Friday, December 31, 2010

Foreign-Owned League

Watching a typical NBA television broadcast, one realizes that almost all of the league's corporate sponsors are based outside the United States:

  • T-Mobile, which is one of the top four mobile phone service providers in the United States, is owned by Deutsche Telekom of Germany. T-Mobile's ads featuring Charles Barkley and Dwyane Wade are ubiquitous during nearly every national NBA broadcast.

  • Kia - This Korean car company became an NBA sponsor in 2008 and bought the title of "official NBA auto sponsor" in 2009, supplanting Japan's Toyota in that role. Kia then extended the relationship in 2010. Kia attaches its name to ESPN's NBA pregame show, various individual awards, and various elements of the All-Star weekend.

  • Hyundai is another Korean automaker, known in hoops circles for attaching its name to TNT's "Inside the NBA".

  • Haier is a Chinese home appliances manufacturer that has become a "global strategic partner" of the NBA, whatever that means. Their television advertisements use the homophony between their company name and the English word "higher", much like ads for Chivas Regal scotch play on the resemblance to the word "chivalry". This is semantics for eleven-year-olds.

  • BBVA, one of Spain's largest banks, last fall signed an agreement to be the "Official Bank of the NBA". During and after the 2008 financial crisis, BBVA managed to buy up several troubled American banks and now owns over 700 retail bank branches in the US, all under the "BBVA Compass" brand name.

  • All of these foreign-based firms sell products to US consumers, of course, which makes the NBA, a touchstone of youth culture, an attractive marketing vehicle. While other American pro sports have signed up American companies as sponsors (a typical NFL broadcast features Brett Favre shilling for Sears, overgrown men wolfing Campbell's Chunky Soup ladled by Donovan McNabb's mother, and a few Bud Light ads), the NBA has become beholden to international patrons. This certainly fits with Commissioner David Stern's long-marching goal of bringing the league to hundreds of millions in Europe and Asia.

    Things were not always thus. Reading David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, I recently learned that brands like Ford and Chevrolet were inveterate sponsors of the Association back in the 1970s. Perhaps large American consumer-focused companies no longer see NBA fans as an attractive market; are hoops-heads too poor, too pigmented, or possibly too young? (I thought a maxim of marketing is to sign up young customers while they are still forming their habits and loyalties.) Alternatively, foreign-based corporations, perhaps applying different marketing strategies due to their previous nonexistence in this country, may simply value those fans more. It could even be that these international entities can juice their reputation in their home countries by associating with the NBA.

    These days, it seems that all the action in the US economy is in the digital space. By building a cool website like a Netflix, Twitter, or Groupon, an entrepreneur can scale his customer base very quickly, build a following in the zeitgeist, and attract billions in capital. Lions of the American "old economy" no longer have a need for the NBA. When will we see the Google Halftime Show or the Pandora HORSE Challenge?

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    What's The Matter With Kansas (Alums)?

    Well, if we were confused about whether star calls persist in the NBA, last Saturday's Wizards-Heat game was sobering. The Heat completed a stout fourth-quarter comeback when Dwyane Wade dashed into the lane, received a foul call resulting from Andray Blatche's fairly incidental contact (of course!) and hit a go-ahead free throw with about seven seconds left. Kirk Hinrich then dribbled the length of the court, drove to the hoop, attempted a layup, and was whacked by both Chris Bosh and LeBron James. No foul call, though. The buzzer sounded and Miami walked off the court with a 1-point victory.

    Fast-forward the video to about the 3:40 mark:

    Saturday, December 18, 2010

    The Point Guard Controversy

    On a busy Friday night, the Heat vs. Knicks garnered most of the headlines. Few people probably had their eye on Jazz vs. Hornets. HOSS did. That match-up pitted Deron Williams against Chris Paul, two of the best point guards (if not the best) that they NBA has to offer.

    I cannot remember a time when there was such a glut of elite point guards in the NBA. At the beginning of the season, this was my list of the top NBA PGs, but given how well they are all playing, this ranking seems to fluctuate on a daily basis:

    1. Chris Paul
    2. Steve Nash
    3. Deron Williams
    4. Rajon Rondo
    5. Derrick Rose
    6. Tony Parker
    7. Russell Westbrook

    Why does this make HOSS giddy? Two reasons. First: the sheer aesthetic beauty of watching an elite PG in action. Watching a slasher like Amare, D-Wade, or LeBron slice up defenders and throw down is like watching a skilled boxer deliver a devastating left hook. In contrast, watching a PG set the table on offense is like watching a master artist adorning a canvass -- you may not understand why each stroke was so brilliant until you see the final product (the pinpoint pass for the easy lay-up).

    Second: an elite point guard is the surest way to turn a team into a contender. The proof of the pudding is in the taste: Consider all of the teams that appear to be overachieving this season, and virtually all of them have one of the elite PGs leading their offense:

    San Antonio (22-3) (Parker)
    Boston (21-4) (Rondo)
    Oklahoma City (19-8) (Westbrook)
    Utah (18-9) (Williams)
    Chicago (16-8) (Rose)
    New Orleans (16-10) (Paul)

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Ginobili, the new MJ?

    I have long lamented the endemically inconsistent or unfair foul calls in the NBA. Though I write often of other b-ball matters, the titular inspiration for our blog was, of course, a non-call that burnished a great man's legend while telling Utah's fan base that their team is simply less worthy of rule-based protection. A two-game sequence this week led us to re-evaluate the state of "star calls" in the NBA.

    In Wednesday night's game against Milwaukee, the Spurs' Manu Ginobili hit a game-winning shot over Luc Mbah a Moute to break a tie at the buzzer. MG's play was fearless and without flaw. The problem with Saint Anthony's miracle, though, is that Ginobili took a step and a hop (even more egregious than LeBron James's "crab dribble") prior to his shot, and the referees bizarrely did not call a travel. In postgame remarks, Bucks coach Skiles correctly identified Ginobili's infraction after the game, but unfortunately, the refs done him wrong. Behold the video:

    Perhaps this might simply mean that the referees froze under pressure. It happens sometimes, and there is no recourse if the referee fails to blow his whistle in the moment. Once the buzzer has sounded and the ball is through, you cannot go back in time and claw back a player's ill-gotten gains, even if you feel instant regret for your failure to toot. However, I was further surprised during Thursday night's TNT nightcap game. Against Denver, Ginobili hit yet another clutch shot to put the Spurs up by 1 point with about four seconds left in the fourth quarter. The man impresses, On the ensuing possession, Carmelo Anthony took the ball at the top of the key, seized a step on Richard Jefferson, drove to the hoop, and released a floater that sank through the net before time expired. Unfortunately, in the course of so doing, Anthony crashed into Ginobili, who had smartly positioned himself in a vertical stance just outside the charge circle. The referees whistled Anthony for an offensive foul, negating Anthony's basket and ending the game. The Spurs escaped with their 22nd win of the season, against only three defeats. Here is the [virtual] tape:

    The Thursday foul was a good call, and I applaud the referees' willingness to whack Anthony on a late-game drive like that. As the archetypal "Jordan pushing off" moment (and LBJ's crab dribble) shows, referees are too often chary to interrupt a superstar's world-historical performance for a measly thing like rule-breaking. Jordan may have pushed off with impunity, but Anthony charged through and suffered just consequences. That is heartening. On the other hand, this incident came after Ginobili received a significant official favor the night before. Although these are only two data points, perhaps one can infer that star favoritism endures, but it is Ginobili and his 22-3 Spurs who now are the most brilliantly shining orb. We cannot fault (indeed, we must laud) Ginobili for donning that garb; success must be had wherever one can find it.

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Have A Holly, McConnelly Christmas

    Today Henry Abbott of ESPN/Truehoop attempts to analyze the effect of this week's federal tax deal upon the NBA. To quickly review the proposed tax deal, the lower income tax rates (compared to Clinton-era rates from the 1990s) passed in 2001 will be extended for 2011 and 2012. Prior to this proposed deal between President Obama and Republicans, U.S. income tax rates were scheduled to rise to Clinton rates effective January 1st, 2011. Additionally, under this proposed deal, long-term capital gains tax rates will be extended.

    In a couple posts and yesterday, Abbott suggests, citing some extremely crude analyses, that the tax savings for owners and players associated with this week's federal tax deal could amount to $160 million, one-fifth of the supposed $800 million aggregate deficit suffered by owners in 2009-10. (Some of that savings consists of reduced tax liability on player salaries, but presumably the equilibrium wage paid to players could thereby be lowered, because they could then take home more of their gross wage, and thus owners could realize those savings.)

