Sunday, November 30, 2008

Virtual Reality

For a bit of a laugh, go here and look at the "Player Matchups" section. Someone in Disney's IT department screwed up the coding there...

I note that the 2007 page and 2008 page don't have the same problem (i.e. the player values for the "Matchup" section are statically rendered as of the date of the playoff series).

Our Thanksgiving post comes later today (Sunday).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Whither Marion?

What happened to this guy? He's a four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA third team member ... but so far this season he sucks. He didn't like being the third star in Phoenix, and now he gets to play with another megawatt talent in Miami and be the second star. But his numbers are significantly down in every category. One would think that he would turn on the juice to secure a rich new contract. Is he partying too much down there?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Si Se Puede Jugar

Caron Butler opines on new Wizards coach Ed Tapscott:

Now that we got 'Obama' on the sideline with us, we're going to ride with it. Tap, he's light-skinned, he stands for change, he's got a law degree, he uses big words, and he's new in the district, and he's in control now, so shout out to Obama. We won tonight; he brought a lot of hope. And he's good with numbers, so hopefully he'll change the economy as well.

Given that the White House is about a 15-minute walk from the Verizon Center (or three minutes by motorcade), I don't see why the new President can't get himself some seats in the owner's box and become a regular Wizards fan. True, Clinton didn't start rooting for the Hoyas over the Razorbacks, and Bush surely still checks Rangers scores on ESPN, and it's true that Obama was in Chicago during Jordan's glory years, but if he wants to see some ball (or keep up his habit of balling with NBAers), it's clear where to go.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

El Canadiense

Normally at this blog we try to stick to careful analysis and rise above base emotion, but wow, Phoenix was trailing by 12 points with 9 minutes left and they came back to win by 1, thanks to 12 subsequent points and 4 assists from Steve Nash!

Granted, it was only Oklahoma, but that was a hell of a game to follow from one's computer. I would not have wanted to write a sequel to my “Epic Fail” post from last week, also involving Phoenix.

It's also interesting that the online availability of real-time scores, even with play-by-play updates, has allowed fans to invest emotionally in games no matter if they're stuck at the office, or if they're overseas. Just as, 50 years ago, the onset of television allowed fans outside the arena to get themselves hyped about the ongoing status of a sports match, the internet allows anyone with a computer to pray for their side and bite into some drama. Back in 2004 when Sacramento (a favorite team of mine at the time) went against Minnesota in the second round of the West playoffs, I was living in Europe, and I stayed up until about 4 in the morning, looking at little circles moving across my computer screen on ESPN's play-by-play tracker, hoping that Webber could pull the boys through. It didn't happen, but the risk and thrill of that experience was way better than just going to sleep and waking up the next morning to check the score.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

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Monday, November 24, 2008

One Jump Ahead of the Breadline

The NY Times had a very good piece last week about the phenomenon of offensive players grunting, moaning, yelling, or otherwise vocalizing when they put up a shot near the basket. This is apparently the offensive counterpart to flopping. Presumably, players do this because it works (or at least, they think it works): it increases their probability of receiving a favorable foul call, effectuating the beloved “and one” scenario.

I am slightly saddened (though I shouldn’t be) that referees are apparently so easily swayed by these antics. Whether you call this bounded rationality or cue awareness or sensory limitation, it’s obvious that referees, as humans, cannot shut out their various biases when calling fouls. That includes biases as to the reputations of individual players, biases as to the appropriateness of fouls in various game situations (hence the original “Jordan pushed off” problem), and biases as to the propriety of a big man slamming a small. Perhaps some of these biases are normatively desirable as a way of guiding refs to a decision that is likelier to be correct, in a setting where no human could possibly follow all the action occuring at close range between world-class athletes at breakneck speeds. It reminds me of some recent unfortunate luck when I was forced to sit in the front-most row of a packed theater to watch the latest James Bond film. When Daniel Craig stood in one place, I could follow the scene, but the chases across the rooftops of Haiti were a bit much for my eyeballs.

I would like to quickly think through the league-wide implications of this yelling strategy.

I. Let’s assume first that making these perorations is costless: that is, it is neither painful nor tiring nor shot-altering to yell out a cry of pain as you release the ball. If that’s the case, and screaming increases your chance of getting a foul call, we would expect everyone to do it. … But if that is so, referees presumably would recognize that they are getting “played” by cheap talk; I assume that referees have some ability to deliberately and consciously counteract their biases. Ultimately propensities of foul calls would be exactly the same as if nobody was doing it. That is not a very interesting equilibrium. On the other hand, if referees were differentially affected by the screams of different players — probably they would be more sympathetic to little guys — then we might see more fouls called for the benefit of little men and fewer fouls called for the benefit of bigs. And if that were the case, we might then see little guys with the temerity to drive to the hole even more than before; and, perhaps, we might see some bigs with shooting touch slightly more willing to put up a J from the perimeter, which might reduce referees’ propensity or willingness to blow their whistle for the little guys. You can’t be blowing your whistle on every play. That, in turn, could bring the equilibrium back somewhat closer to the no-whining scenario, though we might still see more drives by little guys and more fouls called for their benefit.

