Sun Tzu and the Art of Playoff Basketball

The “basketball as war” trope is omnipresent during the NBA playoffs. So I decided to take a look at The Art of War, by Chinese Philosopher-General (and general phil0sopher) Sun Tzu. Written 2500 years ago, the short book was revived in the 20th century as a treatise on psychological warfare for guerrilla and traditional fighting forces, and became obnoxiously trendy fare for business people who gorify/glorify Mergers and Acquisitions as Murders and Executions.

Oh, and Amar’e Stoudemire, who always shines in the playoffs, is a fan.

Sun Tzu’s work emphasizes both practical strategy and the spiritual and psychological components of battle–what one might call the intangibles of warfare. But what can he teach athletes and coaches in a sport invented 2400 years after his death?

As it turns out, many of his ideas are relevant, though some passages, like one on how many light versus heavy chariots are appropriate for certain types of battle, are not. As New Jersey just missed the playoffs, his advice on fighting in swamps– “you should have water and grass near you, and get your back to a clump of trees”– can also be skipped.

Heading into what promises to be a drawn out campaign for the glorious victors, here’s what Sun Tzu has say about it.

Finally, the answer to "What do Amar'e and Paris Hilton have in common, besides being super rich?"

“All warfare is based on deception”

Sun Tzu’s entire philosophy may boil down to this phrase, and perhaps basketball can be similarly understood. Sun Tzu delicately unravels the implication of this idea, stating “The general who wins in battle makes many calculations in his temples ere the battle is fought.” Deception presumes knowledge of yourself and your opponent, that is, scouting. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The best NBA teams and coaches have undoubtedly been pouring over video and statistical breakdowns to understand every nuance about every play that their opponent will run. They’ll know who to pick on and who to stay away from. Deception is about preparation, but preparation can only go so far…

“One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”

There are bad match-ups, then there’s the Hornets versus the Lakers.

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; who ever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.”

This may be the opposite of what Sun Tzu means, but I’m going to twist a twisted translation of his words into this: get some rest. We don’t think of the background of the playoffs: traveling, eating, sleeping, basically everything NBA players do when they aren’t on the court, as affecting their on court performance, but it does. Phil Jackson once wrote that he felt his decision to keep the 1996 Bulls in Chicago after game 2 of the finals against Seattle and get a good night sleep was why they waxed the Supes in game 3. The Sonics flew home all night, got a crappy sleep the night before the night before the game, and played like mud. The Bulls flew the next day, and got two good sleeps, and won.

“In respect to military method, we have firstly Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity, thirdly, Calculation; fourthly Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory.”

Bet you didn’t know Sun Tzu was a stat geek. Speaking of which…

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels at winning with ease.”

Over the years, margin of victory has been the best predictor of playoffs success. Even better than seeding. This year’s scoring margin rankings went as follows: Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Orlando, Boston, Denver (but they’ve been near the top of the league since Feb 24), Dallas.

“The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals”

In last year’s finals, Kobe almost single-handedly decided Game 7, by trying to single-handedly decide Game 7. Will he remember that lesson this year and continue to trust his teammates? Will Miami remain patient on offense and not break plays in favor of isolations that will no doubt fail against the Thibodeau defenses in Boston and Chicago? Teams that are able to get contributions from unexpected sources and trust their systems on offense and defense will be rewarded in June.

“A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound’s eight places in the scale against a single grain.”

Momentum can be a scary thing in the playoffs, just ask the 2007 Mavericks, or the 2006 Heat. When a team gets rolling, suddenly a fair fight can look like a mismatch. The emotional toll of victory and defeat in the post season is not for the faint of heart.

“Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.”

Phil Jackson always says he likes to go into the post on the first few possessions of each game, because he wants to see how a team will be defending him. Most defensive philosophies are illuminated by how they react when the ball is near or inside the paint. Once Jackson sees what the defense’s plan is, he knows how the Lakers will exploit it.

Shaq has always been interested in and respectful of the Eastern philosophies

“The art of War recognizes nine varieties of ground.”

One of these varieties of ground is called “facile” and it’s the best one to occupy. In basketball, you don’t need to score all your points in the paint, but you damn well better protect it, and know how to attack it on offense. Since the end of the Bulls’s second dynasty (I think Sun Tzu would like that word choice), excepting perhaps the 2006 Heat, every NBA Final has been won by the team that had the best big player(s). Duncan (4), Shaq (3), Detroit’s Wallaces, Garnett and then Gasol (2). Kobe got the MVPs, but the reason Los Angeles conquered Orlando, and especially Boston was because between to the 2008 and 2009 Finals, Gasol became a beast. After being tormented by Garnett in 2008, he dominated him in 2010, averaging 14 boards per game in the Lakers’ victories, including 19 rugged rebounds in the decisive contest.

For two favorites to win it all, Chicago and Miami, this trend should be unsettling. Chicago’s offense is designed almost solely around Derrick Rose’s preternatural ability to penetrate. Will post season defenses, notoriously more physical, be able to wall off the paint? Similarly, Miami’s offense has really started clicking since their three best player’s rim attempts have increased. Better ball movement and more activity off the ball has unlocked a more graceful and difficult to defend offense. Whichever team manages to preserve their ability to score at the rim will likely come out of the East.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combination of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

This doesn’t have anything to do with the playoffs, specifically, but I just thought it was cool that Sun Tzu articulated the essential beauty of basketball.

He also said Heat over the Lakers in seven.

Twitter: @BeckleyMason

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