Appreciating styles in basketball: Memphis vs. Golden State

There are a few mathematical ways of comparing the complexity of board games. One method, called Game Tree Size, tries to quantify complexity by counting the total number of possible games that could be played. If you use at this method, Stratego shows itself to be the most complex game, perhaps because players can set up their pieces to start the game in many different ways. A couple positions below Stratego comes Go, the 4,000 year-old Chinese game, and then much lower down, Chess. As you would expect, the simplest games measured is Tic-tac-toe. Board games are not fun in direct proportion to their complexity — you’re not going to hear me say that Stratego is a better game than Chess just because it’s more complex — but it is an important factor. It’s good to feel like it’s possible to get better at a game, even to master it, without being forced into a single strategic direction. If a game is simple enough to have a clear winning strategy, then once you figure it out, it soon loses its appeal.

This is one of the reasons why sports are so much fun to play and follow — they are virtually infinite in their complexity. I can’t imagine how you’d even begin to calculate the complexity of a sport like basketball. Not only are there ten players on the court at a time, free to move anywhere in a large three-dimensional space, but each of them is an actual person, with her own abilities to see, move, shoot, or pass. That’s one reason why it was somewhat disconcerting to watch the NBA regular season this year. It seemed like teams had “solved” basketball and found a truly ideal way to play. Not ideal from an aesthetic point of view, but from a winning one. The formula, epitomized by the Houston Rockets, seemed to be, shoot nothing but three-pointers (ideally from the corner) and layups. During the playoffs this year, it’s been wonderful to see that there are still different ways of winning, that basketball has not (and probably never will) been solved. No playoff matchup exemplifies this better than the series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors.

The series between the Grizzlies and the Warriors is currently tied at two games apiece. These teams have beautifully contrasting styles that are easy to see and appreciate. Put simply, the Warriors play based on the idea that three points is more than two while the Grizzlies principle is that scoring is easier when you’re closer to the basket. The great thing is that both of these theories are correct! Both teams have an almost ideal fit between their best players and the way they play. The Grizzlies are the more physical team, the Warriors the more balletic. The Warriors best players are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs and Thompson is 6’7″ and 205 lbs. Both can shoot almost inhumanly well. The Grizzlies best players are Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol is 7’1″ and 265 lbs. Randolph is 6’9″ and 260 lbs. Both are among the best in the world at bullying their way close to the basket and then scoring from within the forest of arms trying to block them.

You can probably see the difference in styles just by watching these teams play but here are some numerical ways of showing it. During the regular season this year, Memphis scored the most points of any NBA team from the paint (close to the basket). To be fair, Golden State was also pretty good at this. Golden State was second in number of three pointers made, Memphis was second to last. Another excellent way of distinguishing the teams is by looking at shot charts that show where and how well teams or players shoot. I put together a few to look at using a great tool built by Austin Clemons. The first two show the Grizzlies and Warriors as a whole, the second two, just the star players already mentioned. Notice how many more of the Grizzlies shots come from in close and how many more of the Warriors shots come from beyond the three point arc. These differences become more dramatic when just looking at the star players.

Perhaps the most poetic way of understanding the difference between the two teams is by letting Grantland writer and narrative basketball poet, Brian Phillips help us understand. Phillips recently wrote articles about both teams. In his article on the Golden State Warriors, The Rise of Steph Curry, Phillips describes the subtle genius of Golden State’s most prolific and prototypical scorer:

He [Curry] just kept hitting shots, in his own little bubble of imperturbable cool. He had a gift for finding the little cracks, the little aerial wormholes only players with a certain kind of daredevil vision are ever able to see. He’d run off a screen, curl to the top of the key, catch the ball, pivot: swish, over a skyline of outstretched arms. Plant in the corner, catch the ball, flick a tiny hip-fake: swish, as his defender went rocketing past him… Curry exists on the plane where the impossible and the rational coincide — disarmingly natural. Smooth, even.

