Monday, June 19, 2006

Intangibles

Dash writes:
>>Just wondering if you've ever done a piece on the "intangibles" of sport such as: home court (field) advantage, chemistry, curses, momentum, legacy and such. So hard to measure or even define yet they are so much a part of the game. Would be interesting reading.<<

I haven't, but great suggestion! Let's take them one by one.

Home Court Advantage:

This has long been an issue with the NBA, but conventional wisdom says it's becoming less of a factor as time goes by. I searched for recent statistical studies on the phenomena but came up empty. The closest I came were stats for the 80's and 90's and some modern bookie papers that said NBA home court wasn't worth as much as it used to be. Nevertheless, home teams still win around 60% of the games on a consistent basis.

Any number of factors could account for this: the emotion of the fans, a good night's rest, familiar shooting backgrounds, and more lenient refs, to name a few. I tend to credit the first and the last the most. Basketball is a consistent-high-energy sport and also one that depends on constant, immediate feedback. (You get feedback on every shot, for instance, by seeing whether it went in. That's how we all learned to shoot.) A good home crowd can provide a boost in both areas. And although it's impossible to correlate home court with an increase in sheer number of whistles--the refs wouldn't be doing a very good job if you could--the sport leaves enough wiggle room in judgment that you've got to believe refs are subtly influenced by the venue too. I think, however, that as the league moves away from the superstar model back into team play you'll see this aspect decline. It will be interesting to see if home court goes along with it.

Whatever you believe or don't believe about home court advantage, I think everyone except the 2003 version of Bonzi Wells would agree that given the choice it's nicer to play at home.

Chemistry:

We talked about this one early in the blog. You can read more about it in the April archives. To me, chemistry is like pornography: hard to define exactly but you know it when you see it (or don't). As recent vintage world (international) championships have proven, building a successful team is not just a matter of taking ten hugely talented players and throwing them together. You need a balance of stars and role players, tough guys and reasonable thinkers, tacticians and raw athletes. More than that, each player has to know and accept their role. Clyde Drexler's highest scoring season was 1988-89 when he tallied 27.2 points per game. We won 39 games that year. He took almost 400 fewer shots the following season and scored four points less per game, yet we went to the NBA finals. Why? He made more of an effort to get Kersey, Porter, Duckworth, and the newly-arrived Buck Williams into the game. That's chemistry. It's not getting along. It's not even being necessarily being nice people. It's being able to function together like a well-oiled, consistent machine despite whatever differences you might have. Some teams have it, some don't. Sometimes teams have it for one part of the season but then lose it. (This year's Pistons are an example.) One thing's sure...if you don't have it, you don't win big.

Chemistry is the hardest thing for a GM to get right because you never know how a group is going to interact until you get them together. Sometimes a good team can absorb and even reform a bad-chemistry player. (Some would argue Dallas has done that with Jason Terry and Keith Van Horn.) Sometimes a bad-chemistry player can rip apart an otherwise good team. (Every head in the room just swiveled towards Ron Artest.)

In general, though, you will find the best and brightest stars--Bird, Magic, Duncan, to name a few--are also great chemistry people. Jordan, though called selfish by some, was also more than willing to give himself up on the defensive end, spend countless hours in the gym practicing his shot, and give up game-winning opportunities in the last game of the Finals to guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr. Shaq and Kobe are about the only modern examples of guys winning it without chemistry. I would argue that they are both freaks of nature and that they had (*cough*) "help" with at least one of their three championships (WCF vs. Sacramento) and maybe two (vs. Portland). Certainly had Shaq been reffed back then like he is in the current series the Lakers would not have dominated to the extent that they did. In any case, chemistry has to include you main players, and probably spring from them, or else it's no good.

Curses:

While tempting, I don't believe in them. The Red Sox had the most famous long-standing curse in history. Coincidentally it carried through all those years of sub-par talent, beer-league recruiting, and the occasional natural bad break. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that as soon as they got sterling pitching backed by good defense and a decent offense, the curse disappeared. In the absence of further evidence, I'll continue to believe that any woes Portland has are products of bad management choices or poor play. I'm just not ready for the "Curse of the Waltino".

Momentum:

I do believe in this, however. We've all seen it too many times. Most modern teams run variations of five or six plays all night. Sometimes they don't work for two-and-a-half quarters, then mysteriously everything clicks and those same plays net bucket after bucket. I think it goes back to what we said above about basketball being a game in which emotion and immediate feedback play significant roles. It's human nature to think the world is against you when you're rolling snake eyes at the craps table and that you can do no wrong after hitting three sevens in a row. The same is true in basketball, but unlike independent, inanimate dice, how you think on the court actually affects your play. The relationship between the brain and athletic performance is complex. At what level does the perceived become real? And how much feedback (usually in the form of opponents dunking on you) do you need before it becomes reality for you?

