Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

I’ve long taken issue with the work of the Wages of Wins Network, mostly in the form of twitter jabs or snide comments in the stuff I write. While the work being done on those sites is admirable, and they’re pursuing a noble goal–richer and more descriptive quantitative analysis of basketball–the prevailing no-questions-asked approach seems to fly in the face of what should be a scientific pursuit.

There’s no doubt an expanded use of advanced statistics and analysis has vastly improved out understanding of basketball. We have better ways of quantifying nearly every measurable event that occurs on the court. But we’re no closer to a Unified Theory of Basketball than physicists are to a Unified Theory of Everything, and yet the faith the WoW Network places in numbers often seems blind and absolute.

It’s one thing to insist again and again that Kevin Love is the best player in the NBA. We can talk all about the eye test offering proof that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and perhaps a few others are superior players to Love, but in the end we’re all just sharing opinions based on whatever criteria seem most appropriate. It’s quite another to assert that Green Bay, Wisconsin is incapable of supporting any professional sports team. But that’s exactly the conclusion reached by Arturo Galletti using a metric he devised to gauge a metro area’s capability of doing so. Green Bay is a casualty of a system that simply aggregates a huge amount of money and splits it into a few smaller sums. It’s Win Shares with dollars and cents in the place of rebounds and points.

If you examine the chart, you’ll see that Green Bay lands just barely on the positive side of the “Available Personal Income” divide. However, that calculation saddles Green Bay with only 30 percent of the burden for supporting the Packers. The rest falls on the already stretched thin Milwaukee metro area. In turn, that 70 percent stake in the Packers drives up Milwaukee’s “debt” and makes it the WoW’s number one candidate to have its NBA franchise relocated. If the full cost of supporting the Packers is shifted back to Green Bay, the city falls in the red. Galletti justifies the split by saying “the Packers are very much Milwaukee’s team as well”. But this is true of many franchises, particularly ones that represent a state’s only entry into a particular league. Why is Milwaukee the only one in which the calculations reflect this reality? What’s more, a 70 percent share in the Packers is outrageous. For any metric one could possibly devise, suggesting that any city other than Green Bay could bear a significant majority of the team’s “cost” is just wrong.

The scientific method places tremendous emphasis on falsifiability, and any theory that purports to be comprehensive has to hold in every case. So how have the Packers persisted in Green Bay? How can the tiniest market in the most popular sporting league in the United States compete with 31 other teams and win the Super Bowl? Because it’s about more than money. It’s about a fanbase that supports the team with greater fanaticism than any other. A fanbase that places newborn babies on a 955 year waiting list for season tickets. The Milwaukee Bucks currently lack such support. The Bucks can succeed in Milwaukee if they draft good players, make smart personnel decisions on the roster and in the front office, and play well. If they fail to do so, they will fail no matter which city they call home.


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By popular account, the Lakers got obliterated in the playoffs this year because their defense fell apart, their stars didn’t perform at star levels, and because they had no trust in each other. Those reasons all seem plausible, though perhaps in different ratios than suggested in the screenplay that is so often Lakers coverage. The stories are easier to believe when plainly visible on the court: Dallas averaged an excellent 113.8 ORtg during the second-round series; Kobe and Pau Gasol were inefficient and ineffective. But the trust issues? Those were more subtle. Scowls and body language don’t always get picked up by television cameras; sound bytes get taken out of context and overblown. Still, I don’t doubt that they exist–the personalities and relationships of the Lakers are well documented.

So did we see the same thing out of the Miami Heat? In Game 2 of the NBA Finals? Smart basketball minds had little difficulty spotting the disaster they were creating for themselves even as it was happening. “Hero ball” took over and the points stopped coming. There was no chemistry, no semblance of order or purpose, just basketball players (albeit a few very very good ones) telling everyone and each other, “I got this.” What resulted was one of the most stunning collapses/comebacks (I suppose it depends on which camp you’re in) in Finals history.