When writing about the Grizzlies, Phillips choses to focus, not on either of the Grizzlies big men, Gasol or Randolph, but instead on Tony Allen, a defensive specialist who has become an internet sensation during these playoffs. Allen, whose nickname is “The Grindfather” inspired Phillips to write The Grindfather’s House: Welcome to Tony Allen’s Playoffs. Here’s an excerpt:

Watching Tony Allen in 2015 is impossible not to enjoy. He’s like a combination of a professional wrestler, an elite superhero sidekick, and the dad from Finding Nemo… What Tony Allen does? It does not look fun. Murderous man-to-man defense, hyper-vigilant awareness of passing lanes, a willingness to chase your man from one end of the floor to the other, the tenacity to grind for 48 minutes against the other team’s best player … none of this looks remotely enjoyable.

Now that you’re armed with an understanding of how these two teams try to solve the game of basketball in entirely different but equally successful ways, see if you can witness it yourself in one of their next games. They’ll play each other on Wednesday, May 13, at 10:30 p.m. ET on TNT and Friday, May 15, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. If neither team wins both of those games, a deciding Game Seven will be needed on Sunday, May 17 at a time to be determined. Enjoy!

What Makes College Basketball Different?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching March Madness and College Basketball looks really different from the NBA Basketball that my sister usually watches. Can you tell me what some of the differences are?


Dear Patricia,

One of the reasons why people love college basketball is exactly what you’ve identified — that it is very different from the NBA. The NBA for the most part, is dominated by a single strategy, the pick-and-roll. Critics of the professional game will say that teams just run eighteen variations on the pick and roll from different spots on the floor. I love the college offensive schemes:

  1. Dribble drive – a really quick guy beats his guy off the dribble, but he’s not talented enough to finish, so he kicks it out to someone whose defender is collapsing to contain the drive, except HE’S a 17 percent three point shooter, so he drives, draws more defense, kicks out, etc etc – until the whole offensive side of the court collapses in on itself like a dying star and it’s a mad scrum around the offensive glass (Memphis, Kentucky, kind of Syracuse and Michigan)
  2. Motion – pass around the perimeter, set half-ass, off-ball screens and hope that a defender gets confused, goes the wrong way and leaves someone open for a three-pointer or a back-cut; if the defense is disciplined enough not to make a mistake, wait til 5 seconds are left and pass to your one on one offensive threat and let him take a bad shot (Pitt)
  3. “I have an athletic big guy” – a team lucks into a really really tall/wide guy who’s athletic and can therefore dominate since that’s so rare in college ball, so they just give him the fucking ball (Kind of Miami/Indiana)
  4. Tom Izzo – run, throw the ball up on the glass, go get it and mug anyone who gets in your way (Michigan State)
  5. Wisconsin – motion + tall white coaches sons who can shoot with improbable range (Wisconsin)
  6. Flex – the only offense where success is measured not by the number of points scored but by the number of picks set in a given possession (Gonzaga)
  7. Coach K – one of the few offenses based solely on moral superiority/smugness (Duke)
  8. Zone attack – when facing the 2-3 zone, pass the ball around the perimeter repeatedly and have one player flash into the the “soft spot” (essentially at the foul line, behind the 2 and in front of the 3) – get him the ball, then watch him panic as the entire zone collapses on him and hope he makes the right pass (anyone playing Syracuse)
  9. Transition – RUN!!!!!!! (VCU)
  10. Three point – Whatever happens, shoot three pointers. Miss them, get long rebounds, shoot more three pointers. Pull up in transition, shoot them contested, shoot on the move…just keep shooting. Defender in your face? No worries – step back as far as you need to.

Enjoy the Final Four games tonight,
Dean Russell Bell

Can You Help Me Understand the Playoff Beard?

Dear Sports Fan,

The guy I’m dating has started to grow a “playoff beard” to support his favorite hockey team. Can you tell me what he could possibly be thinking? And is there anything I can do to stop him?


Dear Sonja,

The growing of a playoff beard in the context of a relationship can be a very delicate issue, particularly if you are not into your beau’s tonsorial experiment for stylistic reasons. We must deal with whether it’s okay to try to influence the beard, and if so, what the best methods are.

