Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lago de Cloro

Last season we ran a series of posts on father-son pairs in the NBA, and a threaded swatch in all those yarns was fathers (Karl Malone, Jimmy Walker) who never acknowledged their later-ball-playing children. Steve Aschburner at NBA.com recently penned a fascinating piece about Wes Matthews Jr., a former college star for Marquette who has earned significant time with the Utah Jazz in this, his rookie season. Interestingly, Matthews Sr. never bothered to involve himself in the young boy's life, and Junior's mother, a former college star in track and basketball, imbued her athletic sagacity to her son. One can only speculate how Matthews might have developed with the added influence of his NBA championship-winning father.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Old Familiar Sting

There are certain NBA teams that are currently not very good, and don't show much possibility of becoming good anytime soon. Specifically, their core has an average age over 25, without much room for significant improvement. They don't have significant trade assets that are not integral to the team, and they probably will not receive a very high draft pick in the next couple years.

Specifically, I am thinking of:
Indiana (9-20)
Charlotte (12-17)
Toronto (15-17)
New Orleans (13-15)
Philadelphia (7-22)
Washington (10-19)

What should these teams do? If their owners wish to someday put a championship-contending team on the floor, then they need a new strategy. Trading the team's second-best or best player (see Miami in 2008, Minnesota in 2007, Portland in 2004, or Atlanta in 2001) is probably the smart course of action. Hence, most of Bill Simmons's rather creative trade proposals in his recent column dated December 23rd involved, say, Toronto trading Chris Bosh, Washington trading Antawn Jamison, Philly trading Andre Iguodala, New Orleans trading David West, Charlotte trading Gerald Wallace, and the like. This would probably be devastating to fans of those teams, but they don't have much hope for glory right now, and it's time to invest in the future.

Of course, "rebuilding" is a risky strategy. You could score big in the draft and pick Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in consecutive years, say. On the other hand, you might pick up Emeka Okafor and Sean May as your lottery haul, and then you will be consigned to mediocrity for awhile. So much of a franchise's value hinges on ticket and merchandise sales, which in turn is driven by star power. There is a good case that scouting budgets should follow a cycle: high in mediocre years just before rebuilding begins and correct draft picks are crucial; low once the franchise has assembled a young core and you want to let that melange stew and simmer; and moderate during championship-contending years (where the addition of role players like James Posey and PJ Brown to Boston can help reel in a title).

What's more, the objective function of owners probably varies. Although on-court success probably drives team revenue, the correlation is not perfect. Some owners, like Mark Cuban, want to win, profits be damned. (It helps if you are highly liquid thanks to a sweet business deal you made in 1999.) Other owners, like Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago, are able to bring home big profits every year while purveying consistent mediocrity, the Jordan era notwithstanding. In the older, pre-television days of the NBA, team owners were entrepeneurial promoters who just wanted to make a dollar of profit off of their teams (a milieu discussed by David Halberstam in Breaks of the Game, but today there are some owners who delight in owning a team just to be a player in popular sports culture -- to own a locus of identity for millions of people. But most owners, such as Jerry Buss, still want to wring profit from their team.

There is something of a principal-agent problem here (albeit one with multiple principals): Every fan on the planet thinks the team should maximize wins, but to their frequent frustration, the owner, likely a shrewd businessman all his life, thinks about P&L first, second, and last. Why did Phoenix owner Robert Sarver insist on selling draft picks (which could have become Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo, Marcin Gortat, Rudy Fernandez, etc.) during the team's recent peak? If we dispense with normal corporate law and consider fans the true stakeholders, then the owner is in some sense the "agent" tasked with delivering happiness to the team's fan base, but he is self-dealing by considering his personal financial needs first. The Toronto Raptors, for example, are quite profitable despite never putting a championship-level team on the floor in their 15 years of existence. (On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers, who are actually owned by their fans, have not necessarily out-performed the rest of the league since Bart Starr left the team. The Pack only managed one Super Bowl in 16 years with Brett Favre; top QBs like Montana, Aikman, Brady, Elway, and even Roethlisberger have each brought home several more.)

The Raptors are a special case, actually, as they are owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. Should we begrudge elderly Canadian classroom veterans their right to a happy retirement and a steady return on assets? Refusing to satisfy Vince Carter or Chris Bosh with top-quality talent may be self-dealing, but it is the warmest and fuzziest case of self-dealing I've ever known.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Feels So Good To Reunite

Yesterday, while passing through southern Ontario for the Christmas holidays, I had the privilege of attending a matchup of the local Raptors against my favorite team, the now-shaggy Detroit Pistons. The Pistons, integrating three recently injured stalwarts (Gordon, Hamilton, Prince), quickly fell behind by 19 points at halftime, further confirming my belief that they are just crap this year. I rooted hard for them, though, bellowing out the virtues of DEEETROIT BAAASKETBAALL! to the chagrin of local Hogtowners.

But I aim not to illustrate the problems of los Pistones. While in the Air Canada Center (Centre?) I used my favorite Christmas gift, a neat new digital camera, to take several videos of the Raptors operating on offense and defense. What I found will further underscore a point I made in early December, viz. that Toronto should fire coach Jay Triano. Also, their roster as currently conceived has no hope of ever winning a title. Their "big men", Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani, are two of the worst-defending top 5 draft picks in NBA history.

1. Bargnani

Consider first Bargnani, Toronto's sweet-shooting center. Here, he twice muffs his defensive assignment: he fails to adequately threaten Jonas Jerebko camping in the corner for a 3-pointer, and then three seconds later he fumbles the resulting rebound, allowing Jerebko to sneak in for a layup. That's really embarrassing for a fourth-year man who says he wants to make the All-Star team.



Yet Bargnani is actually capable of defensive excellence. Here, watch him correctly move his feet, keep his hands up, and watch the waist-level movement of Rip Hamilton as the latter attempts to drive to the hoop. Hamilton still received a foul call and two FTs, though. Bargnani, recognizing that he was disadvantaged on the mismatch, would have been wiser to bump Hamilton away from the hoop, before Rip put up a shot.



And for fantasy owners, Il Mago puts up about 1.2 blocks per game, often of a demoralizing variety. Here, he rejects an attempted drive by Hamilton:



With his unusual combination of size and litheness, Bargnani certainly has his moments at the offensive end. Here, watch him extract revenge on Jerebko with a sweet post-up routine in the paint:




2. Bosh

Bosh's problems may be even worse. Here, watch him guard from the rear Jason Maxiell's post-up attempt. Maxiell shrugs, tells himself "F it", and flips the ball to a slashing Hamilton, who drives uncontested to the basket, blowing past Bosh, who appears to watch haplessly. Where was the help? Bosh also somehow picked up a foul for his (lack of) troubles, giving Hamilton an "and one" opportunity. If you're going to foul, make it count.



In this video below, Detroit's Tayshaun Prince dribbles the ball at the wing, defended by Hedo Turkoglu. Ben Gordon smartly slides in to screen Turkoglu, and Gordon's erstwhile man, Jarrett Jack, picks up defense on Prince. The switch hits paydirt for Detroit as Prince easily backs Jack into the painted area and sinks a short flip shot. Notice Bosh observing these proceedings, but electing not to double-team Prince, despite Prince's SIX-INCH height advantage on Jack. Bosh seems to be doing nothing at all -- neither committing to defending his putative man, Jerebko, nor providing help defense for Prince.



