Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Week In Prose

With the onset of NBA games, months of rank speculation in NBA media -- about labor negotiations, trade rumors, obscure tweets, and a lot of stuff untethered to the game -- has turned to actual analysis of on-court hoops in the past week. Here are the best articles we have found. We promise not to make this a regular feature, but the return of good sportswriting has been refreshing.

  • Sports Illustrated's Britt Robson on the debut of Ricky Rubio (and you should click the Youtube link embedded in the article).

  • Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins on coping with the aftermath of a failed trade.

  • Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick on Derrick Rose's personal habits.

  • Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe on how the Heat handled a zone defense in their victory over Boston on Tuesday night.

  •'s Ethan Sherwood Strauss on Dwight Howard's suitability to the current age of NBA game rules.

  • Blogger Devin Kharpertian showing why Andray Blatche is a low-quality defender.

  • Blogger Rob Mahoney breaks down a potential traveling violation on Dwyane Wade's game-winning shot against Charlotte from Wednesday night.

  • Howard Beck of the New York Times profiles the newly renamed Metta World Peace.
  • Friday, December 30, 2011

    Stephen and Dell Not the Only Curry?

    In a blog post last year, we alerted readers to Satnam Singh Bhamara, a teenaged giant from Punjab in India who is turning heads in national and international competitions. Following that AOL Fanhouse article discussed therein, ESPN The Magazine profiled Bhamara in a lengthy piece published today:

    THIRTY OR SO YEARS AGO, in the Indian state of Punjab, in a tiny village surrounded by rice paddies, miles from the nearest home with air conditioning or even with glass and screens on all its windows, there lived a teenage boy named Balbir Singh Bhamara who did what had once seemed impossible; he grew to be taller than his mother.

    Balbir's father was a wheat farmer and miller with a string of glistening black water buffalo that gave milk as sweet as honey. His mother was 6'9", and young Balbir grew to be a little over seven feet tall -- the tallest person in the village. Everywhere the giant boy went, people told him he ought to play basketball, a game many of them had heard about but never seen.


    And then one day another giant emerged: Balbir's middle child, a sweet and joyful boy named Satnam. When Satnam was 9 years old and already taller than most adults in the village, Balbir took the boy to a scruffy local court to play basketball, a game Balbir still barely understood. Satnam walked onto the court, utterly bewildered. He had misunderstood and thought his father was taking him to play volleyball. Predictably, the boy struggled. Balbir watched, feeling untroubled, undeterred -- happy, even.

    Not long after they got back home, Balbir crossed the lumpy dirt courtyard that separated his small stable and mill from his even smaller house and mounted a hoop to the weathered brick wall. Balbir summoned his son to the courtyard and handed Satnam a new rubber basketball.

    The family room was right inside. At the end of the workday, while others in the family strained to hear the little TV over the big kid's incessant banging of the ball against the wall, Balbir -- a man destined to become the second-tallest person in his village -- would just sit back, sip his tea with buffalo milk, stroke his long, graying beard and grin.

    The exoticized, indeterminate, hazy, fablesque tone of the story (which other ballers grew up around mooing buffalo?) is odd but not surprising. Only the sensational gets clicked on that particular website. As we reminded readers last year, Bhamara is just a kid-- one of many playing hoops at a high level in India. His story may already be nothing more than typical. In any case, here is a UK-produced video about him:

    Bhamara is not the only 7-footer of South Asian background to fall into the ken of serious scouts this year. The 80-inch-plus Bhullar brothers of Toronto, whose parents are from Punjab, both play for a prep school near Pittsburgh. Sim, the elder boy of the pair, is now in 12th grade and has committed to attend New Mexico State next fall (although, for unclear reasons, he will be academically ineligible to play ball in 2012-13).

    Behold the Bhullars:

    Saturday, December 24, 2011

    On Player Introductions

    The featured NBA personality of the past month has been Chris Paul, who was traded to the Lakers, then returned to the Hornets, then finally traded to the Clippers. Paired with Blake Griffin, Paul promises to mount an MVP-caliber season if he and Griffin keep their repaired knees healthy. One thing you can count on when the Clippers introduce Paul at their home opener will be his billing by the public address announcer: We will learn not that Paul was born and raised in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area, nor that he played four pro seasons in New Orleans (and two in Oklahoma City), but that he attended Wake Forest University for two years. Throughout the league, university attendance, no matter the duration or the proximity to the player's hometown (in Paul's case, he attended college close to home, but many ballers do not), is made part of a player's brand. Of course, not every NBA player attended university -- at least those who entered the league before the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. But team marketing staffs have thought of a simple solution for this problem: wherever LeBron James, for example, has played pro ball, he is billed at "6 foot 8, from St. Vincent - St. Mary's..." owing to his early entry to the NBA direct from high school. (Forward to 0:52 mark of video:)

    Why, though, is a player's educational affiliation his most salient identifier? I tend not to introduce myself at parties by describing where I studied ten years ago; I might refer to my hometown, or what neighborhood I live in now. Minutiae like my high school or college are hardly relevant to my life today. Employers hardly care about my university affiliation, either: an adequate one is useful to get one's foot in the door, but for promotions and movement to different companies, it is recommendations and recent accomplishments that make the difference.

    With my examples of Paul and James above, at least their schooling was only a few miles from their hometown, but top college basketball programs usually draw recruits from all around the country, or from other nations. Kevin Love, for example, spent his whole life in Oregon before passing through southern California for one college season after he finished high school in 2007. And following the '08 draft, he has lived in Minneapolis for over 3 years. Yet the Timberwolves announcer always reminds us that Love is from UCLA. Kevin Durant is a son of Maryland, yet his introduction pairs him with the University of Texas, where he spent approximately 7 months of his life, in the fall and winter of 2006-2007. Similarly, lifelong Torontonian Tristan Thompson, now of the Cavs, spent two prep years in New Jersey, one further high school season in Nevada, and a few collegiate months in Austin, Texas, before he entered the NBA draft last spring. Before each home game, Cavs fans will be reminded of the news that this Canadian is "from" Texas.

    NBA fans with a moderately long memory will remember announcer Ray Clay's iconic introductory locution for Michael Jordan (backed by an addictive synthesizer hook from the Alan Parsons Project) before every game in Chicago: "From NORTH... Carolina... at guard, 6'6"... Michael... JORDAN!" At least in Jordan's case, the "North Carolina" appellation identified both his college and his homeland. But calling Tristan Thompson, of Brampton Ontario, a Texan is a bit of a stretch.

    It is true that college is a singular moment in the lives of many young people: away from home for the first time, thrown together with young people with different backgrounds, staking their future on their ability to sit for exams and nail the answers, college students form very intense bonds with their new friends and with the institution. Years later, former students look first to their college ties for social connection and professional support; even Rudy Gay, who spent just one year at the U. of Connecticut, or Kyrie Irving, who played 10 games for Duke, look to their alma mater for a place to scrimmage in summertime.

    Moreover, until twenty years ago, it was unusual for top young players to spend any fewer than two (and usually three) seasons in college ball; future MVPs Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan all spent four years on campus. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal spent three. When Chris Webber left college after his sophomore season in 1993, he began to stress the three-season norm for college ballers that had mirrored the NFL's explicit no-sophomores rule, and afterwards entry by high school seniors (beginning with Kevin Garnett in '95) or college freshmen became more typical. Perhaps there was once a feeling in NBA circles that college truly was the most formative place for a young lad to learn the game, but things change.

    Today, of course, high school and college student-athletes spend most of their non-official time attending summer academies sponsored by apparel companies, AAU tournaments, and tours through China. It is risible to argue that a few months in Lexington, Kentucky was the most defining period of John Wall's pre-pro life, after he grew up in rural North Carolina in a challenged family. Yet...

    My co-blogger H.O.S.S. suggests that teams ask players how they would like to be introduced. Barring that, the smartest approach I have seen is the Chicago Bulls' introduction of Derrick Rose, who spent his whole life before college (including a celebrated high school basketall career) in the city of Chicago. Rose passed through John Calipari's point guard factory at the University of Memphis for one season before joining the NBA in 2008 -- returning to his hometown in Cook County. The Bulls do not pretend that his college half-year was the most salient time in his life, instead pleasing the home crowd by simply calling him "From Chicago" (forward to 4:52 mark of video):

    (Of late, Rose has spent more of his free offseason time in Los Angeles than in Chicago, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?)

    Friday, December 9, 2011

    Robber Barons Up In The Frozen Tundra

    Last year I expressed dismay that Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, was seeking to get his hands on the Pistons as well. In the event, a different buyer bought the Pistons from Karen Davidson and I was pleased.

    Today comes news that Rogers Communications and Bell Canada are buying Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. Rogers and Bell will each have a 37.5% stake. Though MLSE, Rogers now is the effective co-controlling owner of the Raptors, Maple Leafs, Air Canada Centre, and (not mentioned in the Reuters article) Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. And Rogers already owns a controlling share of the Blue Jays and Skydome (er, excuse me, "Rogers Centre"). The only independently owned pro club in Toronto is now the Argonauts.

