Archive for the ‘Basketball’ category

Titles as a Measure of Greatness

05/17/2010

Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?

If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.

Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.

Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.

Putting Together a Perfect Team

01/30/2010

This will be the last post that draws explicitly on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. In the book’s last chapter, Simmons constructs what he calls his “wine cellar” team. The team consists of individual seasons by players put together to make the perfect basketball team. This idea, though interesting, is not novel. Simmons, however, does put a particularly unique spin on this. He does not just collect the 12 best seasons ever, or even the 12 best seasons portioned out by position and with a caveat that no player can make the team twice. He puts a focus on how this team would really work. In basketball, team success depends on having players that are good at all of the necessary skills of the game: shooting, rebounding, passing, and defense. For this reason, Simmons includes Bill Walton’s 1977, Scottie Pippen’s 1992, and Ray Allen’s 2001. They fill important niches on a basketball team. How, I wonder, would this concept translate to baseball?

The most important consequence, I think, of this sort of team is to preclude the inclusion of Ty Cobb. The virulent and violent racism of Cobb could not be combined with a team that included Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I find this particularly problematic, given that I am in the camp that thinks Cobb was the single greatest center fielder ever to play the game. However, a lily-white 25-man roster is even more problematic, so Cobb would have to go.

Second, you emphasize great peak players. Imagine which Warren Spahn year you pick: the year he won 20 games, lost 10, and stuck up an ERA in the upper 2s, or one of the other 15 years he did the exact same thing. In contrast, Ron Guidry‘s 1978 has to get serious consideration, even though Guidry never really came close to Hall of Fame induction.

Finally, you have to emphasize balance. You can’t pick a collection of pure power hitters, just in case you are stuck playing in Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s. You can’t pick a Whitey-ball Cardinals team from the 1980’s if you have to play in Coors Field in 1996. To be a truly perfect team, you need to be able to win under all conditions. To give an example, consider Jim Rice’s 1978. In 1978, Rice hit .361/.416/.690 at home, but he hit only .269/.325/.512 on the road. Rice’s road numbers are certainly respectable, but on an all-time team his road numbers are enough to exclude him.

This post just works out parameters about how you would put together such a team. I would encourage everyone to give it a try for real. What else do you need to consider? Who would make it? Stick up a post on your blog or in the comments. I’ll try and put together my own team in the next few days.

Are Modern Players Better?

01/26/2010

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

Book Review: The Book of Basketball

01/24/2010

Following on the Elgin Baylor post, I recently finished Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Though it is not Book of the Month time, I thought I’d toss up a review. The next few days, the posts will probably reflect some thoughts sparked by Simmons. But first, the book.

The closest comparison to The Book of Basketball is Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract. James covered the history of baseball, then he did detailed player rankings both by position and overall. Simmons, similarly, gives an introduction to the history of basketball through 1984, then he follows by ranking the top 96 players of all time. Along the way, Simmons mixes a couple of separate essays, including one of the better in-depth treatments of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The book revolves around one theme and one idea. To get Simmons’ point, we need to delve into each for a bit.

According to Simmons, by way of Isiah Thomas, the key to basketball is players dedicating everything to winning basketball games. Individual statistics must be subsumed in order to pursue the ultimate goal of winning championships. Players’ greatness, then, is measured by how well they pursue team success. Who are the greatest players ever? They are the players who won. Simmons is not completely captive to the notion that the players with the most titles are the best, but he comes pretty close. This view, which I find ridiculous in baseball and football, makes some sense in basketball. Basketball players play every aspect of the game, and each member is 20% of his team. In football, you are one of 11 and play only half the game. In baseball, you are one of 9, and if you are a pitcher you pitch every five days. In basketball, one great player can have a bigger impact on his team than any other sport.

Second, Simmons aspires to transform the Basketball Hall of Fame. He sets up a pyramid of great players, ranking them in 4 levels before progressing to the Pantheon, the 12 greatest players ever. This system is similar to that used in our last book of the month, Stat One. I liked it then, and I like it now. Simmons can accurately get at the distinction between legitimately great players. Sure Gail Goodrich (#88, Level 1) was great, but he was not nearly the player Bob McAdoo (#61, Level 2) was. Kevin McHale (#35, Level 3) cannot stack his career up against John Havlicek (#13, Level 1). Finally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#3, Pantheon) was qualitatively better than the players in the lower categories. The Pyramid gives Simmons an excellent and thought-provoking way of organizing his rankings.

