Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Stick To What You Know

Cross-posted at Kakistocracy

I suppose I should be grateful that Gregg Easterbrook's "[Tuesday Morning Quarterback column] devotes one percent of the column's annual line length to roundball issues." - because the man is an idiot when it comes to talking about basketball. Though considering the number of other topics on which Easterbrook is also an idiot, I'm willing to posit that he's an idiot with regards to football, I just don't know football well enough to realise it.

(Actually, yes I do know football well enough, and he is. But I tolerate him as sort of the 'pseudo-intellectual contrarian's John Madden.' Instead of "BOOM" he shouts "Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!" Plus, he does a good job of getting the ESPN.COM editors to put up 2-4 cheesecake photos per column. So he's got that going for him. Which is nice.)

Anyway, this week is hoops week for TMQ, and Easterbrook, when not pointing to the Miami Heat Dance Squad, is it his fact-averse, patronizing best/worst. Typically, he starts from a fairly safe premise - the rule against players moving straight from HS is probably good for the quality of NBA play - yet manages to say both less than he thinks he is, and far more than is warranted given the facts.

Take it away, Gregg-ay:
Pro basketball is in an "up" cycle partly because the new collective bargaining agreement forbids high school players from jumping directly to the NBA. The drafting of high school players was an unmitigated disaster for pro basketball -- it's no coincidence the league's decline in television ratings coincided with the arrival of high school kids. The high schoolers have immature games that drag down the quality of the sport: And never forget, quality is the essential feature of all products.
Sure, quality = good. You don't have to do a lot to convince me that on average a 20 year old with two years of ACC experience is going to be better prepared for the NBA than an 18 year old who has spent the last 18 months either playing in all-star games or dunking on athletically overmatched peers. However, the reality-averse Easterbrook would know, with one simple google, that the NBA has played exactly...ZERO seasons since the rule against drafting high school players was implemented. (See picks 6, 10 and 18.) A change which had yet to take place caused an improvement in play for the 2005-2006 season?
With a few exceptions, the only style of play a high school kid knows is hey-look-at-me.
And stay out of my yard, you damn kids.
Selfish basketball is far less entertaining than the ensemble version -- just consider the difference between last season's Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks.
Or, one could make the stronger claim that more competent basketball is better than less. Yes, part of the reason that Phoenix was better than New York is that they played together. But it's also because they had players who could actually perform all the necessary tasks in winning basketball games whereas the Knicks had a lot of guys who could shoot pull-up jump shots.

Further, Easterbrook lauds the Dallas Mavericks for their entertaining style. Which means unselfish, right? Except the Mavs reached the finals by playing almost exclusively one-on-one ball. They did take turns, I suppose, but they were second to last in assists. I'm not going to say they weren't entertaining, but they also weren't running an intricate "Princeton-style" offense.

