NBA Journey Week Twenty-Five, Part I: Creativity Meets Logic

The 2017-18 NBA season has now entered the home stretch of the regular season. There will be scores of articles about questioning good teams, declaring individual award races over, and the bickering over true shooting percentage and defensive rating. There is also a feeling surrounding this season that we’re headed towards the inevitability of a Golden State Warriors championship. Thus, some of the fun is met with a bit of gloom. Cheer up, lover of hoops. Basketball is a sport in which the journey of the season is just as important as its destination in the Finals. Here at TSFJ, we’re going to highlight some things and people the basketball realm can be excited for between now and June.

I apologize for the slight delay. I wanted to celebrate another year of life, as well as do the last week of the regular season more justice. This is Part One of a couple of pieces to wrap up the end of the year before playoffs. Let’s get to it.

Song of The Week: Lupe Fiasco – “Form Follows Function”

Over the course of our journey, I’ve shared various ideals which make up the core principles of basketball. I have mentioned deception, balance and even a little educated guessing as additional factors that join with the basics like strength and speed which transform hoops from a game to an art with mathematical hypotheses. We translate the beauty of the game into numbers and metrics, but those statistics are just quantifying what’s presented before us.

The ideal I want to talk about is trust. Trust is a huge factor in all of basketball. Even for something as simple as the pass from one teammate to another, giving up the ball is an act of dependence rooted in expectation. The immediate goal is to score points, and thus growing closer to the team’s ultimate goal: scoring more points than its opponent and winning the game.

To have the ball is to be trusted with making a decision. No one else can decide what the person with the ball will decide to do with it, not even the coach. Every option from dribbling out the shot clock to a give-and-go with a teammate to attempting a full-court alley-oop is a possibility. The better players have the ball for at least a quarter of the total time of their team’s possessions, and they are charged with carrying most of the workload needed to generate a win.

This workload for these star players, especially the ones skilled in multiple on-court abilities, results in a great statistical feat: the triple-double. There seems to be an influx of triple-doubles, in both overall number and increasing number of individual players amassing double digits in three separate statistical categories.

“My job is to do everything,” says Russell Westbrook. This results in multiple triple-doubles and averaging one for now a second-straight season. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

An increase in supply without an established demand can lead to the dilution of a product. There are growing whispers clamoring that the triple-double is not as impressive. Somehow, in the eyes of an unnamed sum of people, the rising amount times of this still incredibly hard goal to achieve is achieved has depreciated the value of the achievement. This is wrong, but there is a bit of evidence that supports that claim. Chief among them is this:

Greg Monroe notched a triple-double last week.

Let’s go back to trust. As previously stated, the better players and decision makers on a team will have the ball more than anyone else. In the evolution of the game, the five positions on the court are blended like perfumes with multiple ingredients. And with the game’s elite, we smell their entire scent even as one or two scents may be more recognizable than the other. The role of the best player becomes less defined when the player is more versatile. The coach trusts that player to best use his abilities in the the way the player sees fit. Sure, the coach draws up offensive sets to help with spacing and such. But again, the player who has the ball has the biggest responsibility of decision.

None of the five major statistical categories cannot happen without the ball. In the yin and yang of basketball, the ball is necessary. For example, assists and turnovers require a pass; and one cannot pass without the ball. The same is true for steals and getting embarrassed by a crossover dribble. On and on, and on and on, the basketball is the cipher that keeps the game moving like a rolling stone. And coaches trust their best players with the ball. Why? Why would one player be given so much responsibility when it is understood no one man can win a 5-on-5 basketball game? And why is this responsibility producing more triple-doubles by more players than ever?

The players are better. They’re more skilled and more talented than ever.

It’s that simple. Ignore the fact Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double again this year. Overlook the fact that Ben Simmons, a rookie by NBA definition, has amassed one for every seven games he’s played this year. Do not pay attention to the fact LeBron James has had the most triple-doubles in his fifteenth year than at any other season. Want to know the best evidence of the players being better?

Greg Monroe notched a triple-double last week.

Rather, a 6’10” interior player with a high basketball IQ who has never been close to an All-Star caliber player notched the second triple-double in his career. And he isn’t the tallest player to record a triple-double this season. No, height does not equal skill. But traditional basketball suggests that the smaller guys are more versatile. That is not the case now.

Because players are better and more versatile, they are given added responsibility. In the words of triple-double savant Westbrook, “My job is to do everything, and that’s what I do.” While he is exaggerating, Westbrook’s point is clear and valid. He is entrusted with making sure he does whatever it takes for his team to win. With that comes with the opportunity to amass double digits in multiple statistical categories. Because he is not pigeonholed in his role, he can avail himself to multiple facets of the basketball game. His gaudy stat lines are the result of his creativity within the vague definition of ‘best player.’ Also, his other, profanity-laced point in that interview about stat-padding is correct.

Basketball is mathematical art. Teams strive to find the equation to solve the problem of winning a game. Instead of defining every player as a solid integer with a set value, the coach (if smart) allows his better players to express their value and the formula changes with the numbers discovered. Basketball has evolved into the mathematical order of operations applied to artistic architecture, and triple-doubles are the present-day Sphinxes erected across the landscape to symbolize that evolution.

Part Two of this week’s NBA Journey is coming tomorrow.

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