Matchup Madness Part II

We've become accustomed to interpret the 48 minutes on a basketball court as some type of dynamic chess match. But have we ever stopped to think if attempting to control that chaos actually matters?

Image result for matt thomas raptors

When the Toronto Raptors signed Matt Thomas this offseason, it wasn’t to much fanfare. Unless you were a hardcore Iowa State Cyclone fan, writing a book on the Lakers 2017 Summer League title or an ardent follower of the ACB, Thomas likely didn’t exist in your orbit. Well, at least until Synergy threw this stat out and let Basketball Twitter have a moment:

If you weren’t familiar with Thomas before this post, that tweet pretty much sums up his essence as a player: he’s an elite shooter and generally impactful offensive operator. Given the NBA is in the midst of a three-point craze, the Raptors scouting department did the team a favor by keeping tabs on one of the best young shooters outside the NBA. When free agency opened, Toronto secured his services with a three-year deal.

Shooters like Thomas always have a way sticking around NBA rosters. Hell, Steve Novak was basically a statue that flung basketballs in at a high rate from beyond the three-point line and he lasted 11 years in the league. The problem with a lot of these specialists is their flaws in other areas typically keep them from consistently staying in rotations.

At the start of the season, Thomas was no exception. You didn’t need a direct quote to see head coach Nick Nurse had some concerns over earmarking his new shooting specialist for a nightly role in the rotation. Despite getting some decent run in the preseason, Thomas opened the year with a pair of “DNP-Coach’s Decision” next to his name in the box score.

Then against the Bulls, Thomas saw 20 minutes of action. The following game against Orlando, however, he was back on the bench. The same was true except for one lone minute in the next game against the Pistons. Nurse’s use of Thomas clearly was going to be reliant on matchups and/or a need for an offensive boost.

Against Chicago, players like Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison and even Tomas Satoransky likely presented non-threatening matchups in the eyes of the Toronto coaching staff. For them, having a place Thomas could “hide” on defense was the only way they felt secure in utilizing his offensive tools. Chicago presented that while Orlando and Detroit, while hardly powerhouses, apparently did not. When Thomas played nine minutes against the Bucks a couple nights later, matchups might still have been an issue but the Raptors sluggish offensive start screamed for the boost only an elite shooter can provide.

Thankfully for Thomas, the string of this matchup yo-yo eventually broke and dropped him permanently in the rotation due to the injury crisis that struck the Raptors a couple weeks back. Patrick McCaw bit the dust first, followed by Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and for a few games, OG Anunoby. With the Raptors generally needing bodies, Nurse really didn’t have much of a choice but to play Thomas for minutes that weren’t entirely matchup based.

Thomas has played in all seven of those games since the Lowry injury, averaging 13.3 minutes per contest heading into last night’s game against, coincidentally, Orlando. Toronto has gone 5-2 during that stretch while Thomas has been +16 in his 93 total minutes. And here’s the kicker, his positive split doesn’t even have much to do with his offensive impact. Surprisingly, the team’s ability to produce points remains virtually the same regardless of the presence of Thomas.

Yet for all his apparent concerns, Nurse’s defense has also been just fine. The Raptors have posted a defensive rating of 102.6 with Thomas on the court. When he’s on the bench, there’s an ever so slight improvement to….102.1. Now the sample size is small, Thomas has only played 123 minutes overall entering last night’s game, but it’s pretty obvious that the skilled offensive player is not an anchor dragging down Toronto’s defense.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the idea of matching Thomas up against weaker offensive players or waiting until the Raptors need points to utilize their shooting specialist is a concern over a problem that might not exist. And part of an outmoded thought process that not just Nurse continues to ascribe to….

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Only Thinking Slowly

Back in 2011, renowned psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman wrote a book about the cognitive biases that effect our two levels of thinking — which he referred to as System 1 and System 2 — called “Thinking Fast and Slow.” I remember that over the course of the next couple years, that book picked up a lot of steam inside basketball coaching circles. By 2015, about two dozen basketball coaches had either referenced the book while talking to me or implored me to read it.

Sadly, the revelations in Kahneman’s book may have excited these people on the inside the profession, but it still hadn’t done much to change the way basketball coaches operate as a whole. In any sport, the mind of a coach is typically ground zero for biases at work. I certainly can recall my own involvement in numerous arguments over basketball cliches that simply required the right play to argue one side or the other — the confirmation bias hard at work. And years ago, I even wrote about how the optimism bias likely impacts the way NBA teams evaluate free agents.

Yet none of that is the reason I mention Kahneman’s literary works. It’s what Kahneman spent most of his life studying that comes up often whenever there’s a basketball coach obsessing over matchups. One of Kahneman’s more notable contributions was that of prospect theory, which is essentially the idea that losses and gains of equal value are perceived differently.

Prospect theory isn’t the end of the road though. Kahneman’s discoveries there provided the basis for loss aversion, the idea people are prone to avoiding losses rather than seeking equivalent gains — essentially an inherent desire to mitigate risk. That’s something that seems helpful on an anthropological level, but hardly helps when it comes to winning basketball games.

