Stephen Curry

Perhaps the most remarked upon aspect of Curry’s game, other than its Platonic beauty, is that it appears to lack the kind of merciless ferocity that characterized the often brutal genius of Michael Jordan, who, when he wasn’t soaring through the air, punched a teammate or two and trash-talked heckling fans. Curry makes impossible, throat-cutting plays that somehow look both human and imbued with a kind of sweetness, if not mercy.
 
“What made Jordan so great,” Miller told me, “was that he could get the ball way up in the air and finish it. But you don’t have to dunk to be like Steph. Every kid looks at Steph and thinks: I can shoot and dribble. I can do that. You don’t have to be like Mike anymore. You know, Mike was an asshole. I was an asshole, too. But you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. Steph is living proof.”
 

Reggie Miller on Stephen Curry's game (in The New Yorker of all places; they are stepping up the volume of their sports coverage, though in that distinctive New Yorker style).

I worshipped Jordan as a child because I grew up in Chicago when he came to the Bulls and became a star. But he's the type of player you idolize because of his competitive spirit and demonic will to win, not because his game is one you can emulate.

Watch video of Jordan's jump shot and you see a jumper released at the apex of his jump. I couldn't shoot like that, and neither can most recreational players. It relies on great athleticism and strength, and it helps to have gigantic hands. I had neither. Shooting that way I could only really shoot from the free throw line in. What made Jordan's jump shot so effective was that he jumped so high it was nearly impossible to block.

Later in his career, as his athleticism declined, he added a variant: the fadeaway. Falling away from the defender, it was still impossible to block even with his decreased vertical leap. It was the primary weapon that allowed him to post up any guard in the league, and even most small forwards, until the day he retired.

[Earlier in his career he'd post up players on either block and then spin baseline and blow past the defender for a dunk or layup, but officials started to call that a travel, and later he lost the explosiveness to execute it consistently anyway.]

Stephen Curry has a jump shot but it looks more like a normal human being's jump shot, which is more of a set shot. It's a style of shooting that involves the legs and core more, and as a Bulls fan the players that come to mind who've shot in that style include Steve Kerr, Craig Hodges, Ben Gordon. It's how I have to shoot from that distance.

What sets Curry's shot apart from others who shoot that way, however, is the speed at which he can get the ball out of his hands. It's truly stunning to watch, whether on TV or in person. Estimates are that his release takes just .4 seconds. So despite releasing the shot from a much lower vertical distance than Jordan's jumper, Curry's is still very difficult to block.

Curry's version of Jordan's fadeaway, his unfair additional advantage, is his ball handling. If Curry needs an extra bit of separation from the defender, he can throw in a jab step or step back at any time, and literally in the blink of an eye (estimated to be 300 to 400 milliseconds, or exactly how long he takes to shoot) the ball is out of his hands.

Much of modern basketball is predicated on ball movement or actions like a pick and roll that create a temporary "power play" for the offense. The Miami Heat championship teams were really effective at using athletic and lanky lineups to smother the ball handler on a pick and roll and force the offense to reset, nullifying the pick and roll. With Stephen Curry, even if you double him off a pick and roll he can get a great shot off. That makes him as dangerous a weapon as there is given the modern three point line (I've referred to the 3 point shot as the NBA's modern arbitrage opportunity because it's worth 50% more than a 2-point shot but is nowhere near 50% as difficult to execute, not just for Curry but many NBA players).

Is there another feat in sports more suited to deliberate practice (popularized with the 10,000 hour rule) than the basketball jump shot? It's trivial to toss up a jump shot, and the feedback on whether you performed properly is near immediate. That's about as clean an instance of deliberate practice as there is, like playing a musical piece on the piano. You either play the right notes or you don't.

The difference between playing a piano and shooting a basketball, however, lies in that brief gap of time between the release of the basketball and its arrival at the basket. In that moment after Curry releases the basketball over the defender's head, as it traces its parabolic arc through the air and all the opposing players on the court have no recourse but to join everyone in the stadium in watching the ball flight, hope, anticipation, resignation, and appreciation meld for an instant. There is nothing to do but wait, knowing that the laws of physics have already determined whether the ball will go in the basket or miss, and there's nothing anyone can do about it any longer. It's just enough time to inhale, or exhale. Or to hold one's breath.

Personal statistician

Another sign of the gradual ascent of statistical analysis within sports: some NBA players now employ a personal statistician.

Justin Zormelo, a 30-year-old Georgetown graduate, is at the forefront of a growing industry, his services a must-have accessory for the playoffs. Zormelo, who spends hours every day hunkered over a laptop in his home office, has become the go-to source for players who want a private guide through the emerging world of advanced analytics.

Let others conduct wind sprints and weight-room sessions. Zormelo, who works for individual players and not their teams studies film, pores over metrics, and feeds his clients a mix of information and instruction that is as much informed by Excel spreadsheets as it is by coaches’ playbooks. He gives players data and advice on obscure points of the game — something many coaches may not appreciate — like their offensive production when they take two dribbles instead of four and their shooting percentages when coming off screens at the left elbow of the court.

