Saturday, March 26, 2011

NCAA Basketball, Where Talent and Flash are Losing Horses

When I watch college basketball games, I notice that the defenders seem to exert more energy and they are more effective. Even in last night's Ohio State vs. Kentucky game, featuring at least a handful of future NBAers, I saw players frequently pick up their dribble, flummoxed, when double-teamed or challenged by a feisty face-up man. Offensive sets feature (i) a lot of perimeter passing, (ii) a complicated "weave" look, or else (iii) a total breakdown ending in an errant pass or a slapped-free ball. In the NBA, your typical player (who formerly was the very best of the best in the college circuit) has the speed, agility, and handle to dribble around a good defender; your average college man cannot. Is this because of the apparently tougher effort given by college defenders? Not exactly; the usual college player has less athletic ability than even an NBA schlub; the undergraduate needs to exert himself harder to cover a given ground in a given time.

So to recap, dribble-driving is relatively poor in the university game, and so is defense. But in the NCAA ranks, decent defense can usually trump a dribbler; in the NBA, the reverse prevails. Even future studs of pro ball-handling are usually not at their highest powers while still in college.

Consider the following talent-laden NCAA showdowns. In the NBA, this just wouldn't happen, even in one game. Yes, "anything can happen" on one night, but with the championship on the line, the best players generally raise their level of play commensurately.

  • In 2008, Kansas, featuring Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur, beat future all-world point guard Derrick Rose in the championship game.

  • Duke featured five future NBA players on its championship 2001 squad, but none of them had the explosiveness off the dribble possessed by Gilbert Arenas. No matter; Arenas was stymied by the defense of Shane Battier and Chris Duhon, and Duke beat Arizona. (Arizona avenged this loss ten years later, in its March 24th, 2011 victory over the Blue Devils.)

  • How did North Carolina State bottle up a point-maker like Clyde Drexler?
  • Friday, March 18, 2011

    Utah vs. Chicago '98

    Last night NBATV, perhaps trying to counter the lure of live March Madness (although NBATV is run by Turner, which is broadcasting NCAA tournament games, so perhaps my conjecture is wrong), showed the original "Jordan Pushed Off" game, Chicago vs. Utah in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

    I noticed a few things in this game that had slipped from my memory:

  • Dennis Rodman was an unbelievable rebounder, bounding multiple body lengths to grab caroms.

  • Scottie Pippen could barely walk in this game, yet delivered a number of clutch shots.

  • Michael Jordan started the fourth quarter shooting 2 for 8. He kept shooting, though, and hit two mid-range buckets in the final minute of the game to hand his team the win.

  • Utah won 62 games and made the Finals with a motley collection of role players including Antoine Carr, Howard Eisley, and Shandon Anderson, all of whom played crunch-time minutes. That is all from coaching.

  • Isiah Thomas was a credible TV commentator. Bob Costas, though, should stick to hosting the Olympics.
  • Monday, March 14, 2011

    Please, No More Pro Hoops Around The Equinox

    The last month of the NBA season is no fun for anyone. The worst teams are actively tanking. The best teams are resting their starters, as the marginal change in expected wins from playing the starters 40 MPG instead of 30 MPG is unlikely to affect playoff seeding. It is only the mediocre teams churning around the 7th and 8th playoff spots (this season, the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets) that actually give a darn.

    The revenue boost from at least two home playoff games can be substantial for an owner. If you can fill a 20,000 seat arena at an average price of $30 per ticket, that is $600,000 per game and over $1 million if, at worst, your team gets quickly swept in four games by a real power. If your team gets lucky and defies expectations to win a playoff series (let us think of 2005's Jerome James-led Seattle Supersonics, or 2001's Raptors), that represents even more home games at higher per-seat prices. So there is good reason for the Bucks and Rockets to fight all the way to the end for the final playoff seed. [On the other hand, a better path to financial prudence would simply be not to sign the Jerome Jameses of the league to multi-million-dollar contracts.]

