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On Rag-Dolling

Imagine that you’re working at an office—for some of you this will not be very hard. For the first while you work there, your boss stops you in the hall from time to time to say things like, this is what you do, when you run point on a big project.

In meetings sometimes he’ll stop to point at you and say, Kyle, (in this scenario your name is Kyle) this is what you do, when you’re running an important project. People start to know who you are.

It takes a while, but the day finally comes. Your boss comes in and tells you you will be running point on an important project. You do a great job, and everybody is really excited about it. Look at this guy we got, they say. Check out Kyle. Check out Kyle’s guns.

The next day doesn’t go quite as well. Your boss comes in and tells you you’re off the project.

The next day he shows up and says, okay, I need you to spend nearly as much time as you were spending on the project before, but this time you’re going to be playing shooting guard, I mean, doing graphics for it.

You don’t know anything about graphics, but you open up MS Paint, draw some stick figures, and it’s fine. You’re contributing a little, anyway.

The next day, you’re drinkng coffee and the boss comes in, grabs your coffee mug, shatters it against the wall, and shouts "NON! SACRE BLEU!"

You’re off graphics. You wonder why he’s shouting at you in French.

The next day he comes in and tells you to do…something…with the project. He waves his hands in the air vaguely, like a cat fighting a ball of yarn. He leaves you with that.

That’s Rag-Dolling.

I’m not here to criticize Rick Carlisle. The older I get, the more worried I am about the impact of such pundits as my self just taking opinions on how much more qulaified people do jobs. What if, for example, just any jerk could write in the newspaper about this or that important scientific phenomenon?

(What? You say that happens all the time? NOOooooooooo)

Rick Carlisle the best coach the Mavs have ever had, and that’s not because he won a championship. Avery Johnson, by all rights, should have won a championship, and I think he was the worst coach the Mavs have had in recent years (yes, for me, it’s Carlisle, Nelson, Johnson. No, it’s not Avery’s voice. Okay, only like 20% his voice).

No, I’m more interested in getting in the mind of Rick Carlisle.

Why, Rick, does Sean Williams get to come up, be amazing, and get sent back down? Why does Dom Jones get to come up, be terrible, be sent down, but then brought back up, despite having been terrible down there? How come Yi Jianlian goes from nothing to 20 minutes a game for a few games, Brandan Wright makes every shot and can’t get into the game, and then he’s more or less our starting center? What do you SEE, Rick?

All I can say is what I see. And what I saw in last year’s playoffs, the experience that really sealed it for me with Rick, is this:

Rick requires his players to know their role and to play defense as hard as they can. Rick does not require his players to make shots.

What do I mean? I noticed it first when watching JJ Barea in the playoffs. JJ started out the playoffs with five straight games of making no more than 2 shots. He finished the Portland series 12 for 37. Did his minutes change? No. And he, along with Jet and Peja, eventually sent the Lakers home with 22 points in the fourth game. Justified.

He then started out the NBA Finals with three straight games of sub-30% shooting, going 5 for 23. Did his minutes change? No. Well, sort of. He was made a starter.

The Mavs, as we all know, won the next three games and took the title. JJ scored 17 and 15 in the last two games, and the Heat obviously couldn’t handle him.

Another coach would either have played Barea like a guy who can score 17 points in an NBA Finals game, or had him shot behind the arena for shooting 5 for 23 for three games in the NBA Finals.

What did Rick see.

Rick saw Barea doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing, that’s what. The only times in the playoffs Barea took more than 10 shots were in game 1 against the Thunder, when he went 8-12 for 21, games 5 and 6 against the Heat where he went 6-11 for 17, and 7-12 for 15, and game 4 against the Lakers when he went 9-14 for 22.

In other words, when he missed, he wasn’t chucking which surprises me because I remember Barea as a 4 foot tall whirlwhind of missed three-point attempts. And when he was out there, he was running the point well. He averaged 5.5 assists a game against the Lakers, and around the same in the last three games against the Heat.

Exactly what he was supposed to be doing. And if an NBA-level talent does what he’s supposed to be doing, the result is success. You won't always make the shot. But if it's the right shot, that's okay.

The converse can be seen in the case of Peja Stojakovic. You’ll recal that Peja, who was so brilliant throughout the playoffs, and who shoots a basketball better than anyone alive, played exactly 26 minutes in the Finals, and that’s with 15 in the first game.

Was Peja going to hit threes in the Finals, if he played? Of course he was.They don’t make the three-point line any farther away, in the championships. Coach Norman Dale proved that in his 1986 science experiment. But just as much as Rick doesn’t care if you miss shots, he doesn’t care if you make shots.

In Peja’s case, there was nothing of disobedience in his inabiity to provide what was needed. He was too old and stiff, and the Heat were too young and athletic. It was sad, but it was also the right move.

Bottom line:

Roddy Beaubois, as well as Lamar Odom, have not had enjoyable seasons. They have had, in one sense, opposite problems. One is a bundle of young talent who can’t stop getting into trouble with the coach, the other is a veteran used to being treated with more respect than this. In reality, though, the reason they are getting "rag-dolled", a term famously coined by Shawn Marion in his classic 2009 essay "Rag-Dolling: The Developing Modern and Jesus, Will You Just Tell Me What to Expect", has much more to do with non-compliance than non-performance, though there has been some of that, too.

We’ll see. I’m willing to entertain the idea that Rick’s approach, great coach that he is, actually is not going to work on everybody. JJ Barea was a machine that you wound up and he’d drive to the basket and shoot three-pointers. Peja did only one of those but, like, a lot better. Roddy, and again Lamar too, can both do anything, and much like a young Jonathan Safran Foer, often rely on the potential threat of dazzling stunts to get relatively simple hoops.

We’ve already watched as Lamar Odom’s role with the Mavericks has shrunk from "he’ll play four positions for us," to "we sure hope he learns how to play one position for us. Any position, really. I’m not ruling out mascot." At this point, Roddy has good days when he shoots the three well and bad days the rest of the time. What Roddy doesn’t understand, what he needs to understand, is that if he takes a dumb shot, even if he makes it, he’ll be in Rick’s doghouse. Much more so than if he takes the right shot and misses.

I’m not willing to blame anyone for all this. No player wants to play poorly, although some, like Baron Davis, don’t have to work at it to play well. I don’t get the sense that either Lamar or Roddy is that guy. And Rick’s system works brilliantly with guys like Dirk, Kidd, Marion and Terry who predicate their games on knowing where to be when. It may not be a match, but there’s still time.

We’ll see.