Friday, January 30, 2009

Everybody Is Somebody

Well, the 2009 All-Star reserve selections are in. It’s interesting to compare the results against our earlier analysis.

In the West, the reserves were Nowitzki, Roy, Parker, Billups, O'Neal, Gasol, and West. This is about what one would expect based on the aggregate of experts’ selections, though we might expect Al Jefferson (chosen by 6 of 12 experts) or Carmelo Anthony (chosen by 5 of 12) to be chosen before David West (chosen by 3 of 12).'s Chris Mannix exactly nailed all 12 Western Conference all-star players with his selections.

In the East, the reserves were Pierce, Nelson, Lewis, Johnson, Granger, Bosh, and Harris. These are exactly whom you would expect to be selected based on the aggregate of experts’ selections, with the caveat that Lewis, who received the fewest pundit votes of the players who were actually chosen for the team, was tied with Mo Williams and Vince Carter, garnering 4 pundit votes. It makes sense that Mo Williams was snubbed: between Harris, Nelson, Johnson, Iverson, and Wade, they have enough point guards or quasi-points. And I'm content with Orlando getting three all-star berths and Vince Carter being snubbed, given the Magic’s stunning record. Pundits Marc Stein, Chris Webber, and Gary Payton came closest to perfection, each picking 11 of 12 actual All-Stars in the Eastern Conference.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kodachrome Maybelline

With too much time on our hands, we at JPO decided to aggregate the 2009 all-star picks made by a variety of pundits:

David Friedman

TNT's Inside the NBA crew (as summarized by David Friedman)

Marc Stein of ESPN

John Hollinger of ESPN

Peter Vecsey

The SI / crew

Our raw data can be found here (it's a Google Docs spreadsheet). Basically, if a given analyst chose a given player to the All-Star team, we coded that cell as "1". Otherwise, we coded a 0. We then calculated an average score for each player across the 12 analysts. The average score is found in the extreme right-most column of the spreadsheet. We then sorted the players according to their average scores.

The data has a bit of a problem in that some of the analysts (Hollinger, Stein, Vecsey, Friedman, and the TNT guys: Webber, Payton, Smith) took the fans’ choices of starters as a given, and chose only reserves. As a result, those analysts are assuming that Allen Iverson and Amare Stoudemire should be part of the team, and as a result, I coded Iverson and Stoudemire as "1" for those analysts. The SI analysts, who chose starters and reserves, all did not pick Iverson to be a member of the East team, and it is highly likely that none of the other analysts would independently choose Iverson to be a starter; his average score of 0.583 would have probably been zero if the fans had not chosen him. Four of the five SI analysts, though, picked Stoudemire to be on the West team, which suggests that most of the Hollinger Stein/Vecsey/Friedman/TNT group would have picked Stoudemire as a reserve even if he were not a starter chosen by the fans. Thus, Stoudemire's average score of 0.91 is likely only slightly inflated above what it would be if he were not "locked in" by the fans’ vote.

What stands out from this analysis? Surprisingly, 8 of 12 analysts chose Shaquille O’Neal to the West team, equal to the number (8) who chose Pau Gasol, playing for a much better team. Steve Nash, the former six-time all-star starter and two-time MVP, received only two votes, fewer than Paul Millsap, who got three. It seems likely that next year Billups and Shaq will fall out of this discussion, while guys like Durant and Millsap, who received only a couple votes from this sample, will be much more serious contenders. I also would expect Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum to put up all-star caliber performance next year, particularly given the likely strength of their teams.

In the East, I was surprised that 11 of 12 analysts chose Paul Pierce, who is averaging only 19 and 6 while shooting 44% from the field. Also, every analyst picked Joe Johnson, which is mildly surprising: he got more votes than Devin Harris (who has surely wowed more than JJ has) and Jameer Nelson or Mo Williams (who have quarterbacked their teams to a much better record than Johnson has). Also, three of the analysts decided to omit Chris Bosh from their squad. Chris Bosh — he of the 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 50% field goal percentage! — actually lost out to Zydrunas Ilgauskas for backup center on the ballot of two selectors.

