A Sports Dork’s Nirvana

Something special happened last night. The San Antonio Spurs achieved a feat that we get the pleasure of witnessing no more than five times a year in the sports world. It happens so rarely that at time fans and athletes alike forget that it even exists in sports.  Coaches preach of its virtues and try their damnedest to instruct their teams in the way of attaining it.  Most fail.  Last night, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder,  the San Antonio Spurs achieved athletic perfection.  Watch (scroll to the 1:46 mark of the video, if it doesn’t start there automatically):

It began around the 11:06 mark in the third quarter and lasted until about the 5:15 mark.  During that span, the Spurs were a breath-taking juggernaut, scoring 25 points on 9/11 shooting including a startling 5/5 mark from the three-point line.  The spacing, cutting, and ball movement among the Spurs players was something that led many a NBA analyst remarking that he had never witnessed passing at such an elite level.  And what’s remarkable about the passing is not only each player’s ability to read the defense and make the correct play, but also that the passes arrive in exactly the spot that a shooter needs it in order to take a good shot.  Remember that a half second can mean the difference between a wide-open three and having your shot blocked on a close out, given the speed of NBA players (think: Westbrook). 

Every Spurs read and subsequent pass was perfect during this stretch.  It all culminated in that excellent behind-the-back pass from Manu Ginobli to Tony Parker in which the Thunder’s transition defense was so taken aback by the wide-openness of Parker that they let him take the three without a single player running out to challenge the shot.  Parker took his time, squared his feet, and knocked it down.  Of course he did.

The three readers of this site know by now that my favorite sports article of all-time is a David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religous Experience.”  At its most simplistic level, the piece details Wallace’s fascination with the greatest tennis player in the world at the peak of his powers.  Better than perhaps any individual who ever attempted to do so, Wallace is able to describe what it is that makes witnessing Federer so powerful to a sports fan.  He discusses the impossibility of his shot-making and the brilliance of his decision-making.  The genius of the piece, to me, eventually defines what’s appealing about watching competitive sports played at a level like that, to which Wallace writes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.  The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

What Wallace describes is athletic perfection.  We’re attracted to it because it happens so rarely.  We delight in it because of the sheer impossibility of it all.  For about six minutes last night the Spurs were able to achieve that.  To be honest, I could not even tell you the last time I witnessed it on a basketball court.  I’ve seen it happen in soccer multiple times in the last three years with Barcelona and Lionel Messi.  The St. Louis Cardinals found a little bit of it in their World Series run last year.  Eli Manning seems to find it once every five years or so, but only when his team is trailing late in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl to the Patriots.

To a sport dork like myself, it’s why I devote so much time to consuming sports content every day.  Although I admit that I do take a sicker, darker pleasure in seeing my home-town teams succeed, there is nothing purer as a fan of sports than witnessing something like that.  I’m reduced to being a fan of the game itself which is really what it should be all about in the first place.  It’s also far easier to reconcile the countless hours spent watching, reading, and studying.  For most people a championship every decade or so suffices.  For me it’s these sporadic glimpses of greatness.

I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re any kind of a fan of basketball or sports in general, you should be tuning in right now to watch the San Antonio Spurs to see how long this lasts.  They have a legitimate shot at sweeping the entire playoffs, a feat which has never been accomplished.  More importantly for you though, you might get to witness a breath-taking stretch like occurred last night.  When you finally are able to let go of living and dying with your team and enjoy the purity of rooting for great sports, you’ll learn to love the games in ways that are infinitely more rewarding.

Trust me, I’m a sports dork.

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What The Champions League And NHL Playoffs Teach Us About Sports

It’s impossible to refrain any longer. The people have demanded it. After the past couple of weeks’ results, it’s finally time we address the striking manner in which the NHL and the UEFA Champions League resemble one another.  That’s right readers, brace yourselves.  I’m totally about to spend an unnecessary amount of words and time comparing hockey and soccer to see what it teaches us!  I know, I know.  I don’t understand why ESPN hasn’t brought me on yet either.

