LeBron’s Aim

Well, today seems as good as any to talk about LeBron James’s shortcomings.

OK but first, let’s be real clear here: the only real question about LeBron’s career is how high up the list of all-time greatest players he’ll ascend. His career has already reached pretty freaking stratospheric heights, and he can probably take it higher, so his shortcomings are really more like “shortcomings.” And anyway, it’s really only one singular “shortcoming” that is at issue now. Namely, he can’t really shoot.

Well, he can shoot. This here stat page shows that his Field Goal % this season is .491, outstanding for a wing player. Plus, his True Shooting %, which takes into account his success at field goals, three pointers, and foul shots, is even better at .583.

But all that means is that LeBron is really, really efficient shooter–which isn’t the same as being a good shooter. Offensively, LeBron’s strength is his strength–he can easily get to and finish at the rim, as the stats bear out. Only a few perimeter players take a higher percentage of their shots in the paint, and they are typically penetrating point guards who really, really can’t shoot, e.g. Rajon Rondo.

LeBron’s stellar overall and adjusted FG% is a testament to how otherworldly he is at finishing at the rim, because once he takes a step or two back, he’s not the same ol’ LeBron. On the season, he’s only making .373 of his 2-point jumpshots, and .297 of his 3-point jumpers. Furthermore, his 3PT% has basically declined every year of his career, and his FT% is only now, in his 6th year in the L, beginning to creep up towards respectability.

That LeBron’s jump shot is not the best part of the game is no great insight. Even some dude just plucked entirely randomly off the street could point this out. And, so the thought goes, once LeBron develops his jumper, he’ll be truly unstoppable. Just like Mike.

Let’s think on that for a second, though. Yes, MJ is famous for, well…a lot of things, but one of them is remaking himself from a gravity-defying aerial artist* with a receding hairline into an apologetically good, totally bald sharpshooter . But he was also Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Is there another example of a superstar doing the same thing while still maintaining superstar-level production? Some players develop a hyper-specialized skillset–rebounding, defense, whatever–in order to maintain a roster spot, but MJ added shooting while keeping the rest of his arsenal. Other players begin to rely more on guile and basketball IQ as their physical gifts diminish, sure, but that’s not exactly what MJ did, either. His career was in many ways split into two totally different ones, like Babe Ruth dominating as a pitcher and then one day deciding he might as well jack loads of dongers. As freakishly transcendental as LeBron James is, asking him to do something that has only really ever been done once, by the greatest of them all, is a tall order.

Also, but is it true that Michael couldn’t shoot at the beginning of his career? His overall FG% was much better than LeBron’s at the same point in each’s career–though the shot chart records don’t go back that far, so it’s hard to judge the inside/outside split of his 2-point field goals. His 3PT% is way lower than LeBron’s to start, though he also took far fewer–one reason possibly being that maybe, since the 3-point line had only been established in basketball the year before he started at UNC, he didn’t have any real incentive to develop his long-range shot during his early basketball years. Anyway, by his sixth year, he was making 37.6% of them, better than any year of LeBron’s career to date. MJ was also a much better free throw shooter right out of the gate, quickly establishing and never really deviating from his career average.

Good free throw shooting seems like a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of being a good jump shooter. Mastering the repeatable, undefended 15-footer suggests that a player at the very least possesses proper shooting mechanics. And while some very few players are good free-throw shooters but not good jump shooters, the opposite is almost unheard of. So while MJ still had room for improvement, he entered the league with basically a picture-perfect shooting motion intact. Maybe, then, the perceived late-career development of a jump shot was really just a decision by an older Jordan to score points in a less physically enervating manner rather than constantly having to beat his defender off the dribble and then contend with some Entish brute at the rim. More likely it was just the by-product of  playing in the Triangle Offense, a scheme designed to get easy shots by exploiting player spacing and ball movement, rather than just having to dunk on chumps. Whatever the real reason, it wasn’t like His Airness just woke up one day and found out he could shoot like the lost Paxson brother–chances are, he had been able to shoot all along, we just hadn’t really noticed.

The same can’t be said for LeBron. People have been saying since high school that he needs to add a jumper to his game. Betting against LeBron to do it–or anything else–is a dangerous proposition. Even without a trusty J, he’s still probably the best basketball player alive. But there is an expiration date on the expectation, and though he hasn’t yet reached his peak, it’s possible that, in his 6th year as a professional, that date is rapidly approaching.


*That image is courtesy of a helpful eHow article on how to dunk like Michael Jordan. I’ll save you some time by just reprinting the easy-to-follow steps here. NOTE: all steps are equally important–skip even just one, and YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DUNK LIKE MICHAEL JORDAN:

Step 1: Stretch every muscle that you can.

Step 2: Do calf raises and wall squats.

Step 3: Stretch again.

Step 4: Go to a basketball hoop and try dunking. If it is too hard lower the height of the hoop if you are able to.

Step 5: Keep practicing every day.

Step 6: Once it is easy to dunk raise the height of the hoop and try to do cool tricks.

