Saturday, October 31, 2009

Conservatives and the NBA

Reading some of the reactions to the discussion on the NBA age limit below, it feels like it's getting hot in herre.

So much so that it reminded me of an evening switching back and forth between Fox News (read: Mr. B. Atlantic) and MSNBC (read: the rest of the bloggers here).

Based on these numbers, the blog might appear unbalanced, so to give Mr. B. Atlantic some help I dug out an old quote from (a possible ally?) Rush Limbaugh about the NBA.

LIMBAUGH: There is something about this hip-hop culture business. I'm not going to mention the name because there's thousands of them, but I've been watching interviews with ex-NBA players and current NBA players.

LIMBAUGH: This is the hip-hop culture on parade. This is gang behavior on parade minus the guns. That's the culture that the NBA has become. So if anybody will be honest with you about it in the NBA, and a very few will have the courage to, because saying what I just said is going to be tagged as racist, but I, my friends, am fearless when it comes to this because the truth will out, and that's what's happening here, and part and parcel of this gang culture, this hip-hop culture, is: "I'm not going to tolerate being dissed."

I wonder what would happen if Limbaugh tried to buy an NBA team...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Roids and the NBA

I was flipping through the Boston Globe website recently trying to gather intelligence on the BB Davis situation and came across an interesting piece here about the role of medical professionals in administering steroids in the MLB.

Although the allegations of steroids in the NBA have come nowhere close to those in MLB, they did merit a congressional hearing (mostly overrun with denials), an uproar over failed tests by Rashard Lewis, Lindsay Hunter, and Soumalia Samake, and the issue continues to hum just below the radar given other problems the league faces.

Despite this limited attention, I'm left wondering how do we know for sure that steroids are not a big problem in the NBA? Are we to believe that the NBA players are somehow much better than their colleagues in other professional sports?

Unsurprisingly, my opinion on the matter became more cynical after reading Massa Stern's blanket denial of the problem. Seems like there must be something underneath this.

NBA Age Minimum Redux

Buzz Bussinger's provocative piece in the NY Times, "Bring Back Basketball's Little Big Men", has already generated considerable buzz on this blog. I have been disturbed to read Bhel Atlantic's defense of Commissioner Stern's proposal to raise the NBA age minimum again -- this time to 20. For reasons mentioned below by my colleague Earl Da Goat, the age minimum smacks of paternalism and should be scrapped -- not raised.

I make three additional observations:

1. Who does David Stern think he is? Raising the age minimum is cruel to high school players who have the skill and desire to make the jump to the NBA. Many pro athletes come from poverty and have worked harder than Commissioner Stern can fathom to get to the point where they can take care of their families. For no good reason, the age minimum deprives these kids of their just rewards. One may argue that their opportunity to play in the NBA isn't denied -- just deferred. But let's not forget that every competitive basketball player risks a career-ending injury every time s/he steps on the floor. Commissioner Stern needs to realize that he is not the Great White Father of NBA players: he is an administrator. He should stick to hawking NBA merchandise in Europe and China rather than trying to play Daddy to a group of remarkable young athletes with whom he shares little.

2. Forcing athletes to go to college against their will doesn't help them. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for student-athletes going to college, getting an education and preparing for life after pro sports. But this is -- and ought to remain -- their choice.

Part of my revulsion for forcing athletes to attend college is because Division I NCAA sports are already exploitative. College athletes generate millions of dollars in revenues for their respective schools but are not allowed to be compensated. In light of this, forcing players to attend college smacks of indentured servitude.

Mr. Atlantic seems to think that NBA players will learn to behave like gentlemen if they go to college. He laments the high number of NBA players who father children out of wedlock and suggests that college will somehow teach them not to have sex with groupies. (I guess UNLV alum Larry Johnson skipped that class.). First, there does not seem to be any correlation between going to college and fathering out-of-wedlock children. Second, the suggestion that the NBA should be in the business of preaching abstinence and family values to its players is highly problematic. It is neither Mr. Atlantic's nor Commissioner Stern's business if NBA players have children out of wedlock. There is nothing illegal about it, and many men who never get married are excellent fathers. I am further curious about what other life skills Mr. Atlantic thinks the NBA should be teaching its young players -- classes on cleanliness? The notion that the NBA needs to civilize its players is downright offensive.