    For the rest of us, the waning winter and "madness" of the college playoff are enough to distract us from the meaningless final weeks. I might propose that the final month of the NBA season simply be cancelled, giving playoff teams a break between mid-March and mid-April. Nearly six months of regular-season games is just too much, especially for players. Posit, further, that ticket prices could be raised for the remaining ~65 regular season games so that team revenues come out even. Some might argue that with a five-month season, the fifth month, mid-February through mid-March, would then become the doggy days wherein nobody tries. But, if you'll permit me some math for a moment, the standard deviation of the sample mean (in other words, if the team's win-loss record after playing N games is a measure of how truly good it is, how prone is the measure to error?) is inversely proportional to the square root of N. The first derivative of that function is negative, but inversely proportional to N^(3/2). Back in plain English, the "marginal reliability" effect of playing more games decreases the more games you play. The 66th through 82nd games are less meaningful than the 49th through 65th, say, games would be. As we have seen during the past few weeks, as the Bulls, Celtics, and Heat jockeyed for playoff seeding, we still don't yet know who the "best" regular season team is. But by April 1st we surely will.

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    Owning A Team Ain't All That

    It appears today that the National Football League and its Players Association will be unable to conclude a new collective bargaining agreement, and an extended lockout will ensue. With the looming expiration of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement on July 1st, many pundits are predicting a similar work stoppage in pro hoops, and a possible cancellation or curtailment of the 2011-12 season, as happened in '98-99.

    Without the players, what does assets a pro team owner "own"? Likely, you have an exclusive long-term lease with the best arena or stadium in town. You own all the intellectual property relating to your team's name, logo, colors, and so forth. You are party to various marketing deals with corporate sponsors. Finally, you are party to television and radio broadcast agreements. But without any players to populate your team and play games, all that will not get you much more than a cup of coffee. I suppose the team can still take revenue from jersey sales during a lockout/strike, but if a lockout were to drag on and the long-term viability of the league appeared questionable, merchandise sales would slow considerably, aside from sales of older vintage jerseys (aka "throwbacks", in the argot) to hipsters or serious fans.

    What is to stop the NBA players from setting up their own league? Let us assume that star players like LeBron James and Dwight Howard were sufficiently charismatic that they could persuade at least a couple hundred NBA-caliber players to join them, and to find rich investors who could back the venture, and unbooked arenas that would associate with their venture. In other words, why shouldn't they form another ABA? Why shouldn't they own their own venture and draw all the residual profits?

    [There are, of course, many minor-league professional hoops leagues in the United States right now, including one called the American Basketball Association with an unwieldy 60 teams. None of them has the world's best players, though; one organization has a monopoly on those guys.]

    Basketball, with its flesh-baring uniforms and lack of helmets, naturally emphasizes individuals more than other team sports like baseball, hockey, or American football. Sure, soccer sets up the individual athlete for glory, particularly with the rarity of goals, but the television camera tends to take a bird's-eye view of the pitch, making each player's grimaces and bellows hard to discern. A basketball court, at 94' by 50', comprises about 7% of the surface area of a FIFA soccer field, the latter being about 100 meters by 64 meters. A roving cameraman can easily capture the blood, sweat, and tattoos of a hoopster, whereas soccer players just look small on television. Additionally, trends in cheap shoe manufacturing, easy communications technology, and favorable free-agent rules have helped to push individual basketball players into prominence relative to their team, much more so than baseball or gridiron players. So again, why shouldn't locked-out NBA players form their own league?

    This recent article by law professor Michael McCann suggests, at Paragraph 10, suggests that locked-out NFL players could join other sports leagues, although he does not raise the possibility of the players starting their own league. In the NBA setting, it is important to note that under Section 9 of the NBA's Uniform Player Contract, each team effectively has the protection of a "non-compete clause": during the term of a player's contract, the team has the right to go to court and get an injunction prohibiting the player from playing "for any other person, firm, entity, or organization." However, it is unclear whether an NBA player contract would still be considered valid during a lockout. If the contracts are not in good standing during a lockout, then it seems that Section 9 would have no force. We should also note that many NBA players will become free agents on July 1st, though they are mostly middling players like Tyson Chandler and Nene Hilario. Those players certainly can escape the non-compete clause of Section 9, though, due to happenstance, the 2011 free-agent class would not be spectacular enough to support a financially sustainable new league.

    It is unclear whether the non-compete clauses would be enforceable in court against Wade, James, Howard, Bryant, Paul, and the rest of the NBA's greatest stars, who would normally, without a lockout, be bound by valid contracts in 2011-12. [I welcome more advice from labor/employment law experts.] But why shouldn't they try? Should they fail, and should a new NBA labor agreement be concluded, it is unlikely that NBA owners would not welcome them back. The threat of a breakaway league is certainly a powerful negotiating position.

