At Skeptical Sports, Benjamin Morris (who was just hired at FiveThirtyEight) has an extensive series of posts about Dennis Rodman. The conclusion he arrives at after many graphs and a dozen different posts is that Dennis Rodman was probably way better at whatever it was that Dennis Rodman did than any other NBA player was at what they did over the past 25 years.
While there may be room for reasonable disagreement about his character, his sportsmanship, or how and whether to honor his accomplishments, my research and analysis has led me to believe -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that Rodman is one of the most undervalued players in NBA history.
I admit to not reading the whole series, but the ramifications of Rodman being "the best 3rd-best player" in the history of the NBA by a wide margin laid out in the finale was fascinating:
"Well, it's not like he's as valuable as Michael Jordan, but he's the best 3rd-best player by a wider margin than Jordan was the best 1st-best player."
"So you're saying he was better than Michael Jordan."
"No, I'm not saying that. Michael Jordan was clearly better."
"OK, take a team with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it. Which would hurt them more, replacing Michael Jordan with the next-best primary scoring option in NBA history, or replacing Rodman with the next-best defender/rebounder in NBA history?"
"I'm not sure, but probably Rodman."
"So you're saying a team should dump Michael Jordan before it should dump Dennis Rodman?"
"Well, I don't know for sure, I'm not sure exactly how valuable other defender-rebounders are, but regardless, it would be weird to base the whole argument on who happens to be the 2nd-best player. I mean, what if there were two Michael Jordan's, would that make him the least valuable starter on an All-Time team?"
"Well OK, how common are primary scoring options that are in Jordan's league value-wise?"
"There are none, I'm pretty sure he has the most value."
"I dunno, there are probably between 0 and 2 in the league at any given time."
"And how common are defender/rebounder/dirty workers that are in Rodman's league value-wise?"
"There are none."
"There are none. Ballpark."
"So, basically, if a team had Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it, and they could replace either with some random player 'in the ballpark' of the next-best player for their role, they should dump Jordan before they dump Rodman?"
"Maybe. Um. Yeah, probably."
"And I assume that this holds for anyone other than Jordan?"
"So say you're head-to-head with me and we're drafting NBA All-Time teams, you win the toss, you have first pick, who do you take?"
"I don't know, good question."
"No, it's an easy question. The answer is: YOU TAKE RODMAN. You just said so."
"Wait, I didn't say that."
"O.K., fine, I get the first pick. I'll take Rodman. . . Because YOU JUST TOLD ME TO."
"I don't know, I'd have to think about it. It's possible."
"So there you go, Dennis Rodman is the single most valuable player in NBA History. There's your argument."
The discussion of Rodman's worth reminds me a bit of Rickey Henderson, another unconventional player and a favorite of my pal David, who is always saying Henderson doesn't get the credit he deserves as one of the best players of all time. (via @pieratt)
Lovely piece by Joe Posnanski about Tim Duncan, who at the age of 37 and in his 16th NBA season, finds himself in the Finals again seeking his fifth NBA championship.
Duncan almost certainly would have been the first pick in the draft after his sophomore year, but he came back to Wake Forest. He would have been the first pick in the draft after his junior year, for sure -- and just about everyone thought he would go out -- but once more he went back to Wake Forest to complete his senior year. Odom says that they were in the car after Duncan's junior year and heading to the airport for the Wooden Award ceremony (Duncan did not win it until his senior year). He told Duncan, "You will get a lot of questions there about why you're coming back to Wake Forest."
Duncan, typically, looked out the window and did not say anything.
"No, Tim, this is important," Odom said. "Let's pretend I'm one of those reporters? Was it a hard decision to come back to Wake Forest?"
Duncan kept looking out the window, but he said: "No. It wasn't hard."
Odom: "It wasn't? You didn't agonize over leaving millions of dollars on the table?"
Duncan said: "I didn't agonize. I just thought, why should I try to do today what I will be better prepared to do a year from now."
Odom looked over at the best player he would ever coach, and he wondered: "What kind of college junior thinks like that? Who has that sort of confidence, that sort of patience, that sort of inner peace? And then Duncan said the words that Odom thinks about almost every day."
He said: "You know something coach? The NBA can do a lot for me. It really can. But there's one thing it can't do. The NBA can never make me 20 years old again."
In 2003, Duncan was 27 years old and the MVP of the NBA and the Spurs won their second championship. Ten years later, at 37, his statistics (per 36 minutes) are remarkably similar:
Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn't come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn't yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.
The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn't say a thing. I didn't want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.