Is there writing on the walls? If so, I’d warrant the paint is still wet.

LeBron James has stirred his fair share of controversy in the NBA, and not just in the past 10 months. But trust issues? Was there ever an inkling of dissension in the ranks, at least among the players, that threatened to derail a team of his? I’ve always imagined issues on or off the court being easily remedied by each player sticking his friendship ring into a circle and giving a loud, “huzzah!” It was so visible in Cleveland. The elaborate handshakes, the choreographed introductions and celebrations, it all pointed to a tight-knit basketball commune, bearing serious resemblance to the teams of the old Soviet Union who basically grew up together. It’s a departure from Jordan’s fiery intensity that is oh so relevant in the Great Debate. LeBron is praised for his distribution as much as his scoring; he elevated players to levels hitherto unknown (if you’ll forgive the narrative standby). It was still LeBron & the rest as far as talent and responsibility were concerned, but one man does not a basketball team make.

Unfortunately, that saying still holds true for three people–two if you trust Carlos Boozer. Yet that’s exactly what the Heat turned into Thursday night. It was subtle, again, but it was amplified by its results. What was first hinted at with Dwyane Wade refusing to give the ball up to Mario Chalmers during a two-on-one (he scored anyway, for the record) rapidly evolved into a me-against-the-world approach to basketball. And it failed, miserably. Chris Bosh was essentially frozen out of the offense in the last few minutes, and while he’d had an awful offensive game to that point, he remains the Heat’s third-best player by a wide margin. LeBron and Wade mixed dribbling with stepbacks and long threes. Even on the last play of the game, Chalmers–the guy who was 6 percentage points better from behind the arc than Wade this season, and had tied the game a possession earlier–was left largely uncovered just a step behind the arc. Time constraints obviously limited his involvement, but even if there was another second or two on the clock, is anyone confident Wade would’ve given that ball up?

The top guns of the Miami Heat seemed convinced that they were the only ones who could deliver victory in Game 2. These are the same guys that won just about every game for the Heat to this point, but it didn’t come off as confident in Game 2. It came off as stubborn, arrogant even, if you prefer to read that far into things. The supporting cast in Cleveland wasn’t great, but they certainly eclipsed their Miami counterparts. Maybe that talent disparity is enough to discourage the kind of cooperation that formed the norm in Ohio? Or maybe it borne solely of confidence, perhaps overblown by the very heroics that carried Miami to where they are now. It shouldn’t matter. The Heat are headed to Dallas with a “1-1” scratched into the whiteout covering the spot where “2-0” was penned in. They’re in this situation because of something that had previously been a non-issue. That’s enough to be worried about.

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I don’t remember if I made a true “prediction” at the beginning of the year regarding the success the Miami Heat would enjoy this year. Between the two extremes of: “they’re going to steamroll the entire league” and “they’re going to be a colossal wreck,” I know I leaned toward the former, but it doesn’t matter. A lot of people said a lot of things about the Heat, about LeBron James, and about the future of the NBA in an era where players could pick their teams the way they pick vacation homes and designer watches. I’d venture roughly half of them were way off, and the other half weren’t much better. I don’t think preseason predictions are bad per se. They may not be the most informed or informative element of NBA pop-journalism, but they’re fun and they let us start talking about basketball that much earlier. I’ll readily admit to rolling my eyes at the people who roll their eyes at mock drafts published 12 months in advance, because who cares? Whose time are we wasting? What damage is it doing?