And even if you think that pro athletes need to learn some manners, it's not clear that college is the place to learn. Many players are more spoiled in college than they will be in the NBA. (In the NBA, there are no college coaches or university administrators to conceal who wrote your SATs or hide your drug abuse.)

3. The other supposed benefits of the age minimum are trivial
. Bhel Atlantic is a smart guy but even he is struggled to identify the supposed benefits on an NBA age minimum. He argues that the NBA suffers if high school players can enter the draft: because nobody wants to miss out on drafting the next Kobe or KG, NBA teams draft "projects" right out of high school, some of whom will never amount to anything. Poor NBA owners and executives. So NBA scouts will have to get better at their job. Given the downside to the age minimum, that's a burden we should all be willing to live with.

The Best Is Yet To Come

Towards the end of Game 1 of the World Series a couple nights ago, commentator Tim McCarver noted that the Phillies had augmented a 2-0 lead to 6-0, with two runs in the top half of the eighth inning and two more runs in the top of the ninth. McCarver suggested that "Teams lose a lot of games because of tack-on runs." I found this analysis a bit quizzical. Sure, teams lose a lot of games by allowing runs late. But teams also lose games by allowing runs early. And allowing runs in the fifth inning ain't so good for ya, either. Apparently a baseball purist is to believe that no team worth its salt should be allowing runs late in games; perhaps the presence of an all-fastball-hurling relief pitcher like Mariano Rivera, who didn't even get on the mound that night, means that average runs-per-inning decreases later in the game. [I have looked on Google but cannot find statistics on average runs per inning in each of the 9 innings, aggregating all MLB games.] But why are these late runs by a leading team deemed so embarrassing or so illegitimate?

Presumably offensive players in baseball are slightly less motivated with a lead than they are while playing from behind; defensive players are more motivated when their team is behind. (But if the gap in the score is huge, offensive players and defensive players playing from behind could be demoralized and reduce their effort.) Perhaps we should be critical of the Yankees for allowing those late runs, but it hardly means that their performance was grossly negligent. The same dynamics likely govern in basketball, also.

Back in the NBA, one game I consider archetypal is Game 7 of the Orlando-Boston second-round series from last May. The Magic led by only five points after three quarters, and the whole Garden crowd was totally jacked to see the home side pound Orlando in the fourth quarter for a thrilling comeback. Instead, Orlando scored 11 unanswered points in the first two minutes of the fourth, and then their stifling defense convinced Boston that the decision was locked. Now, can we say that Boston lost because they got lackadaisacal for those two minutes? Were those 11 points equivalent to McCarver's "tack-on runs"? Alternatively, we might say that Orlando proved in those two minutes that they are the better team. Sometimes teams prove their superiority in the first quarter; Orlando proved it in the fourth. (Objectively, it would have been surprising if the Celtics, missing their defensive leader Garnett, had taken the series.) Additionally, let us consider the season debut of the Timberwolves on Wednesday night. The Timberwolves overcame a 16-point deficit with under 7 minutes to play, eventually edging New Jersey 95-93 with a emergency shot at the buzzer by Damien Wilkins. Predictably, Nets-oriented bloggers called the outcome a "punch in the gut". The Nets choked, in the usual vernacular. But it's more likely that this burst of performance from Minnesota evinced their superiority to New Jersey (at least on that night); perhaps New Jersey's ability to mount a 16-point edge was the real fluke.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two Roads Diverged In A Yellow Wood

Inter alia, the 2008-09 NBA season saw two remarkable streaks: Cleveland won 39 of its first 40 home games (before dropping a meaningless finale by one point in overtime with bench players seeing the most court time) and Jose Calderon made an NBA-record 151 of 154 free throws. After two nights of this season, Cleveland is 0-2 (0-1 at home) and Calderon is shooting 60% on his free throws, having missed two of five.