I'm just starting to get annoyed, but he has more
Plus, by jumping directly to the NBA, 18-year-old prospects fail to go to college and become well-known players about whom fans would be excited.
A fair point, except:
It's this second point that seems haunting, because it means the NBA has spent the past decade depriving itself of stars who might otherwise have come into existence. Yes, LeBron James was terrific in the NBA right out of high school.
No hype or excitement there. I for one had never seen him play before his first NBA game. Except for the multiple games broadcast on ESPN during his senior season.
But James also would have been great coming out of college. The players who have made the high-school-to-NBA transition successfully (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, a few others) always were bound to become stars.
It speaks to Easterbrook's hoops ignorance that he cites Kobe as an instant success - those who actually know something about basketball (and thus know we can't root for Syracuse) remember him from his first few years as an unapologetic gunner - exactly the same kind of "me first" player who GE seems to despise. But then I'm making his (bad) argument for him, better than he could...
Think about Kwame Brown, the high-schooler taken first overall in the 2001 NBA draft. Gifted with incredible physical talent,
and cursed with 10 thumbs...
Brown is an embarrassing underachiever -- plus his personality appears stuck at his 17th birthday, lending him no marketing appeal.
Because, as Lebron, Carmello, D-Wade, AI, Kobe, KG, the Fab Freaking Five, etc. have demonstrated, youthfullness has no marketing appeal. It couldn't be the fact that Kwame is, you know, bad at basketball?
Now imagine an alternate path for the same young man. Instead of jumping directly from high school to the NBA, he goes to Kentucky or UCLA or any good basketball college. His game improves, he learns on-court concepts other than brooding selfishness, and off-court he matures in his ability to handle the world. Kwame Brown becomes a nationally known college star. When he's drafted first overall into the NBA, fans are excited. By now, people like me would be saying to my kids, "Wow, Kwame Brown is coming to town, let's get tickets and go see him!" Instead not one person has ever said, "Let's get some NBA tickets to see Kwame Brown," and it seems likely no one ever will.
Alternatively, he demonstrates himself to be a stiff and 10 years from now, he comes up in the same conversation as Schea Cotton, Felipe Lopez and Jerrod Ward - hey whatever happened to...?
This squandering of potential NBA stars is especially maddening because the pushing of too-young players into the NBA has been driven foremost by shoe companies. Somehow Nike and Reebok got it into their heads that teen sneaker buyers would identify more with 18-year-old unpolished NBA players enjoying instant wealth more than they would with mid-20s high-quality NBA players.
Hey, whatever happened to "no marketing appeal?"
I don't know how this idea arose, since by far the most successful sneaker endorser, Jordan, did not realize his marketing success until he was a mature player in his mid-20s.
There are so many things wrong here, it's hard to figure out where to start. First, I'll ask. When is LeBron's first commercial coming out? When he's a mature player...never mind...

Next, Jordan is sui generis in so many ways that the comparison is inherently stupid. But it's particularly moronic considering that he pretty much invented the art of athletes hawking shoes - so yes, he didn't reach his full potential for Nike until he created the industry.

And let me repeat, it's Michael Jeffrey Jordan. If you're analysis rests upon a combination of the terms "MJ" and "not as successful as," you lose. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 pundit dollars.
Perhaps thrusting high school players into the NBA maximized income for Nike and Reebok. But it was a disaster for NBA product quality, and hence hurt ratings.
I'm all about alternative theories, so let me present one - Pat Riley. The mid-to-late 90's Knicks and Heat pioneered the 'art' of winning through sheer physicality at the expense of skill, and the NBA was complicit by not cracking down on overly physical D. The game became low-scoring, slow paced and ugly. It was a disaster for NBA product quality, and hence hurt ratings.
Now the new league-union agreement mandates draftees be at least 19, a rule intended to require at least one year of college. And you'd hope that even gifted, NBA-bound athletes, after experiencing college for a year, might think, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get an education, maybe I should stick around."
What a load of paternalistic bullcrap. Maybe they realise that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be exploited by both the shoe companys and the corporate backers of the NCAA. Hey, I'm all about education too, but is the purpose of college to become a philosopher king, or to prepare you to join productive society?

It has been discussed ad nauseum, but it's funny how no one ever bitches about people going pro early in sports that aren't football or basketball. I'm not sure to what extent it's racial (but given the hand wringing of Easterbrook and others about the 'bad attitudes' of the young, brash and overwhelmingly black, part of it certainly is) and to what extent it's the establishment of the sports where the cheap labor of scholarship athletes drives billion dollar industries while providing costless 'minor leagues,' but those factors are definitely at work.

