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2015 Year End Reflection - The Tale of Two Champions

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‘Tis the season for reflections and Top 10 lists. Lots of lists. Looking back on 2015, some of my sports teams performed better than others. That being said, I am very happy with the prospects for 2016 (especially because of one very tall Latvian player).

I am also looking forward to see what 2016 holds because I feel that my own connection to sports has grown stronger in 2015. I’m no longer a boisterous fan that simply yells at his TV screen when Carmelo doesn’t dunk the ball. I’ve begun to use statistics and writing about the social implications of sports to deepen my connection to the games I love. Okay, and I still yell at the TV screen.

And for all the ways statistics have improved sports and the ways we understand them, there is the story of two champions that reminded me about the “humanness” of sports. Now, I’m not here to refute statistics (I find them fascinating), but this year only reinforced my opinion that the human side of sports still plays a larger role in sports than statistics.

The two champions I’m speaking about come from two different sports: soccer and basketball. Chelsea FC and the Golden State Warriors both won their respective leagues in 2014-15, but they’ve had polar opposite title defenses in the 2015-16 season.

The Warriors set a record for the best start to an NBA season by going 24-0. They’ve played 2014 NBA Finals Spurs-level team basketball, and have been obliterating their opponents. As of today they are 32-2. This team is playing with a ‘Big Baby Glen Davis’ sized chip on its shoulder – one that few defending champions have.

The other reigning champions, Chelsea, have had a very different season. One of the few similarities with the Warriors is that they returned with essentially the same team that won the championship. But Chelsea has been suffering from a bad case of the Championship hangover that the Warriors have avoided. They started the season as a team out of shape, playing with no urgency, relying on the fact they were champions, and not changing a single tactic from the way they played the previous season.

At the end of 2015 they were 5-5-9 and were in 14th place (out of 20). To put that in some perspective, Chelsea was near the bottom of the table where teams get relegated to a lesser league. In an NBA scenario, that would be the equivalent of the Warriors having the Brooklyn Nets’ record and close to being relegated to the D-League. Let that sink in.

But the Warriors have been the definition of a team this season. Their ball movement has been amazing. And the character of each individual on that team is exceptional. They always pass to the open guy and love having fun on the court. This team is not satisfied with being reigning champs, and the players push themselves to achieve even more. Each of them knows there role and gives 100% effort until the final whistle.

Chelsea looks anything but hungry. In the first two months of the season they were 2-2-4, followed by a 1-4 record in the next five weeks. Pundits have been baffled by this Chelsea team, which set the record for worst title defense after 10 games with only 11 points. So how did the same players become record-settingly bad only six months after hoisting the trophy?

In the beginning, the Chelsea players were horribly out of shape. I am willing to partially excuse them for this because most champions come in out of shape because of their deserved rest in the off-season. But it was their reaction to this slow start that was so shocking.

The players looked disinterested in their play, and lacked the effort to turn their season around. They almost assumed that their status as Champions would intimidate other teams into submission. But as we all know, the Champions have the biggest target on their back and will always get the opposing team’s best effort, no matter what.

And in the middle of all their struggles, the rumors started flying. In one headline, an anonymous Chelsea player apparently said that he’d rather lose for this manager then win for him. Sheesh! That is a shocking statement, even if it isn’t true, because it was plausible enough to publish because of the state the team was in.

The other major problem has been coaching. José Mourinho, “The Special One” as he is called, he brings to the pitch a combination of Tom Thibodeau’s defensive knowledge and Gregg Popovich’s sass during in game interviews. He’s the guy everyone loves to hate unless he’s coaching your team. Sadly for him, his typically robust defense struggled because the players were out of shape. And when the team looked to him to strategize a better offense, he came up short. Despite giving the team everything he had, Mourinho was battered in the press for months until finally getting fired two weeks ago.

And while a struggling head coach is a bad sign, having players that are underperforming is even worse. Chelsea had the Player of the Year last year, Eden Hazard. He hasn’t scored a single goal in over 25 matches, after tallying 14 goals last year. Chelsea’s midfield Star Cesc Fabregas, who assisted on 18 goals last season, has only two this year. He has also taken 18 shots for a whopping zero goals.

These two teams have fascinated me this season because their stories cannot be fully described by their numbers. Statistics are extremely valuable to understanding sports, but we can’t get carried away with their significance. Judging from last season, with the way both teams played, they should both have had outstanding seasons this year. But when a team shows up out of shape and lacking mental focus, how can you expect them to win? It’s all about determination and desire – nothing to do with numbers.

Chelsea’s players are having a crisis in confidence, one of the most human aspects of sports. Just because a player has reached the pinnacle of the sporting world, being paid millions of dollars and playing for the best teams in the world, doesn’t mean that they can’t have a bad day at the office and crack under the pressure. And you can even find that emotional toll in the numbers themselves if you know where to look.

Chelsea has conceded 29 goals this season. 62% of those goals have come in the second half of the game, whereas Chelsea have scored 52% of their goals in the first half. Additionally, teams have had a 50% chance of equalizing against Chelsea this season, whereas Chelsea has only had a 30% chance of equalizing.

So what do all of those numbers amount to? Heartbreaking losses at the end of games or teams coming back to tie at the last moment. Every time Chelsea players have seen a light at the end of the tunnel, it gets extinguished.

And often times, to stop the losing a team must mature and grow in order to overcome their poor performance. And for nearly all of the Chelsea players, that growth and maturity has not come easily. José Mourinho benched essentially every starter on this team (there are 11 of them in soccer, not just five) and almost none of the players have handled it well. Chelsea’s star striker, Diego Costa, actually threw his warm-up pinny at his manager as a sign of his disapproval.

Pouring over the numbers for this season is useless if you forget that at the end of the day, human beings still have to go out and play the game. All of the factors that influence the players’ performance (confidence, arrogance, energy, pressure, expectations) play a much larger role than what the numbers predict.


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