Sunday, February 28, 2010

Twenty-Four Months Of Perspective On Trades

Back in February 2008, three big trades altered the balance of power in the Western Conference:

(1) The L.A. Lakers traded Kwame Brown, 2007 first-round draft pick Javaris Crittenton, 2007 second-round draft pick Marc Gasol, a 2008 first-round draft pick, and a 2010 first-round pick to Memphis for Pau Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick.

(2) Phoenix traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.

(3) Dallas traded Devin Harris, Desagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, a 2008 first-round draft pick, and a 2010 first-round pick to New Jersey for Jason Kidd, Malik Allen, and Antoine Wright.

Each of these transactions was roundly slammed at the time for its one-sidedness: Folks thought that the Lakers, Heat, and Nets fleeced their respective counterparties. However, assets in the NBA (i) are relationship-specific, i.e. their value changes depending which team gets them, and (ii) have dynamic values that can change significantly over time. Ultimately, each of these trades turned out to be far fairer than once thought.

We know that Pau Gasol helped propel the Lakers to two NBA finals and one championship (after successive first-round exits in 2006 and 2007), so the trade was a home run for Los Angeles. Yet the deal now looks better for Memphis than once thought. Marc Gasol, hardly mentioned in initial accounts of the trade, now performs rather equinely every night, regularly turning in double-doubles and serving as a scary defensive presence. He was mentioned by several pundits as worthy of a 2010 All-Star spot. Moreover, the 2008 first-round pick in that trade became Darrell Arthur, who is now Memphis's only decent forward off the bench. Memphis, at 30-29 and unexpectedly striving for a playoff spot, is one of the most surprising squads of 2009-10. It is actually hard to imagine now that Memphis could have done significantly better in the trade, given the teams bidding to acquire Pau at the time. Chicago allegedly offered Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, but neither of those guys has Marc Gasol's dominant offensive instincts.

SUNS-HEAT (O'Neal, Marion)
Early in the 2007-08 season, following a first-round sweep by Chicago the previous spring, Heat watchers declared Shaquille O'Neal "done". O'Neal, though, recovered from early-season doldrums following his trade to Phoenix and improved his rebounding from 7.8 per game to 10.6. Phoenix lost in the first round of the playoffs that season to San Antonio, which eventually beat the Hornets in the second round and lost to the Lakers in the conference finals. Whether Phoenix could have surpassed the West's best that season is uncertain. The Suns could not get past San Antonio with a full complement of Nash, Stoudemire, and Marion in the 2007 playoffs, so it is uncertain whether they could have reversed their luck in '08.
In 2008-09, O'Neal was selected to the Western Conference All-Star team and was voted to the All-NBA third team in June. That Phoenix struggled in the 2008-09 season and missed the playoffs was largely the fault of their new coach, Terry Porter, who failed to run a system suited to the run-and-gun, pick-and-roll strengths of the team's biggest stars, Nash and Stoudemire. O'Neal turned in a very good year, featuring his best scoring rate since 2005-06 and his best free throw percentage since 2002-03.
Meanwhile, Marion, once called the most athletic player in the NBA, is no longer thought of as a top 10, top 15, or even top 30 superstar. After the big trade in February 2008 he seemed to sulk, playing under his supposed potential on Miami and later Toronto. Now a starting small forward for Dallas, he is merely a top-notch role player who once was great.

Is there any controversy here? The Nets are 6-52 and Dallas is 38-21. The 2008 draft pick that the Nets picked up became Ryan Anderson (who was eventually flipped, with Vince Carter, for Courtney Lee), who is a decent ninth man. Save for Hassell, all the other role players in the 2008 draft — Diop, Ager, Allen, Wright — now play elsewhere. Jason Kidd turned in a 19-17-16 game on Friday night at nearly age 37. Following the 2008 trade, he helped the US Olympic team to a gold medal in Beijing, followed by a second-round playoff showing in 2009, knocking off the hated Spurs. This year he averages 10 points, 9 assists, nearly 2 steals, and 42 percent from long range. Looking beyond statistics, he is the unquestioned general of his team and often appears spryer than men nearly half his age. Harris had a nice 2008-09, finishing a very close 2nd in the Most Improved Player voting, but this year he is shooting under 40% from the field -- as a point guard -- while, again, leading his team to a 6-52 record.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Does LeBron Make Teammates Better?

One of my co-bloggers suggested to me yesterday that LeBron James is great at "making his teammates better".

Without denying any of the greatness of #23, I must quibble with this contention. Sure, there is a real basketball sense in which a great player can help his teammates to excel. A point guard can pass the ball to scorers in precisely the right position, at the right moment. A dominant big man can draw double-teams in the paint, leaving 3-point shooters wide open. An agile and intimidating help defender can allow a mediocre defender to survive in a one-on-one defensive scheme, while said mediocre defender thrives on the offensive end of the court. And yes, LeBron James does many of these things.

