Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thy Tears Are Womanish

Back in the last month of 2008, we gaped aghast when TNT’s Inside the NBA spent the whole evening ragging on Kenny Smith after he commented approvingly on Terrell Owens’s buff body. It was amusing once, but for several hours? Ernie Johnson, who really should police juvenile hijinks on his show, was actually quite glad to toss in purportedly hilarious gibes of his own.

Last night’s (April 22nd) edition of Inside the NBA moved from subjugated fear of man-love to an hour’s worth of penis worship. Charles Barkley began the show by relating an anecdote about a job he held as a teenager, hammering tar off of pipes on hot summer days down in Alabama. Kenny giggled and labelled Barkley a “pipe beater”, and for the next sixty minutes, Ernie and Kenny used every opportunity to utter a ‘pipe’-related phrase, including “Pipe down”, “piping hot”, “down the pipe”, and “pipe dream”. Smith also subtly hinted at old wives’ tales about masturbation, including blindness and hairy hands. Seriously, I’m not joking; watch the video!

How much homophobia / homoeroticism is acceptable on this show? At this rate, will Johnson, Smith, and Barkley be comparing the size and aromatic quality of their excrement next week?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Do You Sleep?

Who voted Robin Lopez second on his or her Rookie of the Year ballot? My strong hunch is that the voter meant Brook Lopez, but had a cerebral malfunction. That's almost as bad as the elderly Jewish voters in Florida who meant to vote for Gore but somehow marked their ballots for noted philo-semite Pat Buchanan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hasenfeffer Incorporated

Well, congratulations to Cavs coach Mike Brown for winning Coach of the Year. But does this look like an NBA championship squad? From left, we have a Simpsons character, the hero of an after-school special, a Phil Collins lover, LeBron James, a would-be rapper, a leprechaun, and a 1980s-era pro wrestling villain. I'm just saying.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kept In A Jar By The Door

Back in November, we bellyached about an advertisement near our home in Chicago wherein an image of Carmelo Anthony commanded us to drink a blue sports beverage. Why would Anthony consent to the use of his likeness without any charisma-enhancing performative oomph? Even more disturbing is a latter-day series of TV ads where a still photo of Chris Paul, twinned with an obviously not-Paul voice, endorses Right Guard deodorant.

We couldn’t find on Youtube the ad where a hopelessly smitten Chris Paul fan smothers his armpits into his buddy’s face. Right Guard’s website features a sadly static interactive exhibit where web visitors can learn a few factoids about Chris Paul, including his avid bowling habit. Isn’t that why Wikipedia was invented? In any case, the common feature of all of these advertising efforts is the absence of any active participation from Chris Paul himself (in addition to the rather odious presentation of Chris Paul's ’pits as something worth aspiring to). The association of a star athlete with, say, property insurance or underwear is always tenuous; the endorsement is a bit more convincing if the athlete feels like showing up for half a day of filming. (In the case of Dwyane Wade and his German mobile phone masters, how did he find the time to film all those spots with Barkley? Presumably they filmed them all at once last summer, but that must have taken at least three days with all the costume and scenery changes. That’s actually rather impressive for a guy defending against a bitter divorce and playing for Olympic gold.)

Anyway, Chris Paul needs a better agent.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In Which I Buck Your Wisdom

Other writers will preview the 2009 NBA Playoffs with greater care, but I wish to note the great burden that many of this year’s postseason teams surely feel: “Oh no, not this again.” Carmelo Anthony and his Nuggets have appeared in the playoffs in each of the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 seasons — and lost in the first round each year. The same goes for Yao Ming’s Rockets, although they missed the 2006 playoffs due to myriad injuries. Dallas lost in the first round in three of those years (2004, ’07, ’08). Chicago lost in the first round in ’05 and ’06, before winning one series in ’07 and crashing into the lottery in ’08.

These vernal weeks are filled with teams that surely wish to prove they belong with serious squads and did not merely “fake” their way to 50 wins. Some teams finally find the right mix for a deep playoff run after several years of futility, as the Minnesota Timberwolves finally did in ’04. But, like the Raptors of 2000-2001-2002 or the Grizzlies of 2004-2005-2006, some teams realize that their core stars are just not championship-caliber, and they feel compelled to churn their roster and start over.

