It's a Liquid, It's a Fume


As usual, here I tell you to read The Works. It cooks and is evil fun. But, harkening back to the posts we used to do about the post we had just done for McSweeney's, here are some further thoughts on Kwame Brown, who figures prominently in today's column.

I took this unique opportunity to plumb the depths of Kwame Brown, mostly to determine why he was drafted number one. In the column, I compare him to a Euro, except with Darko, there was at least a cloud of mythos. Chandler and Curry were much better known, but then the lowly Kwame murdered Chandler before MJ in a workout, and the die was cast. Yes, back then it was assumed that Jordan knew something we didn't. But more interesting to me is the idea that workouts -- held up today as the ultimate form of wishful thinking -- were then the latest thing in empiricism. To see was to believe; reputation was propaganda and mistrust.

What makes the story even more serpentine is that this fairly insider-y moment at once decided the pick, and placed it sorely outside the reach of anyone who wasn't a total draft nerd. The draft was, during the workout era, rendering wholly inaccessible, because workouts sought to disprove everything we thought we knew, or make unknown players into late-risers. Darko, in that sense, is more like LeBron than he is Kwame; Pavel Podkolzin or Skita are his equivalent. It makes some sense: high school competition, no matter how camped-out, is still far from perfect. You can't put the player through the paces you want see. You don't push him to max. And yet there's a reason that, today, we speak scornfully of "workout wonders".

So Jordan had a reason, just not when that really resonated enough with the public -- at least not enough to be repeated ad infinitum until it grew into its own justification. To some extent, the Wizards knew that would have sounded crazy. With this realization, they -- and every other NBA team -- opened themselves up to ridicule. Scouting being hermetic because it knew better; it also recognized its own limits, its own specialization and micro-standards, and thus resigned itself to a public face of farce. In any year but 2003, Darko wouldn't have fallen so hard. With LeBron screaming through, it was just too late to try that crap. By the next year, Euros were receding, and high schooler players measured more on the kind of pro they would make. Not, to paraphrase a paleontologist I saw on NOVA last night, looking at funny bones and delighting in what they could be. That's not science, no matter how brilliant and inventive it feels, or how badly it wants to supersede the burden of what came before.

At the time, though, NBA teams thought they had hit on the magic method. It was just a different kind, a new method adapted to a low-info climate. There were glees and squeals over finding brand new types of players; hence the emphasis on all sorts of Next Kevin Garnetts, the ultimate position-buster. Let's not even try and catalog all the absurdities passed down from Europe -- which, ironically, were suggested in play and then fleshed out in workouts. The rumor was hypothesis, the workout the experiment. Sounds perfectly reasonable, no?

Except, as we know today, workouts are even more skewed than whatever players do in flashes abroad, or in the fatuous playpen of high school ball. For one, international leagues and preps play have both raised their levels. You can see a player, if not for who he could be, at least reasonably well for what he is. If that's a conservative backlash against the speculative dreaming of the workout days, when front offices sought to have their wildest wishes confirmed and conventional wisdom struck down, it's the current climate. Hyped players have it for a reason. Colleges works alongside pros to generate a reasonable facsimile of who prospects are.

Where they are headed, no one knows. But the present, en masse, gives rise to high expectations, that perilous thing we call hype. Certainly, this kind of hype is preferable, more rooted, and more realistic than what workouts produced. The new science has been proven fraud; its attack on common sense and accessibility the ultimate hermetic gag. Populist hype has gone from laughingstock to an important partner in the deep thinking of the draft. Perhaps it has been improved upon; perhaps these things just go in cycle. Regardless, today, we are all scouts. And the sport is probably the better off for it.

In case you don't have Twitter, here's the most FD video ever:

List your favorite moments below! Believe it or not, my favorite shit is DJ and Russell's "interview" about defending Bates. Oh, and I was nearly on the verge of seeing Bates's PBA sojourn not as squandered promise, but exactly the kind of magical ending this barely-real figure deserved.