Buried in this column about the 2013 NBA playoffs is an astounding statistic:
Dwight Howard missed more free throws this season (366) than Lakers teammate Steve Nash has missed in his 17-year NBA career (322). Howard: 355 for 721 this season, 49.2 percent; Nash: 3,038 for 3,360 from 1996-97 through 2012-13, 90.4 percent.
Now, Howard takes more than double (and sometimes triple) the amount of free throws than Nash does, partially because center/forwards get fouled more than point guards. But Howard also gets intentionally fouled because he's such a bad free throw shooter whereas a reach-in foul on Nash is almost as good as a basket and so players almost never do it, unless they want to find their asses on the bench.
Michael Jordan just turned 50 and so Deadspin's Emma Carmichael asked former Cavs guard Craig Ehlo what it was like to guard Jordan in his prime. Sometimes Jordan would tell Ehlo what he was going to do ahead of time and still score.
Usually, Ron Harper would start on him, then I would come in and go to him, and Ron would go to Scottie Pippen or something like that. I always felt very lucky that Coach Wilkens had that faith in me to guard him. Michael was very competitive when he got between the lines. He was never a bad talker or too arrogant, but it was just like what Jason [Williams] said: He'd tell you. He only did that to me one time, from what I remember. It was his 69-point game, and things were going so well for him that I guess he just went for it. We were running up the court side-by-side and he told me: "Listen man, I'm hitting everything, so I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do this time and see if you can stop it. You know you can't stop it. You know you can't stop this. You can't guard me.
"I'm gonna catch it on the left elbow, and then I'm gonna drive to the left to the baseline, and then I'm gonna pull up and shoot my fadeaway."
The trouble with using statistics to improve the performance of sports teams is the difficulty in choosing what stats to track. Kirk Goldsberry makes that case that we should be tracking a new statistic called the Kobe Assist, which is actually a good kind of missed shot.
Kobe was wide-open; he caught the ball and shot without hesitation. He missed, and despite the great screen by Howard and the great playmaking by Nash, this beautiful basketball sequence was seemingly fruitless. Nash would not get his assist.
However, while Nash was busy playmaking and while Kobe was busy jump shooting, Dwight Howard had taken about seven steps toward his happy place -- the restricted area -- fought off the gigantic DeMarcus Cousins, and gained optimal rebounding position. Kobe's miss ricocheted upward from the rim before descending back down into the hands of Howard, who quickly put the ball in the basket; the Staples crowd went wild (in the dark). Did Kobe just miss a shot or did he just inadvertently set up Dwight Howard for an easy score? Are some of Kobe's missed shots actually good for the Lakers? Are some of his misses kind of like assists?
This is one of the nuttiest sports things I have ever seen. Ethan Sherwood Strauss was rewatching a second round game from the 1993 NBA playoffs. Shawn Kemp's Seattle SuperSonics vs. Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets. Game seven. Overtime. Hakeem has the ball in the closing moments of the game. And suddenly, Strauss spies a sixth player on the court for Houston. The refs missed the extra player and so did most everyone else for the last 19 years. Take a look for yourself...the play in question starts at 16:50:
Number 22 just wanders off the bench and into the game!
In their tandem press conferences, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, of the Miami Heat, alternate impeccably tailored suits with cardigans over shirts and ties. They wear gingham and plaid and velvet, bow ties and sweater vests, suspenders, and thick black glasses they don't need. Their colors conflict. Their patterns clash. Clothes that once stood as an open invitation to bullies looking for something to hang on the back of a bathroom door are what James now wears to rap alongside Lil Wayne. Clothes that once signified whiteness, squareness, suburbanness, sissyness, in the minds of some NBA players no longer do.
If you happen to be someone who looks at Durant, James, or Amar'e Stoudemire's Foot Locker commercials -- in which he stalks along a perilously lit basketball court wearing a letterman's cardigan, a skinny tie, and giant black glasses (his are prescription) -- and wonders how the NBA got this way, how it turned into Happy Days, you're really wondering the same thing about the rest of mainstream black culture. When did everything turn upside down? Who relaxed the rules? Is it really safe to look like Carlton Banks?
The crowd, Jordan remembered, got very quiet. That was, he said later, the moment for him. The moment, he explained, was what all Phil Jackson's Zen Buddhism stuff, as he called it, was about: how to focus and concentrate and be ready for that critical point in a game, so that when it arrived you knew exactly what you wanted to do and how to do it, as if you had already lived through it. When it happened, you were supposed to be in control, use the moment, and not panic and let the moment use you. Jackson liked the analogy of a cat waiting for a mouse, patiently biding its time, until the mouse, utterly unaware, finally came forth.