    However, the flaw in Abbott's analysis is that the $800 million deficit was incurred under the 2010 tax regime — which will also be the 2011 tax regime, under President Obama's proposals. The supposed $160 MM savings are not really "an infusion of cash from a third party", as Abbott frames it, but rather the avoidance of what would've been a withdrawal of cash from the NBA pot, had Bush tax rates been allowed to rise to Clinton tax rates in 2011. If economic conditions in 2009-10 are held constant for 2010-11, then the owners should still be running an $800 million deficit, because the federal tax liability will be the same.

    The bottom line is that the Obama tax deal will be nice for owners, but only because it avoids a hit. It does not improve their economic position compared to the 2010 situation, and thus it does not bring the owners any closer to the NBPA in ongoing labor negotiations. And if you believe in Ricardian equivalence, the "savings" from the avoided tax hit is all funny money anyway.

    Sunday, December 5, 2010

    Joakim Noah, Un Grand Nonpareil

    Back in the spring of 2006, many observers thought Joakim Noah could be the first pick in the NBA draft if he were to make himself pro-eligible. With the onset of the no-high-school-students rule from the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the draft pool was unusually weak that year, and Noah's fiery effort in the NCAA tournament made him the most lustrous of gems.

    In the event, Noah returned to the University of Florida and waited until the 2007 draft (after collecting his second college championship) to go pro. Noah was selected ninth, after two of his teammates, among others.

    Noah is somewhat thin for a center at a listed weight of 232 lbs, but he may be the hardest-working 5 man in the league. After some early struggles, Noah now anchors the Bulls' defense and ranks second in the league in rebounding. Looking back at the 2006 draft, Noah's first opportunity to join the big leagues, is there any player you would rather have than Noah? The top pick, Andrea Bargnani, excels only at one end of the floor, as we demonstrated in a video post last year. The roundly-considered best player from that draft, Brandon Roy, has permanently arthritic knees that are now slowing him and might soon end his career. LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are nice scorers, but have not yet made an All-Star team. Rajon Rondo is one of the top five point guards in the league and a starter in two NBA Finals, but Noah's enduring hustle probably makes him more valuable than Rondo. Perhaps the early predictions of a #1 selection were right on. Even looking at the 2007 draft, when Noah was actually chosen, outside of Kevin Durant there is no one whom I would prefer to Noah.

    We recently had the chance to attend the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago on November 11th. The Bulls jumped out to an early 30-point lead before the halftime buzzer, rendering our final two quarters a time of seat-hopping and T-shirt chasing. Still, from our high-altitude section, we were able to capture some video showing what makes Noah so great.

    I. Noah The Dishman
    With time, Noah has become one of the best passing big men in the league. In this clip, Noah gets the ball from Derrick Rose, who cuts to the corner. Golden State's Stephen Curry, defending Rose, loses track of the latter. Noah exchanges a glance with Rose; Rose cuts to the hoop and Noah delivers a perfect bounce pass that Rose collects to slam (two-handedly!) through the hoop.

    Observe here as Noah calls for the ball, recognizing that Luol Deng has a mismatch against the same Curry. Noah seems to recognize Deng's opportunity even before Deng sees it. Upon Noah's receipt of the ball, Deng cuts hard to the hoop, receives a sharp pass, dribbles once, and scores.

    Generosity is often rewarded. Later in the game, Deng returns the favor with an easy assist pass to Noah:

    II. Noah the Hustler

    Another of Noah's winning attributes is his willingness to put his body in jeopardy to help the team. Watch the first six seconds of this video as Noah scraps hard with Andris Biedrins for post position:

    Here, Noah, all 83 inches of him, hits the floor hard at the 0:06 mark to chase a loose ball:

    Finally, consider this video, in which Noah's fleet hands force a steal from Monta Ellis, keying a fast break and an easy basket by Deng:

    ** Regarding our blog title, we're not sure if "grand" can be used colloquially as a noun in French the same way hoopheads use "big" as a noun in our language, but we'll hope for the best.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    Fattening Up The Pig In Hogtown

    Remember when I said that Mike Illitch's possibly gaining control of the Detroit Pistons (in addition to the Tigers and Red Wings) would be a terrible idea?

    Well, that goes double for the possible acquisition rumored today by Rogers Communications of the Leafs, Raptors, and Air Canada Centre (in addition to the Blue Jays and Skydome). Econ 101, my friends. If Raptors fans thought their ticket prices were bad enough...

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    High Casualty Rate in Boston

    The Celtics are playing well so far (save for an odd one-point loss to Toronto), but soon they will fiercely feel the tension of thermodynamics' Second Law. The team is going to suffer with their older roster and their early crush of injuries. It is hard to roll over top-quality basketball players when your squad has the following infirmities:

  • Rajon Rondo is battling plantar fasciitis and a hamstring problem.

  • Jermaine O'Neal has chronic knee tendinitis.

  • Kendrick Perkins is recovering from major surgery to his knee ligaments.

  • Delonte West just broke his wrist.

  • Semih Erden has a nagging shoulder problem that could eventually end his season.

  • Avery Bradley is recovering from a serious ankle injury.

  • Besides their five starters, and the aforementioned injured guys, they have Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, Nate Robinson, Von Wafer, and Luke Harangody. These lads may be spry enough to power the Celtics through wintry challenges that may come, but when the air turns vernal, they will need the bulk of their bigs and the defensive agility of West and Bradley. The Celtics were wise to sign fifteen players for their roster, the maximum allowed under NBA rules. Rather than prizing cost savings, Celtics ownership is showing that the real lucre is its desired catch.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    Why Dallas Cannot Win The Championship

    Last night the Mavericks fielded three seven-footers — Haywood, Chandler, Nowitzki — playing 87 combined minutes. The Bulls played only one big man: Joakim Noah, for 41 minutes. If you want to deem Taj Gibson a big man or "power" player, note that he is 6'9" and 225 pounds. Most NBA players of his body type are small forwards. (Gibson's teammate at the 3-spot, Luol Deng, is the same height as Gibson and only five pounds thinner. The Mavericks' small forward, Caron Butler, is a couple pounds heavier than Gibson.) All of the Bulls' bench players were skinny guards.

    Additionally, Dallas boasts at least two players who are billed as unusually good rebounders for their positions, in Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion.

    The Bulls still outrebounded Dallas 59-34 and won the game by five points.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    John Wall's Impact

    The Wizards had 23 fast-break points on November 12th, John Wall's last full game before he injured his ankle.

    Last night, November 17th, without John Wall, the Wizards had 2 fast-break points.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Trials and Tribulations of the Super Friends

    For the zillionth time, it is way too early to begin drafting epitaphs for the Miami Heat Super Friends. LeBron, D-Wade and CB4 may still end up hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy this summer or next. That said, their early troubles reinforce the conventional wisdom about basketball.

    We at JPO are fond of saying that basketball is a team game. The NBA ain’t no fantasy league, son. Just because LeBron and D-Wade averaged near 30 ppg last year, that doesn’t mean they’ll net 60 together.

    Here is one big problem with the Heat’s roster. It’s often said that the two most important positions on any team – and toughest to fill – are point guard and center. A skilled PG (particularly a skilled, pass-first PG) is a rare commodity. So is a skilled, traditional big man (i.e., a back-to-the basket post-up presence à la Tim Duncan; not a face-up Euro Big Man like Dirk Nowitzki or Andrea Bargnani).

    The Super Friends are the Super Swingmen. None of them plays point guard or is a back-to-the-basket big man. Sure, both D-Wade and LeBron are skilled enough to play PG, but that’s not the position at which they are most skilled. Moreover, although Chris Bosh formally plays a big-man position, he is a finesse player – closer to Nowitzki than to Duncan. On a team like the Raptors, where Bosh was the main scoring threat, that’s fine. But on a team with LeBron and D-Wade, you don’t need another finesse scorer. You need a bruiser, a banger – someone to knock the ink off the other teams’ tattoos and get rebounds and cheap buckets down low. If the Super Friends are going to be more than a travelling rodeo show, they will need to either (a) trade Bosh for a premier post-up presence, or (b) go way over the salary cap to bring in an Erick Dampier-type player to spell Bosh during the 4th quarters of real games.

    Both Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have mused about playing for the Knicks. A team with ‘Melo, CP3 and Amare Stoudemire would be better than the Super Friends. I’m not talking early-season better; I mean playoff-time better. The division of labor on that team would be clear: CP3, the ball-handler; ‘Melo, the swingman; Amare, the big man.