Flipped coins don't have a memory of the prior flip, and so the probability of a given outcome (heads, say) is constant over time and independent of whatever happened earlier. Five heads in a row? Your chance of another head is still 50%. Yet athletic outcomes surely are not like that. Success breeds confidence and good habits, which breed more success; alternatively, an eternally wowing streak like 98 percent free-throw completion might weigh mentally and make a man more nervous. Clearly with Cleveland and Calderon, the positive-feedback side dominated last year. Yet in the season's first bounces, these guys collapsed on the metrics wherein they kicked butt in 08-09. That truly is surprising; their "memory" is now amnesiac. Much like children who have no books during summer vacation, basketball players apparently forget what made them great while they slumber in July and August.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stern Apologists

I couldn't avoid being provoked by the attempted defense of Massa Stern by my colleague, Mr. B. Atlantic.

Even if you are in favor of the age limit, Mr. Atlantic's response reeks of paternalism and elitism. I suppose Mr. Atlantic's perspective is obvious given his off-hand (and perhaps unneeded) reference to coordination failures on Wall Street (or as some would say, Wall Cheat). But I wonder why the other side thinks that NBA players can't take care of themselves, and perhaps more importantly, why those players who are not on Mr. Atlantic's Eight Fold Path would be remedied by being forced to go to college for one year.

First, the elitism and tinges of racism. I'd be curious to know Mr. Atlantic: how many of these high school to pro players are coming from "rusty gyms in the Mississippi"? Indeed, what fraction of the players affected by the age limit are white? Even in percentage terms, this policy surely differentially hurts the African-American players.

Second, the analysis rests on shoddy counterfactual reasoning. I'm not convinced that LBJ, Howard and Ellis would have behaved any differently had they been forced to go to college. I could easily have imagined it the other way. Atlantic seems to forget the other iron law of unintended consequences. The policy leads to players going to Europe until they turn 19. Does he expect the players to get counseling on condom use on the French Riviera?

Finally, and most importantly, why is forcing someone to go to college for one year the best way to help someone get on the right track? That is, why doesn't the NBA provide more services for these young players, such as someone to help manage finances, the press, family obligations, etc. to get them on the Eight Fold path. What in particular do they learn in college that is relevant? There are much better ways to deal with the alleged issues than forcing someone to go to college.

The obvious answer as to why the NBA does not consider this is that it would directly take out of Massa Stern's pockets, something which he and the owners he represents are unwilling to do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Support of Stern

My colleague Earl da Goat, in his post immediately below, wants to know why the NBA is happy to re-distribute the rents from young players to the NCAA.

As Bissinger notes in the article, the NBA benefits from drafting proven talent with an existing popular following, rather than nobodies from rusty gyms in the Mississippi Delta. Of course, without the age rule in place, no GM wants to be the guy who misses out on the next Garnett, so he feels compelled to take the risk. The age rule in the collective bargaining agreement solves the coordination problem and achieves an outcome that is better for all teams. (It seems to me that a similar problem bedeviled Wall Street in recent years; traders, fund managers, etc. felt compelled to take on more risk to keep up with the Joneses [or the Goldmans] even as the collective volatility of portfolios became untenable.)

Additionally, it is not even clear that the NBA loses anything economically from forcing Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, etc. to delay their entry into the league by one year. Despite the extra mileage on their wheels from the college games, the players will likely play the same number of pro seasons as they counterfactually would have without college; everyone feels he is entitled to "get paid" a certain amount. Jersey sales and other merch will likely be the same over time, even discounting the cash flows.

As for "Why do the players agree to this nonsense?" have you ever heard of negotiation, Earl? You give some, you get some. In the last round of bargaining in 2005, players received a bigger cut of revenues and the NBA won shorter contracts (as well as the age limit and dress code).

