of the time. There are no doubt clearer playbooks out there, and there are in all likelihood quite a few coaches that are right at Karl's level, or even better. But this book gave me a little insight into how he thinks, and that's a story worth telling. Hope you enjoyed listening.

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Juwan a Blog? #5: I Go Hard Now

Posted on Sat 17 December 2011 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey

"Review forthcoming. Not a joke."
__ -- Me, December 4, to I Go Hard Now.

Well, I wasn't joking, but I may as well have been! Starting today, I'll be giving points out for effort here at Juwan a Blog? (but only for me), and, in this new paradigm, I'm going to go ahead and award myself an "A" for this entry, despite having just 40 or so words so far. See, these 40 words were preceded by at minimum 10000 others, in dozens of edits. My eight-day quest to write this is nothing short of heroic: Since starting this review, I've read about 50 basketball drills, probably 200 other blog entries, the entirety of "A Season on the Brink," and about a quarter of that one hockey memoir. I also found time to save a lot of people from various fires. All of this in an attempt to understand this one neat NBA blog centered around the Cavs. (To that end, I read their last 5 months of content as well.) But all my heroism counts for practically nothing without results: Most of the people I saved died from smoke inhalation, and after 8 days I still only have about 200 words and an endless graveyard of GG drafts within and without this review.

Long story short, it's a tough world we're living in. A tough world... rather like the Cavaliers are living in right now!* And I Go Hard Now is a blog about this tough NBA world. Named after Christian Eyenga's terse summary of everything, I Go Hard Now is a slightly longer summary of slightly fewer things. Fewer things like...the NBA! The Cavs! The experience of sports fandom, especially towards a troubled small-market team like the Cavs! MSPaint drawings of Micky Arison doin' stuff with a steak! Really sad, important stuff!

* Transition brought to you by impromptu speeches from Alex, age 8.

• • •

So, that's a summary of IGHN. But is it any good?

Well, you'll have to work that one out for yourself. I can't tell you what to like. There's no accounting for taste. On my part, I liked most of what I read of IGHN, and I read quite a lot of it. It's usually pretty funny and well-written. There's little in the way of pretense, and while they have newsposts they don't seem to have much filler. During the lockout they had kind of a crunch for content, and they did suffer, but it's an NBA blog and you can't get blood from a stone, so this is kind of a quibble. Overall the blog is quite good in ways that I'm not always primed to appreciate in an Internet community that simultaneously moves very quickly and - apart from that - seems to take moving very quickly as a central goal and virtue. Personally, I can't keep up with any of that shit. I haven't moved any of my furniture in weeks. I haven't found a new band I really like in a long time, and I just heard dubstep for the first time last week (and downtempo is where it's really at). What I listen to is as likely to be from any year between '28 and '08. I've never mixed energy drink with a tasty alcohol. I barely leave my apartment. I'm not a man about town, so to speak. I'm just a fan that thinks a lot about the NBA and writes a lot about what I see and what I think about it. And in that sense, IGHN is right there with me. They do the fan experience well. I don't have to be an NBA blogger or junkie or focusing on what to write about next when I'm reading them. It is what it is.

Part of what I like about IGHN is just that they write with a voice that isn't generally "writerly", if you get me, and one that I can relate to in my own writing. It might sound like a backhanded compliment to say that, but for contrast I look at someone like Aaron or (even better) Kelly Dwyer and I realize that they write in a uniform, highly professional voice which is ready-made for expressing authoritative, highly well-thought-out opinions about...almost anything. I am convinced that when Aaron was three days old he already had a complex, well-formulated opinion about the fall of Communism and scribbled it out in 800-word position papers on spare menus in his parents' house. When he edits something I write, I can spot the edits immediately by the kinds of words and transitions he uses. It's in the dictionary for "distinctive" as far as I'm concerned.

Me? Shit, I'm still not convinced I have the qualifications to review this other blog. To my detriment, I don't fix on a writerly voice. I don't know if it's that I can't, or if I simply haven't read enough, or if my mind is just too cluttered or what. Usually I have to read a lot in the short-term before I can write anything worth reading, shamelessly and unconsciously appropriating my targets' style like some sort of Markovian Joe Posnanski Machine. My style is so improvisational, so new to me at any given time, that I feel that on any given sitting I could be the one to write the next "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" or find myself unable to describe an introduction to a blog entry about another blog. If I don't have the right amount of coffee, or time, or space uncluttered, my ceiling is mere banal competence. It's a sickness, I say, but just stick around here and I'll show you the ceiling, God willing. And then I'll talk some more about Richard Jefferson.

