Opening Statements: Rd. 1, Gm. 1 — Reconciling Playoff #EffortTalk | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Opening Statements: Rd. 1, Gm. 1 — Reconciling Playoff #EffortTalk

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Updated: April 18, 2015

“Strictly migratory, what an enjoyable life they must lead … If the doctrine of the transmigration of souls were true, when our earthly course in the present form was run, who would not wish to be transformed into one of these migratory darlings, especially if those he or she loved passed through the same change! But to leave dear dreamland, and return to cruel reality. A large-bore gun, say a 10, with the lightest shot, is the best weapon to use for the destruction of this family…” —Parker Gillmore.

EFFORT

How do you kill a Raptor?

Parker Gillmore’s late-1800s hunting guides, The Hunter’s Arcadia and Prairie and Forest, are strange and wonderful things. The memoir aspect of the books are wholly extraneous, and wistful musings like the one above about the wading birds of Cobb Island in Charles County, Maryland, seem brutally out of place in what, stripped down, is a Yahoo! Answers post for what gun to use to kill what animal and how best to to do it.

But the juxtaposition of the wholly unnecessary sections of these books, which comprise the majority of the text and are utterly pretentious—against the startlingly direct, pragmatic directions on how to best achieve your hunting goals—is what makes them so enjoyable. One without the other would be forgettable. Or worse.

★★★

I’ve long struggled with, sometimes joked about, sometimes despaired at the proliferation of conversations about effort, whether they be from the local media, or from the head coach. At times, it’s even bled through to the national stage. A few days after Randy Wittman called out his team’s lack of “effort” for about the umpteenth time, national television broadcasters admonished the team for not playing hard, taking the coach’s comments at #WittmanFace value. The karmic wheel turned, eventually, and of course it did, when the basketball-watching world pounced on Wittman for his own lack of effort: specifically in a game against the Pacers in which he began to walk off the court after a devastating George Hill layup with two seconds remaining and before the final bell had tolled. To some, Wittman’s early and dejected gait back to the locker room was unconscionable. In truth, like Orpheus before him, Wittman looked back, probably out of a mixture of courtesy and distressed hope. The maelstrom was born of nothing, and to nothing it may return, if the effort is right.

When Randy Wittman waxes poetic to the media, his lines are the poetry of the vague. There is no “how-to.” There is no precise insight. He’s not required to give such, and he does not. He’s only required to answer, and he does that, most of the time. But answers to questions about how something can be fixed aren’t answers at all. The players, one assumes, get more. How much more? A lot more, most likely. Distilling everything that happens on the basketball court down to “effort” could just be a way of not talking to the media. Except there’s better ways to do that without questioning your players’ professionalism.

Before the playoffs start, there is this one unresolved matter in my head, one question lingering like a guy who doesn’t realize he’s been stood up yet. What percentage, what amount, of Washington’s plan is to simply try harder than their opponent? I’m talking about #EffortMetrics. It’s a complicated field of study.

“I can imagine novices and old men attached to this description of shooting, but for the keen sportsman, who values his bag in proportion to the amount of labour and skill which has been called in practice to obtain it, such wholesale slaughter of confiding flocks of birds must be far too tame work to meet his approval.” —Parker Gillmore.

How much effort must be expended to kill a Raptor? A Hawk? If it’s too difficult, should you just try harder, or do you need to get better, so that each unit of effort carries you further towards the correct spot or the correct shot?

NBA teams aren’t the type to circle deathward in confusion as you fire on them. There are no “confiding flocks.” Even the Philadelphia 76ers humbled Wall and the Wizards at a low point in the season. Filling your bag with wins at the highest level of the sport means having a plan that, if executed well, gives you the best chance for success.

Wittman might say, like Gillmore, that if the experience is too easy, if you’re allowed to “coast,” the sport itself is invalidated. After a Wizards blowout turned into a close win against a Miami team without its top four players, Wittman told the media “I don’t believe in coasting and letting up on an opponent. I’ve been on the other end of it, where that hasn’t happened. They don’t let up, and that’s the way you should play the game.”

Hunting is leisure, and basketball is—at the NBA level, and in the playoffs—a business. A tough business at that. While hunters seek out a challenge rather than experiences like the oft-derided “shooting fish in a barrel,” ease is sought after in an NBA where challenge is inevitable. The more shots on target, the more likely there is to be a reward. Trying twice as hard to execute a plan that might be half as good is discouraging, as are the results.

