On Optimism…

February 25th, 2014 by Nate Smith

Last Thursday, the Cavs were riding high on a six game winning streak. Today, the Cavs have lost two straight and sit five games out of a playoff spot with the toughest remaining schedule in the league looming ahead. Last Thursday, the Cavs controlled four picks inside the top forty five of the deepest draft in NBA history. Today, they have Spencer Hawes, two remaining draft picks, and a five percent chance of making the playoffs.

Last week, the Cavs seemed on the verge of great things. Many of us poo-pooed an article by Zach Lowe, telling us that we were being buoyed by wins that were “proof of nothing.” We bristled when Bill Simmons quipped.

One of my favorite underrated traditions: when a healthy Anderson Varejao plays well for three or four weeks, then the Cavs forget to trade him before he gets hurt … and then he gets hurt. I think this has happened in every NBA season since 1965.

“Go to H-E-double hockey sticks, Bill.” We thought, “Andy will be back.  This is nothing. So they’ve got a couple injuries. Waiters may have tweaked his knee a bit, but that was an amazing dunk.” Now it seems he’ll be out a couple more games, with the ominous words “at least” attached to the report.

Is reality setting in? Is this season doomed? Is the Cavs’ curious decision to sign Arinze Onuaku to a ten day contract, instead of you know, a guard or a wing (since the Cavs have two down, right now, and Jarrett Jack is playing 40+ minutes) a sign of organizational irrationality? Were we deluded a week ago? Four months ago?

Perceptions and expectations are funny things. We often fail to adjust our thinking when our perceptions do not meet our expectations. I’ve often said that people select information that confirms their world view. So maybe (probably) we are guilty of irrational exuberance, and (to a lesser extent) irrational pessimism. But so what? We are human. We are, by our very nature, irrational hypocrites. Our brains are hard wired to be ridiculously optimistic.  “In fact, the people who accurately predict the likelihood of coming events tend to be mildly depressed. The rest of us systematically fail when interpreting the crystal ball,” says a 2011 New York Times Piece.

Are we victims of Dan Gilbert’s irrational overestimation of the Cavs’ talent level? Or should we become the evangelists? Given the choice, especially when it comes to something as innocuous as basketball, wouldn’t you rather be wrong than depressed? It’s funny how change happens in systems, especially irrational ones. In 1968, did anyone ever think the U.S. would have a black president? In 1996, would anyone have predicted that without even repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, courts would be throwing it aside en masse and making gay marriage the de-facto law of the land?  Did anyone think, even seven years ago in the wake of Tim Hardaway’s ignorant rants, that the NFL and NBA would have any openly gay active players? That athletes could actually be grown-ups about showering with a gay person?

Systems change. People change. Societies change. How? Irrational expectations and persistence. People did not accept defeat. Michael Jordan was not the most gifted athlete to ever play in the NBA. Larry Bird was definitely not the most gifted athlete. How did they become so great? Irrational expectation and and persistence. Civilization is the story of how, despite war, slavery, poverty, hunger, genocide, and every other atrocity that man has done to man, the world is a better place than it was. Through some miracle, we haven’t killed each other. In light of that, a little positive thinking when it comes to the Cavs doesn’t seem so hard, or even so irrational.

So, I say, let’s take a lesson from 2008. Why 2008? Well, in that year, Indiana played their butts off, and still missed the playoffs at 36-46 — one game out. With the 17th pick of the draft, they took Roy Hibbert. In 2008, Chicago ground out a final ten games at 5-5, finished with 33 wins, and ended up with Derrick Rose. Those efforts may have netted those teams little in the way of short term gains, but I’d argue that organizationally, the strive for professionalism and excellence served them better in the long term than did trying to lose and ending up with Jason Joe Alexander.

Dan Gilbert is an irrational expectations kind of guy, and that’s part of the reason I love him. The Rust Belt is a region that values a “nose to the grindstone” hard work, and perseverance. Part of that mentality is to keep working when it seems like the goal may be out of reach. The only way to keep working and stay sane (or at least happy) is our innately human irrational optimism and our embrace of irrational expectations.

So, bring on the Raptors. Bring on the Heat. Bring on the Pistons!  Chase those wind-farms. Batten down the hatches. Coaches and players stand tall! Bloggers and readers to your keyboards! Man the parapets! Fight them with screens. Fight them with flagrants. Fight them with cortisone. Fight them with tweets! Fight them in the low block. Fight them on the in the lane. Fight them on the perimeter. Fight them on the… plain? Fight them with Delly. Fight them them with Sergey. Find them with Carrick. Fight them with Uonake. Fight them. Fight them. “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” Playoffs, here we come! Hallelujah. Our truth is marching on. By God, let’s give ’em (who, exactly?) what for. I need an Advil.