Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Satisfaction Or Your Money Back

Just a few days ago, John McCain stepped up his game, claiming that there is no chance of his losing the election. Governor Palin guarantees that her side will take Pennsylvania. I think most people reflexively pay little attention to that. Do undecided voters really want so much bravado in their leaders? But it reminded me that politicians are not the only competitors who like to guarantee victory.

Last May, Jameer Nelson “guaranteed” that his Magic, down 3-1 to the Pistons, could eke out game 5. Oops, that didn’t work out so well. Speaking of the Pistons, their starting F-C is known for his hastily issued “Guaran-sheeds” of victory. His most famous guarantee, I think, came before the fourth game of the 2006 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Whoops again: LeBron took over the final quarter and the Cavs eked out a victory. Since then, Rasheed doesn’t make a lot of guarantees.

In business, third-party guarantees are usually used when a borrower (whether an individual or a company) lacks the credit-worthiness to give sufficient comfort of repayment to a lender. Guarantees can also be used in ordinary commercial sales or services contracts in place of a letter of credit, to provide comfort in case the seller doesn’t sell or the buyer doesn’t pay. A guarantee is just a written contract: a promise to pay. The guarantor, often a family member (of an individual) or corporate affiliate (of a company) pledges to pay the borrower’s obligations if the borrower fails to. The point is that the guarantor really will be on the hook if the borrower defaults or otherwise screws up.

The most famous guarantee in modern sports came when a young Joe Namath, pilot of the New York Jets, guaranteed victory against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl 3. These boasts were then quite novel (who could be so brash to question the right of reign of the great Unitas?) and Namath surely would have lost much face if his team had not come through. Accounts of that game since then still center on Namath’s audacity. It is fair to say that if the Colts had pulled out the win, Namath’s subsequent image as a James Bond-esque son of a gun would never have arisen. Namath would probably be forever known as the kid who ran his mouth too much.

It is fair to say that a third-party guarantee promotes (value-adding) transactions not only by giving comfort of performance to the recipient of the guarantee, but also placing an extra burden on the original obligated party. The obligated party now really doesn’t want to screw up, lest he (or it) cause reputational and financial loss to the guarantor, which may be a close family member or a corporate parent. This dynamic is unquestionably found in sports. When R-Dub makes a “guaran-sheed”, his team wants to back him up, lest he suffer embarassment. Also, fans of the Pistons now may be more likely to invest emotionally in the next game with the comfort that Sheed has put his credibility on the line, and why would he do that unless he knows something that the fans don’t?

As a practical matter, a guarantee before a sports match might actually have counterproductive effects by inspiring the opponent to play better and prove the guarantor wrong. Here is an essential difference between sports (or politics) and business: In the economic realm, most of the time an actor wants to see its counterparty get the job done as agreed and expected. In competition, There Can Only Be One.

But I don’t think guarantees are a bad thing. I think on the whole, guarantees could be useful devices to spice up sports matches and encourage better play by the side whose performance is guaranteed. But under current practice, NBA guarantees are meaningless.

In politics, the guarantees of McCain and Palin are particularly weak precisely because neither one has much reputation to lay on the line. Neither candidate has been particularly lauded for truth-telling in this campaign. McCain will almost surely disappear from the public stage after his likely loss next week (if he does not resign from the Senate, he will no longer be seen as a legislative lion). Palin will disappear from the national stage and return to Alaska, perhaps to rise again in 2011 or -15 after memories of the last two months have faded. All they have right now is cheap talk.

The problem with guarantees in professional sports these days is not that athletes have little reputation to lay on the line. Reputation is the stuff of endorsements, of locker-room sway, of positive coverage by reporters, and probably of success with the ladies. We certainly have seen NBA players suffer ill repute for other reasons, like punching a fan, shooting up a parking lot, getting a friend killed while driving, striking his wife, dissing the national anthem, refusing to shoot in a key playoff game, or drugging it up. The problem, rather, is that nobody seems to pay any attention anymore to breached guarantees. Attention spans are short, and especially in the playoffs, another story line is just a game away. And maybe guarantees happen too often. Like a steel cage match, they should be trotted out on the scene only about once per year.

In real (commercial) life, a failure to make good on a guarantee (after the original obligor fails to come through) results in a lawsuit. What happened when young Jameer’s teammates failed to win game 5? Did angry Orlandistas call for J-Nel’s head? Did SVG announce that Nelson would lose his starting job to Keyon Dooling? Well, no, actually; Dooling signed with New Jersey and Orlando signed 33-year-old Anthony Johnson as their backup 1. I thought Rasheed might get traded after his guarantee failed so spectacularly in ’06, but nope, three summers later he’s still around. And, no doubt, he will give us more guaran-sheeds this year.

Here is how it should be. In 1998, Mario Zagallo, coach of the Brazilian national soccer team, guaranteed a victory before the World Cup final match against France in Paris. But les Bleus took the match 3-0. Just like that (even after delivering a World Cup win in 1994) Zagallo was out of a job.

If you’re an NBA player and you want to guarantee a victory, tell us what exactly you’re going to sacrifice if you’re wrong. Or keep your mouth shut!

Friday, October 24, 2008

First-Game Premium

It is about that time to get organized and figure out what NBA games I’m planning to go to over the course of the season. In my case, it is a bit complicated – my main basketball friend has a Mon-Thurs constraint: he can only watch games four days of the week. Unfortunately, he spends the rest of his week in NYC and they don’t seem to have any NBA teams there anymore.