Eerie, Pennsylvania

So LeBron James pretty clearly traveled. 

The postmortem of this incident raises a lot of really interesting and vexed and probably insoluble for the NBA, its officials, and its fans, especially in the wake of the Tim Donaghy game-fixing scandal. Like, are rules selectively enforced in ways that favor certain star players–or is it the other way around, does the selective enforcement of rules create stars by allowing certain players to gain an advantage which other rule-abiding players cannot? And anyway how is it determined who is a star? Is it just a subconscious, prefrontal cortex assessment on an individual ref’s part, or is there something more convolved and systematic and league-directed going on? And most troubling, what business does DeShawn Stevenson have woofing at King James from the bench while wearing this?

Of special note is LeBron’s postgame response to the call. Check it:

“I took a crab dribble, which is a hesitation dribble, and then two steps. What happens is when you take a crab dribble and you hesitate, that is not one step, because you still basically have a live ball. And then when you go into your one-two, that’s when the steps get counted. So if you look at the play, I take a crab dribble and find a crease and then I take my one-two. So it’s a perfectly legal play, something I’ve always done and always been successful with.” 

First thing to note is his liberal statutory interpretation of what constitutes a dribble. As commonly understood, the rules mandate that a player in possession of the ball must dribble once for every step taken, excluding the last two steps, provided those two are taken in the process of taking a shot or making a pass. With the “crab dribble” or whatever, LeBron seems to invert this relationship. Instead of “I’ve taken a step, so I must dribble,” he’s saying something like, “I’ve dribbled, so I get to take a step.” Rather than viewing the rule as a restriction, he’s choosing to see it as some sort of bestowal of a right. 

Which is wrong, but also pretty telling. LeBron is admitting to taking three steps, which means–regardless whether it was the right call in that situation, or should have been ignored because of the whole megastar-in-the-deciding-moments-of-a-game corollary–LeBron seems to be admitting that he traveled. 

Except that isn’t what he is doing. He confesses to acting in a way that violates a rule, but maintains that he in fact did not violate that rule. His explanation is that the crab dribble is his “trademark move,” and that “it’s a perfectly legal play, something [he’s] always done.” 

Echoes of this excuse-by-exceptionalism can be heard in movie theaters nationwide right now. At the climactic moment of Ron Howard’s gripping but troubling* “Frost/Nixon”, the glibbly fey Frost manages to wheedle Nixon into proclaiming about an alleged crime that, “when the President does it, it means it isn’t illegal.”

In the movie, this admission is portrayed as audacious and ballsy and pretty incriminating. This is only partly true. Public response to the interviews at the time doesn’t indicate that this moment was a decisive victory for Frost or an American people supposedly hungry for a reckoning. And also, the President is granted some extra-legal privileges, though these privileges are vague and controversial and pretty constrained. Though the words sound downright dastardly coming from Tricky Dick, a whole bunch of administrations have advanced similar claims at some time or another.

This is in no way a defense of Nixon. And anyway Executive Privilege is kinda beside the point, which is that, given his biography, psychology, and stature, Nixon almost undoubtedly and utterly believed that he hadn’t done anything illegal. His response wasn’t cagey, or evasive, or hair-splitting–he truly believed that he, Richard Nixon, had and could do no wrong.  He was filled with an unassailable, pathological presumptuousness. Anything he could do he was free to do–which, considering he was a bitter, paranoid, intolerant, and vindictive hard-drinker from nowhere who nevertheless managed somehow to get himself elected to the highest office in the land, was true. Right up until it wasn’t.

Maybe this, to answer an earlier question,  is what makes a star a star. In his postgame interviews, LeBron James claims to have watched the replay of his crab dribble 10 times, and still can’t understand what all the hubbub is about. Everyone else who watches it can see the hubbub plain as day. And maybe that’s part of the reason why we’re everyone else, and he’s LeBron James. A world in which he cannot do whatever he wants whenever he wants–in basketball, at least–is literally unenvisionable to him.


Ready to be SOMEWHAT ASTOUNDED! Then continue reading this post!

Some idle basketball-reference.com noodling lead me to the 1992-93 Philadelphia 76ers team page, and just if you will check out this comparison of team-/soulmates Hersey “The Hawk” Hawkins and Jeffrey “The Horn” Hornacek

Hawkins: 20.3 ppg  4.3rpg,  3.9apg,  1.7spg,  2.2TO,  2.3PF, .470FG%,  .3973P%,  .860FT%

Hornacek: 19.1ppg  4.3rpg,  6.9apg,  1.7spg,  2.8TO, 2.6PF, .470FG%,   .3903p%,  .865FT%

Eerie, right? And further check this out: both players stood 6’3″ and weighed 190lbs, and both were from Illinois. Also, Hawkins once booked a theater in a warehouse, while Hornacek warehoused a theater in a book.

