Student of the Game: The NBA’s Yule Ball

Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport.  The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative.  As always, hopefully you will enjoy this.  Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.

Each major sport has its own regular season holiday.  The NFL has Thanksgiving.  Major League Baseball has the Summer holidays.  The NHL has….Boxing Day?  Anyway, the NBA owns Christmas Day (at least in the sports world there’s another guy who lived a long time ago who actually owns the day).  Christmas marks a demarcation point in the NBA season.  Teams know who they are at this point and know what moves need to be made to move themselves into contention either for the championship, the playoffs or to be the first ping-pong ball selected.  Rather than breaking down this year’s Yuletide games, let’s look at a few theories about the sport, and sports in general, that are illustrated by each game.

The Barometer Team Theory

Brad Stevens (Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News)

Taking credit for all of these theories would be both inaccurate and wrong, which is a great way to end up on the naughty list.  However, I can claim this one for myself.  The theory is that certain teams act as a barometer for the rest of the league.  These teams are playoff teams, but not quite good enough to be title contenders (except in baseball and occasionally the NFL where a wild card can catch fire and win it all).  They also generally are fundamentally sound and well-coached teams.  The idea is that you have to be a good team and play well to beat them, ergo they serve as the threshing floor for the rest of the league separating the wheat from the chaff.

The Celtics are an ideal barometer team for the NBA.  Brad Stevens is conservatively one of the five best coaches in the NBA, but Boston is still a star player away from being a legitimate title contender.  They’ll square off against the Knicks on Sunday, who are in need of a test.

The New York Knicks are currently sitting at 5th in the Eastern Conference, but there are myriad reasons why that record might be misleading.  They have a negative point differential, outdated scheme, and outdated stars.  Melo’s playing style harkens back to the ’90s and early 2000s and he’s clearly on the decline.  Derrick Rose is playing surprisingly well, but his game doesn’t really fit with the “modern era” of NBA basketball either and he’s made of glass.  Joakim Noah has been replaced by his Walking Dead zombie doppelgänger for about two years.  The lone exception is Kristaps Porzingis who looks like the second coming of Dirk so far in his young career.  All that to say, Christmas is a great opportunity for New York to either silence the detractors or show their true colors.  My vote is on the latter.

The Sparring Match Theory

Tyronn Lue (Photo Courtesy of Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

There are only a handful of times where this theory actually comes into play, but the NBA Finals rematch between the Cavs and the Warriors is one of them.  Steve Kerr vs. Tyronn Lue is the most interesting matchup of this game.  Both teams know that there’s a good chance that they are going to meet each other in the Finals for a third straight season, and considering that they have played each other in the 13 biggest games of the last two years it’s safe to say that they know each other pretty well.  Granted, Kevin Durant is a new addition and Tyronn Lue was only the coach for the second of the two series, but still the basics of both teams are the same.

Here’s how the theory comes into play.  Both coaches will have to try some things to see if they can find a few new twists and wrinkles that work, especially Golden State since they, like little Nell, have a shiny new toy and some new pieces.  But, the kicker is that neither team will want to show too much.  They will both pull a few punches, pun absolutely intended, to save for the potential rematch roughly six months from now.

What does that mean for the fans?  Well, unlike some ESPN pundits would have you believe, the outcome of this game is pretty inconsequential if we are comparing these teams for a finals rematch.  More importantly look for specific plays and sequences, especially when Durant is heavily involved, where teams show things that haven’t been run or at least not frequently in previous meetings.  That’s where you will find important indicators of how the end of the trilogy might look, if indeed it comes to pass as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come predicts.

The Toby Keith Theory

Dwyane Wade (Photo Courtesy of Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

For those of you who aren’t from the South, there are two things you need to know about Toby Keith: a) he loves America as much as George Washington did and b) he has a song that goes, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”  For aging stars, this is a pretty reasonable aspiration.