It’s also not the final stop as we venture down this rabbit hole. Richard Thaler (the guy to the right of Kahneman in the above picture), an esteemed professor of behavioral science and economics, teamed up to explore the effects of myopia and loss aversion on risking taking with Kahneman (and two other members of academia) in 1997. What they found was that we human beings are prone to letting the things right in front of us sabotage our best interests long term. Thaler and Co. aptly named this cognitive process myopic loss aversion.

The definition of this particular bias is summed up quite well by the people at BehavorialEconomics.com. They write:

Myopic loss aversion occurs when investors take a view of their investments that is strongly focused on the short term, leading them to react too negatively to recent losses, which may be at the expense of long-term benefits (Thaler et al., 1997). This phenomenon is influenced by narrow framing, which is the result of investors considering specific investments (e.g. an individual stock or a trade) without taking into account the bigger picture (e.g. a portfolio as a whole or a sequence of trades over time).

It’s very hard to read that definition and not think of Stan Van Gundy’s decision to play Aron Baynes and Andre Drummond together a few years ago. Or why Nick Nurse only played Matt Thomas, a productive member of his rotation during the last seven games, only two minutes against an Orlando team that hasn’t won a game away form home yet this season (and is now 6-8 overall). All these moves are very shortsighted, a coach seeing a danger and looking to minimize his risk. Yet in the big picture, the argument could easily be made that these moves are, well, not optimal.

And it’s not as if Nurse and Van Gundy are two rogue agents in the basketball coaching world. Pick a team, game or situation, and any coach, even the almighty Gregg Popovich, has likely succumbed to making his team actively worse while seeking to minimize short-term risk. It’s just, as Thaler, Kahnamen and their colleagues found out during rigorous studies, what we seem built to do as human beings.

But what makes matters worse, aside from the fact that knowing about these biases doesn’t make us immune to them, is that in today’s NBA, matchups are pretty much irrelevant. Sooner or later (if it hasn’t happened already and I just don’t know about), someone will likely come out with a paper or data set to show how often a player who starts a possession guarding his particular opponent, ends that same trip down the floor across from the same person.

With all the switching on the ball and switch-outs behind it, the NBA isn’t this one-on-one league anymore. Teams are attacking earlier in possessions, running more guard-to-guard screens than ever and generally trying to make life as difficult as possible on an opposing defense. If I had to guess what such a theoretical paper would produce, my guess is that it would come up with a percentage that isn’t very high.

It seems as though the current coaching belief to let an opponent’s personnel dictate their own rotations is completely enveloped by our natural predisposition to avoid short term losses. Coaches essentially avoid seeking edges to protect themselves from risk. Why dance up on the highwire by going small against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph when you could just die a slow death with Aron Baynes and Andre Drummond. And if even NFL coaches can start being more aggressive on fourth down, it seems as though basketball coaches should be slammed (see what I did there) for this stubborn fixation on risk-averse matchups.

But the problem with blaming coaches is that it’s pointing fingers away from the other people complicit in this outmoded process: all of us.

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Just Tell Me Who’s Fault It Is?

Writing about the effects of how we consume the sports we love and the media’s response to that fervor isn’t so much a newsletter as it is a doctoral thesis. I’m not going to pretend to be smart enough or knowledgeable enough about all the aspects to do some deep dive in the final paragraph of this post. However, years ago, while discussing double-teaming post-ups, a very smart writer (just kidding, it was only me) briefly touched on this general issue by exploring how difficult it is for coaches to make decisions that go against the all-important narrative:

And that’s why coaches chase the flush. It’s a lot easier for a coach to handle fans, reporters, talk radio shows, etc., if his gameplan revolves around letting Blazers not named Aldridge rain shots from the most efficient areas on the floor as long as the All-Star big man isn’t getting his. Saying things like “we tried to take the ball out of his hands” in a losing effort where a player like Aldridge scores 20 points is a lot easier than rambling some long-winded response about variance, efficiency and long-term trends on a night he’s single covered and scores 51. Chances are that if the team playing Portland is evenly matched, the latter strategy will produce more wins than losses over a suitable sample size.

This type of logic certainly explains why it’s easier for coaches like Van Gundy and Nurse to make decisions the way they do. There was a clear and present problem facing Van Gundy in that game against Memphis. He chose a suboptimal choice but it gets wrapped up in an illusion of proactivity.

Nurse, on the other hand, could lock Thomas into his rotation. But very soon, Nurse will experience a game in which the rookie gets torched in a noticeable fashion on multiple defensive possessions. After that contest, Nurse will have to walk into a scrum of reporters and explain why he did nothing to stop the bleeding.

The nuance needed to have that conversation with a media machine built to give us the quick soundbites and black-and-white critiques just doesn’t exist, especially if you’re talking about a nationally televised game. Nurse will get shredded publicly and privately other forces, like the millionaire athletes who look to him as a coach paid to help them win games, will make him reconsider his decision. Basketball coaches, like Nurse, simply have the deck stacked against them.

Not only do their own subconscious biases seek to undermine the decisions they make, but we’ve helped shape an environment around them that is quick to provide loads of blame on the spot, big picture be damned. In other words, I won’t be forgetting about Stan Van Gundy, Aron Baynes and that random night against Memphis anytime soon.

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