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Why Does Stuff Do Stuff

One of the newer ideas in the academic study of religion is that the universality of religion---that is, that it seems to have occurred to every civilization ever to believe in something that can be called gods, though not, of course, every person ever--is in some way rooted in cognitive structures.

This "cognitive science" approach to religion suspects the culprit for religious belief might be something called "advanced agency detection". That is, early on homo sapiens had the need to associate experienced phenomena with a supplied agent for survival reasons. If a young homo sapiens sapiens happens to be in the brush and happens to hear a twig snap, it is important, if you follow me, that that young hss makes the connection that the twig snap might be provided by a tiger if he or she ever wants to be an old hss. In other words, there is a structure in the brain that hypothesizes tigers, when necessary, and is capable of performing a similar process when a tree falls on Thak but not Og.

I'm not a huge fan of this idea, completely aside from the fact that I would never choose to actually discuss religion on the internet because I don't hate myself, but my primary objection to the idea of the interaction between the brain and belief is that I don't think we understand the brain well enough yet, and it will undoubtedly be more interesting, as a field, in twenty years.

This is sort of how I feel about advanced stats. Some,of course, are great. True shooting percentage is invaluable, separating the guys who fill it up because they think teammates are only necessary for the look of the thing, and guys who could fill it up more than they do but choose to operate with more efficiency. I'm a big fan of PER. Win shares is good.

But, of course, the idea that advanced stats explain why things happen the way they do is a conclusion I think even advanced stat heads will feel uncomfortable with. And teams repeatedly show their own knowledge or ignorance, depending on what kind of critic you are, of the dichotomy between the things that make a team a team that works and true value---I would cite, for example, Chicago letting most of its incredible defensive 2nd unit go because each individual player wasn't technically worth what they got paid. It's possible to be on either side of this issue, and to understand each.

There's a hugely similar issue in valuations of the Mavericks this year, with most pundits, fairly probably, kicking the Mavs off the podium without much consideration for 2012-2013 and generally placing them around the 6th position in the West---even though they were almost there last year and are hugely better this year. What gives, there?

No one really understands how the Mavs did what they did last year. And it's especially true of the Mavericks' surprisingly decent defense and rebounding.

Correspondingly, we don't know what they'll do this year.

Consider this: for much of the season, the Mavericks had a top 10, even top 8 defense before finally falling to 12th.

This is despite the fact that they didn't have a single center who they felt comfortable playing in the playoffs.

This is despite the fact that they had approximately one elite defender.

This is despite the fact that they never got a loose ball, never won a tip, and rarely enough blocked a shot except on the occasional bizarre Brandan Wright game.

This is with Delonte often injured, Lamar Odom so ineffectual that the word ineffectual has been replaced in the dictionary WITH Lamar Odom, with no backup PF worth talking about, with Dirk at starting PF, with Vince Carter, with Jason Kidd, etc.

Consider this: the Mavericks finished the season 11th in rebounding. With, again, no reliable center. With only Shawn Marion averaging over 7 a game. With only Marion, Dirk, Haywood over 5 rebounds a game. With only Marion, Dirk, Haywood, Mahimni over 4.2 rebounds a game.

You know it doesn't make any sense. You know it doesn't make any sense, that the Mavericks were decent last year---what did they have, Dirk and one other guy averaging over 11 points? Just two more averaging 10? And say what you want about Jason Kidd, and the "best passing team in the league" business, but for the record the Mavericks were 15th in assists per game.

They didn't have anybody who could defend, they defended. They didn't have anybody who could rebound, they rebounded. They couldn't pass, they didn't score, but they were the 7th seed in an incredibly tough Western conference, in a year when almost all games were Conference games.

I've always said there were two ways to look at the Mavericks. You could say that a team with Dirk, unquestionably one of the top three players of his generation, underachieved in comparison to the Spurs or Lakers. Or you could say that a team with just Dirk never had any business being as good as they have been, and I incline to the latter. I think the inability to quantify just what DIrk's incredibly efficient, entirely unstoppable offensive game brings to the table is what holds the basketball world back from understanding the Mavericks, really, but that's as may be.

What's more important is the question. The Mavericks, talent wise, are a lot better than they were last year. But it's been many years since they've changed their identity as much as they did this offseason.

May they have kept most of the reason good stuff was happening, have ditched a lot of the reason that it wasn't.

We'll know soon.