It is also true that LeBron has done more with less (note: I know that it's not possible to optimize two variables simultaneously) than any other superstar in recent memory. In 2007, LBJ was able to lift his team to the NBA Finals, playing alongside co-starters including Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, and Drew Gooden.

However, players who do best with the ball in their hands a lot may not do so well (or at least, I should say: they may not do better) playing with LeBron James, who often brings the ball from the backcourt, sets up offensive plays, drives, and sometimes rebounds his own side's misses and starts a set anew.

Let us consider two specific teammates of LeBron James whom my co-blogger mentioned as having been "made better" by James: Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

As a second-round draft pick, Williams impressed by claiming Milwaukee's starting PG job in just his second year, 2004-05, and keeping the spot for three more. Williams had a great 2008-09, but his statistics that season were not appreciably better than his 2007-08 statistics in Milwaukee. More likely, the East All-star selection committee felt that Cleveland deserved two players out of 12 due to its great to-date regular season performance, so they chose Williams. This year, Williams has not recovered to his Milwaukee performance levels, turning in only 4.9 assists. Granted, Cleveland's PG may not need to be a "distributor" given LBJ's role in the offense, but Williams is not doing much better than Eric Snow did for Cleveland at age 34 in 2007. Why not just keep Snow around? He's not the most entertaining guy on NBATV anyway.

(The above is a joke, of course, as Williams brings quickness and a jump-shooting ability that Snow could not.)

First, let us note that Ilgauskas was named to the NBA All-Star team in February 2003, when LeBron James was still competing in the Ohio high school circuit. At this time Ilgauskas's Cavs team was among the worst in the league, so it was really an achievement for Ilgauskas to receive notice. Ilgauskas was named an All-Star again in February 2005, at which time James was still figuring out the pros. Since James became the unquestioned star of his team (and of the league) in 2006, Big Z's hairline has waned, but his game has not. His scoring and rebounding has followed a somewhat desultory path, but (if we take a 3-year moving average) seems to have risen or stayed steady since James came aboard. His field goal percentage has also risen since his early seasons, suggesting that James's presence allows Ilgauskas to shoot 'em from apposite places for his skill set (under the basket or 20 feet away). On this point, I would concede that James's presence has, in fact, made Big Z better, which is impressive as Ilgauskas has aged from 30 to 35.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Little Butt-Whacking Never Hurt Anyone

Via ESPN's TrueHoop, I read yesterday a New York Times article about a study by UC-Berkeley researchers showing that physical touching between NBA players is positively correlated with good on-court performance.

The article is yet unpublished, so it is difficult to thoroughly understand or critique it. A few points come to mind:

  • According to the NYT summary, the data consisted of "every bump, hug and high five in a single game played by each team in the National Basketball Association early last season." As I interpret that, they followed one game for each of the 30 NBA teams -- i.e. they followed 15 games total. That's an awfully small sample size, considering that the total number of games in one season is 82 times that number. Possibly, they followed 30 separate games (focusing on just one team in each game), but that's still not much.

  • According to the NYT write-up, the study uses assist-to-turnover ratio, rather than points scored or plus-minus point differential, as the measure of team and player performance. If they were attempting to measure the effect of positive point performance upon touching, then we could interpret the use of assist-to-turnover ratio as an "instrumental variable" -- i.e. an alternative explanatory variable that is correlated with the real explanator (points) but has no reverse causality from the dependent variable (touching). Does this make sense, though? If touching encourages better point scoring and better defense, then touching could also encourage better ball-sharing and ball-husbanding.

  • On the other hand, if the researchers' working model is that touching leads causally to better play, then I don't fully understand why they would want to replace the purported dependent variable (point differential) with another, related dependent variable (AST/TO ratio). Surely there is a reverse causality problem here: more assists could mean that players develop a mutual affinity, encouraging touching. Fewer turnovers would reduce enmity and resentment, again encouraging touching. That good play encourages touching seems like a fairly trivial finding, even if some numerical confirmation would be nice.

  • How, then, to tease out causality? I might recommend something like the "Propensity Score Matching" statistical technique (a brute-force technique in non-experimental settings to group together similar subjects of study, thus controlling for background variables, and then observing what happens when the treatment is applied vs. when it's not applied). But analyzing data this way is definitely not my day job.
  • Monday, February 22, 2010

    Most Rings Won By NBA Players

    Just for fun, here is our compilation of the NBA players with the most championships over the period from 1980-2009. If there are any errors or omissions, please leave a note in the comments.