My ballot, if anyone asked me, would most closely resemble that of Steve Aschburner or John Hollinger for the East all-stars, and Paul Forrester for the West all-stars.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

We at Jordan Pushed Off recently (January 17th) had the opportunity to attend a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Spurs of San Antonio. The Bulls kept the score surprisingly tight, but eventually succumbed by five points, 92-87. Here's a helpful guide: The Spurs are 15-2 when they hold their opponents under 90 points. If you want to beat them, y'all need to score.

To illustrate why the Bulls are mediocre and the Spurs great, some simple video that we took from our upper-level seats may be instructive. Most of these clips were taken late in the fourth quarter, when the score was tied or within 3 or 4 points.

The Spurs are great because they have lots of options in their offensive attack. Their first option is to dump the ball into Tim Duncan in the post. If he’s paired with a weak defender like Drew Gooden, he’ll probably get an easy score:

If he's against a relatively stronger defender like Joakim Noah, Duncan is an excellent passer and he will toss the ball out to a perimeter player who is poised to do some damage. Here, Duncan’s pass finds its way to an open man who succeeds in drawing a foul:

If Duncan doesn’t have good post position, Tony Parker is excellent at driving to the hoop and tossing up a floater or a layup:

Otherwise, if Parker is not in the game, Manu Ginobili can always be relied upon to shake and bake and get loose for his deadly mid-range shots:

Finally, when all of the above are not working (or the Spurs just want to mix up their attack to keep the opponent guessing) the Spurs’ role players are well-trained to flip the ball around the perimeter with crisp lag passes that eventually induce the defenders to run around like chickens, leaving somebody open for a J:

(And let us note, of course, that the Bulls surely knew that these gambits were coming, but defensively could do nothing to stop them.)

Meanwhile, what tricks do the Bulls have up their sleeve? Luol Deng and Ben Gordon are in their fifth NBA seasons and should have developed some go-to moves and clutch reliability by now, but they really haven’t. The Bulls’ best tactic in crunch time is to give the ball to their rookie point guard, Derrick Rose, and hope for the best. Unfortunately, against superior defenders like the Spurs, his best is not good enough. Here, he hogs the ball for an entire possession, drives, and gets thwarted at the rim.

It got so bad for Chicago that with two minutes left, down by one point, they let Andres Nocioni (!) take over and play the hero. As you might expect, he failed:

Imagine a Bulls team featuring LaMarcus Aldridge instead of Tyrus Thomas; Tyson Chandler instead of Drew Gooden; Leandro Barbosa instead of Kirk Hinrich, JR Smith instead of Ben Gordon; Thaddeus Young instead of Joakim Noah. Instead, John Paxson, blessed, in a way, with multiple lottery picks, made one poor draft choice after another. To be sure, drafting is a gamble fraught with huge uncertainties, but when you repeatedly screw it up one year after another, you've got a problem.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arriba Los Brujos

Continuing our discussion of badly pronounced basketball names, I give you: Gilbert Arenas. This one drives me crazy. He's of Cuban heritage, so his surname should be pronounced "Ah-RAY-nas", not "Ah-REE-nas". Is there a rule that says phonemes must be changed (though spelling preserved) upon immigration to America?

But on the bright side, consider: Nowitzki, Bargnani, Battier. NBA-ites (save Charles Barkley) make good-faith attempts to say all these correctly, and good for them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Twelve Angry Men

The Portland Trail Blazers issued a rather nasty email to every other NBA team recently, threatening legal action against any team that attempts to sign Darius Miles for purposes of clocking a ninth and tenth game for Miles this season, which would result in (i) Miles’s $9 million salary for 2008-09 going back on Portland’s rolls for purposes of counting against the salary cap, and (ii) as a result thereof, Portland being required to pay several million dollars of luxury tax.

