As fans, we are all, by nature, irrational. Don’t pretend to argue otherwise. The amount of time, thought and emotional sway that we invest in the triumphs, falls and daily trivia of a group of men playing an organized game within reasonable driving distance of our homes is not normal, and it’s probably not healthy. But it can be is a lot of fun, it gives us something to insanely argue about connect with and discuss and it pleasantly fills in the void of boredom that so dominates our lives.
From a performance analysis perspective, the most problematic part of being a fan probably stems from expectations. Expectations greatly skew our perception of reality, separating us from objectivity. This can quickly muddy the water when looking at sports, where almost everything but the final score lies in subjectivity. Rarely do we watch a game and see what actually happens. Rudy Gay might go 8 for 27 from the field, but if he hits that clutch winning shot we expect him to, all we remember is his 22 points and the 3 that won the game. People watch Amir Johnson and long for a power forward who can shoot, not seeing how the Raptors defense is 8 points per 100 possessions better when he plays. Most people don’t know what good defence looks like because we’ve stopped expecting it from our stars. We filter each player’s performance through the lens of expectation that we’ve set for them in our mind. Speaking liberally for a group of basketball fan(atic)s whose day to day relationship with rationality is a little too Senor Changesque, this can be a problem.
To better explain the point, let’s look at a player who is more in the international media spotlight and use Rajon Rondo as an example. The expectations on Rondo coming in to this year had never been higher. Some were heralding him as a potential MVP candidate, while still more were saying that Rondo had to make this year’s Celtics his team. When he went down with a torn ACL, Rondo’s season was largely viewed as a disappointment. But why? Rondo’s numbers were actually up—almost unilaterally—with notable improvements in rebounds and points scored, and an increase in his shooting percentages from 3, the free throw line and the field. This improved efficiency comes while taking career highs in attempts as well. Rondo improved statistically in almost every single category, especially shooting, which had been his biggest weakness. How then, can the perception of Rondo this year be that he regressed, which ESPN’s recent NBA player rankings say he did, falling ten spots from #12 all the way down to #22, when his numbers improved across the board?
As I see it, there are two reasons for this.
1) Because the Celtics underperformed when Rondo was playing, and the whole team has notably stepped up their game in his absence. I find it hard to blame Rondo for this. He is not responsible for Jason Terry’s bad defense, Courtney Lee’s cold shooting to start the season or the general lack of urgency and interest that the team was playing with. A veteran leader can try to motivate his team, sure, but on a veteran team to begin with this shouldn’t be a problem. As I see it, the problem was that the Celtics team as a whole was expecting Rondo to do everything for them and be an MVP too. When he went down, the team buckled down, with players like Avery Bradley and Jeff Green stepping up to fill the void and everyone now accepting that without Rondo, they really have to try.
2) Because we expected Rondo to make a leap, and be a top 5 NBA player and MVP candidate. That’s asking for an awful lot, and Rondo didn’t quite make it there.
Rondo did not have an MVP level season, but he was a better player this year than he was last year by the statistical standards we look to for objectivity. So if he was the 12th best player in the league last year, how could he have fallen to 22nd best a year later? It’s possible that ten other players in the league made a giant leap. It’s also possible that Rondo wasn’t really the 12th best player in the league last year, but we bumped him up a few spots because of who we expected he could/would really be. But what I think is most likely is that despite his improvement, he did not prove himself to meet our expectations of challenging to be the best or near best player in the entire league. As a result of these disappointed expectations, we’re unable to objectively judge the season that he had, and we unfairly punish him as a result.
I’ve found myself guilty of the same impact of expectation in judging players this year when looking at the Raptors. Particularly when giving letter grades to each player to quite literally judge their performances for the post-game quick reactions. It’s unfair, but I acknowledge that I’ve been grading them on a curve based on what my expectations are for them. For example, I’m more than willing to cut an immense amount of slack to Terrence Ross. In part this is because he’s a rookie, but if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, it’s just as much because of the expectations of who I want Terrence Ross to become as a player. So I’m more than willing to go along with anything that will better enable me to believe that Ross is going to be something special. That isn’t to say that I objectively think he will or won’t be a very good NBA player, just that I subconsciously boost what I see from him so I can continue to carry a lofty expectation. On the flip side of that, someone like Kyle Lowry gets the short end of the stick. Instead of getting slack, Lowry gets criticized— and sometimes to a fault. No matter how well he plays, if he isn’t the best player on the floor, which is who we expect him to be, then he is simply a disappointment. That’s not fair. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold our players with all-star potential to all-star expectations, but let’s at least acknowledge that it isn’t really fair, and that the truth gets lost somewhere in the noise.
Let’s take a look at the core Raptors who have been most affected by our expectations and see if that’s caused a gulf to form between our perception and reality.