In most cases, I would argue that a partner’s appearance is out of bounds. Everyone influences their partner’s style by complimenting them on certain choices and staying silent on others. It’s even okay to say things like, “Honey, those neon teal capris are very flattering on you, but I think I prefer the way a simple pair of jeans allows your natural elegance to shine through.” It’s fine to express an opinion, but when it comes to actually asking, negotiating, or demanding a stylistic change… that crosses a line and becomes an infringement on your partner’s individuality and personal control.

Is a playoff beard really a choice of style though? I don’t think so. I think it’s an element of fandom divorced from[1] style. It’s more akin to painting your face on game day or wearing giant foam fingers[2] than cutting bangs into your hair. It’s very likely that he is doing this because somewhere deep down, he feels like his actions will affect the success of his team. This is as obviously insane as it is common.

One argument you could make is that the playoff beard isn’t really as much of a rule as people think it is. The playoff beard is a relatively recent tradition, having been started by the New York Islanders in the 1980s. It was immediately correlated with victory when the Islanders won four Stanley Cup championships in a row.[3] The NHL has been around since 1917, so the majority of its history has been spent sans beard. Even since 1980 there have been lulls and resurgences in the popularity of the playoff beard. For instance, in 2009 the Detroit Red Wings used the slogan “The Beard is Back” on their way to the finals. Unless your date is a Red Wings fan, he probably hates that team. Ask him if he really wants to be a part of something the Red Wings “brought back.”

If you prefer the indirect approach, here are a couple things you might want to try.

  • Wait until day four. This is probably the itchiest day in the history of the universe. Watch for a particularly agonized moment and mention how much more you enjoy kissing his neck when it’s smooth.
  • According to the rules of playoff beards, not being able to grow a beard does not excuse you. For example, Patrick Kane grew a playoff mullet a couple years back. Tell your boyfriend that you’re going to join him this playoff season as best you can. According to the rules, “Women are not exempt from playoff beards.  Some refuse to shave their legs…others get more…um…creative.  I’ll just leave it at that.”

Your third option is to embrace the playoff beard! You might be surprised at how much you grow to like the “fuzzy and furry facial accoutrement” growing on his face. The female bloggers over at Puck Daddy certainly do — they just wrote a “Guide to 2012 Stanley Cup scruff.” Encourage him to take part in the beard-based charity drive at Beard-A-Thon where hockey fans have raised over $100,000 so far!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. perhaps even intentionally oppositional to
  2. of course if he is growing a beard, he probably does those things too…
  3. Also point out that they have not won since… so it may be more of a curse than a boon

What are my Cap Options at a Ball Game?

Dear Sports Fan,

I want to go to a baseball game and wear a baseball cap but I don’t like the home team’s colors. What are my options?

Unknown female name rhyming with Bill


Dear Jill,

It seems to be fashion week here at Dear Sports Fans.  If you missed it, glance back at Monday’s column when Dean Russell Bell helped you pick out the perfect sports jersey for your persona.  If you look closely he will also answer the age-old question of why baseball players wear belts. (Hint: the answer is not to hold in their rather athletic guts.)

Today’s question, though, is a hat of a different color, or to be more precise, whether or not it is acceptable to wear one to a baseball game.

In my mind, sporting events are in many ways, like a costume party.  You have:  your neighbor who has spent every waking moment since last October planning out and putting together the perfect customized costume; the group that upon receiving the invite spend about a week putting together a solid outfit; the couple in your office who will run to the store at the last minute and just pick up whatever costume is still available; the girl who shows up in lingerie and black fuzzy ears and tells everyone that she is a cat; and, of course, the guy who will talk non-stop about how stupid and juvenile it is to wear a costume every single day until the party and then show up without a costume at the party to continue his tirade

For you Jill, I think we can immediately rule out the first and the last.  Your objections to wearing a specific colored hat clearly indicate that you are not about to forgo the hat for a full mascot costume or body paint.  On the other hand, given that you are making the effort to wear a hat at all, I think we can safely rule out our costume curmudgeon.  Both are ok.  No one expects you to become super crazy fan overnight, and everyone is thankful that you aren’t going to attend the event just to be the downer in the corner.