    Robert Horry (Houston 1994, 1995; Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002; San Antonio 2005, 2007)

    Scottie Pippen (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)
    Michael Jordan (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)

    Magic Johnson (Los Angeles 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Los Angeles 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
    Note: KAJ also has a sixth championship from the 1971 Bucks.
    Michael Cooper (Los Angeles 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
    Ron Harper (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998; Los Angeles 2000, 2001)
    Steve Kerr (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998; San Antonio 1999, 2003)
    Dennis Rodman (Detroit 1989, 1990; Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998)

    Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009)
    Derek Fisher (Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009)
    Shaquille O'Neal (Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002; Miami 2006)
    Tim Duncan (San Antonio 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)
    John Salley (Detroit 1989, 1990; Chicago 1996; Los Angeles 2000)
    Horace Grant (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993; Los Angeles 2001)
    Robert Parish (Boston 1981, 1984, 1986; Chicago 1997)
    Kurt Rambis (Los Angeles 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
    Will Perdue (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993; San Antonio 1999)

    Toni Kukoc (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998)
    Luc Longley (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998)
    Jud Buechler (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998)
    Bill Wennington (Chicago 1996, 1997, 1998)
    Bill Cartwright (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    Stacey King (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    John Paxson (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    Scott Williams (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    Craig Hodges (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    B.J. Armstrong (Chicago 1991, 1992, 1993)
    A.C. Green (Los Angeles 1987, 1988, 2000)
    Kevin McHale (Boston 1981, 1984, 1986)
    Larry Bird (Boston 1981, 1984, 1986)
    Byron Scott (Los Angeles 1985, 1987, 1988)
    James Worthy (Los Angeles 1985, 1987, 1988)
    Jamaal Wilkes (Los Angeles 1980, 1982, 1985)
    Note: If we count Wilkes's stint on the 1975 Golden State Warriors, he has four rings.
    Rick Fox (Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002)
    Devean George (Los Angeles 2000, 2001, 2002)
    Tony Parker (San Antonio 2003, 2005, 2007)
    Manu Ginobili (San Antonio 2003, 2005, 2007)
    Bruce Bowen (San Antonio 2003, 2005, 2007)
    UPDATE: I could've just checked this link, which already compiled the same info. Oops.

    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    On CBA Negotiations

    NBA "superagent" David Falk made two useful observations in this recent New York Times article.

    First, he stated that NBA owners have a "much more reduced financial ability to withstand" a work stoppage than NBA players do. At first glance, this makes sense: NBA owners own other highly profitable businesses and have other sources of cash-flow, plus plenty of wealth in the bank. Most NBA players are not gainfully employed outside of their NBA commitments. Sure, the top stars endorse commercial products such as insurance, shoes, and fast food, but most players don't have such opportunities. If they are prudent, they have invested their wealth in a mix of liquid and illiquid investments that produce a regular dividend stream, but sadly, not all players are so responsible with their money.

    I suppose the surprising part of Falk's comment is the modifying word "much" in front of "more". If I earned 1 million after-tax dollars in just one year of my life, I would find a way to put that money to work so I could, for the most part, retire from the rat race forever. And the average NBA player salary is $5 million!

    Second, Falk suggests that in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, owners' revenue, for purposes of calculating a player salary cap, should include "China, franchise appreciation, broadcast rights, luxury seating".

    Let us take a look at the current definition of Basketball-Related Income ("BRI") from Article VII, Section 1 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

  • Gate receipts [Sections 1(a)(1)(i), (iii), and (iv)]

  • Broadcast rights fees [Section 1(a)(1)(ii)]

  • In-arena novelty and concession receipts [Section 1(a)(1)(v)]

  • Parking fees [Section 1(a)(v)]

  • Team sponsorships and promotions [Section 1(a)(v)]

  • 40% of luxury suite receipts [Section 1(a)(1)(vii)]

  • 50% of arena naming rights fees [Section 1(a)(1)(viii)]

  • Licensing fees received by NBA properties [Section 1(a)(1)(ix)]

  • Receipts from premium seat licenses [Section 1(a)(1)(x)]

  • However, the following is excluded from the definition of BRI, among other things:

  • Expansion fees from new owners[Section 1(a)(2)(iii)]

  • Government subsidies for a new arena [Section 1(a)(2)(xi), (xii)]

  • Revenues from leasing team assets such as a plane [Section 1(a)(2)(xix)]

  • Falk has a point. It may be that owners are collectively losing money under the current regime, and the players' share of "Basketball-Related Income", as embodied in each team's salary cap, needs to be reduced. However, why are certain revenue streams, such as government subsidies, excluded from BRI? And why is only 50% of arena naming rights fees, rather than the whole hog, included in the BRI calculation? The more players have a stake in revenue streams, the more they (or their union, acting collectively as their agent) will have an incentive to take actions that grow the pie, such as charitable appearances, government lobbying, corporate motivational talks, and so forth. To the extent that Falk correctly identified revenue streams that are not currently completely included in the BRI definition (for example, he mentioned "luxury seating", but luxury suite fees are already 100% included in BRI), I agree completely with Falk.
    UPDATE February 26th: As for Falk's suggestion that players should share in franchise appreciation, the first paragraph from reader "Dan Palmer" in this article quite captures my view.