The play at that instant, Jordan said, seemed to unfold very slowly, and he saw everything with great clarity, as Jackson had wanted him to: the way the Utah defense was setting up, and what his teammates were doing. He knew exactly what he was going to do. "I never doubted myself," Jordan said later. "I never doubted the whole game."
When NBA history is written, my guess is that no one will be able to top what Michael Jordan accomplished on the court (Bill Russell, possibly, aside). He was a fantastic athlete and possessed the focus and discipline to make the most of his physical gifts (by which I mean he had the pathological need to completely and totally dismantle everyone else on the court: opponents, teammates, officials, etc.). Basketball is full of mostly-one-or-the-other players: Larry Bird, for example, was not particularly physically gifted but more than made up for it in discipline and Shaq is an amazing athlete but lacked a certain focus at times. Oh, you'll say, but what about: 1. LeBron (might be more talented than Jordan but is missing the necessary clinical insanity that Jordan had) or 2. Kobe (slightly less talented and driven, but might make up for it with longevity).
But to be fair, the shot against Russell was not the final shot of Jordan's career. After that article was written, in 1998, Jordan returned to the NBA for two lackluster seasons with the Washington Wizards. His last NBA shot was a free throw in the final two minutes of a meaningless 107-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Acting on the orders of his coach Larry Brown, Sixers guard Eric Snow fouled Jordan so that Jordan could score some points and leave the game on a high note. The Wizards fouled shortly after and Jordan left to a standing ovation. The intensity that propelled Jordan to such great heights early in his career also drove him to retire too early (twice!) and then come back after it was too late to put an odd sort of question mark on an exclamation point of a career. (via jb)
Former NBA player, shot blocker extraordinaire, and humanitarian Manute Bol died over the weekend at age 47. He died of a rare skin condition caused by a medication he took while in Africa.
"You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he's so tall and awkward," Charles Barkley, a former 76ers teammate, once said. "But I'll tell you this -- if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it's a world I'd want to live in."
Ken Arneson emailed me to say that he heard the phrase was first used by the Sudanese immigrant basketball player Manute Bol, believed to have been a native speaker of Dinka (a very interesting and thoroughly un-Indo-Europeanlike language of the Nilo-Saharan superfamily). Says Arneson, "I first heard the phrase here in the Bay Area when Bol joined the Golden State Warriors in 1988, when several Warriors players started using the phrase." And Ben Zimmer's rummaging in the newspaper files down in the basement of Language Log Plaza produced a couple of early 1989 quotes that confirm this convincingly:
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10, 1989: When he [Manute Bol] throws a bad pass, he'll say, "My bad" instead of "My fault," and now all the other players say the same thing.
USA Today, Jan. 27, 1989: After making a bad pass, instead of saying "my fault," Manute Bol says, "my bad." Now all the other Warriors say it too.
Update: As a recent post on Language Log notes, several people picked up on this and kinda sorta got rid of the "may have" and the story became that Bol absolutely coined the phrase "my bad". Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't support that theory (although it doesn't entirely disprove it either). The internet is so proficient at twisting the original meaning of things as they propagate that Telephone should really be called Internet.
Conventional wisdom seems to regard foul management as a risk vs. safety decision. You will constantly hear something like, "a big decision here, whether to risk putting Duncan back in with 4 fouls." This is completely the wrong lens for the problem, since the "risky"* strategy is, with the caveats mentioned, all upside! Coaches dramatically underrate the "risk" of falling behind, or losing a lead, by sitting a star for too long. To make it as stark as possible, observe that the coach is voluntarily imposing the penalty that he is trying to avoid, namely his player being taken out of the game! The most egregious cases are when a player sits even though his team is significantly behind. I almost feel as though the coach prefers the certainty of losing to the "risk" of the player fouling out.
1. Teams down by 2 late are most likely to take a 2 point shot, while teams down by 3 will most often take a 3 point shot. The team's choices make ties a likely outcome.
2. A Tie is a stable equilibrium, while other scores aren't. If a team leads with the ball, they will be fouled, preventing the game from ending on that score. IF a team has the ball with a tie, they'll usually be allowed to wait and take the last shot, either winning the game or leaving it as a tie.