...

Zormelo’s career took off three years ago when he began working for Kevin Durant, the league’s leading scorer and most valuable player. Zormelo spent last season living out of two suitcases in Oklahoma City as Durant’s full-time stats guru. He attended Thunder games with his iPad in tow, watched film with Durant at night and even slept on Durant’s couch. Zormelo ended their season together by presenting Durant with a five-page report full of pie charts and bar graphs.

This season, Zormelo worked with All-Stars like Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, John Wall of the Washington Wizards and Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics. At least three of his clients are still in the playoffs. When they require hands-on involvement, he heads to the airport.
 

One of the chief challenges for teams that employ quantitative analysts is getting the coach and players to embrace the recommendations that come from the analysis. It's a good sign for those teams when players themselves are turning to the numbers for self-improvement, though the conflict between recommendations from a player's own statistician and the team's analysts can be troubling.

Fluid team sports like basketball are trickier from a strategic standpoint than a sport of individual confrontations like baseball. In baseball, individual statistical achievement and team achievement are usually highly correlated. In basketball, one player may pad their scoring stats by shooting a lot, but that may not be best for the team.

Atul Gawande once wrote a great article about how most of us could benefit from more coaching. It seems that one of the greatest investments for someone with wealth would be coaching, and yet I don't observe that happening.

I suspect that the people hire coaches when the marginal value of the coaching is very clear, and that tends to be in areas where the price or market signals are explicit and efficient. Athletes have very public contracts, their statistics are tracked at an increasingly fine resolution, the correlation between improved play from coaching and both team success and personal financial wealth is visible and clear.

Many people hire fitness coaches because they can see the results on the scale each morning, or in the bathroom mirror, and in society's well-documented preference for people who are fit.

Hiring a coach for your professional career may have greater returns, but the signals may not be as consistently reinforced or even as measurable as for an athlete, and where do you find a good coach anyhow when the labor market is so tight? Given that the practice is not common in many disciplines (take product management as one example) there is real inertia that means most practitioners have to own their own development.

The hidden value of the NBA steal

This post by Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight was one of the more interesting pieces at that site so far.

In fact, if you had to pick one statistic from the common box score to tell you as much as possible about whether a player helps or hurts his team, it isn’t how many points he scores. Nor how many rebounds he grabs. Nor how many assists he dishes out.

It’s how many steals he gets.

...

Steals have considerable intrinsic value. Not only do they kill an opponent’s possession, but a team’s ensuing possession — the one that started with the steal — often leads to fast-break scoring opportunities. But though this explains how a steal can be more valuable than a two-point basket, it doesn’t come close to explaining how we get from that to nine points.

I’ve heard a lot of different theories about how steals can be so much more predictively valuable than they seem: Steals “cost” less than other stats,7 or players who get more steals might also play better defense, or maybe steals are just a product of, as pundits like to call it, high basketball IQ. These are all worth considering and may be true to various degrees, but I think there’s a subtler — yet extremely important — explanation.

Think about all that occurs in a basketball game — no matter who is playing, there will be plenty of points, rebounds and assists to go around. But some things only happen because somebody makes them happen. If you replaced a player with someone less skilled at that particular thing, it wouldn’t just go to somebody else. It wouldn’t occur at all. Steals are disproportionately those kinds of things.
 

I haven't visited FiveThirtyEight as regularly as I thought I would. To some extent it feels a bit like a solution still in search of a problem. That is, analytic rigor with data is great, but it felt more essential as an antidote to hysteria during the elections. When it doesn't feel like you're sick, taking medicine regularly isn't as appealing.

It's still early, though. If nothing else they must certainly be analyzing the data on their traffic and engagement carefully. I personally would love to see more voice from their writers (that need not be mutually exclusive with analytical rigor) and a higher incidence of longer pieces.

Kobe vs MJ

"One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader," Jackson writes. "Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence.  Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones."

“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael's superior skills as a leader. Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he'd yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones.”

"No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender," Jackson writes. "He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense."

Those are excerpts from Phil Jackson's new book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, coming out Tuesday, in which he compares Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan.

This bit was especially revealing.

Jackson also revealed that the sexual assault charges levied against Bryant in 2003 temporarily clouded his outlook of the Lakers star. The situation "cracked open an old wound" because Jackson's daughter Brooke had been sexually assaulted by an athlete in college.

"The Kobe incident triggered all my unprocessed anger and tainted my perception of him. ... It distorted my view of Kobe throughout the 2003-04 season," Jackson writes. "No matter what I did to extinguish it, the anger kept smoldering in the background."

I am definitely going to pick up that book. Too bad Phil Jackson hasn't coached more of our generation's leading players. I'd love his insight into, say, Lebron James or Tim Duncan.