Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Long Game, or How I Learned to What Football is (Currently) Doing Right

Last night Greg Popavich sat Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, his two biggest stars, despite not having injuries, in order to give the older stars rest in a compressed NBA season full of back-to-backs.  The Spurs were consequently rocked by the Portland Trail Blazers for a 40 point loss.  This loss leaves the Spurs as the #2 seed in their conference, right where they were before hand.

Now, I won't denigrate Pops for resting his aging stars to keep some gas in their tank.  Heck, I've advocated that Thibodeau should do more to limit the minutes of Bulls stars.  But it does say something that we are in the middle of a season in which coaches and teams play the schedule as much or more than they play the games.  Everyone has an eye on the playoffs, getting there in as good a seed as possible while leaving something in the tank and limiting injuries, and to do that you basically have to accept that you are not only going to lose some games, but that you are going to have to concede games.

This is largely a function of the compressed schedule.  Too many games in too small a time frame.  Even in a full season of 82 games (16 more) the extra 2 months space it out enough that you don't see such blatant towel tossing.  But I wonder if number of games doesn't factor in some.  If this compressed season were the same length but had 6-16 less games (a 50-60 game season), would we have enough rest to have teams treat every game equally?

I'm not enough of a baseball fan to know, but I will toss out the totally unsupported supposition that managers in baseball also take a less than urgent approach to all 162 games.  "Is this pitcher struggling?  Should I go to the bullpen?  Nah, it's only 15 games in and I want to evaluate his toughness."  The higher game count lets you experiment more.  

In some ways that's good in evaluating your talent or for getting your backups and younger players experience.  But as someone shelling out over $50 for a ticket, I want to see my team win, and not use my one outing for the week/month to tinker with lineups.  I can sit at home and watch Quenneville debate himself over who should be 2nd line center in HD for free while writing one of these blog posts in between catching youtube videos of corgis playing tetherball.

As a fan with cable and internet, I'm fascinated by the chess game that is this NBA season.  I'm fascinated by the strategizing of when and how much to rest players with an eye towards the season as a whole, and not just this game.  But that's only because, as a fan that isn't buying tickets and has so much media exposure, I have that luxury.

Football, on the other hand, at both the college and professional level, has done so much more to make every game count.  You never see teams take their foot off the gas.  And while in the injury regard this can be bad (pushing players to get back sooner than may be advisable), it does make me as a fan more invested in every outing.  

Blog Overlord Craig may, and plenty of sports writers and statisticians certainly do, say that the more games a season has the more the law of large numbers will show us what a team's real capability is.  But is that really the case if a team is only ever playing at 85-95% much of the time?  Does the worship of sample size overlook too much of the human element?  Not just physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, but calculated slacking?  Craig has specifically lauded playoffs where statisticians decry them.  That's because the smaller sample size admits more intangibles (like "heart") and luck.  I would also argue it is the only thing that mandates 100% focus and effort.

Notwithstanding my other post today on football's coming decline, I think the smaller sample size of the football season helps capture this playoff mentality throughout the entire season.  Going back to my post from earlier today, continued expansion of the football season to 18 or more games risks not only player health, but team focus.  Perhaps the two are indistinguishable.

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