I support the age limit, and furthermore, I hope the limit is raised to age 20, so that players are forced to spend at least two years in college. Or perhaps the NBA could adopt Major League Baseball's model, where high school players must choose to either enter the draft at age 18, or commit to three years of college. "One and done" players who show up on a university campus for eight months and don't even bother attending class during their second semester make a mockery of the whole exercise. I do believe that college is a useful transition period for young people to test their independence in a controlled environment and learn the folkways of adulthood. What's more, a variety of prep-to-pros such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Monta Ellis, and so on have become illegitimate fathers since entering the league. (To be fair, James reportedly spends time with his children.) Surely a bit of campus time with peer counselors waving around condoms could have helped them. Additionally, a little time with some college hotties would have relieved Young Mr. Bynum's hot desire to make a spectacle of himself at the Playboy Mansion.

Paternalism and "Massa" Stern

Today's New York Times has a piece by LBJ biographer Harry Gerard Bissinger III (also known as Buzz and author of Friday Night Lights) describing how we "got punked" by Massa Stern that is well worth reading.

Bissinger's piece displays a shrewdness which affirms his status to be the Kissinger of sport journalists. (I'll understand if you can't get past the paragraph that starts... "If David Stern truly cared about his players’ well-being...")

As BB argues, the age limit on players entering the NBA is obviously a bad policy: it simply takes the rents the players could have earned on their exceptional talents and distributes it to the NCAA. The puzzle for me is, why is the the NBA interested in subsidizing the NCAA?

There was one other place we got punked by Massa Stern and his paternalistic attitude to the NBA players: The NBA dress code.

Why do the players agree to this nonsense?

Monday, October 26, 2009

I'll Have What She's Having

Last spring I felt aghast as I read a whole literature of punditry expressing derision for any basketball fan who dares to follow the NBA regular season. The winter months are so long and tedious, goes the argument, that paying attention before the playoffs is hardly worth the notion. I congratulated myself for being a "real" fan and wondered who would have the temerity to switch on a May or June game after not paying any fealty to the league during the fall and winter.

Yet last night I stood transfixed in front of the tube, watching my beloved Yankees** defeat the Angels and advance to the World Series. As a child, I adored baseball, attended many Tigers games downtown in the D, studied every box score in the newspaper, and feverishly constructed score cards by hand while listening to Al Kaline narrate games on the black-and-white television in my room (if my parents allowed me to stay up past 10). Somehow I grew out of it with time (I suppose I have only time enough to follow one sport closely). If I'm asked now if I'm a baseball fan, I shrug and say "Pshaw, it's boring", or more wistfully, "Not anymore." Yet when October strolls in, I watch the games. I love the games! Every moment is so heavy – a strikeout could be triumphal, a triple disastrous.

I suppose many basketball fans treat the playoffs this way. The NBA season, for them, is a blur of injuries, trade demands, a slam dunk contest, and various acts of thuggery. Ball doesn't get good until the crap teams are out and the superstars remain. "The Highest Level Of Hoop", Ralph Wiley used to call it. The NBA playoffs are an especially happy time because they herald spring -- a flourishing, a re-naissance. And sure, I get that. I guess I like the NBA season because (unlike football) 82 games provide enough sample size to determine which teams are actually the best, and (unlike baseball) they don't play every damn day. And when it's cold, nothing tickles me more than a hot cup of cocoa and some TNT Thursday night. When I was young, I had a shower radio on which I listened to George Blaha announce Pistons games while I soaped myself clean each night, preparing for another day of fourth grade. Basketball still throws me back to those innocent days.

**My affinity for the Yanks stems from the year when I worked in the Bronx and was frequently mistaken (yes, really!) for Jorge Posada. Like a good Method actor, I began to identify myself with his troubles and travails.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nocioni, Garcia, Garbanzo

In a recent post, The Hummus Blog quotes Israeli player Omri Casspi, now of the Sacramento Kings, lamenting the lack of authentic hummus found in US grocery stores. There are not many restaurants or fast-food establishments in the U.S. serving explicitly "Israeli" food; Sacramento appears to have none, and Chicago, my current locale, has only two. (The first hit on that Chicago list is not Israeli ... trust me.) Casspi likely will need to visit one of the many Arab dining spots in the Sacramento area, highlighted by this one, which happens, I think by random chance, to bear the same name (Malouf) as the Lebanese-American owners of his current club.