(I should note that I’m assuming that referees want to keep the total number of fouls called in a game fairly constant, so as not to slow the game down and cause more foul-out disqualifications. I would be curious to see data on how the average number of fouls per game has varied over time. Retrospective accounts hold that the 1990s NBA of Jackson’s Bulls, Riley’s Knicks, and Riley’s Heat was particularly thuggish and slow, but was that really so?)

II. Let’s assume next that yelling has a cost. Let us first assume that yelling is equally costly for everyone. If that is so, then if the cost is low enough, the benefit of yelling could exceed the cost, and everyone would do it, as in the above discussion. If the cost is too high, nobody would do it.

What if there is a differential cost of yelling across different players? I will assume that yelling is more difficult for big men than for little men: Big men have bigger lungs to fill to produce those exhortations, and big men typically have poorer long-run stamina than little guys. A regular habit of screaming during every shot attempt would be more deleterious to power players than to wiry guards.

There are a few possibilities under that broad rubric. First, it could be that even with the differential cost, the costs are just generally too high for everyone to justify doing it; thus, nobody would do it. Second, it could be that the costs for everyone are so still low that everyone wants to do it, so everyone increases their frequency of going hard to the hoop. This would resemble my discussion in I. above, but now little guys would be more emboldened (relative to bigs) to drive and cry out, compared to the scenario described in I. If refs are equally affected viscerally by the cries of bigs and smalls, and they are able to notice that smalls are whining more than bigs are, they might consciously call fouls for the benefit of little guys with lower propensity, so as to maintain the overall number of fouls called. Thus, the whining of a Wade or Iverson would be counterproductive. (It could even reduce the value of whining for munchkins so much that in the equilibrium, smalls would whine with equal frequency to bigs.)

Third, we could have a scenario where the cost of grunting was so high for big men (compared to the perceived benefit) that they chose not to do it, but low enough for smalls that they find it worthwhile. Then only smalls would be grunting, and the smalls would, at least at first, find themselves receiving beneficial foul calls with higher propensity than before. Referees could adjust to this by consciously reducing their propensity of foul calls equally, regardless of height of the beneficiary (in which case big men would receive fewer foul calls in the equilibrium, compared to the world without whining); or perhaps they might realize that smalls are causing the uptick in fouls with their whining, and decide to be less kind to the little guys.

There’s a lot of moving parts in this analysis and I know there are issues that I’ve not thought carefully about, but that’s my first cut.

Bundle of Joy

In my ongoing catalog of notable parent-child NBA relationships, I learned today that Javale McGee of the Wizards is the son of a former WNBA player. The article tells us that McGee is the only son of a WNBA player to ever make the NBA, which sounds like an amazing factoid until you consider that the WNBA only began in 1997. I would not be surprised if other NBA players had ball-playing mothers. McGee's father was also a college basketball star and was drafted back in 1985, but never made the L.

I was considering adding McGee to my fantasy team, but I just don't think he has what it takes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Donnie Walsh Just Messed Up My Fantasy Squad

It's exciting to watch the Knicks make moves that would clear salary cap space for a run at James, Bosh, Stoudemire, or Wade in 2010. As of now, after the Crawford trade, the Knicks' only players contracted for 2010-11 are Randolph, Curry, Jeffries, Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler. (Curry and Jeffries have player options, but at their salaries it's difficult to imagine either foregoing the money and testing the market.) You have to figure that the Knicks will trade at least one of the first three in the next 20 months to further reduce salary. But even if the Knicks re-sign Robinson, Lee, and/or Duhon beyond 2010, these hardly seem like the building blocks of a championship contender. James recently stated that he will make his decision by assessing his chances to win “multiple championships” .

At the same time, if Cleveland hopes to retain James, they are hardly stacked for the post-2010 era. Right now the only other quality players they have signed for 2010-11 are three dimunitive guards: Gibson, West, and Williams. None of Cleveland's current big men -- Ilgauskas, Wallace, or Varejao -- will likely be on the team two years hence; the first two of those will be ready for retirement. Perhaps Cleveland management can trade an expiring contract (either Szczerbiak this year, or Wallace or Ilgauskas next year) to a rebuilding team looking to jettison an All-Star power man in his prime, but what such players exist? Maybe Dirk Nowitzki, if Mark Cuban abandoned all hope of championship success. The Wizards might be willing to deal Antawn Jamison if they continue to play crappily, but his skills seem to duplicate those of James, except not as good.

It actually seems more likely that Bosh or James or Stoudemire would sign with Miami to play alongside Wade and Beasley. (Bosh or Wade or Amaré could come to Cleveland alongside James, but why would you choose Cleveland over Miami or Phoenix or even Toronto, which is an awesome city though cold?)

The only other two possible realistic destinations for these mega-stars are Chicago and Phoenix. The Bulls have only Rose, Hinrich, Deng and Nocioni under contract for 2010-11; if Hinrich can be traded, the others make only about $24M of salary. Who wouldn't want to play with the blooming Rose? Phoenix has only Diaw and Barbosa under contract for 2010-11. Why not re-sign Amaré and nab LeBron or Wade? Now you're loaded for five years of championship runs.

I've read that Portland could be positioned to sign one of these all-world players, but after they re-sign Roy and Aldridge in the fall of 2009, and then as they prepare to extend Oden's contract in the fall of 2010, how can they afford another star? I suppose they could dump one of that trio if they have a real shot at one of the headline free agents.