But the preseason prognostication was different this year, because LeBron James declared war on all that is good in professional sports, and it needed to be shouted from the hills! Or so you might have heard if you’d checked the internet last summer. The Miami Heat immediately became the NBA’s Evil Emperor, a looming shadow threatening to swallow up the pure, good-hearted souls and declare martial law for the next half-decade. It was the first time, I would imagine, that questions like “how many games will they win?” were interspersed with “will they destroy everything NBA fans hold dear?” Yet for all the griping and lamenting the passing of the good ol’ days, reasoned responses were there to be found. Plenty of people, probably more than one might think, acknowledged it as a basketball decision that could be explained in basketball terms. And why couldn’t it be? The only difference between the Heat’s free-agent haul and every other 2010 signing was that all three players are obvious stars. Other teams who undergo roster overhauls have to work out how everybody will play together too. They just do it without three of the most talented players in the NBA on their roster. Sure, the Heat have a weaker-than-average bench, but the impact of that disadvantage was probably overstated. The Heat are, as it turns out, just another basketball team, subject to the same rules and natural laws as any other, blessed only by the presence of three players who perform exceptionally well.

So I have to admit, I have taken immense pleasure in the Heat silencing critic after critic during these playoffs. Silence is the only appropriate response from the year-long detractors, perhaps augmented by a subtle nod. No new excuses that only became relevant within the past three weeks. No handicapping their opponents to deflate what Miami has accomplished. Just credit, where a whole mess of credit is due. Because in reality, the Heat weren’t a malevolent triumvirate heralding the end of days. They were a good-sometimes-great basketball team that excelled because they combined a ton of talent with a ton of hard work. Sure they had motivation. I don’t doubt that a nation of naysayers constantly hurtling insults–often varied only in degrees of childishness–inspired the Heat to work a little harder. But do we really think things would have been significantly different without the criticisms? Do we honestly think Miami is lacking in personal motivation?

If the Heat take this thing all the way, if they take home in a championship in the first year of this grand experiment, there will be a lot of resigned admission. Columnists will publish 800-word odysseys emoting sideways glances, grins, and muttered statements of “oh, you guys…!” Heck, it’s already begun, in the form of three hundred paragraphs devoted to Rick Reilly waving the communal white flag in valiant defeat. As if he’s doing the Heat a favor.

I’m no Heat fan. I don’t overtly cheer for them, at least not in the same way I cheer for the Bucks, or the Green Bay Packers, or whatever other team is geographically closest to my hometown. But I am smugly, maybe even arrogantly pleased with myself for respecting what they did from the very beginning. Not because it’s an accomplishment, but because I’m not stuck here worrying about eating my words for the next three months. I’m not exactly happy about the prospect of seeing the Heat dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future, but I’m willing to accept that they have soundly, completely, and legitimately earned it.

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The big guns don’t rebuild, they reload.

So goes the saying–a  bit of conventional basketball wisdom that definitely counts the Los Angeles Lakers among those big guns. Until just yesterday, it was strange to think about what would follow the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant era, if only because the end seemed far off. Maybe not in a temporal sense, but certainly in a spiritual sense, which Jackson would probably appreciate. Phil was set to retire at the end of this year regardless, but it was supposed to be graceful. Either finish his career clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy, or bow out in honorable defeat, like an old man relaxing into his favorite armchair.

It definitely wasn’t supposed to be like this. The two-time defending champs, swept under the rug? And not just swept, but exposed. Revealed for the team they were, a team that fell short of the standards to which the organization held itself. There were individual incidents, certainly, and no shortage of minor controversies to boot, but there was still pride in the Purple and Gold.

Not yesterday. Yesterday tore it apart. I can’t speak to the incidents of the past, but I am hard-pressed to believe many offences rival what Andrew Bynum (and Lamar Odom, to a lesser extent) pulled on the court Sunday. Egregious physicality aside, to see a professional athlete strip off his jersey in front of the nation like that, to cast aside his teammates and organization in such a deliberate, base manner, was honestly shocking.

This season seems to have inspired a stunning amount of personal appraisal by the public of NBA athletes. We are not party to the decision-making process of our favorite players, but we’re all deeply affected by their actions. This is simply the unavoidable truth of sports today; it is not something I intend or even desire to ignore. We can debate the merits of Derrick Rose’s humility (boring-ness?), LeBron James’s confidence (ego?), and Vince Carter’s commitment (?), but I myself often make the mistake of passing judgement on such things without any real reason to do so. These are private guys, whose positions lend motives few of us really understand. Not the case last night. Anyone who watched the Los Angeles era crumble in Dallas last night knows exactly what happened.