I suppose Israeli immigrants in general face this problem in the United States. The case of Casspi interests me greatly as a b-ball blogger because he is the first Israeli-born player, to my knowledge, to play in the Association. I credit Casspi for not advancing the chauvinistic and inaccurate claim that hummus is "Israeli food".

Friday, October 9, 2009

Transitive Gaijin

Strange stuff over at's annual survey of general managers.

58.6 percent of GMs believe that Tim Duncan is the best power forward in the league. 10.3% (about 3 respondents out of 29?) favor Dirk Nowitzki, and Pau Gasol earns honorable mention.

Meanwhile, 64.3 percent of GMs believe that Dirk Nowitzki is the best international player in the Association, with Gasol second at 10.7% (3 votes out of 28) and Duncan last with 7.1% (2 votes).

How can GMs rank Duncan > Nowitzki > Gasol in one setting, and Nowitzki > Gasol > Duncan in another? It is possible that ballots were completely open: rather than providing a list of candidates, the survey makers asked GMs to fill in their own answers. If so, it suggests that few people think of Tim Duncan as an "international" player. And rightly so, for this purpose: while there is certainly a centuries-old local culture in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the territories are sufficiently Americanized that b-ball development is not much different from its mainland form. Another possibility is that the ballot did provide explicit choices, but Duncan seems to stand out in respondents' minds as more quintessentially power-forward-ish, yet not so fundamentally foreign-ish. Thus, the reversal in the preference ordering may reflect how intensely the respondents associate Duncan with those respective properties.

What I'd like to know is: what's up with Dirk's new haircut?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tears in Heaven

Of the Spurs, Lakers, Cavaliers, Celtics, and Magic, at least one team will suffer a serious injury to one of its best players this year. At least, the probability of that statement, based on past experience, is somewhere above 90%. (I will gladly take bets on that statement from my co-bloggers.) This year's champion will be "tainted" in some way due to poor competition.

But is this not always true? The 2009 Lakers were pushed to seven games by a Yao-less and un-Mac'ed Houston team; what could the Rockets have done with those guys? L.A. also was lucky that their Finals foe, Orlando, featured a point guard who hadn't played since mid-winter with a shoulder problem. In the East, Boston also was deathly without Garnett, compared to their former vigor. In 2008, the Lakers were lucky that their conference final foes had a hobbled Ginobili. In 2007, the Spurs possibly beat Phoenix due to Steve Nash's bloody nose. In 2006, Miami defeated a Mavericks team that had just ousted Phoenix sans Stoudemire. In 2005, Shaq and Wade suffered thigh and rib injuries, respectively, in the Pistons series, clearing the way for San Antonio to take the trophy after the Spurs had nailed a Joe Johnson-less Suns team. 2004— Detroit was lucky to beat New Jersey with their star guard, Jason Kidd, needing looming microfracture knee surgery. Karl Malone, too, rendered the Lakers punchless with his pallid play in the Finals due to a torn knee ligament. 2003— Dirk Nowitzki's knee injury allowed the Spurs to slip into the NBA Finals. (Not to mention Chris Webber's knee injury against Dallas in the second round.) In 2002, injuries to Peja Stojakovic helped the Lakers slip past Sac. 2001 saw Allen Iverson crack his ribs in the deciding game against L.A. In 2000, the Lakers breezed through the Western playoffs when Tim Duncan bowed out. The Spurs of '99, featuring Robinson and Duncan at their greatest powers, faced a Knicks team missing its Hall of Fame center. Heck, the 1988 Lakers beat Detroit after Isiah Thomas injured his ankle, and the '89 Pistons returned the favor when both Magic and B-Scott tore their hamstrings.

One could argue, of course, that avoiding injury is part of the competition. Still, this season will be just as marred, and I'm already sad.