*Some questions arose regarding the play/movie Frost/Nixon’s faithfulness to its source material. Clearly some dramatic license was needed to turn what was essentially two dudes chatting in a living room into compelling theater/film. But, considering that the play/movie’s plot is the real-life effort to get a real-life person to confess to a real-life scandal using his own words, how much can you amend those real-life words before you betray the motives–and results, for that matter–of those real-life people? I certainly don’t have clue one.

Weakside Putback

Commenter Luc Longley posted an interesting counter-argument to the earlier post about the relative success of Greg Oden:

“usually I am struck dumb by the brilliance of the new enthusiast’s analysis, but in this case I have a couple of thoughts. The question isn’t just whether oden will grown into a slightly-above-average center, it’s whether the blazers were right to draft him ahead of durant, right? Excluding pre-1992 big men who aren’t “true” centers makes Oden look like a better pick than he is, because it doesn’t account for how the position has changed…

In the late 80s/early 90s, almost all the top big men were true centers: ewing, parrish, robinson (with “the dream” being a notable exception). shaq and zo aren’t anomalies as much as they are the last/best of a dying breed. In the late 1990s/early oughts, versatile F/C’s like nowitzki, duncan, camby, gasol, and esp. garnett started to face the basket and play outside and created very tough defensive match-ups for traditional centers. And then in 2001 zone defense was legalized, which spread the floor and made centers even less important on both ends. I’d argue “true” centers have slowly become obsolete.

So if oden is a back-to-the-basket post player whose utility is (arguably) limited in today’s NBA, why do you draft him #1 overall? You don’t, you take durant and build around him instead. The blazers front office has essentially bet that parrish would be a dominant center if he played today.

Which brings me to my main argument: oden and robert parrish are actually the same person. seriously, look at pictures of them side-by-side. pretty much open-and-shut…”

A lot of good points are raised in there that deserve some closer inspection. First, yes agreed, the analysis was sloppy and probably too cavalierly back-of-the-envelope. The point wasn’t to make a conclusive argument for or against Oden, just to give his performance to date a little–and I do mean little–context.

Second, at least half of The New Enthusiast campaigned in favor of the Blazers selecting Kevin Durant at the time, though blogs hadn’t been invented in 2007 so there’s no recorded evidence of this. But, while the Blazers can’t redo the pick, it’s still worth considering what Oden’s career might look like, even if Durant is and will likely always be the better player. Oden can still be a good pick even if he wasn’t the “right” pick.

Also, Robert Parish was really good. If Oden matches the Chief’s 10-year peak of around 18ppg/11rpg, the Blazers would probably consider his selection a success–especially if in Brandon Roy they have someone whose career approximates Durant’s.

The central presumption of Luc’s post–that “true centers” of the 80s/90s vintage are obsolete–is what I’m interested in. It seems anecdotally true. Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki–the league is filled with versatile, face-up big men, with Hakeem probably serving as the hybrid link between these two eras. But there are still a number of back-to-the-basket goliaths who produce at a pretty high–and efficient–rate. Yao and Big Z come to mind. I doubt anyone would prefer them over the previously mentioned hybrid big guys, but I wonder if this is purely because the hybrids are better (which, ok yeah, those used in the above example admittedly are), or if there isn’t some amount of bias against them at play because they don’t fit the current NBA zeitgeist.

How did we arrive at this place where we consider a certain style of player better than another? Does it matter that a hypothetical  Kevin Garnett  gets his 20 and 10 facing the basket, while the hypothetical Yao gets his turned the other way? I bet there are some actual on-court differences–like, maybe KG’s high-post position spreads the defense for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce or something–that someone smarter than me could demonstrate. Maybe it’s that KG presents a match-up problem for Yao, but then why shouldn’t Yao also present a match-up problem for KG?

In baseball, positional requirements are pretty rigid. A catcher has to possess a necessary skillset in order to successfully field his position–a skillset so rare and important that it’s excusable if the catcher can’t really hit. Other positions have easier requirements, which means that players filling those slots have to offer something valuable above and beyond the basic skillset. This is why first basemen are so often hypertrophic home run hulks–since anyone else could field their position while they couldn’t field anyone else’s, they have to do something no one else can do, i.e. jack a lot of dongers.

In the NBA, positions are much more fluid. There is no one, best way to win, which is part of the ever-renewing drama of the game. Magic Johnson, Lebron James, Seven Seconds or Less–they’re all examples of the constant category-busting that takes place in the NBA. Still, that doesn’t prevent a conventional wisdom about archetypal players from calcifying. Take a look at this chart from upsideandmotor.com*:

This has been rightfully generating a lot of talk on the basketblogs. It’s fun and provocative and true in a way that’s only apparent to those who look closely enough to see the magic behind the numbers. But I think it also points out some of the difficulties in constructing a positional/skill taxonomy that does for basketball what Bill James’s defensive spectrum did for baseball. First off, the categories, while deeply funny and true like only deeply funny things can be (Megalomanical small guard!?!), are often too vague or too specific to be helpful. Also, it can be reduced to something of a tautology–is Chris Paul at the summit of the NBA because he’s in the class “Elite Point Guard,” or is “Elite Point Guard” at the summit of the hierarchy because of Chris Paul?

