Month: September 2014

Wizards 2014 Playoffs Wrap-Up

NBA Washington Wizards vs Chicago Bulls Play-Offs Game 4

Trevor Ariza dominated in the playoffs despite low-blow karate chop from Mike Dunleavy.

Just in time for the start of training camp, here’s a look back at the Wizards run in the playoffs this year. For those with short memories, Washington beat the Bulls in round one, and lost to the Pacers in round two. It was a good couple weeks for a franchise that’s been among the league’s worst the past several years.

I’ve finally gotten around to crunching the data to produce the Player Production Average (PPA) numbers. PPA is an overall rating metric I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win, and debits them for things that don’t. It’s a per-minute stat that’s pace-neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and 45 = replacement level.

Like any stat extracted from a small sample size, there’s a grain of salt factor. For example, Bradley Beal led the team with 458 playoff minutes — the cut when I look at regular season numbers is usually 500 minutes. Only 21 players reached 500 or more playoff minutes this year. That said, here are the numbers:

PLAYER GMS MPG RS PPA PS PPA
Trevor Ariza 11 37.0 145 193
Marcin Gortat 11 34.7 154 148
Bradley Beal 11 41.6 96 139
John Wall 11 38.2 139 82
Trevor Booker 9 16.2 123 75
Nene Hilario 10 32.5 102 49
Drew Gooden 10 14.6 106 37
Martell Webster 11 17.7 77 35
Andre Miller 11 9.8 86 12
Al Harrington 7 8.4 24 -22
Garrett Temple 10 .9 24 -33
Otto Porter 3 2.0 15 -49
Kevin Seraphin 4 1.5 35 -274

RS PPA = regular season

PS PPA = post-season

The numbers reflect Ariza’s tremendous playoffs performance. A 193 in the regular season would be worthy of All-NBA selection in most years. Among playoff performers with at least 100 total minutes, it ranked third overall behind Lebron James (263) and Chris Paul (211).

Gortat’s production improved as the playoffs went on. His first round PPA was a shade below average, but his play against Indy in round two pulled his full playoffs rating into the vicinity of his regular season performance.

The team’s only other above-average playoffs producer was Beal, who was terrific in round one (152) and solid in round two. A promising post-season debut for a talented kid who will still be among the league’s youngest players when he starts his third season in a few weeks.

The post-season wasn’t so kind to Beal’s backcourt partner, John Wall. In the first round, Wall’s overall production wasn’t overwhelming, but he thoroughly outplayed Chicago’s guards. Indiana did a better job of forcing him out of comfortable plays, and Wall struggled.

Now-departed Trevor Booker was solid in the first round, but played little in the second round. Friend of the blog Ben Becker wondered if Washington might have won against the Pacers if they’d played Booker instead of Gooden and/or Harrington. And, that’s definitely possible. The games were close and hard-fought, and the Wizards got next to nothing from Gooden and less than nothing from Harrington. Booker was fifth on the team in per minute production during the post-season, but 10th in round two minutes.

Against the Pacers, the Wizards got good production from Gortat, and little else from the front-court. Using the trio of Nenê, Gooden and Harrington with so little court time for Booker may well have cost Washington a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Similarity scores coming soon.

The NFL’s Problem

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Approximately nine years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found himself a good pick and shovel, and hacked his way through the tough outer skin of the NFL shield. He dug holes to the appropriate depth and placed into them something he did not understand. Then he shoveled some dirt back on top — a little at a time for nearly a decade — and congratulated himself on being so full of foresight, wisdom and leadership.

Driven by the best of intentions, Goodell unwittingly planted a field of public relations land mines when he appointed himself chief prosecutor, judge and appellate court magistrate of a vague “personal conduct” initiative to clean up the NFL. In the classic mold of ready-fire-aim leaders throughout history, Goodell decided that the only way to rein in the NFL’s “out of control” players was with the firm guidance of suspensions and official condemnation of the Commissioner’s Office.

Goodell had fallen victim to a classic PR blunder: he believed the media. In some ways, his faith in the media was logical. There was a steady diet of media reports of off-field misdeeds. There was racial code word murmuring about broken homes and young men coming from “inner cities” or from “poverty.” Why, they just needed the stern hand of a Moral Authority, and who better than Goodell himself? So, Goodell cooked up a bold and aggressive fix to a problem that did not exist.