    This cannot be good news for Toronto sports fans or cable TV subscribers. Rogers and Bell each own a cable TV channel (Sportsnet and TSN) and collectively they hope to corner the market on Leafs and Raptors broadcasts. Ticket prices and sports apparel will likely spike as well. Canada's Competition Bureau must stop this purchase.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    More Changes In The Association This Season

    Today the NBA announced two important sets of changes for the 2011-12 season: one impacting on-court play, and one impacting off-court business matters. Both developments are positive, in my view.

    The CBA
    The new Collective Bargaining Agreement contains tweaks to numerous league protocols. Notably, the new CBA allows a player to renegotiate an existing contract for lower annual money but more years, if the annual salary reduction is no more than 40%. This provision would allow, say, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony to take a bit less money in 2012-13 and beyond in order to create more salary-cap room for the Knicks to sign Chris Paul or another top free agent. [Reports Thursday indicate that the Knicks intend to sign Tyson Chandler to a large long-term contract that would cover 2012-13 and beyond. The contracts of those three guys would eat up most of the $58 MM salary cap. Theoretically, all three of Chandler, Stoudemire, and Anthony could agree to reduce their salaries sufficiently to make room for Paul at a large number; perhaps each of them could earn $13 MM annually, say.]

    The new deal also sets the minimum team salary at (after a couple years of transition) 90 percent of the salary cap, rather than 75 percent. This provision will help further the goal of competitive balance; cheap owners such as Donald Sterling or Glen Taylor will be forced to hire at least a few middling (as opposed to terrible or very young) players to fill out their roster.

    The contentious minimum age for draftees was not changed, but apparently punted to be decided by a future union-league committee. I have previously advocated in this space for the age limit to be raised to two years post-college.

    The previously over-generous shooting fouls granted in "rip-through" or "and-one" situations, wherein the shooter was clearly not in a shooting motion before the foul, will be curtailed. Travelling rules will be enforced more strictly (LeBron James's "crab dribble", which we reviewed in this post in 2009, will no longer be legal) and timeouts will be made to conform to the billed 20-second or 60-second lengths. Here at JPO, we have long criticized inconsistent rule enforcement, and this news begets great happification in our hearts.

    Sunday, December 4, 2011

    Should Dirk Nowitzki win Sportsman of the Year?

    Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award will be announced tomorrow. To me, the three strongest candidates are Aaron Rodgers, Dirk Nowitzki, and Novak Djokovic. Here is a review of their credentials.

    Rodgers has played superlatively in 2011, from his Super Bowl run in January-February to his undefeated regular season this autumn. Moreover, an American face on the cover would be likelier to sell magazines. On the merits, Rodgers's excellence in his sport was not worse than the success of Nowitzki or young Djok: all won championships (there is no defined championship in tennis, but Djokovic won 3 of 4 "major" tournaments) and looked dominant in doing so. In the current regular season, Rodgers has 37 touchdown throws against only 5 interceptions; he has completed 70% of his passes and is on pace to break the record for passing yards in one season. However, Sports Illustrated also picked NFL quarterbacks for the award in 2005, 2007, and 2010; four in seven years would be too much. Let us scratch Rodgers, then.

    Between the two Europeans, Nowitzki is likely better known to Americans, as he spent all his time this year playing in the main US pro basketball league. After a previous loss in the Finals, an individual MVP, a broken engagement to a questionable woman, and an impressive record of skill improvement over his 13-year career, it was heartening to see Nowitzki finally win the championship this year, leading his team to a surprising win over the more talented Miami Heat. Nowitzki played solidly against Portland before exploding against Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Miami in a two-month run that cemented his place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Against the Thunder and Heat, Nowitzki keyed improbable 15-point, fourth-quarter comebacks that sapped the spirits of his opponents and made his teammates believe that Dallas could really do it. Yet it was the relative brevity of this display -- just two months -- that puts Nowitzki just behind the rightful winner in my estimation. Nowitzki's vernal outburst excited American fans as they emerged from the long winter's freeze. He was very good. However, Djokovic did his thing all year long.

    Unlike Nowitzki, Djokovic's success lasted from the Australian Open in January to the U.S. Open in September, across a span of eight months, four continents, and four playing surfaces. Besides his three major wins in Melbourne, Paris, and New York, he won tournaments in Montreal, Rome, Madrid, Belgrade, Miami, Indian Wells, and Dubai. That's right-- Djokovic won ten tournaments in a single calendar year! [Notably, Djokovic has failed to win the three late-season tournaments he entered this year after leaving Queens-- losing to lesser-ranked players in Basel, Paris, and London.] Djokovic amassed a staggering 70-6 record in 2011, taking 3 of 4 matches from Roger Federer and 6 of 6 from Rafael Nadal. While Nowitzki's story is the most endearing, I would hand the award to Djokovic, who clearly established himself as the best in his sport. To understand Djokovic's season, consider his forehand to save match point against Federer in New York:

    UPDATE December 5th:
    Well, instead of the three guys listed above, Sports Illustrated gave the prize to two long-serving US college basketball coaches who did not win anything in 2011: Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. They are certainly deserving of something, with 12 NCAA championships and 3 Olympic gold medals between them, but the timing was strange. Perhaps Sports Illustrated / Time Warner wanted to do something "nice" in light of Summitt's recent diagnosis of neurologic illness. On the merits, though, it is difficult to defend.

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Worry Not, Flyover Fans

    I was on a long trip abroad and somewhat physically infirm for the past couple weeks, but a lot happened in NBA circles. The remnants of the players' union finally agreed with the owners on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the lockout is more-or-less now over. Immediately thereafter, rumors began flying about potential trade destinations for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who will be free agents next summer and don't seem inclined to re-sign with their respective current teams.

    Fans of teams in smaller burgs tend to lament the inevitable loss of star players. But, first, the loss is not inevitable: Tim Duncan stayed in San Antonio, Kevin Durant seems bound to remain in OKC, and Isiah Thomas spent a whole career in Detroit. And consider that Kevin Garnett stayed in Minnesota for 12 years; save for one year when Sam Cassell played like an All-Star, the team could not assemble quality talent around him. 12 seasons was more than Garnett owed to the team.

    Secondly, if your team loses a star, another will come soon enough. Orlando lost Shaq and Penny; Hill and McGrady soon replaced them. When they proved too brittle for the job, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis rolled into town. Minnesota lost Garnett and now has Love. The Kings of Sacramento once had a robust Webber; now they have a rambunctious Cousins. The annual draft that assigns the best talent to the worst teams tends to do that. Toronto lost Vince Carter but found themselves nurturing a college-aged Bosh. Bosh left, but now Jonas Valanciunas seems poised to shine in T.O. [Toronto is hardly a small market, but its relative unattractiveness for American players makes it comparable to Detroit or Orlando.]

    Consider the recent plight of the Grizzlies, a 1995 expansion team. Originally based in Vancouver, the team held Top-6 draft positions every year from 1995 through 2003*, drafting Bryant Reeves, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antonio Daniels, Mike Bibby, and Stromile Swift along the way. Steve Francis, drafted at #2 in 1999, actually refused to play for the team, exhibiting the same Canuckophobia discussed above. Despite the repeated lottery picks, Vancouver could not build a winning team, mostly due to a poor overall talent level in the draft in those years. (None of Vancouver's draft picks could be derided as obviously terrible. They missed Kevin Garnett by just one draft position; nobody thought Kobe Bryant would be a superstar in '96; the '97 draft pool was terrible; and Mike Bibby had won a college championship while Paul Pierce had not. The 2000 draft was possibly the worst ever.) Owner Michael Heisley could not make the economics of pro hoops work in Vancouver, so he moved the team to another relatively small market, Memphis.

    *Memphis's 2003 first-round pick, which obtained as #2 in the lottery, was traded to Detroit.

    Heisley and his management were determined to start freshly in their new home. The '01 draft night served up a bounty for the Grizzlies, as they acquired rookie Shane Battier with their lottery pick and rookie Pau Gasol via a trade of Abdur-Rahim. Later that summer, they swapped Bibby for Sacramento's flashy disher, Jason Williams. Gasol won Rookie of the Year that season, and this core of players (plus the aforementioned Swift) was able to reach the playoffs in three consecutive springs from 2004 through '06. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies got swept each time, out-talented by Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki. After three straight playoff failures, Gasol wanted out; the team had no apparent intention of improving the roster, and Gasol wanted to win. Memphis sought his exit, also: he was clearly not good enough to captain a championship team, and Memphis had no obvious means of acquiring a better superstar with Gasol on the roster.

    Thus, starting in '06, the Grizzlies jettisoned their playoff roster and began rebuilding the team. They traded Battier for a draft pick that became one-and-done college prospect Rudy Gay; they acquired Mike Conley in the '07 draft; they traded Paul Gasol for the draft rights of his brother, Marc Gasol; they drafted O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur in the talent-laden 2008 draft; and they later drafted Sam Young, Greivis Vazquez, and Xavier Henry. Those are eight players who began their careers with Memphis and are still part of the team. Combined with veteran Zach Randolph, acquired in a 2009 trade, and defensive ace Tony Allen, signed as a free agent last year, the Grizzlies now have a deadly core that can contend for championships for the next few years. Taken seriously by no one, they rolled over the 4-time champion Spurs and nearly made the Western finals last spring.

