The Ugly Efficiency of Modern Sports

James Harden in August 2014. Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At its most euphoric and free-flowing, basketball can feel like a magical ballet in which every dancer is leaping off a trampoline. More than in any other major sport, its players soar through the heavens and make us gasp. It routinely exhibits the impossible. It surprises us with its ability to showcase what our species is physically capable of. It makes your jaw drop every night.

Another thing basketball is: grown human beings in pajamas awkwardly flopping facedown on a wooden floor.

That video shows members of the Houston Rockets, one of the best teams in the NBA and one on the vanguard of the sport itself, not taking part in the complicated collaboration of teammates working together toward a common goal. It features players, including MVP and six-time All-Star James Harden, launching themselves at defenders while throwing the ball in the air indiscriminately. They are playing like aliens who have never seen a basketball game and are only vaguely aware of the rules. (“Throw it … up there? That way?”) It doesn’t look like a basketball game. It looks like something someone would make you watch to punish you.

It is also, sad to say, completely logical and intelligent — nay, perhaps the best strategy the Rockets could use to win a game. What Harden and Eric Gordon are doing in that video is not having some sort of whole-body muscle spasm: They are trying to draw fouls. They may not get those fouls always called — none were called on those possessions — but when there is contact, even one instigated by the ball handler, refs will have no choice but to call a foul most of the time. And advanced analytics, particularly the ones long followed by Houston team president Daryl Morey, says that getting to the free-throw line, particularly when you have shooters as accurate as Harden and Gordon, is the best way to score and, thus, win. So the Rockets don’t often bother with passing back and forth or running specific plays or anything as vulgar as an alley-oop. They try to draw fouls. Their brand is brutal efficiency, and it’s ugly.

It has undeniably worked. The Rockets have made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons (the second-longest streak in the sport), nearly knocked off the Warriors in the past two seasons and are off to an excellent start this year, despite the off-season controversies involving Morey and China. They are what every NBA team wants to be: perpetually competitive with a chance to win a title. They are doing everything right. They are simply impossible to watch.

As the sports world continues to float inexorably toward a hedge fund manager’s idea of nirvana, it is becoming increasingly clear that what works in a streamlined utopia of linear efficiency is manifesting itself in aesthetically grotesque displays of actual, you know, sports. The smartest team in the NBA has its players leap into defenders so they can stand and shoot free throws, the chaos and beauty of basketball frozen for a guy to stand by himself in silence. Baseball has lost the action and speed that comes with singles and balls in play in relentless pursuit of home runs and strikeouts. For the second consecutive year, there were more strikeouts than base hits in 2019, and 31.4 percent of all at-bats ended with a strikeout or walk, which means 31.4 percent of all at-bats ended with five-to-ten minutes of buildup for absolutely nothing happening at all. And that is the goal. Even golf has lost most of its romance as players bulk up to bash the ball as far as possible, which every analytical tool at golfers’ disposal tells them is more important than any subtlety on the greens.

These are all smart strategies, and the athletes and executives who are deploying them will argue, not incorrectly, that their jobs are to win games and tournaments, not to make sure the fans watching have a good time. But there are clear side effects to maximizing efficiency rather than entertainment value. Baseball has had a television-ratings problem for years and just finished a World Series that might have been compelling had every game not run so late that no one could stay awake for any of them. Golf has been losing fans for years, and even its most die-hard supporters admit the sport loses a connection to its fans when its players are all big-hitting biomechanically engineered Nike monsters rather than, you know, John Daly. And for all the good press the NBA receives, TV ratings for the sport are down in recent years, both for the NBA Finals and the regular season. Again, television ratings aren’t the final word in the popularity of sports leagues, but they do say a lot for the casual viewer and it’s undeniable that the experience of “viewing” these games is starting to lose something.

This is particularly a shame in the NBA because the most recent statistical revolution before this one opened the sport up and made it so much fun. The style of basketball perfected by the Stephen Curry Warriors — up-tempo, free-flowing basketball that put a premium on passing, cutting, and three-point shooting — was a welcome pivot from the old Pat Riley tough-guy, wrestle-in-the-paint NBA style that ended in 77-71 scores, and the league reaped the benefits. But with that understanding came further innovations, much less gorgeous ones, including the one that says getting to the foul line is the ultimate efficiency. Which leads to James Harden jumping into the players guarding him and falling on the ground. But the Rockets have had such success — and Morey is such a hero to the Sloan Conference set — that whatever works for them is bound to be a trendsetter. It already is.

But the NFL may be a case study on how a league can recover from on-field stagnation. It was just a few years ago that the NFL was thought — including in this space — to be in serious trouble for a variety of reasons, from problems in the commissioner’s office to the league’s denial on concussions to the existential issue of player safety. Those issues haven’t gone away, far from it, but you don’t hear about them as much, for one primary reason: The games are a lot more fun than they were then. The “Manball” principle of the NFL, the glorified three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust alpha-male NFL mindset that ran from Vince Lombardi to Bill Parcells to Bill Belichick, has taken a cue from the college game, which embraced outsider techniques like run-play options and the air-raid offense, and opened itself up. Players like Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, who would have been thought too unpredictable and unconventional in the old NFL (for reasons that of course go beyond just on-field style), along with coaches like Kliff Kingsbury and Sean McVay, have brought electricity and innovation to the NFL and made the game unquestionably more fun to watch. The NFL can get away with a lot of malfeasance and corporate greed when its game is as enjoyable as it is right now. (Even Belichick has embraced much of the college game’s innovation, even if he still dresses like he’s wearing a trash bag.) Before anything else, the public wants the games it watches to be giddy escapism. They don’t want an efficient slog.

The good news is that innovation always follows groupthink. In baseball and the NFL and the NBA, almost all front offices think the same way now because they’re all hiring from the same pool. Those are the conditions that led to “Moneyball” in the first place, with Billy Beane trying to break away from the sameness. Maybe that person’s out there now in the NBA, or in baseball, trying to shake the game up to save it. I just hope they do it before James Harden, in game seven of the NBA Finals, with the clock running down and history on the line … runs headfirst into Giannis Antetokounmpo and collapses to the ground. We want to watch our heroes soaring overhead, achieving the unthinkable. We do not want to see them down in the muck with the rest of us.

The Ugly Efficiency of Modern Sports