Even the world's best pros are so consumed with avoiding bogeys that they make putts for birdie discernibly less often than identical-length putts for par, according to a coming paper by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. After analyzing laser-precise data on more than 1.6 million Tour putts, they estimated that this preference for avoiding a negative (bogey) more than gaining an equal positive (birdie) -- known in economics as loss aversion -- costs the average pro about one stroke per 72-hole tournament, and the top 20 golfers about $1.2 million in prize money a year.
The lack of college experience also means that you probably have less of a chance to have a conversation with a Finals player about English lit or political science. For instance, if you're a reporter, maybe you don't ask for thoughts from modern players on the Gaza Strip or Abdul Nasser, or whether they read Chuck Pahlaniuk's new book. These guys lead sheltered lives that really aren't that interesting. Back in the seventies, you could go out to dinner with three of the Knicks -- let's say, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier -- and actually have a fascinating night. Which three guys would you pick on the Magic or Lakers? I guess Fisher would be interesting, and I always heard Odom was surprisingly thoughtful. I can't come up with a third. So I'd say that the effects are more in the "didn't really have any experiences outside being a basketball player" sense.
The Kobe/Shaq clip is worth a closer look because although the NBA picked this clip because it represents a dramatic moment in the NBA playoffs involving two of the best players in history on a storied team, what it actually shows is how dysfunctional Shaq and Kobe's relationship was even then, in their first championship season.
Bryant creates 95% of the offense here by crossing Pippen over and throwing a perfect lob to O'Neal. O'Neal throws it down and the camera follows him as he heads down the court yelling in celebration, totally blowing right past Kobe, who has his hand out to high-five Shaq. Kobe half-heartedly grabs at O'Neal's forearm as he passes; Shaq doesn't even notice. From his celebration, you'd think Shaq had made an amazing play, but Kobe made that whole thing happen. And if you look at the box score for the game, it was clearly Bryant's game: he had 25 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocks to O'Neal's 18/9/5/1.
The unedited clip of the play1 shows an awkward ending to this awkward moment. After celebrating with the Laker bench, Shaq looks for Kobe and the two finally acknowledge the play together. But it's a brief moment; they slap hands and go their separate ways, foreshadowing Shaq's departure four years later.
 What's also striking about the clip is that it shows just how much Kobe has improved the mechanics of his game since then. Even though he makes a great play here, he's still got those jittery feet that characterized his early career, at times looking like a dog skittering around on freshly polished linoleum. Any stuttering footwork is now long gone, replaced by the silkiest and smoothest of movement. ↩
From a few days ago on TrueHoop, a lengthy debate about who is the better player: LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. LeBron has the statistical dominance but Kobe's game is the prettiest.
[LeBron] just doesn't move like the best basketball player in the world. Put almost any part Kobe Bryant's game in super slow motion, and you'll see beauty. Every little part of his game is refined, perfected, tested and honed ... Put LeBron James clips in super slow motion, and you're liable to find things here and there that he could do a little better. That footwork, that release, that way that he walks a little bit like a duck. There is a cognitive leap. Could the best basketball player in the world have noticeable flaws?
There's also an interesting argument in there that LeBron's game is such that it's very difficult to say why he's so good other than, well, just look at him play! In the same way, LeBron is difficult for kids to imitate on the playground whereas Kobe's catalog of moves are easy to imitate but difficult to get perfect to the extent that Kobe has.
Let's wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he's still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel's amp. He alternated between "9" and "10" in the regular season, and he's been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can't shake the feeling that he has an "11" in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that's it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It's a whole other ball game: You aren't just beating teams, you're destroying their will. You never know when you'll see another 11. I'm just glad we're here. End of tangent.)
I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They've got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.
I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team's name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don't think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.
Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic -- like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad -- you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can't-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.
Did you notice all the lens flares in Star Trek? JJ Abrams' rationale for them -- he refers to them as "another actor" in the movie -- is pretty interesting.
I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame. The flares weren't just happening from on-camera light sources, they were happening off camera, and that was really the key to it. I want [to create] the sense that, just off camera, something spectacular is happening. There was always a sense of something, and also there is a really cool organic layer thats a quality of it.
The result is supposed to be funny but I thought it also somewhat validated Abrams' remarks above. (via snarkmarket & waxy)
Henry Jenkins and Snarkmarket also address my biggest problem with the movie, that the cadet-to-captain thing happened way too quickly to Kirk and his crew. Jenkins' contention is that the new movie treats the Enterprise as a start-up company; Tim adds this gem of a line:
But it's not academia; it's the NBA. You give these kids the ball.
