Matchup Madness Part 1

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 andre drummond and aron baynes pistons

I can tell you from firsthand experience, that watching the Detroit Pistons play basketball from 2015-2017 can test your ability to enjoy the sport as a whole. During those two years, Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons czar at that point in time, over-coached a fatally flawed team he built to become painfully average. If I had my druthers, I would have been watching, well, nearly anyone else. But due to having a client on the team during that stretch, I was stuck tuning into those slogs.

Thankfully, my nightly anguish watching those Piston teams chase banal mediocrity didn’t turn out to be in vain. During that stretch, Van Gundy’s controlling nature as a coach blew a spark of doubt I had over the way basketball games were managed into a raging fire. And that fire burned hottest during one of the many otherwise forgettable Pistons games I was forced to consume.

The Memphis Grizzlies rolled into town one night sporting their twin towers of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Though Randolph was coming down from the peak of his powers, Gasol was operating at the height of his. In a league just starting to phase out old-school power forward-center combos, the Grizzlies were still holding strong. The inside presence of Randolph and Gasol forced opponents sporting more modern frontcourts to make choices when it came to how they approached the game.

After a back and forth battle edged toward Memphis in the final quarter, Van Gundy, looking to nullifying the interior presence of Gasol and Randolph, dialed back Piston basketball to the 1980s. I heard the airhorn through the TV and watched as Aron Baynes checked into the game. Typically during his two years with Detroit, Baynes would replace Andre Drummond in a center for center swap. This time, however, he was coming in to play alongside him.

It doesn’t take a basketball savant to hone in on Van Gundy’s logic. Randolph and Gasol were beasts on the inside tearing apart the Pistons front line. Moving to Baynes and Drummond would, in this line of thought, provide a little more muscle in hopes of slowing down the two Memphis giants.

Now a Baynes-Drummond frontcourt pairing is, quite obviously, not a recipe for long-term success. After all, it was the start of an era where the Golden State Warriors were winning titles with a 6-foot-5 dude at center. And to say Baynes and Drummonds couldn’t be some wild counterpounch to the NBA smallball revolution is not just a subjective observation.

While the sample size is small, during the 46 minutes Drummond and Baynes while the latter was with the Pistons, Detroit was outscored by 21 points. Maybe some potentially powerful pairings start out by getting outscored by nearly 24 points per 48 minutes, but I’m guessing most don’t! In that game against Memphis, the duo, not surprisingly given the tone of this post so far, failed to provide the boost Van Gundy was hoping for as Detroit lost the game.

But that’s basketball for you, right? There was a matchup issue. Something wasn’t working for a team so a coach, coached. The end results is the following day, we assign credit or blame and the machine keeps chugging along.

But for longer than is probably healthy, I couldn’t stop thinking about everything that went into what I had seen that night. Something bigger was at work here. A coach had just desperately lunged at a positive, short term result by making a move that in no way, shape or form could be considered a viable in sustained minutes.

It seemed like ever since that game, I couldn’t help but be hyper-focused on these moments where coaches became consumed by this matchup madness. It wasn’t just Van Gundy. It was all of them. Even the great Pop would roll out different starting lineups depending on his opposition. Ones that included Pau Gasol creeping toward his “washed” stage. Maybe none of these moves were on the desperation scale of throwing out a Drummond-Baynes frontcourt, but they happened. And they continue to occur quite frequently in big and small ways.

These counterproductive moves pile up in my consciousness. Then they are followed by seeing coaches give generic speeches about tactical misgivings in postgame press conferences while writers, like me, wax on about the efficacy behind them. It’s a weird loop.

It’s as if a coach like Van Gundy could walk into the media scrum after a game, like the one in Memphis, cry, “Matchups!” and let slip the dogs of armchair punditry. After all, it doesn’t take much for all of us to fire up the Nazi-infested machine we call Twitter and duke it out over whether ‘X’ move in ‘Y’ game was the correct one while we all can’t see the forest for the trees.

And that’s the point of all this. I think we are blind to the forest. It’s why, in 2019, when Baynes is leading a downtrodden Phoenix Suns franchise to an NBA Finals, I’m bringing up some game from a few years ago that, in most respects, didn’t really matter. A fundamental aspect of how basketball coaches operate seems, at the very least, mildy flawed.

As we dive down the rabbit hole of this matchup obsession, be ready for some twists and turns. And the first twist comes in the form of someone that doesn’t even have anything to do with basketball. He’s an athlete, but doesn’t even use the same appendages for the sport he plays. He’s a soccer player named Christian Benteke.

