Twenty years ago, one man took on a super computer in a game of chess. This was essentially the real-life version of John Henry vs. The Machine; just a little bit nerdier.
The man was Garry Kasparov, and he was the LeBron James of competitive chess. Since 1985, Kasparov held the title of World Champion, greatest chess player on the face of the earth. But ask anyone, I mean seriously, go to a coffee shop this morning and ask anyone over the age of 40 to name the Greatest Chess Player of All Time and, nine times out of ten, you’ll hear Bobby Fischer. The other one time out of ten you’ll receive, “Could you please leave me alone?”
Why Bobby Fischer? Because he took the sport (game?) to the American mainstream. He was the Michael Jordan of professional chess. Fischer had an epic win over Russia in 1972, and back in the early 70’s, a win over Russia immediately put you in rarefied air; right up there with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. So, as great as Kasparov was, he still had something to prove. He still lived in Bobby Fischer’s shadow.
In 1996, the battle of United States vs. Russia, or Kasparov vs. Fischer, was replaced with a third option: Man vs. Computer. The super computer was called “Deep Blue” by IBM and was the result of over a decade of strenuous mental work. This was years of innovation that began at Carnegie Mellon University in 1985 by Feng-hsiung Hsu, Thomas Anantharaman, and Murray Campbell; three guys whose version of making a move at a fraternity party was hanging out in a lab and getting a computer to analyze 50,000 chess moves per second.
The Carnegie Mellon “ChipTest” became “Deep Thought” which became “Deep Blue.” Fifty thousand moves per second became 500,000 became 100 million. In 1996, IBM challenged Kasparov to a series and that 100 million power was enough to take Game 1. But somehow Kasparov came back. Kasparov won three, lost just one, and two ended in a draw. The best human chess player could still beat the best super computer.
Jump over to basketball
Had Kevin Durant joined up with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala on the Los Angeles Lakers the narrative would’ve been all about star power. “Welcome to Hollywood!” Fifty-thousand dollar courtside seats for Showtime 2.0.
Had it been the Boston Celtics, it’d be all about the winning tradition. Miami, the work of Pat Riley’s organizational genius. San Antonio, a team of guys wanting to play under the best coach in the business.
But put this story in Golden State, and you can’t help but draw parallels to Silicon Valley, located just 30 miles away. This is the land of Apple, Google, Tesla. It’s the epicenter of computing power and new developments in virtual reality. It’s home to the biggest advances in robotics and artificial intelligence; the creation of computers that could be ready to drive our cars and replace everyone from pizza delivery boys to world class surgeons.
So it makes sense that the Super Team was created here in the land of the Super Computer. The Warriors even have a similar origin story. “Deep Blue” by IBM emerged from its “ChipTest” origins; The Warriors emerged from Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash’s mid-2000s Phoenix Suns teams. Those Suns teams introduced the idea that you could shoot a bunch of threes, play fast, use only a little bit of the shot clock, only kind of care about defense, and get rid of the 1990’s philosophy that you needed two lumbering big guys. The Suns brought the NBA positionless basketball; every player was ready to fire at will.
Now upgrade the roster with two of the best 3-point shooters the NBA has ever seen (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) and you go from 50,000 moves per second to 100 million. That 2016 Warriors team had a near perfect level of play winning 73 out of 82 regular season matches. They beat the ’96 Bulls record, a mark that seemed right up there with Joe Dimaggio’s hitting streak as a line that wouldn’t need editing in the Sports Almanac.
But awaiting them in the Finals was perhaps the most gifted basketball player of all time. And this doesn’t need to detour into an MJ vs. LeBron debate. I’m focusing on the overall ability, not the championship resume. I echo what I remember a host on ESPN saying one time; something along the lines of God created LeBron James for fun; he wanted something entertaining to watch from the heavens.
It’s hard to argue anyone has been blessed with more God-given ability than LeBron James. He’s either 6’8” or 6’9” but has the quickness of a guard, strength of a tight-end, and the same hops as Air Jordan. He passes like Magic, defends like Pippen, rebounds like a power forward. His durability, minutes-per-game, games-per-season, you have to turn to other sports for comparison. He’s the NBA’s ironman, basketball’s Cal Ripken Jr. And he’s got a photographic memory. And he’s an avid basketball historian with an IBM Watson level basketball IQ.
Now, granted, basketball can’t be reduced to one player. Not even with LeBron, not even with Michael Jordan. LeBron had help from Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, it’s a team effort, etc., etc., but the narrative after 2016 was the same as the chess narrative in 1996: Wow, the Super Computer is impressive, but Superman is still on top.
Back to chess
The problem with computers (or their greatest power, depending on which side of the chess table you’re sitting), is they don’t get tired. They don’t need an ice bath, and they don’t get worse with age. Each year brings a new advance, and the next model is faster, stronger, smarter. And it’s not gradual either. Each increase is exponential, that’s why today a cell phone can fit in your pocket and possess far more power than the cell phone 20 years ago that rivaled the size of a golden retriever puppy.
In 1997, “Deep Blue” was ready for a rematch with Kasparov, but this time the computer had doubled its power. Instead of analyzing 100 million moves per second, it was up to 200 million. Who knew there were even that many options on a chess board. The greatest human chess player couldn’t keep up and, sadly, (again, depending on which side of the chess table) “Deep Blue” won 3, lost two, plus two draws. The best chess player in the world was no longer human.