    Twice now, the Grizzlies have restocked their roster with new stars. Fans in Memphis were despondent one year ago, fearing their team might be contracted, but now they have reason for glee. Even fans in Vancouver need not mope; their city might one day get a new or existing NBA team, notwithstanding the earlier divorce.

    The lesson here is that smart roster management can sustain a great team in a small market. Dumb roster management, such as the Timberwolves under Kevin McHale, will lead to naught.

    Monday, November 14, 2011

    Breaking Down The NBA's Final Offer

    A relatively detailed summary of the NBA's November 10th proposal (allegedly its last and best offer) is found here in PDF form. Some thoughts:

  • The ban on "extend-and-trades" in Paragraph 13 is clearly intended to avoid a repetition of the Carmelo Anthony drama that dogged the Nuggets for most of 2010-11. If a top player in his final contract year (such as Chris Paul in the putative 2011-12) is keen to leave his team, he can wait until the following summer to sign with a new team as a free agent; pushing for a trade to his desired team (the Knicks, say) would not immediately yield him a long-term contract extension. Few or no teams would trade for a Paul just a few months before his contract expiration, if they are not allowed to immediately gain his long-term contractual commitment. Of course, it could be that the only way for Paul to get to the Knicks, if they have no good salary-cap room, is via a mid-season trade rather than a summer signing, and then he could re-sign with the Knicks as a "Bird"-type free agent (see Paragraphs 5 and 6). Maybe the Knicks or other similarly-situated teams would do the deal anyway. But the elimination of extend-and-trade transactions will certainly quiet, somewhat, the in-season rumor mill.

  • Per Paragraphs 4 and 5, the maximum contract length for a free agent joining a new team is 4 years and the annual salary increases are limited to 3.5%; the maximum length for a contract signed with a free-agent's existing team is 5 years, with 6.5% annual increases. For a maximum-salary caliber player (assume the initial max salary is $20 MM), a free-agent contract with his existing team would yield 35% more dollars (compared to a free-agent contract with a new team) over the life of the contract, i.e. approximately $113 MM instead of $84 MM.

  • Per Paragraph 11, if a free agent signs with his existing team immediately prior to a trade to a new team (the "sign-and-trade" maneuver), then his contractual terms are exactly the same as if he had signed as an outright free agent with the new team: a maximum 4-year deal with 3.5% salary increases. Thus, a free agent has no incentive to push his desired destination team for a sign-and-trade; this change in the rules might actually hurt small-market clubs. It was better for Cleveland and Toronto to receive draft picks when they lost James and Bosh, rather than receiving nothing at all. (Similarly, it was better for Detroit to receive Ben Wallace when they lost Grant Hill, rather than receiving nothing!) And this provision will make it easier for a potential new employer that lacks salary-cap room to compete for a FA's services against teams sufficiently under the salary cap. The employer over the salary cap can acquire the free agent only via a sign-and-trade with the FA's existing team, but the terms of such contract -- four years, 3.5% annual increases -- are exactly the same as if the FA signs a regular contract with the suitor team that is under the salary cap. In other words, creating salary-cap room to lure free agents becomes relatively less attractive under the proposed new CBA. On the other hand, after 2012-13, taxpaying teams will not be allowed to do sign-and-trades. It should be noted, though, that the tax line exceeds the salary cap and many rich teams may savvily figure out a way to stay just under the tax line.

  • According to some reports, some players are unhappy with the provision in Paragraph 3 saying that players will never receive a higher share than their agreed-upon 50% of Basketball-Related Income. If the dollar value of BRI turns out to be less than projected and the total nominal dollar amount of player salaries exceeds 50% of BRI (even after owners withhold and then keep part of contracted player salaries via the escrow mechanism) then, although owners have no practical means to claw back the cash from players' bank accounts, they will withhold the overpaid money from future seasons' salaries, it seems. I don't see a problem with this; it simply ensures that owners get their 50%.

  • Per Paragraph 7, maximum player salaries will be unchanged from the 2005 CBA, as I assumed in my post last week modeling team salaries under the new system. Also consistent with my post last week, rookie salaries (see Paragraph 10) and veteran minimum player salaries (see Paragraph 6) will be reduced by 12% -- the same percentage reduction as the player BRI share will undergo (from 57 percentage points of BRI to 50 percentage points). Again, intra-team inequality will worsen under this new system.
  • Friday, November 11, 2011

    A Tidy Model of Team Salaries

    I attempted to illustrate the problem of salary inequality in my September 26th post, but my explanation was a bit clumsy; let me try again in clearer language this time. The percentage of Basketball-Related Income that players in aggregate receive (currently pegged at 50% in the latest negotiations, and formerly 57% in the 2005 labor agreement) determines total salaries, but does not determine the inter-player distribution of salaries. Let us take a simple example. Say total BRI is projected at $100. Say there are only two teams in the league, each with six players-- five starters and a sixth man. Let us use the 57% number from the '05 deal. Under such terms, all players combined will receive $57. The top two stars (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, say) might receive $16 each. (Assume player salaries are capped at $16.) If the "mid-level exception" is capped at $5.33 per year, then some team will likely sign a secondary free-agent player (Jamal Crawford, David West) at $5.33. [Why wouldn't a team sign free agents for less? Is Jamal Crawford really 1/3 as good as James or Bryant? In a competitive bidding scenario, with limited quality free agents, teams are forced to overbid up to the individual cap, lest they wind up with nothing, which would guarantee that their roster will remain stagnant.] Each team then pays a total of ~$7.2 (averaging $1.79 per player) to its remaining four players, so each team's payroll is $28.5 and aggregate league spending is $57. So to recap, here are the salaries:

    Team King
    LeBron James - $16
    Jamal Crawford - $5.33
    King Scrub 1 - $1.79
    King Scrub 2 - $1.79
    King Scrub 3 - $1.79
    King Scrub 4 - $1.79

    Team Mamba
    Kobe Bryant - $16
    David West - $5.33
    Mamba Scrub A - $1.79
    Mamba Scrub B - $1.79
    Mamba Scrub C - $1.79
    Mamba Scrub D - $1.79

    Now imagine the season's Basketball-Related Income is tallied up and it is not actually $100, but really $90, which is 10% under $100. Every salary thus will be rolled back by 10% to maintain the 57% of BRI ratio. The new salaries will be:

    Team King
    LeBron James - $14.4
    Jamal Crawford - $4.8
    King Scrub 1 - $1.61
    King Scrub 2 - $1.61
    King Scrub 3 - $1.61
    King Scrub 4 - $1.61

    Team Mamba
    Kobe Bryant - $14.4
    David West - $4.8
    Mamba Scrub A - $1.61
    Mamba Scrub B - $1.61
    Mamba Scrub C - $1.61
    Mamba Scrub D - $1.61

    Now total salaries are $51.3 (57% of $90). However, notice that regardless of how the total dollar amount of BRI comes out, if we fix aggregate salaries at 57% of BRI and assume certain other individual salary caps, then the best player on the team will always earn three times what the second-best player makes, and about 9x the salary of each role player.

    Now, let us assume again that total BRI is $100, but, after some bitter labor negotiations, let us tweak two features of the system: first, player share of BRI falls to 50% (so each team has a payroll of $25), and the mid-level exception salary for free agents falls to $3. Assume the maximum salary remains at $16. What now?

    Team King
    LeBron James - $16
    Jamal Crawford - $3
    King Scrub 1 - $1.5
    King Scrub 2 - $1.5
    King Scrub 3 - $1.5
    King Scrub 4 - $1.5

    Team Mamba
    Kobe Bryant - $16
    David West - $3
    Mamba Scrub A - $1.5
    Mamba Scrub B - $1.5
    Mamba Scrub C - $1.5
    Mamba Scrub D - $1.5

    Notice, now, that James and Bryant make more than five times the salary of their respective running mates, and nearly 11x the salary of their scrubs. [Now imagine again that BRI falls to $90 instead of $100. The numbers immediately above will all be reduced by 10%, but the ratios of salaries between different players will remain the same. I will omit that presentation so as not to bore you too much.]

    Who suffers here? Obviously, mid-level-exception-caliber players suffer a lot, seeing their salary reduced by 44%, from $5.33 to $3. Scrub players also see their salary reduced by 16%, which is more than the percentage reduction, 12%, in the players' aggregate BRI share. Mid-level players are asked to bear much of the player suffering, and scrubs get hurt as well, disproportionately to the union's overall hit. Superstars like James and Bryant don't suffer one bit, at least in my example (and, I believe, in the owners' actual proposal).

    Of course, if I scaled up the dollar value of BRI sufficiently (more and more eyeballs are watching the Association in China), I could construct a set of numbers where Crawford, West, and the scrubs are making an equal or better salary in dollars under the new regime, compared to the old regime. Say BRI blows up to $180 (so the players' share is $90 and each team has a payroll of $45), and the individual max salary, and the mid-level exception salary, are both increased by 80%.