    More generally, franchise appreciation in sports is an odd duck. For most businesses, the enterprise value is based on some capitalized sum of future profit streams. Yet sports owners may want the asset for personal or emotional reasons. Who wouldn't want to own the Chicago Cubs? This non-"rational" demand, resulting in each potential bidder having his own idiosyncratic valuation for the business, makes a sports team far more like a house than a commercial office building.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Chicago Bulls' Ever-Changing Rebuilding Strategy

    Since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls after his last championship in 1998, the Bulls have made three distinct attempts at re-building.

    The first iteration involved Ron Mercer (drafted in 1997), Brad Miller (undrafted in 1998), Elton Brand (drafted in '99) and Ron Artest (drafted in '99). All these men had outperformed in at least two years of college play. Miller, in particular, led the US team at the 1998 World Championships, when NBA stars refused to go due to labor negotiations. Toni Kukoc, who had contributed to three championship teams at West Madison, remained on the roster after Jordan and Pippen departed. This roster could have been quite promising if left to stew in its juices.

    But Bulls management, impatient, then decided to re-stock the roster with young phenoms. On draft day in June 2001, Chicago traded Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers for the second pick in that draft. Chicago selected Compton CA prep standout Tyson Chandler, a Jurassic-sized creature who looked ready to man the post for a while. Oddly, Chicago selected another high school center, Eddy Curry of suburban Chicago, with its own pick at #4 in that draft. Meanwhile, Chicago began building around Jamal Crawford, a kid with one year of post-high school experience whom they had selected at #8 in the 2000 draft. Meanwhile, Miller, Artest, and Mercer, then barely men, were traded to Indiana in 2002 for Jalen Rose and Travis Best. Miller and Artest eventually became the building blocks, with Jermaine O'Neal, of the Pacers Resurrected, who shockingly returned to the Eastern Conference's elite just a couple years after Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Mark Jackson, and Rik Smits flew south for the winter.

    When this strategy failed -- the Bulls having endured three miserable seasons of 21, 30, and 23 wins immediately following the Brand trade -- General Manager John Paxson, who took control of the team in April 2003, began pursuing a patient strategy of building through the draft, choosing college players who had thrived in the NCAA tournament. Thus he selected Jay Williams in 2002 (a Duke alum, who had led the team to the 2001 NCAA title), Kirk Hinrich in 2003 (a Kansas Jayhawk who took his team to the Final Four in 2002 and the title game in 2003), Ben Gordon in 2004 (a U. Connecticut player who won the 2004 championship), Luol Deng in 2004 (the top freshman on a Final Four Duke team, which missed playing in the final by just one point, losing to Gordon's Huskies), Chris Duhon in 2004 (Deng's Duke teammate, and a freshman during the 2001 championship run, though he played not a minute that season), Tyrus Thomas in 2006 (a freakish freshman who led his LSU team to the Final Four, turning in 21-13-3 in the regional final), Joakim Noah in 2007 (the captain of a Gators squad that won the championship in 2006, then did it again), Derrick Rose in 2008 (he who almost willed his Memphis Tigers to the NCAA title), and Taj Gibson in 2009 (who, in some contradistinction to the others, lost in the second round of the tournament with his Trojans).

    Meanwhile, the avatars of Chicago's previous youth movement were quickly disposed of. Chicago traded Jamal Crawford to New York in 2004 for a bunch of old or weak players, then traded Curry to the same Knicks in 2005, and Tyson Chandler to New Orleans in 2006. (I would be remiss to not mention Chicago's huge Ben Wallace signing in July 2006, which apparently would disturb my thesis of slow growth through baccalaureates. I must admit, the perceived need to add a veteran was quizzical then, and still is. The team was not yet ready to rise, featuring a core of Deng/Gordon/Hinrich, average age 23. In the event, Wallace did not play to his prior peak while with the Bulls, and Chicago was able to trade him away in February 2008 for Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden.)