UPDATE: After I posted that, the Knicks completed a trade on Friday afternoon of Randolph and Mardy Collins to the Clippers for Mobley and Tim Thomas. They should start playing Curry to burnish his market value. But I'm still not convinced that the top megastars would want to join a team with no existing core.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's In A Name? Part I

In a recent post I touched briefly on the difficult pronunciation of the name of Mike Krzyzewski. It made me realize that the NBA is full of a wonderful wealth of prolix names that don’t get enough appreciation. Sadly, these names are too often mangled by those who are paid to speak about them.

For several years, ESPN/ABC's Mike Breen has sent me into excruciating pain every time he mispronounces the surname of Fabricio Oberto. (Those are all Youtube links) Note to Mike: The second syllable of the guy’s name rhymes with English "bear", not the third U.S. Vice President. Why can't he get it right? Spanish vowels are easy. Has nobody bothered to correct him?

Then there’s Kobe Bryant, who got his name from a steakhouse in Pennsylvania, which is named after a particular style of beef, which is named after a city in western Japan. Rightly, the name should be pronounced “KOH-beh” (rhymes with “OK”), not “Ko-bee” (rhymes with “holy”). Given that he’s used the latter all his life, I wouldn’t try to change it now, but it certainly takes a lot of chutzpah to walk around with somebody else’s city attached to you and give it a new sound. Granted, we don’t pronounce “Paris” or “Montreal” or any number of place names as the locals do, but that’s because those names employ silent letters or weird sounds that don’t fit in English. It’s not hard to simply get a vowel right. (Then again, before I lived in Manhattan, I thought there was only one way to say “Houston”…)

My co-bloggers once mocked me at a restaurant for correcting a waitress who pronounced “karaoke” the American way, rather than the simple and phonetic “ka-ra-o-keh”. Fine, I'm a pedantic dweeb. But why would anyone deliberately mangle a word that is patent and clear?

Slavic names have long posed a problem for NBA commentators. Stojakovic, Divac, Petrovic, Vujacic: is the final sound “-itz”, “-ik”, or “-ich” ? My understanding is that the latter is most right, but I remain open to additional education. Charles Barkley, who seems like a smart guy but often remains gleefully and obstinately ignorant of basic facts on the ground, prefers the “-ik” ending.

Then you have Walter Herrmann, whose parents came from Germany, who grew up in Argentina, and now plays in the States. Shall we pronounce his name the German way (“HEHR-mahn”), the Spanish way (“ehr-mahn”), or the American way (like the surname of Pee-Wee)? I actually don’t know how he chooses to say it. Perhaps the example of Walter brings to absurdity my fealty to ethnic essentialism. My hunch is that he identifies as being more Latin than German, just as when I travel abroad I feel more American than … (well, in the interest of remaining Everyblogger, I won’t discuss my own origins here). Carlos Slim, the richest guy in Mexico, had a Lebanese father named Salem, so when I meet him in America, shall I say his name the Spanish way (“sleem”), American (“slim”), or in the Arabic fashion? He might punch me in the face if I tried to be all Orientalist “I know your people” on him.

To be sure, NBA-ites have done a good job of learning the right way to say many tangy names. Mostly everyone (save Charles Barkley) says “Nowitzki” correctly. Deng, Dalembert, Turkoglu, Bargnani: None are phonetic in an English scheme (and, while the latter three of those come from languages that use Roman alphabet, for Luol's name I question a transliteration scheme that results in an English spelling that makes no sense) but everyone knows roughly how to say those guys’ names. Even many TV pundits have learned to roll “Ahmadinejad” off their tongue. I don’t question the good faith of NBA personalities who talk about these players, but I do wonder, sincerely, why some names get Americanized and some don’t. Oh, and returning to my most recent post, did you know Mark Cuban’s original family name was Chabenisky?

In further posts, I will attempt to examine the wondrous diversity in nomenclature of American-born players.

True Contrarian

My co-blogger H.O.S.S. knows a thing or two about securities litigation, so I will await his insights, perhaps in comments, but in the interim I just want to comment about the irony of Mark Cuban’s legal troubles for selling some stock after allegedly receiving a confidential tip that it was about to tank. Isn’t that how Cuban got rich in the first place? He helped to build, which was a brilliant website for its time, and struck it rich twice, first through the IPO and then when Yahoo acquired 100% of the company shares in an all-stock acquisition in 1999. Cuban timed the transactions almost perfectly, as the NASDAQ crashed about one year after he sold out. Presumably as a savvy operator, he knew to sell high; he knew based on his inside knowledge that his business had nowhere to go but down, at least in valuation.

Live by the bear, die by the bear…

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tuesday Recap: Orlando Magic vs. Toronto Raptors

This is why I bought NBA League Pass: Last night’s game between the Orlando Magic and the Toronto Raptors did not attract national television coverage (er, U.S. national television – it was broadcast nationwide in Canada), but it pitted two of the Eastern Conference’s most promising young teams against each other.

It is striking just how similar the teams are. First, the Raptors and the Magic each possess one bona fide superstar in the form of a young, charismatic power forward. It has become increasingly clear this season that the torch has been passed from Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan to Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. Second, in Rashard Lewis and Jermaine O’Neal, each team carries on its roster an overpaid former all-star who knows he’s overpaid. Both the Magic and Raptors know that neither Lewis nor O’Neal is worth max money, but these young teams and their fans are just so impatient to join the NBA’s elite that they’ll dole out superstar money to merely solid players. Third, each team has an underappreciated, foreign-born, borderline all-star in Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon. Fourth, although both teams have impressive starting line-ups, they are wafer-thin once you get past the starting five.