Checking out some of the online ticket sites, I notice an interesting pattern: the first-game premium. How much would you be willing to pay to watch the first home game vs. the second home game of the season?

Let’s take the Celtics. If we try for mid-level seats at the Garden, one ticket is about $200. Compare that with the second home game, a mere 3 days later. A comparable ticket is about $70. Would you be willing to pay an extra $130 to watch the first home game?

Now of course you may think that these two games are not the same. The opponents are different, the day of the week is different, and so on. In the Celtics case, the first game is with the Cavs, while the second game is with the Bulls. So it is fair to assume that most people would pay more to watch the Cavs. But the first home game is on a Tuesday, and the second game is on a Friday. So this goes the other way – probably more people want to watch on Friday. Perhaps the different team can account for the $130 spread, but I doubt it.

The Celtics may be a special case as winners of the NBA Finals. Maybe a lot of fans want to relive the NBA championship. But then again, I remember that Game 6 was in Boston and it was after all the biggest margin of victory in any finals clincher.

So let’s take a look at some other teams.

Lakers: Mid Levels running about $140 for Game 1 (Portland) vs. about $75 for home Game 2 (Clippers).

Pistons: Lower Level Baseline running about $55 for home Game 1 (Indiana) vs. about $35 for home Game 2 (Washington)

Bulls: Lower Level Baseline running about $100 for home Game 1 (Bucks) vs. about $80 for home Game 2 (Grizzlies)

Raptors: Endzone seats about $85 for home Game 1 (Warriors) vs. about $150 for home Game 2 (Pistons)

This last case shows something interesting – at some point, the team has to matter. In any case, I’ve decided to skip on LeBron and check out Bosh/O’Neal when they play the Celtics on 11/10.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Daily Dispatch: The First and the Worst at MSG

It may only be pre-season, but good teams still look good, and bad teams still look bad. A few noteworthy points from courtside at last night’s game at the Garden:

  • One would expect that the Knicks would be thoroughly outplayed by the Celtics. But it must have been disheartening for Knicks fans to see their team hammered by the Celtics’ second unit. The Knicks did manage to stage a comeback in the waning minutes of the 4th quarter but only after the Celts brought on their CBA squad.

  • We, at JPO, love Leon Powe. Who wouldn’t respect a guy with a life story like this? And what NBA fan wouldn’t love what Powe did in Game 2 of the Finals when he single-handedly staved off a Lakers’ comeback? Mr. Powe did not disappoint on Tuesday night, Poweverizing the Knicks with 19 and 12. These weren’t mere garbage points. It seems that Powe has developed a nice 8-foot turn-around jumper in the lane. Mark my words: Powe will be one of the top sixth men in the league and key in the Celtics’ title run this year.

  • Did someone forget to tell Kevin Garnett that it’s still pre-season? In typical KG fashion, the most intense athlete in the history of humankind was on his feet hollerin’ during pre-season garbage time, cheering on the Patrick O’Bryants and Brian Scalabrines of the world.

  • You know what the Knicks’ problem is? Their most exciting and charismatic team member is their coach.

  • I almost feel sorry for Starbury. It seems that the Knicks franchise is going out of its way to make him feel unwelcome. The Knicks’ pre-game montage features every single Knick player except Marbury.

  • As my fiancĂ©e remarked: “Sam Cassell's head looks even more alien-like in person than on TV.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Mission Statement (at least, mine)

Welcome to Jordan Pushed Off, a new blog about the National Basketball Association. We are three guys who have known each other for ten years, united by, among other things, our love of basketball, vigorous debate, careful examination of the way things are, and extreme sit-up contests.

We are avid readers of many of the best basketball blogs out there; you can imagine the list. We come not to mimic or send a rejoinder to any other writers, but to say what is not now being said. Our experience around the world, our years of training in how to think, and our willingness to see through old b-ball shibboleths will allow us to illuminate the League like it has never been lit up before.

Personally, I have to confess, I am tainted by some tribal loyalty: I grew up rooting for the Pistons. Zeke, Joe D, Worm, Spider, Microwave, Buddha, Mahorn and Laimbeer: these men were my idols, adorning the walls of my bedroom and occupying most of my discussions at the back of the school bus. I even had a shower radio on which I would listen to George Blaha announcing many of the Pistons’ 63 victories during that glorious 1989 season, while I got myself squeaky clean. I could not afford to miss a minute. Today, the Pistons still animate me, but I do have other likes, which I will reveal as these posts continue.

We are hardly the first observers to argue that Michael Jordan committed an offensive foul on the Bulls’ last play of the 98 Finals. A quick view will reveal a “push off” that would surely be called, or at least contested, in your average YMCA game. But events in recent years have made this quasar of injustice glow ever more brightly as an exemplar of what is wrong with the league. Stars allowed to take three or more steps through the lane; multi-millionaire MVP candidates allowed to pout, sulk, complain, demand trades, and generally be spoiled brats; referees swallowing their whistles for fouls in the last 30 seconds of a game (except when a foul could favor a preferred team or sink a villainous one). Of course the people demand drama, and this league provides entertainment. But without risk, where is drama? If the superheroes can effortlessly dodge bullets forever, like Jack Bauer with better hops, where is the challenge? It is hardly controversial (but then again…) that the rule of law leads to prosperity. (If we believe that latter link, does that mean we should always trust the Dear Leader Stern?)

We will talk about much, much more, over the next weeks and months, including all sorts of random basketball-related shizz. Hope you keep reading!