    It should be noted that high school players were ineligible for the NBA draft after 2005, and that foreign players were discredited following the failure of Darko Milicic, the #2 pick in 2003. Thus, selecting successful college players, once a quotidian and humdrum strategy, may now be once again banal, more than I would like to imagine for purposes of this blog post.

    Of course, one cannot accumulate assets forever without some adverse risk events materializing. Williams sadly wrecked his knee in a motorcycle crash in 2003 and never returned to NBA action. The Bulls let Duhon walk away to New York in summer 2008, and let the shot-happy Gordon become a new Piston as a free agent in July '09. They traded Thomas to Charlotte in February of 2010, after he uttered a hot tirade against his coach. (With that trade the Bulls acquired Acie Law, who had reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2008, and with another trade on the same day Chicago acquired Hakim Warrick, who won the NCAA championship with Syracuse in 2003.)

    In any case, the Bulls' current core of Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, and Noah is good, but not great. Greatness may require the complementary services of Dwyane Wade (Final Four alum of 2003) or Carlos Boozer (Jay Williams's former teammate from that glorious 2001 Duke squad). In an era dominated recently by Bryant, James, Howard, and Garnett, it would be meet if a collection of Dick Vitale's favorites could win the NBA title.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010

    More On McGrady Trade

    Well, the deal I wrote about yesterday came to fruition, with the added wrinkle of Sacramento's involvement. Sacramento sends Sergio Rodriguez to New York and Kevin Martin to Houston. Sacramento receives Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey from Houston, along with Larry Hughes from New York. Otherwise, the basic outlines of yesterday's trade still hold: New York receives McGrady, while Houston receives Jared Jeffries, Jordan Hill, New York's 2012 first-round draft pick, and the right to swap first-round picks with New York in 2011.

    This is a win-win-win. New York clears 2010-11 salary and is able to audition McGrady for two months. Houston gets Martin, potentially a star shooting guard in the mold of Reggie Miller and Richard Hamilton, plus a strong defender in Jeffries and a lottery prospect in Hill. Sacramento receives the very solid Landry and also cuts salary; their payroll for 2010-11 is now low enough that they also could potentially sign a "max" free agent this July. Who wouldn't want to play with Tyreke Evans?

    The Knicks also come away from today with an influx of young talent. Though they gave away 2009 lottery pick Jordan Hill, they received Sergio Rodriguez, plus J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker from their Nate Robinson trade. To date, Donnie Walsh has done a very good job of shepherding the team into the new decade. If he can sign top stars this summer, we will be obliged to give him an A+.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Assessing Potential Knicks-Rockets Trade

    Today's reports indicate that the Knicks want to trade Jared Jeffries, Jordan Hill, and Larry Hughes, plus a couple draft picks, to Houston for Tracy McGrady.

    If completed, this would be an excellent deal for New York. Hill has not shown much promise in his first 50 pro games. Jeffries is a versatile defender, but probably replicable, and at a cheaper salary. Shedding the $6.88 MM contract of Jeffries and the $2.67 MM contract of HIll would shave $9.55 MM off the Knicks' salary roll for 2010-11, leaving them with just $17.78 MM in committed player pay for next season. Looking at a salary cap of approximately $53 MM, the Knicks would have approximately $35 MM of uncommitted cap space to sign free agents in July. With a maximum allowed salary of approximately $16 MM annually, the Knicks could bring in two top-level players from the pool of James/Wade/Bosh/Johnson/Stoudemire, and possibly sign a third top performer to boot. Perhaps McGrady would re-sign with New York at a low rate. Let us not forget that T-Mac has earned All-NBA honors six times, including two seasons on the First Team. And he is only 30 years old. If he can perform at 50% of his peak, that's still better than anyone else presently on the Knicks.

    Under this scenario, the Knicks would have only four signed players for 2010-11: Chandler, Gallinari, Curry, and Douglas. Only the first two guys of that list are good, and they both play small forward. Thus, signing LeBron James seems unlikely. A likelier combination would be plucking (i) one top guard: Johnson or Wade, and (ii) one top big: Stoudemire or Bosh.

    Of course, Miami, Chicago, New Jersey, Oklahoma City, and the L.A. Clippers will compete to sign these same free agents. Also, the Knicks would have a troublesome time filling in the rest of the 15-man roster after signing two studs. (They have no first-round draft pick in 2010, having traded it away in 2004.) It would help if Eddy Curry could get in shape and return to his form of 2006-07, when he averaged 19.5 points and 7 rebounds on 58% field-goal percentage. This seems unlikely, though.

