1.27.2009

Your Move(s): A Guest Lecture from the Joint Field of Science and Sport



A guest lecture from science professional Craig Cone, which shall confuse and delight us all.

Science is many things; useful is rarely one of them. Graduate level quantum mechanics is never of any practical use, treated by its students as a trial by ordeal rather than preparation for a professional career. That ends here, when it meets this site's earlier, admittedly crude, analysis of the alley-oop.

First, a devolution into an overly brief and facile derivation. When I fire a gun through a doorway, the bullet passes directly through the void way every time (duh). But if I am very small (one tenth the size of a human hair, for starters), firing a gun through a door causes insane shit happens. As the bullet passes through the door, it diffracts, creating a wave-like pattern of probability. Even less intuitive is the idea that that while fractions of the bullet are creating interference fringes forward, some fraction is coming directly backward.

This phenomenon cannot be interpreted with any form of classical physics. It actually perplexed science as a community for quite some time. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, a scientist by the name of Richard Feynman proposed an idea hinging on path integrals as a unifying theory of dynamics. The theory states that there is a minimum energy path from point A to B, and that any deviation from the classical path has a penalty related to the deviation from the classical path. It contends that not only it is possible to calculate the deviation of any possible path, but that every possible path is being explored simultaneously (think back to the bullet example). The direct path from A to B, as well as the path from A to B through Dallas, are all occurring in calculable and observable ways. Repeated addition over all space-time is accomplished using a series of path integrals that eventually came to bear Feynman's name. While Feynman was initially treated like an escaped mental patient, he eventually ends up with a Nobel Prize and a lifetime's worth of bragging rights.



This brings us to basketball, specifically the fast break (an extreme version of any motion-based offense). As every middle school coach can diagram, there is a correct way to run one, and any deviation is showboating, an error of the highest degree that will result in a solid dose of pine-riding. There is a classical path from A (ball in hand) to B (ball in net); by observation, there is an infinite number of ways to get there. But according to Feynman’s path integrals, we can calculate the energy (everything is energy) of every single permutation. When even the threat of high energy play is of extra value—after all, swagger/style has functional value—suddenly there's a strategic use for this theory. A minor deviation involves a pass through the legs of the defender or whipping the ball behind the back. A higher-energy path is a pull up three or ally-oop, extra high-energy is the McGrady self ally-oop through traffic. If those are high-energy paths, then the high school clip posted last week from the high school game verges on truly profligate, as near to actualization of the A to B through Timbuktu metaphor as physically possible.

The Paul/Chandler combo became intuitive because it is both lethal and functional. As long as Talent(calc) <= Talent(pos) any action makes logical sense. There is no violation of basketball Tao, only the separation of dreams and physical reality, the broken chaff left on the threshing room floor. This is not some attempt to draw back the curtain to expose the gears of sport, only to then claim that the emperor is without clothes. Instead, what has been added is a qualitative method to appreciate the swag required to get from A to B by way of where ever.

Comparisons of top shelf point guards in the league is both lazy and ineffective, largely because of this range of possibilties. The Kobe vs. LeBron (2009) debate has played out all across the internet. And yet it borders on incoherent. Kobe is the master of divining the classical path from the farthest reaches of the ethers, a quality that makes Kobe such an enigma. This personal vision quest has lead him to this height, now execute the pick and roll LIKE I DO. Whereas with King James, it is not clear that he is aware of the absurdity of the quantum mechanical trajectories he employs. All of his nicknames are some urban variant of the second coming because he has access to states through actions previously unimaginable except through god-like powers. Surely in retrospect, he knows what he does is unique. But at the heart of the matter the actions cannot be that absurd to LeBron, or why would he attempt them in front of the 20,000 people on a nightly basis?

The Paul/Williams comparison is equally fallacious. Deron Williams is the classically taught player, shredding defenses at their weakest point, turning their weakness into his strength on some kung-fu shit. Whereas Chris Paul's penetration and distribution are that bullet diffracting through the doorway, with all paths available for his perusal. Nash is the merging of the two, monitoring weakness-spotting knowledge of classical paths as a foundation, and then using unique skills of those around him to create the chaotic function that was his MVP hallmark.

The classical path, the path that requires the least energy is still the most probable way to execute A-B. But let us not mistake difraction for a sign of weakness. Consider how delicious the quantum mechanical meat is compared to the classical bone.

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26 Comments:

At 1/27/2009 10:44 AM, Blogger Teddy said...

Presque vue. Next time with complete sentences, please.

 
At 1/27/2009 10:56 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

That was my bad. I did a rushed last-minute edit. Now it's in better shape, like it deserves.