Here is the basic regulatory background of this situation. Under Article VII, Section 5 of the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, a team may (subject to various exceptions and complications) sign a free agent from another team only if such free agent’s prospective salary would not cause the team to exceed the salary cap calculated for a given season.

Under Article VII, Section 4(h) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, if a player is deemed by a physician selected jointly by the NBA and the Players Association to have suffered a career-ending injury, then the team can apply to have such player’s salary excluded from its salary-cap calculation. But, if the player ends up playing 10 games the following season, then the exclusion is void, and the player’s salary goes back into the salary-cap calculation. Let us note that the player is still entitled to get his money nonetheless. In this case, Miles’s contract was covered by insurance, so Blazers owner Paul Allen saved cash payment on Miles’s $9 million for 2008-09.

The January 8th email from Blazers President Larry Miller said the following:

Team Presidents and General Managers,
The Portland Trail Blazers are aware that certain teams may be contemplating signing Darius Miles to a contract for the purpose of adversely impacting the Portland Trail Blazers Salary Cap and tax positions. Such conduct from a team would violate its fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer. In addition, persons or entities involved in such conduct may be individually liable to the Portland Trail
Blazers for tortuously interfering with the Portland Trail Blazers' contract rights and perspective economic opportunities.
Please be aware that if a team engages in such conduct, the Portland Trail Blazers will take all necessary steps to safeguard its rights, including, without limitation, litigation.

Reportedly, after the Blazers’ intemperate missive, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert responded to the NBA owners’ group email list (side note: Can I be blind-carbon-copied on this list?) with the following rejoinder: “A pre-emptive threat of 'litigation' directed at all of your partners through a group e-mail does not sit well with me and seems to be incongruent with the spirit of keeping a 'fiduciary duty' and good 'partner-like duty' to your 'NBA joint venturers.'” That’s a fair point, but Gilbert, who like most businessmen surely disdains lawyers, had little to say about what Portland could actually do to him. Putting the warm fuzzies aside, what is really going on here?

As John Hollinger has explained, signing Miles and paying him for a couple games is an individually rational decision for any given team. Under current projections, about 7 teams (including the Blazers, if Miles plays ten games) will exceed the salary cap in 2008-09 and will be required to pay luxury tax, (see Article VII, Section 12(f) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement) which is split equally among all the 23 non-tax-paying teams. At the veteran’s minimum of $1,141,838 annually for an 8-year veteran, Miles would earn roughly $28,000 for two games. Any team that plays Miles in a way that triggers the Blazers’ luxury-tax liability will receive its 1/23 share of the Blazers’ luxury-tax payment, which would be about $9 million (the amount of Miles’s salary), as right now Portland’s calculated salary roll is just slightly below the cap line. Earning $391,000 of tax transfer for a $23,000 investment seems like a pretty good ROI – better than upgrading your luxury boxes!

Given that the Blazers are threatening some legal action against any team that challenges Portland, it might be useful to consider the strength of their legal claims. First is their claim of tortious interference. According to the Restatement (2d.) of Torts, Sections 766 and 767, the tort of “tortious interference with a contract” consists of (1) a contractual relationship, or an expectancy thereof, (2) an intentional act of interference with such relationship or expectancy, (3) causation of harm, and (4) quantifiable damages. The first problem is that Portland has no more contractual relationship with Miles. They severed ties with him early in 2008 when the doctor opined that he was not fit to play ball any longer; and insurance is now paying the contract for Portland. Even if the payments are coming over time rather than in a lump sum and there is still some outstanding contractual arrangement governing the payments, it is hard to see how a team that signs Miles now would be interfering with such arrangement. They wouldn’t. The issue of the salary-cap implications for Portland is separate from the actual cash payment of Miles’s salary. Could Portland argue that a team that signs Miles is interfering with Portland’s prospective contractual relationships, i.e. a free-agent deal with Shawn Marion, say? Perhaps, but the possibility thereof seems so sketchy and ill-defined as to make a legal claim very weak indeed.

