On Occam's Razor and Chess Tournaments
Sometimes, it all begins with Wikipedia, re: Occam's Razor:
[Occam's Razor] is often summarized as 'other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.
I begin here because, with respect to Wednesday night's...uh, result, one could simply conclude that the Lakers were sharper, more physical, more focused (just plain better) than the Spurs. End of discussion.
But...was that really all there was to it? Or is there something more that becomes evident when we look beneath the surface?
Does anyone else here follow world-class chess tournaments? Unlike an NBA season, a chess tournament is a brief affair played among (usually) eight to twelve competitors. Any player with realistic chances of winning approaches the tournament with a general strategy in mind: win with the white pieces, draw with the black pieces, draw with the stronger players and win against the weaker players. This idea is anathema to some chess fans who want to see their heroes go for the gusto in every game; other fans realize that winning individual games is a secondary consideration to winning the entire tournament. If world champion Viswanathan Anand and top-ranked Magnus Carlsen agree to a draw in just nineteen moves, sure, that's a letdown. But if Anand has white in the next game, and if Carlsen's next opponent is the lowest-ranked competitor in the tournament., can you blame them for playing it safe against each other? In the best-case scenario for both men, their mutual draw is followed by a victory in the next round; 1.5 points out of two (in most tournaments, a win is scored as a full point, a draw is one half-point, and a loss is zero) is a great result at that level.
Basketball doesn't have draws. Just two results available in a basketball game.
However - though a chess tournament lasts for weeks while an NBA season spans months, and though winning a chess tournament is an end unto itself while the NBA season is a qualifying stage for the playoffs, there is a common element between grandmasters of chess and NBA head coaches. Grandmasters cannot play for a win in every game, and coaches cannot push their players relentlessly to win every game. Therefore, just as the grandmaster determines who among his pool of opponents he will play to win against, so will the coach pick his spots in the schedule when to play his best players big minutes, particularly when said schedule becomes unusually taxing - as it often is in 2012.
This approach to the schedule varies from team to team. Some coaches realize that the talent on the roster is thin and play their best players as many minutes as the human body will allow, knowing that anything less will mean missing out on the playoffs. Some coaches know that they don't have the horses to make a playoff run and use the regular season as a training ground for those players who promise to become mainstays on winning teams down the road. And some coaches know that they've got the personnel to compete for the championship given the right conditions, and conduct their season with an eye on maximizing those conditions. Some of these conditions are contradictory: you've got a team that is much better at home than on the road - even by NBA contender standards - but it's an older team that can't go all-out for a win in every game during the season. Which consideration takes priority - keeping the players fresh or trying to earn as high a seed as possible?
Let me go back to chess. Let's say that Anand and Carlsen are scheduled to play a World Championship match three months after the hypothetical tournament I mentioned. In such a case, both players would have even less incentive to play for a win against each other. You see, in high-level chess there is something called prep. Prep involves (but isn't limited to) developing opening sequences, sometimes lasting twenty or more moves, that promise favorable positions if the player can reach them. That may sound unreal, the idea that one can prepare for a specific position twenty moves into a game of chess, but chess players are like players in any other sport: they develop tendencies.
(tying this all together)
So you're the San Antonio Spurs. You've got a championship-caliber team that has already clinched a playoff spot. You've got the inside track to the West #2 seed. You've got a still-proficient but older core. A potential playoff opponent is coming to town and their best player is out. What is to be gained by going all out for the win? Sure, the second seed isn't won yet, but it would now take a remarkable collapse for the Spurs to fall out of the #2 seed - one loss won't change that very much. But showing the Lakers your best stuff, your best effort, your best plays, your best rotations - prep, if you will - amounts to giving them a free preview of a playoff matchup. Mike Brown and his staff would get useful firsthand information on the Spurs in a game that meant basically nothing.
So for those of you who can't brook a loss to the Laker, trust me, I sympathize. My Laker hatred is as strong as anyone's. My basketball childhood was ruined by Magic and Kareem. I'm a Celtics fan today because back in the day they were often the last obstacle in the way of yet another Showtime title. But in the grand scheme of things, this loss will have near zero impact on a Spurs and Lakers playoff series should it come to pass.
Well, you're asking, what about the Memphis game? Were the Spurs playing possum with the Grizzlies too? Of course not. The situations are completely different. The Spurs and Grizzlies are division opponents and the Grizzlies are the only Southwest team with a sliver of a chance to catch the Spurs. The Spurs and Grizzlies have played ten games in the past year, six in the playoffs. The Grizzlies know what's coming when they play the Spurs; on the other hand, the Lakers and Spurs have played twelve games since the 2007-08 season. The Lakers have a new coach and a key member of their back-to-back champions (Lamar Odom) is no longer around. The Grizzlies know exactly what the Spurs are capable of - there's no point hiding anything from them.
I think it's very possible that the Spurs and Lakers were both saving prep on Wednesday night. The problem is that one team was going to win and one team was going to lose; the short straw was ours. Maybe I'm foolish to discount Occam's Razor. Maybe I come off here like a conspiracy theorist. Or maybe will Kobe Bryant will sit out a playoff game and Andrew Bynum will average 30 rebounds in May. Maybe the simplest explanation isn't necessarily the most visible one, and Occam's Razor really was in full effect on Wednesday night.