Bill James Can Go To Hell
Don't get me wrong, I have always been a huge Bill James fan. I still remember the first time I found The Baseball Abstract, by happenstance in a mall in Fort Myers, Florida, on a spring break trip to Grandma's - truly one of the great revelations of my life as a sports fan. I'm pleasantly amazed that Jamesian-style tools of rational analysis have become increasingly common and mainstream in baseball. And I'm thrilled that the rational analysis revolution has finally reached basketball, even though we're still in the early stages.
But this Bill James story from Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine, titled "Where Numbers Go Next", has piqued my frustration.
The story centers around James' thoughts on the evolution in statistical analysis in sports. He seems to believe that the next steps should go beyond analyzing players in the name of determining what makes a team win, and focus on determining the optimal competitive conditions for a league to succeed as a whole.
All well and good, but then James immediately jumps in and cites a series of perceived "problems" with the NBA which are worth examining. I don't understand why he didn't use the league he knows, MLB - which, in my mind, has plenty of problems - as his case study, rather than the league he knows nothing about, the NBA.
I'm just starting to reach my breaking point in terms of old white guys who are disaffected with the NBA - often people who don't actually watch NBA games - telling me about everything that is wrong with my league. And I am tired of these disaffected old white guys getting so much time and space in major media outlets (often empowered, of course, by the disaffected old white guys who run said outlets).
I'm tired of stories like this where a disaffected old guy's opinions about what's wrong with the NBA are presented as accepted fact. This shit needs to be responded to. So I will try.
The Best Team Always Wins
James' main thrust is that the NBA's biggest problem is that the best team wins too often.
As he writes:
- "The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes.... In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often."
I understand that having the best team win too often may conceivably be bad for business, but James clearly thinks it's inherently a bad thing for on-court competition, judging by this preposterous passage:
- "If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway."
The point is this: NBA playoff series are played to determine the best team. It's not pre-determined, no matter what the conspiracy theorists think. Heading into the playoffs, we usually know that there are 3-5 teams who are generally superior than the rest, and then we play best-of-seven series to find out who the best team is. And the rest of the teams are not irrelevant even though they are not championship-worthy. Often there are young teams and players trying to go a little farther than they've gone before, to lay some groundwork and earn some experience for future playoff runs.
Hoops Darwinism and Sagas
I guess I'm biased: I love the NBA playoff system and think the NBA Playoffs are the best sporting event in the world. I've written it before, but I consider the NBA Playoffs to be Basketball Darwinism, a sporting survival of the fittest. As Hubie might say (rocking the second person, of course): "Are you mentally and physically tough enough to withstand the pressures and challenges and obstacles, to control your emotions at all times so that you avoid that one untimely outburst that can sink your team, as you need to be to endure four best-of-seven series against the toughest competition?"
I love the storylines which emerge from this hoops Darwinism. More than anything, I look forward to the 2008 Playoffs to see how The Dirk Nowitzki Story continues to get written. Will he be mentally tough enough to overcome the failures of the last two years and get all the way to a championship? Or is he destined to be another Karl Malone-type, a player who ultimately couldn't quite lift his team over that last obstacle?
I love that these playoff stories are often multi-year sagas, such as Dirk's story is or Jordan's story was. Even as bad as last year's Finals were, they served as another step in the LeBron saga. We saw him take a step by producing in the 2006 Playoffs, and then a leap with his surpassing performance in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Now, can he take the final step? Can the Suns get over the hump? Can McGrady and Yao advance? I don't think any other American sport has as many compelling stories which arc on a multiyear basis.
As I've already noted, and most everyone concedes, the 2007 Playoffs largely sucked. What were the reasons for such suckage? I would say:
1. There was a huge imbalance in the quality of the conferences, which led to an utterly non-compelling Finals matchup.
2. The suspensions in the Suns-Spurs series utterly deflated what was fixin' to be a spectacular series.
3. Golden State's upset of Dallas ruined matchups down the road. Yeah, I said it. As wildly adrenalizing as that series was to watch - possibly the most entertaining first-round series I've ever seen - it led to the San Antonio-Utah conference finals, which was arguably the most predictable series I've ever seen.
The fact that Dallas, the better team overall, lost ended up hurting the playoffs because it robbed us of the Dallas-San Antonio matchup that we were expecting to determine the best team in basketball, to continue the multi-year storyline of their rivalry, especially after their epic series in 2006. I'm just saying.
NBA vs NCAA
So, what are James' prescribed solutions for the NBA's ills? In short, make the game more like college:
- "So how should the NBA correct this? Lengthen the shot clock. Shorten the games. Move in the 3-point line. Shorten the playoffs.... If the NBA went back to shorter playoff series - for example from best-of-seven games to best-of-three - an upset in that series would become a much more realistic possibility. A three-game series would make the homecourt advantage much more important, which, in turn, would make the regular season games much more important. The importance of each game is inversely related to the frequency with which the best team wins."
I actually think that the NBA Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament complement each other beautifully. The NCAA Tournament is a boy's game, where a team can ride a wave of emotion and a barrage of 20-foot three-pointers, and go on a magical run of upsets and narrow wins. Every game is a Game 7, your grandma has a bracket, and that's all exciting enough to compensate for the fact that the play is increasingly subpar.