    Team King
    LeBron James - $28.8
    Jamal Crawford - $5.4
    King Scrub 1 - $2.7
    King Scrub 2 - $2.7
    King Scrub 3 - $2.7
    King Scrub 4 - $2.7

    Team Mamba
    Kobe Bryant - $28.8
    David West - $5.4
    Mamba Scrub A - $2.7
    Mamba Scrub B - $2.7
    Mamba Scrub C - $2.7
    Mamba Scrub D - $2.7

    This scenario is entirely possible with the projected growth in league revenues during the coming decade. The scrub salary (which is also the median player salary) is higher under such assumptions. And perhaps the inability of teams with one superstar to sign another very good player (due to the paltry mid-level-exception salary for tax-paying teams) will encourage parity among teams, thus juicing fan interest. Posit for a moment that the new system could actually contribute, by itself, to BRI growth, and my imagined 80% growth of revenues would not happen with the 2005-2011 rules. So why wouldn't players be happy with this deal? Well, note that now, as I mentioned above, the superstar makes over 5 times the salary of his best teammate, and over 10 times the salary of his worst teammates. Under the 2005-2011 regime, those values were 3 and 9.

    So inter-player inequality is worse under the new system, even if the average player is earning more money. Is that enough to make the deal objectionable? Note that most of the NBPA could be charitably called "scrubs": only about 3 players on each real team are vital for amassing wins, and the rest are interchangeable. The composition of the NBPA's executive committee suggests this: 8 of the 9 guys are far from All-Stars. It is the scrubs whom union President Fisher and Executive Director Hunter toil for. How much do players mind inequality of income between them and their best teammate? Perhaps the knowledge of 11-fold inequality could lead to locker-room resentment, even if James, Bryant, Wade, Howard, Durant, and the like really do drive ticket and jersey sales to that degree. Looking beyond pro hoops at the broader political-economic system in our society, a majority of Americans don't seem to like the extent of income and wealth inequality that has developed during the past 30 years.

    I am not sure whether the players are really resentful over the prospect of intra-union salary inequality, or whether they are just mad at losing their 57% and not inclined to give the owners a "win" just yet. However, judging from the rhetoric of some player representatives, there is a good argument that the players might rather be poorer and more equal, rather than richer and further apart.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Two Bicyclists Headed For A Collision

    Last Saturday, NBA owners, fronted by Commissioner Stern, offered players an improved deal that could potentially give players up to 51% of Basketball-Related Income, though the percentage would more likely settle around 50%. Stern threatened to withdraw the deal and replace it with a much worse set of terms if not accepted by Wednesday afternoon, November 9th. A fuller description of Stern's offer is contained in this excellent article by the NYT's Howard Beck, who has consistently been the best reporter on the recent negotiations. Meanwhile, today's reports indicate that several players are ready to take the currently-offered deal.

    I cannot predict what will happen in this test of wills. It is notable that players have slowly relaxed all of their previous commitments: 53% of income is no longer a must-have; a punitive luxury tax now seems palatable; and contracts will be shorter than before. A deal could be had with a bit more budging by both parties, but perhaps they both feel they have budged enough and will not slide their respective positions more just to make a deal. They have both attempted to signal their willingness to lose the season — Deron Williams accepted work in Turkey and half the Denver Nuggets took contracts in China, while the owners have already cancelled all of November's games — but actually walking away from play would be insane. From the examples of the 1994 Major League Baseball strike and the 2004-05 NHL lockout, fans would not cheerfully return 12 months later. Unfortunately, neither side seems very inclined to swerve in this game of chicken.

    UPDATE, November 8th: The NBPA announced today that they are unwilling to take the league's latest offer. These articles from Sports Illustrated's website provide excellent updates on the terms of negotiation.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011

    It's About Time

    What took so long for NBA players to make a serious push at decertification of their union? Pre-emptively taking your best negotiating threat off the table was a poor idea.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Is Marriage For Suckers?

    A great article appeared today by Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen about Brian Shaw's unsuccessful hunt for the L.A. Lakers' head coaching position. While Shaw is a very strong candidate, Mike Brown is as well and I don't view the Lakers' decision as clearly unreasonable. I did notice, however, the recurring suggestion that Jim Buss, son of team owner Jerry Buss, wanted to expunge any trace of Phil Jackson's leadership from his organization.

    After 11 championship-laden seasons with Jackson, there seems little reason to change the organization's direction, particularly when the core players from the recent title teams are ready for at least one more run. Perhaps the Busses are eager to prove that they, and not the coaching staff, are the ultimate drivers of success in the organization. The Buss family will likely lead the Lakers franchise as long as the NBA exists (until the next global nuclear war, perhaps); it may behoove them to show the rest of the league that their permanence will long dominate passing staff. But the Lakers, like most successful teams, have maintained ties to their great alumni: Abdul-Jabbar was an assistant coach, Johnson a part-owner, West the general manager. Why send Jackson's entire squad of assistant coaches out of SoCal?

    The real story may be the part left silent in Thomson's SI article. Jackson has, almost since he showed up in Los Angeles in 1999, been the steady boyfriend (by now and at their age, a husband, really, though he apparently does not prefer the ratification of law) of Jeannie Buss, who is Jim's brother and also a Vice-President in the Laker organization. So Jim does not like his quasi-brother-in-law, or at least prefers not to do business with the tall one. Joining a "company family" is not easy; I would rather keep my professional life out of my home, and vice-versa. I wonder what Thanksgiving dinner around the Buss table might be like later this month.

    UPDATE: This writer had the same thoughts as I did after reading the piece.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011

    If Mainstream News Covered Politics Like They Cover the NBA

    Sean Hannity would tell us OMB's latest estimates for the growth rate of TANF block grants in FY12.

    Wolf Blitzer would tweet about the alignment of GOP representatives with either Cantor or Boehner on the Airport And Airway Extension Act.

    Your local News At Eleven would lead with the number of weekly cafeteria duty periods agreed to in the latest teachers' labor contract.

    TMZ would publish a leaked draft of the latest Status of Forces Agreement between the USA and Bulgaria.

    Jay Leno would bring on his favorite economist to opine on the wage elasticity of labor supply.

    C-SPAN would play in local watering holes.

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    A Suggestion For NBA Owners

    Would you rather not give away half of your revenue to your performers? Why settle for the NBPA's latest offer when you can improve your economics a hundredfold?

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    NBA Labor Talks Go Nowhere

    Pro basketball labor negotiations concluded today without an agreement and with grim portents for the coming months: The entire October slate of pre-season games has been cancelled, and regular-season games will be cancelled next Monday if there is no agreement by that time.

    Reading the quotes in this article, it seems that the NBA owners formally offered a revenue split of 47% to the players, but Commissioner Stern later strongly hinted that they are willing to come up to 50%. The players' union, however, remains unwilling to budge from its latest offer of 53%. (Whether the owners are sincere in suggesting that a 50-50 split would sate them is unclear, but it would be difficult to walk back from such a public statement.)

    It seems, then, that the owners are more ready to compromise to reach a deal today and begin playing ball. I do not attach any moral opprobrium or admiration for a willingness to cave on one's initial position, or for a stubborn insistence on not losing face. I merely note that the players appear less willing to agree to the psychologically salient half-half division of revenues. (They may soften their resolve after a couple months of lost paychecks, of course. An entire missed season of salary is a greater loss, given the average player's 5-year career, than the aggregated annual differences between 50% and 53% of total revenues.)

    Of course, a negotiating party can try to appear reasonable by throwing out an extreme initial bid and then "compromising" to something less provocative. And the owners have already won a dimension of these talks by carving out certain revenue streams from the definition of "Basketball-Related Income" that is subject to division. I am mindful that Stern and the NBA owners are trying to spin external observers and commenters. In these talks, the owners began with a proposal of 46% to the players, while the players would have been chuffed to continue the 57% dictated by the 2005 labor agreement. Perhaps the players feel that they should not have to move so much. But the old contract is now null and void; the players' new bargaining position is determined solely by economic factors and the wiles of their negotiating team.

    Monday, September 26, 2011

    Girding For Collective Action

    I often wonder what sort of internal democratic systems the NBPA has for arriving at its negotiating positions. The NBA owners number only 30 men, while the players' union counts well over 400 members. After the September 14th negotiation in New York City, for example, the owners could surely hop on a conference call to discuss the results, while the union promised to update its players auditorium-style the following day in Las Vegas, where several dozen have been playing in an informal league. How can so many players agree? And to take one step back, who is the "union" anyway?

    Besides its full-time Executive Director, headed by Billy Hunter, a former pro football player and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, the National Basketball Players' Association has a dispersed leadership structure. The union has an Executive Committee headed by Derek Fisher as president, and a suite of 30 players acting as team representatives. The union also employs five lawyers and two paralegals to crack difficult legal questions.

    Still, when the union walks into a negotiation with the owners' labor committee, Fisher and union director Billy Hunter cannot pull out their cell phone and call up LeBron to get advice. In a letter dated September 26th, Fisher told union members that he needs their vote to firmly agree to anything, but such a plebiscite would likely be a formality; Fisher would not give his tentative assent to the owners and Commissioner Stern for a deal that he knew players would hate. Claiming lack of authority to make tough concessions is a classic negotiating ploy, but after six years since the last labor agreement and three months since this lockout began, it would be hardly be credible. Indeed, news reports indicate that Fisher has been the main or sole player negotiator alongside Hunter during the past few months. Presumably, whatever the union's internal deliberative processes may be, the union members trust Fisher with their livelihoods.