 
At 1/27/2009 11:27 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I liked this very much, except for the part about fast breaks. While a fast break is indeed pretty easy to run given numbers, a lot of times the fancy moves are very helpful in getting the job done. They aren't just showboating, and I think that the author is reaching.

Also, I like incomplete sentences on this site. Back to the good old days of double babelfished prose.

 
At 1/27/2009 11:30 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I think that was one of those "everybody else says" sentences. But I should let the author speak for himself.

 
At 1/27/2009 11:37 AM, Blogger Craig said...

I think that fast break is especially relevant as there is a classic way to do it (dribble the ball until someone guards you then dish or go strong). But when a player goes away from the classic path, it should be appreciated for what it is.

 
At 1/27/2009 12:28 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Edit made that might clear up this misunderstanding.

 
At 1/27/2009 12:35 PM, Blogger W2 said...

While the alley oop is artful, it seems that the three as a finish/dagger on the break seems to be more potent.

The additional point helps.

Thoughts on what has more energy... Josh Smith alley finish a LeBron Slam or a Ray Allen three (sorry for the eastern conference bias) ?

 
At 1/27/2009 12:37 PM, Blogger Ravi said...

I liked it a lot, except for the "science is rarely useful" sentiment, seeing as scientific accomplishments are the building blocks of our world.

 
At 1/27/2009 12:53 PM, Blogger Craig said...

@Ravi- Except that people rarely want to hear what specific calculations and models were used to predict the weather, just whether they should bring a jacket.

 
At 1/27/2009 1:01 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Taketh away, giveth: Some of you may be disappointed by the ads, so here's the official FD Twitter in return.

 
At 1/27/2009 2:35 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

"Deron Williams is the classically taught player, shredding defenses at their weakest point, turning their weakness into his strength on some kung-fu shit. Whereas Chris Paul's penetration and distribution are that bullet diffracting through the doorway, with all paths available for his perusal." Finally.

 
At 1/27/2009 3:17 PM, Blogger Ben said...

I luff you all.

However, this "passes directly through the void way every time (duh)" does not make sense.

Is it supposed to be "void one way"? Or Sir Nose D'voidoffunk?

 
At 1/27/2009 7:45 PM, Blogger Jamison said...

"Comparisons of top shelf point guards in the league is both lazy and ineffective, largely because of this range of possibilties."

Yet it's this very range that seems to fuel sites like freedarko, and to make sports interesting beyond statistics. There are brains behind the bullets, and you wonder why Kobe chose one path and LeBron another. How much of their path was chosen for them, owing to talent, upbringing, etc. Which path would you prefer if you had to build a team around it. Does history favor a path. These kinds of questions are ultimately behind the comparisons, and the degree to which they are lazy or ineffective has much to do with who's asking and answering.

 
At 1/27/2009 8:41 PM, Blogger bring back chris porter said...

Trust me, I'm a physicist: Eric Snow is the low energy solution to basketball.

Similar conclusions about basketball can be reached if you think about the difference between the ground state of a system (lowest energy) and all of its possible excitations (higher energy). There's plenty of nice physics to be found in the ground state, but it's the excitations that really make shit happen. Is it obvious to anyone else that the basketball equivalent of energy in this context is swag?

 
At 1/27/2009 8:52 PM, Blogger Kevin Pelton said...

Is that kid in the last picture a young Luke Walton?

 
At 1/27/2009 9:38 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I continue to disagree strongly with even the edited paragraph about fast breaks. There is no reason for there to be a flair/efficiency tradeoff; sometimes it really is the best basketball play to do a no-look pass or dribble behind your back. This is especially true of NBA caliber players, for whom the increased risk from the higher difficulty is almost inconsequential.

Tim Duncan is someone that I would label as typical of these low energy paths, not Kobe Bryant, who scores 81 points in a single game by taking contested three point shots. And while Duncan is really good and has 3 rings, he is not THAT good. (I would argue that all 3 Spurs championships, as well as most of those of Kobe-Shaq, came during seasons of major talent drought or were fluky anyway.) My claim is mainly that it is not possible to truly excel at basketball without creativity and boundary-pushing, or the low energy path, and that to lump Kobe and Deron in with Eric Snow and Raja Bell represents a mislabelling on a level beyond simply one of scale.

 
At 1/27/2009 10:19 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Seems like your major concern is that somehow, Kobe or Deron could be accused of 1) lacking swagger or 2) being uncreative. What if works something like this: It's possible to have swagger with more direct paths, but deviating from them is always requires swag. And while direct paths can be correlated with obvious, sometimes finding that spot requires creativity. Without thinking too hard about it, that redeems Kobe or Williams while differentiating them from both Eric Snow and LeBron.