    There would be other obstacles, too: Perhaps the existing TV networks with NBA coverage would refuse to do business with this new league, hoping to remain in good standing with the owners of the old "NBA" should the status quo ante return. But there are enough cable, satellite, and internet television channels these days that surely the new league could get distribution somewhere. The same arguments apply to the league's other business partners: corporate sponsors, apparel manufacturers, arenas. Surely some competitors might arise to fill the hollow if the old vendors and customers boycott the new league. The apparel manufacturers derive more oomph from their association with individual players, anyway.

    Finally, would FIBA recognize the new league? This is not extremely important, as the new league could easily do business within the United States and Canada without dealing internationally. To orderly work with European (and, increasingly, Chinese) clubs for cross-oceanic movement of players, though, membership in FIBA would be vital. Likely, if the new league could prove viable for a couple seasons, FIBA would treat the old NBA as dead and buried.

    Some will argue that the stars' competitiveness, sense of their place in history, and "respect for the game" would discourage them from such a yawning step. But what would cement their stature in time better than putting the mighty NBA owners out of business? Basketball with the world's greatest players is the same game, regardless of who runs the show.

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    Assessing McGrady's Historic Position

    Yahoo! featured a great article yesterday about Tracy McGrady's career, focusing on his failure to develop his natural talents to excel as contemporaries like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have. Halfway through the piece, author Dan Devine notes in passing that it could be "argue[d]" that McGrady has compiled a "Hall of Fame-caliber" career. I would like to advance the negative side of this proposition.

    As Devine noted, McGrady won two scoring titles with Orlando. For the greater part of the decade just completed, McGrady was a true superstar, making seven All-NBA teams (variously first team, second team, or third team) and putting together spectacular highlights (notably, his thirteen points in 35 seconds to beat San Antonio in late 2004). However, his career as a top player basically ended after the 2007-08 season. He was injured throughout 2008-09, then had microfracture knee surgery around February '09, against the wishes of Houston management. When he returned in the middle of 2009-10, the Rockets traded him for strategic reasons (to acquire some draft picks from New York), and he played sparingly for the Knicks to close the season. After signing with Detroit last summer as a free agent, McGrady showed a couple months of nice point guard play for the Pistons, but since the "player boycott" a couple weeks ago, the coach has benched him.

    Let's not forget that this guy never won a playoff series. In a 2003 first-round series, Orlando went up 3-1 on Detroit, but lost the series. In 2005, Houston won the first two games on the road of a first-round series against Dallas. But somehow the Mavericks won the series in seven. In 2007, the Rockets won the first two games of a first-round series against Utah, but lost Game 7 of that series. [Utah then inherited overmatched Golden State as a second-round opponent and skated into the Western finals, winning the Warriors series in five.] With Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo, the Rockets could have matched up well with the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, and would have been favored in a potential NBA Finals matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James and Larry Hughes. But in the event, none of that happened.

    McGrady's Rockets lost again to Utah in 2008. Houston finally won a playoff series in 2009, without McGrady.

    For all his talent, McGrady could never deliver in April (let alone May or June). The Hall of Fame tends to favor winners of questionable individual greatness (James Worthy, who was good but never an MVP candidate) over lovable losers (Chris Mullin, who has been unsuccessfully nominated for the Hall in every year since 2007). Even putting aside that rubric, I do not find McGrady's individual merit to be enough for the Hall of Fame. Eight seasons (2000-01 through 2007-08) of high-level play is not enough.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Finally, Revenge on Hollywood for "Juwanna Mann"

    Did anyone else find it weird that ESPN featured two NBA games on Sunday night (Knicks vs. Heat and Blazers vs. Hawks), starting at 8:00 PM EST? ESPN is not normally in the habit of showing Sunday night games, and ESPN's corporate affiliate, ABC, was broadcasting the Academy Awards starting at 8:00. Why cannibalize your sister network's ratings?

    To be fair, the overlap of fandom for NBA action and Hollywood glamour is probably not extensive, and basketball fans would be angered if the Knicks-Heat game, featuring four of the top five scorers in the league, were not nationally televised. Still, the decision was risky from the perspective of Disney's overall content strategy. And today came news that the TV audience for the Oscar show was down 10% from 2010's viewership (though, to be fair, still greater than 2008 and 2009 numbers). Ratings information for Sunday night's Knicks-Heat battle is not yet available, though I will post it once I can find it. ... UPDATE: The Knicks-Heat game drew 4.2 million viewers, the most popular show on cable television that night. Had those 4 million viewers been added to the 37 million Oscar viewers, the 2011 Oscars would have bested the roughly 41 million viewers of the 2010 Academy Awards.