    I’m sure that Pat Riley recognizes this. What I’m not sure is whether Riles has the balls to fix it and to make this trade: Chris Bosh for Paul Millsap or Chris Bosh for Carlos Boozer. Nobody is saying that either Millsap or Boozer is more skilled than Bosh. They aren’t. But either one of them will transform the Heat from Pretender into Contender.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Stay Chilled, Ye Who Would Scorch the Scorchers

    The Miami Heat have struggled against good teams thus far this season. Their interior defense, in particular, needs some work. Perhaps they need to sign Erick Dampier. However, let us not forget that the season is only NINE GAMES OLD. The Heat have until 2014, and perhaps until 2016 if all three of their stars exercise their contract options, to prove the haters wrong. Their talent is too great to continue losing at this pace; I would be extremely surprised if they do not win 50 games. Let us refrain from too much cackling until at least next spring.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    The Punjabis Are Here

    Well, my nearly two-year-old predictions of a Great Punjabi Hope for basketball have finally come true:

    Satnam Singh Bhamara did not grow up dreaming about playing in the NBA -- because he never saw the game. He didn't even know what basketball was.

    He just grew.

    And his dreams were mostly what he read in books, limited to his life in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, a faraway outpost in the state of Punjab, India, close to the Pakistan border, where his father farmed, and he too, expected to farm one day.


    In a country of 1.3 billion people, 7-foot, 250-pound Satnam Singh Bhamar has become a beacon for basketball hope.

    At age 14.

    "Satnam could one day do the same thing for India that Yao Ming did in China -- put the spotlight on basketball through an entire country,'' said Troy Justice, the NBA Director of Basketball Operations in India who has watched him play many times. "It really could be something.''


    Satnam came to the United States for the first time six weeks ago, one of 29 student athletes (both male and female in three different sports) from India who will train at the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, as part of a new scholarship program to promote, develop and manage sports and entertainment in that country.

    Although the program was designed to last three months before this group leaves and another arrives, Satnam and his burgeoning skills won't be going home anytime soon. It's like gold has been discovered in the hills, and this diamond in the rough will be carefully polished.

    It is somewhat ironic that the AOL Fanhouse article glowingly compares the 7-foot Bhamara's body type to that of Greg Oden or Andrew Bynum. Of course, we know that both of the latter guys have congenital problems that make high-level, high-impact basketball difficult: Oden has one leg longer than the other, and Bynum has unusually loose knee ligaments. Both of those players have missed roughly half the possible games in their pro careers due to multiple injuries. Additionally, Oden played only one year of college ball and Bynum skipped college; both missed their chance to allow their growing bodies time to slowly adjust to a game played among world-class athletes.

    What will happen if young Satnam Singh Bhamara turns out to be similarly cursed? Many other young athletes around the world have been identified as potential national champions, isolated from their families and peers, and brought to sports incubators (sometimes in the United States) to train. If a tennis prospect flames out, the disappointment foisted on him or her is probably relatively low because tennis-sized athletes are not hard to find. But there are few seven-foot-plussers. If my hypothesis proves correct and the Punjab produces more basketball big men, then perhaps Bhamara can comfortably fail without feeling that he is failing a whole country, as Yao Ming surely has thought at times. We wish Bhamara the best of luck in his journey, but caution observers to reject the "Satnam could one day do the same thing for India that Yao Ming did in China -- put the spotlight on basketball through an entire country" rubric that makes the young man even more freakish than he already is.

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    The Last Jewel Tarnished In Detroit

    I have long openly proclaimed my love for the Detroit Pistons, the team that tickled my solipsistic need for local grandeur as a young boy. Detroit won championships in 1989 and 1990, and then did it again in 2004 after I had grown to adulthood. During the recent fat days, I forgot how Detroit fell into a long period of mediocrity after Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer retired in 1994 (and even in the last three years of their careers). Rookie Grant Hill's entry into the Pistons' starting lineup in November 1994 seemed to augur well for their recovery, but Terry Mills and Theo Ratliff were not sufficiently stout big men in the mid-to-late 1990s to help Detroit get past better Eastern teams like Orlando and Atlanta (to say nothing of Jordan's Chicago, Mourning's Heat, and Ewing's Knicks).

    After six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the decade just completed, the Pistons are now a team in terminal decline. They still field three-fifths of the starting lineup that won them a championship seven seasons ago (and lost in Game 7 of the Finals six seasons ago), but those men have lost their erstwhile vigor and hops. The team is now 0-5 after losing to Atlanta last night.

    About 24 months ago, when the Piston's recent run of success ended with the trade of Chauncey Billups, I wrongly called team president Joe Dumars a genius. At the time, I thought the trade would allow Detroit's good fortune to endure for a few more seasons, but the team rapidly crashed, falling to the worst Eastern playoff seed in 2009 and missing the playoffs entirely in '10. Unfortunately, Rodney Stuckey just is not as good as Billups performed in his finest days. And the Pistons' recent draft picks have not soared: Jason Maxiell and Austin Daye are either too short or too thin, and Jonas Jerebko just tore his Achilles' tendon. Georgetown center Greg Monroe is yet unproven.

    Somehow I feel a Dylan Thomas interlude would be appropriate here:

    Managing an NBA roster long-term is difficult, for the assets have a unique inverted-U-shaped life cycle. Players tend to peak in about their sixth year, maintain that high for perhaps four years, then begin to slowly decline. At any given time, a roster is probably made up of heterogeneous players at different stages of their careers. If only a couple of your guys are declining, that is fine. If necessary, they can be traded as "expiring contracts" for better, younger players. But the Pistons' top six players during their six-year run of excellence (counting Antonio McDyess, who signed on prior to the 2004-05 season) were all drafted between 1995 and 1999, save for Tayshaun Prince, drafted in 2002. Prince was a four-year college player, so he is about as old as a college freshman drafted in 1999, like Lamar Odom. Thus, the team collectively aged very rapidly. Billups was dumped in 2008, and McDyess and Rasheed Wallace were shown the door in 2009. The remaining guys — Prince, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace — can't do what they used to. I would eat my hat if Prince could replicate his famous block of Reggie Miller today.

    I cannot say with great specificity how Dumars should have managed his team differently. He probably should have traded Prince and Hamilton one or two seasons ago, when they still were good. Dumars also has proven to be a poor judge of young talent, to say the least. Had he drafted Aaron Brooks over Rodney Stuckey in 2007, or Holiday/Lawson/Teague/Maynor/Collison/Douglas over Austin Daye in 2009, the team would have a legitimate point guard now. The team also had no meaningful draft pick in 2006 or 2008, which helped to preserve the roster's age distribution. Perhaps the team needs a 65-loss season to sink lower than their pride would previously allow them to venture, so that they can pick up a real stud through the draft.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Mad Men Is An Apt Descriptor

    Mad may not be the right word, but perhaps daft, silly, or full of hubris might better describe the advertising gurus who thought of the two ads shown below.

    Below is LeBron James's follow-up to his romantic-comedy act from July wherein he entertained various suitors for seven days (after keeping them guessing for the previous two years) and then obnoxiously announced his Decision via a television special. In this new video, James seems to acknowledge that he angered his fans, and provocatively climbs aboard a literal bulldozer to represent what he did to their feelings last summer. So after James inappropriately and narcissistically drew attention to himself four months ago, he... does exactly the same thing, without even apologizing for the earlier behavior!

    Then there is the new set of Adidas ads featuring actor Ken Jeong wearing a gold costume and calling himself "Slim Chin". We are led to believe, in some ironic sleight, that Slim's apparent riches are derived from his unusual fast-ness. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose reveals himself to be far faster than Slim, showing that shoes, in this ironic universe, can top natural talent.

    This is fine as far as it goes, and defenders of the ad might say that everything is tongue-in-cheek, and Jeong's Hollywood reputation is sufficiently established that we can laugh with him, rather than at him. Still, Jeong's ken (pun intended) seems to extend only to roles in which he acts silly and mincing while emphasizing his exotically Asian bloodline. Recall his naked turn in The Hangover. I doubt that enough viewers of this new Adidas ad "get it" to render his minstrelsy innocuous.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    Knicks Need To Get Real

    Tony Parker signed a contract extension with San Antonio yesterday, removing one of the New York Knicks' top targets for next summer's free-agency cycle. Having promised their fans a quick return to glory redolent of Richard Nixon's first term, the Knicks need to get cracking. Unfortunately, posing a serious challenge to the Miami Heat over the next half-decade will require that the Knicks assemble a crew of all-NBA stars of comparable ability to James/Bosh/Wade, and few of those are available. The Knicks could have drafted Brandon Jennings, probably the best young point guard in the league, back in 2009, but instead chose Jordan Hill, who was later dumped in a trade and now rides the bench for Houston. The Knicks have several players with enough raw talent to make All-Star teams, including Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Anthony Randolph, but none have yet blossomed to that extent.