I think it also demonstrates a line of thought that lurks behind a lot of NBA analysis, a sort of deductive fallacy of converse accident that concludes a general truth based on specific and rare examples. I.e. there are no dominant back-to-the-basket big men because back-to-the-basket big men are obsolete. There are plenty of alternative reasons, though. Being 7’2″ and 300lbs while still having the dexterity to end up like this and not like this is exceedingly rare. So is being 6’10” with the ability to run the court and knock down elbow-extended jumpers. The simultaneous presence of one and absence of the other may be nothing more than genetic happenstance. It could also be result of the faddish scouting and developing of talent that resembles Kevin Garnett, et al, due to a decade of prominence from such players. It also could simply be a result of rule changes that favor the slightly smaller, more athletic big men, though this strikes me as a little chicken-and-the-egg.

All of which is to say that, yes, Luc Longley is entirely correct in saying Kevin Durant is likely to be more valuable over his career than Greg Oden, and it’s not unthinkable that the Blazers will at some time regret their decision–though I don’t think that time is now. But it’s also possible that there is a True Postman on the horizon who will force us to re-examine our existing archetypes of success in the NBA. Maybe that will be Greg Oden, maybe not. I just don’t think we yet have a firm enough grasp on all the moving parts of success in the NBA to confidently say that any player’s success–or failure–is attributable to something outside of the player’s abilities themselves.

*The Enthusiast is totally and willfully ignorant about all matters having to do with etiquette, especially when it comes to the internet. So if it’s uncool to reporduce images from other sites, let us know.

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

Central to this blog’s fascination with sports–and I’d guess this is true of most ardent sports fans–is the question, “What is it like?” As we’ve mentioned here before, athletes at the pinnacle of exertion attain a level of conspicuous grace that we mere onlookers, in our humble, daily trials, can never truly access. We’re desperate for anything that can make this sort of unfathomable genius discernible to us. Or as David Foster Wallace put it, we’re trying to “get intimate with all that profundity.”

Our inability to understand is matched by the athlete’s inability to explain. Wallace dissects this disconnect in his essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” He suggests that the banal, unenlightening postgame clichés an athlete offers up aren’t evidence of his or her lack of intelligence, but instead are real and deeply true and essential to the athlete’s success in ways we can’t grasp. I think this is echoed by the A.A. members in “Infinite Jest.” For recovering addicts, like top-flight athletes, success is only possible by abandoning oneself and trusting in the mercy of some higher power. “One day/pitch/serve/foul shot/putt at a time,” then, takes on a terrifying, mind-clearing urgency. 

Dock Ellis, former Major Leaguer and recovering addict, died yesterday. He wore curlers in his hair, and once set out to bean every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was maced by a stadium security guard who didn’t believe he was who he said he was, and spent his post-baseball years as a drug and alcohol counselor in Los Angeles. He was a man of his time, especially because he and his time didn’t often see eye to eye*. He also threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.

Still high from the night before, Ellis woke up the morning of June 12, 1970, in his girlfriend’s Los Angeles apartment. Believing he had the day off, Ellis dropped acid again before one of his companions pointed out that the newspaper listed him as the starting pitcher in game one of that day’s doubleheader. In San Diego.  The no-hitter wasn’t of the Kerry Wood, untouchably dominant sort. Understandably, Dock had trouble locating the strike zone, walking eight batters and–naturally–hitting one. But, c’mon, give him a break. He was really, really high.

This is a great story, great for so many reasons. But one reason, for me, is because it both emphasizes and explodes the divide between athlete and spectator. Asking Ellis what was going through his mind that day would have been absurd, and absurd not in the existentially tragic, Sisyphean way, but absurd in a way that was funny and potentially revealing. What could his response possibly have been? “I don’t know, freaking Yodas and shit?”

Or maybe something more like, “I noticed that there was a hole in a corner of the sky, and through it I had a complete view of the universe and the secrets it contained, and I watched as these secrets leaked through the hole like liquid, and I was filled with the knowledge that we, every one of us, are bathed by this liquid, today and forever.”

And everyone in attendance would have understood him, for once, because that day at Jack Murphy Stadium they had seen the same thing, too.

*For more on Dock’s struggle with race, drugs, and baseball, check out this book, which is also the source of this post’s title.

Read This Blog, Greg Oden

A few things to note from last night’s frenzied, shirtless eruption at the Rose Garden.

One, Brandon Roy is really good. The Enthusiast will probably take some time to construct this argument in a more convincing, statistically-grounded way in the near future, but I think for right not we can all agree that his swagger is prima facie beyond phenomenal, and also that he should probably be currently higher than 9th in All Star voting for Western Conference guards.

Second, what’s up with Steve Nash’s foul line routine? This is from a different game, but like all really, really good free throw shooters, Nash repeats the routine every time he steps to the line. Observe:

After the first attempt, he steps back from the line and hands-out the high-fives*. Then he steps back to the line. All the other players are in place and ready for the next shot. The ref, who appears to be this guy, stands under the basket holding the ball. Next, Nash pantomimes two free throws. Only then does the ref signal the players to get set, give Nash the ball, and step out of the way.