That leaves you with three other options for finding the perfect hat:

First, if you see yourself as the last minute couple, willing to make the effort but not overly concerned about the result, I think we can find you a hat that would work.  These days baseball hats are not only a way to support a team but also a fashion trend.  As such, you can buy a team logoed hat in just about any shade or design you want.  If you don’t want to be completely off the wall in your hat choice, try to find a hat that has some relation to your team colors.  Many teams have accent colors that they incorporate into logos or gear that might be a good alternative.  In addition, all baseball teams have an alternate or third jersey that they have or will use on occasion.[1] Sometimes those jerseys involve very different colors that you could consider.

Or, if you are a kitty cat kind of girl, then there is a Pepto-Bismol pink hat with your name all over it.  Some marketing genius in the sports world decided that girls who watch sports are only comfortable doing so in a bumble gum pink hat adorned with rhinestones and glitter.  Despite what my derisive tone my lead you to believe, this isn’t actually a terrible option, if you happen to like pink.  They do have some more subtle pink options, and the hats are official team merchandise so they support your team and the league.

And lastly, and my personal preference, if you are a member of the group, you will realize that the best way to have fun at any type of social event, but especially a sporting event, is to get into it and let yourself have fun.  Go ahead and buy the hat in the official team colors.  The worst that happens is that you own an ugly hat that you will only ever wear when surrounded by a giant crowd of people all similarly adorned in ugly colored garb.  It’s just a hat.   You can easily hide it in your bag and then put it on when you walk into the stadium.   And who knows?  Maybe you will let yourself have enough fun that by the end of the game, you might just forget to remove that ugly hat before you walk out of the stadium.

Have fun,
Lisa Filipek

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. According to Wikipedia, the NY Yankees are the only teams without a third jersey.  I am  going to go out on a limb here and assume that the colors that bother you aren’t navy blue and white.

Why do Baseball Players Wear Belts?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do baseball players wear belts?

Just sayin’,


Dear Ashley,

Baseball, to a degree not seen in other sports, is grounded in traditions that have been around for over a hundred years. To us, and even to the players, some of the traditions make no sense – but because baseball is perceived, or wants to be perceived, as “America’s game,” something that’s unchanging and consistent throughout history, the traditions remain.

Which is a roundabout way of saying there’s no good explanation for why baseball players do a lot of things and you can just add this one to the list. When you think about baseball players’ attire, they’re actually more appropriately dressed up to go out to the club than they are to play a professional sport. Their shirt is actually a button-down, unlike every other major professional sport, where they wear jerseys of some sort. The players are given a sartorial choice when it comes to their socks: some pull their pants all the way down to their cleats, some have their socks meet their pants at the knee like an 18th century landowner. So there’s an element of (attempted) style to the baseball uniform that speaks to how the sport sees, or saw, itself.

This is a good opportunity to discuss the uniforms from the major (American) (male[1]) sports. Not how nice they are, but on whether the components of the uniform – jersey/pants/footwear/hatwear – would look most appropriate on a teenager, someone from the 80’s, a yuppie, or one of Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen – ignoring all of the logos, etc. To whit:

Basketball: Teenager. Easiest of the bunch. Tank top with long baggy shorts and sneakers. I just described half of the teenagers in America. Headwear: Some players wear headbands by personal choice – the only one of the major sports where headwear is optional, come to think of it.

Football: 80’s . When you come right down to it, football players are wearing cut-off tee shirts and (long) cut-off shorts – two regrettable legacies of the 80’s. Among many.

Hockey: Yuppies. Hockey players wear sweaters. ‘Nuff said.

Baseball: Yuppie. As discussed above, it’s a button-down tucked into long pants, complemented with a nice belt. Equally at home on the baseball diamond or at happy hour.

Golf: European yuppies. The collared shirts, the tight fitted pants, the visors – throw some sweaters around these guys’ shoulders and they could be on a yacht docked somewhere off the Riviera.

NASCAR: Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen. The jumpsuit is worn by everyone on the team. The driver gets a dark, tinted helmet. If Dr. Evil was sponsored by Home Depot, this is how his minions would dress.

Dean Russell Bell

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I’m barely qualified to speak on men’s fashion, so if you think I’m going to set my toe in the waters of commenting on women’s fashion, you’re out of your mind.