Lowry came to the team this summer as the big offseason acquisition that was supposed to solve the franchise-long search for an answer at point guard. That’s not an unreasonable expectation given Lowry’s skill-set and on-ball defensive prowess. It would have been worth noting at the time that Lowry was moved from Memphis to Houston because Mike Conley beat him out for the starting job, and that he wanted out of Houston after Goran Dragic beat him out for his starting job for the Rockets. Both of those things would warrant tempered expectations for a player who, despite his potential, has only been a good starting point guard for a couple of brief stretches in his career. The problem is that Bryan Colangelo traded a lottery pick in this year’s draft for Lowry, and since lottery picks have the potential to be star players, that’s who we expected Lowry to be.
Absent the first two weeks of the year, Lowry has not been a consistent star-level player. But then again, Lowry hasn’t really ever been a consistent star-level player. The perception of Lowry this season, which ballooned hyperbolically after the first two games of the season to MVP candidacy for Torontonians, has been disappointment. There are ways in which this perception has been justified.
Lowry’s numbers are either the same or slightly down from his career best numbers a year ago. Lowry has regressed defensively this season, as his gambling for steals and often unnecessary double-teaming has resulted in wide-open spot-up opportunities and cuts to the basket for his man. The kind of freelancing defense he has played pays dividends for some players in the form of steals and fast breaks. But Lowry’s steals per game are the lowest that they’ve ever been for him as a starter.
Offensively, Lowry’s points per game numbers are slightly down from last year, from 14.3 to 11.8. Now, that decline is attributable in part due to his reduced minutes after losing his starting job when Jose Calderon proved a worthy replacement after Lowry went down with injury. But Lowry has scored 20 or points 10 times this season and has single-handedly taken over individual quarters of a game at least as many times. The question is whether these games are outliers when Lowry exceeds his ability, or if they are the instances in which his focus and effort fall in line and reflect who he could be all of the time.
The conclusion with Lowry is that he has proved with his occasional performance that he is capable of playing up to the expectations we have for him. The lack of patience that we as Raptors fans have for him to meet those expectations is the result of the trade that brought him here and our long standing desire for a quality starting point guard and potential all star. While that might not be fair, the reality is that Lowry is going to have accept that those expectations will not go away as long as he is here in Toronto.
I’ve been harsh on DeMar over the years. My reasoning has been simple: I expect a starting NBA shooting guard to be better than 22% from 3. My expectations aside, the real problem for DeMar is that absent of a real star, the team has billed him as their franchise player and organized their offence around him pretty much ever since the departure of Chris Bosh. I can’t imagine that DeMar ever requested that. During that time span, DeMar’s numbers have not been efficient and have not even approached franchise player level. With DeMar getting top line billing, his limitations were under a magnifying glass. DeMar is a pure slasher with a career assist rate that’s identical to Michael Beasley’s—a player who goes in to anaphylactic shock upon passing the ball. As long as DeMar was expected to wear the mantle of franchise player, which fairly or unfairly is inherited by whomever the best player on a team is, he was going to disappoint. Even more importantly, that pressure really looked like it was wearing on him.
Expectations changed in a hurry for DeMar this season. What began with the addition of Kyle Lowry to start the season was completed with the Rudy Gay trade. With Lowry, Gay and two promising rookie players, the weight of the franchise’s future and their nightly scoring has been removed from DeRozan’s shoulders. The benefit of these reduced expectations has been two-fold for DeMar. On the court, he’s played a lot looser. Without the expectation of having to be the one to create a shot or carry the load, he’s settled for his shaky jump shot a lot less, either moving the ball along or forcing his way to the rim, where he has shot an efficient 64% and gotten to the line at a top 5 rate over the last two months.
In terms of expectations, DeRozan’s numbers were a let down when we expected him to lead the team. But, when he is the third or even fourth (given Valanciunas’ development) most important player on the team, his 4 rebounds and 17 points a game are all of a sudden exceeding expectations and casting a complacent shadow over the blights in his game. Perhaps the route to happiness really is through lowered expectations.
Expectations play a huge role in how we interpret the performances and value of who we watch on the court. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Aaron Gray or Lebron James. The narrative of Lebron’s entire career has been dominated by the impact of expectations. We’ve always acknowledged his ability. We’ve been in awe of his physical size, power and speed and we’ve watched his highlights over and over again in amazement. But this is the first year when both we as the sports media and we as basketball fans as a whole have stepped back and celebrated Lebron James. For the first time in his entire basketball career, Lebron is no longer saddled by expectations. We don’t argue about whether he chokes in crunch time, whether he’s an alpha dog or whether or not he’s in the same class as Jordan, Magic and Kareem. We just ask each other if you’ve seen his numbers or demand to rewind and re-watch what he just did. Instead of expecting, we simply appreciate. Lebron has gone from this, to this.
Over the next little while, I’ll continue to run down the Raptors roster and talk about how expectations have affected our feelings about their game, and where that may have led us astray. Expectations are bound to be a thorn in Kyle Lowry’s side for some time to come. Hopefully that drives him towards greatness. For DeMar DeRozan, the burden of expectations has taken a quick turn from archenemy to staunch ally. And for us fans, expectations will turn in to argument and obsession all summer long as we diagnose the season that was and prognosticate the upcoming season that should be.