So, which NBA player is Kirk supposed to be? While not an exact comparison, I'm going to say that Kirk is Tony Parker to Spock's Tim Duncan. And Scotty = Manu Ginobli?
His 18-year NBA career ended Tuesday night with a gruesome knee injury midway through his 1,297th game. He left the floor on a stretcher after every single teammate had surrounded him on the floor. That gesture spoke volumes about what they thought of him. He's the funniest, smartest professional athlete you will ever meet.
Aside from the finger wagging, I always liked Mutombo. Back when I still watched college ball, Georgetown was my team and it was a lot of fun seeing Alonzo Mourning and Mutombo block all those shots. (via truehoop)
I need to make more time to read Bill Simmons' column each week. His NBA MVP picks are an informative hoot. (Informative Hoot happens to be on the shortlist of possible alternate names for kottke.org.)
Some may argue that the true window to win a title began when Jerry Sloan took over as head coach [of the Utah Jazz] during the 1988-89 season, and while Karl Malone and John Stockton had been paired up since the 1985-86 season, the Jazz did not make it to the Western Conference Finals until 1992. That's when they became title contenders. As we all know, Stockton's career consisted of dishing out over 15,800 assists, which is over 5,000 assists more than Mark Jackson, who is 2nd on the NBA's all-time assists list. Karl Malone, meanwhile, went on to finish 2nd on the NBA's all-time scoring list. To have that kind of talent for so long and not come away with a title is almost unimaginable, if not crushing to a franchise. The window came to an abrupt close in 2003, when Stockton retired and Malone went to the Lakers in a last-ditch effort to win a title. The ultimate kicker? Between 1991 and 2003, Utah's 632 wins were the most in the NBA.
TrueHoop recently investigated a seemingly simple aspect of the NBA game: the traveling violation.
The question is basic: If you're dribbling the ball in the NBA, and you pick up your dribble ... how many steps can you take before you have broken the traveling rules? It's a fundamental part of the game. But I asked several NBA players, and the answers were far from simple.
The consistency of free-throw percentages stands out when contrasted with field-goal shooting over all. In men's college basketball, field-goal percentage was below 40 percent until 1960, then climbed steadily to 48.1 in 1984, still the highest on record. The long-range 3-point shot was introduced in 1986, and the overall shooting percentage has settled in at about 44 percent.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's amazing that with so much at stake in the NBA game (wins, money, championships, glory), there are still players whose FT% is in the 50-60% range over the course of a season...for a shot that undefended and never changes! I wonder how the putting percentages have changed over the years in golf (if they even keep such statistics). The Times' Room for Debate blog has a related discussion on unbreakable sports records.
Okay, so you've all seen Wilt and Oscar's numbers from 1962... but have you ever sat down and looked at the league averages that year? In '62, the average team took 107.7 shots per game. By comparison, this year the average team takes 80.2 FGA/G. If we use a regression to estimate turnovers & offensive rebounds, the league pace factor for 1962 was 125.5 possessions/48 minutes, whereas this year it's 91.7. Oscar's Royals averaged 124.7 poss/48, while Wilt's Warriors put up a staggering 129.7 (the highest mark in the league). On the other hand, the 2009 Cavs are averaging a mere 89.2 poss/48. It turns out that the simplest explanation for the crazy statistical feats of 1961-62 (and the early sixties in general) is just that the league was playing at a much faster tempo in those days, with more possessions affording players more opportunities to amass gaudy counting statistics.
Michael Lewis cast his Moneyball lens on basketball in this week's NY Times Magazine. The Billy Beane of the roundball story, more or less, is Shane Battier, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Battier doesn't seem like a great basketball player, but he does a lot of little things that helps his team win.
Battier's game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse -- often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates' rebounding. He doesn't shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.'s most prolific scorers, he significantly ¬≠reduces their shooting percentages.
Battier sounds like an intriguing fellow but the most interesting part of the article is about how the players' incentives differ in basketball from other major American sports.
There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group. On the baseball field, it would be hard for a player to sacrifice his team's interest for his own. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one: by doing what's best for himself, the player nearly always also does what is best for his team. "There is no way to selfishly get across home plate," as Morey puts it. "If instead of there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hit every single time and damage the efficiency of the team -- that would be the analogy. Manny Ramirez can't take at-bats away from David Ortiz. We had a point guard in Boston who refused to pass the ball to a certain guy."