Despite the final score, last night’s game was deceptively close. More importantly, Toronto was playing without Calderon (and displayed a shocking lack of depth at the PG position). Also significant is the fact that for much of the game, the Magic was playing 6 on 4 basketball against the Raptors. (I count Will Solomon, the Raptors’ starting point guard, as an Orlando player – that’s how bad he was. The 3 turnovers don’t tell half the story – there should be a stat for “wasted possessions,” i.e., when the PG dribbles the ball going nowhere for 20 seconds and then makes the post entry pass so that Chris Bosh receives the ball outside the three point line with 4 seconds to shoot.)

And if Toronto fans needed another reason not to be discouraged, Chris Bosh’s play was off the charts. Not only did he put up huge numbers (44 pts, 18 reb, 14-19 FG), but he was diving for loose balls and seemed eager to take the team on his shoulders (something he hasn’t looked comfortable doing in years past). Additionally, it seems that Toronto’s twin towers experiment with J.O. and CB4 is paying early dividends. The two looked comfortable playing together, although I’d like to see them utilize the high-low post pass even more. Jermaine was also a beast against Howard, holding the Superman to mere mortal numbers. (The box score shows just one block for O’Neal – I swear I saw at least four not counting the number of bad/changed shots he forced the Magic players to make.)

While Toronto fans could take solace in a number of positives from yesterday’s game, at the end of the day, a loss is still a loss. Nevertheless, it has to be encouraging to have shut down Howard who made the Raptors defense look downright JV in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

No Curry, No Hurry, No Worry

Two weeks ago I discoursed at length about father-son dyads in the basketball universe. I neglected to mention Stephen Curry, the son of former NBA player and current Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach Dell Curry. The father was a 40% career 3-point shooter, and the all-time leading scorer for the Charlotte Hornets. His son seems to have inherited some of the senior Curry's shooting prowess, either through genetic gift or perhaps just youthful osmosis. Tonight he dropped 44 against Oklahoma, which boasts the likely top pick in the next NBA draft. 44 points in a 40-minute game with a college system is quite sick. I happened to be watching the game in a bar when he hit an impossible 3-pointer in the final minute, and I went bananas when the ball rained through. People in the bar thought I was a little nuts.

At 6'2", Curry will likely have problems trying to play the same "hero" game in the NBA. Shooting guards in the pros are 6'6" and up; like other smallish shooters like J.J. Redick and Salim Stoudamire, Curry will be often stymied at the offensive end, and will be routinely embarrassed on D. Curry needs to work on his handle and his passing skills if he wants a niche in the league. Happily, in the first three games of this season, he's averaging seven assists, after averaging only three assists in each of his previous two seasons.

In the area of News You Can Use, I just learned from Wikipedia that the father and son actually have the same name: the elder is named Wardell Stephen Curry, while the younger is named Wardell Stephen Curry II.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Epic Fail

How is it possible to blow such an easy win? Last night, a Phoenix team at nearly full strength (minus Barbosa), featuring 4 former first-team all-NBA players, lost to a Jazz team featuring CJ Miles, Jarron Collins, Ronnie Price, and Ronnie Brewer in the starting lineup. After a good first quarter, Phoenix got outscored the rest of the way by 21. PHX clearly underestimated the fight in their opponents. All the other West contenders including Utah must be pleased upon seeing Phoenix's lackadaisacal attitude. To be fair, it's not always easy to put forth your best effort every night when you have 82 games plus several more in the playoffs to look forward to. One might hope that huge salaries would provide sufficient reason to stiffen a player's work ethic and give the fans their money's worth, but the impulse to slack is fairly universal. Why was the CEO of Bear Stearns golfing, playing bridge, and smoking pot back in the summer of ’07 while his company was going to hell?

Perhaps it helps that Utah has a guy of Greek descent on their team. One of the greatest upsets in basketball history was surely the 2006 semifinal match at the FIBA World Championship, in which a US team full of superstars could barely stop some big dude with the dimensions of Oliver Miller. Famously, the US coach was so poorly prepared that he didn't know the Greek players’ names. (He can hardly use the excuse that their names were too hard to pronounce, when his own name is a phonetic Rubik's Cube!) So another reason to underperform against an inferior opponent is not just laziness, but perhaps hubris, or even contempt for your adversary. Contempt might make you want to destroy your opponent on one side of the court, but you are less likely to get back on D if you don't take their ability and resolve seriously.

Fans of the NFL love the phrase "Any Given Sunday", suggesting that random shizz can lead to unexpected results. The Patriots were not supposed to win in the 2002 Super Bowl, and they were not supposed to lose in the 2008 Super Bowl. That's just as true in the NBA, but we tend to notice anomalous outcomes less when there's 81 other games in the season, compared to 16 total games in the NFL. It's much more likely in hoops that the best teams will end up with the best records. In future posts I will further explore these issues of sample size. Yet sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong. If Tyson fought Douglas 9 more times, would Tyson take all 9 bouts? Well, if Douglas figured out how to avoid Tyson's knockout blows, probably not. Maybe Tyson was simply overhyped. During his first reign, he never fought Holyfield, after all.