    Other than Chris Paul, all the player members of the Executive Committee are role players, guys who spell a star for 10 quality minutes per night, or perhaps take an athletically laconic ball-handling and three-nailing role (Fisher) on the court but little else. The list of team representatives includes some stars with leadership ambition like Durant, Stoudemire, Pierce, and Griffin; but the median player on that list is more like Zaza Pachulia and Matt Carroll. Our instinct is to look to the league's best players for leadership against the rapacious owners, but (i) it is not clear that the ability to lead a basketball team is equivalent to business negotiation skill (just ask Timberwolves fans from the 1995-2009 era), and (ii) a famous, ultra-rich, ultra-good player like Dwyane Wade is hardly representative of his diverse and more quotidian constituency. The past three NBPA presidents were not All-Star caliber: Derek Fisher, Antonio Davis, and Michael Curry. Prior to Curry, however, most union presidents really were All-NBA talents: Patrick Ewing, Buck Williams, Isiah Thomas, Alex English. What changed? That is difficult to say; the following is purely my speculation, but perhaps the Gold's Club scandal soured players on Ewing and helped them see the merit of less flamboyant men. (Curry replaced Ewing as union president in July 2001, smack in the middle of the Gold's Club trial in Atlanta.)

    The interests of superstars and role players diverge on several dimensions in these labor negotiations. Consider, for example, the proposed "hard salary cap" whereby a team's aggregate salary roll could not go above a fixed number, say, $60 million. If a team offers maximum contracts of, say, $15 million annually to two players, that leaves $30 million to be split among the remaining 13 players on the roster, meaning that the two stars each earn about seven times the average salary of the other guys. And even if every player's salary is increased pro rata at the end of the season when league-wide income comes in higher than expected, the intra-team inequality would be preserved. With a hard salary cap, it is unlikely that owners would skimp on superstar salaries in order to be nice to the little guys; the marginal revenue of fielding a showman like Durant or Griffin is, if anything, higher than the stipulated maximum salaries of around $15 or $16 million, and those bargains should be quickly seized lest some other team grab the talent. Now contrast that scenario to the present setup whereby owners can, via loopholes like the "mid-level exception" or "Bird rights", offer $5 million yearly salaries to average players like Hedo Turkoglu, even if that means exceeding the nominal salary cap. In today's system, Dwight Howard makes only three times Turkoglu's salary, rather than seven. Needless to say, most players are of middling quality and would find themselves relatively pauperized under the "hard cap" proposal. It is for them, mostly, that Fisher works.

    One common trait of all NBPA presidents is their interest in running a team's floor game in future: Thomas, Williams, Ewing, and Curry, have all been NBA head coaches or assistant coaches, while Fisher has often been tabbed as a future coach. Before Thomas, 3 of the 4 prior union presidents (Alex English, Bob Lanier, and Paul Silas) later worked as an NBA head coach or assistant. The fourth in that string, Junior Bridgeman, now owns 160 Wendy's franchises. Thomas has been a solid coach (though a poor general manager) and Ewing has helped Dwight Howard to become the league's best center. Williams, quietly, has helped LaMarcus Aldridge to become perhaps the second-best. (Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, and both Gasols would surely quarrel with that assessment, of course.) Both types of leadership -- NBA head coachships and NBPA presidencies -- involve the power to make dictatorial decisions while building an illusion of a consensus-based process.

    So, the union seems to generally pick good leaders. With guaranteed contracts and 57% of basketball-related revenue, the union has done a heckuva a job in prior negotiations. After a lot of stalling during the summer, the next three months of negotiations will show us whether Fisher can steer his lieges through contention and temptation, or whether the owners can break Fisher's empire like Darth Vader tossing Palpatine down the reactor core.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    NBA Is Rick Perry's Worst Nightmare

    Economist Tyler Cowen warned us recently that labor productivity in the US has stagnated in the past few years, presaging an inevitable slowdown in our standards of living. When we can produce the same amount of stuff with fewer resources, we grow wealthier, and everyone can afford more stuff. When the productivity of a typical worker stays flat, we don't grow.

    The NBA is fond of boasting its year-on-year growth, but this is growth in nominal revenues: the league is pulling in more dollars every year. For the most part, the league is not expanding its product: arenas are no larger, the number of teams is no greater, and games are no more frequent.

    The NBA produces exactly the same product, in amount and character, every year. Since the league expanded to 30 teams in 1995, it produces 1,230 regular season games every year, plus four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs. (The change in 2003 from a best-of-five format to a best-of-seven format for the playoffs' first round has added, perhaps, three or four extra games to the playoff slate per spring. First-round series rarely go beyond five games.) Serious fans would likely object to a lengthening of the season, arguing that it makes historical comparisons, and the existence of "career records" by players, inapposite.

    What would it mean, anyway, for productivity in the NBA to grow? How could one player give us more basketball goodness? Perhaps it might mean switching to 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 basketball, permitting more games with the existing stock of players. But then, of course, the game would not be the same: with more cavernous space on the floor, we would see less passing, less help defense, and more Allen Iversons. Another possibility for increased productivity in the NBA might be to carry fewer men on the roster: perhaps each team could employ only 10 players, say. Injuries could quickly sap a team's depth, though, reducing the quality of play, so again, the product would not be the same. It is true that defensive schemes and training methods have grown more sophisticated with time, so perhaps the quality of play is better than 20 or 30 years ago. But most casual fans are unable to appreciate the difference between a man zone versus a box-and-one.

    Arguably, the increased popularity of the league in China and other developing countries could be seen as growth: with a nonrivalrous product, bringing televised images of the NBA to more eyeballs is easy and also better for global happiness. Slowly, the NBA's money and co-promotional efforts have begun to stimulate high-level professional basketball leagues in China and other countries. But the NBA's core business is the same as it always was.

    Under the 2005-2011 collective bargaining agreement [see Article VII, Section 5(c)], contracted player salaries may grow by up to 10.5% per year. And the NBA's salary cap and average player salaries keep on growing. Corporate sponsorships, TV rights fees, ticket prices, jersey prices, and every other dollar amount associated with the NBA keep going up. Yet, again, there are no more teams and no more games. Productivity per worker is unchanged.

    What we have in the NBA, and in other major sports leagues, is pure inflation, rivaling the ruinous inflation seen recently in residential real estate, health care, or university education in the US. Some universities have expanded their distance learning or evening programs, but for the most part, universities are not educating more students; they are actually hiring more faculty to reduce student-teacher ratios. Productivity has dropped and the price of a degree has spiked.

    Contrast this to the performance of, say, Chipotle Mexican Grill, a favorite of this blogger. Chipotle is wrapping more burritos today than in 2010, or 2005, but has barely touched its per-burrito prices. Chipotle's physical expansion has, in some cases, taken over the retail footprint of other stores that failed or didn't want to pay the rent anymore.

    NBA inflation is the fault of every fan who agrees to pay ticket prices that escalate with each new season. With inflation in the real world hovering around 2% annually, the real price of attendance has jumped greatly over the past ten years. However, fans seem to be wising up in this terrible economy, as ticket prices dropped 2.5% for the 2010-11 season after falling 2.8% in 2009-10.

    Under the previous CBA regime of 2005-2011, the maximum annual salary raise, as discussed above, was 10.5%. If superstars make 10.5% annual raises and scrubs earn a constant nominal salary each year, then, if the aggregate league-wide salary sum comes in over the targeted percentage of "basketball-related income" due to falling ticket prices, every player will see his salary adjusted down by an equal proportion-- which could mean that the scrub receives a nominal drop in pay. Middle-class players should be thinking very carefully about how much maximum annual salary increase they want to build in to the next labor agreement.

    Meanwhile, the league, and particularly the players, must look for ways to legitimately expand the NBA's product to justify its relentless push for salaries growing faster than CPI inflation. Whether summer streetball tournaments, a robust minor league, youth training academies, lecture series by Ray Allen, or perhaps Italian lessons from Kobe Bryant, NBA players must look for ways to grow their productivity.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    NBA Owners Take First (Legal) Blood in Labor Negotiations

    The NBA filed suit against the players' union today in the Southern District of New York federal courthouse, as well as filing a proceeding with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the union's threat to decertify and sue the league for antitrust violation is a bad-faith negotiating tactic, in violation of federal labor law.

    To my mind, the most compelling arguments in the SDNY complaint come at Paragraphs 40 and 41, wherein the NBA lawyers argue that recent decertifications by the NFL players' union were eventually revealed to be wholly without credibility, as the NFLPA immediately re-formed after the execution of a new collective bargaining agreement. (No court has found the NFLPA's decertification tactic to be against any law, however.) The league also argues at Paragraph 47, and 72-77, that decertification of the NBA players' union would render all existing player contracts void and unenforceable. This latter point goes beyond the NLRB's decision from the 1998 lockout, which held that player contracts are unenforceable while a collective bargaining agreement is not in force. The NBA's argument today seems to suggest that if a hypothetical union decertification were found to be legitimate, then the player contracts would be permanently annulled, even if some sort of labor agreement were later finalized. (Yet such legal interpretation was not the case – at least, no judge found it to be so – when the NFL Players Association decertified earlier this year.)