    Many reports indicate that Carmelo Anthony is Manhattan bound, either through a trade this season or as a free agent next summer. Unfortunately, a team featuring Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony will be offensively potent, but will not have anything close to the defensive ability required to seriously oppose Miami and Orlando. As this article makes clear, James and Wade are wholly dedicated to dominating any team on their defensive end, and are two of the four best offensive players in the league.

    The Knicks probably hope they can somehow acquire Anthony and Chris Paul, who will be a free agent in 2012. But if Paul shows an inclination to sign a contract extension with the Hornets or join some other team, the Knicks might be wiser to look further west: Several 2007 draftees will be available as restricted free agents next July, including, inter alia, Greg Oden, the best two-way young center in the league, when he is healthy. (I am removing 24-year-old Dwight Howard from the "young" category, as he is now in his seventh pro season.) Oden's team chose not to extend his rookie contract, and he will surely be eager to prove himself during the coming season. The Knicks could make a splash by conveying to Oden an offer that Portland cannot fail to refuse.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Out With The Old, In With the Old in Miami

    An October 10th article from the Orlando Sentinel claims that the Magic are "way ahead" of the Miami Heat in roster continuity. However, despite their high-profile free-agent signings, the Heat, surprisingly, may have more roster continuity from 2009-10 to 2010-11 than nearly any other NBA team.

    Consider the following 2009-10 players who are under contract for the new season:
    Dwyane Wade
    Udonis Haslem
    Mario Chalmers
    Carlos Arroyo
    Shavlik Randolph
    Jamaal Magloire
    Joel Anthony
    Kenny Hasbrouck
    James Jones

    New players feature (i) two second-round draft picks, Dexter Pittman and Da'Sean Butler; (ii)several value free-agent signings — Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eddie House, Juwan Howard, and Mike Miller; and (iii) oh yeah, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

    In addition, Coach Erik Spoelstra and team President Pat Riley remain in their posts.

    To be fair, Hasbrouck and Randolph have non-guaranteed contracts, as do Pittman and Butler; two of those players will be cut in this month's training camp. However, if Hasbrouck and Randolph were to both make the team, a roster featuring 60% returning players is pretty good. No other top contender returns more than 10 players:

  • Lakers: Bryant, Fisher, Gasol, Bynum, Artest, Brown, Vujacic, Walton, Odom

  • Celtics: Rondo, Allen, Perkins, Pierce, Garnett, Robinson, Davis, Daniels

  • Magic: Nelson, Carter, Howard, Lewis, Pietrus, Bass, Anderson, Gortat, Williams, Redick

  • Spurs: Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Jefferson, Blair, McDyess, Bonner, Hill
  • Friday, September 10, 2010

    When Tennis Stars Never Die

    Watching the US Open tennis championship during the past few days on various TV channels, I've noticed that most of the announcers are past greats of the tennis circuit: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, and so forth. I am reminded of the contrast with televised pro hoops, where color commentators like Mark Jackson, Tom Tolbert, Jon Barry, Tim Legler, Steve "Snapper" Jones, and so forth were generally not perennial All-Stars. Of late, TNT has made a point to employ former studs (viz. Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller) as studio or game announcers, but this an unusual innovation in the short history of television coverage of basketball. Past MVPs like Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, and David Robinson aren't in the TV game; they are running pro teams, running charter schools, or supporting Republican politics. Why, then, do a relatively larger fraction of great tennis players turn to TV shilling?

    First, it may be that the tennis vets simply love the game more than the basketball greats do.

    Second, tennis purses during the 1980s and 1990s were nowhere near the rich wages afford to NBA stars. Perhaps Martina and her ilk need the money.

    Third, in an individual sport, there are fewer management roles available to retired stars. Michael Jordan can buy a team and Joe Dumars can build a roster, but what can Connors do? He could coach a player, as he did with Andy Roddick, but coaching in tennis is fairly low-profile (coaches are not even allowed to signal the player during a match!) and perhaps is a less fulfilling job than management in the NBA. Also, there is only one Davis Cup coach, and Patrick McEnroe held that job for the past ten years.

    A contrarian take might say that basketball players are better trained to move on with the next phase of their lives, whether that be in business or philanthropy, while tennis players, having never attended college, don't know what to do with themselves other than remaining involved in the game. Here is another argument for my prior thesis that we need an NBA draft age limit.

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    Assessing the Pizza Man

    Reports indicate that Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers (and founder of the Little Caesar's empire), may be interested in buying the Detroit Pistons from the Davidson family. As an ex-Detroiter, I am not sure how to take this. On one hand, Ilitch has a reputation as a "good" sports owner, one who treats his players and fans well and invests in the team. As we discussed last year, many owners take profits as the only input to their objective function, but Ilitch recognizes the role that major sports teams play in a community.

    On the other hand, will it be healthy if Ilitch controls nearly all live entertainment in Detroit? Ilitch already owns two sports teams, MotorCity Casino, Cobo Arena, City Theatre, and the Fox Theater. Ilitch also operates the Joe Louis Arena and Comerica Park. If Ilitch grabs the Davidson holdings as well, he will control the Detroit Pistons, Palace of Auburn Hills, DTE Energy Music Theater, and Meadow Brook Music Festival (where my high school held its annual graduations). As all these entities and venues are potentially in mutual competition for entertainment seekers, the unification thereof under one umbrella cannot be good for consumers. It's bad enough that Live Nation and Ticketmaster want to merge.

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    Attaq of a Whaq Moniqer

    Shaquille O'Neal announced yesterday that he is signing with the Boston Celtics for 2010-11. A fine decision for both parties; few other teams wanted O'Neal, and the Celtics can use his burly services with Kendrick Perkins injured until January. I was intrigued yesterday by another thought: where did Shaquille's name come from?

    I have always uncuriously assumed that "Shaquille" is a bad, or francified, transliteration of a putative Arabic name "Shaqiil / Shaqeel" (ثقيل). However, my unscientific research suggests that there is no such Arabic male name; "Shakiil / Shakeel" (شكيل) appears on a list of baby names, but Shaqiil / Shaqeel is nowhere to be found. Furthermore, a google search for Shakiil, Shakeel, or Shakil yields nearly 5,000,000 combined hits, while a google search for Shaqiil, Shaqeel, or Shaqil (excluding "Shaquille" to avoid references to the Big Aristotle himself) yields only about 160,000 combined hits.

    It seems that Shaquille O'Neal's parents, devout Muslims by most accounts, were being too clever by half in their efforts to give their son an Arabic name. Had they done a bit more investigating, they would have learned that "q" and "k" are two distinct sounds in Arabic, and the former cannot be thrown into a word or name to spice it up.

    Of course, I am not a native Arabic speaker, so who am I to question their authenticity? Like any parent, they can select any collection of phonemes that they desire to name their child. (Does "LeBron" have any objective referent?) Still, it was interesting to recognize that Shaquille O'Neal's name is based on an orthographic flourish.

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    The Max is Too Much

    Top free agents want to get the full amount they are entitled to. Based on a formula in Article II, Section 7(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, eighth-year players are entitled to a maximum salary of a bit over $17 million per year. To the extent that more than one team can create cap room to sign such a player, and the marginal revenue boost from signing a superstar is well in excess of his salary, a semi-competitive market will inevitably result in these contracts being signed.

    Meanwhile, the NBA salary cap is about $58 MM for 2010-11, up very slightly from 2009-10. A team with no players under contract could afford to sign, at most, three maximum-salary players in one free-agency period. As it turned out, only Miami could do this in July 2010. A couple teams (New York, New Jersey, Chicago) had enough room, or close to it, for two maximum-salary players. But given the ceiling (which becomes an effective floor) on superstar salaries, most teams in the league had no shot at signing a Wade or James, or even a Boozer. Your typical star wants to play where other stars are playing, so two simultaneous signings seems to be required if you want just one.

    There is an obvious coordination problem here: top players would behoove themselves to accept lower than the maximum allowed salary, in order to leave more salary-cap room (or if that is impossible, simply to be kind to the owner's wallet so he will be generous with Bird-exception-type or MLE-type signings) to sign good supporting teammates. But though some (like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in today's free agent machinations, or Kobe Bryant in 2004) speak of accepting less money for the good of the team, it rarely happens. James, Wade, and Bosh will, by accounts, get close to the max salary; why else would Miami trade a very good young player, Michael Beasley, for virtually nothing? Theory holds that wealth has diminishing marginal utility past a certain level of luxury, but athletes don't hesitate to demand their full allotment.

