On beating the narrative | Magic Basketball

«

»

Mar 10

On beating the narrative

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I sat down today intent on writing about the question on most of our lips as we watch the Magic these days: Which is the team we’re going to get? Is it the Heat-beaters with an attacking point guard and a dominant center and prolific role players, or is it the lethargic-looking, immature team that lost to the Bulls? I was going to delve in and explore why we can’t expect a consistent product, or even, it seems, a consistent effort. But then I was reading about HeatLockerRoomCryGate, and I saw that the Celtics were the darling of one of the panels at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend, and I read something about how the Lakers have regained their footing or swagger or something in beating the Spurs. And then I thought about the good Magic or the bad Magic question again. And then I thought: perhaps these things are related.

See, the Magic have fallen into that category of a successful team that has failed its own narrative. That is, we’re talking about a team that stands, as of this writing, at a robust 41-24, on pace to win fifty-plus games and a favorable matchup in the first round of the playoffs, while the tone of commentary around the team remains somewhat negative. You get the sense, listening to the overall national opinion of the team, that the Magic have somehow blown it, have missed their window and will now languish, Hawks-like, in that undesirable middling ground of no-lottery purgatory. And maybe this will happen. I don’t want to be seen as blindly touting the team’s prospects–my first post here at MBN was about the problems that might be an issue in Dwight’s free agency–but I have to believe that the Magic are not, generally speaking, being properly evaluated given the success that they’re having.

This is where the Heat-cryer story, or the Celtics fawning, or the Lakers-got-their-groove-back thinking comes in. This season, more than the past couple that I can remember, has been all about how the realities have played out against the anticipated narratives. Teams aren’t being judged as heavily on basketball as they are the extent to which their basketball fits the stories that have been constructed around them. Talking about a Lakers resurgence is pretty ridiculous–they’re 46-19 and loaded with veterans, directed by a coach who has won the NBA championship more often than he has not in his 20 years. But this was to be the year that Kobe’s legs were healthier and the Lakers’ size dominated the entire league and Jackson’s fourth three-peat would be like Sherman’s March. When we remembered that Kobe has as many games on his legs as any star his age ever has, or that the franchise center is constantly injured, well, then, it was time to brand this season a failure.

The same thing happened with the Heat. Partially they’re responsible for it, throwing a parade for their stars before a game during the season ever was played, but the coverage of their season has been positively bipolar. At the beginning of the season, they were the first good team to ever go 9-7, letting down their fans and their mothers and the Nobel Prize for Basketball Selection Committee. Then they won ten million straight games, and the world watched as Dwyane Wade made airplane arms after throwing a no-look pass to LeBron, who was flying. Now the Heat have lost five straight games, and reporters have reason to believe that a grown man might have cried due to frustration in achieving his goals. It can be tough to remember that the Heat are 43-21. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play for them. It’s like, maybe Microsoft didn’t sell so hot this year, but I think there will still be Christmas at the Gates household.

I don’t know if this is a new thing, this trend of teams being evaluated more by comparison to their own narratives than by examining their on-court product. I suspect that a large reason I have noticed it is that I’m a year older as a basketball viewer, at an age where I can start to remember a few seasons but not at an age where I’ve been really paying attention for all that long. I’m sure the sports media has long fabricated stories which then became the measuring stick for players and teams. But. Follow me here. This is the year following The Decision, the year of superstar movement, the year in which we are debating whether Kobe belongs where on Olympus. This is a year in which an ever-growing community of intelligent basketball watchers has taken control of an ever-growing and ever more diffuse TwitterBlogiverse. In short, there are not only a lot of people talking a lot of hoops in a lot of places, but also a lot of self-conscious storylines being brought to bear on the league. It has become easier than ever before to assign a narrative to a season and then abandon that narrative in favor of a new one. Eventually, narratives begin referencing themselves, and the perception of success or failure becomes nearly totally divorced from reality. To use a non-Heat or Lakers example, examine how the Thunder are relatively under the rader, and how Kevin Durant has disappeared as MVP candidate despite being the league’s scoring leader on a roster with one other combined All-Star appearance on it. It’s not that KD got bad all of a sudden, or that the Thunder don’t scare just about every team in the West, but they are a disappointment relative to the preseason expectations that they would win sixty games and Durant would score forty points a game. Never mind that no team or player in their position had ever done that, they have failed their narrative.

Which brings me back to the Magic. I see a lot to scratch my head about. Why can’t Jameer Nelson always dive through the lane like a crazed pelican goes after fish? How is Dwight still surprised by players fouling him unfairly hard? I mean, there are questions, and a lot of them, about why this team can’t seem to consistently replicate its high points. But really, I see mostly a team that has so far committed only the sin of not living up to its own story. The story, of course, that its own play engendered.