Dwyane Wade is a good example, and has been for a few years now.  He’s going to go down as one of the five best shooting guards ever, despite not being a great three-point scorer.  His game is predicated on quickness and craftiness in getting to the basket, and because of that he takes a beating.  Thanks to that and several injuries, he can’t really play 82 games anymore, but for one game he can still take over at any point and time.

A friend asked me the other day who the better player was between Wade and Jimmy Butler.  My response was this, “Over the course of an 82-game season I would have to take Butler, but for one game I’m definitely taking Wade.”  The Bulls are on the fringe of the playoffs, and hopefully they make it because the playoffs are just better with Wade in them.  (In fairness, they are probably better off without Rajon Rondo at this point so it probably evens out).  But, if the Bulls can’t squeeze out the eight seed this may be one of the few marquee Wade moments of the season, so let’s enjoy it.

The Hinkie Theory

Former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie (Photo Courtesy of C.F. Sanchez/

My apologies to Philly fans if the name alone elicits Vietnam flashbacks, but it was the most appropriate name.  Most of you probably know where this is headed.  Minnesota has had a really peculiar season, and certainly not in a good way.  The Wolves have a talented young roster and a great coach, but they are also sitting at 9-19 currently, good for 13th in the Western Conference.  It’s still pretty early, but the question has to at least begin to be asked.  Should Minny throw in the towel and try to land another top pick to pair with Wiggins and Towns?

The argument for tanking is pretty simple.  You are already off to an awful start and even if you catch fire you are probably at best looking at the eight seed and a first round matchup with Golden State.  Once again, that’s at best.  Plus, this is a loaded class.  Harry Giles or Jonathan Isaac would probably make the most sense given the current roster, but should they dump Rubio and if they aren’t sold on Kris Dunn then there are a host of point guards in this upcoming class.  Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and De’Aaron Fox are all ballers and could very well be the next great crop of point guards in an era of unbelievable talent at the position.

The argument against tanking is a little harder to articulate.  Some people believe that tanking aggressively stunts the growth of young players and teaches bad habits.  This is an understandable position, but it’s also pretty difficult to prove or even demonstrate that this effect is real.  Others would say that it threatens the integrity of the game and its disrespectful to your fanbase.  Another understandable position, but the rebuttal to this is that the primary objective of any franchise is to win titles.  Franchises like Minnesota don’t have the ammunition to load up and gun for a title every year, so they need to play their pieces carefully when constructing a roster to gear up and go for it when they happen to draft the star to get them there.  It failed with KG, but many think KAT could be good enough to get them there, especially with Wiggins there too.  Maybe one more lost season isn’t the worst thing in the world?  Or maybe it is, what do I know?

The Ewing Theory

Blake Griffin (Photo Courtesy of Robert Hanashiro/USA Today)

Any of you who are familiar with the work of Bill Simmons will recognize this instantly.  For those that don’t, the Ewing theory, named after Patrick Ewing, applies to players who are the best on their team whose team seems to get better when they don’t play because of injury or suspension or some other reason.  This obviously seems counterintuitive, which is why it has its own theory.  The explanations for why this happens seem to be situation-dependent to me, but it generally revolves around other guys stepping out of the star’s “shadow” and the team playing better as a unit. Whether this is a real phenomenon or a perception, it will be put to test in the nightcap on Christmas in the battle of Los Angeles.

Blake Griffin is injured again and the Clippers will be without the Kia-clearing forward when they take on a greatly improved Lakers team.  As you might remember, Griffin was famously suspended for punching an equipment manager, who is also allegedly “his boy”, last Spring.  It’s been suggested that a possible cause for this altercation was that Matias Testi, Blake’s boy, brought up that the Clippers might be better without Griffin playing when he missed some time due to a torn quad muscle.  We will get a chance to see if Testi had a point, if indeed that was the cause of the fight, for the rest of December at least.  On a final note, Blake Griffin if you are somehow reading this please don’t hit me.  I’ll take it back if you just ask, and it doesn’t even have to be done nicely.

Cover Photo Courtesy of @NBAXmas twitter account

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