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On meritocracies: The Wizards rotation, Reamde and Randy Wittman

Boys, he said, only want to know two things: who is in charge, and what are the rules?


For several days following the Wizards season opening loss to the Cavaliers, I was writing an article looking for the bright side of the worst issues fans witnessed on the 30th. There's been a slew of excellent analysis on the site so I decided to look for another topic but had little luck until yesterday afternoon, after I'd nearly given up.

The quote in the summary is from Neal Stephenson's Reamde, dealing with the root for establishing self-sustaining gamer behaviors. The quote jumped out as I played a particularly addictive cell phone game while waiting for my two year old to pass out. Normally, I try to catnap next to him and recharge my batteries for the evening. Instead, my focus sharpened, two hours passed, my cell phone died and I was mentally exhausted. Whatever brain cells were left firing connected my constantly reinforced mental effort to the Stephenson quote to Randy Wittman's nominally meritocratic approach to the Wizards rotation.

Wizards fans have long discussed a perceived institutional dysfunction while gazing longingly at the 'shit-togetherness' of franchises like the San Antonio Spurs. Wittman is attempting to bring order to the chaos of the team-building-by-volume approach that resulted in seven first round draft picks in the last three years, a carousel of disinterested veterans and the Andray Blatche show. Randy's chosen tool to correct the situation is the meritocracy.

Operating on the principle of establishing a clear-cut set of rules and by empowering players to take charge of their playing time through sustaining and directing their own efforts, the meritocracy is an excellent tool to establish buy-in at the player level much in the same way Reamde talks about creating self-sustaining gamer behaviors. The primary difficulty of establishing a meritocracy in any gaming world from an MMORPG to a cell phone app versus a real world setting like the Wizards is the curse of prior context.

A gaming world can sustain a true meritocracy because everything begins at the inception of the game world, with no prior context. In a real world setting, there is plenty of prior context. In the NBA, that takes the shape of contract size, locker room politics, management agendas and any other manifestation of internal politics you'd care to name. Wittman did a lot to ease both fan, and presumably, player concerns when he indefinitely benched Blatche. But that was a pre-existing situation one could argue was tailor-made for swift and decisive action.

Cue the Trevor Ariza versus Martell Webster debate and Mike's conclusion:

But really, it's bigger than that. In order to maintain his message to the locker room, Wittman must start the player that performed better in the relevant time frame. That player is Martell Webster, not Trevor Ariza. All those external factors should be less important to Wittman than maintaining the larger message to his team.

Ariza started the opener against Cleveland, and while he played much better than fans feared during the preseason, it definitely raises the ghost of prior context overwhelming a pure meritocracy. There's another situation brewing, related to Anderson Varejao's dominance on the offensive boards. A few days ago, jkahn15 wrote on that very situation with a disturbingly simple conclusion:

So how did Barron have so much success in keeping Varejao off the boards? Instead of watching the ball on shot attempts, Barron focused the majority of his attention on Varejao.

Translation: Earl Barron boxed out. In the comments, disgrunted wondered:

Is boxing out considered a lame move by NBA players?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Boxing out is considered a fundamental basketball strategy that all of us learned growing up. But for years I’ve noticed that most NBA players don’t do it consistently. And I’ve noticed that sometimes the player who is boxed out has a negative reaction, especially when the opposing player does it aggressively (i.e., correctly).

Do NBA players consider boxing out HARD to be uncool or a punk move? Is just jumping up to grab rebounds considered cooler? I realize this question sounds stupid and bizarre, but I really wonder whether there is something to it.

This is an absolutely prime opportunity to observe Wittman's meritocracy in action. Never mind that a third-stringer keyed a fourth quarter comeback. It's that the head coach had to send in a completely different player to perform a fundamental basic. I imagine his directions were something along the line of 'glue yourself to Anderson Varejao'. I find it difficult to imagine any NBA head coach wouldn't first tell that to first- and second-string players. Perhaps there was some defensive scheme in place that made achieving that more difficult and the leash was off, so to speak, for Barron. I don't know.

What I do know, is that the next time the bigs are getting killed on the defensive glass due to poor fundamentals, I won't mind a bit if Earl Barron is trotted out. One, it got results. Two, it reinforces the message to the locker room that it doesn't matter if you're making $27 million over the next two years or if you were a lottery pick; correct play earns you playing time. That's how teams like the Spurs established institutional coherence. That's why Kenneth Faried texted JaVale McGee, 'We work here', and why the $44 million dollar man played only 18 minutes off the bench for the Nuggets in an opening loss to the Andrew Bynum-less 76ers.

Going back to the opening quote, Wittman must reinforce this: the players are in charge now that coach has set the rules. It's up to them. Is it a strange fate that the rebuild's progress this season depends on the integrity of a Wittman meritocracy? Last year, that's an amusing thought. This year, there's nothing funny about it.