The NBA and Emergent Systems

A lockout will make a man mighty philosophical. Once you start pondering the perhaps unhealthy value that the NBA carries in your world, it can be a little startling to consider that well, it may not exist for a whole year. Troubling questions demand attention:

Why exactly have I been spending all this time watching and writing without compensation?

Do I really want to live in a basement (but not my Mom’s!) apartment for the next few years?

Would I really want to be doing anything else?

Though I tried to, at times, expel the comatose league and these questions from my brain, no matter what I did I found NBA-related thoughts creeping in from the periphery. And so while cruising through David Brooks’s newish book, The Social Animal, which is filled with all sorts of interesting information and Brooks’s award winning prose, this passage caught my eye:

Through most of human history, people have tried to understand their world through reductive reasoning. That is to say they’ve been inclined to take things apart to see how they work. As Albert-László Barabási wrote in his influential book Linked, reductionism was the driving force behind much of twenty century’s scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we must decipher its components.

The assumption is once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole. Divide and conquer. The devil is in the details.

Therefore for decades we’ve been forced to see the world through its constituents. We’ve been trained to study atoms and superstrings to understand the universe, molecules to comprehend life, individual genes to understand complex behavior, and profits to see the origins of fayeds and religions.

This way of thinking induces people to they can understand a problem by dissecting it into its various parts. They can understand a person’s personality if they just tease out and investigate his genetic or environmental traits. This deductive mode is the specialty of conscious cognition, the sort of cognition that is linear and logical.

The problem with this approach is that it has trouble explaining dynamic complexity, the essential feature of a human being, a culture, or a society. So recently there’s been a greater appreciation for the structure of emergent systems.

Emergent systems exist when different elements come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Or to put it differently, the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges.

When I read this my mind immediately, joyfully leapt to the 2010-11 Mavericks and their gorgeous style of play. Try as they might, no one could figure them out. Teams tried fronting Dirk and denying him the ball. They tried letting him catch and stopping everyone else. They tried tall guys on short guys, short guys on tall guys, but always the Mavericks found a way to overcome and exploit whatever adjustment the other team made.

No one solution could address the way all of Dallas’s parts fit and worked together. The Mavs’ offense was an emergent system.

At some point we became obsessed with whether “you could win a championship” with this guy or that guy. It’s not uncommon to hear this response to a detailed player analysis: “ya, but can you win a championship with him as your starting ____?”

The Mavericks, with their masterful mixing and matching of various discarded parts, are a perfect counter to that false line of reasoning. Every piece, from Nowitzki to the anonymous guys holding clipboards behind the bench, fit together in a very special way to become a sum greater than the whole.

Offenses like Rick Adelman’s high post motion or Tex Winters triangle all seem to operate as emergent systems. Run well, the constant motion and ball movement principles become nearly impossible to stop by focusing defensive energy on one facet of the offense.

Later on in the same chapter, Brooks explains that it takes a systemic approach to address an emergent system like generational poverty in America. He describes how, to do just that, one charter school set out to impose an entirely different system and culture on its students to combat the various and compounding factors of urban poverty.

You know, something like the coherent defensive philosophy that Tom Thibedeau used to hamstring the Lakers humming triple post system in the 2008 and 2009 Finals.

Of course, much of the best NBA writing and coaching is based on deconstruction and deduction. Basketball games whiz by, and without guys like Sebastian Pruiti to tell us what happened, it’s difficult to understand exactly how the ten moving parts interacted to produce victory and defeat.

Coaches who can make small in-game adjustments based off deductive reasoning, like a sneaky full court press, give their teams the greatest chance to succeed.

We need to literally break down the game if we are to learn.

But Brooks has another salient point tucked into the passage above: people are themselves emergent systems. Perhaps no player emblemizes that truth better than LeBron James, who authored the most confounding playoff performance I’ve ever seen or heard of.

It just doesn’t make sense, if we view James as a fixed value, that someone could dominate the league’s two best defenses then be stymied by the Mavericks, as smart was they played. I don’t care what anyone says, there is no single explanation that could encompass or explain that month of basketball.

That’s not only OK, that’s awesome. The questions that don’t have reductive answers are the ones we can’t stop thinking about.

Brooks says our intellectual instincts strain towards deconstruction, toward reason and linear causality. Simultaneously, we gravitate towards abstract associations like connecting Rick Carlisle’s offense with urban education reform.

Basketball is a bit of both art and logic.

Watching, studying and talking about the game satisfies our desire to learn by grasping manageable constituent parts. This can lead to satisfying “aha!” moments. But I’d argue the things that are most enduringly compelling are the complex emergent systems that make up pro basketball and fuel the arguments we can’t settle and the questions that evade a simple answer.

Twitter: @BeckleyMason


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