Friday, May 18, 2007

Playing by the Rules

The controversy around the suspension or Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5 of their playoff series brings to light a number of issues.

First, they were obviously in violation of the rule, and the application of that rule was correct. Whether that rule is prudent is another question.

One argument offered in their defense is that it is a natural reaction when one sees a teammate down to come to his defense. There's a couple problems with this.

One is this notion that "what feels right" ought to govern our laws, especially if some noble instinct is behind this feeling. So we shouldn't punish someone who comes to the aid of a teammate. If it would "feel right" under some circumstances to torture, then we can't rule out torture. If you'd want to kill the guy who murders your wife, then we should have capital punishment.

This is a dangerous way to construct moral laws.

We have rules to punish those who are malicious, and deliberately do what is wrong, yes, but also as a guide to inform our consciences, since our gut feel is not always right. In the moment, I might not understand the consequences of torturing a detainee; the rules help me to understand.

The other is that, in the context of a game like basketball, you act according to the rules , not according to natural instinct. It is completely unnatural to dribble the basketball if you want to move around the floor with it. But that's the rule, and anyone who plays basketball trains himself to dribble. Similarly, NBA players should know by know that leaving the bench triggers severe punishment, and train themselves accordingly.

Of course, the consequence for travelling is loss of one possession, whereas the consequence for leaving the bench is missing a game, which may turn the series. That seems unfair -- NBA players should know not to leave the bench, but a playoff series should not turn on that. It doesn't have much to do with which is a better basketball team. Plus, the travelling rule is more or less intrinsic to the game of basketball than staying in the bench area.

Which brings me to another point -- it seems that the outcomes of professional sports series are increasingly determined by who manages the rules correctly.

I've touched on this before. The Spurs may win this series because the Suns didn't remember the rule about leaving the bench. AFC supremacy between the Colts and Patriots is determined by how closely the refs call contact against the defensive backs. Bill Simmons notes that Bruce Bowen has built a career around skating inside the rules, and how players play for calls. The Miami Heat won the Finals last year in large part because the refs called a foul every time Dwyane Wade drove toward the basket. Curt Schilling writes about how the umpire's strike zone plays in to his approach.

The result is a game that bears little resemblance to how the game is played at an amateur level, as Simmons wrote. You can't build a pick-up basketball offense around having a guard drive toward the basket, jumping into a defender and getting a foul.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. Perhaps the game has become so sophisticated, and information so widespread, that this is the only edge left to be gained. Or silly rules like the leaving the bench rule raise the stakes for compliance. Or maybe it's a "winning is everything" type attitude that says that whatever happens is good so long as it helps your team win, regardless of what is has to do with who's the better team.

During the World Series, I was critical of Tony LaRussa for not pressing for a suspension of Kenny Rogers when the substance was found on his hand. But now I'm beginning to see his point. LaRussa wanted the Cardinals to win the World Series by playing better baseball on the field, rather than leveraging the rules to greater advantage.

If the Spurs win the championship (and the Suns appear to be their toughest competition on that front), will they know that they were really the best basketball team, or that they were better at obeying a particular rule? How will that effect their satisfaction in that accomplishment?

In the last Baseball Abstract, Bill James suggested a variety of rule changes, and summarized the motivation for them as, "quit screwing around and play baseball." I suggest we apply that to other sports as well. It's hard to see what staying in the bench area has to do with playing basketball.