Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Do I Care: The Fan as General Manager

I want to write an article about the drama between Derek Fisher, Billy Hunter and the National Basketball Players Association, but every time I scratch out a few paragraphs I abandon them. Here at The Diss., we are trying to write about sports a bit differently. We try to avoid having the same instant, reactionary and thick-headed analysis propagated by the majority of mainstream sports writing. While I want to write a kneejerk piece about how Derek Fisher is on a righteous if poorly articulated quest, the fact remains that I just don’t know what is going on, and don’t feel comfortable writing about who is right and who is wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t stop others from writing about the situation, and some of it has been quite good (I’d particularly point you do Adrian Wojnarowski and Rand Getlin’s excellent reporting or Jason Whitlock’s critique that the NBA really should be going better). Most compelling to me though, was a question Ethan Sherwood Strauss posted on Twitter:

At first I bristled at the question: why wouldn’t we care? This is a topic that has to do with the NBA, and I am an NBA blogger, so of course I care. As I have been thinking more about his question though, I’ve come to the conclusion that we care because of a fundamental shift in the identity of a fan.

The simple notion of a fan is somebody who goes to a couple games, roots for his team and cheers for their success. Except in a sepia-toned past found in Hoosiers, that fan never actually existed. For the purposes of this post, I think fandom can be broken down into three eras:

Fan as Coach (Dawn of basketball to 1995) – Fans go to the game to have a good time, but also to argue about who the starting power forward should be or how the team needs to play harder defense. The only way to consume basketball is by attending a game, watching it on TV (if it is even on TV) or reading the sports column in your local newspaper. Fans think that they know more than coaches, and tell their friends “I told you they should let him shoot more!” when their underrated backup goes off in the fourth quarter against a bunch of scrubs.

Liberated Fandom (1996 to 2007) – The lowest point in the modern NBA. Post-Jordan the league lacks marketable stars, and slogs through an energy-sapping lockout in 1998. We have the Malice in the Palace, that awfully boring 2004 championship Pistons team, and a league dominated by the San Antonio Spurs. Ugh. This also coincides with the rise of fantasy sports, which gave fans an easy solution: liberated fandom. If your team is terrible and boring to watch, why not root for individual players and watch them succeed? If they happen to be cornerstones for your fantasy team, even better.

Fan as General Manager (2008 to present) – Each subsequent Collective Bargaining Agreement has gotten more complex. If you want to make a pretend trade, you need to understand base salaries, Bird rights, salary exceptions, pick protections, the luxury tax and the salary cap. To “truly” understand a players value you need to know what TS%, WAR/48 and PER are. You can watch any game you want through NBA League Pass, and get any type of statistical breakdown you want (how was LeBron James fair in pick and rolls in the 4th quarter?) through Synergy Sports. Fans have in front of them 90% of the information NBA General Managers have.

The 2011-12 season, which started with a lockout and ended with half the league tanking for draft picks, is the crown jewel in the Fan as General Manager era. I mean, why else would Warriors fans openly cheer for the New Orleans Hornets to win at Oracle Arena?

When my older brother plays Madden, he doesn’t actually play a game of football. EA Sports engineers have spent tens of thousands of hours tweaking the game play so that you can feel like Peyton Manning when you go through six audibles at the line of scrimmage, but all of it is wasted on him. Rather, he plays on career mode, buy and selling players, deciding who should get extra work in the offseason, and simulates season after season. If he does well, he guides his team to a couple of championships along the way.

I used to think my brother was different, deriving his enjoyment from statistics and macro-level analysis rather than toggling the joystick while frantically pressing X to catch an errant practice. This NBA season has shown that it is really the other way around.

Which brings us back to the original question: why do I care about Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher’s feud? While it doesn’t directly affect what I see on the court, it changes the overall landscape in which basketball business takes place, and as the Fan General Manager of the Golden State Warriors, that matters to me.

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