How is the execution? Given the two key points, the commitment to winning and the Pyramid, Simmons writes an interesting book. I would not recommend reading it all at once. After a while, his style, heavy as it is on jokes and pop culture allusions, can be taxing. In smaller doses, the book is particularly enjoyable. It has weaknesses, of course, including too strong a belief that modern basketball players are better than those who went before, but it also has strengths, including a passion for the game of basketball that matchless. I’ve already written appreciatively of Simmons’ respect for Elgin Baylor, and he also shares my belief that Hakeem Olajuwon was the best center since Abdul-Jabbar. His rankings, though, are lopsided. His pantheon (top 12) includes 6 centers (Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mose Malone), while it has 4 guards (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson) but only 2 forwards (Larry Bird and Tim Duncan). It is possible that forwards are not really that important, but it seems unlikely that 40% of a basketball team is so dramatically worse than the rest in the all-time rankings. I think the list would make more sense if he elevated Baylor (#14) and Julius Erving (#16) and dropped O’Neal and Malone, but those debates are the joy of the book.

I would highly recommend The Book of Basketball to anyone who likes basketball or is interested in the history of the game. The book is by no means perfect, but it is interesting enough to be worth a read.  he debates are fun, and Simmons make a legitimate contribution to them.

Remembering Elgin Baylor

01/21/2010

Bill Simmons has done yeoman’s work recovering the memory of Elgin Baylor’s career. Given that Simmons believes a fairly strong form of the thesis that players are much better today than they used to be, this is notable. Baylor was a spectacular player who has been disturbingly forgotten by modern basketball fans. Following Simmons I’d like to draw a bit of attention to one extraordinary year of this early NBA legend’s career.

1962 was an freakish year in NBA history, comparable to 1930 in major leagues.  It was a year of astounding offensive totals, highlighted by Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double for the entire season and Wilt Chamberlain averaging more than 50 points per game.  Yet Baylor just might have had a better year. The 1961-62 season was Baylor‘s 4th, and he was quickly rounding into one of the game’s absolute elites. He improved from 24.9 ppg as a rookie to 29.6 in his second season to 34.8 in season 3. His rebounds per game improved from 15 to 16.4 to 19.8. Each of his first 3 years, Baylor played 70 or more games. Then life intervened in a way that is unheard of today. Baylor was in the Army reserves, and he was called to active duty. Because he was on active duty in the United States Army, he had to get permission to leave base in order to play in occasional basketball games. He served his term in Washington state, yet he played for the Los Angeles Lakers. Because of his duty, Baylor only played in weekend games and missed every practice of the season. Of course, his numbers duly collapsed. Or not.

In 1962, Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 points per game, the highest total ever produced by a player not named Chamberlain. He also stuck up 18.6 rebounds per game. Ponder those numbers for a minute. A player who never practiced and played only on the weekends after flying in from Washington stuck up 38 and 19. A player who puts up 20 and 10 is very good, and a player who can average 25 and 15 is elite. Baylor blew those marks out of the water while playing every game, essentially, on the road. How did he follow-up this regular season? He played 13 playoff games, leading all playoff scorers with 38.6 ppg and also averaging 17.7 rpg. He did while facing the 3-time defending champion Celtics and Bill Russell, probably the greatest defender in the NBA’s history. The Lakers pushed the Celtics to 7 games in the NBA finals, losing Game 7 in overtime 110-107 after Frank Selvy missed an open shot at the regulation buzzer that would have won the Lakers the NBA title.

Sometimes, history reminds us to marvel at the things athletes can achieve. In an era before weight training, nutritionists, and the ability to fly in anything but coach, Elgin Baylor endured through some of the most grueling conditions imaginable to play basketball as well as it has ever been played. Enjoy watching Lebron and Kobe because they are truly transcendent talents. Please, though, don’t forget the work of players like Elgin Baylor that allowed for the modern game beloved by so many.

Can a Woman Play in the NBA?

12/08/2009

Last week, David Stern told an interviewer that he thought a woman would play in the NBA in the next 10 years. If anyone would know, it would be Stern. He is the commissioner of the NBA, and the league he runs also owns the WNBA. So let us give this thought some consideration. First the question needs to be broken down into two parts: Can a woman play in the NBA, and can a woman compete at the most elite levels of the NBA? To get at these two questions, I want to start with an analogy to the integration of baseball in the 1940’s.