Before proceeding, it’s quite necessary to give you all a bit of background, because if you’re anything like the rest of America, you have yet to catch a single second of the NHL playoffs and missed the Champions League all together.  And who could blame you?  Hockey and soccer aren’t exactly separating themselves from the pack in the Nielsen ratings.

For the last half of the decade in the 2000s, the sports of hockey and soccer were largely dominated by what can only be described as offensive-oriented styles of play.  For hockey, this was exactly the intention as the league made a conscious effort to change the game in the wake of the infamous lockout that crippled the sport’s popularity.  The NHL increased the size of the offensive zone, outlawed tactics that prevented scoring (grabs, interference, etc), among other measures.  Basically they were trying to prevent anything and everything the New Jersey Devils stood for in the neutral zone trap era.  It largely worked.

In soccer, the sport became that way because of the success of two teams.  The first was the Spanish club Barcelona which successfully executed the best “home-grown” talent initiative in the history of sports.  They produced world-class players like Iniesta, Xavi, and the incomparable Lionel Messi on their way to numerous championships and trophies.  The second team was not surprisingly the Spanish national team which largely looked to capitalize off the success (read: copy) of the domestic club Barcelona, using many of its same players.  What characterizes Barca and Spain is that they utilize a possession-heavy style of play.  That is to say, they have control of the ball for the majority of the time during their matches.  Rather than make one quick attempt at a goal when they gain possession, these teams are content to pass and control the ball for long periods at a time until the defense finally gives them a window to score.

For anyone who romanticizes sports and “the way games were meant to be played,” the last couple of years have been a godsend in these two sports.  The games finally seemed to “open up” and let the athletes showcase their extraordinary talents with a puck or with a ball.  To witness Lionel Messi in open space is to catch a glimpse of the sort of religous experience David Foster Wallace so famously described when he witnessed Roger Federer back at Wimbledon all those years ago.

Not surprisingly though, teams that lose don’t tend to like to continue losing.  When a club wants to change its fate in a sport there are two ways to accomplish it.  The first is to try and replicate the success of the team that dominates you and beat them at their own game.  This is amazingly difficult as there is simply no way to field a team in soccer that could replicate the chemistry and talent built from the years that the top players at Barcelona have played and trained together.  In the long-term, it’s totally possible, but as we all know, top sports franchises don’t tend to have that kind of patience.  This is commonly referred to as George Steinbrenner syndrome.

The second method is possible to achieve in the short-term though.  The magical cure? Create a style of play that completely counters that of the rival.  Furthermore, pursue and sign those players that make that style of play possible.  Translated in present day terms for hockey and soccer, adopt a completely defensive-oriented style of play that chokes the life out of opponents.

This is going on as we speak and it’s fascinating to a sports dork like me because it brings about yet another chapter in the most important debate in the history of sports: what’s more important, style or winning?  The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, most especially in soccer where some of the most famous teams in the history of the sport never won anything.

So how did it happen?

In hockey, it’s been more of a slow evolution across the sport to counter the offensive genius of guys like Ovechkin and Crosby rather than having one person we can point to and blame.  Former Red Wings and Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman recently described the transformation in a recent article for The Globe and Mail.  The essence of his discussion is that this style of play has its roots in the late 70s Maple Leafs teams that were attempting to put a halt to one of the greatest dynasties in the history of hockey in Bowman’s Canadiens teams. 

The strategy goes something like this.  In hockey the team on offense typically keeps one player (the two defensemen) in each area where the blue line meets the boards on the opposite sides of the ice, known as “points.”  Historically the defensive team kept their forwards out to press against these defenders which created a lot of space for the puck to be passed around in the zone.  To counter this spacing, the Maple Leafs reacted by pulling those two forwards back and essentially creating a wall around the net, known in the NHL as “covering the house.”  In giving up their forwards at the points, the defense concedes the ability to score quick counter-attack points by starting fast breaks though.  However, they have the tactical advantage as they’re basically playing hockey 5 on 3 near the net, preventing any offense, and can block almost any shot before it reaches their goaltender.  The result, as you’ve probably surmised by now, is a complete lack of scoring.