3. Euro-Softness


The Raptors have been pilloried for packing their roster with too many European players — Bargnani, Turkoglu, Calderon, Nesterovic, Bellinelli — who lack the savvy and toughness to bang with NBA stars. Here is one example. Marco Bellinelli attempts to guard the quick-moving Rip Hamilton, who grabs Bellinelli while dodging around for daylight. The referees call a foul on Bellinelli, who surely grabbed back — but was he the principal wrongdoer? NBA success requires learning how to win these battles of PR with referees.



Conclusion


Now, I am not a professional athlete. I recognize that the instantaneous sensory processing and finely controlled motion required to succeed in the NBA is ridiculously difficult. However, if Bosh and Bargs ever want to be thought of as legitimate stars who can help elevate their teams to greatness, they need to spend whole summers doing nothing but rotating on driving wings and roaming shooters.

Anyway, lest you think I am nothing but a doomsayer, here are two cheerier videos we took at yesterday's game. Here in the first quarter, Sonny Weems steals a pass from Charlie Villanueva, races the length of the court, and jams the ball home, bringing the crowd to a frenzy. Finally, here Chris Bosh hits a free throw to vault his team past 100 points, triggering a free-pizza deal for every attending fan.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Strings of Street Lights

The most interesting question in the NBA right now is, which team shall win the East?

Crazy stuff can and probably will happen between now and Memorial Day. Last year Jameer Nelson and Kevin Garnett suffered major injuries, while Cleveland had no clue how to solve Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis. This year, the same squads look champ-ish, and (barring a major trade involving Chicago or Miami, say) those teams are the only three that could represent the East in the Finals.

All three teams have upgraded their rosters since last spring. Cleveland added Shaquille O'Neal, Jamario Moon, and Anthony Parker. Boston added Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, and Shelden Williams, while Orlando added Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, Ryan Anderson, and Jason Williams. The Cavs can now defend bigs and dynamic slashers; Boston enhanced everything they were already good at; and Orlando massively upgraded its roster. (Consider that the Magic lost only Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu from their 2008-09 core.)

Yesterday, Christmas Day, the Celtics proved for one night that they could wrest a win away from Orlando's sun-lapsed fans. Meanwhile, Cleveland impressively marched into Los Angeles and defied the demands of Anna Kournikova and Snoop Dogg, thumping L.A. by a firm 15. Of course, the Lakers and Magic will be better. Cleveland and Boston might not be so good, if their aging studs Shaq and Kev cannot remain hale.

All told, I think Orlando, with its amazingly deep roster (and the flexibility to sign a couple more names to the fourteenth and fifteenth spots) will be the best Eastern team in May.

Friday, December 18, 2009

La Vérité

Don't have much to say today, but I liked Paul Pierce's thoughts about the state of the NBA and the United States government, at the Boston Globe website. (As previously noted, I disagree with him about the NBA's age limit, but I agree on basically all his other points, including his insatiable need for chocolate.)


Merry (early) Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Would You Rather Be A Fish

While discussing something non-ball-related, my significant other recently called me a "curmudgeon" (a badge I wear proudly) with a tender yet harrumping hint of derision. Still breathing this chilled air, I will now release a weighty load that has cramped my ventricles for months, concerning one Dwight Howard.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“That’s so gay.”

“I got gypped.”

“He’s a strapping young buck."

I saw a billboard in Chicago recently advertising a publicly minded website called “thinkb4youspeak.com”. The spirit behind that effort (though it explicitly targeted only the first of my three examples) is quite right; the educated response to any of these above-cited idioms is to educate the speaker about its odious origin. It may be that teenagers reflexively dismissing a cacophonous pop song or a taxing history assignment as “gay” are truly and sincerely not associating the lame thing with homosexuals; they just think it’s dumb. Still, all told it would be better to expunge an offensive word from the language rather than allowing it to live on in repurposed form.

I raise all this because the NBA’s marketing machine has, of late, put all its oomph behind a hideous metaphor that deserves to disappear. Consider Dwight Howard’s self-professed ‘Superman’ persona, which he initiated at the 2008 All-Star Slam Dunk Contest and continued to tend at the same event in 2009. Howard and his sponsors happily agree when any NBA commentator speaks of him as Superman or uses related imagery in a bid at rhetorical adornment.

Howard has said that he thought to develop the Superman gimmick while listening to a hip-hop song by a young MC named Soulja Boy. The lyric “Superman that ho!” in Soulja Boy’s popular rap song “Crank Dat” refers to, well, an act that you can investigate for yourself via Urbandictionary or some other apt source. I can’t say whether Soulja Boy or any of his associates ever accomplished this tricky feat, or whether it remains inchoate, limned only by theory. The mere thought is disgusting, crude, vile, and misogynistic.

That’s the admitted inspiration for Dwight Howard’s Superman persona. Really! And if you still don't believe me, well, here's some video of Mr. Howard practicing Soulja's virally popular dance moves that accompany the song:



To be sure, many young people like to deploy charged symbols with little regard for the etymology or implications. Consider teens who wear Catholic rosaries as a fashion statement, or tattoo an Iron Cross on their bicep, or draw an “anarchy” symbol in white chalk on their backpack, or wear a Che Guevara shirt because, well, he’s so rebellious. Soulja himself was only 17 when his “Crank Dat” climbed the charts.

Unlike my examples above of “gay”, “gypped”, and “young buck”, there are other idioms of questionable provenance that nearly everyone in polite society uses. Consider “That sucks.” or “You really got the shaft there.” I can’t imagine that, in an ultimate analysis, these phrases mean anything other than “That’s just as weak and shameful as performing oral sex on a man”, or “Your wrongful suffering was just as bad as being anally penetrated.” Right? Am I missing something? What is the tacit message we send about those individuals (men and women) who regularly engage in such behaviors?  (To be clear, I am not endorsing the message.)  Yet folks say this all the time, and sometimes with a grin on their face.  It is not hard to wield words as a tool of oppression.  Respectable adults routinely refer to a white tank-top as a “wife-beater”, which I think is both anti-women and anti-men at the same time. (The casualness of the utterance is incredibly misogynistic, while the presumption that any dude who dresses like that must be an abuser is fairly bigoted, and possibly classist as well.) Perhaps I am fighting a lonely battle if I wish to chase these noxious palabras out of contemporary speech. I try to avoid all of the above terms, even though I sometimes exclaim under my breath that some calamity really SUCKED!

A college photo of Bulls star Derrick Rose surfaced earlier this year, showing him and a buddy wielding dueling gang signs with their fingers – Rose with the Gangster Disciples and his mate with the Vice Lords. This was surely a joke (if those two guys were in fact affiliated with those two gangs, they would not be hanging at a party together), and Rose probably meant little more than did the oodles of scores of scores of suburban kids who have posed in the same way. This may not be any different from the teenager with an anarchy symbol, though perhaps Rose’s erstwhile proximity to gang activity as a child in Chicago means that his gang sign at the Memphis party represents a cheerfully ironic distance. The suburban teenager is positing no ironic distance, because s/he was never close to anarchists in the first place. I would put Dwight Howard in the second category. He may genuinely be too innocent, or perhaps he may not be perspicuous enough, to know what Soulja Boy’s song is about.  Perhaps he could argue that he means the Superman persona innocently.  On the other hand, given the original association that he authored, it's hard not to "read" him as representing the Soulja song.

Moreover, Howard is no kid. A few months ago, I participated in an internet discussion (OK, it was the juggernautic “Facebook”) in which several individuals averred with all sincerity and conviction that Dwight Howard is still a virgin, owing to his successful self-promotion as a man of faith. I helped them out by pointing them to this photo below, of Dwight Howard’s cute young son Braylon and his mother Royce Reed, a former Magic cheerleader who gave birth to the kid in early 2008. And surely, like fellow Orlandoan Eldrick T. Woods, Howard has skinny-dipped more than once.