    UPDATE: Somewhat relatedly, I just became aware of this New York Times article, an interesting analysis of the financial fortunes of Madison Square Garden Inc., parent company of the New York Knicks. On February 9th, Madison Square Garden Inc. became a separate business entity from its parent, Cablevision.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    Steada Treated

    In our last installment, we looked at the 2010 cohort of role players who have remained on one team for six solid years. Here are a few more whom we omitted in that post:

    TONY ALLEN (Boston 2004-present)
    SASHA VUJACIC (L.A. Lakers 2004-present)
    Each of these guys has been lucky to follow the journey of joining a team at the lowest point of its sinusoid curve, and then watching as the team climbs toward a championship, all while remaining a non-core role player. Sasha "The Machine" was drafted in 2004, immediately prior to the trades of Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton. My, but that Lakers team was bad (34-48) in Vujacic's first year, driving coach Rudy Tomjanovich into a second retirement. He hit a couple big shots for Los Angeles when it hit a scurvy fate in the 2006 and 2007 first rounds against Phoenix, but now that the Lakers are title contenders again, he averages 7.6 minutes and 2.5 points, having been supplanted in the rotation by Shannon Brown. He is lucky enough to consort with beautiful tennis star Maria Sharapova, though.
    As for Allen, he plays decent defense and the Celtics sometimes view him as their "Kobe stopper". It's surprising that he's hung around for six years, though, as he is probably not the caliber of player that an elite team would like to have as their best backup wing.

    DORELL WRIGHT (Miami 2004-present)
    Wright has experienced the opposite trajectory to Vujacic and Allen: He was inducted into the Miami side in 2004 at their very peak, just after they acquired Shaquille O'Neal for the trio of Odom, Butler, and Grant. Miami won six playoff series and a championship in Wright's first two years, although he did not receive much serious run. Wright's best season was 2007-08, in which he averaged 25 minutes, 8 points, and 5 rebounds. That was also Miami's worst: Dwyane Wade had several injuries, Shaquille O'Neal was tired then traded, and the team blatantly "tanked" in hopes of a high draft pick. As Wade and Miami have haltingly returned to form in the last couple years, Wright's utilization has sunk. He is still on the team, though his contract is set to expire in June and some analysts think Miami will soon trade him for luxury-tax relief.

    Prior to this week, I was planning to include all the guys below on my list of long-tenured role players. However, recent developments have moved me to see them as distinct creatures. I now feel inclined to create a new category: "Guys Who Did Not Ascend to All-Star Status Until Their Sixth or Seventh Season With The Same Team". This list would include Gerald Wallace (a 2010 All-Star in his sixth year with Charlotte, and his ninth overall), Chris Kaman (a 2010 All-Star in his seventh Clippy year) and Josh Smith (the most popularly mentioned 2010 All-Star snub, in his sixth campaign with Atlanta).

    And here is another category: "Guys Who Seemingly Have All-Star Talent At Times But Have Never Put It Together For A Sustained Period, Yet Remain On One Team For Six Years": Luol Deng, Andris Biedrins, Andre Iguodala, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Martin are the charter members of this club. Richard Jefferson, who played for New Jersey from 2001-2008, also qualifies. Other than the big Latvian, these guys are all lanky wing players. Does this mean that good-but-not-great wing players are scarce and teams are afraid to lose them? Or that analysts have a tendency to overestimate the potential of slashers who really aren't all that?

    Monday, February 8, 2010

    We All Did What We Could Do

    Last year, we identified several role players (by which I mean, roughly, players who have less than a 10% chance of ever making an All-Star team) who have stayed with one team for six seasons or more.

    Surprisingly, not much has changed since then: while a handful of teams parted ways with their yeomen (Etan Thomas, now of the Twin Cities), several other mainstays made it to one additional season (Sam Dalembert, Brendan Haywood, Erick Dampier, Dan Gadzuric, Nick Collison, Jeff Foster, Luke Walton). Notably, the above list includes almost entirely big men. Clearly, we should infer that skilled, coachable tall guys are difficult to find. (For purposes of this post, I am counting the current season as already complete, so a guy drafted in 2004 has already completed six seasons with his team, and thus could make it aboard this list.) Let us examine the latest cohort of Hard-Workin' Studs, who have now stayed with a single squad for six. Some of these guys belonged on my 2009 list, as they've been on their team since fall 2003, but I neglected to extol them then.

    ANDERSON VAREJAO (Cleveland 2004-present) Derided for his floppy hair and floppy defense, Varejao actually has become the second most-valuable player on the Cavaliers, the Scottie to LBJ's Jordan. He plays energetic defense and always knows how to help a teammate when needed. On offense, he sets very sturdy screens and scraps well for rebounds. He is not yet much of a shooter, but most of his teammates take care of that burden.

