Thursday, March 24, 2011

College Bound and Down (Bx3 #15)

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As primarily an NBA fan I will still admit to watching and enjoying the NCAA tournament. I don’t watch just to evaluate pro-draft stock, and I am not one of those NBA-fans that will grumble on and on about low talent levels or lack of execution.  These arguments I assume are really just counterstrikes against the “playing the game the right way” and “love-of the sport amateur purity” attacks lobbed at the pro game every year at this time.  There are arguments along these lines to be made on both sides I’m sure, but they are not to be tackled here.  Basically I watch the tourney because I find it entertaining.

Simple enough it seems, but with the necessary caveat that when it comes to sports I am easily amused.  I have been late getting back to work from my lunch-break at the Indian buffet because of a televised cricket match (which I know very little about).  If I happen across people playing sports I will stop and wait to see if the kid makes contact with the pitch or if the dude laying out for the frisbee makes the grab before carrying on with my life.  This sports watching behavior comes from a lifetime of watching and playing sports myself, but also I assume from a simple natural curiosity that wants to know how any action, once taken, results.  (The only sport that doesn’t seem to grab me is lacrosse- I just don’t get it. Maybe if they were riding skateboards or something…)

As someone that’s dabbled in cultural circles where sports aren’t always appreciated- music, art, Satan worship- I developed a rote defense for my own sports-fandom to the non-believers around me:  I like sports because they provide unscripted drama.  Sure, I like movies, well produced TV shows, novels, a good goat sacrifice, but if that is all I partake in culturally that means all my culture intake is basically scripted (trust me, Satan does not take kindly to ad-libbing off of his goat-sacrifice script).   All would be the product of someone else’s imagination, not the elements of complex competing interests and chance that drive drama in real life.  Drama I would argue can only reach certain heights without the presence of true chance and spontaneity.  (…also this is why real life drama-queens (and kings) are so tiresome, we all know it’s rehearsed).    

It’s true that a good dramatic narrative benefits from a good plot, but I would also say that just because something is unscripted doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no plot to follow.  With sports, instead of a preconceived plot determining the actions the plot gets written through the actions as they are happening. The simple act of a frisbee being thrown creates some (tepid) narrative drama, whether the dude wearing nothing but an ironic sunvisor and worn-out Chuck’s catches it completes that story (Pulitzer worthy, I know).

 In this way sports, which basketball is one of, create a narrative- which can then be read or interpreted just like a novel or book.  Shakespeare has engendered generations of serious scholarship and debate, basketball has Stephen A. Smith and the dude from Cold Pizza that hates on Lebron.  Anyways, let’s not go off on a tangent that’s going to hurt my argument- my point is more about sports’ innate ability to create both a plot and drama where the outcome is truly undecided.  This is where my preference for the NBA over college basketball comes in. 

With the NBA the ‘plot’ as previously described develops with the game results, but also with the career development of the players themselves, the trades that are made, the relationships that develop between the players and how the characters of the evolving teams play against each other, and even in the fan’s reactions to all of this.  This unfolds over seasons and careers.  The same thing of course happens to some degree in college, but it starts over so often you lose the thread right when it’s about to take hold.  If the NBA is a long-running TV drama where we can follow the story from year to year, college is like ‘reality’ show where the entire cast is replaced every year or two.

It’s the unscripted randomness and spontaneity of a game’s unknown outcome, unfolding on top of the plot created by all the preceding events that give the game its ultimate dramatic weight.  This is true of all sports (expect for ice-skating- where the drama is created by making you believe the skaters are naked till you see them up close and realize they’re covered in weird body colored stockings and sequins). The level of drama in a game is determined not only by the events on the field of play, but also the aforementioned ‘plot’ leading up to them. In this way, the NCAA tournament gets it drama from a sheer onslaught of meaningful on court drama, but can’t compete with the NBA on depth of the plot- which makes the final result more dramatic in turn.  As evidence of this, I would argue the NCAA tournament actually becomes less dramatic the closer you get to the end (like your life if you die of old age), whereas the NBA playoffs build to a dramatic crescendo (like Young Guns 2).   I invest my time and find interest in all the proceeding less compelling moments- an 82 game season with a lot of meaningless games- in anticipation of that ultimate dramatic culmination.  In other words, with the NBA I’m willing to slog through the slower parts of the plot knowing they’ll add to the greater dramatic payoff in the end. 

Some postscripts:
-Another metaphor I tried but failed to work in: The NCAA tournament is like a battle-royale where we’ve barely heard of any of the wrestlers, the NBA finals is like a career defining championship match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.  This is especially true when Tim Donaghy is officiating (see what I did there?).

-Yes, I do like Jazz in real life, and as a metaphor for professional basketball in how improvisation and a level of mastery can come together to create beautiful spontaneity.  But no, I don’t like jam-bands.  Just don’t get it.  Is it possible that people that like Lacrosse also listen to jam-bands?  Can someone confirm this for me?