I was a bit surprised when I read this April 2009 article in Sports Illustrated suggesting that the nursery room in Howard’s home, intended for young Braylon, is "seldom used". Mr. Howard rarely sees his child? But really, this is nothing but expected: a 23-year-old ballplayer with daily obligations for practice, workouts, filming clever commercials, and applying for his Chinese visa has little time to spend with an infant. He probably wouldn’t be very good at it even if he spent all day with the kid. This is a man who thinks, per the above SI piece, that entire closets full of candy are a good use of his square footage. Really!

In short, the NBA’s support of Howard’s Superman antics is embarrassing. Has no one the temerity to take him aside and tell him, sorry Dwight, but this is unacceptable? Every player and every team surely has access to a PR flack who can suggest what is, or is not, a good idea for public figures. Why do so many who are under strict scrutiny feel that everything’s okay as long as they’re making money and nobody complains?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sweater Already, Mom's Spaghetti (2 of 3)

In Post 1 of this series (timed to coincide with Mark Cuban's rather painful appearance on Monday Night Raw), I reviewed the plagiarized origins of DeShawn Stevenson's "I Can't Feel My Face" gesture — namely, from WWE star John Cena. The Ickey Shuffle it ain't. This was part of a larger project to show the ineluctable connections between pro basketball and pro wrestling. My co-blogger H.O.S.S. was skeptical that this was anything more than obscure anecdotes. Thus, herein I will provide further examples.

I think the affinity of ballers for wrestling (and vice-versa) arises because, for one thing, the participants are selected for their physically freakish qualities. Many top wrestlers are former college basketball players: Kevin "Diesel" Nash at University of Tennessee, Paul "Big Show" Wight at Wichita State, Mark "Undertaker" Callaway at Angelina College, Glen "Kane" Jacobs at Union College. Let us not forget about the curious case of Jorge Gonzalez, a 7'6" center on Argentina's 1988 Olympic basketball team. The Atlanta Hawks drafted and signed Gonzalez, but when he couldn't crack the squad (hard to believe, when their centers in 1989 were Jon Koncak and 34-year-old Moses Malone), Hawks owner Ted Turner, not wanting to waste a corporate asset, offered Gonzalez a job in another of his Atlanta-based businesses, World Championship Wrestling. Gonzalez made his pro graps debut in 1990 as "El Gigante", a fan favorite allied with other heroes including Sting and Lex Luger. Gonzalez eventually made his way to Vince McMahon's Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation (now called WWE after they lost a 2002 UK lawsuit over naming rights to the World Wildlife Fund), where Gonzalez faced the aforementioned Undertaker at Wrestlemania IX in 1993. Undertaker/Callaway is about 6'10"; behold the height of Gonzalez! And oh yeah, he's wearing a painted costume; that's not his real muscles.



Wrestling's knack for showmanship can also be useful in a hoops setting. At New Orleans Hornets home games, a ghostly, exuberant wail – “Wooo!” can be heard over the P.A. speakers when the Hornets, particularly Chris Paul, make a morale-busting basket. At the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the same Wooo rings out when LeBron James makes a free throw. Whence this Wooo? A savvy wrestling fan would recognize this as the signature exclamation of Ric Flair, a longtime wrestling star who finally retired in 2008 at the age of 59. The Hornets’ Wooo! tradition began back when they played in Charlotte, Flair’s adopted hometown, and they took it with them to the Bayou. (Flair is such an icon in North Carolina that he has seriously considered running for governor.) Flair actually did the pregame introductions for a Hornets game (in New Orleans) in the spring of ’08 (start at 1:00 of the video), Apparently someone with the franchise is a REALLY big wrestling fan, as the sound system in the New Orleans Arena also plays the Undertaker’s funeral dirge at the end of Hornets wins. (I wonder whether the Hornets pay a licensing fee to WWE for the use of these sound effects, as it is surely not fair use.)

The sound effects for LeBron James's free throws are not accidental. James, who came of age in the late 1990s during pro wrestling's biggest boom period ever, may be the biggest wrestling fan in the league. Rumors swirled wildly in Hollywood trade journals earlier this year that LeBron, like his teammate Shaq, would sign up to host Raw. Why do you think James named his crew of high school buddies the "Four Horsemen"? Is it likely that LBJ is a fan of eschatology and has been spending his Sunday mornings at church with the Revelation of St. John? Could it be that James reveres the legacy of 1920s Notre Dame football? This second option, at first glance implausible, actually is a touch more likely, as James's high school team, like Notre Dame, is nicknamed the "Fighting Irish". However, the reference is fairly obscure. It is more likely that James et al. were aware of the wrestling alliance known as the Four Horsemen, involving the aforementioned Flair, Arn Anderson, and a rotating crew of other henchmen, which ruled the NWA and WCW in the 1980s and '90s. (Wikipedia lists other uses of the term Four Horsemen, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices and NASA scientists, but I would bet my butt that James took the name from wrestling.)

Ex-Atlantic Coast Conference centers are also notorious wrestling mavens. Rasheed Wallace famously paid for wrestling-style championship belts for his teammates after the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title. Tim Duncan also attended a WWE event in 2006 and was photographed with Flair and Shawn Michaels. "I watch it all the time," he said.

Shaq’s July 2009 Raw appearance that I mentioned in the earlier post this week was hardly his first foray into the squared circle. O’Neal appeared in Hulk Hogan’s corner for a WCW match vs. Flair in 1994. In 2006, Shaq agreed to stage a “confrontation” with a steel chair against a wrestler named Carlito (video here), and he was photographed visiting the whole WWE wrestler roster at an event in 2008. Though I can’t find a link, Shaq has also been quoted saying that he is pals with Undertaker/Callaway and they share conditioning tips for keeping old bodies in top form.

Back in 1998, Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman made headlines when, one month after Rodman’s Bulls denied Malone his last earnest chance at a title in the NBA Finals, the two power forwards donned wrestling tights, teaming up with Diamond Dallas Page and Hogan, respectively, at WCW’s Bash at the Beach event. A few days prior to the pay-per-view tag match, Malone proved his wrestling merit by delivering a Diamond Cutter (fast-forward to 2:35 of the video in the immediate prior link and watch for 20 seconds) to Hogan’s crooked crony Curt Hennig. Also, the video below shows the tag match with Rodman:



Dwight Howard admitted in this blog post to being a huge wrestling fan — no surprise given his child-like jocular personality.

So let's see. Between O'Neal, James, Duncan, Wallace, Malone, Rodman, and Howard, that's 6 MVP trophies, 3 DPOY awards, and 14 NBA championships, all agreeing that rasslin' is where it's at!

But enough regurgitation of trivia. In the final post of this series, I will attempt to explain what, exactly, consistently draws my two favorite athletic genres together.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Honey I'm Still Free

Here at JPO we always enjoy an opportunity to refer back to the originally sinful event where, well, Jordan pushed off. ESPN's Henry Abbott wrote a post today expressing his dismay that Michael Jordan, surprise!, did not appear in Provo, Utah last night to compete with Bryon Russell at an advertised 1-on-1 game. Anyone with common sense could see that Jordan never had any incentive to participate in this purported event. What really galls me, though, is that ESPN aided and abetted the promotion of this hoax via (1) having Bryon Russell appear on an official ESPN.com chat on December 7th to plug the alleged 1-on-1 game and (2) a bubbly post from Abbott himself on December 3rd outlining the proposed contest, suggesting (against all common sense) that there was a non-zero probability that Jordan might appear.