    NENE HILARIO (Denver 2002-present)
    Nene's first few seasons in the league were beset by calamities: a torn ACL on the first day of the 2005-06 season, and later, a thumb injury and a cancer diagnosis in 2007-08. Lately, though, he has been playing quite robustly, earning some informal All-Star nominations. He helped to lead his team to the Western Conference Finals last May and might do it again this year. I still maintain that he belongs on this list, as his chances of ever making the Western conference All-Star team are low in a competition against Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Kaman and both Gasol brothers. It is likely that we have seen the best Nene can offer.

    KIRK HINRICH (Chicago 2003-present)
    Hinrich was a serviceable point guard until the Bulls fortuitously received the top pick of the 2008 draft, wherein Derrick Rose presented himself for plucking. Hinrich plays good defense for a 6'3" guard and is often called "tough", which I think is code for "dirty". He is not a great NBA point guard, though, as his passing, shooting, and handling skills are not at the level of the PG greats. His shooting percentage this season has fallen to a horrible 38%. Recently, rumors have surfaced that Hinrich could be traded to the Lakers or Celtics; he would certainly be a wonderful addition as a sixth man on those two contenders, while the Bulls might be happy to be freed of his $9 MM salary obligation in 2010-11.

    TRAVIS OUTLAW (Portland 2003-present)
    Outlaw never has fulfilled the promise suggested by his auspicious membership in the '03 draft class, which has heretofore produced eight All-Stars. The guy can run the floor like a U. Bolt and energize the Rose Garden crowd, but unfortunately Portland coach Nate Macmillan believes in a slow game. Sadly, just as soon as fast-breaking PG Andre Miller joined the team this past fall, Outlaw's dream of ooping till Tuesday was slain. In this, his seventh season, he has spent the majority of the stretch healing a broken foot (the same injury that felled his fellow 3, Martell Webster, last season). Talk is that Portland may want to trade him in the next few days, as his contract expires in June and he would likely not be re-signed.

    LEANDRO BARBOSA (Phoenix 2003-present)
    Barbosa and Amare Stoudemire are the longest-tenured Phoenix players, the latter now in his eighth Sunny year and the former in his seventh. During the Suns' days atop the Western conference from 2004 to 2007, Barbosa won a Sixth Man of the Year award and looked like a future star. Of late his performance has regressed, though; his 2009-10 stats are depressed in nearly every category. On the court, his famed speed no longer looks lapine. Barbosa has figured in many recent trade rumors involving Phoenix, as it would be impossible to posit him as a core member of the team going forward.

    WILLIE GREEN (Philly 2003-present)
    Green is now in his seventh season with the Sixers. He seemingly peaked in 2007-08, averaging approximately 12, 2, and 2. This season he averages 9, 2, and 2 in five fewer minutes, suggesting that perhaps there is a ceiling to his willingness to exert non-shooting effort. Many players would be giddy to turn in a 12-point best, but that seems paltry for a $4 million man. Philadelphia has not had a proper shooting guard since Aaron McKie in 2001, and it has been surprising that Green could not make it as their new 2. It's been even more surprising that the Sixers have kept the man so long.

    JASON TERRY (Dallas 2004-present)
    Terry won Sixth Man of the Year in 2009, a nearly impossible feat as a third point guard (or, perhaps, a 6'2" shooting guard). Clearly, Dirk Nowitzki likes playing with Terry, who previously logged five seasons with the Hawks — a tenure that saw them miss the playoffs every season. Terry is a likeable player and a prolific scorer: perhaps the best man on this list. Like current Hawk Jamal Crawford, Terry has successfully escaped the fate of a Marbury, Francis, or Iverson, all tagged as short guards with little discipline.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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

    In December we discussed the deep and long-standing ties between pro ballers and professional wrestlers. I promised to, but have not yet, explain what draws these two troupes of athletes together. Here are some thoughts, although I withhold any representation of analytical seriousness.

    To be sure, wrestling is at best only a niche interest for NBAers. I could write an equally footnoted post about NBA players who produce jazz music or players who own a controlling interest in a fashion design LLC. Still, there must be something about the feverish combustibility of staged combat that lures these greats of the court into the wooly cinema of clotheslines, moonsaults, and powerbombs.

    As I detailed in a series of posts last season about second-generation basketball players, many wrestlers are scions of long wrestling lineages. Hennig, Johnson, Cena, and other top guys like multi-time WWE champion Randy Orton are all sons of wrestling personalities from an older era. Jericho’s father played in the NHL for the New York Rangers. Like a Stephen Curry or a Kobe Bryant, many ballers grew up in the game and can relate to athletes who know their craft as a whole way of life.

