Month: February 2012

NBA All-Star Game

Jeremy Evans won the dunk contest. I don't know who he is either.

For the first time since 1980, I missed the NBA All-Star Game. Yes, I had stuff to do, but I’ve had stuff to do other times when the ASG was played and I always found time to watch. Or I recorded it and watched later.

There are a few factors contributing to the drop-off in my personal interest this year.

I’m a Wizards fan and the team is dreck. Of course, I’ve been a Wizards/Bullets fan since the late 1970s, so that probably isn’t all that big a deal.

All-Star Saturday night festivities were a drag. The problem: a lack of enthusiasm from the participants. The shooting stars contest is sorta fun because fans get to see a retired player participate. Although, I’m more than weary of the league trying to force-feed me the WNBA. At least the participants seem to be having fun.

The “skills” competition is tedious because the players are all going half speed — if that fast. The only redeeming thing about it this year was the youngsters who had a chance to win big scholarship money if their player won. But, I couldn’t help but wonder how those kids must have felt as they watched their assigned players jog through the course. Yeah, I’m sure it was a thrill to be on the floor. I’m sure it was fun to meet the guys. But, wouldn’t it have been nice to see these guys go hard and actually try to win?

The three-point contest was okay, but nothing special or memorable happened. There was no Craig Hodges knocking down 19 shots in a row. The ties were fun, I guess. At least it threw some mystery into the proceedings.

The dunk contest was painful. I watched for one reason and one reason only — my son wanted to see how bad it was going to be. When they announced the contestants I seriously wondered if the league was trying to kill the contest completely.

The contest this year was won by someone I’d never heard of — and I’m as hardcore a basketball fan as you’ll find. If the league can’t get stars (or at least near stars) to participate, they should just cancel the dunk contest. Jeremy Evans, Chase Budinger, Paul George and Derrick Williams are probably nice people. They might even be good basketball players one day. But I don’t want to see any of them in the dunk contest.

How much more entertaining would the night have been if the contestants had been Dwight Howard, Lebron James, JaVale McGee and Blake Griffin?

And I’m SICK of the whining about these stars needing rest. Because it underscores exactly what’s wrong with All-Star weekend. It highlights why I made zero effort to watch the game. It explains why I watched Saturday night ONLY because my son wanted to watch.

It used to be that the game’s biggest stars loved All-Star weekend. Magic, Isiah, Bird, Barkley — they loved being in the All-Star game. They wanted to play. They wanted to put on a show for fans. They wanted to compete for bragging rights. It meant something to them.

For most of today’s players, it seems to be a nuisance. It’s something that prevents them from getting a mid-season rest.

I’m not sure when “rest” became so all important to elite athletes at the peak of physical condition. Think about this: when the ABA held its first dunk contest, it did so during halftime of their All-Star game. The contestants were the All-Stars themselves — guys who were playing in the game. When the contest was over, the game resumed.

And yet, Lebron James and Dwight Howard are apparently too precious and delicate to complete three dunks the night before the game. And then the league wants to wonder why folks like me are losing interest.

 

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Era Translations: Oscar Robertson and Lebron James

When people try to compare players across eras in the NBA, they inevitably run up against the reality that the game has changed in fundamental ways. At the most basic level, teams shoot a lot less — but at a better percentage than they did in the 1960s.

In 1961-62, Wilt Chamberlain famously averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire season, but in a league that averaged 8619 field goal attempts per team. Last season, the league averaged 6660 FGA per team — about 23% fewer shot attempts. In 61-62, the league shot 42.9% from the floor. In 10-11, the league shot 45.9%.

That means an extra 600+ missed shots available for rebound in Wilt’s era. Another 600+ assist opportunities (although assists were awarded less liberally back then).

So, do we just give up? Do we trot out the old, “You just can’t compare eras…” trope?

No.

Definitely no. 

Positively no.

Decidedly no.

Nuh-uh.

Inspired by a question from my son, I dusted off my era translator spreadsheet and took a look at Oscar Robertson and Lebron James. My method is simple (at least I think so). It looks at a player’s share of his own team’s production and then applies that share to a hypothetical team’s production — in a different era. I swear it’s simpler than it sounds.

Let’s take Oscar Robertson’s monster 1961-62 season. This is the year the Big O averaged a triple-double for the year — 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. Another way of looking at those numbers is to say that Robertson scored 25% of his team’s points, grabbed 17% of his team’s rebounds, and dealt 42% of his team’s assists.