One could argue that the NBA likes the publicity for its Development League teams, and Disney/ESPN, as a broadcast partner of the league, has an interest in promoting the (erstwhile-named) NBDL. But the odd thing is that Jordan is a part-owner of the Bobcats, and thus David Stern and the other NBA central officers work for him. There is a clear principal-agent conflict here (or more accurately, perhaps we could just say that the problem is one of too many principals): Jordan himself probably did not enjoy this whole episode, as it redounds to augment a Grinchy image for MJ that began with September's HOF speech.

Mickey Mouse is rolling over in his grave.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sweater Already, Mom's Spaghetti (1 of 3)

The league shuddered a couple Wednesdays ago when Cleveland dropped a frame to the Washington Wizards, who haven't been good since the early days of "The Surge". Strangely, LeBron James seemed to expend more effort yapping with Wizards backup swingman Deshawn Stevenson, than trying to help his team grab a win.

One may recall that Cleveland's rivalry with the Wizards dates to three first-round playoff series, all won by the Cavs, in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The '08 battle culminated with a caustic colloquy between James and Stevenson in which the latter called James "overrated" and allied himself with upstart rapper Soulja Boy, as against James and his friend Jay-Z. Mr. Carter actually recorded a "dis track" directed at Stevenson and the Wizards. Stevenson also unleashed a dubious gesture that he called "I Can't Feel My Face" to highlight his "unconscious" shooting performance and mock James. (The best video clip of his gesture comes at 0:30.)



Unfortunately, Stevenson did not innovate this motion. It began with World Wrestling Entertainment grappler John Cena, who has used the move to bedazzle fallen opponents since about 2003. Cena calls it the "You Can't See Me" spot. Cena even released a rap album in 2005 called You Can't See Me. To be crisp, Stevenson borrowed (nay, stole) the move from Cena.



Stevenson's mimicry of Cena highlights a long history of cooperation and mutual fascination between basketball players and pro wrestlers. Shaquille O'Neal, a serious fan of graps, hosted Monday Night Raw in July of this year and scuffled slightly with the Big Show, a former Wichita State varsity basketball guy. Tonight, December 7th, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will host Monday Night Raw, live from his team's usual arena in Dallas. Unsurprisingly, the WWE has tried to make a storyline out of things, ginning up a feud between Cuban and wrestler Cody Rhodes (the son of Dusty, whom I mentioned briefly last year in this post) in advance of the show. Cuban's last WWE appearance came in 2003, when Randy Orton (now Cody Rhodes's pal in the storyline) delivered a devastating "RKO" to the dot.com impresario.

Later this week I will outline further wrestler-hooper connections and consider what this means for the sport of B-ball as we know it.
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UPDATE DECEMBER 8TH: After I wrote that post on Monday night, Cuban did appear on Monday Night Raw, eventually getting physically destroyed as part of a gimmick to build up WWE's villain du jour, a muscular Irishman named "Sheamus". Kudos for Cuban for his willingness to take a hard slam through a pre-perforated table. This Yahoo article sums things up well, including a Youtube of the pertinent moment.

Artest and Thug's Passion

Some may prefer one-part alizee, one-part crystal, but the drink of choice for Ron Artest is apparently Hennessey.




I was surprised that not a whimper went by on the blog this week about Ron Artest's latest admission -- is it because we stopped caring or we don't believe him?

Artest has perhaps suggested a better question for blog readers: what is your favorite cognac?

Friday, December 4, 2009

I love this game!

Professional basketball is a business. But at the end of the day, basketball remains a game and a passion for those who play it. Anyone who needs a reminder should check out Allen Iverson's press conference yesterday announcing his return to the Philadelphia 76ers:

The Lysine Contingency

Based on this article from yesterday's Toronto Star, I'd say it's time for the Toronto Raptors to fire head coach Jay Triano. Their record now stands at 7-13 with a quarter of the season done. At that rate, they will finish 28-54, well out of the playoffs. They currently stand 29th in the league in opposing teams' PPG (trailing only Golden State, which plays a frenetic pace and barely bothers on defense), and 27th in opposing teams' FG%. The players think the coach is doing a horrid job. If this continues through April, they would then lose star Chris Bosh, leaving them with a team "featuring" Calderon, Bargnani, Turkoglu, Nesterovic, and Bellinelli. Hogtown deserves better.

The team, named after a Spielbergian movie villain from 1993, now feels more like a James Cameron film that premiered four years later. (Cameron is from Ontario, incidentally.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Do It Nice And Easy Now

Last night I had the chance to attend the first Bulls-Pistons meeting of the season. The United Center was rather full for this one (perhaps twenty-year-old rivalries still linger).

The Pistons were down 24-10 after one quarter and 48-38 at halftime. Detroit committed an unbelievable number of sloppy turnovers, and despite my childhood affilations, I found my visceral impulses occasionally switching to cheering on Bulls successes. It's embarrassing to root for a team that can barely manage double-digit quarters!

Just 18 months ago, Detroit was a couple wins away from the NBA Finals. The starting lineup, once featuring Billups/Hamilton/McDyess/R.Wallace/Prince, now features Atkins/Stuckey/B.Wallace/Jerebko/Maxiell. Other than the 1999 Bulls or the 2005 Lakers, it's hard to remember a team falling so far, so fast.


My seatmate wondered if Detroit had any chance, but I cautioned her that anything can happen in the NBA. (Ominously for the Bulls, during halftime in the United Center, television screens showed, in live time that same night, the University of Illinois men's basketball team completing a 20-point comeback against Clemson.) Sure enough, after we obtained salty pretzels, we returned to our seat in mid-quarter and Detroit had cut the deficit to five. Chicago then extended the lead to 15 by the end of the third, though.

In the fourth quarter, as she wondered aloud about whether we should leave the arena early, Detroit cut the deficit again to five points with 16 seconds left, and I officiously cited to her the scary salience of precedents like Tracy McGrady's 13 points in 35 seconds, or Reggie Miller's eight points in 9 seconds. Well, in the event, Brad Miller hit a couple free throws for Chicago and the game ended. It's never fun when low-probability events, as expected, don't materialize.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Surprisingly Good For You

Who is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference? Recent PG all-stars in the East have either (i) been traded to the West (Billups, Kidd), (ii) fallen into semi-retirement because no team wants him (Iverson), or (iii) suffered multiple long-term injuries (Nelson, Arenas). So with those guys out of the picture (though Arenas is back now) several young points have emerged to look bright and fresh.


Gilbert Arenas: The most senior of this bunch, Arenas was felled by a knee injury that cost him almost all of 2007-08 and 2008-09. Now spry once more, Arenas is, as usual, shooting a horrible percentage from the field while leading his team to mediocrity. Few pundits would laud his handle or his court vision, so what exactly does he bring to the PG gunfight?

Jose Calderon: Calderon is perhaps best known for his streak of 87 straight FTs made from February 2008 until January 2009, the second-longest such feat in league history. He is an adequate passer and scorer, but he shepherds a team playing historically awful defense, not at all resembling a squad on which Chris Bosh would want to remain from autumn 2010 going forward. Hard to conceive of why he should get our nod.

Devin Harris: It was once thought that Harris would be known as the guy whom Dallas traded for Jason Kidd, but in 2008-09 he carved a niche as the speediest young'un' in the Tri-State Area. Sadly, thus far in 2009-10 he has led (?) his team to 17 losses and nary a win. A real leader would not allow that. Now in his sixth year, Harris is out of excuses.