UPDATE: John Hollinger suggests that Phoenix lost not due to the above, but because Shaq was tired.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bringing Balance to the Force

I caught the Nuggets-Celtics game on television last night. Boston was getting bullied by defensive hustle plays: Nenê Hilario repeatedly ripped the ball out of Celtics’ hands; Renaldo Balkman, as advertised, always chased down loose balls, and quixotically got a lot of court time. Chauncey Billups was steady down the stretch and maintained the team’s cool every time Boston made a comeback.

Many critics have shredded Denver’s decision to jettison Marcus Camby for a draft pick last summer. But in light of this second trade, I think it makes more sense. The roster and salary structure were badly unbalanced in 2007-08. Denver was paying about $30 MM to the troika of Martin, Hilario, and Camby, three oft-injured big men. You don’t need to be paying star money to three of those guys. Two, maybe. Meanwhile, Denver had three volume scorers in Smith, Anthony and Iverson who couldn’t really co-exist together. Smith needed to be resigned in the summer of ’08, adding further pressure to the salary load. Iverson’s contract ends after 2008-09 and Denver was unlikely to re-sign him; they weren’t getting anywhere in the playoffs with him. So in 2009-10, Denver could (i) be paying $7.65 MM to Camby, or alternatively (ii) they could acquire a suitable point guard like Billups (who gets paid $12.1 MM that year) who could expertly run the show. Camby is older than Martin and Hilario (and his contract seems the most sensible of the three) so it was easier and more logical to trade him.

I think the outlook for Denver now is certainly better than it was six months ago. If only Carmelo could learn to play defense…

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mad Melo Men

The photo above shows the side of a bus stop shelter near my apartment in Chicago, taken on November 8th. It struck me because I have never seen any advertisement wherein Carmelo Anthony endorses Powerade, other than this image. This industry trade article from earlier this summer announces the participation of these three guys (including Merriman and Howard) in Powerade’s latest ad campaign.

I’ve always thought that a good advertisement needs to be clever, memorable, and tell you something about the intrinsic qualities of the product. Even in a commodified industry where the product has little intrinsic to distinguish it from its competitors (really, what the hell is the difference between TAG body spray and AXE?) the “package” of the product can include an enticing set of cultural memories and associations. I still have no clue what makes Flintstone vitamins better than CVS brand, but their jingle is incredibly warming; why would I want to miss out on the 10 million strong and growing? And I almost feel like a New England aristocrat when I take the time to taste the Welch’s and savor all that Concord flavor.

The Powerade ad reminded me of two other recent ad campaigns that involved no creativity. In 2005, Fidelity Investments signed up Paul McCartney to license stock footage of his image and music in several print and TV ads, and a few years earlier Accenture signed Tiger Woods for similar purposes. You’ve probably seen the Accenture ads at airports: an image of Woods playing golf and looking thoughtful, with a lame caption like “10% imagination, 90% perspiration”. Any company on the planet could publish that ad, so why should I believe that Accenture is uniquely resonant with the Woods ethos?

For each of these campaigns, one can always find business school professors or marketing practitioners willing to drop fancy quotes about brand synergy or strategic partnerships. But my first question when I see one of these ads is, why was the star willing to sell out his image for cold cash and nothing more? If a representative of Coca-Cola or BMW came to me and asked to use my name and likeness in advertising, I would insist that they craft a brilliant campaign around me, possibly involving me training first to put on 20 pounds of muscle and to sing classical opera. I would not say, “Sure, how much?” While I am sure Woods’s agents have carefully negotiated how Accenture may and may not depict him, he creates no new self for the campaign. We learn nothing new about him from the arrangement.

Ads with basketball stars, though, are not known for this frozen depiction of the talent. The best ad campaigns involving NBA players have drawn upon real feuds, real character, and real charisma. I think everyone who watched the 1992 Super Bowl remembers the one with Jordan and Bird attempting to make increasingly outlandish shots, each attempt ending with the brash prediction, “Nothing but net.” The early irreverence of Young Shaq was summarily dealt with in an ad by his shoe company where he paid proper homage to the great bigs of old. More recently, Nike and even VitaminWater have rather expertly employed the acting chops of LeBron James in varying roles including messiah, CEO, and crusading litigator. I don’t know a thing about LeBron as a person (other than that he named his first son LeBron Jr., which at age 19 was fairly obnoxious), but from his ads I have acquired the impression that he is a cool guy, and it makes me want to follow his career and buy his stuff.

So why do we see these lame campaigns involving McCartney, Tiger, and Carmelo? Why didn’t the client bother to obtain a measure of creativity, rather than just sticking the likeness of some famous dude on a billboard or a video? There is a school that holds advertising to be nothing more than a conspicuous form of money-burning: a way for high-quality sellers to signal their goodness in a market where consumers can’t tell the difference between VitaminWater and Kool-Aid. The theory is that high-quality sellers anticipate repeat business, so expensive advertising is worth it for them, but it’s not worthwhile for low-quality sellers; thus, if you see ostentatious advertising, it must be a high-quality seller. Many Super Bowl ads are like this. Only one Internet domain name registrar advertised during the 2006 Super Bowl, and their ad, while clever, said very little about the product. And what could they say? You go to a website, you type in your desired URL, you give your credit card number. There’s not a lot to sell there.