    Obviously this system encourages building young talent through the draft, and retaining said talent, rather than cobbling together a monster through free-agent acquisitions. There are no Yankees in the NBA. But I favor either increasing the salary cap somewhat or reducing the maximum salary, to make it easier for more teams to get access to the "open" market for good players. Following a team is no fun if, like the Knicks, they are locked out of the free-agency market for years and, when finally they are allowed to deal in such market, they are structurally disadvantaged because some other team has more "max" slots.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    L'Ebron, C'est Moi

    Over the past several weeks since mid-May, this guy:

  • Refused to compete in several moments against the Celtics. Subsequently, told reporters that "I spoil people with my play."

  • Maneuvered to effect the firing of Coach Mike Brown, the most successful coach in Cavalier history.

  • Appeared in an hour-long interview on Larry King Live in the middle of the NBA Finals.

  • Refused to meet with Tom Izzo as the latter was considering the Cavs' offer to replace Brown as head coach.

  • Wore sweatpants (!) when he met with the various teams seeking to sign him.

  • Opened a Twitter account.

  • Reportedly, didn't return any calls or texts from Cavs owner Gilbert, who has been very good to him.

  • Engineered an hour-long television show for him to announce his free-agency decision. Therein, he repeatedly referred to himself in the third person, and talked about all the great things he's done for the city of Cleveland!
  • Thursday, June 24, 2010

    Be Careful What You Wish For

    Across the league, the new new thing in roster management is clearing salary obligations from the 2010-11 rolls in order to free up more capacity for signing superstar free agents. To wit:

  • The Chicago Bulls are reportedly set to trade Kirk Hinrich to Washington.

  • Meanwhile, Miami traded Daequan Cook yesterday, and today are trying to rid themselves of SF James Jones's contract.

  • We know how New York traded away Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill in February.

  • New Jersey traded away Vince Carter last year and, just yesterday, Chris Douglas-Roberts.

  • All these teams are shedding guys who could be, or have been, productive contributors to a playoff team.

    All these teams are hoping to land two or three of the top free agents in July: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, David Lee, Rudy Gay, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen. (Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, and Kobe Bryant already re-signed with their existing squads, removing some intrigue from the coming Julian dog days.)

    Unfortunately, there is a good chance that at least one team will look back and found that it divested assets for nothing. What if James stays with Cleveland, Cleveland trades for Stoudemire, Boozer joins the Nets, Wade and Bosh sign with Miami, Lee and Johnson sign with the Knicks, and Gay/Nowitzki/Allen stay where they are. The Bulls would then be bereft of talent, with only Rose/Noah/Deng/Gibson/Johnson signed for next season. The second-tier selection of free agents is unlikely to net a big-time performer: Luis Scola or John Salmons (who was a Bull just four months ago) could help, but they will hardly help the team hang with the Lakers. Tracy McGrady was once great, but probably little more than a Vinnie Johnson now.

    Alternatively, I could construct a scenario where the Knicks, or Heat, or Nets lose this derby. Fans will wonder: "Wait, all those years of suffering through mediocrity yielded absolutely nothing?"

    Moreover, not only is it risky to part ways with a perfectly serviceable player based on a highly uncertain hope of upgrading, but hanging on to the player might be a higher-probability play if you hope to snare LeBron. Due to rules in Article IX of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, a free agent can make more money annually, and gain an extra (sixth) guaranteed year of salary, by signing with his own team, rather than joining a new one. Thus, Chicago or Miami might have a better shot at acquiring Chris Bosh, say, by including Daequan Cook or Kirk Hinrich in a "sign-and-trade" where Bosh technically re-signs with Toronto to garner that extra booty. The Raptors might prefer such an outcome, too, as they would gain some value for their lost star. Having dumped Hinrich, the Bulls no longer have that strategic option.

    So many teams have expressly committed to a strategy of readying for LeBron that the bold move might entail not doing so. I respect the Timberwolves and Thunder, which have good young players and salary space for a star, but have said virtually nothing about signing a top free agent. At least they evince a belief that their own budding stars are good enough. (Why should we think that Bosh, Johnson, Boozer, Stoudemire, Lee, or Gay are any better? None of them has led a team to the NBA Finals.)

    A further irony is that the Bulls are casting off Hinrich, a tough point guard who has completed seven seasons in Chicago, to make way for Wade or Bosh or James. Let us recall that the ex-Jayhawk, like those celebrated others, is a member of the 2003 draft lottery class. And unlike the other free agents save Wade and Boozer, Hinrich made the Final Four!

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010

    The NBA Draft, A Locus of Radical Egalitarianism

    Tomorrow night brings the NBA Draft, an annual allocation of employees to employers that, unlike most spheres of American life, puts fairness above efficiency. Were the draft solely concerned with maximizing happiness produced, it would survey each player on his ranking of preferred teams, then survey each team on its ranking of preferred players, and allocate them so as to maximize total satisfaction of players and teams. The richest teams would pay the most and the best players would earn ghastly sums. But the draft emphasizes equity in two ways: First, the worst teams get the best young players, helping them to improve. Second, salaries of rookies are strictly regulated, so that the #1 pick makes only one order of magnitude more money than a second-rounder (in contrast to the real world, where some not-particularly-skilled 22-year-olds can make six figures but many these days are unemployed).

    In any case, the draft reminds me of the exodus that my college classmates made away from our cloistered university life into the "real" world many years ago. Some struck an ironic pose, treating work disdainfully, and imagining themselves still hip bohemian students. Some dove delightedly (sometimes disturbingly so) into the new institutions they joined, concentrating on ingratiating themselves with the movers and shakers they met. Some picked entirely new directions to take their life, but some continued on a dogged track that they had chosen at age 12 or so.

    In any case, back on graduation day, every one of us had potential. Armed with the same diploma and the freedom to exercise our gumption, each person had enormous opportunities. Some soared high, some motored sturdily, some coasted, and a small number, unfortunately, stalled out. Years later, the correspondence of actual achievement to then-felt-goals is a fairly tight correlation, but there are a few anomalies here and there. Stuff happens to divert aspirations or steal away resources; perhaps someone realizes that crazy hard work really isn't worth it. But on the day we donned the same flat-capped uniform and left school, we were like NBA draftees, hopeful and equally-positioned.

    Of course, some NBA picks "pan out" but some become "busts". For example, many of the "next Jordans" who showed up on the scene in the mid-to-late '90s are now washed up, or out of the league, due to injuries. Consider:

  • Stephon Marbury (drafted 1996)

  • Penny Hardaway (drafted 1993)

  • Steve Francis (drafted 1999)

  • Tracy McGrady (drafted 1997)

  • Michael Finley (drafted 1995)

  • Jerry Stackhouse (drafted 1995)

  • Grant Hill (drafted 1994)

  • Of the Next MJs of 10-15 years ago, only Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, & (especially) Kobe Bryant continue to perform at All-Star level. Many of the above-bulleted guys succumbed to injuries not of their fault, or received poor medical treatment that made the injuries worse than necessary. But many are now sapped and aged because they failed to work on developing their bodies, and now have no "hops" or "quicks" left. Marbury is already playing in China, and Francis has intimated he may go there soon.

    The annual draft is a wonderful time, for we have the creative agency to imagine these players blossoming or falling in so many sundry ways. And why not? Evan Turner might be a jerk. Greg Monroe might be the next Sabonis. James Anderson could be the finest jump-shooter in the league, while Patrick Patterson could tear something. Apres moi, I appreciate the draft because it takes me back to an innocent day when I was 22 and had not yet made the choices that would lead to more choices.

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    Kupchak Delivered These Titles

    So the Los Angeles Lakers have won the 2010 NBA championship with a narrow Game 7 victory over Boston.

    Of everyone in the Lakers' organization, the most underrated contributor to their recent run of success must be General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who is very, very good at his job. At the least, he should be deemed the Executive of the Half-Decade.

    Trading Shaquille O'Neal in 2004 was wise, as it jump-started the inevitably required rebuilding of the erstwhile three-time titlists. The Lakers could have squeezed maybe a couple more title-contending years out of the Kobe-Shaq duo in 2005 and 2006, but O'Neal was growing increasingly contentious and unmotivated in L.A., on top of his natural aging process.

    In that same summer, Kupchak elected not to re-sign Derek Fisher, as his gritty services would not be needed on a re-building team. Kupchak also traded Gary Payton and Rick Fox (likewise not needed) for Chris Mihm, a center who could replace O'Neal's services in the short term. The same trade also netted Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks, young 1s who could replace the point guarding offered by Payton and Fisher. Atkins started every game of the 2004-05 season for Los Angeles, delivering a steady 14 PPG.

