clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On scarcity: how does a team get better?

A lot of us act like winning a chip is just a matter of trying really hard. But...

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The human mind is a mysterious place precisely because it does not feel like a mind. It feels like a thinking machine, which is different. Basically, we think we're computers, when we're really monkeys. Study after study shows that "common sense" turns out to be wrong, again and again. But we really can't believe that because the very thing that gifts us that sense is the thing we would have to trust to tell us that it is faulty.

You can find any number of columns about Manu Ginobili hitting a clutch three in Game 7. And he did. With 27 seconds left, he hit a three that put the Spurs up one.

And then he missed a free throw that, it turns out, would probably have sealed it in regulation. And then he fouled Westbrook, five seconds into what should have been the Thunder's last possession. And then he missed the last shot. It's all well and good for us to basically know that clutch is and isn't a real thing, it's harder to convince the animal lurking in the back of our minds.

So it is with coaches and with offseason acquisitions. There just doesn't seem to be any way for us to internalize the fact -- and it is a fact -- of scarcity. Scott Brooks isn't the world's greatest coach, but this was his third Western Conference Finals in four years, and the only one he missed, Russ was out for. It's all well and good to say that a better coach would have won a chip with that team and it might well be true, but Avery Johnson and Gregg Popovich have both had #1 seeds lose to #8 seeds in the first round, so it's not like even Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are just falling ass-backwards into the WCF every year despite everything that Brooks does.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost LeBron James, as the MInnesota Timberwolves prepare to probably lose Kevin Love, we smirk and laugh about how they screwed it up. Didn't do enough. But obviously they tried. And though there are good and bad GMs, what a GM can do is always about the assets you start with and when you get your draft pick. We can laugh about how badly the Cavs have drafted with their high picks, and we'd be right. Anthony Bennett so far looks like a disaster. But, and this is important, how different would it be if they'd gotten Otto Porter or Ben McLemore? Even if they'd gotten Oladipo or MCW? They'd have a good young core, but supposedly the Jazz have a good young core and they lost 9 million games.

It turns out that the exact same cognitive processes play out in our evaluation of the NBA as they do in our evaluation of society. There's something about us as animals, as creatures, that must believe it is possible to do something. Part of this is being American, watching American movies and TV where the hero is never completely trapped, but a lot of it is being human. We are creatures who run on hope as much as any other fluid. And we believe that want to and achievement are one and the same. Inequality in America is literally founded on this rock, which is why Malcolm X was moved to say the rock landed on him.

If the Thunder fire Scott Brooks, as so many fans in America want right now, that wouldn't solve their problem because they would have to hire another coach. If the Mavericks got rid of Monta or Jose, or whoever's supposedly causing the problem on whatever day, it wouldn't solve that problem because they'd have to get somebody else.

This somebody else, or something else, is always invincible. As we are at the moment of the absolute apogee of the valuation of young talent, I'm tempted to suggest that it's because only blanker canvases can support the burden of our hope. That they are nearly all doomed to falter under that burden is tomorrow's problem and there are tweets to tweet today.

If the Thunder replace Scott Brooks, who would it be with? Not Gregg or Rick, so they'll be worse than Gregg or Rick. Would Dave Joerger be an improvement? Jeff Van Gundy? Lionel Hollins? Some college coach, or some assistant? People act like this stuff doesn't matter, but it's the only thing that matters.

I've not only lived through, but been conscious of the presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama (I was born in the Reagan years, but those are pretty fuzzy). It hasn't happened so often in American history that we switch parties every 4-8 years, although not never. Here, too, I'm moved to think maybe it's because we've become obsessed with believing our own hype, the hype the newspapers give us to empower us in a world where everyone and everything is a customer. If X isn't doing the job we need Y. There's a term for it, in political science, the "time for change effect".

It doesn't matter what Y is or does, it doesn't matter what the problems are, Y, the unstoppable force, the monster of will, will solve them. How insane is it that we so often collectively delude ourselves of this even when there are only two choices? I mean would you walk into a restaurant and eat a gross sandwich and then say "well, the other one MUST be delicious then?"

Some things are worse than bad. Some things are way worse than mediocre. As a species, phenomenologically, we frequently seem as if we do not wish to remember this whenever it might be important. It is not enough to think it's time for a change because there is such a thing as scarcity. Period.

The Mavericks are now facing yet another offseason of high hopes. They have a lot of money but nobody much to spend it on, and before we start talking about bad luck we should be aware that it wasn't an accident that  they're almost the only ones with cash right now. No one else was saving for Luol Deng. They don't have anything to trade, and anyone who's telling you different is lying to you. They don't have a first round draft pick. There simply will not be much for them to do.

You can't just fire Scott Brooks and expect things to get better WITHOUT a better coach in mind any more than you can build a team around LeBron or Kevin Love just by wanting to. You can't fire Frank Vogel for the same reason. The players and coaches who change the fortunes of teams aren't made in assembly lines, there aren't many of them, and don't just want real hard for them to show up. Matter of fact, the way the salary cap is structured insures that every team can only offer the big guys EXACTLY the same amount of money. Scarcity means that you can't just make things happen because you want them to happen, because EVERYONE is trying to make them happen ALL the time.

At the movies there are people who shout "someone do something" and the hero who finds a way. In the sports world we shout "someone do something" and unfortunately, far more of the time than we imagine, because of our crazy, crazy monkey brains, there isn't all that much to do.

What the Mavericks are doing--what in my opinion they should have been doing for the last three years, what they finally did last offseason, what they did every year BEFORE 2011--is trying to have a team that's good enough that one or two lucky moves will make all the difference. As far as I can tell, that's the only thing to do. They don't have much to make it happen with, but I'm looking forward to watching them try.