Brandon Jennings: As the tenth pick in the 2009 draft, Jennings seemed an oddity, perhaps destined to be remembered more for his awkwardly timed stage entrance that June night than for his eventual court doings. Later in the summer, Jennings got into trouble for an illicit video that leaked to Youtube, involving BJ complaining about his coach and teammates. Jennings has been awesome in the regular season, however, averaging 22.3, 5.5, and 4.1 while leading his team to eight wins in fifteen games despite multiple injuries, as I noted in this earlier post.

Derrick Rose: Rose blasted brains last April in a seven-game playoff series with Boston. This season he has not looked quite so yowzers, slowed by an ankle injury. Putting aside his SAT-related controversy, there is no doubt that Rose can be crafty and calculating. (In fact, perhaps the admission test imbroglio reveals him as more so.) Rose will probably make all-NBA teams starting next season, but right now he appears a mite tentative on the hardwood.

Rajon Rondo: In that same Cs-Bulls series, Rondo seemed redolent of Magic's facility at scoring, passing, and rebounding. And unlike Mr. Earvin Johnson Jr. he can play some ball-hawking defense, too. Through trade rumors and contract disputes, Rondo is a darn good 1 at only 23 years of age. He is also the only guy on this list with a NBA title ring (and the second, after Harris, with a conference championship).

Maurice "Mo" Williams: I believe Williams looks good only by association with his teammate LeBron James. He was named as an injury replacement in last February's All-Star game, but had never really lit up much incandescence in his previous five seasons from 2003-2008 with Utah and Milwaukee. He is not even the primary ball-handler for his team; that duty falls to Mr. James. On the other hand, Williams did hit seven of seven 3-point attempts in Saturday night's victory over Dallas.
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Dear readers, I know that only one month has passed in this astounding season, but which PG do you consider worthy of the Eastern Conference All-Star starting nod in Cowboys Stadium? None of these guys are superstars, but I think I would select Rose. In reality, Arenas, who boasts the most name recognition and has already been featured in his own ad campaign with adidas, will probably receive the most votes from fans.

Meanwhile, the Western Conference, boasting Paul, Williams, Parker, Ellis, Billups, Kidd, Westbrook, Nash, and Baron Davis, is full of All-Star caliber 1s. Combined with Ginobili, Roy, Gordon, Bryant, Richardson, Evans, and Kevin Martin (though the latter is injured again) at the "2", it is hard to see how to make enough room for the worthy guards en L'Ouest.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friends To Know, Ways To Grow

My Thanksgiving posts are rather hasty, as I am currently family-ing it up.

Here is my question. Which of the following stars (or near-stars, or former stars) will get traded first? And to whom?

Elton Brand, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, Kevin Martin, Stephen Jackson, Troy Murphy, Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Monta Ellis, Tyrus Thomas.

Off the top of my head: Houston could use Rip Ham or K-Mart. Phoenix could use Murphy, Ty Thomas, or McGrady. Chicago and Atlanta could use Brand or Boozer. Utah or Boston could use Prince. Cleveland, as widely noted, covets S-Jax. Denver wouldn't mind Murphy. The Cavs could also use Martin, though they probably cannot afford his price. Atlanta could use Prince or Thomas or McGrady.

The greatest prizes, potentially, are Arenas and Bosh. (Let's not forget, too, that McGrady is a two-time NBA scoring champion and former MVP vote recipient.) The Wizards and Raptors, respectively, are unlikely to trade those guys unless things are going horribly in February. There are many teams that could use Arenas and Bosh. Don't count out the Oklahoma City Thunder, which have stockpiled a ton of tradable assets.

As a side note, why do trades happen (or what makes a team inclined to trade a star player) in the first place? Several factors may underlie such transitions, including (i) overestimation of the player's ability at the time the team signed him to a contract or attempted to build around him (Baron Davis 2005); (ii) overestimation of the teammates brought in alongside that putative star (Mutombo 2001); (iii) surprising progress in basketball performance by other teams, making your own team suddenly a dinosaur; (Billups 2008); (iv) a personal dispute between the star player and other players/personnel of your team (Shaq O'Neal 2004, Jason Kidd 2001); (v) external economic factors making your team not profitable even as a winner (Ray Allen 2007, Pau Gasol 2008); (vi) stochastic disasters like a season-ending or career-altering injury to the star or a complementary teammate (Chris Webber 2005); or (vii) a simple failure by the supposed star to grab wins (Garnett '07). Many of the above factors apply in the case of Bosh and Arenas.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Might As Well Throw 'Em Out

It's kind of funny to read what John Hollinger, then working for SI.com, wrote about free agents Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer on July 2, 2004.

On Nash:
No. 1 [on Hollinger's list of overrated free agents] with a bullet after reaching a deal with the Suns that even had Allan Houston giggling. He's a 30-year-old point guard who breaks down every spring and plays no defense, and Phoenix gave him a six-year deal for nearly the max? I can't imagine the Suns will be happy to fork out $15 million five years from now when Nash is 35 and backing up Leandro Barbosa.

On Boozer:
Boozer surprisingly became a restricted free agent on Thursday when the Cavaliers didn't pick up his option to play next season at the minimum. It was a clever move by the Cavs, who can now match any long-term offers he receives instead of watching Boozer take off as an unrestricted free agent next summer. It's all but a done deal that Boozer is re-signing with Cleveland, but I have to list him just in case, since he's the best free agent out there after Kobe.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Waiting For A Sleepy Feeling

Today comes news that Allen Iverson will choose to retire from the NBA rather than entertain offers to be a savvy vet on some team's bench.

Iverson, at 160 lbs. and just a hair under 6 feet, is almost exactly my size. (He is probably slightly better built than me, despite my attempts at developing some musculature in the gym.) The man won 4 scoring championships playing among giants. That's absolutely unbelievable. I probably could not get a single shot off if I scrimmaged for a week with NBA players.

Let us give thanks that we have been blessed to watch this guy in the Association for 13+ years.

So It Makes You Wise To Break The Rules

This article by Sports Illustrated writer Mark Montieth, formerly an Indiana Pacers beat writer, is an excellent exposition of what transpired that autumnal night in 2004 when Ron Artest ran into the Palace of Auburn Hills stands to punch a fan. I remember well what I was doing that evening: I was lounging at another's house with several friends of EarlDaGoat while we watched something esoteric on television. Only when I returned to my apartment did I learn about this wild dance of fury in my hometown. Can you imagine any wackier bit of news that one could discover upon surfing to your favorite NBA website?

Here are a couple thoughts in connection with the brawl:

1) Montieth correctly notes that the young Pacers made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004 (after completely de-constructing and re-building the 2000 NBA Finals team) and were title candidates for 2005. The wave of suspensions and trades that followed the brawl gutted the team, and they have been middling lottery players ever since. If I were Pacers owner Herb Simon, I would have cried that night five years ago (and I might be still crying); a team projected to contend for gold in 2005, 2006, 2007, and beyond suddenly became an avatar of suckage. The long-term value of his franchise surely fell by many millions of dollars. Lo, here's what Forbes has to say: the team was worth $340 million at its peak but fell to $303 million by 2008. I suppose a lot of businesses based on unpredictable commodities are similarly volatile: I wouldn't want to invest in a nickel mining company, for example. Similarly, Sony and AEG took a big risk by investing in the proposed 50-date London concert series for Michael Jackson (although they had a clever hedging strategy with (i) insurance and (ii) the subsequent movie after MJ sadly died). I don't think a team owner can take out insurance on the chance that his best player might freak out in front of 20,000 fans and a national TV audience. There's probably an adverse selection problem there for any potential insurer.