So where do the Lakers go from here? The LA “title window” was not as small as that of this year’s Celtics, or maybe even the Mavs. Kobe Bryant may be slowing, but he is hardly out of gas. There is still a ton of talent in LA (not even counting the Clippers), and failing to maintain rule over the NBA empire for 1,095 consecutive days isn’t really a death sentence. Accept your fate, regroup, and set out next season to reclaim the throne.

I’m not sure such a thing is possible anymore. The organization may be equipped to handle the logistics, the finances, and everything else, but Sunday’s debacle put a psychological nail in the Jackson/Bryant era coffin. If there were trust issues before, what about now? What kind of impact does the utter breakdown of a team from defending champs to disgraced flameout have? I would trust a figure like Jackson to guide a team through it, but will he be there to do it? I trust Kobe’s dedication to winning to put everything else aside in its interest, but Kobe can’t do this alone anymore.

Even if the summer gives this team a chance to repair itself, will anyone accept it? This is hardly the Malice at the Palace, but it seems like events like this stand as a point-of-no-return. There’s no going back to the way things were. When that means leaving behind a legacy of champions, where do you go? In truth, I have no idea. But I will be surprised if the same team, or even one similar, trots out on the court when next season begins. It’s simply too hard to play basketball carrying this kind of emotional baggage.

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I’ve been a fan of Wisconsin Basketball longer than I’ve been a fan of most anything else. Back when I was drinking milk out of little paper cartons and going outside to play between math and reading, I was a Wisconsin Basketball fan. It was my first real love in the world of sports. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where I truly hated Wisconsin Basketball.

I admit, Wisconsin doesn’t play a particularly aesthetic brand of basketball. I won’t make the mistake of equating beauty with effectiveness, because there is simply no way to argue with the consistent success this team has achieved: 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, stellar home record, plus a handful of Big Ten Titles. Every year it seems there’s no way the Badgers can continue that streak, or compete with a steadily improving Big Ten, and yet by season’s end they’ve battled their way to the top of the standings. Maybe not always the tip-top, but certainly not down in the basement. Impressive, no doubt, but the ride there isn’t always scenic.

Still, as long as I’ve been a student at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve found plenty to complain about. I wish Wisconsin would recruit more, and it kills me when top Wisconsin prospects leave the state. As good as this team is at holding a lead, I don’t think they can play from behind very well. As good a coach as Bo Ryan is, his dedication to a system sometimes limits the potential of his individual players, and when the system doesn’t work in a particular game, I don’t think he’s a great adjustment maker.

In that respect, this season was no different. Despite near record-breaking shooting from the free-throw line, the Badgers weren’t particularly good at getting there. The defense, while still good, wasn’t as strong as years past. And the player I had convinced myself was the best NBA prospect Wisconsin had seen in some time, Jon Leuer, turned out to be only the second-best player on the team for much of the year, overshadowed by Jordan Taylor’s spectacular play. Yet for all that, I again couldn’t question the results. For much of the season, Wisconsin was the best offensive team in the nation, eventually settling in second behind Ohio State. They finished third in the Big Ten, easily one of the top two conferences in the nation.

That’s exactly what made last night’s Sweet 16 loss to Butler so tough. On the surface, it was the same old loss to a mid-major that has ended Wisconsin’s season so many times recently. This wasn’t a typical Wisconsin loss due to some systemic flaw in the game plan, though. The Badgers matched up across the floor with the Bulldogs, and their statistical resume was superior nearly across the board. This was a completely disastrous single-game performance, plain and simple. Wisconsin could not for the life of them get the ball through the rim. The Badgers actually played reasonably good defense, holding Butler to under a point per possession. Despite the continual protesting from media members, they didn’t “settle” for jumpers. Nearly every shot Wisconsin took came from a reasonably efficient zone on the floor: either behind the three-point line or within about 10 feet of the basket. That didn’t lessen the frustration that flooded my veins every time a Jon Leuer hook shot bounced across the back of the rim or a Jordan Taylor three went long. It was a head-scratching loss, a performance that would have blindsided everyone had it not happened against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago. The excellent Big Ten Geek’s Blog points out a sad fact:

Twice this season Wisconsin has posted an effective field goal percentage under 40.0.  The first time was when the team scored 33 points against Penn State in the slowest game between Division I foes in some 13 years.  The second time was last night.

The Badgers played Wisconsin basketball last night, but picked a bad time of year to become wildly inconsistent with their shooting. The same guy who single-handedly dragged Wisconsin to victory over the nation’s top team during the regular season completely fell apart. The fourth-year senior who could have played his way into the first round of the NBA Draft was a mess. Few things went right, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. As a Wisconsin basketball fan, I’m pretty familiar with low expectations, and I’m almost as familiar with seeing the team exceed them. But last night, I expected a Wisconsin victory. If that was a mistake on my part, it’s a sad commentary on the state of this program. Either way, thinking about what should have been sucks a lot more than thinking about what could have been.

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Value seems like the buzzword of the hour. The focus on ascribing some definitive number to every part of a team’s construction and performance has become measurable, visible in the databases filled with box scores and batted-ball spray charts. Suddenly even casual sports fans have trouble navigating the culture of their favorite teams without encountering some formulation of acronyms stuck to the front of a “-metric” suffix. Some (though perhaps fewer and fewer) lament the passing of days where a complete understanding of sports required no knowledge of regression analysis. While public opinion might not always follow along with willful enthusiasm, remember that the original motivation behind “advanced metrics” was to achieve a deeper understanding of what constituted success. Doing so proved an exceptional method of winning, a common goal for both the front-office brains and the fans who watched unorthodox methodology deliver the same result they always hoped for. Winning, after all, was the ultimate goal for everyone involved, and this value-based system was simply the latest tool.

The numbers sum up everything. They don’t value rough-and-tumble defensive stoppers, they value low defensive ratings. They don’t value 30-point scorers (er, kinda), they value 16 points on 10 shots. Sure, that’s overstating and oversimplifying things too much, but there’s a reason efficiency gets all the face-time these days. Efficiency gets results on the cheap. Efficiency doesn’t blow leads or hog the ball. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done. Efficiency gives owners what they want: value.

One could say, then, that value is just little bits of winning. We grant that a player is valuable because the things he does help his team by a (reasonably) determinable amount. The only reason the numbers want Kevin Love to grab a rebound is because it has some specific value which, accumulated in high enough numbers, will help earn his team a win. It’s a mildly harsh reality, reducing the actions we see to parts of a sum, but it’s one that more and more people are warming to, myself included. I’m happy to grant that per-possession statistics are far more valuable than their per-game counterparts, or that protecting scoring opportunities is exceedingly important in winning basketball games. I’ll happily agree with anyone who says that maximizing the value of those shot attempts is an important factor in winning a basketball game, and that high-volume shooters might actually be deviously undermining their team’s success.

Given all that, it would appear I have managed to convince myself that I am kidding myself when it comes to Brandon Jennings. When Jennings fell just shy of a triple-double in his first career game, it jolted me out of my chair. When he dropped 55 points on the Warriors two weeks later, it sold me. It sold me so well that even as Jennings fell back to Earth over the next few months, I remained stoutly convinced that he was the future of professional basketball where I was concerned. Following that season, I started writing this site under a name inspired by his performance, even as doubts over whether it was all a cruel joke grew in my mind.

