Milder Despotism

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If this blindsided you you were wearing blinders.

It didn’t even hurt.

On my knees, face cradled in my hands in disbelief moments after Damien Lillard’s shot hit nothing but net, I realized this loss didn’t hurt. Houston didn’t harbor any real championship aspirations; fandom is in some sense an exercise in consciously irrational exuberance, but no one who watched this team thought they’d be able to put together four perfect performances. There were a few weeks of sublime basketball post-All-Star break that lulled us into a sense that maybe this team had found out how to put it all together before coasting into the playoffs, and they’d find that on/off switch again.

Losing to the Blazers is simply the concrete acknowledgement that they played some good basketball this season but don’t actually have that on/off switch. This should just be about managing expectations for Houston. They didn’t have enough shooting, they didn’t have a deep enough bench, they didn’t have enough coaching, and they didn’t have the on-ball defenders to slow a methodical Blazers offense. Those all became clear in the first two games of the series, and the adjustments necessary to fix those are adjustments that need an offseason to make, not in the middle of a playoff series.

The loss sucks, but it was not much more than a culmination of all the errors we’d seen over the course of the season. It hurt less than Utah ‘97, when we all watched Dream’s last go-round. It hurt less than Dallas ‘05, when we thought we were seeing the Yao/McGrady duo take off after going up 2-0 on Dallas’ home floor. And it hurt less than Utah ‘07, when they went up 2-0 only to lose game 7 on their home floor and I broke countless TV remotes wondering why Yao Ming was having such trouble scoring on Mehmet F’n Okur while Tracy McGrady’s heroics went unrewarded because this was supposed to be the year.

It took awhile, but we saw that Dwight Howard is everything we need him to be and more. What is frustrating is that this season - and this series - didn’t really reveal if Dwight Howard and James Harden are an ideal fit together. The Howard/Harden pick-and-roll has been devastatingly effective, but in limited time. Couch psychology is dangerous, but it just seems like either Howard or Harden or both of them don’t particularly like running pick-and-rolls with each other. If I were a just god of basketball, I’d lock them both in a gym all summer and just have them run the play over and over.

If this series was played 100 times, I’d expect the Rockets to win most of them. That’s not to take anything away from the Blazers and it’s not an argument for saying “regress to the mean” and attempt to stick to the status quo. But to treat the patient you have to diagnose correctly. The Rockets outscored the Blazers cumulatively over the series and lost four games to two. Part of that was late-game decisionmaking and coaching. Part of that, I might suspect, is the high variance of reliance on the three-point shot. On a long enough time horizon it all evens out, but if you take an average three-point shooting team that shoots a lot of threes, the lower percentage of three-point shots can make teams prone to struggling when they’re not falling. The Rockets shot 35.8% from deep during the season and 31.8% from deep against the Blazers. (Portland was slightly above average in defending the 3-point shot during the regular season.) We could say “regress to the mean” and the Rockets win this series.

But the point of this first round playoff exit isn’t about the first round playoff exit. Bringing James Harden and Dwight Howard together wasn’t supposed to result in a team that fights through a tough first round and likely gets beaten by better teams in the second or third rounds. The point of Harden and Howard is championship contention. Portland laid bare the most glaring faults of this Rockets team. What we need now is an offseason of addressing those faults and coming back stronger.

This first-round exit is disappointing, but the team was felled by flaws that were obvious all season long. Hopefully Daryl Morey sees that too - and uses this as an important data point for guiding this offseason.

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“At the end of my visit to Pediatric Alternatives, I found that I liked Dr. Kenet Lansman. I could tell that she was bright and caring and open-minded, and most impressively, she tried to think creatively about how to keep her patients healthy. She’s right that there is an epidemic of chronic autoimmune illnesses and autism among children, and a mounting body of research suggests that our aggressive pursuit of germs—both in our environment and in the human body—might have something to do with it”

Mother Jones discovers their morally charitable side when profiling an anti-vaccination pediatrician. This is refreshing! Normally, when we encounter people we disagree with, we want to paint them with a brush of moral condemnation. But this throws theory of causality and autonomy out the window.