No wonder it's so hard to build a basketball team with the right balance of skills and personalities. Take five guys, put them on a court, let them do whatever they think they need to do to get a larger contract next year, and maybe you get some pretty good results. Now, consider a situation where the plus/minus statistic is the basis for player salaries and all of sudden, players need to figure out how they can make the other four guys on the floor better. And while everyone is making adjustments to each others' games, each player is adjusting to everyone else's game, and the process becomes this fragile and intricate nonlinear dance that results in either beautiful chaos or the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.
When the Seattle Supersonics up and moved to Oklahoma to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sonics fan John Moe became a fan free agent. He arranged recruiting calls and visits with several teams around the league to see if they would have him.
So was he welcoming me aboard then?
"I am absolutely welcoming you into our franchise. We could use some [Timberwolves] fans right now. You're part of the blueprint. Absolutely."
I thanked him for the offer but told him I had other teams to talk to.
John Gruber, the sorest winner on the web when it comes to sports or Apple, points out that I was wrong in my prediction that the Lakers would win the NBA Finals this year. I didn't actually care about the series either way...but after rooting for him in Minnesota for all those years, it sure is great to see Kevin Garnett win a championship.
I was also wrong about Paul Pierce. I never liked him as a player; thought he was soft, lazy, & petulant, settled for the outside shot too much, and just didn't have what it took to be his team's star player. He's put all that behind him; in this series, Pierce showed that he's definitely one of the top players in the league, deserving of his accolades. Count me among the number of Paul Pierce fans.
"The main functional characteristic of mirror neurons is that they become active both when the monkey makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object or holding it) and when it observes another individual making a similar action." In other words, these peculiar cells mirror, on our inside, the outside world; they enable us to internalize the actions of another. They collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.
This suggests that when I watch Kobe glide to the basket for a dunk, a few deluded cells in my premotor cortex are convinced that I, myself, am touching the rim. And when he hits a three pointer, my mirror neurons light up as I've just made the crucial shot. They are what bind me to the game, breaking down that 4th wall separating fan from player. I'm not upset because my team lost: I'm upset because it literally feels like I lost, as if I had been on the court.
The NBA Finals start tonight, pitting the LA Lakers against the Boston Celtics. Despite having finished with the best regular season record in the league, the Celtics find themselves underdogs against the Lakers, who ripped through the tough Western conference bracket with little difficulty. I'm going with the majority on this one: Lakers in six games (possibly even five) and continued heartbreak for New England fans after the high of the Red Sox's second World Series victory last season.
Sportswriters and pundits, on the other hand, are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard.
At first, the idea was to shoot on different mediums -- camera phone, 8-millimeter, 16-millimeter (the eventual choice), security footage. My idea was the city was watching me. The genesis was a lot of people film me or take a picture of me in the city on cellphones. If it's such an appetite to see me do normal things, it was an idea to do something people like.
LeBron James dropped 50 points on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last night to chants of MVP from the New York crowd. It's good to be the king.
Update: Did you see the buzzer beating three pointer at the end of the first quarter?! He shot it almost from mid-court, floating left. It looked effortless. It was almost like Jordan's game ending shot against the Jazz in game six of the '98 Finals, but, again, from almost mid-court.
For the first time since 1982, an NBA team has won a game protest and the next time the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat meet, they'll replay the final 51.9 seconds of the disputed game before playing the scheduled full game.
The legend of touching the top of the backboard has gone on for years, and it has been excitedly attributed to so many different players that it's commonly assumed any number of guys in the NBA can do it. But in a sport where any individual achievement is promoted ad nauseam, we've never seen any proof of it actually being done.
My first and second years in the N.B.A., I used to get really nervous in a tight game. But now I wait for that moment when things are really close -- that's what I really love. Having the ball in my hands and the responsibility makes me feel calm and open. Not to have that, not to get to that point in a game, would feel really...really confining.
I also liked how he involved not-so-good players on his college team:
If he had a guy on the right wing in transition who he knew couldn't shoot the ball, he'd throw a pass that was just good enough to include the guy in the fast break, but just bad enough that the guy wasn't in a position to get off a shot and would have to pass the ball back.
At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person's unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being -- who had recovered, by standard measures -- told very similar tales about their experiences.
They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.
"The story is one of victorious battle: 'I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,'" Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.
The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:
In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students' essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.
"What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you're feeling upset," instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study's lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.
But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren't external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that's not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.
The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects' mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.
Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women's health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.
Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson's training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:
"Let me tell you about Allen's workouts," says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. "All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we'll be on our way to the game and he'll be quiet as hell. Finally, he'll say, 'You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I'm gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I'm gonna kill 'em with it all night long.' And damned if he didn't do just that. See, that's his workout, when he's just sitting there, thinking. That's him working on his game."