Here’s the thing. Check out the NBA rulebook’s entry on foul shooting:

“A free throw is the privilege given a player to score one point by an unhindered attempt for the goal from a position directly behind the free throw line.This attempt must be made within 10 seconds.”

According to the time-code on that video, Nash–and everyone else–seems to be in the ready-set position for the foul shot at the :06 mark. He takes the shot at the :16. Or, by my count, approximately 10 seconds. It seems like the ref decides to just chill out for a hot second and blithely watch Nash practice his follow through a couple times before, you know, doing what the rules instruct him to do. Shouldn’t those 8 seconds be counted against Nash? It seems like the point of having the 10-second limit is to force the shooter to hurry up and shoot. So why does the ref wait until Nash is ready before starting the countdown?

Third and last, Greg Oden. As predicted by the TNT studio dudes, Shaq seemed to make an extra special point of bullying him in the post and, other than a few sweet dunks in the beginning and a couple of offensive rebounds at the end, Oden mostly watched this one from the bench.

Eventually, the announcing crew got around to debating Oden’s rookie season thus far vs. the expectations surrounding him when he was drafted first overall in 2007. In their estimation Oden sometimes gives off the impression of being too sensitive, psychically fragile even. An anecdote about Oden getting over-the-phone hugz from his old AAU coach didn’t help. Reggie Miller hinted that Oden lacked the killer instinct that he (Reggie) possessed, and that he (back to Greg, now) should stop reading blogs analyzing his performance.

To which I would say, “Have we learned nothing from the trailers for ‘Yes Man’ starring Jim Carrey? You can’t hide from life–you have to attack it head on and go scootering with Zooey Deschanel!” Also, I would say that some blogs analyzing his performance <ahem> might actually offer him some good news and encouragement. Like, thusly.

The case so far: Twenty-one games into what is essentially his rookie season, Oden is posting a line of roughly 8 points and 8 rebounds a game along with 1.4 blocks. He’s shooting .522 from the floor, .640 from the line in just over 22 minutes a game. Solid, but not spectacular. To give this a little context, I compared Greg’s statline with the rookie years of some other heralded centers. To simplify the process, I defined heralded as one of the top 3 draft picks and excluded centers drafted before 1992, the year Shaq and Zo were taken 1, 2, because I was only 11 and not really paying attention before then. For further ease of comparison, I focused only on what I consider true centers–so no Tim Duncan, Kenyon Martin, etc.

By my count, that produces 11 rough comps for Oden: Andrew Bogut in 05, Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor in 04, Yao in 02, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler in 01, Olowokandi in 98, Camby in 96, Bradley in 93, and Shaw and Zo in 92. Here are there splits in their rookie years, along with their age during that season.

Bogut (21): 9.4  7.0  0.8  .533  .629  28.6

Howard (19): 12.0  10.0  1.7  .520  .671  32.6

Okafor (22): 15.1  10.9  1.7  .447  .609  35.6

Yao (22): 13.5  8.2  1.8  .498  .811  29.1

Brown (19): 4.5  3.5  .5  .387  .707  14.4

Chandler (19): 6.1  4.8  1.3  .497  .604  19.6

Olowokandi (23): 8.9  7.9  1.2 .431  .483    28.4

Camby (22):  14.8  6.3  2.1  .482  .693   30.1

Bradley (21):  10.3  6.2  3.0  .409  .607  28.3

Shaq (20):  23.4  13.9  .562  .592  3.5  37.9 

Zo (22):  21.0  10.3  .511  .781  3.5  33.9  

A couple of things to notice before bringing Oden into the mix. Shaq and Zo are pretty clearly heads and shoulders above this group, and Shaq is even significantly ahead of Zo. They are super-duper franchise mecha-centers, each once-in-a-generation Monstars who somehow came out in the same draft. Brown, Bradley, and Olowokandi are on the other end of the spectrum. Bradley’s shotblocking made him more of a serviceable backup than an outright bust, but one thing these stiffs all had in common right from the start was inexcusably low FG% for an NBA big man.

Of the remaining six, Yao and Howard developed into dominant forces on both ends of the floor, and though Oden could reach that level, it’s hard to predict that kind of leap. The others settled into valuable defense and rebounding post presences. Of this group, Camby has been the most succesful, with Bogut slightly above average for the position. 

How does Oden compare? One area he is lagging behind in is playing time. Other than Chandler, Oden is on the court for significantly less time than comparable players were their rookie seasons. Considering that he is coming off knee-surgery and that his back-up is one of the best in the league, this isn’t all that surprising. But, let’s say he was logging something more like 30 mpg. His line would look something like 11, 11, and 2. This would put him squarely in the middle of the Camby-Bogut range, and closer to the Camby end due to his shot blocking. 