So what motivated Fidelity and Accenture here? I can’t imagine it’s because the client was stingy with its advertising budget and didn’t want to pay the ad agency to spend the time thinking of something creative and producing the content; the hourly rates charged by the ad firms surely are dwarfed, or at least equalled, by the compensation given to these athletes and entertainers. Presumably the advertising houses came up with these ideas and somehow convinced the marketing chiefs at the companies to sign off. The marketing chiefs apparently think that a display of pure money-burning, with no obvious effort to entertain, must be enough. It’s certainly not enough for me; I find myself actively repulsed from such a campaign.

More importantly, there is a great onus upon the star himself to decide how his persona shall be constructed and interpreted in the public square. Tiger Woods has been content since becoming a superstar to remain a mystery: he rarely talks of anything other than golf. The Accenture deal thus seems perfect for him. McCartney, I think, has shepherded his image very carefully (even trying to change the old “Lennon-McCartney” songwriting credits to “McCartney-Lennon” on the songs where he deemed that appropriate) so it is less clear why he would turn everything over to Team Fidelity. Perhaps at age 63, he just didn’t care anymore.

Carmelo, though, has no excuse. He is hardly a folk hero, after he lost face with bourgeois America in the Stop Snitching episode and he lost all his street cred when he slapped Mardy Collins (who?) and quickly ran away before Collins could parry. This is a time for Carmelo to rebuild his image, particularly after successfully bringing a gold medal home. He should not agree to have his image in lights doing nothing, allowing others to shine their own avatar of Carmelo Anthony upon bus stop shelters across the land. He should actively be sketching a new Melo. Why does LeBron get all the cool ads? My impression from watching Melo’s interviews is that he is less articulate and outgoing than LeBron, but surely a campaign could be crafted that relied on his non-verbal strengths. If Colin Powell is now a revered elder statesman once more after lying at the UN, anyone can have a second chance, no?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Like It When You Call Me Big Poppa

I am hardly an academic, but I am sure that sociologists would say that occupation is “heritable” to some extent: we see many children following in their parents’ footsteps, much more than we would expect if jobs were assigned by random chance. Certainly, a frightening number of my classmates in law school had lawyers for parents. (My parents, meanwhile, would probably like me to work in a job where I order screws for a company that makes ovens or motorboats. Like Warren Buffett, if they don’t understand it, they don’t really like it.)

Basketball is no exception. Tony Parker (Jr.)’s father is an American who settled in France to play pro ball after he couldn’t find stardom in the NBA. Kobe Bryant’s father similarly struggled in the US game before becoming a star in Italy and raising his son there. The Barry boys, Sean May, Patrick Ewing Jr., Chris Collins, Luke Walton, Mike Bibby, Mike Dunleavy, Al Horford: all are the children of ex-NBAers, many of whom are still involved in the sport as announcers or coaches. These are the blue-chippers, athletes whose potential was identified almost from the start. Back in suburban Detroit, I attended middle school with a young man whose father had played for the Lions. He was the brashest, boldest boy in the sixth grade. I sometimes played lunchtime hoops with him, though his talent easily overmastered my gusto. And sure enough, that boy grew up to play in the NFL himself.

Children of athletes receive a package of multiple endowments from their parents that can help them to succeed: genetic traits (I will call this “nature”), an upbringing that cultivates their athletic talent (“nurture”), and the savvy to help them succeed in the business of sports (“street smarts”). Of course, each second-generation athlete receives a unique three-part combination of endowments.

Basketball is the most notable field of endeavor, and certainly the most notable of sports, where aptitude and achievement are strongly heritable – because, as they say, you can’t teach height. It is hard to appreciate how freakish these guys are until you meet them. I am slightly above 5’11” and I am usually the tallest person in any group of friends or colleagues. I have a 6’4” friend and he is a giant to me. And yet he would be considered undersized to play the 2 in the NBA.

To be the pubescent child of a basketball player is like waking up one day and discovering a lightning bolt burning through your forehead: a gift you cannot discard. Everyone can see that you are tall, and everyone knows who your daddy was. Following in your father’s footsteps is not easy. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, a prophecy has surrounded many of these man-children since their birth. On the other hand, if your dad is a billionaire attorney, it’s easier to just do your own thing. There’s no gene for deal-making.

Consider Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. When your mom’s father was a pro wrestler, your dad was a pro wrestler, and you have a few cousins playing O-line in the NFL, you are certainly marked for greatness in something. Johnson had the full three-pack of heredity: nature, nurture, and street smarts. After winning a college championship with the University of Miami, Johnson had limited success in pro football, then became arguably the WWF’s biggest star as a wrestler, and now is one of the only action heroes in film today. The movie star part is a delightful surprise, but in a way, his youth among travelling performers of the ring prepared him to emote and give a 1000-watt smile. (Certainly Hollywood stardom running in a family is nothing new.) Or behold Randy Orton, who grew up in WWF locker rooms with his father and grandfather. What else could he become?

The most piquant exemplar of this is Yao Ming, who was bred, like a prize-losing science experiment, to be a basketball player. His parents were probably two of the tallest people in China, so it was fervently hoped that Yao would be a big one. And young Ming did not disappoint. Yao received plenty of nature and plenty of nurture from the Chinese government, though he probably learned little of the subtleties about how to succeed in the NBA world. By many accounts, Yao has picked up an American ‘edge’ in the last six years, to the point that he was willing to publicly call out Ron Artest last summer. Yao has succeeded as a superstar and kept his nose clean despite having only two of the three endowments.

