Basketball & Politics; Strategy & Tactics; and the Land of the Nearly Free

“I always mean what I say, but I don’t always say what I’m thinking” – Dean Smith

I was talking a while back with a good friend about how, in the modern game, effective college basketball coaches often take an approach to the game that is slightly off-kilter from nominal play. They set up a strategy of the game (not to be confused with tactics) that doesn’t quite fit in the mode of the distribution.

The nominal mode of play is to work hard on defense, keep solid position, and box out. Then, calm down, set it up on offense, and work for a good shot … and crash the boards in case there’s a miss – but get back on defense too. Work hard, play smarter, make good plays, etc. Very few coaches today can be consistently successful like this. You see, to be successful with a “play like we’ve always played – only do it well and make the appropriate in-game adjustments” mentality, you have to be a coaching genius. You have to be a brilliant tactician, like Dean Smith or Bobby Knight. There are few who can make any such claims anymore.

Instead, many successful coaches take a strategic approach to the game that they believe gives them a slight advantage; an advantage they count on to win games. Let’s consider some examples – before we get to the real topic.

Roy Williams, who coaches at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, has a very simple approach to the game. Recruit a deep, talented roster and run like mad. Don’t settle for jump shots, get the ball inside and make the game about depth and talent. Play hard on defense and run when you can – make the game about depth and talent. If you can do those things, then the deepest and most talented team will win – and he does quite often. This is outside the traditional approach to the game – Roy will often let his center cherry-pick on a fast break to get a layup (unthinkable in most circles).

Eight miles down the road at the evil empire (Duke … err dook), Mike Kryzewski takes a slightly different strategic approach. He wants to play with exacting execution on offense. Take good shots – excellent shots – and be excellent at hitting them. Overplay on defense and hope the nervous point guard on the other team will fumble away a few extra turnovers. Two very different styles, both very effective. (As much as I hate to say it, though, if there are any good tacticians left in the game, Mike Kryzewski is right up there.)

Other coaches, like John Thompson III at Georgetown or John Beilein at Michigan, hail from the Pete Carril (Princeton) mindset. Shoot three pointers and layups, and nothing else. Work the shot clock as long as you have to to get a good shot – a layup or a three pointer. Forget about crashing the boards. If you take only good shots the payoff of offensive rebounds is minuscule (there won’t be many), and the threat of an opposing fast break is unacceptable. Focus on getting a good first shot (more if the ball bounces your way) and then play defense.

These strategies have all proven effective – showing there is no one solution to winning a game. They all take a slightly different approach to the statistical nuances of basketball, each finding an appropriate “minimum” for the coaches involved. But, if you’re going to move away from conventional wisdom, you take on risks as well. The book on beating Carolina is simple (not easy, mind you, but simple) – make your shots. It’s easy to run a fast break off of a turnover, acceptable to run it off of a defensive rebound, but very difficult to run off of a made bucket. Hit your shots and UNC becomes a half court team – and very beatable. The book on beating Duke is equally as simple (again, not easy, but simple) – run like crazy. The precision game played by Kryzewski’s short bench evaporates when their legs give out, and they can be trounced (see the Arizona game form this year’s NCAA tournament). Other systems have equally frustrating weaknesses – if you can exploit them.

The point is, there is often reward and risk involved in moving out of the realm of “conventional wisdom” – win and you’re a genius, lose and everybody knows you were a fool.

The same is true in the game of politics. You have to build a winning coalition. The statistical precision with which political practitioners play the game is mind-boggling. They will know, well ahead of any poll closings, if they’ll win or lose a random state based on the turnout numbers in two or three districts. They understand just what kind of margins they need amongst minorities, soccer moms, nascar dads, blue collar workers, and all the rest. You have to build a coalition, you have to shave the other guy’s margins, and you have to turn out your vote.

The front lines of the parties have somewhat stabilized, making slight moves as the generations go on and demographics shift. Each trying to gain 51% of the vote (no need to shoot the moon and go for a 60% majority – hard enough to get 51%). It is this notional statistical coalition that motivates us today. It’s mostly uninteresting to consider what Barack Obama needs to do to win – that will largely depend on unemployment rates and the price of gasoline – but the Republican candidates present some interesting prospects.

I submit that the middle-of-the road candidates, like Mitt Romney, have very little to offer. Much like the basketball coach who sticks to the script for fear of being branded a fool if he doesn’t, Republicans would be absurd to choose Romney. He will not beat Obama. Why? He can’t motivate the people he must motivate. In an attempt to find a candidate palatable to 3%-5% in “the middle” and take them away from Obama, Mitt Romney would guarantee that some 10%-20% would just stay home, or vote in protest for a third party. (Side note, I totally made those numbers up.)

Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingrich would be a more reasonable choice. Slightly more acceptable to conservatives, but not really awe inspiring for boldness – these careful and practiced politicians would run effective campaigns, and may just steal a victory (though it would be hard). More of the Tea Party types would show up, especially if they chose a good running mate, but the libertarians would not go along and they still face an uphill challenge.

This is where Ron Paul is most interesting. The coalition he could (and would have to) build looks completely different from the others. He obviously risks giving up quite a few seniors, and everybody who’s drawing a government check. But, in addition to lighting a fire under the Tea Party and the Libertarians – Paul would likely attract a lot of left wing support as well. Any candidate who talks about the War on Drugs as a failure, the need to get out of Afghanistan, and the goal of cutting of foreign aide (including that to Israel) will surely get some left-wing support; perhaps a lot of it. It would doubtless be a bold move – and perhaps a bridge too far. But, if anybody in the Republican party could actually threaten Obama’s support, it would not be Romney, Pawlenty, or Gingrich – but it could be Ron Paul. (Whether this coalition would prove to be 60% of the vote, or 35% is unclear.)

And the basis of this potential attraction? freedom.

Tricky thing about freedom: if you really value it, really promote it, really want it – then you have to want it for everybody. If you want freedom because we are all equal – then you have to let others be free.

That means to the religious right, that wants the freedom to say any and everything they (we) so please from their (our) pulpits; they have to let the nonbelievers be free too. That means to the secularists who want to smoke pot without John Law hassling them and want their gay friends to be able to “marry,” they have to let the devout Christians and Jews and Muslims be free too (including freedom to disagree). It means that those who want greater freedom of movement and immigration, must also agree to freedom for the greedy, who wish to keep their money for themselves. It is their money, their labor, their produce, and their judgment day to come – we must let them approach it on their own terms.

The coalition that Ron Paul could potentially build is surrounded by a conversation about what it truly means to be free. That we can no longer be the land of the nearly free. We want freedom when it’s ours, but want to be in other people’s business to protect them from themselves. This is not freedom, this is not equality.

I think it’s an important conversation to have, and I think it’s one the country could tolerate at this point. People are well able to point out the areas of their lives where they want greater freedom. To tell them they can have it, if they’re willing to let other people be free too, is not a bad proposition, for a politician or for the country. Here’s to hoping that conversation can finally happen … again.

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