Analytics v. Character
Until about a month ago, the consensus view in basketball circles was that Giannis Antetokounmpo, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, was the best basketball player in the world. But then the Miami Heat beat the Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, knocking them out in five games dominated by the Heat’s Jimmy Butler. That left the door open for the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid to claim the title, until he was totally outplayed in the Eastern Conference semi-finals by the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum. Which left the door open for the Celtics to revenge last year’s NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, until Tatum twisted his ankle in the Celtics’ seventh game against the Miami Heat, sending Butler and the Heat to the Finals against the Denver Nuggets. Their first game is tomorrow.
Every NBA Finals is an argument between competing ways of thinking about basketball. This year it’s a battle between analytics-driven and character-driven accounts of what it takes to win. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić is the darling of analytics, a super-efficient point centre who runs one of the best offences in the league. Apart from the fact that he’s seven feet tall and strong as hell with quick, deft hands, he doesn’t really look or move like a basketball player; he rarely dunks, he shoots flat-footed, he plays well below the rim. There were suggestions before this year’s playoffs that he was just another regular season stats guy because he’d never made it to the Finals. That was always a weak argument: even when Denver lost in the playoffs, Jokić put up big numbers. Still, there was a lingering sense that he might not have whatever human qualities it takes to push your team over the top, when the competition is fiercest and the stakes are highest. If Denver win the championship this year, Jokić will have become the best player in the world.
All they have to do is beat Jimmy Butler’s Miami. The Heat may be the worst ever regular season team to make it to the NBA Finals: the first eighth seed to get that far since the New York Knicks did it in 1999 (after a strike-shortened season), but that only tells part of the story. The Heat had a negative point differential until the playoffs started: they gave up more points than they scored. The only reason they won 44 (of 82) games is that they massively overperformed in ‘crunch’ time (games in which, with five minutes or less to go, neither team has a lead of more than five points). And Butler is a big part of that. A 6’6” shooting guard, who can’t really shoot that well and isn’t that explosive an athlete, he embodies the old broadcasting cliché that games are won by the team that ‘wants it more’. Butler really wants it, and he scores very high on ‘self-belief’ and the ability to seize moments. In a much-publicised row last season, his coach, Erik Spoelstra, could be heard shouting at him on the sidelines: ‘I always knew you were crazy.’ But he also credits Butler for much of their success. ‘You can’t quantify it,’ Spoelstra said of his influence. ‘There’s no analytic to it. Just the feeling of stability in the locker room.’
So what matters more, efficiency or ‘character’? Jokić or Butler? We’ll find out in the next two weeks.