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...