Now obviously this is a highly unscientific approach to evaluating Greg Oden’s career to date. My calculations are not actually, you know, precise. Also, Oden might be most comparable to big men I excluded from the list because they were unheralded in the way I defined it, like Andrew Bynum or Chris Kaman. Additionally, though Oden and Camby could end up having statistically similar careers, they would accumulate the stats in totally different ways: Oden is a back-to-the-basket post player, Camby is a weak-side vulture and face-up shooter.

Still, Reggie Miller’s courtside psychoanalysis notwithstanding, in the first twenty one games of his career, Greg Oden production suggests that a career of something like 15/12/2 is easily within reach. Or, essentially, a more defensive-minded, equally rickety-looking Moses Malone. And that ain’t bad.

*I love this.

Coach Class

Reggie Theus is no longer the handsomest man in the NBA.

Don’t worry–he’s still handsome. But he joins Mo Cheeks, P.J. Carlesimo, Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell, and Randy Wittman as coaches who find themselves teamless one third of the way into the NBA season. That’s six coaching changes so far, after eight last year.

Former coach/mythic imp Jeff Van Gundy drops some insights on the matter in this NYT article. As JVG points out, underperforming teams are quick to replace coaches, but are much less* likely to do the same for players or general managers. Theus was let go after only 1 1/2 seasons, 2/3 of which were spent squeezing a surprising 38 wins out of a 2007 Kings team that saw Orien Green battling Quincy Douby for serious minutes.  Which is to say, ie., not bad coaching. Plus, ok fine yeah the Kings are pretty much not what anyone would consider good this season thus far, but they are missing their two best players from last year–Kevin Martin (injured) and Ron Artest (crazed). So, it’s not like there’s indisputable visual evidence that Reggie Theus is a bad coach.

*Much less?

The unemployed coaches seem to fall into two categories: those whose teams are performing just as bad as last year, and those whose teams are performing worse than last year. Theus is in the second category, as are Jordan, Mitchell, and Cheeks. Carlesimo and Wittman are in the first. Let’s take a look at that one first.

Carlesimo’s Oklahoma City Thunder, née Sonics, are historically inept. Wittman’s Timberwolves aren’t much better. The then SuperSonics finished the 2007-08 season with the second worst record in the league, and then in a totally amicable and orderly way moved to a place rich with basketball tradition. The Wolves managed to outpace the Sonics by two wins, placing them third to last in the league. On the bright side, the greatest player in each franchise’s history did win a championship last year.

Point being, both teams are the suck. Unlike college hoops, pro coaches can’t recruit, and pretty much have to make do with whatever ragtag assemblage of misfits and castoffs the front office supplies them with. And, if that same front office is going to decide things like job tenure based on how many wins a coach produces, then the coaches of OKC and Minnesota probably shouldn’t worry about whether their unused vacation days accrue to next year.

Now think about that  second group of teams–ones that are performing significantly worse than last year. Washington, Philadelphia, and Toronto were all playoff teams in 07-08, but all finished the season with essentially .500 records.  In firing their coaches, the management of these teams is presuming that last year’s records were a true indication of their teams’ ability, and that they are currently underperforming this standard.  

Research of previous years’ records shows that the Wizards have been mostly better than .500 since 04-05, and that this year’s trouble, like that of  the Kings, may be partly attributable to a difference in personnel–though, unlike the Kings, the injured player and the crazed player are the same guy.

The Sixers and Raptors, though, have mostly been well beneath .500. The Raptors, in particular, finished with a .327 winning percentage as recently as 05-06, though they followed that with 47 wins the next year, earning a division title and Coach of the Year award for Sam Mitchell, who they just fired. Which seems so implausibly contradictory, we should all be thankful our government isn’t run that way.

So maybe these teams aren’t underperforming, they’re just regressing to the mean after a season of overperformance. In which case I might argue that, if one is to blame a coach for a team’s theoretical underperformance, one would also then have to credit that same coach for that team’s theoretical overperformance.

But wait! One might then say, “Teams that have midseason coaching changes are known to experience an at the very least modest improvement in winning percentage! See–the Wiz started out 1-10, but once they replaced Eddie Jordan, they roared to 4-18!” Well, that might be true, but consider this–if the Wiz are truly a .500 team, then, just like a flipped coin, it’s not unreasonable that they will have extended winning and losing streaks. Once they play enough games, their actual record will tend to converge with their predicted one–and also since coaching changes tend to be precipitated by losing streaks of unusual length, it’s statistically probable that the Wiz would have won at a better rate for the remainder of the season with or without Eddie Jordan.

So if changing coaches is unlikely to have a significant result on winning, the question arises whether coaches have any affect at all on winning. This Slate article does a nice job rounding up a lot of the current research and addressing the difficulties of answering that question. Is Phil Jackson a great coach, or just lucky to have coached MJ, Shaq, and Kobe? Does Larry Brown’s peripatetic guru shtick actually turn a team’s fortunes around, or does he just get conveniently “restless” before suffering any long-term failure? Among professional sports leagues, NBA coaches have the least in-game decision-making to do–other than substitution patterns, there aren’t many things they have direct influence over. And yet they are the primary escapegoat for any failure.