Apply those percentages to the average team in the 2011-12 NBA, and we get per game averages of 24.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists. Not a triple-double, but still a monster player — a Lebron James-esque figure in today’s NBA.

So, what happens if we go the other direction and translate Lebron’s stats to Oscar Robertson’s team in 1961-62?

This year for Miami, Lebron has scored 26% of the points, grabbed 18% of the rebounds, and delivered 31% of the assists. Translation: 32.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in Oscar’s era.

And there you have it — players compared across eras. Not by comparing skills or imagining what Lebron would be like if he was transported via time machine back to 1961, or what Robertson would be like if he’d been born in 1984 like Lebron. Instead, look at each player’s relative contributions to his own team and compare their relative dominance over the players of each player’s own era. Those impacts can be compared.

And in that comparison we can see that Lebron has an Oscar-like impact on today’s game. Kinda cool if you ask me.

Should Basketball Players Be Evaluated Behind A Screen?

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of high-level music auditions. It seems that for eons, those who ran the music world thought that women didn’t have the strength to perform in orchestras. Women were deemed not to have sufficient strength to play certain piano compositions — and to lack the lung capacity and lips to compete with men on brass and woodwind instruments.

In the 1960s, leaders of the music world finally implemented The Screen. Where the auditioning musicians once walked onto a stage or into a room in full view of the judges, they began auditioning from behind a literal screen that prevented judges from seeing who was playing. Instead of assessing auditioners based on visual cues like race, gender, height or attractiveness, judges were forced to focus exclusively on the sound coming from the instrument. In most trials, the musician auditioning was not permitted to even speak.

What happened? The number of women winning auditions quintupled. The very first time the Metropolitan Opera in New York had blind auditions, they were seeking four violinists. Women won all four spots.

I’m reminded of Gladwell’s story by the recent stellar play from Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. As you can see from the picture above, Lin is of Asian descent. And let’s face it — there haven’t been many Asian-American NBA players in history. I’ve been following the NBA since the late 70s, and I can’t remember even one. The only Asian players to reach the NBA I can recall are bigs from overseas (like Yao Ming).

We all know what basketball players look like, and Lin doesn’t fit the mold. Except that he’s 6-3 with long arms, and that he’s quick, and that he has good speed, and that he can jump a little.

Thrust into the starting lineup by injuries to other players, Lin has performed spectacularly. Nate Silver found 41 players who had similar results to Lin in their first four starts, and concludes that Lin is no fluke. The “screened” eye of stats suggests that Lin is likely to be a solid NBA player — at worst.

How did EVERYONE miss on a player who looks this good? How did Golden State and stat-savvy Houston decide to cut him? How did at least two pro teams take a smart, athletic, skilled player and dump him when he almost certainly could have helped either team?

I’m not about to accuse either franchise of overt anti-Asian discrimination. But I do believe that prejudice played a role in their evaluations of Lin as a player. Not in a conscious, “Asian people can’t play basketball” way, but at the deep-down, subconscious implicit bias level. He doesn’t look “right” to folks who have been conditioned for decades to “know” what good basketball players look like.

And by the way, I don’t think Lin’s ethnicity is the only “blinder” at work in his case. NBA talent evaluators have long overlooked offensive efficiency as a critical factor. The ability to shoot the ball with accuracy lags on the priority list behind height, speed and leaping ability. Never mind intelligence and skill — what’s the guy’s vertical? What’s his standing reach? A great athlete can “develop” the skills and learn the game. At least that’s the theory.

Start researching the NBA and you’ll find an array of blind spots and faulty assumptions from decision-makers. Playing time and salaries are determined mostly by per minute scoring — even though that’s not what wins. Minutes and length of a player’s career are largely determined by draft position — players picked high keep getting chances when more productive players picked later languish.

Want to know who’s going to make the All-Star team? Try picking the leading scorer on the teams with winning records. And no, the coaches (who pick the reserves for the All-Star game) do no better rewarding the game’s best players than the fans do in voting for the starters.

The All-Rookie team is determined almost exclusively by per game scoring.

Despite all the tools available to assist in evaluation, we keep getting “surprises” like Jeremy Lin.

Maybe it’s time NBA talent evaluators took a cue from the music world and started looking at players from behind a screen. Maybe it’s time to worry less about what people look like, and spend more time paying attention to what they’re actually doing.