The anti-vaccine pediatrician is, in my estimation, more morally problematic than most useful idiots in modern society that routinely receive condemnation from the partisan political pundits; but I could be wrong about that, so I’m hesitant to use strong moral language here. Strong moral language inhibits introspection and openness generally.

tl;dr we should all take a chill pill.

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“It’s only an “amazing shift,” though, only if you assume that pluralism is only for the truly powerless — that larger religious groups can never be disfavored or pressured by legislation, and that the rights of unpopular minorities are only important when the minority in question is too small to have any influence worth worrying about.”

- Ross Douthat, “Pluralism and Power

This is important. Dominant culture in America has moved and is moving quickly from one of intolerance - on race, on sexuality, on gender, on religion - to one of tolerance. As such, some of the laws that have historically been used to protect minorities from intolerance and discrimination could be used to protect majorities - or dominant, accepted minorities like Catholics - from intolerance and discrimination. 

This quickly gets us into the loop of “should we tolerate the intolerant?”

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The best sentence I read in 2013

Perfect description of us cosmopolitan millenials:

We are not relativists, despite our shitty late-’90s/early-aughts liberal arts educations, which only taught us to vote for Obama and write thinkpieces.

From Jay Caspian Kang: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/10164745/beyonce-jennifer-hudson-year-divas

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Get Lucky: The Oklahoma City Model

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Take four top draft picks on a bottom-feeding team, season with growing pains and bargain-bin veterans, and marinate for three years. That’s the Oklahoma City recipe for a perennial fifty-win contender in the NBA, and one that other franchises explicity wish to duplicate.

It’s turning out to be harder than it looks.

Here’s the thing: teams with a reputation as cellar-dwellers tend to have that reputation for a reason. There have been countless teams that had long runs of top draft picks that weren’t able to create contenders. We may need to coin a term based off of the Cleveland Cavaliers to exemplify when the “Oklahoma City model” goes wrong.

imageCleveland has had a better run of draft picks than Oklahoma City had in building their contender. The Thunder picked at the 2, 3, 4 and 5 spots in the draft over three years. Cleveland has had two #1 overall picks and two #4 overall picks in three years. In Kevin Durant’s fourth year with the Thunder, they won 50 games in a competitive Western Conference and made the playoffs. It’s Kyrie Irving’s fourth year with the Cavaliers, and they sit at 7-13 - which improbably puts them on the playoff bubble in a pathetic Eastern Conference, but doesn’t put them on track to look like a 50-win team any time soon.

Cleveland’s picks have been used on Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. Irving is a potential superstar who has stagnated, Thompson looked like a bust but has rounded into form, and Waiters and Bennett look like a mess this season. It could be that Cleveland’s youngsters just need a bit more seasoning before becoming playoff material. After all, there’s only one Kevin Durant - a transcendent scorer who almost immediately became one of the best players in the league.

This is actually the fallacy of the Oklahoma City model: there is only one Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Model might just be “draft one of the best players in the league” - which everyone already knew was a recipe for success.

The “Oklahoma City Model” for small-market success became a fad because Oklahoma City became successful, but we’ve seen all kinds of models for success over the years. We can look at the Indiana Pacers’ best-in-the-NBA success right now - a team that hasn’t had a draft pick above the 10th slot since 1990 - for a much different “model.” Indiana drafted well with the picks they had, made key trades - Kawhi Leonard-for-George Hill, T.J. Ford-and-change-for-Roy Hibbert and others - and made key veteran signings like David West to build a roster.

NBA general managers are self-interested creatures. It’s easier to explain a few years of losing with “following the Oklahoma City model” than to admit that it’s just plain really hard to build a contender when you don’t have one or more of the best players in the league. Bottoming out and getting a bunch of high draft picks is explained as a strategy with more sophistication to it than just getting lucky on one of the best players. What’s more explained by luck - landing a transcendent player with a top-5 draft pick, or assembling a roster of unheralded mid-rounders and free agents that can become one of the best teams in the league?

