Jul 1, 2021 • 16M

Minute Basketball: Prescience

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Louis Zatzman and Samson Folk
The audio version of the celebrated and world famous, Minute Basketball Newsletter.
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Let me tell you what will happen in the future. 

Come closer. Lean in. That’s better. Listen closely. 

Money is going to slink back into sportswriting. It will come in the guise of a friend, recreating jobs that aren’t exclusively at the Athletic. It will reinvigorate a field that has had a titanic leech named Google sucking its blood for decades. Plummeting local ad revenue and table scraps from search engines aren’t enough to sustain an industry. But don’t worry -- gambling money is on its way. 

That’s not necessarily going to be a good thing. Sportswriting jobs in the medium-term future will entail more prediction than they do even now. Matt Moore is a great writer. Every writer in the field trying to be him would be a bad thing. If longform is dead, you can blame fantasy sports for picking over its bones, and that’s just a start. The next wave of millionaire media members won’t be talking heads; they’ll help you choose a winner against the spread. But knowing the future isn’t always a good thing. Ask an Atreides. (That sounds like a fun mash-up between romance advice column and sci-fi extravaganza.)

Predicting the future is already an important part of today’s league, on and off the court. Perhaps too important. This week in Minute Basketball: Prescience.

Folk - Borderline Prescience

I don't think there is a truly prescient being in the world. Only people who see the markers, the tells of something already in action. Louis and I have both used the term "borderline prescient" to describe players before. Draymond Green's defense, for example. And I think that's just an efficient way of saying: "this player is operating on the advantageous side of an information deficit, and they often leverage that information into winning plays. So, in a way, they operate in the future relative to many other players". 

Chris Paul’s methodical style of playing basketball - he famously slows down fast teams, you can even see a large disparity in the games with, and without him in the WCF - is a clever bait and switch. Defenders are slowed down, to be sped up. An opportunity for Paul to isolate sections of the court into fast-processing hotbeds, where his experience and battle-tested mind can tease out advantages in decision making that don’t exist for many players. Once the advantage is established, defenders attempt to out-think Paul and attempt their own brand of ‘borderline prescience’, but more often than not they surrender a different set of advantages.

Monty Williams’ brilliant set design - interwoven with counters, decoy actions, and small advantages created throughout - enhances Paul’s ability to win possessions as the fastest player on the court, at the slow game.

In this set, for example: The first play is completely scripted. It’s a gorgeous set that leads to a dunk, but more than that it teaches the Clipper defense that the ball in Paul’s hands is never just a point of rest - there’s always danger elsewhere. So, in the next play shown there really is a point of rest, and in the Clippers attempt to think along with Paul (fearing his playmaking) everyone on the strong-side collapses, leaving him wide-open. The first clip punishes a defensive shell extending out, and the second punishes the shell sinking in. The perfect marriage of Paul and Williams.

Simplistic pick n’ roll plays where the Suns want to isolate Cousins from defensive help, in this case Mann. Put him on an island. Cousins is always going to be there dropping - which isn’t a bad scheme, don’t be silly - so Paul works through the progressions each time of how to make Mann pay for every decision he makes. Mann forces a screen reject to funnel Paul middle and into tighter space, but to no one’s surprise, Paul snakes to the elbow for a jumper - the kind he can often be heard yelling “LAYUP” on. Next screen action, Mann knows he has to stay connected and Paul let’s him connect all the way to the free throw line, leaving enough space for Saric to hit a three after popping. Paul will lay breadcrumbs for you. Final action, and Ayton sets a flat screen to give Paul the most freedom. Once they get the chase from Mann, Ayton disguises his moving screen as an aimless meander towards the bucket and Paul snakes to the right elbow for his shot. Taking what is given because it’s there, but with the route you choose, in case there’s a shortcut.

Interestingly enough, the slow game, Paul’s game isn’t always the most advantageous way for the Suns to play. Devin Booker and Cam Payne can both steer the Suns towards heaps of success away from Paul’s ironclad grip on pace. But, I’m firmly in the camp of people that puts a premium on adaptability and diversity in the playoffs, and the Suns have pushed the proper buttons stylistically to make the Finals. It’s also fitting that a predator-like 41 points from Paul has sent them there - telling the future a split-second at a time.

Zatzman - What is a sportswriter supposed to be? 

A funny thing happened in the Milwaukee Bucks’ third game against the Brooklyn Nets. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant had mauled the Bucks in the first two games, and the Bucks needed a win. They started okay, taking an early lead after a Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk. But then came the turn. Antetokounmpo ambled up the court in transition, slow as you like, as his defender Blake Griffin stepped back and back and back until he was practically under the rim when Antetokounmpo reached the arc. But Antetokounmpo didn’t use the runway to soar in for another dunk. Instead, he launched a casual three, which he of course missed. A few minutes later, he fired up another. Then a few more in the second quarter. More misses in the second half. 

Antetokounmpo missed six consecutive threes to start the game. He’s currently shooting 18.2 percent from deep in the playoffs, meaning when he shoots a triple, it’s expected to score around half a point, give or take. Yet when he’s under the rim, he’s the best scorer in the history of our stats databases (which include Shaquille O’Neal on the Lakers and Steph Curry shooting triples). 

Watching Antetokounmpo miss and miss and miss and miss and miss and miss was like watching Hamlet. I was captivated. Perhaps the most athletically gifted basketball player in the history of … basketball … refused his athleticism. No thank you. I’ll do this instead. And this was a slog. He may as well have been pushing his boulder up the hill for all eternity, knowing it would tumble back down and he’d have to start all over again. The Greek Fate, more like it.

For what reason do you watch sports? Samson and I dug into this topic in our LIVE episode a few months ago. I described a type of fandom that I didn’t understand, which I called “the Sam Hinkie-fication of fandom, which is where people are fans only of the macro now.” And the Sam Hinkie-fication of fandom reared its flawless head again in Game 3. I watched writers and fans and coaches and bots pool their voices together and howl at Antetokounmpo, curse his jumper, braying for him to stop settling. And yes, that would surely have helped the Bucks win. But is maximizing efficiency the only reason we watch basketball? 

I watch to catch a glimpse of perfection, yes, but also to gawk at perfection when it’s confronted with something better. To marvel at the crucible of flaws, and how players within either harden or crumble. And watching Antetokounmpo launch wayward three after wayward three was marvelous. It was captivating, far more so than if he optimized his shot selection and cut out his bad-habit jumpers. 

It’s certainly the job of some writers and fans to focus on what would make players better. But not everyone, or else all sportswriters would just be coaches without a team. Has Zach Lowe bitten us with a bug like a vampire? Are we all just analysts now? Is the only job of the sportswriter to predict the future cold and sterile so as to make a meteorologist proud? 

Antetokounmpo’s struggle was greater and more meaningful than a jumper-free win ever could have been. And his Shakespearean performance had a Shakespearean ending; he hit his seventh three in the fourth quarter. The Bucks ended up winning Game 3, and even winning the series. But the contained tragicomedy of Antetokounmpo’s jumper wasn’t plastered across anyone’s gamer or recap, other than for condemnation and to call him a weak-minded player for settling.

And maybe he is weak-minded. The strongest player imaginable who can’t help but succumb to his own weaknesses -- what could possibly be more captivating, more compelling?

Gazing into a crystal ball is fun. But not if it stops you from enjoying the present.