The other potential claim is some sort of alleged violation of a team’s fiduciary duty to its partners. I do not have access to the partnership agreement that NBA team owners are party to, but it seems ridiculous to argue that part of each team’s fiduciary duty is not to take all permissible actions to compete with other teams. Furthermore, as a practical matter, how could the Blazers ever prove that a particular team, say the Grizzlies, signed Miles purely to trigger the Blazers’ luxury-tax liability and salary-cap exceedance? It's not clear how a good-faith signing would look different from a bad-faith signing. In fact, the worse the team is (and Memphis sure is bad), the more plausible it is that they could really use Miles. Boston's signing of Miles seems more likely to be a bad-faith move.

If the Blazers ever sued the Grizzlies for these alleged torts, the judge should rule for the Grizzlies on summary judgment. But can you imagine one NBA team taking the other to court? Really? I sure can’t. Without that background threat, any threat of a lawsuit is toothless.

In essence, Portland is saying with their letter that they don’t want Miles to ever make a living in the NBA again. I don’t believe he ever asked anyone for a medical opinion that his knee was finished. He wanted to keep playing! It is well-known that judges do not fondly regard attempts by an employer to prevent a former employee from finding work elsewhere.

The psychology at play with Blazers management is worth comment, as well. They may genuinely feel that Miles and other teams are attempting to screw them in bad faith. This reminds me of a situation I recently experienced where a colleague, whom I know somewhat vaguely, asked me to take care of her cat in my home for a year while she embarks on a trip around the world. I said, sure, I would love to, but the problem is that I’m already taking care of another friend’s three cats for several months, and I’m not sure if the existing three cats will be gone by the time you embark on your trip. Eventually, a few weeks before her trip, I told the world-traveller that I can’t do it because my existing three cats don’t seem to be leaving anytime soon. And instead of saying, OK, I understand, that’s too bad, she contacted the owner of my three cats to find out if she can expedite the departure of the three! Rather than taking the presence or absence of the three cats as an autonomous external parameter that is out of her domain and control, she took it as a bit of a personal affront. I suppose I would feel a sense of loss too in her situation: a liability that you thought you had eliminated is suddenly back on the books for what feels like a bad reason. Given that losses generally hurt worse than the equivalent gains, it would have been better for Portland to never get rid of the salary-cap liability in the first place, rather than having the liability, then enjoying the windfall of ditching it, then getting socked with it again. But ultimately, Portland should bear some moral responsibility for signing Miles to such a rich contract, just as this cat owner is responsible for deciding to leave the country for a year.

I read somewhere that perhaps Portland’s letter can be read as an implicit threat not of a lawsuit, but of future blackballing by Portland of any team, say Boston or Memphis, that chooses to sign Miles. The problem is that this is clearly a non-credible threat; Kevin Pritchard will surely not hesitate to swing a deal for, say, Rudy Gay if the price is right.

In sum, I would say that Portland’s leadership team is full of it. They need better lawyers and better psychologists to help them through this disappointment.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Interpreter of Travellings

That post title is a riff on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories about people of South Asian background. Therein lies the stuff of today’s rumination.

I was shocked to see that Harvard College’s men’s varsity basketball team succeeded yesterday in knocking off Boston College, which only last week defeated North Carolina, the top-ranked team in the country. That must make Harvard the best team going, no? [You may laugh, but if we increased the sample size enough — say, we had the teams play seven-game series against each other — then we would give at least some credence to a transitive-property-based argument, no? Isn’t that the whole idea of an elimination tournament? Take the 2008 NBA Finals: The Celtics proved that they are better than the Lakers. The Lakers proved that they are better than the Spurs (who proved they are better than Phoenix and better than the Hornets, who proved that they are better than Dallas) and better than the Jazz (who proved they are better than the Rockets) and better than Denver. By a similar inductive argument, the Celtics proved themselves better than all the East teams. Ergo, the Celtics are the best team in the league.]