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"It’s not safe for you in this zoo."

This whole Kanye West interview is fantastic, but this rant in part six is illuminating.

"The way papparazzi talk to me and my family is disrespectful. We bring something of joy to the world. When people hear my music, they have a good time, and I should be respected as such when I walk down the street. Don’t ask me a question about something you saw in the tabloids. Don’t try to antagonize me. Because you know what? It’s not safe for you in this zoo."

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"For me, I’m a creative genius, and there’s no other way to word it."

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What Paul Krugman Never Does

It’s what Paul Krugman always does. 

Krugman, two days ago:

But wait: who is Kevin Warsh, anyway? Well, he’s a lawyer turned investment banker turned Bush appointee to the Fed turned Hoover fellow — not an economist at all. Now, I hate credentialism: there are plenty of fools with Ph.D.s, some fools with fancy prizes, and a fair number of first-rate economic thinkers without formal qualifications. Still, if someone is going to make pronouncements about how the whole nature of the business cycle has changed, you’d like some sign that somewhere in his life he has thought hard about, well, anything.

Krugman, today:

Notice that he is doing precisely what I never do, and making it about the person as opposed to his ideas.

Paul Krugman has learned a lot since two days ago though, so it’s okay that he’s completely flipped his position and forgotten everything he used to say.

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Wear the Crown

In Bill Simmons’ recent mailbag on Grantland, he published an e-mail from a reader that seems obviously correct:

City: Philly
Name: Dan C.

In The Wire when Marlo is about to begin his war with Avon to become the top dealer, he is warned “Anyone that wore that crown either ends up in jail or dead.” Marlo’s response is one of my favorite lines from the series, “At least they got to wear it.”

We question why athletes take PEDs despite the risks of getting caught, suspended and losing lots of money and fans, but is it possible they have that same mindset? To them, maybe they know full well they will get caught eventually, but the Bonds, A-Rods and Armstrongs of the world just don’t care and simply want to experience that joy of being on top of their game, even if it is just for a moment? If so, at least to me it makes them to appear more human instead of being dumb and naive, thinking they are invinicible and would never be caught.

[Ashamed side-note: I have not seen The Wire. Yeah, I’m working on it.]

The case of Barry Bonds is an incredibly fascinating one. One of the most common criticisms I hear from Bonds-hating purists is that he was a surefire Hall-of-Famer without steroids, so why did he ruin his body and his baseball legacy in pursuit of history? After all, he was already destined to be an all-time great. He already had history.

This seems to diminish what Barry Bonds accomplished while using performance-enhancing drugs. He went from a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the best players in the game to one of the most devastating offensive forces that the league has ever known.Check out his career comparables by year, per Baseball Reference:

Now I’m no baseball historian, but up until age 31, his career was, even with three MVP awards in the bank, pretty middle-of-the-road for a future Hall of Famer. Then look what happens: Duke Snider - a Hall of Famer, but kind of an unimpressive one. Frank Robinson. Ken Griffey. Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays. This is history.

I can’t name every Hall of Famer. I’m a relatively plugged-in baseball fan, though admittedly pretty ignorant of the history of the game. I didn’t know who Duke Snider was before performing this exercise. Ken Griffey and Frank Robinson are great players who will be memorialized more by baseball purists than the casual fan. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays are all-time greats.

But Bonds’ greatness, at least as an offensive player, surpassed all of them for a period of time in the early-’00s. He inspired academic papers by statisticians about the wisdom of the intentional walk. He was intentionally walked to lead off an inning five times, surpassing the total of every other player since World War II combined. He got on base six out of every ten times he came to the plate for an entire season. If a player has a single month comparable to what Barry Bonds did for four seasons in a row from 2001-2004, he probably wins a “player of the month” award and is in consideration for that season’s MVP award.

So why did Barry Bonds take performance enhancing drugs? For the chance to evolve from an all-time great to a God of baseball. He succeeded and, Hall or no Hall, will be talked about for the next hundred years.