Soccer is a bit more curious in that we can largely place the blame on one man who seems to have been placed on earth entirely for the purpose of solving the Barcelona problem.  His interests also likely include telling children that Santa Clause doesn’t exist and stealing candy from babies.  That man is Jose Mourinho, the current manager of Barcelona’s chief rival Real Madrid and who first conceived the strategy to defeat Barca back in 2010 while he manged Inter, a popular club in Italy.

His strategy is simple, really, and it’s probably not fair to credit him entirely for constructing the model that finally ended Barcelona’s reign atop the soccer world as almost every club attempted the same tactics.  The idea is that the team is willing to place 10 of its 11 players back on defense to prevent Barcelona from entering the box.  The idea is to let them pass the ball all they want, so long as it doesn’t get near the goalie.  Like with the “covering the house” strategy, they give up most of their chances at creating a quick counter-attack, but in turn they’re able to block almost every shot attempt.  There are two other key ingredients which any supporter would hate to hear but are nonetheless true–get really, really lucky and score the only chance you get.  More often than not, this formation will only yield a single scoring chance a game for the side that chooses to adopt the defensive philosophy.

The strategy was made even more famous just this past week by the English club Chelsea which back doored its way into the most unlikely of Champions League titles by perfectly executing this ultra-defensive style.  Not only did they manage to defeat Barcelona in the semis, but they also slipped past Bayern Munich in the final, the team that most closely resembles Barcelona with its possession-heavy style of play.  It was the most improbable of runs, made all the more dramatic with their win in penalty kicks.  As thrilling as it was though, the soccer itself was ugly and lacked for drama.  Most fans widely accepted that the match would, in all likelihood, end in a 1-0 result.  This nearly occurred, except that Chelsea’s Didier Drogba scored a late equalizer on Chelsea’s only corner of the whole match.  Again, one great chance and they made it count.

And thus we come in a roundabout way back to the great philosophical question of sports.  Is it more important to have style or to win?

It is no secret that the history of sports is filled with players, teams, managers, and even leagues reacting and countering specific styles of play.  Think of how the NCAA banned the dunk, MLB lowered the height of the mound, and the NFL adopted rules to encourage and protect great quarterbacking.  Remember the way the fast break goes in and out of style, the way pitching wins championships until it doesn’t, and how you want to control the football with the run unless you have Tom Brady or Eli Manning.  One action promotes a reaction and so on and so forth until we come to a point that we even forget how we got their in the first place.

Everyone widely loathes the Spurs championship teams in the Duncan era because they were so seemingly opposed to scoring.  Their main foe at the time, the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns are far more beloved by the fans.  But at the end of the day, San Antonio has the banners.  Banners fly forever.  People don’t forget style either though.  There are several more examples of this: the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team lost to eventual champions Italy in the quarterfinals even though that Brazilian squad is considered maybe the best ever; the Oakland Athletics have yet to win a World Series utilizing the Moneyball principles while the Yankees continue to win the World Series even though we’ve now lionized Billy Beane; and die-hard basketball fans are far more inclined to remember teams with swagger like the 2007 Golden State Warriors than the eventual champs that year (again, those poor San Antonio Spurs). 

Perhaps the approach that needs to be taken has nothing to do with picking a side but realizing that as fans of the game we tend to win either way.  In the event that an offensive team dominates an era, we get to see how beautifully a game might be played by human beings.  In the event that a sports era turns to the defensive side, we’re often blessed with dynasties and then, eventually, some brilliant player or coach who solves the riddle of the defensive problem in that sport and ushers in another golden era of scoring.

It’s the circle of life in sports, and I love it all.  You should too.

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Good Morning Generation

Here’s a quick history lesson for all of you. You know about Moneyball because you probably saw the movie this past year. It was excellent. Brad Pitt might finally win an Oscar because of his terrific performance in the movie. What you may not know is one of the key players in that 2002 Oakland Athletics story: Chad Bradford.

