Maybe I'm narrative-hunting here, but there was something interesting about Al Harrington's words to CSN Washington's J Michael last night. In case you missed them, here's the nut quote:
"All summer with Trevor it was always we, meaning Wizards, when we both talked hoops. We saw Bradley (Beal), we kicked it, talked about next season with being we. It's basketball. Sometimes it doesn't work out. They're going to miss me and Trevor [Ariza]. We did a lot for that locker room. They still have some high quality guys there. I'm pulling for them."
That quote came after Harrington suggested Paul Pierce was more of a 4 than a 3 and wondered about the crowded frontcourt rotation (a concern of mine as well). It's also based on Michael's report that Harrington wanted to return, but the Wizards didn't offer him a contract, at least not right now.
The obvious reaction: these fightin' words contradict Harrington's uplifting Instragram statement. But that doesn't really intrigue me because I don't really see a contradiction. Harrington knows the Wizards were good to him last year, and yet, as a competitive athlete with a lot of pride, it's understandable to be upset the Wizards didn't hang onto him for another full year. Both of these feelings are real and mimic what many normal people have when they switch jobs. You can be happy about the experiences you had while also wishing on some level that they would continue. If Harrington's thoughts are contradictory, so are yours when a situation like this happens.
It's Harrington's words that interest me more because they are sure to resurface if things go bad. And things will go bad for a stretch, even if things in general go well next season. It's a long year and nothing is perfect. When that happens, there's going to be support for the idea that the Wizards miss what Harrington is describing. How do we know if that idea has merit?
This touches on a key element of professional sports that is very difficult to understand. We can have all the analytics systems in the world, but we're never going to fully describe a human activity with metrics. (Almost all "analytics" folks understand this, contrary to the popular stereotype). The element Harrington presents is particularly difficult because it relies so much on human emotion. How can one possibly measure the impact of the very specific leadership that Harrington and Ariza provided?
One easy way is by performance. We know the two players called that pivotal November players-only meeting. We know the Wizards bounced out of a hole after it. We know that other players and team personnel have credited the meeting as a key touchpoint for last season's relative success. That seems like as airtight a case as one could have.
At the same time, is whatever emotional quality the two departed Wizards brought on that pivotal November day transferrable? Listening to Harrington talk, it's as if "leadership" is like the living room couch in your apartment. It's an object that must be replaced if you decide not to keep it when you move. You (probably) can't have a house or apartment without a living room couch. And while living room couches have different aesthetics and feel, they all serve the same purpose: to make you feel comfortable in the room in which you spend a lot of your relaxation time.
But leadership, or whatever quality Harrington is discussing, doesn't work like that. Replacing the living room couch that Harrington and Ariza provided with the living room couch that, say, Pierce provides isn't so simple. The new living room couch just isn't the same. It may be better. It may be worse. It may have a similar effect on wins and losses. But it has a different quality because Pierce is a different person than Harrington and Ariza and is in a different situation. It's hard to know which side of the coin comes up until the personalities interact and respond to adversity.
It's also not the same even if Harrington and Ariza return. Incentives change. Attitudes change. The temperament both players displayed in that moment when the players-only meeting happened isn't guaranteed or even likely to manifest itself in the same way again this year. We've seen so many cases in professional sports and life where the same mix of people get along differently over time.
Again: how do we really know the effect of whatever Harrington is talking about? Even the tightest case -- the players-only meeting from last November -- has holes. The schedule got easier. The complaints Nene made that prompted it could have actually yielded positive results if that's all that happened. Was the players-only meeting the only reason for the turnaround? Was it even the biggest reason?
We have no good way to control for this. And yet, denying the importance of these off-court factors limits ones understanding of team sports. Stuff like that absolutely matters. We just don't have a great way of knowing how.
Think of that if the words Harrington used come back to the surface during a rough stretch next season. Don't fall prey to the easy narrative, but don't dismiss it either.