Of Denver, Houston, Dallas, and Chicago, I believe that the Mavericks have the greatest chance of making the conference finals or the NBA Finals. Needless to say, Chicago will probably lose in the first round against Boston, even if Kevin Garnett cannot play. Houston and its hard-working center, sadly, will probably lose again, playing Portland on the road and without a top-level point guard. Even if Houston got past the Blazers, the Lakers would likely eat them up; Houston lacks the size to defend Gasol, Bynum, and Odom. Meanwhile, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Denver. They did secure the second seed in the Western Conference, but they actually had as many wins as the third and fourth seed, and only six more than the eighth seed. Their putative leader, Carmelo Anthony, has never shown the defensive leadership or offensive explosiveness required for playoff laurels. And do you really trust Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin, and JR Smith to keep their heads cool for six weeks of piercing intensity? That leaves Dallas, which fields a former MVP, a former MVP runner-up, and seven guys with NBA Finals experience (eight if you count their coach). The Mavs won nine of their last thirteen games, capped by a rollicking come-from-behind victory against Houston on the season’s denoument. I like the Dallas Mavericks to defeat the Spurs in the first round and the Denver-New Orleans winner in the second round. Of course, I still think the Lakers will beat Cleveland in the Finals, like every other pundit.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Worst NBA Snub Ever

Christian Laettner instead of Isiah Thomas on the 1992 Dream Team.
Seriously, what the hell was that about?!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ain't Never Caught A Rabbit

I’ve noticed lately that for the first time in a while, the best offensive players are also the best defensive players. Most of the current fad of selections for Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA Defensive Team include some combination of Bryant, James, Howard, Wade, or Paul, who are also the top five contenders for MVP on most analysts’ ballots. Paul leads the league in steals, and Wade is second in steals and ranks 16th in blocks, amazingly enough. Howard leads the league in rebounds and blocks, and Bryant and James have become on-the-ball bad-asses.

The correlation between defensive and offensive dominance seems to flow in cycles in this league. In the early part of this decade, the perennial best defensive players were Bruce Bowen, Ben Wallace, Doug Christie, Andrei Kirilenko, Ron Artest, and Dikembe Mutombo, who are not known for being dominating offensive forces. (Yes, Duncan, Bryant, and Garnett also showed up with regularity on the All-Defensive Team lists, but the league’s top scorers like McGrady, Iverson, Carter, and Nowitzki were nowhere near those votes.) Back in the ‘80s, the top defensive players were Paul Pressey, Sidney Moncrief, Mark Eaton, Bobby Jones, Michael Cooper, and Dennis Johnson, who were not synonymous with the league’s top scorers like King, Wilkins, English, Dantley, Gervin. (To his credit, Larry Bird made second team All-Defense three times.) In the ‘90s, top scorers and team leaders like Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon all routinely showed up on All-Defensive lists. On the other hand, other top scorers like Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Mitch Ritchmond, and Clyde Drexler were not defensive standouts, but then they also were not seen as offensive juggernauts who could will a team to victory in a tight playoff series. (Remember how many times the Pacers failed in the conference finals!)

We may very well be in a Golden Age of NBA awesomeness. These playoffs should be great. LeBron vs. Dwyane in the second round? LeBron vs. Dwight in the conference finals? Bryant vs. Paul in the conference finals? All are very plausible, given the likely seedings.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Papa Don't Preach

In our last two posts, we considered horrible and decent NBA executive performance over the last year. Now let us consider the truly best performances by executives in 2008-09. Last summer, the Cavaliers’ Danny Ferry traded Damon Jones and Joe Smith for Mo Williams, who has helped Cleveland to the best record in the league, 20 wins better than their 2007-08 performance, as of this writing. Ferry also signed Smith again several months later! He also drafted NCAA champion Darnell Jackson, who has cracked the rotation lately and sucked in lots of boards in limited minutes. Ferry’s moves were not as extensive as those of John Paxson, say, but a frenzy of activity does not always indicate intelligence. The greatest decisions are often actions eschewed. There were some rumors that Cleveland might seek to acquire Shaquille O’Neal this past February, but Ferry wisely showed restraint; the Cavs are simply not a dump-it-into-the-big-guy team, and O’Neal would likely whine upon realizing that. More generally, many critics wanted Ferry to trade Wally Sczcerbiak for a serious gamer (with a long contract) who could help the team win this season, but Ferry is taking a long-term view; he knows he will need flexibility to make the team better in 2010 and beyond, both to convince LeBron James to re-sign, and then to improve the roster around him. GRADE: A-

