I hope you all will forgive the lack of actual stats for this week's Statsketball, but it seemed like the Mavericks are more or less a known commodity at this point, and there seemed to be something much more interesting to be said.
I hope you appreciate this foray into the consideration of the usage of stats as an institution, rather than as, simply, a descriptive tool.
If we haven't already, we're entering an age of basketball analytics, where math, probability, statistics, and technology can help us better understand a game that is - as it turns out - incredibly complicated, and very hard to optimize from just our own eyes and best logic. There are a lot of manifestations of this move towards analytics: the entire NBA's obsession with three-pointers; the Spurs' system that loads on corner threes both on offense and defense; and Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls' 'pack the strong side' defense wouldn't exist without the analytics movement.
At the moment, though, the name most associated with analytics and their manifestation on a basketball court is Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, and what's been deemed "MoreyBall."
Every team has their pet stat that they focus on to build a team with: the Thunder build around drafting guys with huge wingspans who can shoot; the Spurs drill plays for corner threes over and over and over; and the Suns drool over a fast pace.
Morey and the Rockets, though, love three-pointers in general, and their obsession with threes is changing the game.
The idea is simple: since it's worth an extra point, a three-pointer with a 33% chance of going in the basket is worth the same amount of points, on average, as a two pointer with a 50% chance of going in (and averages are everything in a sport with an 82 game season of 48 minute games). No one short of Dirk or Chris Bosh averages above 50% on two-point jumpshots, which means that unless someone is taking an open shot at the rim, a three-pointer is almost always the most valuable shot on the court, as long as the shooter is at least league-average from long distance.
Given this very basic principle, Morey has constructed a Rockets team almost entirely out of people who can do one of three things: shoot threes, score at the basket at an above 50% rate, or draw fouls regularly. He avoids players who score in the midrange like the plague. Basically, he wants players who only operate in what Tom Ziller calls "The Green Triangle," and do nothing else.
From a mathematical and logical standpoint, this makes sense. And so far, it's working. The Rockets haven't totally abandoned the midrange shot, but they have come close. LaMarcus Aldridge, by himself, has take more midrange jumpers than the entire Rockets team has all season. The Rockets' D-League affiliate, the Rio-Grande Vipers, have shot fewer than 50 mid-range jumpers all season.
The Rockets are now vying for the 2nd seed in a loaded Western Conference, and the Vipers have been dominating the D-League for years. It works.
But, the efficacy of this total mid-range abandonment aside (and there is at least one minor qualm), its success has started to establish a new atmosphere in NBA analysis and in NBA locker rooms: the game has become about probability. About the odds of making a shot, and the value therein.
The sport, as much as anything else now, is about odds and averages. Averages and odds.
A Changing Sport
There are a lot of frameworks through which we can think about basketball: as poetry, as physics, as escapist entertainment. The NBA and its fans cycle through all of these fairly regularly, and at the moment, the league has settled on Probability as the main basis through which to understand how basketball works.
Really, it wasn't until we thought of the sport as a concentrated set of averages that we really learned how the sport works at its core. While we choose to understand the sport as a set of interacting odds, percentages and averages, we will probably continue to learn more about it than we have or will at any other point in the sport's history. Because, fundamentally, winning in a game of basketball is about mitigating risk and manipulating odds, percentages and averages.
However, precisely because we're starting to think of the sport as a set of odds, what we generally find exciting about basketball is changing.
Dirk is a thrilling player for many, many reasons. I'm sure you'll get a different explanation from each different Mavs fans you talk to. Still, there's one reason that Dirk is so brilliant that just about everyone can attest to or agree on: he thrived on beating the odds. Beating the odds, constantly, is what makes him great.
Dirk is the absolute embodiment of a guy who doesn't play by the rules of physics. A legitimate seven foot tall German man who can lithely run miles without hurting himself and launch a 29 inch sphere like a catapult, 20 feet into the air, from 25 feet away, precisely into a hoop that is only marginally bigger than the sphere that's been launched, at a 40% rate.
If you told somebody in the 19th century that there was a person with this particular skill set, he would, first, call you crazy for having even come up with such an inane goal, and second, say that such a feat was impossible. And yet, the Big German plays before us.
His shooting percentages are gaudy, but so is everything else about Nowitzki: until last year, Dirk had very little serious injury history, despite his size and awkwardness of movement. He moves with a quickness and cleverness that even today is surprising. Dallas' numbers in the clutch with him on the team, even this season, have been incredible - almost impossible.
But, most fundamentally, his signature shot, the one-foot fadeaway from 19 feet, is impossible. It seems impossible. It should be impossible. It is, by most definitions of a bad shot, a terrible shot, yet when Dirk takes it, it's one of the best in the game. Somehow, Dirk beats the odds.
Sports Science has done an entire episode on this one shot (apparently it would take Yao Ming with Derrick Rose's vertical leap to block that fade once it has left Dirk's hand, by the way). Countless articles have been written about it. People just want to understand this impossible shot that doesn't make sense.
The real impossibility of the one-foot fade is that Dirk starts the shot completely away from the basket. He's not even looking near the basket. And then, all of a sudden, he's up in the air, completely off balance on only foot, the ball is already in the air, and he doesn't need to get a good look at the hoop to know it's in. No other player can launch without particularly good sight, and so turned around, and yet be so confident of success. Dirk is at once off balance, yet perfectly comfortable. He is most in control when he is blind.
Between his physical state, his signature offensive move, and the impossible "lighting in a bottle" 2011 championship, Dirk is the living embodiment of the idea of beating the odds; of not just doing the impossible, but being the impossible.
Yet, with Dirk's career winding down and the age of MoreyBall ascending, it's hard not to feel like Dirk's age in the NBA is coming to a close, and a new one is taking its place. The age of beating the odds is being replaced with the age of controlling the odds. Dirk isn't the kind of player that Morey wants: someone who takes the bad shots and converts them anyway. Morey wants the James Hardens of the world, who take exactly the shots he wants to see, nothing less.
I should probably clarify that there's nothing wrong with that, either. People who claim that analytics are boring must have never seen the Rockets or Suns or Spurs play basketball. Analytics has led to some amazingly entertaining games, and they will continue to do so. As analytics grow more advanced, we'll learn to focus in on more specific things in regards to the game, and the sport will only get more exciting - more high stakes - as every team figures out its own competitive advantage with new and different forms of technology and math. Teams will be faster, shoot better, pass better, make better decisions, and ultimately make better plays more consistently. That's a good thing.
The point isn't that basketball will be getting less entertaining with the dawn of MoreyBall and the dusk of Dirk, it's only that its form of entertainment is changing. The joy we get from watching Dirk beat the odds is slowly turning into excitement at watching Steph Curry grab basketball by the balls and create his own odds and his own sky high averages.
But in Dallas, a few years from now, the last rainbow shot will be launched from Dirk's hands, and as it descends slowly through the rim for the last time, the era of a man who has defined the game for most of us will have ended. And we will all have to face a new NBA: one that appreciates and loves this man's dedication to the improbable, while moving beyond it, beyond the one-legged-fadeaway, into the land of the expected.