Also note that it's only athletes. I don't hear any hue and cry about whether Dakota Fanning or Avril Levigne will get their educations.
You'd also think the shoe companies would be aligning themselves with education over ignorance.
Why would you think this other than as rhetorical posturing to make a further, absurdly moralizing, point?
Apparently you'd think wrong.
It's almost like I've seen this whole line of argument before...
According to this New York Times story by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans, a shoe company consultant has been making the rounds, suggesting to some teenage future NBA prospects that they skip the minimum year of college and play in Europe, then file for the NBA draft. To avoid the horror, the horror, of having to sit in class and think!
Or perhaps to make some money with the most bankable skill they feel they have. But way to cleverly make the whole thing seem so Apocalyptic.
The Times didn't connect the dots on this, so allow me. Dot 1: Most players being encouraged not to attend college are African-American. If athletic shoe companies believe African-American males are incapable of handling college coursework, they should state this for the record.
"No, they're the ones with racial motivations!" he seems to say. What possible basis does he have for this accusation?
Dot 2: Shallowness is a core problem of big-deal athletics.
Sports are shallow? Isn't that, like, a feature, not a bug?
The NBA, NFL and MLB create celebrity athletes looked up to by the young. A few do become role models for an informed, intelligent approach to life -- think Tiki Barber. But most celebrity athletes couldn't tell you what Ernest Hemingway wrote, or what just happened in the Mexican presidential election, if their lives depended on it.
So many athletes don't share my tastes in wine, either. Philistines.
Now the NBA is taking the high road, urging its prospects back toward the educational system.
I thought they were concerned about the quality of play? Plus, erm, bullshit.
The shoe companies are resisting, while street-hustler types have been steering promising basketball prospects to storefront diploma-mill "schools" that make no attempt to teach -- see the Thamel-Evans article on that.
Conflation Alert!Shoe companies are bad. Street hustlers are bad. There is no transitive law of badness from which it now follows that Shoe companies = stree hustlers. Further, the diploma mill issue is (as Easterbrook recognizes later in the column) an NCAA problem - apparently they don't really care about the education of the 'student-athlete' either. But then, we already knew that...
In their 2000 book "The Shape of the River," William Bowen and Derek Bok showed that in recent decades African-American career women have closed most of their degrees-earned and income gaps with white career women, while African-American males have made less progress compared to white males. One factor might be that many young black men look up to ill-educated athletes and pop stars, while young black women have role models such as Oprah Winfrey, who constantly emphasizes books and learning. Both the NBA and NCAA need to do far more to educate basketball prospects, if only for the role-model effect on young men.
Just one shred of empiricism, please.
And while we're on this, thanks to Thamel, Evans and their editors for fighting the cultural assumption that it's OK for star athletes to be functional illiterates.
My, that is a fine strawman...

I can't go on...but trust me, there's much more. I feel like I need to cleanse my palate with a nice bit of FreeDarko hoops-as-improvisational-jazz style.


Hummmmmmmmmmer said...

Good to see someone else the despises the guy. I've never liked his football columns. It's like the examples they use on the first day of stats class to show why you need stats, not anecdotal observations - e.g. Green Bay blitzed on 3rd and long and it didn't work, therefore you shouldn't blitz on third and long. He never really reports anything interesting, just points out places where he thinks he's smarter than other people. Ugh.

Good to see you this past weekend.

Pooh said...

As they say, the plural of "anectdote" is not "data" - that said, there is a reasonable point to be made about blitizing - it makes no sense in most 3rd&long situations where you don't need to make a big play, you need to prevent one. Blitzing probably increases the likelihood of a big play, and is therefore not often wise in that spot.

You too...

Hummmmmmmmmmmmmer said...

I agree in general, if you need one big play, don't blitz. But compare it to baseball - in an important situation, your best chance of getting an out is to throw your best pitch. But if you throw your best pitch every time, then it's no longer your best pitch because the batter is waiting for it. I think there's some similarities in football - if the offense is certain what will be thrown at them, they are at an advantage.

So while obviously we agree that he's not proving anything with his smarmy anecdotes, I would also point out that the situations are not independent of each other - that is, if you played by the percentages every time, you would be predictable and thus, less effective.

He does the same thing with third and 5 situations - points out that the average pass play nets more than the average run, therefore, teams should pass in these situations. However, if the defense knew the offense was going to pass every time, it would no longer work.

I do agree with him, however, that there are some astonishingly dumb head coaches out there. I just don't think he's proving it as well as he seems to think he is.

Jake said...

But how do you really feel?

Pooh said...

I just don't think he's proving it as well as he seems to think he is.

That is generalizable throughout his writings, some (read: "I") might say...