 
At 1/28/2009 2:19 AM, Blogger Anthony Wilson said...

"But at the heart of the matter the actions cannot be that absurd to LeBron, or why would he attempt them in front of the 20,000 people on a nightly basis?"

Does this mean that LeBron is actually giving thought to these moves? Or is he just performing them naturally?

 
At 1/28/2009 2:23 AM, OpenID CDS said...

PS Timmeh Duncan owns 4 NBA Titles with 3 Finals MVPs. Isn't his patented bank creatively boring? Maybe his whining and goofy wizard shit is his swag?

 
At 1/28/2009 4:31 AM, Blogger nadiel said...

Putting Kobe/Deron as classical, and LeBron/Paul as other, this seems to value that high-energy path over the low-energy (if, for no other reason, then most fans will equate LeBron/Paul as greater than).

I am interested in more complex comparisons. If Eric Snow is epitome of low-energy, than isn't AI the opposite extreme (and what does this say about their coexistence).

Is Lamar Odom miscoded because we THINK he should be taking a path like LeBron, however he is more classically inclined?

Who is the ultimate high-energy path low-efficacy player? Marbury, maybe?

 
At 1/28/2009 6:53 AM, Blogger milaz said...

the true beauty of basketball is found in the alternative paths, the higher energy plays - more swagger players... or is it?

in comparing two players maybe you can rank them but without those basics, without a complete mastery of the lowest energy path there is no swagger... there are no high energy paths... once you can go from A to B through the lowest energy path, then you can pick it up...

each person builds on that lowest energy path... some are more creative, others more results-oriented, others just have more swagger... yet in the end it's were it takes them... you can have all the swagger in the world and never get anywhere...

and yes Kobe Vs LeBron is incoherent...

 
At 1/28/2009 7:30 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

HOW HAS THIS BEEN OVERLOOKED!?!?!?

www.lamarodom.com

The Pat Riley quote says it all.

Speaking of energy and the amount that gets displaced with any movement, watching some of the Lebron highlights against the Kings yesterday got me thinking about how much energy he uses up just regaining his balance after he xplodes to the hoop.

also, tenacious D's hbo episodes are more relevant than ever.

 
At 1/28/2009 10:58 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

Shoals, I'm pretty willing to drink your 10:19 Kool-Aid, but how about Luke Walton for a player deviating from the direct path without anything resembling swagger. (No, his fug tattoo does not count!)

By the way, I'm aware of Tim Duncan's numerous awards and feel that he is an excellent player. My position is that none of them are "real", in the sense that the Spurs championships 1)all occurred in down years for the league as a whole and 2)except for the lockout year, occurred in years in which the Spurs were not the best team in the league and were won mainly through fortuitous injuries to the opposition rather than transcendent play by Duncan et al(Nowitzki, Webber, Joe Johnson, Amare).

 
At 1/28/2009 10:59 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

By et al, I meant the Spurs, not the people in parentheses. The people in parentheses are of course the players whose injuries made the Spurs' championship paths very easy.

 
At 1/29/2009 6:59 AM, Blogger Gururaj said...

It was a very nice lecture. It delved into some of the rather unconventional phenomenon in physics
x-ray fluoresecence

 
At 1/29/2009 10:18 AM, Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Shoals' last comment gets real close (this is all pretty thoroughly great, btw) but there's one last axis that I can't quite nail down but think is akin to a layer of choice+style that underlies swag.

It goes something like this:

Take the Ramones. They started to play the way they did because it was literally the only way they COULD play. They kept to that style in later years for reasons of their own.

There's two different things there. A third thing would be that bunch of bands who ape the Ramones, thus choosing those low-energy paths precisely as a matter of swag.

Jumping over a half genre, we have bands that ape classic rock bands (I'm thinking of, say, Dramarama and the Hold Steady). These second-order bands NEVER have the actual abilities of their predecessors, but sometimes manage to be transcendently great anyways, in equal measures due to working within established frameworks that are so established because they WORK, and their own idiosyncracies, neuroses, and whatevers.

The idea is that wholly subordinating yourself to a previously-established low-energy path is itself a way to swag of a different and possibly intriguing kind.

So, as a first approximation:

Oscar Robertson (or Magic, or Bird) = Classic Rock (Stones, Who) [robust, manifold, technical abilities subordinated to function]

Chauncey Billups (or Jason Richardson) = Neo-Traditionalists [robust, ramified, lesser abilities more explicit lip service paid to function]

 

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