What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he's done something that he hasn't, that he's practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)
Carol Dweck's research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:
At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite -- the determination to master new things and surmount challenges -- lay in people's beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn't tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.
For some people, the facade they've created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:
He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as "stage dread," a sort of "paradigm shift." He says, "It's not 'Look at me - I'm flying.' It's 'Look at me - I might fall.' It would be like playing a game of chess where you're constantly regretting the moves you've already played rather than looking at the ones you're going to play." Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.
"Until now, it's been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it's about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness," Vogel said.
The findings suggest that despite the brain's astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn't get through the day -- or through life -- if we didn't repress much of it.
Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market...where are the self-hurt books?
But the real gold here is Reisner's research on baseball...a must-see for baseball and infographics nerds alike. Regarding the home run discussion on the post about Ken Griffey Jr. a few weeks ago, Reisner offers this graph of career home runs by age for a number of big-time sluggers. You can see the trajectory that Griffey was on before he turned 32/33 and how A-Rod, if he stays healthy, is poised to break any record set by Bonds. His article on Baseball Geography and Transportation details how low-cost cross-country travel made it possible for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to move to California. The same article also riffs on how stadiums have changed from those that fit into urban environments (like Fenway Park) to more symmetric ballfields built in suburbs and other open areas accessible by car.
The goal here is not to duplicate excellent resources like Total Baseball or The Baseball Encyclopedia, but to take the same data and present it in a way that shows different relationships, yields new insights, and raises new questions. The focus is on putting single season stats in a historical context and identifying the truly outstanding player seasons, not just those with big raw numbers.
Reisner's primary method of comparing players over different eras is the z-score, a measure of how a player compares to their contemporaries, (e.g. the fantastic seasons of Babe Ruth in 1920 and Barry Bonds in 2001):
In short, z-score is a measure of a player's dominance in a given league and season. It allows us to compare players in different eras by quantifying how good they were compared to their competition. It it a useful measure but a relative one, and does not allow us to draw any absolute conclusions like "Babe Ruth was a better home run hitter than Barry Bonds." All we can say is that Ruth was more dominant in his time.
I'm more of a basketball fan than of baseball, so I immediately thought of applying the same technique to NBA players, to shed some light on the perennial Jordan vs. Chamberlain vs. Oscar Robertson vs. whoever arguments. Until recently, the NBA hasn't collected statistics as tenaciously as MLB has so the z-score technique is not as useful, but some work has been done in that area.
Anyway, great stuff all the way around.
Update: Reisner's site seems to have gone offline since I wrote this. I hope the two aren't related and that it appears again soon.
Free throw shooting is one of my favorite topics. It's the whole relaxed concentration aspect of it: can you focus enough so that the years of practice undertaken to train the unconscious self to shoot override the conscious self's desire to take control of the situation at hand? To me, this battle of the two minds within the individual is the essence of sport: you know how to make the shot, you know you can make the shot, but will you make the shot? Free throw shooting lays this battle bare for all to see. It's the same shot every single time (and the easiest way to score a point in sports), you don't have to be in top physical shape to shoot it, and yet a surprising amount of professional basketball players can't make more than every two out of three attempts.
So, as for Gene Weingarten's assertion (via truehoop) that if an average person took a year to practice, he could beat the best free throw shooter in the NBA, I say "hell yes". Maybe a retired podiatrist would be a worthy candidate: 71-year-old Tom Amberry shot 2,750 in a row in 1993. Amberry was a star college basketball player and was offered a contract with the Lakers after WWII, so maybe that's not fair...but just look at the guy.
Great True Hoop piece on Allen Iverson. "In other words, missed in all the hand-wringing about his lackadaisical practice habits in the NBA is the possibility that so much of his work is cerebral. Unlike, say, Jordan, who was a craftsman, someone who would take hundreds of jumpshots a day, Iverson imagines the possibility and then acts it out."
Changes in rules and enforcement for the upcoming NBA season: travelling will be called more, no more full-length leg tights, no extending your arms to gain an advantageous position in the lane before free-throws, and no more wearing rubber bands. It'll be interesting to see if the travelling calls stick...last year, I'd say an uncalled travelling violation occurred on at least 1 out of every 5 or 6 possessions. (via truehoop)
Henry Abbott reports on what he's learned about William Wesley, a behind-the-scenes power player in the business of basketball. "Enter William Wesley. How's this for a resume? He was right there in Michael Jordan's ear. The whole time. 'Wes' helped pull off one of the great feats of modern legend-making. He held the hand of one of the NBA's less likable characters -- an angry, cussing, yelling, gambling, adrenaline addict with some sort of over-competitive personality disorder -- as he became the most successful pitchman in sports history, complete with his own animated children's movie."