Bradford was a specialty reliever who was never quite given a shot in the Show because he did not fit the stereotypical idea of a Major League pitcher. Why? Bradford was an extreme submarine-style pitcher who couldn’t throw faster than the mid 80s. Despite putting up monster numbers in the Chicago White Sox farm system, he was repeatedly passed over as coaches and scouts swore that there was no doubt Major League hitters would destroy him.

Noticing that the White Sox were undervaluing an asset, Billy Beane promptly traded for Bradford, and all he did was become the most useful reliever in baseball in 2002. To give you an idea of how good Bradford was, he had a ground ball percentage of 66.2% that year which led all of baseball for relievers with at least 70 innings of work and was second only to Derek Lowe overall. Think about that. Two out of every three hitters Bradford faced grounded out against him.

In addition to that, Bradford finished top eight in some other important advanced stat categories like FIP, xFIP, HR/FB, and HR/9. Those last two are probably the most important of all because they mean that Bradford NEVER gave up home runs. How good was he? He gave up only .24 home runs per nine innings he pitched that year. When you do the math on that it means he only gave up two home runs the whole fricking year in 75+ innings pitched.

And yet all of baseball still pointed and laughed at Beane for starting a guy with such an awkward throwing motion. They discounted his success as a fluke and only because big league hitters were so thrown off by the throwing motion. The game suddenly became about style rather results. It’s no wonder Beane took a bunch of scrubs to the brink of a World Series title that year with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The “experts” became so convinced of their method that they lost sight of what the ultimate goal was. Better to lose doing it the “right way” than win with a submarine pitcher and a bunch of has-been’s, am I right, am I right?!?!?!

You know where this is going.

I can’t help but notice the striking similarities between (insert random 2002 Oakland A’s player) and Tim Tebow this season with the Broncos.  If you remember the movie, you remember all the hilarious criticisms that were thrown at the A’s that year and how it literally just blew people’s minds that he would dare to think differently.  Tell me if any of this sounds similar to that:

ESPN’s Greg EasterbrookEverybody be at the pep rally after school — senior Tim Tebow is leading Denver Broncos High School to state! Yeah!  Denver is, improbably, the NFL’s hottest team outside Wisconsin, 5-1 since Tebow took the reins. Those fans in the bleachers who’d been chanting for Tebow — they were right. But then in high school, the booster club always knows. Maybe for the next home game, the Broncos should run out through a big sheet of paper that was decorated at the pep rally with “Go Broncos” and “XXOO” written all over by the cheerleaders.

The Bleacher Report’s Jantz SpaldingWill the Cinderella story stop?  Of course it will.  He lacks the inability to throw downfield, has little-to-no accuracy, the arm strength of a third-string quarterback and absolutely zero pocket presence. It just seems to be an embarrassment to call him a quarterback (see: two-completion game).

SI’s Peter King: It doesn’t look like Tim Tebow’s good enough to prevent Denver from making Matt Barkley or Landry Jones its first pick next April. But he sure is a nice guy.

I don’t want to claim that I have any more knowledge of the game than these fine gentlemen, but I do want to pose a couple of questions.  Is it possible that our minds are polluted as to how to actually evaluate the NFL?  Is it possible that we have reached a sort of cultural arrogance about what the NFL is supposed to represent?  Did we lose sight of what the ultimate goal is in football?

I continue to be confounded by the belief that you need to throw the ball to win in the NFL.  It’s always the primary theme that is brought up when dismissing Tebow’s future in the NFL.  At some point along the way we started valuing pass attempts and passing touchdowns as the most important stats in the game.  For all my Moneyball geeks out there, is this not the same exact thing as when MLB scouts began to value RBI and batting average more than OBP or walks? 

When did throwing the football become more important than not turning the ball over?  When did throwing the football become the only evaluation criteria on a quarterback?  Is it not about what he does as a whole, rather than one specific detail?