Miami Heat President Pat Riley’s first move of the voting year was his decision to demote himself from the coaching position and hire assistant Erik Spoelstra, who is young, smart, hard-working, well-liked by his players, and the first Asian-American head coach in the NBA. In June, Riley used high first-round and second-round picks to draft Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers; he also signed free agents James Jones and Jamaal Magloire. Beasley and Chalmers have played well for rookies, though perhaps not quite at the level you might expect of a college player of the year and a Final Four MOP. Jones and Magloire have been injured most of the year and have delivered little. Later, in his biggest move of the year, Riley traded Shawn Marion, who was severely underperforming given his past achievement, for Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon. This has been a decent move for the Heat; Moon mostly duplicates what Marion was doing (wing defense, rebounding, and general scrappiness) and O’Neal, when healthy, adds an imposing defensive presence in the paint. O’Neal’s contract runs through June 2010, whereas Marion’s contract ends in June 2009, but the extra financial commitment will do little to impede roster flexibility, as the Heat probably were not planning to sign any free agents this summer (Carlos Boozer’s injury history poses too great a risk). Miami is 14-14 since the trade, which is just about exactly the rate of success they were enjoying before the trade, when their record stood at 28-24. Recently, Riley plucked Luther Head off waivers; Head filled up some space as a backup guard in March, but has sat thus far in April. GRADE: A-

Donnie Walsh of the Knicks made several hits in 2008-09. First, he relieved Isiah Thomas of coaching duties and hired Mike D’Antoni, who averaged 58 victories during the previous four seasons with Phoenix, as his new coach. D’Antoni’s shot-happy “system” promised to win over Knicks fans hardened by too much futility, and his Italian-American identity probably couldn’t hurt in the New York area. Next, he drafted Danilo Gallinari, whose performance can only be deemed incomplete, given his back problems. Some players drafted lower than Gallinari, including Brook Lopez, Jason Thompson, Anthony Randolph, and Marreese Speights, have shown serious flashes of greatness; on the other hand, Gallinari hit a few big three-pointers for the Knicks during his short burst of health this winter. Walsh then cut a ton of 2009-10 and 2010-11 salary by dumping Zach Randolph on the Clippers for Cuttino Mobley (who promptly retired) and Tim Thomas (whom Walsh later traded for Larry Hughes, who like Thomas has a contract that expires in 2010). Walsh also traded Jamal Crawford for Al Harrington, turning a 2011 expiring contract into a 2010 expiring, while keeping an able athlete on the floor. Walsh traded Malik Rose for Chris Wilcox, which had little financial implication (both contracts expire in June ’09) but gave the Knicks a chance to test out Wilcox’s talents for two months. Finally, Walsh successfully kept Stephon Marbury, whom new Coach D'Antoni deemed a needless nuisance, away from the team for most of the season and managed to get rid of him (forcing Marbury to take a bit of a haircut on his salary) late in the season, depriving his new team, the Celtics, of more than a couple months of his services pre-playoffs. Walsh deserves credit for setting an exciting new direction for the team and cutting salary in advance of the 2010 free-agent market, though he has otherwise he has done little to improve the team’s on-court performance. The Knicks will miss the playoffs again this year for the fifth consecutive season, and the seventh time in the last eight. After Isiah Thomas's reign, Walsh's actions truly look like Total Quality Management. GRADE: A-