Which is probably to a large degree exactly what their job is. Here’s a thought: professional sports are predicated on a tacit promise between owners and fans, a promise that business interests will not be pursued to the detriment of winning. On the shadowy southwest corner of the intersection between sports and business is the ever lurksome threat that this promise is just an illusion. Sometimes winning is too expensive, and sometimes losing doesn’t hurt the bottom line. Most fans understand this bargain, and are only really offended by the most egregious breaches of their trust. In return for this understanding, owners must perform ritual upkeep of the illusion–like, for instance, if a team is really in the dumper, somebody’s got to walk the plank, if only to show you care.  It’s not going to be the players–they’re way too valuable commodities, and anyway their contracts are guaranteed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It usually can’t be the front office–they aren’t publicly recognizable enough for their dismissal to satisfy the fanbase. So, it’s left to the coaches. Paid a lot for a job of debatable importance, they’re the obvious, expendable option when looking for a public sacrifice.

Which isn’t to say that no coaches provide real value to their teams, nor that most of them aren’t devoted in good faith to improving their teams. Nor is it to suggest that, since they are bred to be sacrificed, we shouldn’t mourn their passing. Like, for instance, the honorable, the brave, the sweet Mo Cheeks:

Signs of the Times

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of the 1960s. A British naval historian by training, he expanded his scope of study to include what was at the time the new phenomenon of corporate bureaucracy. He was particularly struck by the apparent fact that, as they expand, bureaucracies inevitably ignore their original purpose and replace it with the pursuit of continued expansion. This is Parkinson’s Law, which is commonly articulated as “Work expands to fill the time available.” Bureaucracies are developed to increase efficiencies, freeing up more time to devote to “actual work.” But, the activity associated with maintaining the bureaucracy expands until there is no time available for what was once considered “actual work.” He applied his analysis to the fall of the British Empire–the Colonial Office grew exponentially, though the number of colonies in need of officiating did not. Eventually, it just turned into a bunch of ineffectual twits sitting around the Hash House dreaming up less and less real snipes for one another to harry after.

Parkinson also pointed out another aspect of the bureaucratic culture of the age–enterprises that devote a lot of time, energy, and money to constructing the ideal headquarters are doomed. He phrased it this way: “Perfection means finality, and finality means death.” Or, put another way: the only way to have the time to deliberate over whether the marble in the bathrooms should be Carrara or Parian is if you’re ignoring something really, really important. Like, just for instance, doing business.

The contemporary analog of this might be stadium naming rights. Take a look at some of the companies that have forked over tens of millions of dollars recently to have their names emblazoned over some playing field. It’s a list dominated by automakers, airlines (the American Airlines Center and the American Airlines Arena???), telecomm, insurance, and financial services. What do these industries have in common at this very moment?

In 2006, Citigroup agreed to pay the Mets $20 million a year for 20 years for the right to name Shea’s replacement, Citi Field. Now, that amount doesn’t really make a difference to Citi, though they might not want to express that particular fact to these guys. And, in an age where banking services are largely undifferentiated in the consumer’s mind, this might–might–be considered a reasonable marketing expenditure. But, but…it’s not just about the money, as ol’ Cyril would’ve reminded us.

No, it’s about a senseless, brainless beast that can do anything except stop eating. According to the Mock Turtle logic of an entrenched bureaucracy, that which can be done, must be done, and if it must be done, it must be important to do.

The good news? The citizens of New York aren’t the only ones unwillingly funding this boondoggle’s construction anymore. In addition to the $450 million the Mets already received from state and city funds (or, “free money”), you–yes, you!–are partially underwriting Citi Field thanks to the government’s taxpayer-funded bailout of Citigroup! With this liquidity infusion, Citi now has the cash to fulfill their obligation to the Mets. Awesome, right? I’m pretty sure this entitles us all to World Series box seats!

Just kidding. The Mets will never make the Series.

Forgive Us Our Chest Passes

So the NBA season is 1+ week old. Perfect time to roll up the e-sleeves and start doing some previewing!

Here are 10 things to look forward to:

-Expect Amare Stoudemire to achieve what Buddhists refer to as ‘Paramita,’ or total fantasy domination. After banishing the Indiana Pacers beyond the spirit world, Amare will proceed to cast off his ego, ascend to the Realm of Evermore, and spend eternity contemplating new nicknames for Shaquille O’Neal.

-Look for lifelong absurdist theater buff Stephon Marbury to stage a one-man Off-Broadway production of a long-thought lost Samuel Beckett play. Reviewers will agree that, while Steph quite accurately captures the bleak realities of the destitution of man, his head tattoo is totally bonkers for reals.

-As foretold by the Havamal Sagas, Greg Oden will be hanged from Yggdrasil, the world-tree, and pierced by his own spear in order to gain the wisdom necessary to rule the god-domain of Asgard. He will be inactive for 2-4 weeks.