    The NBA is clearly worried that the NBPA could successfully use a union decertification and subsequent antitrust suit under the Sherman Act as leverage against the owners, as the pro football players did a couple weeks ago. In its complaint, the league asks for several declaratory judgments (Paragraphs 52, 61, 65) that their lockout is hunky-dory with regard to US antitrust law. (The pendency of the NLRB proceeding may help to insulate the owners' lockout from antitrust scrutiny, as hinted in Paragraph 58 of the complaint.) This request for declaratory judgment is something of a gamble by the owners: On one hand, they have removed a key weapon from the union's bag. The NBPA can no longer threaten to bring an antitrust suit into court, because the owners have already asked a court to adjudicate the very same issues that a putative players' lawsuit would raise. So the union has been neutered somewhat. On the other hand, there is now a real risk that the SDNY court could actually rule against the owners, finding (upon the decertification of the union) that the owners' lockout is violating the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Thus, the union still has a strong threat point with its possible decertification; perhaps the owners, worried about suffering treble damages if the SDNY court rules against them, could still be inclined to tidily wrap up negotiations. The assignment of a conservative or liberal judge to the SDNY case would certainly affect the owners' calculus. We should also note that under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure #57, declaratory judgment suits can be fast-tracked with a "speedy hearing".

    In essence, the owners have cut off their own arm to stop the union from cutting it off first. Tickling oneself generally does not induce laughs, but cutting off an arm can be downright painful.

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Should Short Guys Rule Coaching?

    It seems that the Detroit Pistons are planning to hire either Mike Woodson or Lawrence Frank as their new head coach.

    Detroit's management interviewed Bill Laimbeer and Patrick Ewing, former All-Star centers who are currently NBA assistant coaches, but neither one seems likely to receive an offer. Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been a "special assistant" for the Lakers in recent years, but never received an offer to be a head coach anywhere. Laimbeer won three championships as head coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock; Ewing and Abdul-Jabbar have helped to develop Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum into the league's best centers. But assistants they will remain.

    NBA coaches tend to be former point guards: Maurice Cheeks, Scott Skiles, Scott Brooks, Avery Johnson, Jeff Van Gundy, Erik Spoelstra, Flip Saunders, Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Nate McMillan, and the like. Occasionally shooting guards like Byron Scott or Rick Carlisle (or Woodson) do well as coaches, but we don't see many small forwards manning the sidelines (though Larry Bird did a good job in the last three years of the last millennium). And big men turned into coaches are rare: Phil Jackson and Bill Cartwright are the only two I can think of (there are surely more, which reveals my relative youth and the attendant limits of my hoops knowledge).

    As active players, point guards tend to be the guys who direct an offense, orchestrating screens, cuts, dives, curls, and nifty passes. They also are primarily tasked with the intangible mission of convincing teammates to play together. These surely sound like skills that make a good coach. But consider the following points: First, the average NBA player is about 6'7"; a 6-foot-nothing point guard, as a coach, will have a difficult time relating to most of his roster. Second, while point guards know their O, defensive anchors are rarely guards, Kobe Bryant excepted. A team's defensive positioning tends to be directed by its most agile big man: Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, or in an earlier era, Olajuwon, McHale, Rodman, Oakley, Robinson. Why shouldn't one of these guys get to coach a whole team?

    It's telling that a former power forward / center, Phil Jackson, won 11 of the available 20 championships from 1991 through 2010. To be fair, he was coaching Hall of Fame talents, but his success is at least not inconsistent with the idea that a big man can be a great coach. Why, then, cannot more tall ex-players get offers to coach? Perhaps the historic lack of interest by tall guys in basketball coaching contributes to a stigma when a Laimbeer or Ewing try to get into the game. Or perhaps there is substance behind the stereotype: Small guys who succeed as players in the NBA are likely there because they have been selected, in part, for their smarts and their leadership (Jameer Nelson hardly would be picked first in a streetball game); the pool of tall cagers is, perhaps, more randomly distributed in brainy attributes. Bigs can get by on sheer mass alone. But Laimbeer, Ewing, and Abdul-Jabbar are known as smart guys: Laimbeer ran a packaging company, Ewing led the players' union, and Abdul-Jabbar has written several books. So why not give them a chance? Those guys have 13 championships among them as players and coaches, and Ewing came close to nabbing two more.

    Let the tall men reign!

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    When Immature Billionaires Try Their Hand At Lawyering

    Ross Perot Jr., former owner of the Dallas Mavericks (and still a 5% owner), sued Mark Cuban's investment entity in 2010, alleging that Cuban was financially mismanaging the team. Following the Mavericks' recent title win, Cuban's legal team filed the following motion for summary judgment today in Dallas County court (via Dallas Observer):

    Funny stuff, but the 3-page legal filing is borderline legal malpractice by Cuban's lawyers. It may be worth a chuckle to show Nowitzki with the trophy, but one picture alone doesn't address the plaintiff's arguments. Is Cuban doing a good job of maximizing the entity's profits? As I noted in my most recent post, the billionaire Cuban is known for paying starters's money to backups like Brendan Haywood and Shawn Marion (who was supposed to be the team's backup SF/PF this season before Caron Butler's injury), and before them, guys like Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison, Nick Van Exel, Juwan Howard, and several others. Cuban also fired head coach Avery Johnson in spring 2008 with three years and $12 MM of obligation remaining on his contract. Cuban may not mind losing money (or failing to maximize profits) on the Mavs, but Perot Jr. might. A lone championship does not necessarily imply fat operating profits. The championship itself will likely raise the franchise's financial value somewhat, but the defense attorneys still must address Cuban's 11 prior years of financial stewardship.

    To Cuban's credit, the Mavs ranked first in the league in 2010-11 in home attendance as a percent of arena capacity. However, the summary judgment motion did not mention this, only listing, again, that photo of Nowitzki with the LOB.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Hail to the Mavs, Hardly A Team of Lovable Losers

    So the Dallas Mavericks closed out Miami Sunday night to claim their first NBA championship. I was touched by a few sights: Dirk Nowitzki walking off the court before the final buzzer, unable to contain his emotions; Chris Bosh bitterly covering his face as he walked to the locker room, feeling the mirror of what Nowitzki felt; and Mark Cuban bringing in Donald Carter to receive the Larry O'Brien trophy. Many have long thought that Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, at the least (not to mention several of Dallas's other veterans) deserved a championship to cap their careers. However, team prizes are not given to individuals for lifetime achievement; the LOB must be earned by playing the best basketball of any team in the league. This year, that was Dallas, which outpointed the two-time defending champs, the anointed team of the future, and the league's most talented team on its way to the 2011 title.

    It is interesting how this year's two Finalists represented a fairly clean break from the playoff behemoths of the last several seasons. After the memorable NBA Finals series of 2006 that matched these two teams, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki struggled for the next few seasons while the Spurs, Suns, Lakers, Cavs, Pistons, Magic, and Celtics cleaned up in the playoffs. Wade's team lost three first-round series in the subsequent four years (including an embarrassing sweep by the young Bulls in 2007) and missed the playoffs in 2008. Nowitzki's Mavs lost three first-round series in the next four campaigns and lost in the second round in '09. In the press conference before Game 6, Nowitzki described the annual "hammering" that superstars receive from fans and pundits when they fail to end their season with a win.

    Yet as Scoop Jackson points out here, those same observers tend to forget the years of futility once a team finally does win the sweetest prize. Jackson does not delve into the psychology of those analysts, but perhaps it is a case of the "fundamental attribution error" recognized by formal psychology: observers want to place Nowitzki, say, into one of a small number of personality types. They want to say he is soft, or tough, or killer, or clutch, or weak, or overconfident, or smart, or selfish, or stupid. They want to consider him as possessing such attribute innately and forever, rather than considering that he may possess many of these types, and his types might change over time. They also fail to note that contingent, situational factors outside the superstar's grasp like injuries, playoff upsets to other contenders, lucky roster moves, and the like can spell the difference between a championship or none, regardless of how well the star plays. Coupled with the natural psychological tendency to consider recent data and positive data (compared to old and negative data) more keenly, this makes it easy for observers to now consider Dirk a "winner", instead of updating their view of his career in a more nuanced fashion. Nowitzki actually seems canny, from this perspective, to a win a title later in his career rather than earlier; Wade, who won his lone title (the same number as Nowitzki) in his third year, now has to answer more questions about his winning capacity than Mr. Swish41 does.

