Friday, October 12, 2007

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."
First of all, in my personal opinion as a fan, I want my pro sports leagues to be organized such that the point of the playoff system is to try to determine the best team. I mean, honestly, should it be any other way? To me, there's a Herm Edwards obviousness to it: "You play to determine the best team!"

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."
Honestly, I can't believe I even have to respond to this. Did Golden State not play hard when matched up with 67-win Dallas in the first round? Did Phoenix not battle with the Spurs, even though most people assumed that San Antonio was better? Did Cleveland give up down 0-2 vs. the Pistons, because the consensus was Detroit was superior? Even in the wild mismatch of The Finals, Cleveland's problem wasn't that they laid down, resigned to their fate. They actually played quite hard. They were just overwhelmed. It was a terrible matchup; it happens.

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.

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."
You know, on a certain level, who am I to argue? The NCAA Tournament is clearly a more popular event than the NBA Playoffs, so maybe this is the ideal answer: just mimic March Madness. All I know is that I would be let down, borderline devastated as a fan, if this is what pro basketball came to.

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."
First, I will say, as I've said before, that I think the quality of the NBA regular season is much higher than it was 20 years ago because there is much more defense being played overall, and defense is a function of effort to a certain extent. But certainly, I concede that it is difficult to sustain a maximum effort every night over an 82-game season, and I think the ideal regular-season length would be about 60 games.

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)."
I'm running out of steam here, as I'm sure you the reader are, but let me just quickly point out that:
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....


At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That article pissed me off too.
The unproven assumption that a sports tournament need not be about finding out who is the best team drove me crazy .
Good response!

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is a tremendous reply to the article. The key is that one group of people will always be unsatisfied. People slam the NBA because the same teams excel every year. Now, people are bored to death of the NLCS because no one has ever heard of the upstart teams.

Please continue your high standard of work on this site.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger robert said...

You mentioned everything well with full professionalism. Great read.

I agree 100%. I think Old White Man Who Watches Baseball Disease is a lot like Short Man disease. Seriously. The NBA and NFL get along great. I get along well with all of my "football friends" and they love basketball too. But when a baseball guy, usually middleaged or older, comes strolling along it seems like he wants to show how tough his sport is by putting all the others down (soccer seems to be another fun target).

I don't care for baseball but I don't go around trying to on dog it to my friends how deathly boring it is (heh, even MLB players talk about what they do in the dugout to kill boredom). I just don't get it.

great read

At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, one of the best I have ever read! It should deserve to be on the cover of ESPN, FOX etc. so that NBA haters would shut up for once.

And I am sick of those old guys (not everyone, obviously) who always say that the NBA is a bunch of thugs. I don't get it. The NBA haters can all go to hell.

Nothing beats the NBA in my book.

PS:FOX Sports boards are the worst. You can't have a conversation about the NBA anymore. I would say that no matter the topic, 90% of the posts are about how much the NBA sucks and about the fact that the NBA is a bunch of thugs. I'm not talking only about the articles about players getting arrested, I'm talking about every NBA article. For instance, the other day I read an article about the NBA wanting to play some regular season games in Europe. Well, 90% of the posters said that the NBA thugs should be forced overseas, some were surprised that those thugs were allowed to set foot in Europe despite being criminals (which they are NOT!).

That's the situation. I hate the NBA haters. They are worthless people. Period.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen, brother. I'm sorry to say that James dropped several notches in my book after that article. You really have to be drinking the baseball Kool-Aid to believe that watching the best teams usually win championships is a bad thing.

And it's good to see someone finally identify the Warriors as the true villains of the 2007 Playoffs. Those free-flowing, high-scoring, crowd-pleasing, back-in-the-playoffs-after-a-12-year-drought Cinderella-story teams are destroying the NBA.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger KNB said...

Can someone explain to me how the NBA us superior in game play to the NCAA? Admittedly the NBA has better athletes, but what does that actually have to do with basketball? NBA teams are littered with solid defenders who are offensively/skill deficient surrounding a few stars-superstars. Its boring. That the real problem with the NBA. That's his point. You can play boring boring basketball and win. I guess in some books its 'good' basketball, but largely un-entertaining.

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kenneth buddy, you got it all wrong. The NCAA and NBA are different sports, essentially. You like seeing teams play "pick-up style" ball and winning games. I like seeing a guy like Lebron go superhuman and scoring a team's last 29 points to upset a favorite.

College basketball has never been exciting to me, unless my college is in it. I can't get thrilled watching a school 2000 miles away from me win a b-ball game on a neutral site.

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uhhh? How come you say the NBA is boring? Gee, i am on the edge of my seat most of the times when I watch the NBA. Just think that last week I rewatched for the 20th time I think game 5 between Detroit and Cleveland and I was, for the 20th time, on the edge of my seat. If that's boring, I don't know what you consider exciting.