Orlando GM Otis Smith didn’t do a lot, but his few moves were indispensable for the team. First, he drafted college senior Courtney Lee, who has shown poised defense and adequately drilled 3-pointers to keep defenses honest. Lee beat out three other veterans — Mickael Pietrus (an athletic wing player whom Smith smartly signed as a free agent from Golden State last summer for only $5 MM annually), J.J. Redick, and Keith Bogans — for the starting spot. Later, when Jameer Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Smith quickly and effectively scrambled to replace Nelson at PG, using the few tradeable assets on his squad. First, Smith traded Keith Bogans, who was effectively the team’s fourth option at SG, for Tyronn Lue so that the team could have a proper backup point guard as long as Anthony Johnson needed to start. Later, he traded Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle, plus a future draft pick, for Rafer Alston, who immediately walked into O-town and began running the ship like Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. Even better, Foyle later returned to Orlando in March ’09 after Memphis (which acquired Foyle in the complicated three-way deal) waived him. And Lue might seem superfluous now, but Johnson is old, and it never hurts to have a third-string point guard with an NBA championship ring. This summer, the team will have a problem with two starting point guards in Nelson and Alston. Presumably Smith will trade one of them, but that’s a problem for the summer. For now, Orlando is a serious contender for the NBA championship, something only three other teams can say. GRADE: A

In Denver, General Manager Mark Warkentien pulled off the fantastic Iverson-for-Billups trade that we extolled a few months ago, following the exile of Marcus Camby to the Clippers. Camby’s exit, in addition to saving the team a whole bunch of money, has allowed the younger Nene Hilario to thrive as Denver’s starting center, earning mention as a Most Improved Player candidate. Warkentien also pulled off some quieter but awesome moves, including the signing of Chris Andersen, the signing of Dahntay Jones, and the acquisition of Renaldo Balkman, who all have been defensive beasts off the bench, adding a combined total of slightly over $3 MM annually to Denver’s payroll. Today, after all these additions and subtractions, Denver is poised to grab the second playoff seed in the Western Conference, and could finally break the Carmelo Anthony-George Karl streak of four consecutive first-round playoff losses. GRADE: A

In Oklahoma City, Sam Presti chose Russell Westbrook at the fourth position in the draft, thus finding an able distributor to pass the ball to Kevin Durant well into the ‘Teens. He acquired Joe Smith and Desmond Mason for Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin, added some inside heft by luring Nenad Krstic back to the NBA from Russia, and acquired Thabo Sefolosha for a 2009 first-round draft pick. Sefolosha has been a defensive beast in the last six weeks, highlighted by a March in which he delivered 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game from the shooting guard position. Presti nearly pulled off a huge heist by acquiring Tyson Chandler for some veterans with expiring contracts, but chose to cancel the deal due to concerns over an old foot injury. This already looks prudent and prescient, as Chandler played only 12 games after that trade, and has since missed 13 with an ankle problem. Most importantly, Presti hired assistant Scott Brooks to be the new head coach; Brooks then made the sensible decision of moving Kevin Durant to a frontcourt position, after former coach P.J. Carlesimo insisted on making him a guard. After starting the season 1-10 under Carlesimo, the Thunder went 2-13 in December, 7-7 in January, 3-9 in February, and 7-8 in March. It’s not the ’86 Celtics, but it appears that Brooks’s moves are paying off. Presti’s moves in the last 12 months have positioned his team to be a playoff contender for the next 10 years. GRADE: A+


Ultimately we had a tough time deciding among Ferry, Riley, Walsh, Smith, Warkentien, and Presti, but if we had a vote, we would deliver the NBA Executive of the Year Award out to Sam Presti for his patient, long-term planning. We can’t wait to see what he does next.


UPDATE May 3rd: Denver's Warkentien won the award with 9 of 30 votes. We consider this a fine choice, as we had him second on our ballot. Surprisingly, Oklahoma City's Presti only received one vote!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I'm Happy Just To Dance With You

Welcome back to our weekend series on the NBA Executive of the Year Award for 2008-09. Last time we considered the worst performances; tomorrow we will consider the best. Today, we consider the notable jobs that fall somewhere in the middle.

