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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Finishing Arbitrary Divisions Of Game Time

TNT’s Doug Collins, whom we discussed yesterday, is fond of emphasizing the importance of finishing quarters strongly. To be sure, there may be a temptation to slacken effort when a break looms; that is not unusual in any professional setting. (Most government offices that I have seen feature "Friday afternoon happy hour" that starts around 2:00.) So sure, it is important to resist this temptation in the final two minutes of a game. On the other hand, a "finish strong" ethos common among athletes could result in increased, not reduced, effort towards the end of quarters. I am not sure which way the tendency cuts, overall. However, in any case, we should not regard developments in those segments of time as different from the rest of the game.

Score gains or score losses against your opponent in the first two minutes of a quarter count for just as much as gains/losses in the final two minutes of a quarter. The same can be said for the second two minutes, the third two minutes, the fourth two minutes, and the fifth two minutes. Towards the end of quarters, Collins often says things like: "The team now leading by 12 should be careful: if they don't play hard, that lead could be down to 4 by the end of the quarter." True, but the potential to allow a "run" of several baskets by your opponent exists at any time during the game. Is it worse if this happens at the end of a quarter? A basketball game consists of 48 minutes. Why is the point differential after the 12th, 24th, and 36th minute any more significant than the differential after the 5th, 19th, or 40th minute?

In one sense, the division of the game into four 12-minute blocks is arbitrary. Indeed, the rest time during TV breaks within quarters can be just as long as the rest time between quarters. Given that everyone psychologically regards quarters and halves as some heuristically convenient way to tote up partial performance, perhaps nebulous entities like motivation, confidence, strategic planning, and "momentum" are more affected by the score at the end of quarters compared to the score at any randomly selected moment within a quarter — hence Doug Collins's special concern. But surely a slam dunk "with no regard for human life!" or a dagger three-pointer to cap a run can energize a crowd and provoke some navel-gazing, even it occurs three minutes into the third.

It is a close call, but I do believe that Collins's concern with finishing quarters is overblown.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Doug Collins, Ace Reporter

Doug Collins, longtime color commentator for TNT, must be the Bob Woodward of NBA journalists. Whenever he broadcasts a Phoenix Suns game (or, prior to the 2007-08 season, whenever he did an Orlando tilt) he brings viewers useful bits of knowledge from his "insider source" Grant Hill. Apparently Hill is in the habit of sidling up to Collins's broadcast table during the game to kibbitz.

There are two reasons for this unusually close relationship. First, Collins's son, Chris Collins, was a teammate of Hill on the Duke University team in the early 1990s. Together, they almost won a third national championship for Duke in the 1994 NCAA tournament, falling eventually to Arkansas in front of a delighted President Clinton. The younger Collins remained so close to that college program that he returned as an assistant coach for Coach Krzyzewski in 2000, where he has remained for 10 years.

Second, the elder Collins coached Grant Hill on the Detroit Pistons during his finest years, 1995-96 through 1997-98. In '96-'97, the Pistons went 54-28 and Hill turned in an MVP-caliber season with 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. Sadly, that was the pinnacle of Hill's career, as he never again won so many games until he joined 55-win Phoenix for 2007-08. With his devastating ankle injury in 2000, he was never again the same dynamic player, either.

It is little wonder that Hill, who as we pointed out here is the son of an athlete, can feel some affinity with Doug Collins, the father of an athlete, as a paternal figure.