I think the difference - at its core - is that Aaron usually has things figured out before he writes or converses about them, and I'm constantly reacting to these things as if they were new and otherwise catching up. Aaron has more archetypes, domain knowledge, and contacts, and tailors his style and content to convey (asymptotically well) what he already knows and is trying to say. Thinking about unfamiliar players, he has a few workaday processes and memories to draw from to make them familiar and then he starts to draw on that familiarity to write something. On the other hand, thinking about unfamiliar things, I'm always like a kid thrust on stage at a jazz concert: I hear all these instruments bleating the truth loud and obviously to a well-listened ear, but I don't know the standards or the conventions or even the basic musical forms. But I have to say something, because I have no patience. And so I start out trying to sing my one little melody when the other instruments get quiet, and I end up either reinventing downtempo or pouring that acid from Breaking Bad into the piano in sheer frustration.

As a teaching example, both Aaron and I watched Eric Gordon last summer at FIBA, and both of us (thanks to League Pass Gravity's resident Black Hole, Blake Griffin) have seen him play a number of times. But Aaron was a little more tuned in, had a little more thought from FIBA to tune into this guy, had a little more of a takeaway from Gordon's defense. So now Aaron has a sophisticated opinion on Gordon and I'm just trying to keep up. This dichotomy is a bit stark, a bit unfair, even: A lot of the difference is probably just a gap in experience with subject matter. Hell, two of Aaron's best pieces on here (two of the best pieces on the Internet for my money) were improvisational and impressionistic, and weren't the same going in as they were starting out. Every tweak to the structure or content he made was out of the spirit of figuring out what it is he had to say. But there's something to this dichotomy. Just about everything I write has a highly open-ended (and cluttered) feel of process, of becoming, even when I know what I want to say about the topic. Book reviews, reflections on games, fiction: These things don't have any inherent structure going in, and I have to create structure and content at the same time that I'm reacting to the structure and content before me. What schema, what basic conclusion, what central conclusion could I have started with that would have produced this very piece?

The only possible answer is that I've thought about IGHN a lot, and I wanted to say something about them, and thought whatever it is had something to do with me. Everything follows from that. The endless drafts, the obsession with getting a good intro/context, the dozens of related dichotomies I thought up just to solve the problem of this piece. I wanted to say something, plain and simple, and looked for everything in my arsenal of experiences and prior reading to figure out how to place it. And almost everything about IGHN follows from that same impulse, that same line of thinking. They have something to say, but most of all, they've thought about the Cavs and the NBA a lot and their own place as fans, and they're trying to put it all together by starting conversations or putting arguments into words about their subjects, and at the end, hopefully, they have something worth sharing. Writing is the means for their understanding, not a bureaucratic afterthought of understanding. They don't know the answer going in, but they did know something needed to be said.

"When you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird'll sing the saddest kind o' song
He knows things are wrong, and he's right"

Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Blues in the Night"

They see something Bill Simmons wrote and they know there's something wrong about it, something fundamentally and systematically rotten or short-sighted that is far more condescending and patronizing to their own status as fans than an ordinary reader could possibly have gleaned. And so they break it down, examine the underlying assumptions and find the rotten core. And then they tell us how they got there. They love to watch the way certain players play and they feel they have to say something about that, in and apart from context. They feel something is wrong with the occasional sentiment from and towards Cleveland, and they have to put the conversation into their own words for our perusal. And they're right on target pretty often with perspectives that few were in a position to see. My favorite time period from IGHN of what I read was when LeBron was in the Finals. IGHN produced a lot of introspective (though worldly) thought on Cleveland and their own fandom and really got at the meat of what was really happening with the "haters" that LeBron went so far as to address as his main takeaway quote from 2011. And in doing so IGHN really hit on something that I hadn't really realized.

To wit, the ESPN commentariat (as Aaron puts it) doesn't just do an injustice to post-July-2010 Cleveland by reducing them to haters doing little more reacting to economic decline, being spurned by LeBron, etc. It does an injustice to all of us by looking at the problem through traditional sports narrative as if the city were a "guy who is bitter about getting dumped that just needs to get over it". Maybe for the case of Dan Gilbert (who is actually a self-interested crazy person and everyone knows it), but in general? No. That's a narrative that implies that there will be new heroes, a new positive vibe, a new hope in the future. And that misses the whole point. The questions - the real questions - about sports fandom still remain for us to deal with.

My feeling (gleaned from Cavs fans mostly, and very little from the non-stop coverage on ESPN) is that LeBron tore at the fabric of sports fandom in the first place, and Cleveland was just in the meltdown radius (and "The Decision" was just a startling demystification that showed to the whole country what exactly he was doing). If you liked LeBron and any coherent thing he claimed to stand for, you didn't (just) have your heart broken, you questioned whether even your most generously basic and contextual respect for LeBron was ever real, and you suddenly doubted whether LeBron had reciprocated or understood any of that respect in the first place. And then you worried that LeBron was probably not a singular exception in the annals of sports, but rather an accidental look (like the MJ HOF induction) behind the ugly, heavy curtain of personal branding. Finally, you gained a sort of sociopathic distance from athletes, always in the back of your mind wondering if they weren't just cynically playing you for respect or Q rating. Cleveland was just a little closer, and feels the distance and the frustration a little more strongly. The media doesn't get that there's no getting over LeBron, there's no turning back the clock, and there's no active bitterness: There's just a fog of coldness, blunt feeling, and vague, inexpressible disgust that runs all through sports.*