Losing teams made a lot of lateral decisions that are hard to evaluate right now. For example, in Minnesota, team president Kevin McHale drafted O.J. Mayo and turned him (along with some veterans who weren’t in the Wolves’ plans) into Mike Miller, Jason Collins, Brian Cardinal, and Kevin Love. He also traded Rashad McCants and Calvin Booth for Shelden Williams and Bobby Brown. Meanwhile, in Memphis, GM Chris Wallace drafted NCAA champion Darrell Arthur and nabbed Mayo from Minnesota in the aforementioned trade. He finally dispersed his glut of young point guards, sending Javaris Crittendon to Washington for a draft pick and sending Kyle Lowry to Houston for a draft pick and Mike Wilks. However, none of these moves were particularly impactful. Memphis is still one of the worst teams in the league; unlike Dwyane Wade in 2003-04, the “combo” guard Mayo has not shown his squad how to win. Minnesota similarly did little this year. Love looks like a star, but Minnesota still sucks. GRADE for both: C+

John Paxson of the Bulls selected Derrick Rose first in the draft, refusing to imbibe the honeyed vapors of Michael Beasley or O.J. Mayo, whose amazing scoring skills helped them appear more “NBA-ready” at the time. Rose, who leads all rookies in assists and ranks second in points per game and minutes played, has validated Paxson’s gamble. Paxson also made the curious decision to hire Vinny Del Negro, who had never coached basketball at any level. The Bulls have played .500 ball in VDN’s first season, which probably is a bit poorer than a more skillful coach could have steered the team, which features six former NCAA Final Four stars. Later, in February, Paxson traded Nocioni and Drew Gooden for Brad Miller and John Salmons. Salmons has been rock-solid for the Bulls; his March included 21 points per game, nearly 5 rebounds, and 50% field goal percentage, and the Bulls went 9-7 in that month. Paxson traded Larry Hughes for Tim Thomas, Jerome James, and Anthony Roberson, although this trade did not help the Bulls much on the court or on the P/L sheet; all three of the new contracts, which sum to about the amount of Hughes’s contract ($13 MM), expire in 2010, just as Hughes’s deal does. Perhaps the disaggregation of the $13 MM into more “modular” assets gives the Bulls more flexibility for future trades. Finally, Paxson jettisoned Thabo Sefolosha for a draft pick. This last one didn’t make much sense to me. With the loss of Hughes and Sefolosha, the Bulls only have three rotation guards: Rose, Hinrich, and Gordon. Gordon likely won’t be re-signed after this spring, and Hinrich probably should be traded so he can properly play a starting PG role elsewhere. Possibly, John Salmons could be a starting SG with Luol Deng on the floor to play SF, but that still leaves only two decent guards on the team. Sefolosha was, and could continue to be, a solid bench contributor, but now he is playing le beau jeu in Oklahoma. So all in all, Paxson’s moves have brought mixed fortune to the team. I really think owner Jerry Reinsdorf needs to bring in a general manager with fresh ideas. Derrick Rose, Noah, and Tyrus Thomas are nice building blocks, but Chicago needs to ready the franchise to pull in a top-rate free agent such as Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade next summer. GRADE: B-

Since June 2008, New Jersey’s Rod Thorn selected Brook Lopez in the draft, then moved Richard Jefferson for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. He also signed free agents Jarvis Hayes and Eduardo Najera, who have been mostly inconsequential to the team. Lopez has been awesome, a steal at the tenth position in the first round. Had Thorn pulled off the rumored trade of Vince Carter for young talent or draft picks, he might be a contender for this award, but we simply cannot put Thorn near the top of the list, given the poor performance of Yi, whom some thought could become a Nowitzki-like freak. GRADE: B-

In San Antonio, team president RC Buford drafted unheralded guard George Hill and signed Roger Mason Jr. and, more recently, Drew Gooden. Mason in particular has been a solid contributor as a middling starting guard with a penchant for hitting big shots in the clutch. Mason’s presence has helped to forestall complete disaster while Parker and Ginobili missed significant time to injury, but Spurs management has failed to add another big-time player to the team since drafting Tony Parker in 2001 and adding Manu Ginobili (drafted in 1999) to the team in 2002. The 2007 decision to trade Luis Scola to Houston has never made much sense to me. And touted Europeans Tiago Splitter and Ian Mahinmi are either still in Europe, or stuck on the Spurs’ bench. Granted, this is a referendum on 2008-09 actions only, but we long for a San Antonio general manager who could hit a home run instead of just being excited by a double. Four championships are hard to denigrate, but the Spurs sure could have used more help last season or this one. GRADE: B

