Carmelo Anthony’s Memory

When I was a child, my grandfather would pick me up from school every Wednesday. We’d walk over to the local Off Track Betting office, pick up some horse racing sheets, sit in a mostly-empty bar, and pour over the data. “It’s not the horses,” my grandfather insisted “it’s the jockeys.” That was his system, the jockeys controlled how hard the beasts tried and inevitably how fast they went. A reliable horseman was worth more than a fast horse. He’d lay a few dollars down and play the daily double, which would give a higher pay-out than just a single race.

When he’d win, we’d hit a store on the way home. He might get an extra beer, or buy me a snack. I remember the time he pulled down $80 (this was the 1980s) and bought me ice cream in the middle of winter. I remember the time he won $200+, and upgraded his Johnnie Walker from red to black. There were smaller wins where we’d place a second round of bets as well.

My grandmother didn’t understand the gambling (or alcohol) but never forbid it. When he lost, she would say that money could have been better spent. But my grandfather would point to his last big win, and in his eyes win the argument. From a monetary perspective my grandma was right. My grandfather lost quite often. I remember how he’d rip up the tickets, once then twice, when he lost. He did it so often and in the same way, it was ritual. And although I didn’t calculate exactly, I’m certain that he gave away more money than he took in.

But of course my grandfather didn’t see it that way. He was a winner.

Almost lost in the talk of Carmelo Anthony wanting to play for 20 years and score 30,000 points was this gem:

That seems a long shot now and the focus is on what went wrong. Anthony said that he looks around this locker room and then at other teams, sees the talent and can’t put his finger on where it went wrong.

“Yeah, we talk – guys discuss that a lot,” he said. “We talk about that amongst ourselves. Kind of what is it? What’s happening? Especially with the talent that we have in this locker room, we still can’t figure out exactly kind of what it is. It’s hard to pinpoint it.”

Carmelo Anthony can’t figure out how the Knicks are losing. And perhaps this is just “athlete-speak” to shield themselves from the press and the public. But more likely this is true. As many people noted yesterday it’s likely the team (and Anthony’s) poor showing on defense which is the unseen factor in their loss.

However there is another just as likely reason. Much like my grandfather, calculating odds isn’t people’s strong suit.

I’m sure Carmelo looks at the box score of the Bucks game, sees his 16 points, and recalls a few of those shots. However I doubt he processes the 7 shots he missed in the same way. Much like my grandfather he’s suffering from confirmation bias: over-valuing the good and under-valuing the bad. I’m sure he remembers the shots made more than the misses. The possessions where he succeeded, and not the ones he flubbed. The defensive stops he made, and not the ones he took off.

Most certainly Anthony isn’t the only person or athlete who thinks this way. Does Porzingis recall the 8 rebounds he had, or the boards he didn’t try hard enough on and the other team recovered? Will Rose treat the Bucks game (26 points on 13-16, +4) with the same weight as the Magic game (12 points on 2-9, -23)?

If it’s hard for athletes to recal with precision the amount of good/bad possessions in a single game, how can they do it over 82 games? Over a career?

Essentially they can’t. No one can. People are notoriously bad at converting events to probabilities and conceptualizing odds when the numbers are more than a handful. Hence why statistics are so important. And while they fail in describing some things (individual defense, effect of volume scoring, etc.), they do a much better job at describing basketball than just people do. Unless of course you agree with Mark Jackson that Derrick Rose is an excellent basketball player. Heck, had my grandmother kept them for my grandfather’s gambling, she would have shut-down his “last week I won 80 dollars” argument.

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