Had Goodell ordered a meaningful study of the off-field behavior of NFL players, he’d have found that they were overwhelmingly a responsible, law-abiding bunch. The data has been crunched by several different outlets — feel free to Google up your pick of them — and they show in different ways the same thing. Specifically, NFL players get arrested far less frequently than the general population, and far, FAR less often than males in the same general age group.

While players often are portrayed as if they’re pirates or bandits marauding through the nation’s peaceful streets, reality is that the NFL arrest rate is about 13% that of males age 25-29 in America. This is a good news story about NFL players, not reason for serial consternation.

The NFL’s biggest off-field problem is domestic violence — but even that is a relative success story. The NFL arrest rate for domestic violence is 55% that of males age 25-29, which means NFL players are considerably less likely to be involved in domestic violence than their age-group cohorts. It’s laudable that Goodell and the NFL are taking steps to address the issue, though it would be more credible if it wasn’t so clearly a panic move. Most reasonable people would agree that even one case is too many. But, even panic moves can sometimes be a good thing, and if the league’s efforts further reduces the number of domestic violence incidents…then good.

Back to my point, what Goodell failed to grasp when he appointed himself The Moral Authority was that he was feeding the stereotype monster. Big problems require bold solutions. Ergo, a bold solution means a big problem. So, in the public’s mind, Goodell’s long suspensions and hefty fines were because player behavior really was out of control. If even the Commissioner was tacitly acknowledging a big problem with the behavior of NFL players, the problem must have been MASSIVE. Unfortunately, Goodell’s strategy of administering “justice” wasn’t cleaning up a problem (player behavior was at least as good, if not better, than could be expected), it was exacerbating the perception of NFL players as a bunch of lawless thugs.

Had Goodell understood the league’s perception problem, he could have used the NFL’s influence with the sports media to introduce a different narrative that could have served as a counter to the inevitable off-field incident. (And yes, such incidents are inevitable as long as the NFL uses actual people to play the games.) The NFL could have used the data to show not just that NFL players are overwhelmingly responsible, law-abiding citizens, but that they’re MORE responsible and law-abiding than the average citizen. This makes a ton of sense considering some of the attributes that make a person elite at anything (including playing football): discipline, intelligence and hard work.

The perception that the NFL has a behavior problem is borne of this simple reality: there’s no beat reporter for waiters or bellmen or mechanics or bloggers or journalists or…you get the point. There are hundreds of reporters covering the NFL on a daily basis. Hundreds more commentate, opine and do part-time reporting. Those reporters uncover a wealth of information, and dutifully report it. But, in their reporting of facts, reporters don’t always provide a proper context — especially when that context runs counter to the narrative.

In this case, the narrative was that player behavior was poor. Each new arrest was reinforcement of the conclusion. Each new suspension or fine provided a punctuation to the story. Crime, justice, the possibility of redemption. The narrative was bolstered by plausible reasoning from opinion writers — broken homes, absentee fathers, kids these days, athletes who are spoiled, coddled, immature and selfish. The list goes on. But, the reasoning was meaningless because it was constructed on a false foundation. So many were determined to put an end to the lawless behavior of NFL players, that almost no one stopped to notice that the behavior was already excellent.

Worse, Goodell establishing himself as The Moral Authority opened himself (and the league he represents) to charges of “not taking X issue seriously” at nearly any time. Because the sentences were essentially arbitrary, all that was needed was a punishment that seemed light in comparison to some other action deemed worse. That happened this summer when Josh Cribbs was suspended a year after testing positive for marijuana (which was preposterous in itself, but that’s another story) while Ray Rice got two games for knocking out his fiance in an elevator.

In a sense, the truly honest answer is that the NFL doesn’t take a lot of social issues very seriously, and with good reason. It’s not their business. Their business model is to stage football games before massive crowds. Their business is to provide programming fodder for their television partners, and stories for web pages and print publications. Fixing what’s wrong with society would be nice, but it’s a job for which a sports league is ill equipped.

Those metaphorical land mines are detonating, and they’ll continue to go off as the investigation into the league’s handling of the Ray Rice incident continues. Best case for Goodell is a finding that he was merely incompetent in failing to view the video (which the league had in its possession) before handing down Rice’s sentence. The other option is that he’s also dishonest.

Goodell is scrambling now — to protect the NFL shield, but also likely to save his job. Goodell’s job was to avoid the negative headlines. In his zeal to fix a non-existent player behavior problem, he set in motion a chain of events that inexorably led to this.