There are several NBA players who are not the sons of basketballers, but rather the sons of athletes in other endeavors: Grant Hill, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley Jr. From their dads they surely inherited some natural athletic ability, as well as their parents’ intuition as to how the game of pro sports operates. More importantly, all these guys, including the Bryants and Bibbys, grew up with significant privilege. Like the children of most any millionaire, no expense was spared to secure the finest coaches and facilities for the little ones.

There is a third category of second-generation stars, including Cheryl Ford and Jalen Rose, who for a long time didn’t even know that they had NBA stars for fathers. Ford didn’t meet her father until she was 17, and Rose’s father died before they could meet. It’s not every day that one of my colleagues in my law firm announces that he or she is the unwanted child of a former NBA superstar. It fact, it hasn’t happened. Yet in pro sports it seems to happen every year. I would guess that at least a handful of current NBA stars unknowingly have NBA fathers. Clearly “nature” alone can deliver a significant nudge to forge a young athlete.

Did you know, by the way, that in Japan a rice bowl with chicken and fried egg is called "oya-ko donburi" (親子丼)? Literally, "Oya" means parent and "ko" means child. I always thought that was cute. There's something sinister about cooking and devouring the father and son together, though. Each should be insulated from the other's tragedy.

It is difficult for a young man to forge his own identity when his father’s specter is forever shadowing him. Last June, ESPN/ABC ran a fluffy feature showing Bill and Luke Walton on their family couch, reminiscing about early driveway games. That was sweet and moving. But then big Bill, with rightly-earned gravitas, turned right around and picked the Celtics to win the Finals. Ouch. It must be hard for Luke to accept that without the height of a giant or the agility of a slasher, he will never surpass his father’s greatness. The same goes double for Patrick Ewing Jr., who couldn’t make the Knicks’ roster (losing out to some guy from Istanbul) even when everyone thought he would get a charity spot.

Conventional wisdom has it that politics is a family business. Politicians openly acknowledge their royal pretensions, titling their books “A Charge to Keep” or “Faith of My Fathers.” Success among leaders seems heritable to some extent: witness Al Gore, the Bush boys, Mitt Romney, the Kennedys. (Travelling through New Mexico recently, I became aware of the race for the state’s Third District congressional seat, between this guy and this guy. Or consider the current U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, a Lebanese smackdown between the son of this guy and the wife of this guy. Who is likely to take Obama’s Senate seat if BHO wins the presidency? Why, Jesse Jackson Jr.)

Elsewhere in the world, the Assads, the Kabilas, the Kirchners, the Bhuttos, and the Sukarnos engineer their own filial succession in nominal democracies. In Japan, it seems that being the grandchild or child of a former prime minister is a prerequisite for becoming PM yourself. But of course there are many counter-examples of successful pols who grew up in the most inhospitable conditions, or devoid of any obvious role models. Witness Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Pierre Trudeau, or even Nicolas Sarkozy, all self-made, all without father figures from a young age, and sui generis. They had neither nature or nurture, and they apparently taught themselves the know-how.

Patrilineal succession works in politics for somewhat different reasons than in basketball. There is no obvious innate trait that marks a newborn babe as a future politician. It may be that children of political families become unusually steeped in the mechanics of campaigns and governance. Their father’s (or sometimes mother’s) profession is unusually exciting: who has not, just for a moment, imagined himself the king of the world and an object of mass adulation? Most importantly, voters make decisions on a variety of “gut” factors, including name recognition. How else could an Italian woman become the head of India’s founding party? Many Republican voters in 2000 thought they were restoring the former President Bush to power. Basketball is not quite like that. Coaches might give Coby Karl a second look because of his father, but if he has no game, he will ride the bench. Even Michael Jordan’s kid could barely earn a college scholarship, and chose to be a walk-on elsewhere.

What exactly makes George W. Bush a successful politician? (Put aside the failure of his presidency on the merits; one cannot gainsay that he won four elections in a row from 1994 to 2004.) It is not obvious that he inherited any preternatural charisma from his father, through either nature or nurture. The elder Bush was a very good fonctionnaire for the Republicans throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, but he was not a people person. Bush, though, is roundly thought to be funny and charming, and has attracted great loyalty from his Texas associates.

A seminal episode in the life of the younger Bush came when a drunken Dubya, frustrated at his lack of success in life and his failure to equal in any way his father’s accomplishments-to-age-40 (Dubya lost his first political race at age 32, launched solely on name recognition, and then his oil ventures failed to make money), challenged his old man to a fist fight. The story is so juicy as to raise the scent of apocrypha, but somehow I can imagine “Smoke ‘em out” George, who has no sense of shame or irony, raising his dukes.

In the Bush family, politics is a duty, a calling. The father and grandfather of our current president were national politicians, and his great-grandfathers were wealthy capitalists. All the Bush men attend Yale and join Skull and Bones, and then they enter public service. (The next generation of Bushes will likely not be excluded.) But entering politics is an option. Jeb and George W. chose to run, while their two brothers chose other vocations. Your freedom is not so clear when you are the tallest kid in your class. For the children of NBA ballers, height and handle can be both a gift and a curse.

