The Dark Lord

Gatinho —  June 9, 2008

Previously unheralded outside of hardcore hoops circles, Tom Thibodeau is now being feted as a defensive genius and the architect behind the resurgence of the Boston Celtics. As Karl Rove was to GWB, TT is to Doc Rivers. How else do you explain it? A bottom rung defensive team, populated with defensive sieves like Paul Pierce, supplemented by the likes of Ray Allen transformed into the basketball equivalent of the Steel Curtain. Sure KG had been a fine defensive player and Posey certainly helps. But it takes talent, tactics, and time to become a great defensive team. How can any coach take a brand new group of guys and implement a defensive system in one training camp that is more effective than the vaunted Spurs defense who’ve played together for years?

You have to cheat.

Michael Johnson had supreme talent, and dedicated a decade of hard work to become the best sprinter of our age. In a few short years Trevor Graham juiced up an undersized sprinter in Tim Mongomery, deficient in raw talent, into a world record holder. Much like Trevor Graham, Thibodeau weighed his options. “I don’t have years to turn this team into a defensive juggernaut, their window is too short. I need a short-cut”.

But of course in Thibodeau’s case, he didn’t really cheat. He gamed the system. We’ve been there before. A new tax code comes out. It is clear what the spirit of the code is, the intent. Still, only a fool doesn’t try to find the inevitable loophole to defeat the law’s intentions. Tom Thibodeau is no fool.

Imagine, as the statistician-turned GM Daryl Morey has done, that you digitized every possession of every game. Tagged every sequence and ran it through a massively parallel computing environment. You could search for the most effective plays versus certain defensive schemes, the most efficient player combinations, or other helpful metrics. But this would still require long-term, painful work to improve personnel incrementally. You need a faster solution.

What if you could run the following query through Morey’s machine – as Thibodeau had ample opportunity to do while at Houston. Which fouls are optimum? In other words, which fouls are the refs most likely to call and which fouls are they least likely to call. Even more subtle, which actions that are not really fouls draw fouls and which actions that are really fouls not draw foul calls?

Can such a query be performed on Morey’s server farm? Undoubtedly. What would the results be and would a team trained on fouling without being called have an advantage on defense?

The results might show that statistically speaking the refs tend to call fouls (whether actual contact was made or not) where a defensive player makes an obvious swipe at the ball. Our hunter/carnivore past has blessed humans with a cerebral motor control areas and an occipital lobe designed to focus on motion – much like cats. A wide swipe at the ball whether for steals or blocks (read, Ronny) draws attention and fouls – contact or not. Thus the Celtics rarely swipe at the ball. What they do is grab arms, wrists, jerseys with the minimum of motion – much like a master jujitsu artist. Kobe gets by Pierce on his way to the hoop. Pierce doesn’t swipe, he grabs Kobe’s right wrist. That Kobe twists in air and shoots and scores with his Left hand is a testament to Kobe. That Pierce almost stopped Kobe’s score and didn’t pick up a foul is a testament to Thibodeau.

Contact with the hands, however incidental on a player with the ball draws a foul. Swiveling your hip into the player to throw off him off stride rarely gets called. In fact, on the play, you can clearly see Paul Pierce swiveling his haps ala Shakira into Kobe’s torso as Kobe rises for the running jumper. Maybe Karma rewarded this display by depositing Perkin’s heft onto the back of Pierce’s knee. The Celtics don’t hand check. They hip check.

Morely’s computers might show that off-the ball moving screens are rarely called. In fact, if Ray Allen and Pierce are running around screens. Don’t just set a stationary screen. Like a pulling guard, jut hips, elbows, and shoulders to pick off the defender. If you lay him out great. If he has to fight extra hard or take a more circumnavigatory route, acceptable. Now on this play every once in awhile you’ll be called for a foul. Do it every single play and the percentage of calls drops to a basis point.

These are only the obvious differences between the Celtic’s defensive tactics than others. Undoubtedly Master Thibodeau is employing many more subtle tricks. Of course, while not being illegal (going by the dictum that if the refs don’t call it, it is not a foul – unless Derek Fisher is landing on Brent Barry) this gaming of the system is insidious and ugly. San Antonio actually played great defense against Kobe without fouling him. What if you could play great defense AND foul him without being called. Wouldn’t the Spurs have won a few more games then?

Maybe it is the sign of the times. Belicheck coaches the best football team of the decade but still feels the need to cheat. Yeah, you can play great zone defense (disguised but still zone) with great late help. But isn’t it nice to be able to hip check or hold if all else fails?

Phil Jackson alluded to this in his post game press conference. The Celtics defense is “illusory”. A foul doesn’t appear like a foul and isn’t called one. Just because you didn’t see the ninja doesn’t mean a dagger isn’t in your belly.

So where do you go from here? The NBA is full of copy cats. In the zenith of 7 Seconds or Less, a dozen teams were busy remaking their teams to emulate the Suns. If the Celtics win the title, how many teams will study the tape and incorporate the off-the ball moving screen, the wrist hold, and the hip check into their defensive repertoire?

Much like the success of the Detroit Bad Boys heralded an era of ugly, brutal defensive ball – exemplified by Riley’s Knicks, Thibodeau’s success might lead the league, unexpectedly, into an period of low percentage shooting. The hope is that the server farm is a force for good and light as it has been a force of darkness, that the league office will notice the blatant subterfuge and instruct the officials with video tutorials for next season. A little too late for the Lakers this season. They just have to be twice as good.

-Bill Bridges