    During the Tim Donaghy scandal three summers ago, cynical NBA fans joked that the league had become a lawless Wild West, or perhaps a “fixed” World Wrestling Federation, with David Stern playing the role of Vince K. McMahon. As Stern wisely noted, if he wanted to create new stars and fix particular contests, he would have favored the Suns over the Spurs in 2005 and 2007. Still, this did not explain questionable refereeing accompanying L.A. over Sacramento in 2002, Miami over Dallas in 2006, or Cleveland over Detroit in 2007. Why did Kobe, Dwyane, and LeBron receive so many foul calls in pivotal games? Perhaps NBAers feel at home in a setting where competitive outcomes are pre-determined.

    Perhaps the greatest reason why basketball players relate to grapplers is that both are, as one essential characteristic, larger-than-life freaks of nature who put their bodies on public display for paying customers. Unlike players in MLB, NFL, and NHL, pro hoopers expose much of their body and all their face, allowing paying fans to see their joy, their pain, and all their tattoos. There must be some collegiality among carnivalesque performers who discard their modesty, or else feel a grudging pressure to ignore it, as part of the trade they love.

    Like basketball, wrestling is full of an preening, often-homophobic, and misogynistic ethos. (I will not touch upon the dozens of wrestlers who have died before age 50 from long-term drug abuse, as I think that issue is sui generis.) Men who revel in an analgesic, martial culture surely feel at ease together. (This argument would suggest that wrestlers might also enjoy hanging out with pro football players. ... And they do! All-Pro NFL defensive players such as Kevin Greene, Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, William Perry, and Steve McMichael have all signed up to wrestle for WWF/E or WCW.)

    Back to the LeBron James — DeShawn Stevenson dispute, I would not be surprised if the whole thing were a pre-arranged gimmick meant to drum up interest. It bears all the hallmarks of a typical pro wrestling feud: two guys take issue over some trivial perceived slight, they entourage it up by bringing in more powerful allies, and then they escalate for no good reason.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    Declare the Pennies

    A lot of pundits apparently believe that Chris Bosh is the likeliest of the top free agents to switch teams this coming July. One under-commented issue is the discrepancy in personal income tax rates between the several jurisdictions where he might end up. We know from Article IX, Section I of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that a free agent can sign up to a six-year contract with his current team, but only five with a new team. We also know that the maximum annual salary, per Article II, Section 7 of the CBA, is 30% of the salary cap, which will probably be about $53 MM, so the maximum annual salary is about $16 MM. Bosh can earn $16 MM more in guaranteed money (if he wishes to tie himself down for six years) by staying with Toronto.

    However, how would tax rates alter this calculation? Let us imagine that Bosh scores a contract worth $16 MM per season. Let us consider three jurisdictions given Bosh's top three likely free-agency destinations: Ontario, New York State, and Florida.

    The top marginal tax rate in Ontario, considering both federal and provincial taxes, is 43%.

    Meanwhile, the top federal marginal tax rate in the United States is 35%.

    Florida has ZERO personal income tax.

    In New York State, the top state marginal tax rate is 8.97% and the New York City marginal tax rate is 3.648%.

    Of course, the top marginal tax rate is a smidge less than the average tax rate over all Bosh's income, so we need to calibrate our calculations carefully.

    I will omit much detail of my calculations (I was considering making a Google Docs spreadsheet showing my calculations, but really, life is too short), but here is my estimate of Bosh's total annual tax liability (including federal taxation) in each of the three jurisdictions:

    Ontario: $7.388 MM
    New York: $7.594 MM
    Florida: $5.575 MM

    Note that all figures here are U.S. dollars. Presumably Bosh is paid in the Canadian equivalent of USD 16 MM, or perhaps directly in USD. U.S.-Canada exchange rates are presently near parity, but to be thorough, I converted USD 16 MM to Canadian dollars, calculated his Canadian tax liability, and converted that to USD. We cannot simply apply Canadian tax rates to his nominal USD 16 MM, because due to the progressive structure of marginal tax rates, the amount of dollars in the top bracket would be incorrect.

    Other than standard deductions and 1 personal exemption, I am ignoring all special adjustments, credits, exemptions, and deductions (though if Bosh buys an expensive house in his imaginary new home, the comparative tax benefits from federal interest-and-property-tax deductions would be rather large in Florida or New York, versus nothing at all in Ontario).

    So New York has the highest tax burden, with Ontario a close second. The Florida tax liability (entirely owed to the U.S. government) is significantly cheaper. Again, if Bosh wants to buy a home (although presumably he already has purchased a Toronto home; he would probably sell that upon moving back to the States), Ontario's tax burden would definitely become the dearest. I will refrain from attempting to estimate the magnitude of Bosh's tax deduction from mortgage payments and property tax paid in the U.S. — I will leave that an exercise for you, our dear readers.