Mike Bibby did not hear from his father for years while the elder Bibby pursued a coaching career, even when they played and coached in the same college conference. Kobe Bryant did not speak to his father for many years after his marriage. After finally acknowledging his children Cheryl and Daryl, Karl Malone still refuses to acknowledge his son Demetrius, who has since made the NFL. Each of these older men may have his own independent reasons for such behavior, but could it be that part of the challenge of relating to a ball-playing child is the pain of watching your child struggle and learn exactly as you did, and being powerless to help? Or in some cases, it may be the sting, which you may not acknowledge, of seeing your child surpassing your achievements.

To be Jellybean Joe Bryant is rather like the challenge of Darth Vader née Anakin: Your son is rapidly appearing more accomplished than you ever were — your talents squandered by youthful hubris. Shall you destroy your son, or make him your protege? Your love makes the first unthinkable, but the second may be unbearable. Each of these options brings its own pain; it might be easier to just leave him alone, at least until he makes trouble. Above all, though you feel this only in seclusion with yourself, the son of Skywalker cannot be allowed to become a Jedi. Your college trophies might not look so impressive anymore.

But this is hardly unique to ball. Professional wrestler Dustin Rhodes (aka “Goldust”), the son of southern legend Dusty, did not talk to his father for many years, perhaps in part because Dustin adopted a damn weird persona in an attempt to build his own identity. Exactly what endowment did Dustin receive from his father that enabled him to succeed as a wrestler? It sure wasn’t big Dust’s chiseled physique. (If Dusty were my dad, I would thank God every day that I ended up with this body and no more.) It was probably a love for the wrestling life and an unconscious imitation of the big guy’s fiery goofiness. The two eventually reconciled, but the pressure of living your life knowing that there is one path you are “supposed” to trod, and that any other fork is abominable, could surely be too much.

On this Election Day (and the first official week of my Yahoo basketball league) I can only wish: Let fathers and sons across the land agree to be civil, even if they vote differently or their fantasy teams are pitted head-to-head!

UPDATE: After I wrote this, I wrote two more follow-up posts later in November about parent-child NBA combos, here and here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Always Be Closing

With the Iverson trade, Joe Dumars proved again today why he is the best general manager in the league. In the last 8 years, he has completed the following deals, each of which was seen as a risk at the time. By risky I mean that the possible volatility of outcomes was wide; the deal could have been a strikeout, or a home run. What’s more, in several of these cases, observers saw only the negative possibility, and not the positive. Other than the Darko selection (and perhaps letting Okur migrate to Utah), each of these decisions was ultimately vindicated. Only time will tell whether the last two on this list were wise decisions.

· Trading an injured Grant Hill for Ben Wallace (who?)
· Hiring Rick Carlisle (who?)
· Signing journeyman Chauncey Billups
· Trading Jerry Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton
· Drafting Tayshaun Prince over NCAA champions Lonny Baxter and Carlos Boozer
· Drafting Darko Milicic (who?) over Wade, Bosh, Anthony, Hinrich, Ford
· Dumping Carlisle for Larry Brown after two 50-win seasons
· Trading for the fiery Rasheed Wallace
· Letting Mehmet Okur walk away for nothing
· Signing washed-up Antonio McDyess
· Dumping Larry Brown for Flip Saunders after two NBA Finals trips
· Drafting Amir Johnson from high school
· Trading Darko before he established his potential
· Letting Ben Wallace walk for nothing
· Drafting Rodney Stuckey over, among others, the All-American Alando Tucker and the top college shot blocker Sean Williams
· Re-signing Billups at $12 MM / year
· Dumping Flip Saunders for Michael Curry after three conference finals
· Trading Billups for Allen Iverson

A basic principle of finance is that consistently higher risk is required for consistently higher returns. Yet Dumars always seems to win these bets, save for the Darko selection. Were they truly risky? Perhaps with the benefit of ex post analysis we can see that contemporaneous observers were wrong about the possible outcomes of these deals. Perhaps Dumars has better information than the market: he clearly knew something about Hill’s ankle injury (and something about Ben Wallace's ability) that Orlando didn’t, and he saw potential in players like Billups and McDyess that no one else perceived. Or alternatively/additionally, perhaps Dumars always has a really good hedging strategy on his bets. Carlisle was seen as a tightass, but luckily Dumars was able to reach out to a Hall of Fame coach to replace him immediately when the players began to chafe. The first Billups signing in 2002 was surprising, but the contract sum was relatively low, and trading a former #3 selected point guard is not difficult. Darko was a risk, but teams always salivate over big men with untapped potential, so Dumars knew that he could easy dump Milicic on another team (the Magic again! … hmmm) if he didn’t quickly blossom. Rasheed Wallace was prone to explosions, but at the time of the February 2004 trade, his contract was soon to expire; at the least, Dumars could leverage him into a quick run to the Finals in a weak East. Amir Johnson was an unknown figure, but he was chosen late in the second round when there were no other obvious gems on the board, and Detroit’s deep frontcourt of the Wallaces and McDyess meant that Johnson could develop slowly. Sure, he might go bust, but then Dumars would not lose a lot of investment principal.

If Dumars wants to switch to a second career with Goldman Sachs, I am sure there is a seat waiting for him. Remember that only Goldman survived the subprime mortgage crisis unscathed... and they did it by some smart hedging.