I like college basketball, but the NBA is better imo.

At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill James' entire point about predetermination is scuttled when you consider one facet of the NCAA Tournament - seeding!

The 1985 Villanova Wildcats remain the lowest seed ever to win the NCAA Tourney - they were a #8! There are 16 teams seeded in each region. Ergo, we only need HALF the number of teams in order to be certain that the eventual winner is in the pool. Why do they play #1 v #16 when the Tourney only has to contain 32 teams?

Furthermore, who wins the Tourney more - #1 seeds or #8 seeds? I think we all know the answer. And Bill James thinks that the best teams in college DON'T always win it? That's ludicrous. The only difference is that there are many more teams in the NCAA Tourney, which results in 'more' good teams. There are 16 teams seeded #1-4, which is as many as in the entire NBA Playoffs. How often does the Final Four contain multiple #1 and #2 seeds? Does Bill James think they aren't the best teams?

And his comments about NBA 'slugishness' are petty and trite. I'd like Bill James to watch Aramis Ramirez fail to run out a ground ball in June while explaining to me that NBA players aren't busting their butts for the majority of 82 games.

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, great post. I agree with everything you said.

Secondly, I find it highly ironic that a guy who works in baseball, where the Yankees and Red Sox buy their way into the playoffs every year, thinks that the, "element of predetermination" is too high in the NBA.

At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...AND He Can Take Baseball With Him"
For someone who's sport's players don't bother to even play in every game to speak of NBA players not playing hard every night is pretty funny.And let's not compare a sport where half the time the players are sitting on their butts and most of the rest of the time they're just standing around to a sport that involves constant motion.
The unspoken assumption is that in College the season is so short the kids play hard all the time,whereas those jaded pros couldn't care less. So I loved the unnamed College Coach who was complaining in Sports Illustrated about the poor play in the NCAA Tournament 3 yrs ago. He said it was particularly bad considering the players were really trying instead of taking games off like they did in the regular season.For fun check out how many draft evaluations mention the player had a problem playing hard all season.

5 different Champions in last 6 NBA Seasons. Mavs,Suns and Detroit have had best records in past 3 yrs and have no Titles in that span.
Mr James should stick to the sport that is so worried about competition that it allows teams to have payrolls 6 times greater than other teams. A sport that cares so much for it's fans that it cancelled it's World Series rather than agree to a labor deal.A sport that allows an Owner to act as Commissioner.

At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you misinterpreted and overreacted to Bill James' article. What he says makes sense. He is not saying that things need to change, just that there are some problems and here's how you fix them. If you don't want to do the fixes then fine. Some of them are obviously not ever going to happen, but his ideas are interesting to say the least. The NBA regular season is pretty meaningless, you have to give him that point. Even players like Shaq have pointed that out.
vr, Xei

At 6:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(forgive me if i'm just repeating what other's have said - I wanted to put in my response before reading other people's comments)

First of all: I take exception to your derogatory use of the phrase 'old white man' in your argument. It's crude and unecessary. There are ways to make your points and express your annoyances without dismissing a man under a demeaning label (that is, a label which in this case you clearly meant as demeaning.)

That said, I sympathize with your stance on this. I couldn't disagree with Bill James more.
For starters, there is a lot more unpredictability in the NBA than he gives it credit for. When last season started, and even just before the playoffs started, how predictable was it that Golden State would have upset Dallas, that the Bulls would have swept the defending champs in the first round, and that the Cavaliers would have upset the Pistons in the Conference Finals? How many people would have predicted when the season started that teams such as the Raptors and the Jazz would have done as well as they did?

There *is* a certain amount of predictability in the NBA but there's a reason for that - because teams work hard to create it. A combination of talent, skill, hard work and experience goes into making a team as good as it is (plus savvy and a bit of luck on the GM's side). The best teams become finely tuned, well-oiled machines that can make basketball at it's best almost artistic and breathtaking to watch. I want to see those teams make it to the Finals. I want to see those teams reach the pinnacle they have *earned,* not see them upset by a mediocre team because the system is setup to make such things more likely. (Which is not the same thing as GS upsetting the Mavs - the Warriors earned their upset over a best-of-seven series while the Mavs blew it.)

At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Secondly, I find it highly ironic that a guy who works in baseball, where the Yankees and Red Sox buy their way into the playoffs every year, thinks that the, "element of predetermination" is too high in the NBA."


At 3:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Haubs you mentioned that 60 games would be ideal. I realize that it will never happen, But what are your thoughts on a 58 game season.

Play each team twice, one away, one home. Seed teams 1-16; no conferences.

You could also have the top seed choose their oppenent, like the D league is doing next year. Or do an NFL type thing, where the top seed recieves the lowest remaining seed in the next round.

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