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.