2) On the other hand, projections of long-term grandeur for the Pacers were probably unrealistic. Artest was bound to irreparably embarrass himself sooner or later (probably sooner). Jermaine O'Neal, as we know now, is injury-prone, probably due to poor workout habits. Stephen Jackson is a spoiled brat and Jamaal Tinsley is a troublemaker. Reggie Miller retired six months after the brawl and Jonathan Bender retired just 15 months after the brawl. So perhaps the brawl just accelerated inevitable disappointment.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fine With Me 'Cause I've Let It Slide

Today comes news that the New York Court of Appeals rejected challenges to the state's forcible purchase of private land in downtown Brooklyn to enable Bruce Ratner's development of the site (to be called "Atlantic Yards") for residential/commercial construction and a new stadium for the (formerly) New Jersey Nets. Ratner has stated that the goal of the project is to "transform a blighted area into a vibrant mixed-use community", although several businesses currently operate at the site.

Here is the text of the court's opinion. The court ruled (see page 13) that the NY state constitutional requirement of "public use" for an eminent domain seizure can be satisfied if the taking is for a "dominant public purpose". Apparently a basketball arena is sufficiently public for the court, even though the average primary-market ticket price to see a game is $50. The court also approvingly quoted itself from a similar 1950s case in which it ruled that although "none of the buildings are as noisome or dilapidated as those described in Dickens' novels ... a substantial part of the area is substandard and insanitary by modern tests." (Page 15) Gee, if substandard and insanitary conditions you seek, try checking out the men's room at a typical NBA game!

(As a side note, you may know from "Law and Order" that judicial nomenclature in New York is rather confusing: ordinary trial court is called "Supreme Court", while the "Court of Appeals" is not just an ordinary appeals court, but the highest court in the whole state.)

Here is a Google map of the proposed area, currently consisting of various residential/retail facilities and Long Island Railroad yards, to be condemned and built up. Below is a schematic map of the proposed site plan (click the image to enlarge), from Ratner's 2006 environmental impact statement.


The best source of information on the Atlantic Yards project is Norman Oder's amazingly prolific blog dedicated to the saga; I cannot say any more than he has. I recommend, in particular, this January 2009 post on common myths re the project.

What does the decision mean for the NBA? Assuming the infrastructure bond issuance goes smoothly (and in this interest rate environment, this is certainly a favorable time to borrow from the capital markets), it seems that we can expect a new stadium in Brooklyn in time for the fall 2012 NBA tipoff. So the Nets will have at least two more seasons in New Jersey after this one. A definite terminus on the Nets' East Rutherford stay does make them slightly more attractive to a potential 2010 free agent like James or Bosh, but then again, who wants to join a team that started the previous season 0-13? Perhaps the Nets might be a more attractive free-agent destination in the summer of 2011, when the team is improved and the Brooklyn move looms closer. Assuming Harris and Lopez are cornerstones for the Nets, the top role-filling free agents in 2011 will be Carmelo Anthony, David West, and Caron Butler. Anthony is likely to stay with the Nuggets (his mates Hilario, Smith, Afflalo, and Lawson are all fairly young) while West and Butler are likely to sniff out other climes. A team of Harris, Lopez, and Butler could be pretty solid, especially if youngsters like Yi and Terrence Williams continue to improve.

We can add to this the announced sale of the Nets from Ratner to Mikhail Prokhorov, a very wealthy Russian oligarch. According to the above-linked article, Prokhorov would be acquiring 80% of equity in the team and 50% of equity in the Atlantic Yards project, though presumably Ratner would retain control of the Yards. Regardless, Prokhorov is undoubtedly pleased at today's decision. In addition to the opportunity to build a great asset in the middle of New York City, Prokhorov may be uniquely able to market basketball to Brooklyn's Ukrainian and Russian communities.
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UPDATE: After I posted this, later on Tuesday Ilya Somin of Volokh Conspiracy wrote a post with some similar points. (He is a libertarian and generally opposed to eminent domain.) He also similarly lambasted the quizzical nomenclature of NY courts.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Best Way He Knows How

I've been thinking of buying Bill Simmons's new book (I will not link to it, but it's not hard to find) as a Christmas gift for a family member, or else asking certain family members to give it to me. I have always enjoyed the incisive analysis and watchful observations that Simmons brings in his writing. And he seems like a likable, cuddly guy when I've seen him on television. However, I have always been troubled by his casual references to (i) gambling, (ii) drinking to excess, and (iii) porn-watching, as though these are normal, healthy, adorably playful endeavors. I suppose in his circle of friends, these activities really are innocuous and all in a day's work — but in my view, they are disrespectful to (i) the game you cherish, (ii) your own body, and (iii) women. I wouldn't admit in print to smoking weed, physical abuse of another, cyber-stalking, or plotting terrorism (if, counterfactually, I engaged in those activities). What makes Simmons any better? Because his behaviors are legal?

(It's even odder that he's employed by a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.)

So for now, I will stay clear of Simmons's book. Chris Ballard's new book, though, is on my must-have list. (I guess that means I'm siding with Time Warner.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marv Albert Fighting with 50 Cent?


This news article posted on ESPN caught my eye: Albert denies confrontation with 50 Cent. Apparently, there was a kerfuffle between Marv's crew and 50's crew at the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" show. Marv is denying that the confrontation took place. I don't know why he's doing that. If I were Marv, I would be playing up the incident. It gives Marv serious street cred.

Marv has done a fabulous job resurrecting his image after the infamous biting incident. This could have put him over the top...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Heard The Screen Door Slam

A few surprising things from the Milwaukee-Charlotte game on Friday night:

1. Milwaukee put up 82 shots, against 59 by the Bobcats.
2. Brandon Jennings, the rookie with no college experience, put up 29 points, and is averaging 25 for the season. (He has been a great addition to my fantasy team.)
3. The Bucks are (after Saturday night's game) 8-3, despite their (ostensibly) two best players, Redd and Bogut, missing major time!

Apologies for not adding any trenchant analysis, but these three points really stunned me. Maybe Jason Kidd was wrong about Scott Skiles.
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UPDATE November 23rd: One more thought occurred to me. In the NFL it is common for star college quarterbacks, top-5 draft picks, to sit on the bench for several years until they are deemed ready to lead a team. See Matt Leinart's delirious thoughts after he received some rare playing time yesterday: "Honestly, I haven't played a significant game in 2½ years - it's been a while." Last season Vince Young apparently contemplated suicide because he couldn't get in the game for the Titans, benched for an oldster. Hall of Famer Steve Young didn't become a starter until his seventh season in the league. Yet in the NBA, with some exceptions, lottery picks receive significant PT from their first day. Perhaps some combination of guaranteed contracts plus the sunk-cost fallacy explains the discrepancy: with a commitment of several years to your lovely rookie, you want to get some R on your I. In the NFL, you can just cut the bum who's no good.

In any case, were Luke Ridnour or erstwhile Buck Ramon Sessions any good, Brandon Jennings might find himself in the Steve Young position, understudying Joe Montana. But they're crummy, so Jennings has his spot.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Latest outta Sacramento

Breaking JPO News:

Kevin Johnson Offered Girl 'Hush Money'; covered up sexual harassment and embezzled charter school funds.

The full report is available here.