    Lamar Odom, obtained from Miami in the O’Neal trade, was a good piece for a future title contender. Certainly not the second-best player on a champion, but as we have actually seen, he is an extremely valuable contributor.

    One year later, in summer 2005, Kupchak realized he needed to gamble on some young big men with high upside; thus, he drafted Andrew Bynum and traded Caron Butler for Kwame Brown. Helped by tutoring from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bynum developed into a championship-quality starting center (though he is injury-prone). Brown never improved much, though the Lakers were able to flip him (with a couple rookies and draft picks) for Pau Gasol halfway through the 2007-08 season.

    Thus, the Lakers’ top 4 of Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, and Odom were set in February 2008. However, prior to that season, back in the summer of ’07, many pundits, and Kobe Bryant himself, questioned Kupchak’s long-term plan for returning the team to the top of the league, after three seasons without a playoff series win. “Ship his ass out!” Bryant pleaded ironically (referring to Bynum, in a putative trade for Jason Kidd) while kibitzing with two random dudes in a parking lot, as though Bryant himself were just a beer-bellied couch potato with opinions on everything hoopish.

    In the 7 months following that incident, Kupchak refrained from the impulse to grant Bryant's trade request, then signed Derek Fisher, acquired Trevor Ariza by trade, then acquired Gasol in the 2008 trade that Gregg Popovich termed "beyond comprehension" for its one-sidedness.

    Kupchak also proved a good drafter, taking Luke Walton in 2003, Sasha Vujacic in 2004, Bynum in 2005, and Jordan Farmar in 2006. All played meaningful minutes in the 2009 and 2010 Finals.

    Finally, Kupchak has looked for only the highest caliber of coach. In 2004 he signed two-time championship coach Rudy Tomjanovich, and when he resigned in 2005 for personal reasons, Kupchak re-signed nine-time titlist Phil Jackson. Jackson may retire this summer, and if that happens, Kupchak would be wise to sign Byron Scott, former three-time champ as a player, two-time Finalist as a coach, and 2008 Coach of the Year.

    Fisher and Farmar will be free agents come July and may not return; the Lakers may need to find a higher-caliber point guard. But with all the above-mentioned players, plus 2009 free agent acquisition Ron Artest, the Lakers seem poised to win at least one more title in the next three seasons, before the contracts and health of their top guys begin to expire. Kupchak has shown a golden touch since Shaquille O'Neal left. The challenge will be to find the next generation of Laker superstars when Bryant and Gasol eventually retire.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    Should Floppers Get a Tech?

    Basketball fans watching the World Cup over the past couple days may have noted that FIFA gives yellow cards to a player who egregiously flops, acting as though his opponent knocked him down, in hopes of drawing a call against his counterpart for supposed unsportsmanlike conduct. Such diving is euphemistically called** "simulation" in the official FIFA argot. A yellow card in soccer is quite like a technical foul in the NBA; two yellow cards result in a red card, which means the player in question is ejected. The footballing penalty is actually more severe than two techs in a basketball game; in the former, the player's team is forced to play with ten men for the duration of the game, while in the latter, the player's team simply replaces the banished player. On the other hand, a technical foul in basketball results in one free throw for the opposing team, usually an easy point with a skilled shooter. All told, a yellow card is probably more serious than a technical foul. One point is highly unlikely to alter the tenor of a basketball game, while playing one man down in soccer probably means you will give up a goal.

    Under current NBA rules, of course, there is no penalty to players who blatantly take a dive; Derek Fisher can flop all he wants and live to see another Rondo. And some pundits have argued that flopping has become a greater problem in the NBA in the last ten years as more European and South American players, influenced by soccer culture, have entered the league. Should the impunity around flopping be changed?

    We might do well to consider the direct costs of flopping, aside from referee-imposed penalties. In basketball, a defensive flop can give your opponent an easy path to the basket for two quick points, if no foul is called. The enormous size of a soccer pitch, and the number of players on the field, means that a flop by one individual player is unlikely to result in a clear advantage for the other side. So perhaps the risk of an unsuccessful flop (i.e. a flop that fails to draw a foul) provides sufficient caution against would-be basketball floppers. Plus, crashing to the hardwood can hurt weary bones; a trip to the green lawn is far softer.

    The biggest problem with penalizing flopping in basketball is the subjective discretion that this would invest in referees. If a player drops, was it a dive, or was he pushed? It would be difficult to definitively demarcate the difference in any written set of rules. Soccer referees indeed do have this discretion, but upper-body contact is less common in that sport and a flop is likely easier to identify as such.

    All told, I do not support the penalizing of flopping in the NBA at this time. However, referees must become more chary about calling a foul to reward the player who flopped. If a non-American player (or Derek Fisher) dives unexpectedly, it was probably fake.

    **[Warning, large PDF; see page 115]

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    KG Deserved Better

    Nearly three years after Kevin Garnett joined the Celtics, I still find it difficult to watch this short promotional spot and not feel a tear fighting its way through my ducts.

    However, beyond the emotional wallop, what are we to make of this video? If, as seems apparent from the branding, the NBA and not the Celtics is the voice behind this advertisement — and thus, if NBA fans en masse, rather than Celtics fans, are the target audience — exactly what value proposition is the league trying to sell me on? Is the league telling me that, as a putative fan of any randomly-selected team, I have hope that a superstar may one day come to my team by trade? Well, that's not credible; in recent years, the big trades of MVP-caliber players have involved Jason Kidd to New Jersey, Shaq to Miami, McGrady to Houston, Garnett to Boston, and Pau Gasol to the Lakers. In other words, talented teams in big cities picked up more talent. A Memphis or Milwaukee fan sees little inspiration from this set of facts.

    On the other hand, perhaps the message is "If you follow a highly talented player, rest assured that he will eventually find his way to a winning team." This has generally proved true over the years: Besides the examples above, Bob McAdoo joined the Lakers, Charles Barkley joined Phoenix, and Chris Bosh seems poised to join a contender next month. However, this argument collapses of its own weight. The NBA markets stars. Unlike the other major team sports in the United States, the NBA's players wear no headgear shrouding their features. Jersey sales, ticket prices, and TV ratings are generally driven by the appearance of great players in attractive situations. Dwyane Wade seems far more exciting when flanked by Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton than he did in the past couple seasons, when he led Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers into opposing arenas. The Garnett ad above implicitly admits that the Association failed, for 11 of his 12 Timberwolf seasons (excluding the highly successful 2003-04 Minnesota campaign featuring Cassell, Sprewell, Szczerbiak, though even then the team's aggregate talent was middling), to put Garnett into a situation where he could thrive. Should we now applaud the league for giving us a product that includes Garnett as a winner? That is like thanking BP for cleaning up their oil spill.

    And this brings me to the upcoming free-agent signing season. For months and possibly years, fans of mediocre teams such as Chicago, New York, Miami, Oklahoma City [though they have moved past "mediocre" now] Sacramento, Minnesota, Washington and the LA Clippers have anticipated July 2010 as a chance to upgrade their roster's core identity in a single swoop, like Dennis Quaid changing his face in Innerspace. But what if none of the top free agents move? It is conceivable that James, Wade, Nowitzki, Johnson, Stoudemire, Boozer, Lee, Gay, Allen, and McGrady could all remain with their current teams. Already, possible free agents Nash, Bryant, and Ginobili re-signed with their teams before their contracts expired. The only near-certainty seems to be Chris Bosh leaving Toronto. If this stagnancy happens, for many fans it would be a lump of coal at the bottom of a brightly adorned Christmas stocking hung on the chimney with care.

    Friday, June 4, 2010

    Finals Home-Road Format Is Close To Irrelevant

    In last night's Game 1 between Los Angeles and Boston, ESPN/ABC's Jeff Van Gundy proposed changing the NBA Finals format from 2-3-2 (two home games for Team A, three home games for Team B, two home games for Team A) to a 2-2-1-1-1 format, which is used in all preceding playoff series. There are good reasons for the existing scheme: The 2-3-2 format requires only two inter-city journeys rather than, potentially, four. When East meets West, inter-city travel is generally further than in the intra-conference playoffs, and there are also many more journalists covering the NBA Finals compared to earlier rounds, so the airfare costs and hassle of 2-2-1-1-1 could be enormous. So the NBA's logic is patent.