In Portland, Kevin Pritchard drafted Nicolas Batum and Jerryd Bayless, which were perfectly respectable picks given Portland’s relatively wide-open pecking order at SF and PG. Pritchard also coaxed 2007 draft pick Rudy Fernandez (who dazzled with the Spanish team in Beijing) to join the Blazers after a year with his club team in Barcelona. These were fine moves, and the presence of strong role players has probably helped Portland make the transition from playoff also-ran to nearly a championship contender. The Blazers’ case helps to highlight that good executive performance need not bring your team out of the cellar or launch it to a championship, but can consist of taking the little steps to go from good to great. In any case, this evaluation is attenuated somewhat by Blazer management’s obnoxious email to the rest of the league regarding the team’s perceived rights vis-a-vis Blazers player Darius Miles, which letter we considered and analyzed in this January post. So all in all, I give Pritchard a GRADE of B for these moves.

Yet, I wonder what the Blazers could be if, counterfactually, they had drafted even more smartly. So far Pritchard has scored several good moves: In 2007 traded Zach Randolph for Channing Frye and (the soon-to-depart) Steve Francis; in 2006 he drafted Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Sergio Rodriguez; and in 2007 he drafted Rudy Fernandez. His choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant looks increasingly poor, though. Imagine the Blazers with Joel Przybilla sucking in rebounds at an insane rate and bodying up to opposing centers as their full-time center, and Kevin Durant pouring in points as their starting 3. And how can we forget the previous regime’s decision to trade out of the #3 position in the 2005 NBA Draft when Chris Paul and Deron Williams were on the board? Their eventual booty from that draft, Martell Webster, is not all that good, and only played about 5 minutes this whole season. CP3 would surely be an upgrade over Steve Blake. But of course, the draft is a crapshoot, and the jackpots of Roy and Aldridge are better than most teams ever do in a three-year period.

Houston General Manager Daryl Morey had a pretty good year — first drafting Joey Dorsey, and then acquiring Ron Artest, Von Wafer, and Brent Barry before the season began. He then lured Dikembe Mutombo out of retirement, and then, observing that Aaron Brooks was ready for a starter’s role at the PG position, he revivified the team’s PG play by trading Rafer Alston for Kyle Lowry and Brian Cook. I believe, though, that Morey’s year is notable more for what he did not do: he could have traded Tracy McGrady while his value was still high (before he bowed out of yet another season, this time with microfracture knee surgery). Morey may deeply regret his excessive patience with T-Mac. Morey also organized a “sports analytics” conference in March ’09 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. We nerds at JPO adore any attempt to impose rigor on the fuzzy realm of basketball “analysis”, so he gets some extra bonus marks therefor. GRADE: B+


Next time, we will consider the absolute best executive performances of 2008-09 and announce our choice for NBA Executive of the Year.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Let Her Cry

Sports websites like and need to publish fresh content every day of the week in order to satisfy hungry readers who have grown accustomed to a steady stimulus of commentary. (Luckily, the same economic and ethical duties do not bind us here at JPO.) Every spring, a tested genre of prose is the “Awards Prediction” piece, in which writers size up the top players’ regular-season performances and predict (or recommend) which players will earn the NBA’s individual awards. One thing they almost never do is talk about who should win Executive of the Year – probably because, while the criteria for awards like Most Valuable Player or Most Improved are poorly defined, the standards for a good management performance are completely inscrutable.

To our view, a good executive is one who keeps his players and fans happy, builds a well-coordinated roster (including the right coach) that can produce quality play on the court, maintains a reasonable payroll with flexibility for future roster moves, helps his owner turn a profit, maximizes some discounted stream of present and future team success. (The precise discount rate is probably higher than a typical financial discount rate, given the frenzied myopia of sports fans.) Obviously these criteria are not precisely defined, and not always mutually compatible. Still, we will consider these rules as we evaluate performance from the past year.