*For my part, I know that Game 2 against the Magic really rekindled my love of the NBA and really got me highly invested in the Cavs in LeBron's final year. I watched as people that loved the Cavaliers felt hopeful apprehension as one of the best teams in basketball made grand statement after grand statement as the old standards seemed to be failing. And it just never happened, and the way it went down was not just crushing but disheartening. You have to think even the Celtics, on their way to the Finals, must've felt a little bit dirty those last 52 seconds. It was just surreal, the kind of game that makes you wonder if you're watching something in real time.

I don't know how true or justifiable any of that is, but I do know this: Reducing (as most of sports media seems to do) all of it to "haterade" (always the blind, unexplainable kind, almost as if they never tried to explain it) and confining it to a city that needs to "get over it" only serve to make rebuilding sports as a credible myth-maker and source of admiration more difficult. Having five-minute conversations with people who are actually living through these feelings or that actually have a history with the Cavs is infinitely better than listening to 100 hours of talking heads.

I Go Hard Now is a collection of those conversations, and it does it well. Go give them a try.

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Juwan a Blog? #4: The Classical

Posted on Tue 22 November 2011 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey

For several years, the recently retired FreeDarko blog took a groundbreaking and individualistic perspective towards the NBA as a whole -- a perspective rooted as much in critical theory as in hip-hop. FreeDarko's main strength was that it collected some of the best minds in basketball out there - both readers and writers - into a single, content-rich site. Its main weakness was that it sometimes felt like the New York Times covering hip-hop: alright, we get it, you think this player is good at basketball and fun to watch...you don't have to abuse the word "profound", if you dig me. But on the whole? The collective added a lot to the community in so many ways, obvious and subtle. The most tangible contributions were the group's two books, the first decent but uneven, the second a classic of sportswriting. On the blog, the underratedly apt commenters and authors frequently expressed (or tried valiantly and interestingly to express) their best interpretations of what was going on in the Association and the new lenses they were bringing to bear on it. In the final tally, FreeDarko brought us some of the great sports conversations of the last decade in basketball, and the collective has a lot of credibility.

Since the blog's retirement, many of FD's authors have stayed in touch and teamed up for spot projects after the main blog started to wane. Their first really substantial project - called The Classical - is the first true sequel, though. The closest analogue (though it pains me to make the comparison) is Grantland - in terms of their longform, firsthand, unorthodox takes on the great stories mainstream and forgotten. The talent pool is quite different and the differences in content will become quite clear a couple of months from now, but for now, the comparison fits. Also, Bill Simmons doesn't write for The Classical, generally a positive thing. I digress. Right now, The Classical is in preview mode. If the content is representative (and it appears to be), then we have fodder for our fourth installment of "Juwan A Blog?". In general, for this feature we'd like to use blogs that are well-established, but the FD group has enough credibility with the community that we're going to allow it. And they even got quite a few new established authors that we can dig into immediately. So, let's.

• • •

There are only 23 posts on the site at the moment (and that's including the post explaining that it's a preview). I felt the size itself, along with the generally individualistic author-centric design of the site, led itself well to a simple "let's read their posts and see how they stand" kind of analysis. To that end, I'm going to go through a large proportion of what they've produced so far and offer 8 separate spot reviews of the most recent pieces. But first, a few paragraphs of general impressions:

First, it's worth noting that they went all out with the authors. Just like with Grantland, this is one thing The Classical really did well: They found people who could write, and had interesting particular angles. I don't know if this is just great emergent social networking or great top-down management by FD and their "handlers," but they found their favorite writers and they brought them into the fold. You have to respect that, given the wide range of backgrounds and sources these writers came from.

Second, almost all the pieces were good to great. Besides the unfortunate Tebow piece (you can read my problems with it in 2. below), I enjoyed every single piece that I reviewed. As a writer I don't consider myself to be on their level of excellence, but I'm very well read and I know good work when I see it: this is damn good sportswriting. You've got innovative prose, new forms of presentation, and systemically solid subject matter. All the good things that make sportswriting good. And while I apologize for making this paragraph somewhat fawning, repetitive, and trivial, I can't really help it. I'm always looking for people that can make our corner of reality a little bit bigger and have it blend into the whole of human experience a little more fluidly.

The Classical - at least in its limited preview - has done so. It stands poised to achieve greatness.

