Cultural Analytics: On Expectations

For sports fans, the unexpected is often what keeps us watching. The excitement of the final seconds of a close game has led most of us at some time to halt a conversation, overcome in mid-sentence, to shout to each other or the air as if we ourselves actually had something to do with the events on the respective court or field.

Players and coaches are awarded contracts based on expected future performance.  Las Vegas has developed a billion dollar industry on predicting the outcomes of games, and the predictable unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament has made it one of the most anticipated events of the sports calendar year.

Every plan that’s ever been hatched, whether to break out of prison or bake a perfect loaf of bread, has been, at least in part, based on some form of expectation. For the prison break* to find success, the guard(s) have to be where they’re expected, asleep in their nests or lazily assaulting some other hapless captive.  For a decent loaf of bread** to be realized, the leavener and other ingredients have to perform their expected duties. Our jobs, personal relationships, and even more basic functional needs are all dependent on the fulfillment of some type of expectation, and the same is true of sports.

great expectations 01 Cultural Analytics: On Expectations

The journey the of the Houston Rockets’ fan this season has been a strange one.  Before the season, there were whispers of the team as a dark horse title contender with the triumphant return of the large man complemented by a legitimate perimeter scorer in Kevin Martin and a coach’s migraine’s worth of quality depth.  And then the season began.

By the seventh game, the team had lost both Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks to injury and, in that time, had managed only a single win.  By Thanksgiving, the Rockets were tied for the second worst record in the league, a fact that had many of us, myself included, conceding the season and wondering if there were any way that Daryl Morey might swing a trade for the entire roster.

December brought a flashlight-sized glimmer of hope with the Rockets going 11-4 against mostly inferior competition and Kyle Lowry finding the jump shot that Chase Budinger had misplaced.  By New Year’s Eve, the team had managed to claw its way back to .500, but this hopeful promise, like many a well-intentioned New Year’s resolution, wouldn’t last as the Rockets began 2011 by losing seven of its first eight games.

Leading up to the trade deadline, most of the conversation seemed focused on what the management could do to build for the future, to get younger, on how they could become a better team next year or the year after. And immediately afterward, the most positive reactions I heard to the moves the team did pull off were ambivalent at best. “Morey did the best he could.” Some were content that the team had managed to acquire a few draft picks, but more of us it seemed were disappointed.  Some were angry that the management hadn’t “been more aggressive” in a week that saw Carmelo Anthony, Gerald Wallace, and Deron Williams all changing uniforms.  Some lamented the loss of Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks, as both players and personalities, but no one seemed to think the team had done anything to improve itself in the immediate future.

And then something weird happened: they started winning.

These guys none of us believed in have won 12 of 15 since the All-Star break, losing the three they did by a combined fourteen points, and finding themselves one and a half games out of the playoffs. During this stretch they’ve shot 39% as a team from beyond the arc and out rebounded their opponents by nearly three a game. The last ten days have seen an unholy drubbing of the defending Eastern Conference Champions and a triple double recorded by both Kyle Lowry and Chuck Hayes (Chuck Hayes!).

So what does all this mean? Can we reasonably expect them to make the playoffs? Should we be disappointed now if they don’t? If they do, could they possibly win against San Antonio? Does it matter?

With the season nearing its end and the Rockets fighting every game for a ticket to the summer dance, personally I don’t know what to expect.

*it should be noted that my understanding of what it actually takes to break out of prison is based entirely on the plots of a few movies and a trip I took to San Francisco when I was 19.

**I also really don’t know anything about baking.

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