I come back to Phil Jackson, and his Lakers. It strikes me that more than any other coach–although Doc Rivers and Pop are up there–Phil understands that success is about the story as much as the play. No other coach goes so out of his way to cultivate a certain dialogue around his team or the opposition. In fact, just the other day, he made waves by taking shots at the crying Heat player, saying that the NBA stands for “No Boys Allowed.” It doesn’t matter that we all know Phil Jackson to be more comfortable with emotion and psychology than just about any other coach, and it doesn’t matter that he was half-kidding. The quote got picked up as yet another dig at the Heat, and was more demonstrative of the difference between the two teams than any I have seen on the court so far. Jackson understands what it is to have your sea legs, what it is to ride out the dips and crests of a season. He also understands how much pressure he can apply to the opposition by exploiting those dips and crests. I’ll bet that in the Lakers locker room, his players are insulated against the fickle rewriting of their season’s story, and his continued success demonstrates how crucial that is. So the next time I sit down to write the epitaph for the Good Magic or the Bad Magic, I’ll try and channel the Zen Master and resist the urge for just a little while, just long enough to get a look at the whole picture.

7 comments
Amaleika
Amaleika

if we go deeper in the playoffs it would be the key that players besides howard have to step up. Nelson, JRich or still Areanas can do this. Reduze turnovers and avaiod to many bad shots a littel bit better clock management and magic can run deep in the playoffs. first round should be not a problem and the secound rount is a matchup question. for me i prefer miami heat or boston celtics.
Arthur

Get Buckets
Get Buckets

Great column. You have to remember that the media sells story-lines to attract casual fans. And that's great and entertaining and what not, but none of it actually matters.

Basketball is a game of match-ups, the Magic look bad against the Bulls because they Chicago has a 5 to match up with Howard and none of Orlando's 4's can guard Boozer. They look good against the Heat because Miami has no center who can guard Howard and no point guard who can guard Nelson.

Teams win or lose because of match-ups not the character traits of their best players.

Brad Zeiler
Brad Zeiler

The playoffs will tell the tale. We are capable of beating every team.

TimJ
TimJ

I think there's two issues here that you're combining into one. But I love that you wrote this because both of them bother me. It's like you're tapped directly into my brain.

The first issue is that the media is what it is. They pump the big markets because they have the most eyeballs. They pump the narratives because people like those. And they switch the story quickly -- in the NBA, it takes literally 2 or 3 regular season games out of 82 -- because they need to keep things fresh so people pay attention. You might say the media sucks, but that makes it sound like an inferiority complex. They're just doing their thing.

The other issue is how games are won and lost in the NBA. Some people focus on the numbers and advanced statistics. Others look at matchups and how a team is built. Players and coaches sometimes talk about intensity and aggressiveness and playing smart and focusing on the championship. I think it's this last one that frustrates us as fans. If all you have to do is "be aggressive," why not do it all the time? Is it too tough mentally during an 82 game season? Maybe there's other reasons. Or maybe the ball's bouncing out of the metal rim a little oddly this year. Perhaps trying to explain a winning or losing streak is going too far down the rabbit hole. We want the safety and reassurance that come with predicting behavior, but that might not be possible.

pksb
pksb

yeah man, this is a great article!

Cgsimone
Cgsimone

Fantastic article. You really hit the nail on the head with regards to fan and media expectations of profession athletes and their teams. With regards to the Magic, they are sort of an enigma because the preseason storyline was obliterated after the trades. Then there was the post-trade storyline that was developed during the 9 game win streak. Then that storyline faded into another one about how Dwight doesn't have any help since he started putting up monster numbers and we were losing.

Now things appear to be correcting themselves a little bit and the Magic are regressing or progressing to the median. Gilbert's shooting percentage is more normal, J-Rich is making clutch shots, Jameer is more aggressive and Dwight is closer to the 20 points a game range rather than the 30 points a game range. Honestly, this team playing its averages can beat every team in the league. That's the storyline I'm focusing on.

Tim H
Tim H

I love the extra mile this article goes into the analytical and mental aspect of the game. I agree fully, just like when a player (like our own Gilbert Arenas) loses confidence, not in the aspect of his shot or skills, but of his identity (I'm no longer the go-to guy who can take over games), he starts playing and acting like his new identity (I'm just a role player off the bench). I know that the best players in the league all channel their best selves and part of their identity is that they can and will take over the game when needed because that's who they are.

If players can go through this, why would a cohesive team unit not also go through it as well? When you no longer become the unstoppable juggernaut that everyone fears and you believe your team to be the underachieving people who everyone picks on, then you will also play like it--scrapping for every single thing.

Many a famous player spanning multiple sports have all mentioned how much of the game after a certain level of skill is more mental than physical. With the advent of twitter, FB, and more scrutiny and general media explosion, it seems like this effect is amplified. Can you really have pictured any of the Heat's big three ever having this statistic of going 1/14 or whatever from the field in the last 20 seconds of a game on shots that can tie or take the lead last year? They were all the respective leaders of their teams and played like it. I think LeBron statistically is the most clutch too according to 82games. Can there be any reason besides them still not knowing what their roles are, and that they've been led by the media to believe they're a team that can't close games?

It once boggled insurance statisticians why people who drove and spun out of control ran into telephone poles at a drastically higher percent than random chance would indicate, but then they realized that the mere act of people scrambling their brains and trying in all their power not to hit the pole caused them to gravitate towards pole. When your team lets a story dictate their identity, this is exactly what happens