What Do You Do When You’re THAT Much Better Than The Competition?

The Miami Heat have won the last two NBA championships and they’ve been to the finals for the last three years (losing in Game 7 of the finals before winning back-to-back championships). So far this year, they’re one of two teams in the Eastern Conference (as of this writing) to have a winning record. The other team being the Indiana Pacers, whom many think will challenge the Heat for the best team in the Eastern Conference this season. If we take a peek at the Western Conference, we see that there are quite a few more teams with winning records. In fact, there are five times as many winning teams in the West than in the East.

I’m not here to talk about the parity in the NBA conferences, even though it’s clear that there is, but instead, about the Heat and their competition. That is, they’ll play most of their games against the Eastern conference, of which there are only two teams with winning records. Given that the Heat have been an elite team for the last three years, it’s not surprising that a they’d have to resort to “games within games” to stay focused.

After reading that article on SB Nation, I thought to myself how difficult it must be for the Miami Heat coach (Erik Spoelstra) to keep his players focused, not only as each season wears on, but as each game wears on and each quarter wears on. The Heat have played 23 games so far this season and have won 17 of them. While they’re not in first place in the conference (that title belongs to the other winning team in the East, the Pacers), they’re well above the 3rd place team in the conference. For a team that plays that much better than its opponents on a nightly basis, one can see how it might be easy for the players to lose focus. Heck, it’s possible that a few of those six losses came as a result of the team losing focus after having outplayed the other team through the first few quarters of the game.

The reason I’ve raised this issue is because I was thinking about the success of a “games within games” strategy. For instance, let’s say that the “game inside the game” for today’s game is that we’re going to try to get the ball to the guy down low. That is, the strategy is to beat this team by using a certain player in a certain way. I wonder what happens when it gets down to near the end of the game and the score is close — do you abandon that strategy? And if you do, how do you get the players who hadn’t been as involved ready to go now that it’s the key time in the game?

A games within games strategy can be successful, but I worry at what cost.

This also reminds me of one of the chapters in Michael Sandel’s book that we reviewed about 6 months ago — the idea of fines and fees. In particular, the idea that parents pay their kids to read. By doing so, parents are incentivizing a certain behaviour. The worry, from some, is that by paying their kids to read, the kids will no longer derive the same joy out of reading if there’s no incentive involved. If we apply that to this situation, I wonder if the strategy of using the one player in that one game might pervert the incentives for the team. And not just in that game, but over the long haul. Maybe the players don’t then have the same incentives as before when there aren’t games within games.

Of course, I’m not an NBA basketball coach (or even a high school basketball coach), but I think it’s still an idea worth considering.

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