Let us keep in mind, first, that the term of consideration for Executive of the Year begins with the end of the regular season in April one year, and extends to the same date the following April. In 2007-08, two general managers stood out for excellent work – notably, it was the two executives who sparked their churned rosters to the Finals. In the summer of ’07, Danny Ainge, top man of the Celtics, acquired Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and James Posey, and later signed Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown for the season’s stretch run. Plus, he drafted Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt. Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak acquired Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, and Pau Gasol for next to nothing (the latter by using as currency Javaris Crittendon and Marc Gasol, both of whom had been drafted in the ’07 draft), and later signed the earnest D.J. Mbenga when Andrew Bynum went down. There were few other executives whose performances really stood out that year. Orlando signed Rashard Lewis to a long contract; the Hawks drafted Al Horford and traded for Mike Bibby; Rod Thorn ripped off Mark Cuban in the Jason Kidd trade; and Isiah Thomas (yes, that guy) drafted Wilson Chandler and traded nearly-immobile Steve Francis, plus the disappointing young strapper Channing Frye, for a useful asset in Zach Randolph. But, of course, none of these teams made much noise when it counted in the spring of ’08.

Ainge won the award, but Kupchak easily could have taken the prize.

Let us now turn to executive performances in 2008-09. First, to be thorough, what of last year's award winners? To save money in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Kupchak traded Vladimir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown (who has seen playing time at backup PG for the Lakers, supplanting Jordan Farmar); and Ainge decided to cut costs by letting James Posey sign with the Hornets, before drafting Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens and signing Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore as free agents late in the season. These decisions were all probably helpful for the respective teams’ long-run health, but none was terribly consequential. Neither Walker nor Giddens have played all year, and Marbury really isn't that useful when Eddie House is available as a sweet-shooting backup point guard. These moves are barely worth considering to bury or praise.

This post will address terrible executive management for the 2008-09 award year; future posts will examine strong executive performance. The worst General Manager of the Year has surely been the Clippers’ Mike Dunleavy, who committed about $14 million per year through 2012-13 to Baron Davis, who is often injured and usually unhappy. Then he foolishly let Elton Brand get away. Then he acquired Marcus Camby as an ostensible replacement for Brand, though Camby is more of a skinny shotblocker, not a low-post beast like Brand, and plays the same position as center Chris Kaman (who is signed at $12 million per year through 2011-12). Camby is owed about $8 million in each of 2008-09 and 2009-10 – thus ensuring that the Clippers would have two seasons of an unbalanced roster. Pushing a bad situation into total entropy, Dunleavy then traded some spare parts for the notoriously defense-averse Zach Randolph, who is signed through 2010-11 at $17 million per season. It would have been better to let the contracts of Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas expire, rather than adding this wide load to the team. Now it’s April, and with 80 games done in the season and two left, the Clippers have won less than 25% of their bouts. GRADE: F

In Golden State, team president Robert Rowell and de facto GM Don Nelson traded Al Harrington for Crawford after Big Al developed a feud with Nelon; drafted freakish big man Anthony Randolph; let Baron Davis get away; signed Ronny Turiaf, an energetic shot-blocker; traded for Marcus Williams (who hardly played a minute all season, before being inexplicably released in March despite a guaranteed contract) after Monta Ellis wrecked his ankle; and gave a five-year free agent contract to Corey Maggette, who adds nothing that other GSW slashers like Ellis, Stephen Jackson, and Kelenna Azubuike don’t. Later, Nelson threatened to trade Crawford if he exercises his player option for 2009-10. The Warriors also alienated Monta Ellis by muttering about terminating his contract after his Moped-induced ankle injury. Though they may have that contractual right, it’s a non-credible threat; they signed him to a market-rate deal for a young budding star – why would they want to lose him? GRADE: E

In Phoenix, Steve Kerr continued his odd tinkering with (some would say destruction of) the roster, trading Raja Bell and Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. He drafted Robin Lopez and traded for second-round draft pick Goran Dragic, and later signed Matt Barnes and Louis Amundsen as free agents. Unfortunately, Lopez is not as skilled as his brother Brook; Dragic struggled when featured as Steve Nash’s understudy; and Amundsen and Barnes are little better than the role players on any other bench. Kerr’s worst move was hiring Terry Porter to coach a defensive-oriented team when he lacked defensive-oriented personnel, especially after trading away Shawn Marion the previous February. And why would he then trade Bell, the team's only remaining good defender? He also should have known that a team full of veterans, many hardly younger than Porter himself, would blanch at following Porter’s authority. Firing Porter in February was an admission that Kerr has no clue about the direction of the franchise. Kerr has already admitted that a run-and-gun style cannot work in the playoffs, so what is the point of installing Alvin Gentry as coach? Perhaps there is something to just pleasing the fans for a couple more months and aiming for a playoff berth, but Kerr needs to seriously rethink his strategy this summer. If defense wins, then trade Nash, Shaq, and Stoudemire, who all will fetch serious value in the form of draft picks, and start over. You’re not winning anything in 2009-10 anyway. GRADE: D