-Chris “Birdman” Andersen will return from a 2-year drug suspension to provide high-energy minutes off the bench for the New Orleans Hornets.

-With the conviction of crooked, game-throwing ref Tim Donaghy removing any taint of bias from the NBA’s officiating crews, aggrieved fanbases and unhinged sports radio hosts will be forced to find new scapegoats to assign blame for their teams’ woes. Leading candidates include: El Nino, atonal music, mysterious crystals made of unknown materials that reflect no light and steal your soul if you stare into them too long, that darned neighbor kid, the trickster coyote common to Native American myth, predatory lending practices, and nerds.

-Kobe Bryant will rewrite the record books, painstakingly, by hand.

-Following a championship which was due in large part to placing team success above individual achievements, the Celtics will further extend their selflessness. Kevin Garnett will block his own teammates’ shots to ensure everyone has the same season-end scoring average. Ray Allen will grow a beard and enroll at Harvard. Paul Pierce will sit out the regular season, take up residence above JD Salinger’s garage and, by way of explanation, say only, “It’s Veal Scalabrine‘s time to shine.” They will win the East.

Dickie Simpkins will contact the Bulls about a possible comeback, confusing the front office as they had not yet noticed his absence.

-With zero points, zero rebounds, and zero minutes played, Michael Ruffin will be the first player to register an Efficiency Rating of ?. Thousand of years in the future, it will be determined that this unknowable, unpronounceable glyph is in fact the true name of God, and to utter it is to swim with all of humanity in a sea of undifferentiated consciousness. Expect Ruffin to be cut midseason in an effort to make roster room for a Development League call-up.

-LeBron James final stat line will also contain the solution to the world’s hardest sudoku puzzle.

My crystal ball is hazy and also it is in actuality an everything bagel with jalapeno cream cheese, so this session of soothsaying must draw to a close. As things are revealed to me throughout the season, I will be sure to share them you. Stay tuned for future insights!

A Question

For reasons I’m sure any mental health professional would consider totally sane and rational, I watched nearly none of the World Series. Therefore, I must turn to our dear, devoted readership to answer this question:

Before Game 5 was resumed, did they play the national anthem?

We cannot say what we cannot say. We can’t whistle it, either.

So clearly the Sox heeded my warning and got to growing some facial hair. And what success!

But, even in the glowing afterglow of victory, a question forms itself in my mind: why was JD Drew’s game-winning hit only scored a single?

Check it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqH35SBwFEE. The ball sails over Gross’s head (and why again was he playing so shallow? Two outs, tie game, man on second–the one thing he can’t allow is for a ball to go over his head, right?) and then one-hops into the bullpen.

This is an automatic double, as stipulated in Rule 6.09(e): “A fair ball, after touching the ground, bounds into the stands, or passes through, over or under a fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery, or vines on the fence, in which case the batter and the runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.” Note: this is NOT a ground rule double; ground rules govern events particular to specific parks, such as a flyball that lodges in the roof of the Humphrey Dome or a grounder that is carried away in the beak of a Tsetse fly while playing in the Guatemalan bush–these are gound rule doubles.

Anycrap. So Drew hit what was, by rule, a double, but was only credited with a single. It doesn’t particularly matter, because Youkilis scored, and as soon as he reached home plate, the game was over. But still.

But still if he had hit a home run, the final score would have been 10-7 rather than 8-7. Even though the extra two runs wouldn’t make a difference to the outcome, they would have to be counted because they happened, no? So why not in this case? If it matters some of the time, shouldn’t it matter all the time?

End-of-game scenarios present a lot of dilemmas along these lines. Ferinstance: tie game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, no outs. The batter lofts a flyball deep to rightfield, clearly deep enough to score the runner from third and end the game.  Does the rightfielder make a play on the ball? Catch it, don’t catch it–the game is over either way. His every defensive instinct is probably compelling him to track down the ball, but why bother? It’s futile.

Now let’s rewind the tape and change up the scenario a bit. Instead of no outs, how about bottom of the ninth, tie game, bases loaded, but two outs. Is there a batter in the on-deck circle? There’s no possible way he could get an at-bat–either the current hitter gets on base, forcing home the winning run, or he makes an out, sending the game to extra innings. So would the next guy in the lineup actually go through the motions of putting on a helmet, selecting a bat, and stepping onto the field, knowing full well as he times his swings against the reliever’s pitches that what he’s doing is irrelevant?

How do we behave when it becomes clear that our actions can have no possible influence on the world? What happens when rationality produces absurd results? What if knowing the future is possible but also pointless because we’re powerless to do anything about it?

Wittgenstein said that questions such as these can’t be answered but must be asked.  For him, asking them was the same as morality or ethics or the Point Of Being Alive or whatever. It’s how we choose to behave in the face of the absurd and pointless and vague and rationally-untenable that matters. 

So I think that I’d slip the donut on the bat and take a couple of cuts, and I’d probably try and catch that ball no matter what. After all, if I just let it fall, it would negatively affect my defensive zone rating, weakening my position during salary arbitration.