    But what of Van Gundy's claim? He seemed to argue that it is difficult for the team with the middle three home games to win all three and thereby fully exercise its home-court entitlement. But under his scheme, Team B would get a home date for Game 3, Game 4, and Game 6. Why should we think that the probability of winning Games 3, 4, & 6 at home (after a Game 5 on the road) is higher than the probability of winning Games 3, 4, & 5 consecutively? To be sure, few Team Bs in the last couple decades — only Detroit in 2004 and Miami in 2006 — have won the middle three games at home. But the sample size is low: only 20 series in those two decades. How many teams, in tightly-contested series (thus, consider only the conference finals) have won games 3, 4, & 6 at home? I doubt much more than four in the last 40 conference final series.

    What's more, from the perspective of Team B, the 2-3-2 format is more forgiving. Assume Team B has a 2/3 chance of winning any given home game, and assume each game result is independent of other games. Assume further that Team A is 99% dominant at home and already won both of Game 1 and 2 on Team A's floor. If you win two of your three middle home games (probability = 12/27, or 44%), or all three of your middle home games (probability = 8/27, or 30%) then you can extend the series to at least Game 6 and make a respectable showing. (Thus, your chance of getting to Game 6 is 74%.) In a 2-2-1-1-1 format, unless Team B wins both of Game 3 and Game 4 at home (probability = 4/9, or 44%) , then Team A can finish off the series in its arena in Game 5. Given this disparity in likelihood, why not take the comfort of the 2-3-2 format?

    Now, the dominant Team A might not like this, but they're going to win the series anyway, and lengthening the series means more ad revenue for everyone, so what's the harm?

    Thursday, June 3, 2010

    Lakers in 5

    My prediction could not be more clear. The Celtics are good, but several of their players (Rondo, Perkins, Garnett, T.Allen, Wallace, Daniels) are in various stages of recovery from injury, and Perkins risks suspension every time he tussles in the paint. Kobe Bryant is supposedly suffering from various ailments, but his performance in the Utah series and Phoenix series resembled Michael Jordan in a way I've never seen from any other player. Andrew Bynum can only give about 20 minutes per game due to a knee injury, but he does better when playing without Pau Gasol on the floor, anyway.

    Who on the Celtics will score the ball? Perkins cannot score with his wrist injury; he has averaged 5.6 points in the postseason, down from 10.1 in the regular. Moreover, Bynum/Gasol can surely contain a reduced Garnett. Artest will do a much better job containing Paul Pierce than Vladimir Radmanovic or Lamar Odom could in 2008. Rajon Rondo has obviously improved greatly since two years ago, and he will likely carve up the Lakers' parade of inferior defenders: Fisher, Farmar, Vujacic, Brown. However, if Rondo is scoring, he is not distributing, and his teammates may grow frustrated. It may fall to the Celtics' reserves — Davis, Wallace, and Nate Rob — to spark Boston's offensive flow.

    Boston can still play excellent D, but Los Angeles now has Bynum and Artest as additional offensive options compared to their '08 squad. It is hard to imagine Ray Allen containing Kobe Bryant's endless array of feints and parries, even if Bryant tires somewhat chasing Allen around curl patterns at the other end.

    The Lakers have grown fat and happy since 2008, as Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, and even Andrew Bynum have found some measure of womanly companionship. However, the stern bark of Kobe Bryant will keep them focused on the prize. Boston is very good, but the Lakers are better.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Why Two For One?

    A few weeks ago we addressed the somewhat specious platitude that finishing a quarter strongly is particularly important. We neglected, though, to address another end-of-quarter oddity. When a team takes possession of the ball with, say, between 48 and 35 seconds remaining in a quarter (save the fourth), coaches sometimes advise their charges to quickly put up a shot so that the opposing team gets it with no less than, say, 30 seconds left. This way, the first team will get the ball back with no less than, say, 6 seconds left, and can try for one more shot. The strategy is called "Two For One". The idea is to get two possessions before the quarter ends.

    There are a couple concerns here.

    First, if the first team gives the second team the ball back with a bit more than 35 seconds left, then the second team can try its own Two-For-One strategy. Thus, the first team must manage its initial possession to make a shot quickly, but not too quickly.

    Second, are two low-probability shots better than one high-probability possession? Assume a frenzied drive at the 0:40 mark, without first setting up holes in the defensive alignment, has a 30% chance of success, and then a desperate 3-point heave at the 0:03 mark has a 10% chance of success. By my calculation, the expected points scored there is 0.45. Meanwhile, your opponent gets a full shot clock to work a set play sandwiched between your two possessions; perhaps the opponent has a 45% chance of scoring, with expected points scored of 0.9. So your expected +/- for that Two-For-One sequence is -0.45. On the other hand, if you took possession at 0:40 and worked the shot clock to the fullest, you have a 0.45 chance of success, with expected points scored of 0.9. Your opponent takes possession at 0:16 and, with somewhat less time to work with, has only a 0.3 chance of scoring, with expected points scored of 0.6. Your expected +/- for that sequence is thus +0.3.

    Obviously my mathematical assumptions can be tweaked to make the Two-For-One strategy seem a bit more favorable, but you get the idea.

    Friday, May 28, 2010

    Antoine Walker: Not A Bust, Now Bust

    Antoine Walker, a former Boston Celtic, Dallas Maverick, Atlanta Hawk, Miami Heater, and Memphis Grizzly, apparently filed for bankruptcy last week under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The linked article from the Wall Street Journal does a good job of outlining Walker's financial woes: $12 MM in personal debts but only $4 MM in assets. Yeah, this guy lived a bit too large. He generally lived up to his promise as the #6 pick in the 1996 NBA draft, scoring over 20 PPG for five years and helping the Miami Heat win the 2006 NBA title as their starting small forward. Although he took a lot of foolhardy three-pointers, his biggest disappointment was in his financial prudence.

    Under 11 U.S.C. §523 and §727, a Chapter 7 case results, after liquidation of the debtor's estate, in discharge of all the debtor's debts that arose before the bankruptcy petition (with certain exceptions like tax obligations and domestic support obligations). Secured creditors get the value of their collateral, up to the amount of their secured claim, and unsecured creditors get whatever is left over from such collateral and the debtor's other assets. Walker is going to wind up with nothing going forward, other than his income-generating ability, whatever that may be.

    What's more, it seems that Walker's biggest real estate liability is a $2.3 MM secured mortgage on a Chicago-area mansion. Illinois allows deficiency judgments (see 735 ILCS §15-1504(f)), which means that even if Walker's mortgage lender foreclosed on his house under ordinary non-bankruptcy procedure, they could still sue him for the difference if the market value of the mansion came in below $2.3 MM, which is likely given recent real estate trends. In Chapter 7, that potential deficiency claim by the bank will be discharged along with most of his other personal debts. This would not be the case in a Chapter 13 filing.

    Under 11 U.S.C. §707(b), Walker's Chapter 7 filing might be deemed presumptively abusive and thus dismissed, or converted to Chapters 11/13, if his monthly net income (after deducting reasonable living expenses, mortgage payments, and domestic support obligations), multiplied by 60, exceeds $10,000. In other words, if his monthly net income exceeds $167, his case may be deemed abusive, unless he can show "special circumstances" such as military service obligation or a serious medical condition. It is hard to believe that Walker cannot bank a couple hundred bucks per month, but I suppose that is what you get when you live like Antoine Walker. In the WSJ article above, he claims to have zero income.

    Thursday, May 27, 2010

    David Stern's John Hancock

    Why is the signature of NBA Commissioner "David J. Stern" emblazoned on every NBA game ball? This is like if the property manager of your mostly-rental apartment building decided to hang his portrait in every elevator.

    Sure, Stern, like your building manager and the US President, has been hired to enforce rules and keep the house in good working order. But Stern is best thought of as a career bureaucrat, not a politician. He was not democratically elected by most of the stakeholders of the NBA, viz. players and fans. The owners hired him 26 years ago to enforce an arcane set of rules that they agreed upon. A loyal fonctionnaire, he is good at his job and doesn't feel like leaving. This could be contrasted with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was appointed by a democratically-elected President and confirmed by a democratically-elected Senate. When I see Tim G's signature on my money, I know that he's the guy whom my representatives approved to manage the common fisc.

    For this reason, my analogy might fall apart if you changed the hypothetical apartment building to mostly owner-occupied. In such case, the building manager could be seen as a truly democratically supported agent of the residents. In that case, I might not mind seeing his smiling mug as I stepped into the lift.

    But I'm sorry, David Stern is not the face of the league. (That role can be inferred by looking at the guys who appear in NBA Cares ads: Nash, James, Bryant, Yao.) He has no popular accountability to anyone, save the 30 owners who control revenues and intangible assets of the league. And really, who cares about them?

