Monday, April 5, 2010

Basketball Notes

Writers and fans everywhere apparently have taken to wishing upon a star at the conclusion of March Madness, with desperate hope giving way to desperate conviction: hey, you know, Butler can win this thing! Maybe the saddest example of the genre is penned by Luke Winn today, someone who really should know better. And, indeed, the article conveys the fact that, indeed, Luke Winn does know better, with an impressive statistical accounting of just how good Duke has been so far this tournament.

And then he falls into the same pattern as the rest: namely, the cult of the Hustle Play. If I could make my own wish, it’s that some statistical analyst could chart the hustle play or determine its value, because otherwise the hustle play is allowed to grow in the imagination of writers until it becomes everyone’s personal golem: big enough to fuck stuff up. Somehow, the fact that Duke shoots better, rebounds better, defends better, and has beaten better teams will fall before Butler’s willingness to take a floor burn…It’s that same old belief in the underdog, of wanting to believe the team that has fewer stuff and accolades also must necessarily want it more and hence be more deserving of victory and hence actually win. It’s mostly pabulum.

Let’s look at the way the tournament has gone. We know that the single best predictor of future success in basketball is scoring margin: if you dominate previous teams on your schedule, you’re a high-quality team—you didn’t just get that result because of a few lucky bounces. As it turns out, Duke has barely been challenged so far in the tournament. Aside from the traditional 1-16 beatdown, Duke has won its games by fifteen, thirteen, seven, and twenty-one. By contrast, Butler won its games by eighteen, two, four, seven, and two. And, of the teams it beat, three of them could be described as completely healthy and hale; the other two, Syracuse and Michigan State, had lost significant contributors late in the year, making them substantially worse teams.

Furthermore, the matchups don’t look great for Butler: it gives up a great deal of size on its frontline, and its best frontline player is prone to foul trouble. By contrast, Duke can rotate four active big men. Butler is also very three-point reliant; Duke specializes in not letting you take threes.

So there’s no real reason to believe Butler can win aside from the generality that one team can beat any other team in a one-game situation. So while we might wish that Butler can win, and while the universe might be a better place if Duke loses, embarrassingly, comprehensively, and with a maximum of schadenfreude, this is no reason to believe Butler can win. Duke wins, probably handily.

***

New realities, even ones a long time coming, tend to reveal themselves suddenly. So yesterday was it for the Lakers: they might not even make it out of the first round. The statistics told the story first, and while I’m as big a statistics fan as anyone, you want to see the team in person to see what they actually mean. Is it mere laziness? This is sadly too common. Is it bad luck, a bad run of shots not falling? This happens occasionally. Is it an actual fundamental problem? Well, as the earlier parts of the paragraph might have clued you in, I think the last question is on the right track.

The Lakers rearranged their team substantially heading into this season, and all they managed to do is get worse. The Trevor Ariza-for-Ron Artest trade looks more and more like a liability by the day, and the rigor mortis makes it harder everyday for Derek Fisher to raise his arms above his head and shoot, let alone move laterally for defense. That’s two big liabilities in the starting lineup. They do have a top five player in Bryant, and the best big man rotation in the league, and both of these things cover up a lot of sins, but only so many: point guards always have their best games against the Lakers, and that’s bad now that we’re in a point guard league. Meanwhile, Bryant has to exert himself more strenuously than he’d like to cover for Ron Artest’s poor defense. The team still has Bryant and Gasol, but it also likes to ignore Gasol from time to time for no apparent reason. The team is in trouble, and if they don’t lose in the first round, they’ll have trouble in the next two. And it’s certainly hard to see an exhausted Lakers team beating the East’s best.

The window is closing for the Lakers. Phil Jackson doesn’t sound like he’s long for the Lakers, and it will be hard to replace him with a coach of even comparable quality. The team is aging, and has few young players to take new roles. The mysterious simultaneous regression of Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic guaranteed that. So this may be the last or second-to-last run for the Lakers, and they’re stumbling in the middle of the race.

***

Speaking of regression, think back to those wonderful days: the 2007 playoffs. Well, maybe not the Miami fans, but for Bulls fans, it was fairly good: the Bulls had swept Miami and put up a respectable effort against the Pistons. Good work, that. And its top three—Deng, Hinrich, Gordon—had promising futures. Maybe they weren’t the Big Three, but you could term them the Respectably Sized Three With Promising Futures, With Two Young Sidekicks Whose Futures Also Seemed Promising Relative To Their Roles (i.e. Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha).

Years later, and none of these players have fulfilled their promise with the Bulls. And it’s important to note how well these players were regarded: Deng was the last piece for the Pau Gasol trade, and at least some observers thought it was perfectly reasonable not to trade Deng’s future for Gasol’s present. Deng was also the player that Kobe insisted had to be on the Bulls were he traded there. The other players were less highly regarded, but still promising. Tyrus got traded and will probably become better in Charlotte, Thabo is the designated stopper for OKC, Gordon is wasting away in Detroit….but none of these players got much better while they were with the Bulls. Some of them got worse (i.e. Kirk Hinrich). It’s not a question of attitude—by all accounts, Deng is one of the bestest guys you’ll ever be around, as is Hinrich—so what is it? Bad fortune? Or…the organization? Yeah, think on that.

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