Darwin's Team

Sunday night I watched Game 2 of the NBA finals, in which the Golden State Warriors crushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers by thirty points. The Warriors are led by MVP guard Steph Curry and his sure-shootin’ sidekick, Klay Thompson. This backcourt Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shot their way through a season of prolific scoring, breaking records right and left. Winning their first 24 games (a record) and 54 straight home games over the past two seasons (another record), the team this year managed to notch a record 73 victories while losing only nine games, eclipsing the mark set in 1995-96 by the Chicago Bulls and their incandescent hero, Michael Jordan.

The records Golden State broke this year are the very definition of dominance. And they did it with a thrills-and-frills style, centered on Steph Curry’s virtuoso game, that frequently inspired awe. You can see a sampling of Curry’s impossible wizardry here. He is the kind of player whose feats of shooting and ball handling leave fans agog.

And yet I’m hesitant to embrace the team... so much so, in fact, that for the first time ever – strange feeling! -- I’m rooting for LeBron. Partly it’s an instinctive preference for the underdog. Partly it’s a grudging reaction to the smirk that Curry wears on his face (not his fault, I know, he’s just enjoying himself; but I guess I prefer intensity as an athlete’s default expression). Partly it’s the team’s status as the project of a group of Silicon Valley venture-capitalist investors, gazillionaires who pride themselves on taking a hyper-corporate approach to the team’s success (you can read about their approach in a terrific Times Magazine article here.)

But mostly my grudging response concerns the core feature of the Warrior’s genius. Their success on the court reflects an extreme reliance on three-point shooting – a long-distance bombardment the likes of which the pro game has never seen. To understand the extent of it, look at Curry’s numbers. Three years ago he set an all-time NBA record by making 272 three-point shots. Last year he broke it by making 286. This year he broke it again... making 402! An article from the Times’ statistics-based column, “The Upshot,” reveals graphically how Curry’s use of – and success with – the three-point shot is literally off the charts.

By way of comparison, thirty years ago, the league leader in three-point shots was Larry Bird, star of the 1985-86 Celtics championship team. Bird that year made all of 82 three-pointers. The Celtics as a team that year were 138 for 393 on three-pointers. The Warriors, this year, took 2291 three-point shots and made 1074 of them. That’s an almost sevenfold increase! At one point toward the end of the Warriors’ semifinal series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the TV commentators noted that the Warriors made more three-pointers in a single playoff game than the Celtics that year made in the whole playoff semifinal series.

One must bow before the virtuosity of Curry’s play – and the success of the team’s strategy. Yet how much three-point shooting is too much? The question is nonsensical, of course, if you’re a Warriors fan and your goal is to win. But the evolution of the game itself is a different question. Whenever I see a player drive to the basket, with an excellent chance to score from close range – and then, instead of attempting a contested layup, twist his body in midair and hurl the ball all the way out to an open player at the three point line, I flinch a little bit. To me it looks and feels like a distortion of basketball.

What it really is, of course, is not a distortion, but an adaptation. From a tactical point of view, the best way to understand the Warriors’ success is as a belated recognition – and, finally, a full exploitation -- of the reality of the three-point rule. It seems funny to say this, because that rule was instituted thirty-five years ago. Partly it was a marketing scheme by the then-fledgling ABA, which sought to jazz up the game (those red, white and blue basketballs!) to compete with the NBA. And partly it was an attempt to counteract the dominance of big men, providing an extra premium for scoring from long range that would bolster the status of the outside shooter.

Well, it certainly did that! What interests me is how long it took for coaches fully to comprehend, and act on, the tactical implications of the new rule. This is common in sports. New insights, especially those spurred by statistical analysis, create new approaches to the game, but often those approaches are blocked by a conventional wisdom that continues to hold powerful sway. In football, statistical analysis of punting has revealed that a team would frequently maximize its win chances by “going for it” on fourth down instead of punting. But coaches balk at such unconventional decisions, partly because their gut instinct tells them it’s wrong, and partly because the heavy flak they get for such decisions -- when they fail -- alters the risk-reward analysis. In football that means punting on fourth-and-two, even when the wonks say you should be going for it. In basketball, up till recently, it has meant refraining from firing up thirty three point shots per game. You just don’t do that.

Until now. Now the Warriors do it. They have inaugurated the reign of threes in a rain of threes.

A friend of mine gave me his take after watching the team’s comeback victories over the Thunder in the semifinals. The Thunder would come down the court, arduously and skillfully work the ball around, play the classic inside-outside game, and score a basket. Two points. Then the Warriors would come down, pass the ball twice, and fire up a long bomb. Three points. “It seemed unfair,” my friend said. “One team gets two points. The other gets three.”

Of course, it isn’t unfair. It is absolutely fair – a brilliant exploitation of the rules as they are written. That’s how you win, after all. Donald Trump likes to boast of using the bankruptcy rule tactically, of paying as little taxes as he can, and of buying influence by giving money to politicians over the years. His refrain, when confronted with charges of having done these things, is that of course he has done them. These are the rules, and you’d be stupid not to exploit them.

Sport, like society, is a darwinian construct. The rules of the game, once set, create the environment, and over time, players and teams will adapt to that environment. So you had better be sure you have the rules you want. Because, over time, those rules will determine the kind of game you’ll get: who will win, who will lose, and how.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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