Of course - as fans of basketball for more than one year well know - "tremendous upside" is practically a slur against the unpolished and untested. It's very much up in the air if they're going to be able to sustain this level of quality. Grantland looked great in its first incarnation only to gradually peter off to where it is now, with the legitimately interesting and world-intensifying pieces (such as Sebastien Pruiti's great Austin Rivers piece earlier today) slowly being drowned out by the ditherings of Simmons and his least-interesting cronies. I do have fears the Classical could follow that sort of a path as well, though in a different way. How many introductions to rugby culture (6.) are we going to be able to sit through? How many stories like this and great chroniclers will The Classical be able to find? But the seeds are there, the initial results are promising, and I have very high expectations for The Classical. Let's get to examining some of their posts.


Without further ado, let's get into my spot reviews of the last eight posts. We're going to work backwards from the newest post, that way you can read these reviews in the same order you'd (I'd) read them on the site.

  1. War King Blues (by Tom Breihan) - At indie wrestling company Chikari, the self-contained universe of absurd narratives clash with the earnestly great (and troubled) wrestler Eddie Kingston. It's maybe a tiny bit overstylized ("He’s a big guy, all gut and head-stubble, with a titanic honk-rumble of a Yonkers accent") and I wish it went into a little more detail about Kingston's personality outside the ring. But as a twin profile of Chikari and Kingston coming from an obviously sincere fan? It's great stuff, and really excellent writing. Reminds me of this, always a high compliment.

  2. Tim Tebow: Magical White Person (by Mobutu Sese Seko) - This is kind of an unfortunate piece about Tim Tebow. There isn't much of a story. The only "story" here is that Seko is offended by straightforward things that he is interpreting as cryptically racist. Now, I know I have some hidden racial prejudices, as do my countrymen at large. And I really do want to address them when I find them. But while I or my countrymen may have such hidden prejudices, I'm not entirely sold on the idea that they're cryptically coded in sports media for a member of the sophisticated to condescendingly unravel for me. Seko really may have a point here, and I'm actually inclined to agree with a lot of his points, but the flip side of that is that Seko should at least attempt to persuade or explain in passing to people like Aaron and I who agree in broad strokes but aren't convinced on the specifics. Instead, this piece struck me as simply assuming everyone reading agreed with his main point about Tebow without properly arguing it or providing any sort of coherent explanation for why he felt the point stuck.

Seko lost me at first with that "convenient Christian Michael Irvin" comment, even though I'm not a Christian (or a Cowboys fan). Why? Because the comment was snivelling, out-of-nowhere, unnecessary and dismissive of the actual possibility of a person changing their perspective and atoning for previous mistakes. And as far as substantive evidence for Seko's piece goes, that would back up his thesis and leave me persuaded to a view I'm not all that far from holding? Again, I want to be enlightened, and convincing narratives and stats are what have successfully convinced me of my and my countrymen's prejudices in the past, and of the existence of institutional racism at the core of our society. But Seko basically gives us the single anecdote that Tim Tebow is being treated differently by the media from Michael Vick as the be all and end all of his proof. That doesn't really fly with me. Vick, last time I checked, has a metric ton of confounding variables, like... dog fighting, a vicious sport, no matter your ethnic heritage. Jail time. A more complicated game. And nowhere near the general obsession Tebow has with religion.

That is reason enough for this comparison to be somewhat ridiculous, and - considering it's one of Seko's only substantive claims made to back up the vitriol in the article - reason enough for this piece's central thesis to fail. Tim Tebow and Michael Vick are not just two running quarterbacks of different colored skins. Mystifyingly, even Seko's appropriation of Spike's Magical Negro - which by contrast is a great example of hidden American racial prejudice in the media - is unbelievably off-base and unjustified. But all of that said, despite it being the worst piece I'd read on the site thus far, the piece itself is still quite well written. That is a credit to it despite my disagreement with its methods, reason for being, and general form. As an example of the writing, see the hilarious possibly-intentional irony from the piece: "If the boilerplate about Vick and Newton can at times come queasily close to describing them as exceptionally well-bred beasts..." which does encapsulate racism in sports quite well. I just can't get on board with the whole picture, at least for this article.

  1. LeSean McCoy and the Insistent Style (by Eric Freeman) - Freeman has never been my favorite writer at BDL or FreeDarko, but that sentiment has nothing to do with his ceiling, which is on display here. A fantastic, semi-improvisational look into the Eagles back McCoy and what seems to set him apart from even the most creative backs before him. I like this piece a lot, and it ripples with the enthusiasm of someone obsessed with marginal physical advantages. His piece also - I must note - could have some conceptual extension into guard penetration in basketball.

  2. Home? I Have No Home. (by Tom Scharpling) - A nice, irreverent take on the Nets fan experience. While these "aw, shucks, isn't my mildly unpleasant situation sort of amusing and generalizable to your own experiences?" pieces are usually fluff, this made me laugh (and lockout-fugue; there are new holes in my walls) quite a few times. And what else can you do but laugh (and lockout-fugue) and try to make the best of the lockout?