By the way, I've been watching the World Cup for four weeks trying to decide which NBA players could have been dominant soccer players, eventually coming to three conclusions. First, Allen Iverson would have been the greatest soccer player ever -- better than Pele, better than Ronaldo, better than everyone. I think this is indisputable, actually. Second, it's a shame that someone like Chris Andersen couldn't have been pushed toward soccer, because he would have been absolutely unstoppable soaring above the middle of the pack on corner kicks. And third, can you imagine anyone being a better goalie than Shawn Marion? It would be like having a 6-foot-9 human octopus in the net. How could anyone score on him? He'd have every inch of the goal covered. Just as a sports experiment, couldn't we have someone teach Marion the rudimentary aspects of playing goal, then throw him in a couple of MLS games? Like you would turn the channel if this happened?
Damn it. I was really pulling for the Mavericks and Nowitzki to win it. Bummer: Antoine Walker has a championship. Not so bad: Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, and Dwyane Wade have championships. And not a bad way for Shaq to celebrate his last season as a superstar.
The tragedy of Kevin Garnett. According to the Wins Produced statistic, Garnett is far and away the best player in the NBA, but his teammates have always been bad. Hopefully Garnett can find "a few co-workers who can help him achieve the recognition his performance indicates he clearly deserves".
Many basketball fans don't care for the pro game, but you'd have to be made of stone if you're not appreciating the NBA playoffs this year. Have you been watching? What a bunch of great games and series.
Round one featured an old-fashioned duel between LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas, Phoenix battling back from a 3-1 series deficit against a perplexing Lakers team (with Kobe playing team basketball!) to win, and an aging Shaquille O'Neal -- after the refs demonstrated that he was no longer good enough to bull his way through defenders in the post and not get called for offensive fouls -- going for 30 points and 20 rebounds in game six, playing a finesse game unseen from him since his college days at LSU.
And in the second round, the Clippers and Suns are going at it like cats and dogs (2 overtimes in game five, 253 total points in game 1), the defending champion Spurs are trying to come back from a 3-1 deficit to the Mavericks (3 of the games have been decided by 2 points or less and another went to overtime), and the Pistons, who by all accounts should have swept the Cavs in four, find themselves down 3-2 to a team with the best 21-year-old basketball player ever.
Despite the NBA's dogged insistence on promoting individual players as the primary reason to watch games, watching the team play has been the most compelling part of the playoffs. Detroit, Phoenix, San Antonio, the Clippers, and Dallas are great to watch on either end of the court: how a team's offense changes in response to their opponent's defense, how the defense changes to compensate for the tweaks made by the offense, and so on. I don't have a favorite team in the playoffs this year, but this is the most fun I've had watching the NBA since rooting for the Bulls in 1998. (I know, I know.)
Though the average yearly salary of the contract is $16 million, the starting salary for Allen has not yet been worked out. Allen's side has given the Sonics the freedom to structure the deal however they choose in order to allow the team to surround Allen with talent, possibly by re-signing some of their own free agents or entering the free-agent market and signing top quality players.
Although I'm sure it freaks out the agents and laywers, that concession gives Ray Allen and the Sonics a much better shot at success.
I've always wondered why so-called "franchise" players on pro teams in leagues with salary caps (particularly in the NBA, where the number of players per team is so small) don't do this type of thing more often. Well, besides the fact that their agents, who presumably work on commission, won't let them. You get a guy like Kevin Garnett, who wants to win multiple championships, give him $3-4 million less per year than he could get on the open market (so he's still making millions per year and much more in endorsements) on the condition that the #2-5 guys on the squad are also making below market level by a mil or two, and then spend that money on the bench or on a #3 guy who would be a #2 guy anywhere else in the league. Garnett wins championships, everyone on the team wins championships, everyone's endorsements go up, the team makes more money, and the profile of everyone involved is raised (higher profile = increased future earnings potential). Of course it would never work, but what if it did?
Ben Wallace, superstardom, selling out, and race in sports. "As racist as it really is, the fact that white people can walk around the Palace in fake black Afro wigs without black folks taking offense is a testament to the power of racial 'go beyond' that he has single-handedly generated."