FD Guest Lecture: Something About Robots

Ziller weighs on yet another urgent current event. But don't sleep on the Recluse's take on the Josh Howard situation. Really, don't. Or the ongoing, unspeakably awesome, Presidental 21 Tournament.

Gelf published a keen, damning piece on faux media-driven controversy in the ever-tiring baseball stats-vs-scouts war. ("Ever-tiring" because anyone who knows anything in that sport saw the light years ago. Those withholding belief have become a farce and their denials self-parody. Sort-of like everything about a particular presidential campaign.) In the Gelf post, Jake Rake notes the baseball war has basically moved to a cold phase, with mutual understanding overriding deep hatred despite the lasting media narrative. (I mean, damn, FJM's been dormant almost all fall.) That isn't the case in the NBA, of course, and it never will be. TIMELY NEWS HOOK: Gil.

Last year, no shortage of "scout" types basted Arenas because the Wizards had the audacity to play well without him. It's the fucking Ewing Theory gone mad: if a team is X units of good when player A is healthy, and X, X-1 or X+1 units of good when A is injured, A must be useless, overrated, not worth the currency he graces. Basketball, the most interdependent game in the whole universe ... and we'll leave out players B through E. NEVER MIND that one of the cornerstone pleas of the anti-stat basketball crowd is the nonlinearity and INTERDEPENDENCE of basketball. They argue that you can't measure a player's worth because there are too many variables. But when a player beloved by science doesn't get enough W's, it's all on that player's talent/production/performance. It's a completely two-faced argument.

Is it a secret that the formulas generally adore Gil? Dean Oliver rates Arenas highly. Same for Hollinger and the adjusted plus-minus set. (Berri hates scoring and thus is recused from the matter.) Almost all basketball seamheads consider Arenas an elite efficient scoring genius. So the opposing view from much of the anti-stats crowd -- elucidated so plainly in David Friedman's senseless assault on Gil last year -- is that all those points come at a cost to the team, as if Arenas scoring 30 a night on solid shooting dismisses the grit and effort and team play Washington trots out there when dude's off playing grab-ass with Beau Biden.

The argument aganst Gil from "basketball purists" (that term's loaded like a Kennedy) is that Gil gets his, but does not contribute to the team in any meaningful way. PROOF: the Wizards did well without him. The argument by the maths: Gil gets his, which helps the team. PROOF: the Wizards got good when Arenas came 'round, and basic arithmetic indicates Gil does many important basketball tasks (score, pass, draw fouls, shoot) extraordinarily well, which helps the team. There's no way to prove who's right, insomuch as there's no way to make irrational, anti-reality folk concede to fact when their heart's fixed on a narrative that feels good.

If someone isn't willing to believe Arenas is an amazing talent based on the proof which exists, you'll never change their mind. So really, the best this season of Gil could have provided to we of the pasty numberkind who have is an appendix of truth, a fuck-you synopsis of mathematical philosophy. All we lost was the chance to point at the scoreboard during a game without a mercy rule. So Gil's valiant ascent with Caron and 'Tawn to maybe first-round home-court has been dashed, and the thieved opportunity for a minor victory stings. But the war rages on. IN DIOGU WE TRUST.

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At 9/18/2008 5:21 AM, Blogger db said...

There are so many wrong statements about "evidence" going on in this piece. Stats are just so much different in basketball than baseball (number of scores and relative isolation of them from other events being the most obvious) that the analogy already is broken.

Implicit in Ziller's argument is that Gil is not unique but "of a type" that "scout" types disdain.

So here's a question - can anyone name a team with a leader like Gil making it out of the second round? That's a textual question, but also an evidential one. I don't know my history well enough to make a strong statement on it, but I think it's an interesting question.

It comes from what seems to me to be a pretty good body of evidence that in the playoffs the game slows down, scouting starts gettng tougher, and we see a battle between systems start to exert dominance over the individual player. Not saying it's good or bad, but I find little other evidence for the Spurs. Gil's attractiveness from a stereotypical FD view (not necessarily those of the FD crew) is his maverick nature. But this very anti-systemic nature might be precisely what prevents his team from winning.

A close reading of various political movements (particularly black nationalism) might provide some useful analogies...

At 9/18/2008 5:53 AM, Blogger T. said...

db - just off the top of my head, Baron Davis, maybe Kevin Johnson could qualify as well, although neither of them are as prolific a scorer as Gil.

I suppose the first question should be - who is like Gilbert? The cloest players I can think of - however non-flattering as it is - are guys like Marbury and Francis, but I don't think Arenas has quite the same dribbling-the-possession-to-death type game. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? That one year Michael Adams was good?

At 9/18/2008 8:21 AM, Blogger Taliesin said...

Arenas is a backcourt Barkley. I love Agent Zero, but I think in his heart of heart defense is just something that happens in between offensive possessions.

The idea that the Wiz are somehow worse off with a healthy Gil don't hold water for me, but I'm scared by these knee issues. You can only get cut up so many times before you come back with physical and mental shackles.

At 9/18/2008 11:04 AM, Blogger Duff Soviet Union said...

Isiah Thomas. Always gets bought up as a "pure point" because he played on a championship team and, you know, you can't win a championship with a shoot first pg. Except when the Spurs did it with Tony Parker of course. KJ was mentioned above. Jason Terry is an undersized 2 and but for the grace of God and Bennet Salvatore the Mavs would have won with him playing a key role. I agree with taliesin that the real problem with Gil is not his shot:pass ratio but his defense. Same with Marbury back when Marbs was good (anyone who claims he never was is using some serious revisionist history). Contrary to perception, teams win with shoot first guys all the time. By the way Ziller, you mention that Berri doesn't like Arenas. Well, I don't like Berri but this isn't really true. He doesn't think he's a "superstar" per se, but he does think he's strongly above average (not counting this year).

At 9/18/2008 5:44 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

Kind of off-topic (although it is at least about NBA!), and probably everyone reads Truehoop anyway, but there was a nice link to an interview by Adrian W at Yahoo! in which he criticized Coach K (and college coaches in general) in the wake of the Olympic gold.

"To me, the biggest surprise was how much credit that people wanted to give Mike Krzyzewski for this team. The least surprising? The fact that he has already sold another 'motivational' book that will detail his leadership of the gold-medal winning team. As one NBA GM said to me, 'I guess K didn't have time to do a book after '06.' Those were the world championships when Krzyzewski couldn't make an adjustment to stop the Greece pick and roll and didn't prepare enough to know the names of the Greek players. The insistence after that semifinal loss was that the team was too young and too inexperienced. They had enough to win in '06, but obviously they were much better by '08. Still, putting that loss in the Worlds on the players was typical of the college coaching establishment. They want the credit when it goes well, and none of the blame when it doesn't. Krzyzewski said it himself: This was an easy team to coach. It really was. They were motivated. They were focused. They were determined to be unselfish. The biggest thing of all was this is that they had been together for most of 3 years. He had the best talent. The best preparation time. And to his credit, he made the most of it. But I've been around that program enough the past two years to know this: The leadership on this team came primarily from two places: Jerry Colangelo and Jason Kidd/Kobe Bryant. Listen, Colangelo gave Coach K an excess of talent, and he still needed every last superstar-Kobe, Wade, LeBron, etc.-to beat Spain in that gold medal game. It's kind of typical of the college culture and its enablers to make sure the coach gets all the credit."


At 9/18/2008 5:53 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Yeah, everyone should read that if you haven't already.

At 4/13/2009 2:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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