As general manager for Charlotte, Michael Jordan pulled off several trades: Jason Richardson for Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, Adam Morrison for Vladimir Radmanovic, and Ryan Hollins and Matt Carroll for Desagana Diop. Jordan also picked up D.J. Augustin and Alexis Ajinca in the 2008 draft. Working closely with new coach Larry Brown, Jordan has actually built a roster that can (nearly) land a playoff spot. As Diaw, Bell, Diop, and Vlad Rad are no longer youngsters, these were all moves for “today”, rather than moves for the future, which is odd, given that Charlotte has no hope of any significant success this season or next. Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace are not superstars who can take you to the promised land. Charlotte really needs to suffer through a cellar-dwelling season, score a high draft pick, and get lucky with a young stud. Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference is not sound policy for Charlotte. GRADE: C


Next time we will consider the moderately creditable executive performances of the past twelve months.
Please keep reading.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ain't Too Proud To Beg

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal ably outlines why “assists” is often a piece of data prone to enormous measurement error. Each team’s statisticians has total discretion over when to assign assists for both the home and visiting team, and the league-wide standard — “the last pass leading directly to a field goal, only if the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating immediate reaction to the basket”— is maddeningly fuzzy. Could it be that the PGs often perceived as best in the league, due in large part to their outsized assist numbers, could benefit from measurement bias?

My first thought upon reading this is that each team faces the same biases, averaged over the season, right? Even if there is a home bias for assist tallies, each team has 42 home games and 42 road games. Every team gets a diverse sampling of different arenas around the league. … But that’s not quite right.

Each team in the league has a different mix of opposing teams on its schedule. For example, an Eastern conference team, say Miami, plays 52 games against Eastern conference opponents and 30 games (two per Western team) against Western opponents. Of the 52 games against Eastern opponents, Miami plays four times against each of its four Southeast Division rivals (Atlanta, Orlando, Charlotte, Washington), and three or four times against all other Eastern teams. Now consider Atlanta. Atlanta’s schedule mix is roughly the same, except that they play Miami four times, and they don’t play Atlanta! Next, consider Detroit’s schedule vs. Miami’s. Detroit plays each of the other Central Division teams four times, which is pretty similar to Miami, which plays each Central Division team (including Detroit) three or four times. Detroit plays the Atlantic teams three or four times each, just like Miami does. Detroit plays each Southeast team (including Miami) three or four times, whereas Miami played all the non-Southeast teams four times. Also, Detroit plays each Western team twice, just like Miami does.

But a Western team, say Utah, plays each Eastern team only twice, and each Western team three or four times (each Northwest Division team, four times for sure). So the greatest discrepancy of schedule is between Eastern vs. Western teams, rather than any discrepancy for teams of different divisions within the same conference.

We can assume that the home statisticians of each team will be roughly equally friendly (i.e. very) to home-team point guards in assigning assists. The real variation, I would hypothesize, comes in how friendly the home statistician is to the visiting team’s point guard. Some may have a strong sense of fairness, while some may just say “Screw it.”

It is notable that of the top seven players on the league assists leaders list (or equivalently, the players averaging 8.0 assists per game or above), five play in the Western Conference. Now, perhaps this limited sample is not fair; ten of the top twenty players come from the East. Still, it is instructive to consider the gaudy end of the distribution. If there are more arenas in the West where the statisticians happen to be unusually friendly to visiting PGs like Paul, Williams, or Nash, then they could have an advantage in amassing assist stats compared to guys like Rondo or Calderon who spend more of their time in the East.

The obvious solution, not mentioned by the WSJ writer, is for the NBA to assign official statisticians to each game. Really, I don’t understand why this isn’t done. Teams could still track and collect their own stats privately, but why not have a neutral, central, better-trained body take charge of the statistics? We trust the federal government to collect unemployment data; we don’t ask a local Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Homebuilders to do it for us.