Predictions Stupid & Meaningless

About a decade ago, I spent a bunch of years writing articles for ESPN.com about fantasy basketball. Here’s my memory of how I got this job: I got drunk at a party and started spouting opinions about basketball. A guy I was talking to turned out to be freelancing for ESPN in fantasy football, baseball, and NASCAR. He said they were looking for basketball people, and he suggested I write a piece as a sample. I wrote the piece, sent it in, and heard back that they didn’t need anyone. About a year later, they got back in touch and said they did.

I’m selling myself short a little when I say I was just “spouting opinions.” Actually, when I’m in a crowd, at a party for example, talking about basketball is one of the only things that brings me peace. The problem is I spend so much time thinking about basketball that most opinions drive me totally fucking insane. I am a contrarian by nature and a lover of history, which means I like talking about, like, how cool the Doug Moe Denver Nuggets were more than I like talking about, like the Giannis vs. Harden MVP race.

By some cosmic magic, my encyclopedic knowledge of basketball had gotten me a pretty sweet freelance gig. I was in grad school, and definitely needed a little extra money if I was going to avoid taking out more loans. They paid me $100 per article, and I was obsessed with fantasy basketball already, so it was barely any extra work beyond what I was already doing for free. I got excited about advanced stats (I spent a lot of time on the wonderful 82games.com) and rattled off articles full of advice about which players were going to help you win your fantasy league. For a little while, it was cool.

Eventually, it wasn’t. After writing those articles for years, it was a huge relief when my editor at ESPN told me they didn’t need me anymore. I hated writing those stupid articles, and I hated the people who read them. The fantasy basketball perspective started to feel totally deranged to me. It felt a million miles away from what was really happening in the NBA, somehow. When I thought I was going to love the job in the early days, I was wrong about two things. First, I thought stats had the answer to pretty much all my questions. Second, I thought predictions mattered.

First: stats. Stats, of course, are great, but they are only capable of measuring what can be measured. Our stats are only as good as our questions, and no amount of wrenching them around is going to make your fantasy team work the way a real basketball team works. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself overvaluing some terrible player because that player blocks a ton of shots. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself ignoring Chuck Hayes even though Chuck Hayes absolutely rules.

Second: predictions. This is more complicated. Predictions are fun. A good way to get a sense of how somebody feels about basketball is to ask them what they think is going to happen. Last season, I put some money on the Denver Nuggets to win the Northwest Division. I thought their combination of youth and veteran leadership would create an ecosystem in which Nikola Jokic would thrive. They seemed more talented to me than the Trail Blazers or the Jazz. I was right! It felt pretty sweet. I also had money on Giannis for MVP. My basketball calibrators were right on.

Except, no. I also had money on the Celtics to win the title. I had money on the Hornets to win the Southeast at 13–1, which was a great bet right up until the moment it wasn’t. For the season, I broke even. It turns out, knowing and loving basketball doesn’t really mean you’re going to get your predictions right. It might mean you’re going to spend a ton of time focusing on what you get right and ignoring what you get wrong. Worse, it might mean you are problematically loyal to your predictions. Worse, it might mean your predictions have poisoned your mind.

And you know what? Here, we are talking about basketball, and I think basketball matters a lot, but it doesn’t really matter. You know where this shit matters? It matters in politics. For example, right now there are a lot of people spouting a whole lot of hot air about what it is going to take to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. They’re spouting this stuff despite the fact that they were dead wrong about this exact thing back in 2016, despite the fact that they know next to nothing about politics or about voters in states in which they don’t, at this moment, even reside. And it matters, because they are going to use their incredibly wrong and bogus predictions about what it’s going to take to defeat Trump to decide which candidate they’re going to support in the primary. They’re going to use their predictions to make this decision instead of—and this is truly fucking insane if you really start thinking about it—the things they actually care about as a voter.

What I’m suggesting is that basketball might be a place where we could practice some open-mindedness. Just maybe, we could use this beautiful game to try being more clear-headed and honest versions of ourselves before we destroy ourselves. Maybe we could make predictions with our hearts, purely for the fun of it, and we could be honest about the fact that we won’t really hold ourselves to them. We could insist on observing the world sweetly and dispassionately. We could try holding on more loosely to our hypotheses in the interest of trying to shed a little vanity before it fucking kills us.

With that, here are my predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Awards:

Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson, F, Pelicans. Yes, he’s starting the season injured, but I saw all I needed to see during the preseason. This dude is a whole new thing, and when he gets going, it’s going to take the league a while to come up with answers to the questions he’s asking. If Zion just misses the six–to–eight weeks he’s expected to miss right now, he’s my pick. If he’s out longer, it’s Ja Morant, who is the most exciting passer I’ve seen in years.

6th Man of the Year: Jerami Grant, F, Nuggets. First, the Nuggets are going to have the best record in the West. Second, Jerami Grant is going to play a lot—he’s going to see minutes at both forward spots and center. Third, this team has a trade to make, and my guess is that Mason Plumlee ends up in that trade, leaving Grant as the lone option at backup center. Grant is going to be a perfect fit on this team, and he’s going to put up big numbers and play during crunchtime. It’s a perfect recipe to win this award—Grant would be the first forward to win the award since Lamar Odom nine years ago.

Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo, C, Heat. I like this one, because Bam is about to go from playing 23 minutes per game to playing over 30. Even if he doesn’t improve his game at all, he’s going to end up averaging around 15 points and 10 rebounds, over a block and a steal, and be the defensive hub of a playoff team. The thing is, I think he’s going to improve a lot. He’s getting better as a passer, and I’m expecting his assist rate to continue climbing this year; meanwhile, he turned the ball over way too much last year, and I’m expecting him to start cleaning that up. He’s got an outside shot at being an All-Star if the Heat get rolling early this season.

Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Narratively, it feels like recently he’s getting more credit, and somehow, even though everyone agrees he’s great, he’s never won this award. I think this is one of the four best teams in the East, and if that’s the case—if this team blows away its over/under number of 43—Spo is going to get a ton of credit for that.

Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart, Celtics. This is my longest shot of these picks. Rudy Gobert is a heavy favorite, and guards never win this thing. That said, the Celtics lost Al Horford and Aron Baynes and everyone thinks they’re going to be a trash fire on defense this year. If they finish with a top-10 defense, which is totally in the realm of possibility, people are going to find someone to give credit to. It’s probably going to be this dude, because he was first-team all-defense last season, and because he’s the heart and soul of this team, and because he’s going to worm his way into the starting lineup eventually, just like he did last season.

MVP: Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets. Tangential, related, and reasonable predictions that get us here:

  • Warriors win fewer than 50 games.
  • Harden and Westbrook split votes, and Rockets are not a top-2 seed.
  • Lakers underwhelm and either miss the playoffs or make it just barely.
  • Kawhi and PG get load-managed out of the race. (Embiid, too.)
  • Milwaukee wins fewer games than last season, and Giannis suffers from voter fatigue.
  • The Nuggets get the top seed in the West.

Teammate of the Year: Marcus Smart, Celtics. See: Defensive Player of the Year.

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