Just A Slob Like One Of Us

Today comes word that the Sacramento Monarchs are "folding" because their owners the Maloofs wish to focus on their other business interests (read: those Lebanese boys are tired of seeing parentheses on their P&L statement), and the WNBA will apparently attempt to re-locate the team to the Bay Area. I do not fully understand the precise contracts and transactions required for this step; will the WNBA buy the team from the Maloofs for $1 and then "sell" the team to some new private owner, contingent on moving the team to San Fran? In any case, coupled with the recent announcement that the three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock will move to Tulsa, this is dismaying news for the 12-year-old league.

Bad businesses usually suffer the worst in a bad economy, so the above should be no surprise. The average NBA team payroll is about $72 million, while the maximum allowed WNBA team payroll is $0.8 million. You read that right! Needless to say, fan demand for women's pro basketball in North America is orders of magnitude less momentous than demand for men's hoops. (But Bhel, you might plead. I though utility has no cardinal value... Perhaps rich corporate hotshots are bidding up NBA tickets... Sure, but the raw attendance numbers in the WNBA are about 8,000 per game, compared to about 17,000 per game for the men.)

Critics of the WNBA like to observe that the quality of play is poor compared to men's basketball. That may be true, though the women do pass the ball and space themselves on the floor well. What's more, a significant bite of the NBA's zest comes from its players' phenomenal swag: the insolent dunk, the brave shot in traffic, the rakishly fancy dribble to flee a defender. These men are aggressive, combative, and dominant. Men do not often respond positively to women displaying these behaviors. I, Bhel, have been known to covet the gals who show a bit of fire. However, a woman baller who literally gets in the face of a saucy foe is well, a bit of a turnoff. Dare I admit that while watching women in an athletic context, I might subtly be aware of their sexual appeal? Well, I just did. And I generally think of myself as a moderate feminist! (e.g., In contradistinction to most of my male friends, I think a woman's changing her name upon marriage to be a dumb idea.) So the very nature of basketball as a game makes it difficult for women to gain a following.

Anyway, why does the NBA continue to subsidize the WNBA's losses, on the order of about $10 million per year? A few possibilities:
1) Commissioner Stern and his fellow owners (the "Old Boys") genuinely believe that women deserve a legitimate professional basketball league that they can aspire to watch or participate in.
2) The Old Boys believe that maintaining the WNBA as a going concern is good publicity for their main business interest the NBA, just as Goldman Sachs recently decided that giving out half a billion dollars to small businesses is good PR for the firm's battered image.
3) The Old Boys believe that maintaining the WNBA is a good pre-emptive means of complying with existing or future gender rights legislation, and/or indirectly helping US universities (the NBA's farm system) comply with Title IX.
4) The Old Boys believe that nurturing female fans — future mothers — who might not otherwise follow hoops is a good way to grow the NBA's fan base, and worth the investment. (Similarly, a lot of pundits remain puzzled as to why the NHL insists on maintaining the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes franchise down in the desert and denying a third party's attempts to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, where fans would lap up the hockey goodness. Apparently the league executives believe that fostering a love of hockey among the children of McCain voters is worth the short-term losses.)

What do you think?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm Looking Through You

The Hawks and Suns are receiving lots of good press for their hot 10-2 starts, each team atop its respective conference. My initial reaction is "It's early yet. They'll cool off soon enough." Yet if this were the NFL, the season would be 75% finished and the Hawks would be undeniable favorites for the championship! I'm not sure what this reveals more: that sample sizes in football are a bit too small (the Colts are hardly as unstoppable as their record indicates, and Buffalo need not have fired its coach for missing out on a 55% win percentage by just two games), or that the NBA season drags on too long. How much more information about team quality will we learn over 82 NBA games compared to the first 12? Sure, on the margin between lottery teams and mediocre playoff teams there may be some churning (will the Raptors make it? the plucky Rox?) but it's already pretty clear which teams are best. Viz., the same teams, generally, that pre-season predictions thought to be contenders. Other than (not insignificant) revenue considerations, why play five more months and cause more injuries just to determine playoff ordering?


When I have more time on my hands, I will construct a database showing the number of playoff wins for each playoff team over 2000-2009, and run some correlations against my earlier data set of regular season wins. (Or if anyone out there would like to be an unpaid JPO intern...)

The City Game

I'm planning to get some r&r on Thanksgiving break and wanted to catch up on some b-ball. One thing I am excited about is the 8PM Magic vs. Hawks game on TNT scheduled for Thanksgiving day. Finally a chance to see whether these Hawks are for real. I'll make sure to be take my post Thanksgiving meal nap early so I'm up in time for the game.

Unfortunately, there will be a fair bit of airport time for this year (which usually means stuck in some delays), so I intend to use the time to catch up on some b-ball history. Sometimes younger fans don't fully appreciate the history of the game and those of us who came of age just as Kareem was fading may miss some important context for the game and its evolution. Much is to be learned from the old legends and their stories. (I continue to be amused that there is a separate Wikipedia entry on Wilt Chamberlain's personal life, on top of the main Wilt entry.)

To deepen my historical perspective, I just purchased Pete Axthelm's acclaimed The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgrounds, and two DVDs: The Real: Rucker Park Legends, as well as a copy of Rebound: The Legend of Earl the Goat Manigault.

After Thanksgiving break I will report to the blog my evaluation of the first two items (it is obvious to the blog what I think about Rebound). And hopefully the new BS book comes before I take off next Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Long Day Livin' In Reseda

Just a thought. How did a Philly team with Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, and a bunch of total scrubs (Hill, Geiger, Lynch, McKie, Snow, Bell) make the NBA Finals in 2001? And how did a New Jersey team with Jason Kidd, Keith Van Horn, and a bunch of rookie or second-year players (Jefferson, Collins, Martin, MacCulloch) make the Finals the following year? The early post-Jordan years were unbelievably barren for the league. There were only four MVP-level stars (Shaq, Bryant, Duncan, Garnett) in the league back then, and they all played in the West. Kidd, too, played in the West until 2001.

It is unclear why this past decade of drafts has ushered in such a bonanza of talent (generally featuring guys with first names as surnames: James, Wade, Anthony, Howard, Paul, Roy) but David Stern and the 30 owners are surely thankful for it.

Dick Vitale: NBA Age Minimum is "Criminal"


Last night, I had the pleasure of watching the Kansas University Jayhawks play the Memphis Tigers on ESPN in an early season match-up of two of college basketball's perennial powerhouses.

Although I will probably forget the game itself in a few weeks, I will not forget the choice words of ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, czar of the college hoops telestrator. During a brief segue on the NBA on last night's telecast, Mr. Vitale became exercised (as he is so prone) and declared the NBA's age minimum as "criminal." Way to go, Dick!

Two things struck me about Mr. Vitale's comments.

First, although many of us at JPO [read: everyone except Bhel Atlantic] have been critical of the age minimum as bad policy, I was taken aback by Vitale's harsh condemnation of the rule as "criminal." Legally speaking, the NBA age minimum does not run afoul of any state or federal criminal laws. But I take Mr. Vitale's words to be an expression of the age minimum's moral repugnance -- i.e., morally, the age minimum is on par with a criminal act. Is it? Well, as explained in earlier posts, the age minimum prevents a hard-working young man -- often from an underprivileged background -- from making a living to support himself and his family, and forces him to instead toil for 1 or more years in indentured servitude enriching others but not getting paid a single cent.