That’s exactly the question Cold Hard Football Facts’ Kerry J. Byrne tackles in this piece (a must read if you’re at all interested in the Tebow debate).  In that article Byrne points out these alarming details:

But Tebow himself has been deadly with the ball in his hands. He produces touchdowns at an amazing clip, better than any quarterback in football in his brief career. Here’s a comparison of Tebow vs. some of the more prolific quarterbacks in recent history.

Career percentage of touches that result in a TD:
Tim Tebow — 6.0 percent

Aaron Rodgers — 5.7 percent
Peyton Manning — 5.5 percent
Tom Brady — 5.1 percent
Drew Brees — 4.7 percent
John Elway — 3.9 percent

Wow. Tebow may not pass the ball effectively. But he’s produced an incredible 22 touchdowns (13 passing, nine rushing) in just 368 touches (225 pass attempts, 121 rush attempts, 22 sacks). Nobody in football gets the ball in the end zone more often.

More importantly, Tebow takes incredibly good care of the football. We track something at Cold, Hard Football Facts called the “interception ladder.” It shows us that every interception decreases your chances of winning by about 20 percentage points. In other words, interceptions are destructive plays that severely limit a team’s ability to win games.

But the Broncos are winning not just because Tebow protects the football, but because he protects it better than any QB in the game today. Here’s how he stacks up against some of the more prolific QBs in the game today.

Career interception percentage:
Tim Tebow — 1.78 percent
Aaron Rodgers — 1.83 percent
Tom Brady — 2.2 percent
Drew Brees — 2.71 percent
Peyton Manning — 2.75 percent
John Elway — 3.1 percent

Another interesting argument I’ve heard in favor of Tebow is that the Broncos are exploiting the way defenses have evolved to defend the high-flying passing offenses.  It pretty much boils down to this idea: defenses have had to get smaller and faster in order to defend the way offenses so clearly favor the passing game now.  The thinking goes that these smaller and faster defenders are incapable of taking the pounding that results from a game against the Broncos where the have to withstand the impact and physicality of 50+ runs.

Can you see the competitive advantage now that the Broncos have and why it’s not so ridiculous that they’re going with this style of play?

And finally, I’d like to dismiss once and for all the notion that the option can’t work in the NFL because “defenses are too fast” and “NFL coordinators are too smart.”  Look no further than Denver’s league-leading rushing attack as evidence of this, but let’s make an even further case as to why it makes sense.

Most people would agree with me if I said the advantage teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Saints have right now is that they have seemingly infinite amounts of personnel packages they can take advantage of in their spread passing attacks.  At any time, all of those teams seem like they have five Pro Bowl capable receivers on the field which makes it impossible for a defense to defend.  Pretty simple, right?

Why then can’t the reverse ring true for a rushing attack?

Is it not possible that the Broncos might be able to exploit that very same advantage with the option?  Say they have four people on the field at any time who can kill you with the run (Tebow, Ball, McGahee, and Royal), is that not the same advantage the Packers have in a package with Finley, Jennings, Jones, and Nelson?

When you throw in the fact that most teams spend the other 15 weeks of the season preparing to defend a spread offense rather than an option, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s advantage Broncose. 

Did I also mention that the option is also incredibly useful because it forces the defense to account for one more player on the field?  Think about it.  With the advent of the ultra-pass NFL, the defenses can pretty much give up accounting for the QB because he is so trained to remain in the pocket.  The battle becomes 11 defending 10.  The Broncos force teams to leave a linebacker as a spy or prevent a defensive end from pinning his ears back every play.  Again, advantage Broncos.

This probably won’t be my last Tim Tebow defense, but at this moment I consider it my greatest attempt to date.  In all seriousness, heed the lessons of MLB and how it failed to embrace how badly the A’s were exploiting market flaws in the game.  It’s exactly what the Denver Broncos are doing now and it’s going to continue to work as long as coaches, scouts, and writers continue to dismiss it as the latest “fad.”

Generation Y, where it feels great to be sifting through NBA rumors again.

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