The NBA Playoffs, meanwhile, are a man's game - as utterly rational as March Madness is wildly emotional - where teams have to prove that they are better than their opponents over a sustained period, and players have to show superior mental toughness, to contain themselves when the emotions are most highly charged.
To me, both events have their charms and both events suit their sport, even though one (the NCAAs) is not geared to determine the best team, and one (the NBA) is.
NBA vs Baseball
As I mentioned above, one of my biggest issues with the James piece was that there was not even a hint that his sport, baseball, might have problems with its competition system. I happen to think that the current baseball playoff system is crap, since they expanded from four teams to eight.
Even though the NBA has twice as many teams in its playoffs, I think that its regular season is much more meaningful in terms of determining its champion than baseball's is.
In the NBA, teams need to jockey for seeding until the end because home-court advantage is meaningful. Are the playoffs a little bloated with 16 teams? Probably a little, yes. But ultimately, it doesn't really matter because the no. 1 and 2 seeds rarely lose in the first round, so it doesn't cheapen what they earned in the regular season. And if 1's and 2's do fall in the first round, it just serves to illustrate that they weren't championship-caliber in the first place.
The fact that a best-of-seven series in basketball generally determines the best team means you could conceivably expand the playoffs infinitely and it wouldn't affect the competition. Further, the best NBA teams generally have outstanding records from the second half of the regular season on, to prove that they are the best teams for a sustained period of time.
In baseball, teams mainly need to merely ensure that they'll qualify for the postseason - seeding is much less important than in the NBA because home-field advantage is much less pronounced than home-court advantage is.
More important, a best-of-seven series in baseball is largely a crapshoot. It's James himself who educated me about this long ago, with the simple math that there is relatively small deviation between the best baseball teams (about .600 win pct) and the worst (.400), so it's more likely that the worst teams can beat the best in small sample sizes than in the NBA, where it's more of a .750-.250 spread. Red Sox owner John Henry, who employs James, knows this, and has stated in the past that his goal is to create a team which can compete for the playoffs each year, because he knows that each of the eight teams has a roughly equal chance to win the World Series.
I guess my point is this: the baseball playoff system is cheapened with each team that's added to the playoff pool. Teams do not have to sustain excellence over the regular season to win the World Series, and that's how we end up with the St. Louis Cardinals as 2006 World Series champions with an 83-78 record, the worst record ever for an MLB champ. At which point, I ask: What's the point? What does that prove? What's the point of the regular season when an 83-78 team ends up winning?
And, to flip it around, I don't understand what the point of an 82-game NBA regular season would be if we then just decided the champion with a bunch of three-game series. What's the point if you just need to be a 43-39 team and qualify for the postseason? That's when the NBA regular season would be meaningless, not now.
I will take the system where the playoffs prove the best team every time.
Here's another NBA sideswipe by James:
- "Take the problem of what we could call NBA "sluggishness." In the regular season, players simply don't seem to be playing hard all the time. Some people attribute this to high salaries, but the other major sports are choking on money and don't seem to have the problem to any comparable degree."
All I would ask is this: is it any different in baseball? Do baseball players "play hard" for a 162-game season? It's commonly known that baseball has had a longstanding problem with amphetamines because the players have found they've needed them to sustain their ability to recover over the course of the long regular season.
And how, by the way, do I even tell if baseball players are playing hard in a sport where most of the time is spent standing around doing nothing? Does the fact that baseball has slowed to a standstill mean anything? Should we maybe examine the effect that maybe baseball is deathly boring now that the average game takes close to three hours, when it used to be more like 2:20?
Last James excerpt:
- "A fan can look at the standings in December, pick the teams that will make the playoffs, and might get them all. This has a horrific effect on the game. Everybody knows who's going to win. Why do the players seem to stand around on offense? Why is showboating tolerated? Because it doesn't matter. Why don't teams play as teams? Because they can win without doing so (although teams like these may crumble when they run up against the Pistons or Spurs)."
1. In baseball, it's clear by June that many, many teams have no shot to win the World Series. I don't see a lot of difference there.
2. Re: showboating, I dunno - the NFL has at least as much perceived showboating as the NBA and it's the most popular league in the country by far.
3. This is a topic for another time, but I think the NBA has long been structured such that the best teams play as teams the most, and the worst teams play as teams the least. I believe that there are more and more NBA teams exhibiting solid team play each year.
Listen, I understand that the NBA has plenty of problems, and that ratings are dwindling, but I don't believe that the reason the NBA is unpopular is related to its system of competition.
What I continue to hear anecdotally from the disaffected fan is the generic thought that the "players are all thugs". First of all, this doesn't have a lot of basis in fact - increasingly, the All-NBA teams are populated by true "good guys" like Nash and Yao and KG and Brand and Boozer and Bosh and on.
Second, at the end of the day, the pool is comprised of the same players who make up the NFL, so the thought baffles me a little that the perceived player pool in the NBA is a primary reason to not watch the sport, but in the NFL, it has absolutely no effect.
I still think the simple facts of racial perception sadly play a far greater role in the NBA's declining popularity than is acknowledged. I think the older white fan has a tougher time seeing past image-related things like cornrows and tattoos and up-close-and-personal lipreading more than the fact that the competition system is geared to determine the best team, but that's a topic that needs a lot more words than what I have left in me today....