Two types of black baseball players came into the major leagues in the late 1940’s, and those same two types have existed across races ever since. Some players are great, i.e. Jackie Robinson, and others are mediocre, i.e. Hank Thompson. Both players were important integrators, but they were not equally important ballplayers. Those who kept the game segregated, like Judge Landis, were concerned that no black players could enter the game at all. Why was it so important to make sure a backup catcher that played 20 games a year was white? Because any crack at all in the edifice of the lily-white major leagues would open up the possibility of Josh Gibson coming in and winning an MVP or Satchel Paige dominating white hitters. The wall of segregation had to remain whole, or it would collapse. The same analogy fits the all-male NBA. To explain how, let us start with an example.

Steve Novak is the 12th man on the roster of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers have played 20 games this season, and Novak has only participated in 15. He averages 6.0 minutes per game, averaging 1.7 points per game. Those numbers are in line with his first two seasons in the NBA, though down from last year. Novak essentially is a designated three-point shooter. He comes in late in quarters to take last second three-point shots. He plays no defense, does not pass, does not rebound, and rarely even dribbles. Instead, Novak catches the ball just outside the three-point line and attempts to throw it accurately at the rim. Other players like him exist on almost all NBA rosters. Why must Novak be male? Surely a whole host of women playing in the WNBA could just as accurately take the occasional three pointer without making any other contribution to the team. NBA rosters are not full of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. They instead pair a few superstars with a host of roleplayers. It is tough to imagine an argument grounded in anything other than pure sexism that can explain why all roleplayers must be male.

The second question is tougher. Can a woman compete at an elite level? For starters, remember that this question excludes the vast majority of male NBA players as well. Players like James and Bryant are better than anyone else, male or female. Saying a woman would not be quite as good as Lebron James is not an attack, just as saying Jackie Robinson was not as good as Ted Williams is no mark against Robinson. But can a woman compete at least at the tier slightly below the top players, with the occasional woman being the best player in the game from time to time? Here is where Stern’s 10 years begins to matter. Diana Taurasi is the reigning WNBA MVP. She is arguably the best female player in the world right now. I don’t think she could make a successful transition, and the reason has to do with conditioning. I don’t mean conditioning as in her ability not to wear out during a game; I mean the conditioning placed on her by the culture in which she has grown up. Taurasi is now 27 years old, very close to the peak of her athletic talents. She has been trained, however, to play with a smaller basketball against only female competition for her entire life. This would make it hard for her to transition to the NBA. Changing basketball size would surely effect her shot mechanics and her dribble. By the time she adjusted her frame of mind away from 20 previous years of playing, her prime would likely be past. (I speak here as someone who never played competitive basketball past 7th Grade. It is possible I am overestimating how difficult these changes might be.  If that is the case, then Taurasi could be a top player in a matter of months.) If I am correct about Taurasi, the same point probably applies to nearly everyone in the WNBA, eliminating the best players in the world from consideration.  So why does 10 years matter?

To bring women to the NBA, I think that some 15-year-old girl needs to decide today she wants to be the first woman in the NBA. She has to catch some breaks. She needs to attend a high school that lets her play on the boys’ basketball team, because most schools devote more money, and thus get better facilities, coaches, etc., for their boys’ team. From there, this talented young woman should look for a Division I college that will allow her to play on their men’s team. She would likely be scorned by the top programs, but maybe a lower tier school would be willing to take a chance. Next, she would have to find the right GM. Remember that Jackie Robinson’s immense talent would have been ignored without Branch Rickey. It would have been stifled if Landis was still commissioner. Stern is not Landis and is willing to be Happy Chandler, but who will be Rickey? As the above linked article notes, at least Kiki Vandeweghe of the Nets and Donnie Walsh of the Knicks would consider the possibility. Sadly, in this scenario Diana Taurasi is likely to become Josh Gibson. Gibson was possibly the greatest player the Negro Leagues ever produced. He was too old to be a real prospect by the time Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. He had a heart attack and died before Robinson played his first game. Some astounding talents could be left behind because they did not catch the breaks.

Can a woman play in the NBA? I think the answer is yes. A host of women could play right now if NBA teams would look at women as possible roleplayers. Some of those women would almost certainly blossom into stars if they were ever given the chance. I think it more likely, though, that some woman will have to come in Jackie Robinson-style and blow open the door by showcasing her superior talent on the world’s largest basketball stage. Will this happen soon? I don’t know. It is tough to be as optimistic as Stern.


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