In Mild Defense of Hero Ball

Brian DiMenna

With the Knicks set to do battle with the Pacers, and the expectation for a tough, defensive series, expect a lot of games decided in the closing moments. As a result, how the Knicks approach their fourth-quarter offense will become an increasing point of contention, as we’ve already seen in the wake of a series win with Boston.Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass

Now, generally, I am something of a stats guy. Not in the sense that I’m that able when it comes to doing that kind of analysis, but more that I do put a lot of faith in their conclusions by the many people who do that sort of thing exceedingly well, and I agree that most of the advanced stats have aided our understanding of basketball and improved the discussion. Or in other words, I’d always rather be Nate Silver than Dick Morris.

But I do think that sometimes some of the stat folks forget that these coaches aren’t computers using algorithms to spit out the highest percentage play in every possible situation. They are human beings, motivated primarily by fear. Fear is the natural state of man, given that in our earliest days, we arrived naked as the day we were born, armed only with an instinct for making fire and an opposableĀ  thumb, but surrounded by things like lions, or tigers or whatever other terrifying and totally incomprehensible beast happened to be around. It was scary.

So we’ve evolved to be the naturally anxious species that has the majority of us clutching for some kind of psychotropic drug to calm the ever deepening fear in our ever-active brains. We no longer have to contend with wild animals roaming our city streets, so instead we’re ravaged by the rampaging beasts operating mostly within our own heads. That’s who’s standing there, wearing a suit and clutching a chalkboard like it holds all the answers. A frightened little boy of a grown man.

One of my favorite hobby horses along these lines is in regards to NFL coaches icing the kicker. Every stat analyst will rightly conclude that it doesn’t do anything. That it’s just as likely to backfire, and yet coaches continue to do it. I’d argue they will ALWAYS do it. Why? Because it’s the only thing they CAN do. Here you have your average NFL head coach, likely a control freak of the highest order, forced to sit completely helpless as some diminutive kicker boots him into oblivion. You think they’re going to just sit there doing nothing? Hell no. They’re going to ice that little son of a gun because at least it’s something. Did it do anything? They have no idea, but by God they tried ANYTHING!

Which brings me somewhat to hero ball.

The problem likely began with Michael Jordan. Whether this is accurate or not, the perception took hold that Michael Jordan simply won games by himself. He made every big play, hit every big shot (something we literally know not to be true, but whatevs) and generally carried a team on his back to six championships. And it’s on this perception in which every future player has been judged. It’s the reason so many folks spent the last five years acting as though every LeBron pass in the closing seconds wasn’t just a a poor choice, but an act of betrayal to the very idea of what it means to be a great player.

And even though we know better now, to go with changes in defense, both in rules and philosophy, that asking your best player to go 1-on-5 in every crunch time possession is not the high percentage play, we see it persist over and over in these high intensity playoff games.

And my point is simply I get it.

When you have a generation of great players ingrained with the idea that these are the moments when their legacies are formed, that not to accept this challenge is almost unacceptable, is it such a surprise to see them unwilling to give up the ball late in these games. There’s an element of, “Hey, remember that thing you’ve been conditioned to believe your whole life, well, we kind of know that’s not true now. Please adjust accordingly.”

Equally, you have a legion of coaches hanging on to their tenuous jobs, giving up any semblance of a life to chase this fleeting dream of championship glory, who more often than not, decide they’d rather go down by simply giving the ball to their best player and hoping he scores. Yes, asking Carmelo to make a contested fadeaway is a less efficient use of the offense than running a play that finds Iman Shumpert wide open for a corner three — where he’s shot nearly 43% on the year — but which miss can I as the coach carry with me for the rest of my life? Which miss will let me sleep at night when the demons come? Although, there’s something sort of ironic about these masters of control, so often abandoning their own best-laid plans to their own sense of mythology about their particular “superstar” player.

None of which is to absolve Mike Woodson for an ugly fourth quarter in Game 6 in Boston. Certainly, there has to be some happy medium that allwos for trusting your star, while not completely abandoning the very thing that made you such a great team to begin with. Surely, EVERY possession doesn’t need to start with Melo at the top of the key, all four other players surrounding the perimeter, with all five defenders’ eyes solely on Anthony. It’s not only aesthetically unpleasant, it was almost preposterously ineffective.

But I also think coaches in general, and probably Woodson in this series, will continue to rely heavily on the ole’ “Get it to that dude and everyone else get out of his way” more often than may be statistically wise, because coaches are people, and people are really just frightened little children, and that’s sort of OK, particularly when the Knicks happen to have the one guy that’s kind of better at that sort of thing than just about everyone else on earth.

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