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.