Learning in a Sandstorm

March 1st, 2012 by Colin McGowan

This NBA season has been peculiar and underwhelming. The statistics back me up here—we’re currently experiencing the fourth-lowest scoring season since 1970—but I’m speaking more about the spectacle playing out in front of my eyes, not on stat sheets. There’s no empirical data that itself tracks “sharpness” of play, but the play this season has been, if not blunt, then two shades duller than the diamond-bladed brilliance NBA fans have become accustomed to over the last handful of years. Many writers and analysts speculate that the lack of practice time and the fatigue factor impressed upon players by the condensed schedule are to blame. Whatever the cause, NBA players are making more mistakes (mistimed passes, broken plays, etc.) than usual, and upsets, especially ones inflicted upon the upper echelon teams that have older rosters, seem more prevalent than in years past. Most of the league is running at 93% capacity, with the exception of LeBron, who shares DNA with worker ants and Kenyan marathoners.

I think the peculiarity of this season is of note because, as a fan and pseudo-expert, watching the Cavaliers is more of a learning process than it was a couple years ago, when the team was more stable. Only four players—Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, and Boobie Gibson—are left from the Cavs team that lost to the Celtics in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and five players—Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody, and Omri Casspi—have been Cavaliers for less than a calendar year. My point is that I, likely in concert with a host of Cavs fans, have spent more time this season evaluating talent than I did during the LeBron/Playoffs Every Season Era. Byron Scott has a lot of young athletes in his rotation, and fans are trying to figure out the strengths and deficiencies of those athletes on a nightly basis. At times, watching the Cavs is more like study than play.

I wonder, then, what we can learn about the Cavs’ young talent from a season as atypical as this, and how the particular qualities of this NBA season affect the way fans and front offices are interpreting the strengths and deficiencies of that talent. Take, for example, someone like Ramon Sessions. His offensive game is predicated on using his quickness to get to the basket. The numbers bear this out: Sessions has shot only 32.5% on jump shots this season, whereas he’s 48.9% on shots taken within four feet of the rim. Obviously, most players are going to shoot a better percentage from the painted area than from mid-range and beyond, but Sessions is an incredibly inefficient jump shooter. (For the sake of comparison, Kyrie Irving shoots 41% on jumpers.) If he doesn’t want to land on the bench, Ramon Sessions needs to drive the paint. The thing about driving into traffic is that the player expends more energy than on a jumper, and the player is more likely to get thwacked in the chest by a 7-footer. A player whose game relies upon penetration plays a more physically demanding game than one played by a spot-up shooter or a guy who can create his own shot along the perimeter. What we might be able to extrapolate from that knowledge is that Ramon Sessions benefits more from rest than other players. So, does this compact schedule hurt his game more than a superior shooter like Irving, who can pick his spots in terms of when he goes into the paint? It’s not like Ramon Sessions, in a normal season, is challenging Deron Williams for an All-Star spot, but is our perception of him a bit more negative than it should be due to the manner in which this lockout-altered season is affecting his play?

It’s a question to keep in mind as the Cavaliers decide which players should be part of the team moving forward. And to complicate matters, each team and each player is dealing with the effects of this practice-deficient, game-plentiful season in unique ways. If figuring out the value of an NBA player within a team full of variables in a league full of variable opponents is difficult, then trying to discern whether or not Alonzo Gee can be a sixth man during a season when each player and team is slightly out of whack is like trying to translate a foreign-language novel in the midst a sandstorm.

Not that we should throw away our notes from this season. It’s not as if the NBA has gone from playing in arenas to abandoned airplane hangars. The league isn’t drastically different from last season. But the difference is palpable, and it calls into question whether our perceptions are measurably affected as well. I think more than any other season, it’s important to be skeptical. In addition to interrogating players as we watch them, it’s also crucial to interrogate the context in which we’re watching them. If Kyrie Irving lights up a team on the seventh night of a five-game road trip, it’s less impressive than if he does it against a team fresh off a two day break. And then there’s the quality of the team’s defense, and how much rest the Cavaliers have had… You see where this gets complicated rather quickly. It’s another layer of confusion supplementing a process that’s already so perplexing that the professionals screw up frequently. If Chris Grant starts sporting a Romney-esque gray-at-the-temples look by season’s end, we’ll understand why.