    Dallas is hardly a cuddly underdog: their aggregate player salary of about $84 MM for the 2010-11 season ranks third in the league. The internet mania of the late 1990s gave Mark Cuban a lot of money; he is one billionaire who seems to value winning over turning an economic profit on his team, to the extent that those two objectives clash, as I discussed a couple years ago. Dallas lost two-time All-Star Caron Butler to injury in January, and was able to fill his SF slot in the starting lineup with... four-time All-Star Shawn Marion! To plug Marion's spot as backup small forward, Dallas signed... three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic. When Stojakovic's defense against Miami's star wings proved terrible in the Finals, Dallas was able to spell him with their fourth-string small forward, Brian Cardinal, a former $40 MM backup for Memphis. Dallas also boasts FOUR starting-caliber point guards, two starting-caliber centers, and a former Final Four MVP in Corey Brewer, who barely played in the playoffs. Due to arcane NBA rules dealing with player movement, Cuban even paid over $2 MM this season to three players (Buckner, Novak, Thomas) With a owner like Cuban, Dallas should always be in the upper layer of teams. Even when Nowitzki slows and retires, top players should be keen to play for a big-spending owner who funds sleek locker rooms.

    Many commenters are fussing that Miami's roster is fatally flawed and the Bosh-Wade-James troika should be broken up. But by most teams' standards, the Heat had a wildly successful season, finishing with the third-best record in the league and blitzing 12-3 through the Eastern playoffs. In the Finals, their lack of a good center hurt them, as Tyson Chandler was able to discourage any offensive forays down low by the three Heat stars, without worrying about Joel Anthony doing much left unattended. A summer of shooting practice by the two wing stars, plus the addition of a good two-way 7-footer younger than 35, plus a full training camp (recall that Wade was injured throughout last October) will help Miami improve, and they should rightly be considered next year's title favorites. There will be many free-agent centers in July [or after the completion of a labor agreement] including Sam Dalembert, Marc Gasol, Greg Oden, Yao Ming, Spencer Hawes, Nene Hilario, and the aforementioned Chandler. However, any center with his eyes on Miami will need to accept relatively low pay: Miami can offer only the mid-level exception [i.e. league average] salary, or if that option is killed in the new labor agreement, then perhaps just the veteran's minimum, to free agents.

    Congratulations to Dallas!

    Friday, June 10, 2011

    Notes on Game 5

    The Mavericks won Game 5 of the Finals last night, giving them a chance to take the championship with just one win in Miami. Of course, Detroit in 1988, New York in 1994, and Boston in 2010 were in similar situations, up 3-2, but could not break the serve of their opponent in the road arena. Dallas will need to work even harder than they did tonight (the Mavs' effort was exemplified by Brian Cardinal, who repeatedly put himself in a good-faith position to receive charging calls against driving Miami players) to win a fourth game in this series. If they relent just slightly, Miami will quickly win two games and celebrate next Tuesday.

    During the past two games, Dallas has missed Brendan Haywood (hip). DeShawn Stevenson had his knee drained after Game 4. Since January, they have been without erstwhile starting SF Caron Butler (knee). Dirk Nowitzki has a busted finger and is recovering from a sinus infection. Their three-guard rotation has an average height of 6'1". Yet they still took two of three games from the Heat in Miami. Dallas's coach Rick Carlisle has expertly managed his players' minutes while still ending each game with his best lineup of Kidd, Terry, Chandler, Marion, and Nowitzki. Marion's once-receding hairline and his unorthodox low-post game seem to have returned to their formerly robust condition circa 2003. What technological assistance Marion received for these two miracles, I do not know.

    Dallas was out-assisted tonight, 25-23, and out-rebounded 36-26. Dallas only snared 26 boards, worse than the average of the worst regular-season team! FG attempts and FT attempts were roughly equal; the difference in the game, if we are to focus only on math, was the Mavs' 13-19 performance on three-pointers, against Miami's 8-of-20 night from beyond the line.

    ABC's Jeff Van Gundy criticized young Ian Mahinmi for giving up a couple easy baskets to Chris Bosh. Weak defensive play is not surprising for an inexperienced player appearing for only the fifth time ever in the NBA playoffs (including one game with the Spurs last spring). However, Mahinmi grabbed a couple fierce rebounds and loose balls and generally did not embarrass himself while on the floor.

    Dallas closed the game on a 17-4 run starting at the 4:22 mark, after Miami found several holes in Dallas's defense midway through the fourth quarter, punctuated by a James-to-Haslem dish and dunk. Down 96-95, Rick Carlisle called a timeout. Following the break, Dallas showed great ball movement on their next few offensive sets, as Jason Terry delivered the ball to Dirk Nowitzki for a dunk and to Jason Kidd for a game-clinching three-pointer. On defense, Dallas used the strength of Jason Kidd (who, as I noted on this blog earlier, was able to defend Kevin Durant in the previous series) to slow Lebron James from slipping loose for too much havoc.

    Throughout the game, J.J. Barea took several ill-advised three-point shots while decently guarded, but still managed to sink 4 of 5 from that distance, matching the contribution of his counterpart Mario Chalmers. Chalmers, who made his reputation as a big shooter back in college and has done nothing to sully it in these Finals, made a mildly ridiculous shot at the end of the first quarter, throwing in a one-hander on the run from half-court while falling sideways. With Mike Bibby averaging 3.8 points and 1.0 assist in five Finals games, it is unclear why coach Erik Spoelstra continues to put him on the court to start games.

    I predict Miami will win two very tight games down in Florida. Dallas has played great so far, but the Heat are very hard to beat at home. Without a 15-point Mavs comeback in Game 2, the Heat would be undefeated at home for the playoffs. (And add a couple more lucky breaks in Game 4, and the Heat could have swept the series.) Much credit is due to Dallas for finding a way to grab three wins. But I do not believe they will win another.

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Game 2 Notes

    As the late Ralph Wiley once put it, the NBA Finals is the highest level of hoop. Sure, talented individuals like Rose, Durant, Bryant, Howard, Paul, Griffin, Love are not represented here, but this is a team game and stats alone don't yield wins. If stats gave wins, Mitch Richmond would have more than one ring.

    We must keep this in mind when contemplating Dallas's two-point victory in Game 2 last night, 95-93. How could a 38-year-old point guard, a 6'2" shooting guard, a center that a center-less team refused to take, a 7'0" shooting guard, and a guy on his fourth team in four seasons beat the most talented and athletic group of guys in the league?

    Excellent coaching strategy helps, but the confidence of veterans is yet more important. As I noted in April, teams with no prior playoff series wins never win the NBA title in any given year. It is also hard to expect a Chris Bosh to suddenly thrive in the NBA Finals, after never winning one playoff series in Toronto from 2003-04 through '09-10. Jason Kidd has never been known for fancy dribbling, but his pedestrian handle almost never loses control of the game.

    Again and again last night, I watched Miami's defense force turnovers from Dallas's suite of small guards. Barea and Terry (and even Kidd, a bit) had their ball poked loose, or saw their shot blocked or altered, too many times to keep coach Carlisle tranquil. In all, Miami notched 15 steals and 8 blocks for the night; seven of Miami's eight players logged at least one steal. These numbers don't do enough to convey the swarming intensity of Miami's defense (for the first 42 minutes of the game, that is); Dallas repeatedly had trouble initiating basic offensive sets or using ball movement to create space. Meanwhile, Miami used these turnovers and possession changes to launch quick strikes to the other side of the court, slamming through numerous crowd-charging dunks. But late in the game, when Dallas learned to flummox the defense with better-executed screens (or double screens), the Mavs were able to begin the offensive show they displayed against Los Angeles and OKC.

    With 3:11 left, Jason Terry to hit a jumper to cut the deficit to 4 points, and Miami knew they were troubled. Immediately after a Miami timeout, Chris Bosh dribbled the ball out of bounds for no reason, leading to a quick Nowitzki jumper that made things a single-basket game. After a few missed baskets, Shawn Marion led a fast break down the court and wisely flipped the ball to Nowitzki to evade a defender. Nowitzki laid in the ball, tying the game. After another Miami timeout, Dirk Nowitzki hit a three-pointer. Finally [after a tying bucket by Mario Chalmers], Nowitzki drove the ball one-on-one against Chris Bosh and hit the winning layup with his left hand at 0:04. LeBron James, guarding Jason Terry in the corner, couldn't decide whether to help against the Nowitzki parry or to stay with his man. James simply stood as a spectator and watched Nowitzki easily streak to the basket. Bosh also failed to commit his team's "foul to give" when Nowitzki began to dash free. [In the postgame press conference, Bosh admitted to poor defense on the final play against Nowitzki, but I did not hear James cop to anything similar.]

    Bosh and James didn't know what to do, or were not able to make the right decisions in the required time frame. Nowitzki, Kidd, Marion, and Terry barely needed to think.

    At this point I sincerely cannot say who will the series. Miami is slightly better, but Dallas has 3 of the 5 remaining home games. I recall a couple recent playoff Game 2s where a last-second game-winning shot gave an undeserved win to an apparently inferior team that had lost Game 1. Recall Kobe Bryant tying up the Pistons (sending the game to OT, to be eventually won by LA) with a three-pointer in 2004's Game 2, or LeBron James defeating Orlando the same way in 2009's Game 2. Folks thought that "momentum" in the series had turned. But the better team usually wins out; Bryant and James both lost their respective series, in the event. An inferior team can eke out an upset once, but four times? Can't happen.

    [My comparison may strike some as inapt because prior to those series, folks thought that the Lakers and Cavaliers were the better teams. But the eyeball test eventually revealed the opposite. No one argues that the Lakers-with-injured-Malone or the Cavs were the better team compared to the Pistons and Orlando in those series.]