This is why great coaches train their teams in practice not to feel, not to think, just to do. Repetition to the point that action becomes instinctive and nearly emotionless (until it's done, anyway) is the key to overcoming the vagaries of momentum. This also means that mental strength and maturity is an underrated attribute in basketball.

Legacy:

There's no doubt that legacy plays some role in NBA success. A gross as it sounds, most kids grow up dreaming of starting for the Lakers, not the Clippers. There's a tangible difference when you put on the purple and gold, or a Bulls uniform, or Yankee pinstripes, or pick your marquee franchise. It doesn't mean you'll win if you're bad, but it does make it easier to recruit the talent and follow the leadership necessary to get you back on the winning track if you've lost it.

One of the greatest casualties of the recent Portland decline may be the loss of a winning legacy. It can't be measured by record alone, rather that a team stands for something in the league and in the community. There's a difference between a losing season or two and a losing franchise and I'm not sure which side of the line we're on. We used to have the best broadcasting corps in the league. Other teams would come to observe how we did things. Gone. We used to have the strongest fan identification in the league, among the best in any league even. Gone. What else have we lost over the past decade? It's not so much that these things are causing on-court losses as they are possible reflections of the same malaise that shows itself between the lines. It has an effect to the extent that any message of incompetence, sloppiness, confusion, or that excellence just doesn't matter filters down to all employees, including the players. And once that happens you lose the unifying, overarching goal that makes the great teams great. Regaining a winning record may be simple compared to rebuilding a tarnished legacy.

On the one hand I want to say memories are short, because they are. People would much rather sign with the Clippers right now than the Blazers, history be damned. On the other hand, when Sam Cassell has his biennial, ship-sinking implosion and the Clips slip again, they'll have a much harder time reversing the slide and regaining excellence than a team like the Lakers would have. Or now us.

None of these intangibles can replace talent and hard work. Those are still the two overriding determining factors in NBA success, accounting for probably 98% of your wins. But in a league where five or six other teams are also going to have that talent and drive, who's to say that the other 2% might not make the difference? More than one game (including last night's) has been decided by a favorable call or a cold-blooded play in the face of long odds. And a lot of those plays come to storied franchises. I wouldn't stay up nights worrying about any of these things, but to the extent they're controllable, I wouldn't ignore them either.

Have your own examples of any of these things? You're more than welcome to comment or e-mail.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

8 Comments:

Anonymous fatty said...

hey dave all 3 great points
the fan media vs blazers
management is the most
frieghtning problem because
they're some fans out there
who are to loyal to management
and it's up to you guys to
stop sugarcoating situations
and hit this franchise hard
i talked to canzano yesterday
and he told me when he gets
back to portland he'll start
bashing the fans who don't
see the big picture,bottom
line s.patterson and the
blazer hierarchy have no
respect for the fans*media
alike thanks dave !!!

10:33 AM  
Anonymous fatty said...

also dave the point about
mystique the blazers once
had will not be back for
a long long time,as far as
chemistry that will always
be a downfall in portland
until they draft smart heady
team orinentated ballplayers
the blazers recently drafts
players with an iq a size of
a peanut when it comes to
b.ball smarts, until they
draft those smart coachable
players,they'll always be
where they always are
mediocre or at the bottom
of the league, and for these
people who uses player injuries
as excuses, well if the team
was healthy all year they
would've won 25 instead of 21
big deal 4 more wins !!!!!
later dave

10:42 AM  
Anonymous knuckleheads said...

What about the effect of guaranteed contracts on chemistry ... and coachability; the effect of disconnecting effort and reward under collective bargaining. I was wondering if there is a trend in terms of teams going lower in salary by going younger, and less-senior.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

That's a great take Knucks. I think I'm going to do a post on guaranteed contracts and the NBA somewhere down the line.

--Dave

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Dash said...

Thanks,Dave. Enjoyed your thoughts. Your angle on momentum reminded me of Jordan "in the zone" against the Blazers in that famous finals game. Any time a player hits that magic sweet spot where they're "feelin' it", it's simply momentum on an individual level... And team momentum can extend beyond a single game. How many times have we seen a so-so team kick into another gear after the AllStar break? Loved your concept of performance/feedback...

8:09 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I don't know as much about other sports, but basketball seems to me to be one where streakiness can be useful. The only thing better than watching a guy get in the zone is being that guy. I bet most all of us have memories of that magic day or two, even if the games were just of the playground variety. You never forget that feeling...

--Dave

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