Anyway, I was struck that Harvard’s star is a young man named Jeremy Lin, who grew up in Palo Alto, California. Lin poured in 27 points against BC. Besides his cat-like quickness against slower defenders, Lin’s most distinctive feature seems to be that he is of Chinese descent. I cannot think of another Asian-American basketball player who has achieved national notoriety at either the college or professional level.

It is silly to say that the idea of Asians playing ball is unheard of. Thousands or possibly millions of young people play basketball in China, and the Chinese league is thriving. Five players from China have made NBA rosters: Wang Zhizhi, Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, Mengke Bateer, and Sun Xue.

Perhaps there is something distressingly essentialist in my discussing Asians’ playing ball and Asian-Americans’ playing ball in the same paragraph. Yet, as I discussed in an earlier post, basketball success is, probably more than other sports, to a great extent a matter of genetics. And surely people here of Asian descent share relevant phenotypes with their brothers in the homeland.

Which sub-population is the tallest in Asia? To my mind, this question is easy: Punjabis. The biggest Asian movie villain I can think of is the 7’1” Dalip Singh, who was recently featured as a monster with a soft side in the Steve Carell movie “Get Smart”, and in the meantime wrestles for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. Try as I might, I can’t find any credible internet sources comparing the relative heights of various ethnic groups within East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, but if you know a whole lotta browns and yellows (sorry), it’s hard not to notice the uniform tallness of Punjabi men. Even Punjabi women are plenty big. It’s no wonder that Sikhism emphasizes the dual role of devotees as saints and soldiers, fighting for justice. Hard to imagine Gujaratis carrying a large dagger around: they might just try to sell it.

It’s not unheard of for Asian Americans to succeed at sports here. Many Samoans have excelled in both football and pro wrestling (The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, being exemplary of both those categories). High school tennis tournaments everywhere are filled with young Indian and Chinese kids whose parents have pushed them to develop killer forehands. But in basketball, which, at least in my view, requires the greatest athleticism of any major American team sport, Asian Americans are hard to find. This recent San Francisco Chronicle article provides an excellent review of the structural and cultural issues at play for young people of immigrant backgrounds. The article reports that only 19 of almost 5000 boys playing varsity Division I basketball in 2006-07 were Asian.

Given the altitudinally apt population, why don't more Punjabis succeed in basketball? Anecdotally, I know of at least a few six-foot-tall individuals of Punjabi background who like to ball in pickup games on the playground. It may be that heretofore, young people of Indian background in North America have all been immigrants or children thereof, and they were so busy being hectored by their parents to practice piano or study MCAT that they had little time for ball. (I lack the knowledge or space to effectively explore here the sociological literature on educational attitudes and achievement in immigrant generations, but a 2007 study by professors from Princeton and U-Penn found that among black students at Ivy League colleges, recent immigrants, i.e. those mostly from Africa and the Caribbean, made up 41 percent.)

I would not be surprised if we begin to see some tall Amardeeps and Sachpreets beginning to tackle the basketball world in coming years. But as for Jeremy Lin, I would predict that either Teach For America or law school awaits him. Dude is way too skinny!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Three Dog Night

We are fans of truth and accuracy in everything we do, and particularly in the statements of NBAers. Thus we were refreshed when we read the police report about Charles Barkley’s recent arrest for drunk driving on New Year’s Eve in Arizona. Barkley was straightforward and frank with the arresting officer and did not deny either that (i) he was drunk and driving too fast, or (ii) that his female companion was not in his car to fix his stereo.