Oh, and some get-shit-off-my-chest I haven't been able to do elsewhere: I don't claim to own the Positional Revolution, whatever any of that means. It's an idea we've toyed with for years, spurred by changes in the league. Like, since 2004. Certainly, I would never copyright it like I have Liberated Fandom, or Libated Fandom. But, at the risk of making everyone hate me, this latest round of Positional Revolution "discussion" strikes me as a little late in the game. It reminds me of how the advanced stats people must have felt when me, Ziller, Eric, Silverbird, and others engaged in a battle over PER years after the fact.

So, to address some points made by Rob Mahoney as he sums it all up ... I apologize in advance if you hate me after this:

1. Jesse Blanchard explains the futility of matching up players by similar positions. I don't see this as requiring a new set of terms, or even universalizing themes. Players switch up, or take unorthodox assignments, all the time. It's a matter of being able to cover the team's collective ass elsewhere. If Rondo takes a shooting guard, there had better be swingman or PG able to stick the opposing PG. This isn't just heuristic on a team-to-team basis -- i.e. who can guard what other positions -- but on team vs. team. Eric Freeman says that, if the other team is running out unorthodox players, it really makes no sense to label anyone. You look at the match-ups and devise a strategy for it. It's about a more heady gameplan, not a new theory of classification.

2. Matt Moore caught a quote from Kobe that suggested he would play anywhere, as a result of Euros (and his waning athleticism). Money shot, right! I hadn't heard that line before anyone else is, but I'll leave it up to you to determine how much of his totalizing has been handled in FD many times over the years.

3. One of the several times that Ziller and I addressed these posts, from a more dignified pulpit so I wouldn't flip out. But Rob, come on. I'm not "taking Moore's point and running with it." For one, it's just weird to say that I'm following Matt here. I'll leave that there. More to the point, though, I'm trying to contradict him to prove a point. Moore questions whether we need to label Tyreke Evans; I say that, if you look at the NBA today, point guards are rising at the same time as flexible teams. This means that, yes, the Kings still would like to know if Evans is a point guard, or something else. If he's a PG, capable of orchestrating the kind of complicated system the 21st century has developed, good for him. If not, he's still amazing. Height and power still matter, but as teams grow more fluid, it's more and more on the point guard to track this stuff and make sense of it. That's important; they make it possible. THAT's why I said point guards were the gateway.

4. I am pretty sure I agree with Kevin Arnovitz, namely, that discussing this in the abstract misses the point. You adapt, or re-determine, based on either need, want, or what resources you have at your disposal. Ideally, it's a team like the Thunder, building a weird squad around a weird player. The bootleg version of that are Rob's Mavs, who should have done the same thing with Dirk a long time ago. Now, they find themselves with enough unusual talent that they can devise these schemes on the fly, or maybe even in camp. Then there's also the most prosaic version of this, alluded to by Blanchard: in a game, you make adjustments. That's easier if players are versatile. Granted, that's only revolution on a micro-level, maybe even not at all -- since it's done already. I prefer to think that it means the future isn't as far off as we think.

/drops mic


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At 8/27/2010 10:18 AM, Blogger SpoonyBard3000 said...

"Fatuous Playpen" is definitely the new name of my band.

At 9/09/2010 7:41 AM, Blogger Aaron Konopasky said...

About the positional revolution:

If the point is that players combine micro-functions (bringing the ball up; low post offense; 3-pt catch-and-shoot...) in different ways, then the only way to categorize players without losing information is to list the micro-functions. So, a player could be characterized as a bundle of micro-functions (e.g., {bringing the ball up, entry pass, mid-range jumpshot, man-to-man defense}). Or, more accurately, they could be categorized as a set of ratings on all the micro-functions (e.g., {7, 4, 10, 3, ...}, where each number is a rating on a 10-point scale of the player's ability to perform a certain micro-function).

Once we do this, it becomes clear that players are "better" or "worse" relative to a certain type of system. So, Wilt is better than Russell in an inside-outside offense (because of his offensive profile, which includes high ratings for low post offense and passing out to catch-and-shoot perimeter players), whereas Russell is better than Wilt in a system that emphasizes the fast break (because of his offensive profile, which includes high ratings for outlet passing, running, and so on).


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