-The well-roundedness (for lack of a better term) of the online basketball community really speaks to how most people are more multi-dimensional than just fitting into some archetype of ‘sports fan’, ‘artist’, ‘music fan’, math-geek’, ‘jock’, etc... It’s thanks to this realization that I no longer really feel a need to ever defend my love of sports, and also why I decided to do a basketball themed comic-strip.  Something I think some might be dismissed as a medium without an audience.  I still have no audience, but that’s not a problem of demographics.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Cognitive Dissonance of Clutch (Bx3 #13)

I'm not implying Kobe's not clutch- I'm just tying to get a lot of people to look at my comic! It's called stirring up the controversy. Who wants to read a comic about something everybody agrees on, like that Reggie Miller can be an overbearing commentator, or that Gerald Wallace looks like an African American version of the guy that played Jesus in the 1970's film version of Jesus Christ Superstar (What? It's just me that thinks that? huh.)

Anyways, until next week- when we discuss how Brook Lopez is really a better rebounder than Kevin Love. (Controversy!)


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Drinking the OKC Kool-Aid (Bx3 #12)

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Please don’t think too long and hard on this one- (Do Lev and Chub even live in Boston?  Kendrick Perkins doesn’t use doors?  Space jam and not Air Bud?) It’s called comedic license people!

Here's a link to the Bill Simmon's article that mentions Perkins crying about the trade.

I won't go on and on about another man's emotions, but I will be happy to go on and on about other topics. 100% superfluous commentary follows:

The people that are thinking long and hard are the NBA prognosticators trying to predict what the outcome of this (and other) trade will be.  It’s definitely interesting to read the different takes everyone has, but I’ve come to the realization that like economics, sports-analysis is a dismal science. (…and believe me I don’t mean that as a criticism of those that do it well- there’s a reason I do a gag-strip and not an in-depth analysis like Hardwood Paroxysm or Zach Lowe over at SI.)  

Similar to economics, there is a macro-micro split.  If you look at a blog like Sebastian Pruitis’s NBA playbook, (which you should, often) you find clear analysis on what happened on a certain play.  There is some aspect of speculation when considering the possibilities of a given play unfolding differently, but for the most part the interpretations of what happened will not have large variation (assuming the analysts are all skilled enough to read the action correctly).   This is the micro level of analysis (and again, I’m not trying to take away from it- you won’t find me sticking my neck out and trying it).   

Analyzing what happened over a whole game, we are still on somewhat solid ground, but we’re introducing a little less confidence, a little more wiggle room for interpretation.  When it comes to the truly macro level- the regular season record, playoff series, or questions like how player A will affect team B against team C, we are on shakier ground still.  Individual plays are repeated often (unless you’re OKC in crunch-time, they don’t use any plays at all! Rim-shot!), giving the micro-analyst a wealth of knowledge to draw conclusions from.  Things like impactful players moving from one team to another don’t happen nearly as often.  If you look at the individual idiosyncrasies of each player and each team’s system, you could almost argue every trade in some way is unprecedented. 

Due to this, on the macro level of the NBA one can theorize and offer up supporting evidence, but nothing can ever be completely proven.  This is true when analyzing past events, but even more true when trying to apply your theories to predict outcomes.  Will Kendrick Perkins make OKC a defensive stalwart that can now handle the Laker’s size, or will he slow down and simplify the offense that made OKC a dangerous playoff draw to begin with?  I don’t know.  I like reading people’s opinions who’ve forgotten more about basketball than I’ll ever know on such matters- but do any of them really know either?   

Prognosticators can only really tell you what they think the new odds are, and can’t ever say with 100% confidence that they were proven right.  The addition of Kendrick Perkins might be the reason OKC succeeds (or fails), but then again the outcome might just be the long odds finally coming through.  

After the fact, some may be ‘proven’ right and some ‘proven’ wrong- but  it’s never completely settled.  If OKC somehow managed to beat the Lakers in a playoff series this year, most would point to Perkins addition.  But think back to game six of last year’s playoffs- (and work with me here) if you’ll remember, Gasol got a last second put-back in game six to end the series.  Had that ball bounced off the rim to the opposite side of the key, we might have seen a game seven.  In game seven, maybe Durant gets hot, can’t miss, Lakers go cold, and OKC manages to take the series.   

The bounce of that one ball in game six could completely change the way the series would be analyzed after the fact. I’m not saying this outcome was likely, but I am showing how easy it is to inject doubt into a macro-basketball certainty. OKC hypothetically beating the Lakers  last year might be a one in ten kind of occurrence, but we don’t get the luxury of repeating it ten times to know.  

I’m not arguing against sports analysis, I would argue instead that this is what makes sports analysis fun.  It engenders debate.  Endless debate- which then gives us more to watch for in the games themselves.  And in the end it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, because it’s just entertainment (unless you are a GM or have a financial stake in the team of course).  

Economics on the other hand, at least when applied to political decision making, matters in a direct way to people’s lives.  So I say long live the sweet-dismal-science of sports analysis… but let’s hope the genius out their  figuring out some way to make economics a little less dismal isn't wasting too much time analyzing basketball games.