And back to basketball
How do you go from 100 million to 200 million in basketball? Simple. Add superstar and former MVP, Kevin Durant. That’s how you get the ultimate Silicon Super Computer.
Former great teams won with power, defense, and toughness. The Warriors keep winning with out-of-this-world shooting ability.
Allow me to use a ridiculous example here to drive home just how different this squad is from regular human teams. If ten years from now you saw a headline, “LeBron James Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) Scandal,” what would your first thought be? Steroids, HGH, right? Now imagine that same headline about Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. You’d immediately assume it came from The Onion or a Saturday Night Live skit. Right, I’m sure Tayshaun Prince and Miley Cyrus were juicing too.
Durant and Curry look like guys that haven’t used the bench press since the required gym test in high school. They looks like they might ask for help when opening a pickle jar. All this to say, it would be more believable if “PED scandal” meant that Tesla’s Elon Musk created two cyborg versions of KD and Curry, and the real guys were controlling their avatars from a Playstation 4 than any rumors about them weightlifting with Jose Canseco.
Here in 2017, the updated Super Team entered the NBA Finals with a 12-0 postseason mark. No one, except the Spurs for a half, had even pushed the Warriors in the Western Conference. They looked unstoppable.
Nine out of ten analysts were predicting Golden State over Cleveland. And not just the Warriors in six/Warriors in seven, there were plenty of sweep predictions, or maybe, just maybe the Cavs push this to five games. What a difference a year makes! Even though the Cavs were 12-1, also blowing out teams, everyone’s healthy, they had even made a couple of key roster additions of their own, some of the most trusted basketball minds were saying a Cavs series win would be one of the biggest NBA upsets of all time. It’s crazy to say, but the defending champs were now the significant underdog.
The first quarter of Game 1 looked like we might be getting an even fight. After the first few minutes where the players looked a little bit nervous, a little tight, both teams found their groove, and it was just back and forth dunks and made shots. The Cavaliers were hanging in there. Down five after one-quarter. Down eight at the half.
But it was a different story in the third. At halftime, it’s like the Cavs were in the locker room catching their breath, while the Warriors viewed the first two-quarters as a warm up round on the elliptical. An eight-point lead became 21 going into the fourth.
Game 1: Super Computer wins, 113-91.
How important was the addition of Kevin Durant? For anyone looking to take the stance of, “KD took the easy way to a championship by joining the Golden State Warriors,” there’s plenty of meat on that bone, but Game 1 proved Durant is not a casual bystander. He’s the one driving the ship.
Durant put up 38 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and zero turnovers. He shot 14-of-26 from the field and 3-of-6 behind the arc. Plus, he had this absolute exclamation point play where he catches the ball by the sideline, makes a move, LeBron slips, Durant drives past, throws down a dunk that screamed, “I have no problem opening the pickle jar!”
Game 2 was more of the same. It wasn’t like the Cavaliers were playing bad. Cleveland only turned the ball over nine times, and they scored 113 points. That type of game would have blown out the Celtics, the Raptors, any team in the East, but here in the Finals, it was only enough to lose by 21. All game long, Cleveland would fight, scratch and claw, just to get the game back to four or six points then the Warriors would go on a run. Anytime Durant/Curry/Klay was given just a glimpse at an open shot, swish, easy three points. The Warriors were smiling, having fun, waving their hands at the crowd. LeBron James looked exhausted. I think these two games added a couple of gray hairs. He was aging like a U.S. president.
The Cavs were only down three at the half, but it’s like how I might be able to compete with Usain Bolt in a race from the sink to the fridge. Give him 10 meters, 100 meters, 200 meters, and I’m left way in the dust. The third quarter in Games 1 and 2 have been Golden State’s time to distance themselves. There’s just too much talent on the floor.
And, predictably, no stars are shining brighter on the Warriors than Durant and Curry. Through two games here are their averages:
Kevin Durant: 35.5 ppg, 11 rpg, 7 apg, 2.5 blocks
Steph Curry: 30 ppg, 8 rpg, 10.5 apg
KD’s shooting over 50 percent from 2 and 3, Curry’s above 45 percent. I imagine somewhere in a back room Nike and Under Armour are bidding for who wins NBA Finals MVP.
As for King James?
LeBron James: 28.5 ppg, 13 rpg, 11 apg, playing just shy of 40 minutes a night
He’s averaging a triple-double in the NBA Finals. This stat line is incredible by any human standard. But, against the Super Computer, he somehow needs to go to an even higher gear.
And maybe momentum shifts. Being back home can certainly change things. Maybe the role players start hitting from three, maybe Thompson/Korver/Smith can combine for 40. Maybe. We’ll see what happens.
We’ll see if Cleveland can take back control from the Super Computer. For now, LeBron’s left searching for a way to hit Control-Alt-Delete.
This is the debut post of Medium Rare Basketball. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @chris0brien; the “0” as in zero not the letter. I’ll have several more posts to come during the NBA Finals (which hopefully is not over with this week) and then a few more in the off-season. I also write the regular Medium Rare blog over at www.chicagonow.com/medium-rare. And then I did this ebook on how the NBA can improve it’s parity problem, give more teams a chance at making the NBA Finals.
Thanks for stopping by!