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Are Stats Ruining the Love of the Game?

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A reader wants to know if it’s possible to become too engaged in the minutiae of a sport and lose the heart. Hear our opinion and share yours!

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Enjoyment of the game is the topic of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. If you’ve got a Portland Trail Blazers or NBA-related question, send it along to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer!

Hi Dave,

Love Bedge, love your perspective and writing. And I love the Blazers.

I'm 51 years old, and a sports nut - my first sports-love is baseball, but basketball is a close second. I've played fantasy sports often (though not in recent years). I am definitely an advanced-stats guy - I feel like the revolution popularized in baseball by the writings of Bill James, and built on by so many others, has been really really interesting and wonderful.

And yet...

I find myself wanting more and more to stop viewing the teams and sports I follow as an armchair GM. Player salaries, salary-cap machinations, roster construction, etc. - I have enthusiastically embraced all of these as topics for a long time, and I'd never tell anyone else to either pay attention or not pay attention to these things - to each his own, as long as you're not hurting anyone else, right?

But I guess I am coming to accept that not only am I NOT a GM now, I also never have been one, nor will I ever become one. I haven't even come close to working for a team. And so, while the play-along-at-home nature of that type of fandom is something I have deeply enjoyed, I also have a creeping suspicion that it may have actually been... sort of pointless. The enjoyment is the point, I know. But that brings up another question - is it potentially getting in the way of other flavors of sports-enjoyment?

Your mailbag today on the reader-outrage over the lack of moves by the Blazers yesterday, coming after yesterday's win over the Magic, really outlined this for me - there are plenty of people (this includes me) who followed the trade-deadline Twitter updates closely, and it's a big topic this morning, and there are a lot of potential trades that didn't happen that I could get curious or unhappy about. But I also watched the game, and wholly aside from the context of the season, and whether Meyers Leonard will ever develop into more than a limited-minutes bench big, it was a fun game! When I shut those other topics off in my brain, I was able to really enjoy what will go down in history as a game of no particular significance.

Thinking about Damian Lillard also brings up the issue - the dude has his flaws, and any rational GM should at least be open to the possibility of trading anyone on their roster. You rightly bring up the problems a GM would have in making that trade, and that is an interesting discussion - I'm not asking you to stop covering those elements!

But wholly aside from those perspectives - the guy is awesome. I LOVE watching him play; I love listening to him talk about the game, and I love the fact that he lives here, and likes it here, and says he wants to stay. When I watch him, the 10-year old fan in me, who didn't give a crap about the business of the games or strategies for optimizing the utilization of draft picks, comes out, and I find real joy there.

The adult in me knows that this is a road to disappointment - stars do get traded, or leave in free agency, or lose a step and then their role as a starter, then their job.

In the meantime - it's fun to root for the home team, as flawed as they may be, and as little hope as they may have of winning a championship. I can understand, intellectually, why smart Blazer fans might be in favor of a tank job this year. But I'm having a difficult time finding the joy in that, personally. Our team may be stuck in the dreaded middle ground - good enough to aspire to a low playoff spot; not good enough to advance. But while long-term strategic thinking is certainly my prerogative, it's also NOT my responsibility. And I think I just might be happier letting someone else do that for a while.

Anyway, this is probably way too long and rambling for a mailbag, but I wanted to write it anyway. Do with it what you wish, if anything.

Roger

I usually edit questions WAY down but I’ve left yours in its entirety to give the flavor, making this the longest single Mailbag question in the history of the feature. Congratulations!

Armchair GM’ing has become the new wave of sports participation. And, at least anecdotally, it seems to be stronger in the NBA than anywhere else. The statistical revolution you mentioned probably has something to do with that. The possibility of immediate positive feedback for making a great move in the NBA as opposed to other sports contributes as well. The NBA celebrates individual talent, feeds on transactions, and its robust cap system frames a game within the game. For all these reasons, back-seat driving is a big deal in this sport. Once upon a time kids grew up fantasizing about playing for an NBA team. Now we all want to pretend we could run one.

This isn’t necessarily bad for the league. Roster/trade debate entertains and engages fans even when their team is losing. Armchair GM’ing becomes more fun and seems more crucial when your team stinks than when your team is succeeding. Fans of the 24-odd franchises passed over by Championship Run Santa during his annual stocking delivery get to knock themselves out aspiration shopping at a discount in February, June, and July. Hope becomes the great equalizer.

And let’s face it, NBA devotees are much better armchair GM’s than they used to be. Popular and media criticism of moves (and non-moves) has “smartened up” the league’s fan base. Twenty years ago everybody had to read tea leaves. Whichever team got the glitzier scorer probably “won” it. In 2017 even the lowest common observer has the tools to evaluate multiple aspects of every deal. Instant reactions are still hit and miss but over time patterns of competence are easier to trace and quantify...lessons easier to learn. Bad managers get exposed quicker; fans become smarter; the gap between the two closes.

But amateur GM’ing is still amateur. We cross a line when we lose perspective and begin to think we could really do the job. This is just as silly as thinking we could actually play in the NBA because we’re pretty good at hitting jumpers in our driveway. Saying, “That’s such an idiot move!” is easy. Making the right one without benefit of hindsight is much harder. Some moves are dumb, but the complexities behind them aren’t readily apparent from the outside.

The slow leaching of in-game enjoyment you as people “Siskel and Ebert” every move to look smart and gain an edge is a real thing, in my opinion. Fantasy and video leagues are awesome. They drive engagement. They also threaten to dehumanize players and de-contextualize the game. Box scores and stats are useful for analyzing what happens on the floor. They’re meant to give us a lens to see the action clearer, with more information at our disposal. When stats exist for their own sake, we’re looking at the telescope, not through it. When stats exist only to prove our point or our superiority, the telescope morphs into a cheap changing-room mirror. For 99.9% of the population, looking in the mirror is never as fun as watching a game.

Mileage may vary on how much this all matters when applied to the league’s fan base. Most of it turns out for the good as interest is sustained. The bad parts may be annoying but they’re probably inconsequential. Unless, of course, your team is owned by a billionaire super-fan with delusions of grandeur and enough game film on hand to be dangerous. I hate to judge any trade in its first two weeks (or even its first year) but it certainly looks like the Sacramento Kings followed...errrr... interesting criteria when trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield and change. I hope Hield works out for them, but at least on paper the deal would have been lopsided even if Sacramento received Buddy Ebsen, Buddy Hackett, “Playboy” Buddy Rose, Buddy the Elf, and the complete discography of Buddy Holly on vinyl. If you want to see the pitfalls of armchair experts taking the wheel...well, enough said.

That’s not to say criticism is unfair or taboo. Most people can tell the difference between a good meal and a bad one. Those impressions are interesting, often accurate, and fair game for sharing. But being able to discern that a restaurant only merits two stars does not mean that you’re qualified to head to its kitchen and put on a chef’s hat. When dining becomes about the number of stars instead of enjoying the meal, we’ve lost our way. That’s happened in the movie industry; music isn’t far behind. Positing the trend taking over sports isn’t a stretch. That’d be a sad day.

I believe we’re capable of finding the middle ground, sharing and learning truthful complexities without straying into the realm of hubris, but your question is apt, Roger, and we fail to ask it at our peril.

Keep those questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or @DaveDeckard!

—Dave