Image result for christian benteke crystal palace goal

Soccer Is Telling Us Something But We’re Not Listening

Over the weekend, Crystal Palace, the team that currently employs Benteke, hosted Leicester City in a Premier League match that had a weird level of importance given the expectations of the two clubs before the season. In the 57th minute, Leicester scored to go up 1-0. Then 21 minutes later, Palace, still needing a goal, turned to Benteke, their often maligned (and injured) backup striker.

Now while he hasn’t been an overly effective goal-scorer in quite some time, Benteke, at an imposing 6-foot-3 (which is tall in soccer), still can rattle opposing defenses with his ability to rise above defenders and head the ball, well, roughly toward goal (and sometimes even in it). Leicester City manager Brandon Rodgers, knowing the importance of getting a win on the road, was apparently growing increasingly concerned about the aerial threat Benteke presented.

In the 85th minute, Rodgers dusted off a veteran defender named Wes Morgan. Morgan was part of Leicester’s title-winning run in 2015 (which for you non-soccer fans, is still one of the most insane things to happen in sports) but is now 35 and fighting a losing battle with Father Time. While Morgan isn’t a starting caliber defender anymore, he’s a strong center back perfectly suited for the task of shadowing a striker like Benteke and not letting him overpower Leicester for a late goal.

Rodgers move to counter Palace’s insertion of Benteke paid off. Leicester not only held the lead, but expanded it late on to secure the victory. It was a massive win for Leicester, secured by a late, matchup-drive change. Naturally, it was also a big win for pundits and tactics bloggers everywhere.

For me, that match made me think back to Baynes and Drummond. That’s because as I have been questioning the impact of the chess match that goes on in basketball games, there are people in and around soccer have begun doing the same for their sport. The see a sub like Morgan and wonder if the obsession with formations and mangers mirroring their counterparts moves blow for blow actually is worthy of the narrative we give it afterwards.

In a 2016 article for Paste Magazine, Richard Whittall works through his own misgivings about the obsession with single game tactical narratives in the sport he covers for a living:

In football, that complexity can also involve a lot of random variation, individual creativity, and tactical discipline. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to convincingly mark the boundary lines between all three, and often they all blend into a seamless, impermanent whole. This is why it takes some cojones to point to a formation or a tactic to explain away a match result.

And Whittall isn’t alone! There’s a few other people having a similar epiphany, like Ryan O’Hanlon (who directed a few of you here), who went down a similar rabbit hole while writing on the USWNT this past summer:

I enjoy reading all kinds of tactical analysis. The historical inflection points (when a new, never-before-seen style becomes unstoppably dominant before its co opted by everyone else, and then the cycle begins again) and the ongoing philosophical debate about how the game should be played are two of my favorite things about the sport. However, I’ve heard the practice described as something more akin to art criticism, rather than analysis. And I think that’s right, as all tactical analysis is a work of interpreting and then value-judging. Even if you hooked the manager and all of the players up to a lie-detector test, I’m not sure you’d be able to paint a perfect picture of why they all did the things they did in a given match. Intentionality is impossible grasp.

The point these two are trying to make is that when it comes to these ungodly complex soccer matches, how in the hell do we know that any one sub, formation switch or tactical directive actually worked how we thought it did? What’s even more interesting about the thread that O’Hanlon and Whittall tug on is that soccer probably does see a greater impact from tactical tinkering and lineup management than basketball does. That’s mostly because soccer teams can function in different game states. When a soccer manager makes a defensive substitution, like Rodgers from Leiscester did, he can also pair that decision with a choice to play without the ball.

When looking at something like the Baynes-Drummond situation in that context, it makes basketball’s matchup obsession seem even more counterproductive. A basketball coach that chooses to play a more defensively sound lineup can’t then also decide to just defend the rest of the game. If Van Gundy had to protect a 10-point lead and never play offense, playing Baynes and Drummond together would make sense! But other than rare late game situations were possessions get chopped up due to fouls and timeouts, lineups have to function both offensively and defensively in a way that soccer managers don’t always have to consider.

Yet with both sports, we see a similar approach from coaches or managers when it comes to controlling the chaos. Yet if it maybe, kinda matters soccer, which has a fundamentally different state of play built into matches, why do see basketball coaches operate in the same fashion?

We’ll take a look at that in Part II of this dive later this week!