  3. Science Bureau: The Pilot (by Rob Mitchum and Dr. LIC) - Some interesting summaries of recent scientific finds. Dr. LIC had a similar column back on FreeDarko, and it was usually a treat. This is no different. Cool contents, cool presentation.

  4. New Zealand’s long, All Black night of the soul (by Linda Hui) - One thing I like about this solid look at New Zealand rugby culture at the World Cup is that not a single sentence or paragraph sticks out as great or terrible. And despite this apparent handicap, Hui manages to testify well to her personal experiences and give us a sense of New Zealand's rugged competitiveness, intensity, and hospitality. You know as writers we love great sentences, but there's something to said for perfectly conveying the poetry of a culture and a moment without slipping into poetry yourself. In its way, a simply-stylized, well-written closer like "Euphoria took longer to take hold. It had been far, far too close" actually evokes the same blissful, look-away-for-a second that one of those jaw-dropping masterclass sentences does with a lesser piece. It's good writing that sneaks up on you. The drips dropped.

  5. All up in the videos (by Tomas Rios) - A look at UFC President Dana White and his questionable mainstreaming tactics, where by "questionable" Rios means "insane," by "mainstreaming" he means "mishandling," and where by "tactics" he means "of the sport he is ostensibly tasked with mainstreaming". A look at UFC President Dana White and his insane mishandling of the sport he is ostensibly tasked with mainstreaming, in other words. And it's an overview replete with good journalism, well-argued frustration, and innocent disappointment.

  6. On Pitching, and the AL MVP in the Hour of Chaos (by Jack Hamilton) - Possibly my favorite of the eight I've reviewed so far. I opined of Hui's rugby piece above that it's astonishing when such a complete piece has no transcendent sentences or paragraphs. Kind of like Greg Maddux*. But like Pedro at his peak or Verlander this season, this piece is a superfluous trip through the viscerally mind-shattering sentimentality at the heart of the fan experience. Every sentence is another yaw-turn on a hoverboard trip over a Pit of Sarlacc. Imaginative prose, imaginative concepts. I love it.

*Warning - this link is Gothic Ginobili canon

  1. Running is other people (by Max Linsky) - Okay, sorry Jack Hamilton, your piece was pretty good but I'm changing my vote and my number of pieces reviewed to 9. "Number nine, number nine, number nine," how they mock the song. But don't they recognize how great Revolution No. 9 is from start to finish? Don't they recognize that beneath its apparently pretentious/avant-garde surface lies a masterpiece of human frailty and vulnerability, an eight-minute look into the silent yawn of the void? I mean, I love a good pop song, and given the choice, I will listen to something without a melody less 1% of the time... but it's a damn good song which really stands with the best in the Beatles catalog as a major success. Anyway, sorry about the Gothic G-sharp there. Linsky's piece is about running marathons and it's pretty damn funny and it's pretty damn good. Short, sweet, amazing, mostly because it shows - in the most obvious, direct sense - what it's like to go from spectator to well-respected athlete. The ending line seals the deal on the theme.

• • •

And... that's a wrap. Tune in next time, when I'll be offering spot reviews of every single post on this blog, leading to a maddeningly Borgesian Thousand And One Nights scenario. The post will contain a spot review for that post itself, a spot review which will hinge on my handling of that very spot review, which shall pivot to cover the handling of...

Oh, fuck it, I'll just do Matt Moore's blog.

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Juwan a Blog? #3: Ball Don't Lie

Posted on Mon 07 November 2011 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey


Ball Don't Lie - written by Kelly Dwyer, Eric Freeman, and Dan Devine - is The Quintessential Work-A-Day Blog™ for the NBA. Featuring news, analysis, and regular features, BDL is the blog you go to when everything else feels stagnant. If you are a young writer and you ever feel discouraged, you can always go back to Behind the Box Score for a look at how it's done and how it should be done from October to June. A few too many gimmicks and some annoying tics, but overall an exceptional blog that goes out of its way to be down-to-earth and personal.


Kelly Dwyer - Dwyer is the twee alpha-dog of this blog. Mixing in anecdotes of a life spent in ridiculousness, simplicity, and Midwestern earthiness, Dwyer is the fan's fan, and the writer's writer. My praise can scarcely go higher for his basketball acumen. Imagine: Someone that can actually understand and describe the Triangle, someone that actually knows what Jerry Sloan's offenses are, someone that has seen the successes and failures of every ownership group since 1997. Someone that can give voice to Scottie Pippen's brilliance when Pippen cannot find the words himself, someone that was doing the same thing during the last lockout, someone that has seen it all but is too young and fresh and invigorated to be cynical. Someone that can feel passion for a player without needing to rank them, someone that can empathize with a player but still end up on the other side. Someone that doesn't need a definitive MVP.