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    Matchups Matter; Celtics Defy Elementary Logic

    Consider the following facts:

    1. The 2008 Atlanta Hawks played the 2008 Celtics to a near-draw, before falling in seven games.

    2. The 2008 Celtics were superior to the 2010 Celtics, due to the ensuing two years of injury and aging for the team's Big Three. In the regular season, the former won 63 games and the latter won 50.

    3. The 2008 Hawks were inferior to the 2010 Hawks, due to the ensuing two years of growth and development by the team's core young players: Williams, Smith, Horford, and Johnson. In the regular season, the former won 37 games and the latter won 53.

    4. The 2010 Orlando Magic were vastly superior to the 2010 Atlanta Hawks, defeating the latter by an average of 23 points in a four-game sweep.

    Thus, by inference, the 2010 Hawks should be better than the 2010 Celtics, and thus the 2010 Magic should be heaps better than the 2010 Celtics.

    But the observed data shows that the Celtics have defeated Orlando twice on the latter's home floor, and now lead the series 3-1.

    This oddity represents an example of the First Law of Playoff Basketball: Matchups matter. A fast team, Atlanta, can torment a relatively slow team, like the Celtics. The small, fast team may fall victim to a squad full of 7-foot redwood timber, such as Orlando, which can boast Gortat at center, Dwight Howard at PF, and Rashard Lewis at SF. Yet Orlando can succumb to Boston due to the latter's quick PG and stout defensive center.

    In other words, superiority of teams is not transitive. A > B and B > C does not imply A > C. Over in the Western conference, the Lakers seem clearly superior to Phoenix, while the Suns broomed away San Antonio in four straight. Could the Lakers handle the Spurs so easily? The derring-do of Tony Parker and the offensive range of Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess suggest otherwise.

    This seems to upend our traditional interpretations of a single-elimination tournament, whether that be the NBA playoffs, the NCAA Division I men's basketball bracket, or Wimbledon. At any given stage of elimination, a still-extant team is ostensibly better than all losing teams in the sub-bracket whence it emerged. (In March Madness, a team that makes the Sweet 16 is (i) better than the team it beat in the first round, (ii) better than the team it beat in the second round, and (iii) by transitivity, better than the first-round-victim of the team it beat in the second round.) Following this logic to the end, the champion competitor is better than all losing teams in the tournament. But once transitivity fails, what are we left with? The champion just got lucky? The champion was just good at avoiding injuries, as we outlined here?

    That winning requires, or is ordinarily correlated with, luck is somewhat disappointing; hallowed canards hold that the best teams will their way to a title. Recall Jordan's flu game or the Miami Heat refusing to lose against Dallas. Additionally, American society is premised on internecine competitions yielding one true great one. What is American Idol, if not a nod to the spelling bees that have challenged rural American children since the 19th century? Whereas spelling prowess and perhaps even singing ability can be measured and compared, team basketball success may be somewhat more ethereal.

    I must credit my co-blogger H.O.S.S. for suggesting this idea.

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    Assessing The Playoffs Thus Far

    After two games of the Western and Eastern conference finals, here is how I see it:

    Best things about the playoffs thus far
    1. Phoenix beats the Spurs finally
    2. Celtics re-naissance
    3. Thunder give legit challenge to Lakers

    Worst things about the playoffs thus far:
    1. Hawks underperform
    2. 3 of 4 East first-round series are massacres
    3. Conference finals have feeling of being a foregone conclusion

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Fallacy of Enduring Franchise Traits

    I'm tired of statistics showing the historical performance of teams in certain situations, spanning multiple decades. Take the following tidbit from an online Sports Illustrated article yesterday: "The Celtics ... are 32-0 in seven-game series in which they've taken a 2-0 lead."

    That's simply not of interest to me. I might be interested in the historical performance of all teams in this situation (viz. teams that win the first two games of a series have a historical series win record of 217-14, 93%, and if we focus on teams that win the series's first two games on the road, they won 22 of 25 series, 88%), but why would the historical Celtics performance in this situation add any useful information? The Celtics as a Massachusetts corporate entity have some continuous legal life, and by convention, the current group of guys shares some virtual heritage with former teams called Celtics. Yet the 1959 Celtics of Russell and Cousy are no closer in composition to the 2010 Celtics compared to, say, the similitude of the 1979 Sonics to the current Celtics. There is little that has remained constant with the Celtics franchise over time, other than green uniforms and a stadium in downtown Boston. So why should we think that all-time Celtics statistics are informative for the current team's situation?

    As Rick Pitino once put it, Larry Bird ain't walking through that door.

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Celtics Fell Mighty Magic in Game 1

    I was visiting Boston and communing with a fellow member of the JPO team yesterday, but due to the quirks of my travel schedule, I actually was not able to view most of the Orlando-Boston game and could only see highlights. The box score reveals a couple interesting quirks to me, though.

    * Boston out-assisted Orlando, 21 to 10. Orlando had averaged nearly 19 assists per game in their first two post-season series. Look for Stan Van Gundy to emphasize more pick-and-roll action in Game 2, freeing up Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis for more easy shots.

    * Relatedly, Orlando shot only 5 for 22 from three-point range, an unusually low clip compared to their regular-season percentage of 37%. Had they made a couple more of those, they could have nipped Boston.

    Prior to this series, I told my co-bloggers that I predict Orlando in 6 games. I still stand by that prediction, although obviously my prediction now seems significantly less likely, both in a simple arithmetical sense and also due to what we learned about the teams' relative strengths.

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    If He Brons It, Will They Come?

    Today's rumors center on LeBron James's next team, after Cleveland lost, surprisingly to some pundits, to the Boston Celtics in the second round. A cursory analysis suggests that, of the teams with room under the salary cap to sign a top free-agent player to a "max" contract, the Chicago Bulls are the most attractive, followed closely by the Nets and Clippers. This superiority arises from those teams' employment of talented young players under low-money rookie contracts — hence their low aggregate salary rolls. Chicago boasts several champions of the under-23 circuit, including Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, while New Jersey fields Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams, and Brook Lopez, and the Clips include Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. (Each of those teams also has good veteran players, such as Kirk Hinrich, Devin Harris, and Chris Kaman.) New Jersey also finished with the league's worst record in 2009-10 and is assured of a draft pick somewhere in slots #1 through #4. The New York Knicks, meanwhile, have been trading away talented players like Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford, Jordan Hill, and Jared Jeffries since 2008 in order to clear salary in order to sign two top 2010 free agents.

    It would be a cruel blow to fans of other historically weak teams, particularly the Knicks, if the Bulls manage to grab LBJ. The Bulls have long been the fourth act in a sports-crazy town. In Jerry Sloan's playing days, the Bulls were a curious oddity who only won their division once.
    Michael Jordan spoiled the city with six championships, though his arrival coincided with the "Monsters of the Midway" Bears championship team and the Cubs captaincy of Ryne Sandberg. Since Jordan left in 1998, the Bulls have returned to their fourth-class status. Yes, they routinely sell out their arena and have led the league in attendance for the past decade, but it is difficult to find any young person sporting a Luol Deng jersey on Michigan or Kedzie Avenues. Tailgating at Bears games or bratwursting at Cubs tilts is far more common.

    Just to illustrate this disparity, I scored tickets to attend last month's Bulls-Cavs first-round series at $47 each (including all taxes and other ancillary charges). Lately I have been exploring attending the pending Blackhawks-Sharks NHL series; the cheapest seat will cost me $183! Even hockey, another country's national sport, beats basketball here in the home of Kevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade.

    Signs have burgeoned recently suggesting that LeBron James may join the Bulls as a free agent this summer, perhaps with another top FA like Chris Bosh. What's more, now President Barack Obama has an opinion about Mr. James's next team! I support our President, but I feel he should leave this one to the professionals.

    While basketball-mad Knicks fans have patiently waited through nine years of futility (the Knicks' last winning season was 2000-01) for this coming summer, Bulls fans generally have had little expectations. As I noted in this earlier post, the Bulls have not shown a single clear direction in the twelve years since Jordan pushed off. The Bulls lucked into the top pick of the 2008 draft though they ranked only ninth-worst in the regular-season standings. They subsequently hired the wrong coach, as I charged here. Even in the past couple years, as it became apparent that Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are championship-caliber pros, few took seriously the notion that the Bulls could sign a star, until GM John Paxson quietly traded away John Salmons to the rampaging Bucks last February, clearing sufficient room off the Bulls' 2010-11 salary roll.

    If Chicago is able to dominate the Teens of the NBA with the panache it showed in the Nineties, it would represent a rather plutocratic concentration of basketball success for a city that hardly craves it. Knicks fans deserve a fantastic team, but it may be Bears and Blackhawks fans who get it.