If you’re looking for an understatement, let me say that Brandon Jennings has experienced a drop-off since those torrid first weeks of his rookie season, to the point where there are times when the Milwaukee Bucks win in spite of him, rather than thanks to him. As that first season rolled along, it pained me to see criticisms of the team, identifying the frequent nights when Jennings would “shoot Milwaukee out of the game.” Why was I so affected by such scorn? After all, the number-disciple in me sided with the critics. I had no vested interest in Jennings outside his role as the starting point guard for my favorite team. I had no affiliation with the team beyond  that of a particularly interested fan, but I hated that every shot taken by Jennings would invariably lead to some shot taken at him. Yet through it all, my enthusiasm for his play never waned. It was cognitive dissonance wearing a #3 jersey. Screw value, I thought. Efficiency be damned, this kid is fun.

Is that irresponsible? Probably. Professional basketball is a business, where personal attachments only count for as long as they’re convenient. If Tim Duncan wasn’t the greatest power forward who ever lived, he probably wouldn’t have stayed in San Antonio his entire career. Draft picks staying with the same team for a full career isn’t exactly the norm. Is Jennings good enough to warrant the title of “Franchise Point Guard” in Milwaukee? That’s not a decision to be left up to me. But I can attest that Bucks basketball hasn’t been the same since Brandon Jennings joined the squad. He brought with him the most exciting performance and season in years. He has a dramatic flair and unquenchable attitude. Despite his undeniable struggles, when he has the ball in his hands, I always feel like something really, really cool could happen. Don’t tell me there isn’t value in that.

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I was reading the latest article up on Hardwood Paroxysm, regarding the infamous “long 2” and it’s role in offensive and defensive efficiency, and was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between above- and below-average defensive teams and the percentage of long 2s they force opponents to take. As described in the article, the correlation between forcing long 2s and better defensive efficiency seems much stronger in below-average defensive teams than the elite defensive teams. Why is that? Why does forcing long 2s suddenly become less important when you start talking about the best defenses in the NBA?

I’d warrant that the key difference is this: the best defensive teams in the NBA don’t always need to force long 2s. The conventional wisdom (and, by extension, the statistical framework) doesn’t apply equally to good defensive teams. That sounds illogical, though. If long 2s are indeed the least valuable shots in the NBA, why would any team not pursue the advantage of forcing opponents into those shots?

Let’s not blind ourselves by looking exclusively at numbers. Consider those teams in the “elite” defensive efficiency range. Each has the benefit of a standout defensive player or players, an exceptional defensive system, or most likely a combination of both. San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Orlando has Dwight Howard, Boston has Garnett/Rondo, Cleveland had LeBron. Milwaukee has a great system plus perennial DPOY-snub Andrew Bogut. The Lakers have a great coach and a bunch of good defenders. Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Miami all had solid defensive schemes and players in place.

The point is – and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch – those teams all have factors contributing to their defense that are far more important than opponent shot distributions. In improperly-applied mathematical terms, the defensive efficiency of above-average teams is more a function of their own ability than their opponent’s shot selection. Meanwhile, those teams who can’t (or don’t) play high-caliber defense are far more subject to the performance of their opponents. Conceivably, the efficiency rankings for those below-average teams are a result of which teams randomly gave up more high- vs. low-percentage shots. Obviously this isn’t the exclusive factor – we can all agree that basketball is more complex than just shot selection, and we would expect the graph to be perfectly correlated in such a one-variable system. But the correlation is strong enough to suggest that affecting shot selection is a useful defensive technique. It is, however, still subject to an occasional hot-shooting night from the opponent.

In Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver explains how inconsistency tends to drag teams toward a .500 record. The discrepancy in HP’s graph suggests that the best defensive teams avoid such inconsistency by excelling at factors that are easier to control. Maybe they have a good shot-blocker, or they defend pick-and-rolls well. If you imagine an idealized team that blocks a very high percentage of shots at the rim, it might even be advantageous to funnel opponents inside, rather than forcing long 2s. The point is, good defenses force opponents to conform to a game-plan that favors the defender. Teams who can’t do this tend to perform better when opponents shoot bad shots. Thus, the best teams can play effective defense independent of opponent shot selections.

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