The age minimum is also quintessentially un-American. The American ethos is that we all have a right to succeed -- especially if we can do it on our own. Ordinarily, we are told, "if you have the desire, the will and the means, go for it!" But with the age minimum, the NBA is saying that you have to help the NCAA and wealthy universities get richer before you can begin enriching yourself. So, yes, if I take Vitale's "criminal" to mean "morally repugnant," then yes, the age minimum is criminal.

Second, I was struck by Vitale's apparent selflessness. The NBA age minimum arguably benefits college hoops and, by extension, Dick Vitale. The age minimum forces NBA-ready high school talent to enroll in college, thereby benefiting the college game and all of those associated with it. So it was refreshing to see someone in the sports business take a stand on principle even if that principle might conflict with his economic interests ...

...But then I read a couple of articles authored by Dick Vitale: see here and here. It seems like part of Vitale's agenda is to improve the college game. Dick would like to see a "blue ribbon panel" evaluate the high-school talent and identify players who are NBA-ready. Those identified players would have the right to choose the NBA or college. All other players would be forced to attend college.

So at the end of the day, Dick's plan is even more constricting than the current NBA age minimum. Not only would a talented high school player need "permission" to enter the NBA, if he chose to enroll in college for 1 year, he had to make a 3-year commitment (i.e., he couldn't enter the NBA draft if he felt he were ready after 1 or 2 years).

Shame on you, Dick.

Monday, November 16, 2009

S-Jax Again

Let me make one more point about the Stephen Jackson trade. Did anyone see the Miami-Cleveland game on TNT television last Thursday where Jordan was sitting next to Pat Riley in the audience? I think the vibe we all, including the announcers, felt upon seeing that scene was “Oh, Pat Riley is such a player that he has an extra-special guest.” Not “There’s two NBA team presidents hobnobbing.” And that’s a direct reflection of Jordan’s failure to take his job seriously. Why isn’t he ever quoted in the press when Charlotte makes a roster move?

On Stephen Jackson

Incidentally, wouldn't it be cool if I could demand a trade from my employer?** I would insist on a warm-weather city where I could play a featured role and reunite with my college buds. I would act "disgruntled" and refuse to bill any hours until my demands are satisfied. I would be curious to see if I would be traded for a rookie fresh from law school, or a grizzled vet playing out his contract as an "of counsel".

Darn at-will employment.

As academic theorists and lay observers have noted, guaranteed contracts provide poor incentives to employees, and make it very difficult for employers to sever relations with non-performing workers. Guaranteed contracts that include provisions allowing limited firing, "for cause", inevitably give rise to costly disputes about whether the agreed-upon cause was triggered. In turn, this makes employers more reluctant ex ante to hire. Extensive due diligence on prospective employees is one partial solution to the incentive problem with guaranteed contracts; in a way, this may help to explain (to answer my blogmate's recent query) why NBA owners support the age limit. No one wants to gamble on a raw 18-year-old, hand him 10 million dollars, and see him wither away to twigs.

(**I don't mean to suggest that I am anything but content with my current employer.)

Monday Bullets

  • What's wrong with Elton Brand? I don't think anyone expected him to reach 25/10 (at least not immediately), but 10 and 5? Please, Elton, say it ain't over...

  • Are the Suns or Hornets pretenders or contenders? So far the Suns have exceeded expectations, while the Hornets have underwhelmed. Each will have a chance to make its case in this week's marquee Thursday night match-up on TNT (although it appears that the Hornets with be without the services of CP3).

  • Did anyone think Brandon Jennings would be this good?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fantasy vs. Reality

Fantasy hoops are a big deal, as Yahoo and ESPN can attest. And with each season, the fantasy leaguers get increasingly numerous and serious. There is a growing intelligentsia of fantasy aficionados -- some of whom get their own shows on NBA TV -- and a number of professional fantasy-focused websites. (See WinMyFantasyLeague.com). [Full disclosure: HOSS's brother is a contributor to WinMyFantasyLeague.]

This writer is not immune to the fantasy hoops bug (although my team, Turkoglicious, has been an early season disappointment). But one thing that consistently irks me about fantasy hoops is how poorly fantasy stats translate to real life, and vice versa. Exhibit A: Troy Murphy is considered a fantasy stud. Yahoo Fantasy ranked him 35th overall in its pre-season rankings, one spot behind Carmelo Anthony, and ahead of Rashard Lewis (36th), LaMarcus Aldridge (40th) and Carlos Boozer (44th) . In real life, would anyone take Troy Murphy before those three players? On the flip side, there are guys like Shane Battier and Luis Scola, who are very good players and great at the so-called intangibles (ball-on-ball defense, help defense, diving for loose balls) for which there are no statistics. As a result, Shane Battier is ranked a distant 135th.

There seems to be a few reasons for the fantasy/reality divide. First, unlike baseball, which is really an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, basketball is a quintessentially team game. But there is no stat for "making your teammates better", or if there is one, it is imperfect. An assist means you made a pass that led a teammate to score. But there are plenty of ball hogs who have high assist numbers simply by virtue of having the ball in their hands so much (see, e.g., Allen Iverson.)

Turns out there is a whole range of basketball skills that aren't accounted for in any traditional statistics, while some traditional statistics are completely misleading. Although steals and blocks are "defensive" statistics, they do not measure the quality of a defender's ball-on-ball defense. Steals are especially misleading. Again, take Allen Iverson, who loafs all game on defense and then and gambles on steals a few times a game: his steals stats were high but his defense lackluster throughout his career. Similarly, rebounds can be highly misleading. Of course, team rebounding is immensely important, but any post player will have 6 rebounds a game simply by virtue of standing near the hoop, and rebounds off a missed free throw are one of the easiest stats to accumulate in pro sports. As long as fantasy GMs and real GMs focus on traditional stats, fantastic defenders like Shane Battier will always be undervalued. Traditional hoops statistics give you a myopic view of the player's skill or value to the team.

Efforts to expand basketball stats beyond the traditional have been choppy at best. The +/- stat, the holy grail for some hockey statisticians, turns out to be a highly dubious stat. How does Kevin Durant have one of the worst +/- stats in the league last year? Is he a detriment to his team or are his teammates so in awe of his ability that they just stand around doing nothing on offense? The likely answer is probably 'none of the above' -- but simply that +/- is not a useful stat for measuring NBA players' skill level or value to the team.

Some people have tried to devise new statistics that do a better job of capturing a player's value. ESPN analyst, John Hollinger, has devised a methodology for determining a player's actual value, called "Player Efficiency Rating" or "PER". The PER is built on traditional statistics, but adjusts for minutes played and for the team's pace of play. Although Hollinger stats are useful because they allow you to compare two players who average different amounts of minutes-per-game and play on teams with different styles, they still do not account for difficult-to-measure skills like ball-on-ball defense -- arguably one of the most important basketball skills.

There is a movement among some GMs to take basketball statistics to the next level. Some are lifting a page out of Billy Beane's playbook (of Money Ball fame) and attempting to do for basketball what a select group of young baseball GMs have done for baseball -- i.e., devise a modernized, analytical approach to determining a player's true value by using advanced statistical tools. Daryl Morey, GM of the Rockets, is an early adherent. Morey has not revealed his methodology, but if the success of the T-Mac-less-&-Yao-less Rockets is any indication, Morey is on to something.

This issue, however, remains an open debate. We, at JPO, would love to hear from our readers. What is the best way to measure a player's value to his team? Your answers can be general (e.g., Hollinger's PER) or position-specific (e.g., John Stockton once said that the way to measure a PG was to look at the FG% of his team). Post your responses in the "comments" section to this post.