Wall and Beal, the team’s two primary ballhandlers, bear some of the responsibility for the dysfunction. Too often, the young guards pull up for jump shots as soon as they’re given space, even when defenders give that space purposefully. Patience, a favored noun of the sportswriting world, may very well be preached in the locker room, and later ignored.

As Gillmore wrote in the first pages of Prairie and Forest:

“The trouble is, however great the determination to follow the given precepts, so soon as game is flushed the instructions are thrown to the winds, and bang, bang, go both barrels, with the same hurried unsuccessful results as previously.”

Over and over again, Gillmore’s books stress the virtues of restraint and forethought. Pass on firing at the sand grouse if you know there’s guinea fowl to be found in the ravine.

It’s hard to know the difference between what has gone to plan and failed, and what hasn’t been planned at all. After three and a half seasons of watching the Wizards under Wittman, though, one thing is clear. If the coach isn’t encouraging the kind of early-shot clock midrange jump shots that prevent Washington from keeping pace with the NBA’s best, then he isn’t discouraging them well enough, either. At best, his enduring mantra of “take what the defense gives you” is laissez-faire. At worst, it’s lazy. For those prepared few teams with patience and a plan, the world spins easier on its axis.

The poetry of the vague, the “effort” and “focus” and “urgency” of things. For some, hearing this ambiguity is maddening. Myself included. Jeff Van Gundy, in commenting on Wittman’s #EffortTalk, suggested that getting beat due to a lack of effort was extremely rare. According to him, coaches only talk about effort if they know their team isn’t talented enough.

★★★

But that misses the point. A sermon on effort is a message of hope. It is, on its face, a belief that everything can be accomplished. That, in some sense, it already has been accomplished. The only thing left to do is to try, and through trying, actualize the latent potential waiting shyly in the team like an insecure baritone with a booming voice and stage fright. A request for more effort grants agency which grants confidence which pings around happily in skulls when basketballs are released hoopward.

In the playoffs, where defenses tighten and more shots will be contested (at least that’s the idea, although during last year’s playoffs, the Nets shot 46.1% against the Raptors compared to 45% for opponents during the regular season), you take a special kind of solace in whatever gets your mind right. Exhortations siphoning the final ounces of energy from tired arms and even more sapped legs may have their day in the broiled light of the arena’s many substitute suns.

There’s a balance, and I’m not sure the Wizards have found it. Preparation is partially about motivation, a portion of which is the fluff, the hook for the real instruction. It’s what Gillmore fills his books with to make the grim bits palatable, and it’s also that fluff comprising most of any discussion about effort among professional athletes whose every move is dripping with the stuff. Watching the Hawks, or even (God forgive me) the Cavs play, though, you see something other than effort, something more reliable, something that when combined with effort (which, if we’re being honest, should be a given), can propel a team to greater assurance than playing a game of sharks and minnows in a fresh pool of sweat. It’s system basketball. The Wizards move the ball quite a bit, but the Hawks and Cavs move it in a completely different way. Players take responsibility for the timing, for pulling defenders this way and that and releasing a pass just as they cross the event horizon. That’s the other side of preparation, and I hope it’s been administered in equal doses with reminders about the untold benefits of trying hard.

The Raptors are beatable, even if they’ve rarely been beat by the Wizards. The first game of the season was a blowout, one of the first truly disappointing games of a season that started in grand fashion. But the next two contests were closer, much closer. Washington lost the final two contests by a combined six points, and one game went to overtime. These teams have had parallel seasons, but have come about their glory and shame on separate paths. Both teams took significant, and almost step-for-step downturns after January 1st, 2015.

While the Wizards can’t run an offense, the Raptors can’t run a defense. You have to hope that Washington will take advantage of that weakness, even though they’ve often, due to their style of play, not changed their approach or point total against vulnerable defenses. Washington will, no matter the level of effort, take bad, early shots. That doesn’t mean they won’t make them, and it doesn’t mean their defense won’t bail them out. Wittman showed last season that, given the extra time afforded before and between games in the playoffs, he has the ability to coax just a little bit more offensive aggressiveness (oh, effort?) out of the likes of Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat. Meanwhile, the defense is playoff-certified, and will be active. The Wizards have started to understand the aspects of Toronto’s team (Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson stretching the floor, DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams isolation scoring plays) that bring them the most trouble. There is an opening, despite the lopsided regular season.

Gillmore wasn’t lunatic enough to write a book about hunting raptors. But Paul Pierce has seen it done. Maybe there’s a chapter about effort, waiting to be written.

 

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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.