Friday, January 29, 2016

Epistle to the Apostate

Hey, Yago --

Read your article. It's interesting, and it needs a response. I hope there will be better ones coming, but here is one.

Note: my disagreements with you are in no way meant to be arguing with your feelings -- as an explication of your reaction to the Warriors circa 2016, your piece is illuminating, and you are, of course, allowed to have the judgments you have. But I think your judgments and mine, when contrasted, might point out some interesting differences in how and why to watch basketball. So that is my intent here: to highlight some contrasts in our judgments so that we can both maybe learn something interesting about how / why to watch basketball. Please take my comments in that spirit!


If I can begin by attempting to summarize some of your objections, this may help.
1. Steph Curry receives adulation in arguably excessive measure and for extremely suspect reasons: he's not a plucky underdog, he's a rich kid who grew up with a lot of advantages; he's not really a small man, but he's a little baby-faced, light-skinned, etc., and just in general is a kid who seems to have been genetically engineered to be non-threatening; also there's this weird xian crap around him, which, yuck
2. The Warriors are winning excessively and excessively easily, and this removes some of the compelling nature of the games
3. Their style may prove detrimental, as other teams attempt to copy-cat them
4. Their style may prove detrimental, as it may come from an excessive focus on the quantitative aspects of the game and "efficiency" in general

I actually agree with more than a little of all this. Let's go bottom to top.

I personally don't perceive an excessive focus on efficiency / quantitative approaches to the game in the Warriors' game. Doesn't mean it's not there, just means that I'm not perceiving it, because what I'm perceiving is one magnificent player (Curry), and some remarkably versatile supporters (Dray, Iggy) along with a lot of role players (Klay, Bogut, etc.) execute a style that shouldn't work as well as it does at such a high level that most teams can't compete with it. On a raw personnel level, this team doesn't seem to me like it should be that great. On an efficiency level, the paragon is James Harden: get fouled or get a 3, play no D so you get the ball back, lather, rinse (or stir the tea), repeat. This team shoots a lot of threes, but that's because Steph is peerless at it and Klay is streaky but competent there. But there's not the overwhelming focus on threes or free throws that you'd expect to see if they were truly an efficiency-minded team.

As for (3), well, I'd rather see teams try to play like the Warriors than like James Harden. For one thing, the Warriors play defense, and they run beautifully. (Their gang-rebounding and cherry-picking is one of my favorite things about them -- at any given time, anybody might get the rebound that triggers a break, and almost anybody might be able to bring the ball up the court. THAT is the ball I love, building on the great versatility of the players they have.)

I think we may differ most here on (2): as long as the style is appealing to me, the wins and losses are less important. (I think I learned this from growing up watching the Nuggets -- I knew they weren't gonna win anything, so I learned to root for and appreciate the way they played.) And since I'm not a die-hard Warriors fan, I also don't have a huge amount of investment in their wins or losses... Obviously there's a continuum: maybe you're a 60/40 wins/style guy, maybe I'm a 60/40 style/wins guy. (I mean, it's not just an exhibition: it's not actually the ballet, tho my appreciation for basketball and ballet actually works more or less the same. I do care about the wins. Just not to the exclusion of other stuff. This is what I take Shoals to have championed with "liberated fandom", for what it's worth -- watching and appreciating the game without deferring to a rooting interest...)

And as for inevitability, I think that's an overstatement. They've lost to two sub-.500 teams. (If I hadn't retired as a Nuggets fan, that win would have made my year, I bet.) The Grizzlies and Cavs both had long stretches where they looked like they'd completely solved the Warriors -- and, as I said: this roster doesn't actually strike me as that great, beyond Curry. Take him out, or reduce his effectiveness, or do the same for Green, and this is not an extraordinarily good team. Put it this way: if they have to rely on Klay and Barnes for extended stretches, their opponents will be very satisfied...

With respect to (1), I agree with all of your assessments. That said, I find myself able to watch without thinking about any of those externalities. I enjoy watching him because he is a lights-out shooter, a phenomenal finisher, and possibly the best ball-handler I have ever seen. When I see these things, I am not moved to consider the discourse surrounding him -- as a once-failed, now-retired sportswriter, I have that luxury! ;)

That discourse matters: I am not telling you to ignore it or pretend it does not exist. But I'm mostly going to!

Another mind I respect deeply on basketball belongs to Tom Scharpling, and he has a similar read on Curry: for Scharpling, Curry now feels like a rich bully.

I understand and appreciate this point without agreeing with it.

Honestly, the thing about the narrative about Curry that drives me the most nuts is about "athleticism". It's the same idiotic thing people said about Steve Nash: "he's not 'athletic'", evidently because he doesn't jump high enough? But eye-hand coordination is an athletic ability, and Curry and Nash are both off the charts there. Speed and quickness are athletic abilities, and they were both exceptional there. Endurance is an athletic ability, and both have that. Both are enormously talented athletes, and anyone who downplays this is a fool -- or, perhaps, trying to advance a pernicious agenda.
Anyway. I don't expect I've changed your mind -- nor was I trying to! But I think you differently value wins and losses than I do, and I think you're more embedded in game-external conversations than I am, and those are both...malleable. You might like the game better from where I'm sitting. You'd definitely like Curry better.

Your pal, Fat / Collision / Etc.

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