Predictably, some internet voices are ticked off about Barkley behaving like a fool. But Barkley has long maintained that he is not a role model. Drunk driving, of course, is gravely serious business, and perhaps a man who styles himself as something of a moral arbiter of all things hoopwise should not have that podium when his Kantian ethics are very questionable. (And there may be behavioral covenants in his employment contract with TNT.) I am surprised, though, at the sudden Puritanism from many who should know better. How many NBA players are able to celibately resist the fragrant charms of road life? How many NBA players have never partied hard with alcohol, marijuana, or worse? Yes, Barkley’s predicament is funny, but it really should not surprise anyone.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fly Me To The Moon

Clocks stopped, dogs buried their poop, George Bush slept in late, and all sorts of craziness happened yesterday as — for the first time in our memory — LeBron James was called yesterday for a travelling violation on a potential game-winning play that he later indignantly described as a perfectly valid “crab dribble” (wha~?). And it was surely the right call:

Here at Jordan Pushed Off, we (at least, I) regard as execrable the phenomenon of “star calls” in the league, and we look forward to a time when all men are deemed equal under the rule of NBA law. What the heck is a crab dribble, anyway? A quick google search, looking for the term “crab dribble” but excluding the term “lebron”, turns up only two basketball-related pages. One is an instructional sheet that apparently equates the crab dribble with a basic back-to-the-defender protective stance, often used by pivotmen in the paint or by guards bringing the ball up the court against pressure. I don't know what school of ball LeBron attended, but I don't think a jump, a hop, and a couple steps were what Mr. Naismith envisioned.

The most amusing element of this scenario was James’s postgame defense of his aborted drive:

“You have your trademark play, and that's one of my plays. It kind of looks like a travel because it's slow, and it's kind of a high-step, but it's a one-two just as fluent as any other one-two in this league. I got the wrong end of it, but I think they need to look at it -- and they need to understand that's not a travel," James said. "It's a perfectly legal play, something I've always done.”

James’s deluded protests reminded me of what Saddam Hussein said to the judge presiding over his tribunal in 2005: “But I am the president of Iraq. I do not recognize this court!” Well, yeah, dude, you used to be, before your lack of legitimacy was laid bare. Perhaps this is cognitive dissonance (his perception of bad ball on his part cannot possibly be squared with his view of himself as a Great One) or some sort of hubris-induced visual processing disorder by James: he really looked at the tape and, in good faith, his brain really cannot see the multiple steps. Or, more likely, perhaps he is aware (if only from a hunchy, lay perspective) of psychological evidence showing that lies repeated often can be persuasive when they feed into pre-existing biases. LeBron wants every referee in the league to begin thinking of “LeBron’s crab dribble” as a permitted category unto itself. I also liked James’s claim of a “trademark move”. Usually if you have a technique all your own, you let others point out your distinctiveness.

I liked the Wizards’ reaction to James's defense, particularly that of Butler:
“ ‘Crab dribble’ is when you, uh, travel,” Butler said. “That's the hottest thing on the market right now.”

Let us hope that asset bubble soon bursts!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now

In a recent article, Charley Rosen at Fox Sports identifies the most underrated role players in the league. I was curious to compare his list against our recent compilation of role players with the longest uninterrupted tenure on a single team. The only player who appears on both his list and mine is Jeff Foster; I actually expected to find more overlap. Surprisingly, many of the excellent role players whom Rosen (rightly) identifies as high-quality and unappreciated have bounced around from team to team: Raja Bell is now on his fifth team in nine seasons and Steve Blake has been employed five times in six seasons (although that includes two stints with Portland). I suppose it is true that even some MVP-caliber players, notably Chauncey Billups, need a few years to get their groove going, and while they are grooveless, teams may give up on them too quickly.

Rosen also mentioned Kendrick Perkins, Udonis Haslem, and Tayshaun Prince, non-all-stars who all have played 6+ seasons with their respective teams. I should have included these three guys on our original list, but perhaps an unconscious parameter in my original list was the exclusion of players who have helped their teams to a championship. That provides an obvious justification to keep them around, and obviates the need for clever explanation of their long tenure.