I don't know that Kelly Dwyer - outside of his basketball brilliance, of course - is actually a great analyst when it comes to the lockout, contractual issues, and so on. Sometimes it feels like he (if only for political reasons) gives the too-often tabloid hack Adrian Wojnarowski far too much credit. Sometimes Dwyer descends into his own frustrated, Woj-like rants about players that just don't wash. But for the most part, I trust his judgment, he's a great writer, and - Kelly Dwyer really seems like an exceptionally compassionate and empathetic person when it comes to the people he writes for, with, and about.

Eric Freeman - The Free Darko alum is a knowledgeable and thoughtful blogger. He mostly does the daily roundup of news with some analysis thrown in. His analysis - and his knowledge of obscure annals of basketball - is often exhaustive. Which is good, but it usually feels a bit too exhaustive: "On the other hand" should only be used to balance an issue, not to create an opportunity for two or three misdirections and blind alleys. This isn't a Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers misdirection play and I shouldn't have to check the blog's author field to be sure I'm not being flare-screened by Kevin Garnett. I'd prefer clearer, simpler (though not simplistic) takes and more solid justification for his conclusions, especially when his conclusions rely on...everyone in the audience being exactly as liberal as him. While I may not like his style, and sometimes I wish he would defend his ideas more (because it would improve both ours and his ideas), I can't deny he's creative, he knows his stuff, and he is deserving of our respect as NBA fans. Overall he is a reliable, solid thinker that takes the news and turns it into a solid, readable daily tally of NBA events.

Dan Devine - The comic relief of this blog, Devine is exactly 85% as good as Trey Kerby, and that's a surprisingly high compliment. If Trey Kerby is Tim Duncan, then Dan Devine is Pau Gasol or something - the peak isn't as high and he's not an historical-level game-changer. Most importantly - he's not taking control of the blog anytime soon. But Devine does what Kerby does, extremely well and efficiently. Like Kerby, Devine has a good ear for humor, a good ear for character writing, an irreverent knack for perfect sentences and paragraphs. Also, like most humorists just has a good sense of the human condition. I don't usually read the caption contests much (his main feature), but I rarely set out to read a Devine piece and end up disappointed. I should note that Devine's Juwan Howard dialogues for playoff previews were awful, which is kind of symptomatic of the general "absurdity for absurdity's sake" role of the comic relief blogger.* The dialogues violate fundamental rules of drama and comedy, and are doomed to fail as stand-alone vignettes. That's really his problem: his features are contrived in premise, and it's hard to make a bad premise work as humor. During the season, there's more news to go around and his role feels a bit less contrived. And Devine's occasional lengthy, serious journalistic features are always worth reading. On the whole, solid as hell, no major complaints.

*A role I know all too well. You know, it's a goddamn tragedy. First you're writing good and wholesome humor about basketball. And it's good... for a time. Until your editor comes along and demands more wackiness. Soon every day is a living hell, every second filled with ironic, irreverent takes on the Supersonics moving. [Editor's Note: Alex is taking a personal day. In the meantime, Alex wants you to guess: Which otherwise quiet rotation guard for the Blazers actually sounds __exactly like Bill Simmons if you get to know him?___ Details after the jump. Which is where you are, already. Whoops._]


Excellent news coverage and they're good at summarizing news sections from much longer, more exhaustive sites. Their links posts (daily during the season; almost nonexistent during the lockout) are superb. Having managed biweekly links posts for several months on the precursor to this blog, I know it's a bit more stressful and time-consuming than it seems (after all, you have to read far more than 10 sports articles if you want to link 10).


As you may have...Devined... from my description of Dan, the features are kind of hit-and-miss. I really love the in-season chat rooms. Usually run by Dwyer, KD answers any and all questions that people are wondering about - while it isn't exactly personal, KD gets to every question posted in the first 20 minutes, and has funny, intelligent answers. Behind the Box Score is Dwyer's signature feature, and it's the feature that takes BDL from a good roundup and analysis blog to...a fun, exhaustive experience that contextualizes almost all the games. Get this: KD writes a little something about every game that happened the night before, whether it's a feature Sunday or Thursday, or a jam-packed, 15 game Wednesday, (though he doesn't do it 7 days a week, it's still impressive). Usually in this feature KD gives us a few gems from his years of watching and covering such a large percentage of games over the years. And KD gives us various spot special features during content-poor months (like positional rankings: Who are the top 15 SFs entering this season?). Freeman's "What They're Saying On Twitter" feature and Devine's Caption Contest are the definition of blog filler, and I usually skim or skip them. This is a blog surprisingly vulnerable to the lockout, and the filler is what is left as a draw to BDL, along with the same 5 stories a day that every other basketball newsblog is covering, with a slightly different take.. You'd think Dwyer's great body of experience could be used to really take us into some vintage basketball, but I don't know that that's justified by the blog format or its administrators at Yahoo! Unfortunate, but them's the breaks of the game.

Overall this is a great blog when the season is active, one of the best, and arguably the most essential.

Thanks for reading.