    So, Miami could still win this one. Heck, they could have won Game 2 with just one or two luckier breaks: a miss by Nowitzki, perhaps a swish by Dwyane Wade on his last-second prayer. But right now Dallas looks like the hungrier AND smarter team.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Game 1 Notes

    A few thoughts after Tuesday night's 92-84 Miami victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals:

    Peja Stojakovic looked lost on defense every time he took the floor. Against Los Angeles or Oklahoma City, Stojakovic could be assigned to guard Ron Artest, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Nick Collison, or Thabo Sefolosha: relatively slow men who are not primary ball-handlers. Against Miami, which plays Lebron James and Dwyane Wade together for nearly 48 minutes straight, Stojakovic is forced to cover an All-NBA wing every trip down the floor. He shot 0 of 3 last night; if he keeps up that desultory record, coach Carlisle may be forced to yank him for Corey Brewer, who at least plays adequate defense. I wonder, too, whether the half-healed Caron Butler might be useful in 5-minute bursts.

    Dallas missed a lot of open shots: J.J. Barea missed several of the Nash-like layups he usually writhes into the hoop, and Jason Terry missed a few open 3s. Including Stojakovic and Brendan Haywood, the Mavs' bench combined to shoot for 4 for 22. They will surely improve that rate next time and will score more points. Miami's whole roster shot only 39%, but their three stars still delivered 65 points; it is not obvious that Miami can find more scoring.

    Miami has four seven-foot centers bound to the bench: Dexter Pittman, Jamaal Magloire, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Erick Dampier. Coach Spoelstra chose to employ 6'8" Udonis Haslem (30 minutes) as his backup center behind 6'9" Joel Anthony (18 minutes). Spoelstra further used 6'10" Juwan Howard for 8 minutes to spell Chris Bosh at power forward. Dallas is the only playoff team with two starting-caliber centers (non-playoff Sacramento could make the same boast; Boston could say the same if Shaquille O'Neal were healthy, as could Portland with a healthy Greg Oden), but Spoelstra chose to combat them with long-limbed agile men. Like the Atlanta Hawks (except better), Miami's typical five-man squad is not a "big lineup", as they play no 7-footers, but not a "small lineup" either, as Lebron James and Mike Miller are oversized for their respective positions. If Miami insists on eschewing its tallest guys, Dallas must find a way to exploit the Heat's short stature. I saw Dallas using a Stevenson-Barea-Terry alignment in the fourth quarter last night; if going small does not work, why not go big? Try bringing in 6'11" F-C Ian Mahinmi, who played 56 games in the regular season, to play with Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler when Lebron James leaves the game.

    My suggestions to play Butler, Brewer, or Mahinmi could be easily ridiculed as desperation. Perhaps Dallas should not mess with the nine-player rotation that destroyed the Lakers and Thunder. But Miami is very, very good.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    Film Marketing in the NBA Finals

    Since 2009, ABC/ESPN has made a habit each year of selling heavy advertising promotion during the NBA Finals to one comedy film of questionable quality. The trouble with these advertising segments is not merely that the movies are bad, but that ABC constructs the features as "advertorials" that blur the line between the network's basketball coverage, on the one hand, and its revenue-generating function on the other.

    In '09 we saw constant promos for the Jack Black stinker Year One, which hit theaters on June 19th that year. NBA fans hoping to learn how Orlando rookie SG Courtney Lee would oppose Kobe Bryant's offensive assault, or how the Lakers could deal with Hedo Turkoglu on the P&R, were instead subjected to this inane banter of Black and Michael Cera talkin' hoops:

    On June 3, 2010, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, and David Spade oddly showed up at courtside in Staples Center for Game 1 between the Lakers and Celtics. Getty Images published a pic, purportedly just another paparazzi snap, of the four actors enjoying themselves. But by more than wacky coincidence, these guys were ready to promote a new movie, Grown-Ups, set to debut on June 27th of that year. Finals viewers soon realized that they were booked for seven games worth of Sandler and his buds cracking jokes in ABC-branded promos during NBA airtime.

    Last night, during Game 1 of Dallas-Miami, viewers saw (more than once) an ABC-branded promo for Kevin James's new film, Zookeeper, ready for release on July 8th. I am partial to cute animals, so I am not yet ready to call the movie stupid, but the previews have not looked compelling. If you couldn't get enough of James on a Segway in Mall Cop, James promises to bring even worse obloquy to the profession of wildlife caretaker. ESPN/ABC apparently thought that the NBA's talking-basketball promos from this season's playoffs were clever and iconic enough that a meta-ad featuring James, sitting next to a talking gorilla character from his movie, watching the talking-basketball ad on a television would be snappy. [The original talking basketball bits this spring were fairly amusing, but nothing like the "There Can Only Be One" campaign from 2008, also delivered by ad agency Goodby, Silverstein.]

    Surprisingly, none of these movies were produced or owned by the Walt Disney Company (owner of ABC/ESPN); distribution rights for all three belonged to Sony/Columbia. Apparently Sony has a good deal with Disney and the former plans to milk the latter's NBA platform every June for summer movies with shaky pedigrees. Of course, film economics are hard to predict. Year One cost about $60 MM to produce, but earned only $43 MM at US theaters. The Sandler movie, missing any special effects that would drive up costs (though perhaps featuring too many high-salaried actors), earned over $160 MM domestically. Sony's marketing strategy may be an example of the sunk-cost fallacy: having spent a lot of money on a lemon of a project, the sponsor figures he needs to spend even more to gin up some revenue out of it. Sometimes this calculus works, but sometimes it doesn't. "Zookeeper" looks more like a "Year One" redux than a "Grown-Ups"-like hit. Meanwhile, NBA fans must gird for a couple weeks of Kevin James.

    Friday, May 27, 2011

    Live From the UC: Heat Close Out Bulls in Game 5

    Last night, one-third of the JPO team, plus a non-JPOer who is well acquainted with all three bloggers, had the chance to attend Game 5 of the Bulls-Heat conference finals series live on West Madison St. at the United Center.

    By now, all hoop fans know what happened: the Bulls were up by 10 points late in the game, but just as the Mavericks did to the Thunder, Miami used a furious offensive assault (including a rare 4-point play by Dwyane Wade), and firm defensive stands at the other end, to erase the gap, take the lead, and win the game by 3. Miami is now the Eastern Conference champion and will face Dallas next week as the NBA Finals begin.

    The live crowd at the United Center was completely deflated by the end. Tom Thibodeau's squad had maintained a lead throughout the game. Expecting their Bulls to close out the win and go down to Miami for Game 6, the arena fans were caught off-guard when James and Wade began drilling shots, and utterly stunned when the final buzzer sounded and the ritual post-series handshakes began. However, this suggests the fallacy of casual observation in a basketball game. If a team builds an early ten-point lead and then maintains that lead for, say, 30 more minutes, it is not correct to think that the leading team "dominated" the game heretofore, as many commentators would say. Actually, in my imagined example, the leading team dominated an early stretch in building that margin, but the subsequent 30 minutes (most of the game) were played evenly, and the trailing team likely has the potential to pull off a quick ten-point run at any moment. This is roughly what happened in last night's game, as Chicago took a lead 9 minutes into the first quarter and did not relinquish that lead until 1 minute remained in the game.

    In any case, I want to highlight through video (taken on my very non-professional camera) some key moments from this game.

    On this play, Derrick Rose jumps upon Dwyane Wade's up-fake, and Wade draws two foul shots. Wade is not known as a great perimeter shooter; with more experience, Rose would have the patience to not "bite" on that fake.

    On this play, the Heat catch both of Chicago's big men, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, out of position. With much empty space between himself and the rim, Chris Bosh capitalizes for an easy drive and lay-in.

    Despite his lazy defense on that above play, I believe Boozer has been criticized too much during these playoffs. On this below play, watch as the Alaskan uses his wide body to set two sturdy screens. The first knocks Mike Bibby to the ground, and the second momentarily detours LeBron James, giving Luol Deng enough space to launch a good jumper, which he unfortunately missed.

    Additionally, when Boozer gets the ball, the Heat certainly respect his offense in the painted area. On this play, watch Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (covering for Boozer’s assigned guarder, Joel Anthony, who got somewhat lost on the play when he shaded over to double-team Rose) converge on Boozer the moment the latter receives the ball at the free-throw line. Boozer correctly passes out of the double-team. Thanks to Mike Bibby’s completely forgetting about Derrick Rose, Rose is eventually able to swish an open three-pointer on this play.

    In this fourth-quarter play, Luol Deng sneaks free after Dwyane Wade tires of trying to guard the much taller small forward. I include this one to illustrate that Miami’s swarming defensive philosophy often leads to wide-open looks. Deng is not even visible as the play starts, as he camps out in the lower right corner. Deng is easily able to shake loose of Wade’s sentry, and Wade then decides his service would be better rendered by banging in the post with Taj Gibson for a rebound. Deng is suddenly wide-open. LeBron James, ostensibly guarding Derrick Rose by this late moment in the game, does not bother to impede Deng as he streaks toward the hoop, receives a nice bounce pass from Kurt Thomas, and draws a foul.