Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Panic, Then Trade For Shaq

One of the paradigmatic errors of the 21st century (aw hell, let’s say human history) is what I’ll call the “Trading For Shaq” error.

I have to start with a caveat: Miami trading for Shaq was not an error of this kind. Shaq was not yet the Shaq of this error. No, “Trading For Shaq” will always refer to the Phoenix Suns trading for Shaq.* The blunder is a specific kind and context. It represents a surrender to conventional wisdom. The Suns for three solid years were joyous rulebreakers, winning basketball games in a way that most assumed you couldn’t, in that day and age. And yet something always stood in their way. I say something because, well, the point of this error is that there’s a matter of interpretation about what, exactly, has gone wrong. You could note an extraordinary run of bad luck: Joe Johnson’s broken face (year one), Amare Stoudemire’s bad knees (year two), the near-brawl (year three). You could make the case that few contending teams in recent memory have suffered as comprehensive a string of bad luck. Alternatively—if you’re Suns GM Steve Kerr—the team couldn’t win the championship because something in its essence prevented it, and that something was missing The Big Man. Defense Wins Championships. And other maxims of this sort. Kerr became GM after playing for the Spurs, from which he became an devotee of conventional wisdom. Having become a devotee, he decided to surrender to conventional wisdom: he couldn’t imagine a team winning by rules other than the conventional one, so he sought to remake the team in the image of those conventional rules.

*Curiously, the Cavaliers repeated the mistake, and the Cavaliers are run by another set of Spurs alumni. In fact, the only team that’s been run really well by Spurs alumni is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Interesting, don’t you think?

Obviously, it didn’t work out. The team was stuck in between the two models, which meant it was practically dysfunctional (which it remains, even though Shaq has been jettisoned). Worst of all, it failed to understand the specific context of why the Spurs model worked: Manu Ginobili’s a freewheelin’ kind of guy (who took the crunch time shots), Parker couldn’t shoot, and Duncan always had a big man sidekick to help him on defense. And because of that, Kerr failed to understand why bringing Shaq over wouldn’t work: namely, though you’re trading for him to “provide a presence in the post”you’re your allegedly defenseless team, Shaq also doesn’t play defense.* Instead he lived his life by maxims—The Game Slows Down In The Playoffs And You Must Throw It Into The Post—and other people’s perceptions of his own team. And he ruined a team that should’ve been much better than it is.

*As the Cavaliers will find out to their pain at some point in this postseason. I don’t know if Shaq’s lack of defense will kill them against the Hawks, Magic or Lakers, but someone will kill the Cavs by exploiting Shaq on the pick-and-roll or—god forbid—the pick-and-pop. And then LeBron will leave and the Cavaliers will become an object lesson in mismanaging your business by not thinking about your future

It’s an error that’s proven to be surprisingly common, if you think about it. The recent example, of course, is the Obama-Don’t-Call-It-A-Spending-Freeze proposal. In fact, let’s turn to the spin on the subject (courtesy Jared Bernstein via Brad DeLong), someone who’s had to pretend shit sandwiches are wonderfully progressive, hearty organic meals far too many times for my comfort and presumably his):
1. It's not a freeze--not something that leaves the level and distribution of non-security defense spending frozen at its current level and in its previous pattern.
2. It's not even a cap--it's not a plan, if congress refuses to dial down the things that Obama wants to dial down, to take the excess out of other program categories.
3. It's not even a set of guidelines--it's not an aspirational set of spending levels because it does not include the initiatives the president wants to "undertake right away [to] jump-start job creation. In his words and deeds, the President has made clear that recovery comes first..."
Ah, well then. This is a perfect example of a “Trading For Shaq” panic theory. The thinking is muddled. It appears to be for other people’s consumption and other people’s perception of you—the “aspirational” part really gives that away. All sorts of excuses have been made: it’s symbolic, it’s a commitment for the bond markets blah blah blah. But these excuses fail: the small size of the cuts indicates their fundamental unseriousness. You wonder how any reasonably smart person, having worked for so long on it, could have come up with it.

The “Trading For Shaq” error is even more widespread than that. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, but there’s a fairly high subset of liberal arts majors going to law school for “Trading For Shaq” reason: they want to go into the law because, hell, it’s someone else’s idea of a good profession for you. Since its roots lie in insecurity and other people’s perception, the error is as widespread as that, i.e. human nature.

I’d say usually objective observers can figure out an error of this type immediately. And that’s maybe the saddest part of it all: it’s a blunder that’s apparent to everyone but the person making the blunder.

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