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Juwan A Blog? #1: Wages of Wins

Posted on Thu 27 October 2011 in Juwan a Blog? by Alex Dewey

As a recurring feature, Alex will be reviewing and analyzing various blogs and hoops sites. No number ratings or anything silly like that, just a good overview of the sites at hand with their strengths, weaknesses, etc. To see an index of previously reviewed sites, click here.

The way many fans tell it, the field of sports statistics is a conspiracy against their favorite player (*cough* Kobe). For others, sports stats is a conspiracy against the fan experience. For many beyond that, sports stats is a useful and instructive field still in its infancy that often makes claims far above its pay grade and level of sophistication. For a fourth group, sports stats is absolutely perfect with no flaws. Now, most people are in the third camp, largely because of the way I worded that paragraph to make it seem most reasonable. Obviously you can find good examples of the first two groups on any sports comment section or any basketball forum. Of course, no one is really in the fourth group this brings us to Wages of Wins, by process of elimination.

You see, Wages of Wins is perhaps the only group of people in basketball that think that numbers speak for themselves, and that it's up to us intelligent people to give the numbers a voice against the unwashed masses. They might not say they believe this, but the evidence of their book, their head blog, and their overall perspective and approach combine to make me think this. If you want a (crude and somewhat unfair) analogy, you could say that Wages of Wins form a similar niche to Objectivists in American political culture. To make the analogy more precise (and hopefully less insulting), they take their own group's exclusive access to objective truth and intellectual courage as a collective and partially unstated given. Is either group filled with awful people or even stubborn people? No, not really. But the philosophy itself is stubborn, the heads of the two groups are frustratingly stubborn, and in general the movement represents an easy, half-assed way out of a hard problem. Let me explain:

There's a difference in any intellectual endeavor between positive and normative claims: both are subject to evidence, but are the result of fundamentally different perspectives. A positive claim goes something like this: "Increasing the minimum wage may increase the clearing price of wages but also will create labor shortages." Sure, it's not an easy empirical claim to think about or describe an experiment for, but, like you could design and describe an experiment from the nature of the claim. You know? You can use economic statistics, look at legal complications, take surveys, use research in psychology, even Platonic reasoning about an established model, and so on, to look at the historical effects of the minimum wage. You can make a good argument for or against a positive claim using both creative and established methodology.

Normative claims are a bit hairier. Whereas the positive claim above makes two casual links (Minimum wage up to wages up to supply of labor down), a normative claim makes one of its causal links a "better" or "more moral" universe. "Increasing the minimum wage will lead to a better world" Even in principle, to address whether this claim is true requires a whole lot of shared assumptions: most people might accept the claim if increasing the minimum wage increased both wages and supply of jobs for the poorest citizens. But unless you accept what someone else's version of a better world is, you are unlikely to be persuaded by their normative claims.

Now, positive and normative claims both have their purposes: positive claims help us turn our experience into sound theories about the world. Normative claims often lead to imaginative and thoughtful interpretations of the world around us. They also both have fundamental drawbacks. You can positively describe all the psychology and economic consequences of something stark in human experience like love or slavery - but at the end of the day it takes a normative claim to affirm what is right and reject what is wrong. And dually you can make loaded and rhetorical claims about the nature of things until you're blue in the face, but if you can't turn your judgments into empirical claims, you aren't going to change anything if you're right, and you're never going to find out your error if you're wrong.

Now, The Wages of Wins - to its credit - seems to steer towards and pay far more than lip service towards positive claims. One of the group's major pet peeves is the media bluster over a hyped-up, flashy player like Allen Iverson or Kobe Bryant. The group correctly notes that the media will use toy statistics and scoring numbers without context to make scorers like Iverson seem like the single most productive player on the floor at any given night, excusing shooting inefficiency with raw scoring numbers, excusing low defensive impact with the flash of steals, and so on. The numbers - as the Wages of Wins group reasons - don't lie. And just because you saw Iverson drop 60 one night doesn't excuse the shooting inefficiency he often brings to the table. Even if Kobe Bryant is legitimately great - if his stats don't match up - it's fair to call into question his sum total of accolades. I think most reasonable people can accept this.

To this end they developed on an interesting statistic (from Dean Oliver's work) - Wins Produced. I can't summarize it perfectly without getting a bit mathematical*, but to give you a toned-down version, they plot team point differential against winning percentage to calculate the marginal (economically speaking) value of points and possessions. They use these valuations more-or-less Platonically** to put box score stats like made field goals, steals, missed field goals, turnovers, and assists onto an additive scale, so that if you add together all the things in the box score given these weights, you'll come extremely close to knowing who won the game by what - and, adding up a team's stats over the course of the season - you should know more or less where they finished in the standings and/or how good they are. Then they take this (even after months of dissing them I still say) perfectly reasonable statistic and define an individual's "productivity" by their per-minute box score stats. And then they make a perfectly reasonable adjustment for position. Perfectly reasonable. Perfectly reasonable. Perfectly reasonable is their statistic.

* Like all math majors, long, fascinating, and complex chains of reasoning appear to me in my head. This is a practical joke by math to see how badly I'll butcher these chains of reasoning when communicating them to other people.

_ ** Platonically in the sense that all assists are valued the same, all missed field goals are treated the same way, all turnovers are treated the same (and the same as missed field goals), steals are treated like anti-turnovers, steals are valued identically to rebounds, offensive rebounds are valued identically to defensive rebounds. More on this soon._

Do they have a point? Sure. When a perfectly reasonable statistic fails again and again in favor of the demonstrably worse metric scoring volume, they have successfully argued that there is a problem with NBA decision-making (at least - as they empirically show - with Rookie of the Year, MVP, All-NBA, etc. selections). You see, any perfectly reasonable statistic should be at least pretty decently correlated with merit. You know what I mean? That's not to say there can't be exceptions (perfectly good reasoning often systematically ignores exceptions), but basically, if you invent a statistic where points are good, misses are bad, steals are good, and assists are also good, and so on, you're probably not going to go too far astray as long as you keep a decent sense of proportions. If your proportions are given by team point differential, you're probably on the right track. You could easily - easily - use similar chains of reasoning to argue someone is the MVP. In fact, the popular "assist = 2 points" trope is a great example of this kind of argument back in the "Kobe vs. Nash" MVP debate in 2007. So yeah, there is a point to be made here: "Maybe Kevin Garnett isn't just doing a showy and historically great job of choking in the playoffs for the Wolves, big-market announcers. Maybe he's actually the best player in the league. Here's my argument. Maybe he is a winner. Maybe he's one of the best winners in the history of the league." That's what Wins Produced is - at first glance - all about. And it's a good thing.

It's perfectly reasonable. But then they stray from solid positive claims into (as opposed to equally solid) sketchy normative claims. They take their "perfectly reasonable" statistic and make an idol of it. Now, Richard Jefferson is a perfectly reasonable, likable, and competent player, but I shudder to think that anyone out there has made an idol of Richard Jefferson. Not only would it be an allocation problem (underutilizing perfectly fine stars to idolize instead like...I don't know, Chris Paul? Gosh.), but it would - in basketball terms - represent a fundamental misapprehension of the sport. If Richard Jefferson stops your show, it's probably not a very good show in the first place.* The problem is that instead of taking this Wins Produced statistic, putting it in their back pocket to counter a specious claim like that Allen Iverson did more to make his team win than Shaq in 2001, they argue that Shaq should be the MVP because their statistic says so. And then they argue that Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul and Jason Kidd should have had the award for the next 8 years. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but the bottom line is: If he leads in Wins Produced for a year, the people at Wages of Wins will argue that he should be the MVP. Not "this should be used as a sanity check" because if a player is terribly mediocre according to this metric they're probably not an MVP. Not "this is one of many perfectly reasonable metrics, but it gives us some substantive clues into how good Kevin Love has been." Not "take this with a grain of salt, but Kevin Love comes up higher than all of Allen Iverson's career years combined." (Sorry about all these exaggerations, but it's how the Wages of Wins blog actually sounds, and it's seeping in to my own style to recall). And unfortunately while they may grasp the rules of basketball very well (and honestly do seem to be fans when all is said and done), they seem to regard any attempt to use the sport of basketball - as it empirically is, not just as the Platonic rulebook deems it to be - as a personal attack. It's hard to get them to acknowledge anything about the sport of basketball as they personally see it, opting for a bizarre and non-committal set of descriptions consistent with their intellectual views. "Kevin Love is amazing! Just look at these WP48 numbers!" Never a hint that they are watching, though for such committed people they must be watching.

* The preceding is statistical fact.

It's sad to say, but they don't have grains of salt, they don't have much context, and they don't have a multidimensional set of perfectly reasonable statistics. They're Johnny One-Note, and even though they at one point had one of the most reasonable concepts and some of the best experiments in all of basketball stats (heck, in all of sports), they just couldn't sustain one note for five years, and instead of adapting, "stretching the game out" in hip-hop lingo, and taking as an idol the braintrust which produced their fresh ideas, they Rip Van Winkled in a ranch of laurels, and curmudgeonly cut all ties with the rest of stats culture, and now subsist on incredibly lazy extensions of their original ideas, dogmatic and misguided rants about the problems in decision-making that they at one time helped to ameliorate a bit, and actually quite-good visualizations of their concepts. They idolized their original positive claims and made a normative universe around them until everyone accepts their claims. I don't know that I'm a humanist or anything, but if they're going to idolize their powerful claims, they probably could have done better idolizing the minds and processes that created those claims in the first place and then built their normative universe around these minds and processes. If they did this, we as fans - and writers, and intellectuals, and basketball enthusiasts - could at least begin to get behind them.

For a mind - infinitely more than a perfectly reasonable statistic ever could - can reason perfectly well.

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