Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Got Your Madness Right Here

If you see a better buzzer-beater this March than this, please let us know:

And this is after D-Wade hit a 35-footer to close the first half, and another three-pointer with :11 left in the 4th quarter to send things to overtime, mind you. On a 48-6-12 night, to boot. We're just saying.

It's about that time of year when the average American Joe Sports Fan will rhapsodize ad nauseam about how superior the college game is to the pros because the kids are just so scrappy and, you know, they cry on the court before the game is over and generally just play so much harder than those NBA players who don't give a damn.

Meanwhile, the best basketball in the world during March Madness will continue to be played in the NBA even in lil ol' regular-season games - after the players have long since stopped caring, right? - as it was in 2006 when the LeBron (47-12-10) v. D-Wade (44-8-9) game for the ages was far, far better than the Final Four games played later that day, and in 2007, when the 129-127 2OT Suns-Mavs classic (when they had the top two records in the league) on the eve of the tournament was easily the best basketball game that month.

Even the NBA buzzer-beaters have been comparable in March! I'd argue that this J-Rich coast-to-coast spinner in March, 2006 was the finest of that month:

And Rasheed sending a game to OT from 60 feet away has to qualify as one of the best of March, 2007:

We try to celebrate basketball in all its forms here at TPA, we'll be happy to watch plenty of tournament action this March as usual, and we might even make it down to Portland for what would be about the 10th time we've attended the Tournament in person in our lifetime.

But, in this era when the talent level - and by extension, the quality of play - in the college game is at an all-time low, March is increasingly the month when the college game is overrated and the pro game is underrated more than any other, in the eyes of fans and media.


It's with that preamble that we segue into the head-scratcher of an article, titled "The Year NBA Teams Quit Early: Why Revenue Concerns, Bloated Contracts and Dreams of LeBron Are Quashing Competition," which launched expanded sports coverage in the Wall Street Journal last week.

On balance, we're thrilled to hear that the WSJ is digging deeper into sports. They are long-established as a gold standard of American journalism, and offer the prospect of more smart sports coverage on the horizon, which is of course always welcome. But this first lead NBA piece, by Matthew Futterman, frankly just doesn't make much logical sense.

The main premise of the story is that five teams have a chance to win this year's championship, and the other 25 have basically given up, in some degree due to the economy, and that's the story of the NBA this season. It just seemed like an odd way to headline an NBA season which, to us, looks increasingly extraordinary.

- We have four teams - L.A. Lakers, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando - on pace for 60+ wins (which hasn't happened since the last Jordan Bulls year of 1997-98), with the wily Spurs hanging around, and the Jazz and Rockets charging up the standings.

- We have the likely prospect of either another installment in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry or Kobe v LeBron - each possibly bringing in 65-win teams - in the Finals. We may get a LeBron v D-Wade series. We might get conference finals of Celtics-Cavs and Lakers-Spurs. The 2009 NBA Playoffs have the potential to be mind-blowingly compelling and competitive.

- On top of that, we have four players who are playing at an extraordinarily high level in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, with Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan not too far behind.

There are three players with PERs of 29.0 or higher for the first time since steals and TOs were first tracked in 1973-74. It has arguably been the greatest combined performance by multiple players since Jordan, Barkley, Olajuwon, Ewing and Robinson were all at near-peak performance in 1992-93, which just happened to be the season which had the greatest playoffs ever, in our opinion.

- Let's take a quick look at the Big 6, including some of the ridiculous numbers they've put recently:

- 31.1 PER (challenging MJ's 31.7 in '87-88 as the best PER ever)
- Averaging 28.1 pts, 7.4 reb., 7.0 ast, which translates to 40.1 pts, 10.3 reb, 10.0 ast at the pace of the 1961-62 season, when the Big O averaged his triple-double.
- Had a 34-7-14 on Jan. 21, a 52-9-11 on Feb. 4, and a 55-5-9 on Feb. 20.

- 30.4 PER
- Averaging 29.7 pts, 5.1 reb., 7.7 ast.
- Averaging 36.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 10.8 assists since the All-Star Break!!! That is out-of-your-mind basketball.
- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after last night's game, "Mr. Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr., if he's not legitimately considered for an MVP candidate, I don't know what he needs to do." And the crazy thing is that, as right as E-Spoel is, and as ridiculous as D-Wade is playing, he really has a very slim shot at the MVP given what LeBron is doing.
- Had a 50-5-5 on Feb. 22, a 31-7-16 on Feb. 24, a 46-8-10 on Feb. 28, a 35-6-16 on Mar. 4, a 48-6-12 last night.

- 29.0 PER
- Averaging 21.4 pts, 5.3 reb., 11.1 ast., 2.8 stl.
- Had a 32-3-15 vs. LAL on Jan. 6, a 33-10-11-7 stl on Jan. 14, a 27-10-15-7 stl on Jan. 26, a 36-6-10 on Feb. 18.

- 25.2 PER
- Averaging 28.0 pts, 5.4 reb., 4.9 ast. with career-highs at .472 FG and .870 FT.
- Had a 36-7-13 on Jan. 9, a 28-13-11 on Jan. 16, 61 pts on Feb. 2, and 49 pts/11 reb on Mar. 1.

- 25.7 PER
- Averaging 21.0 pts, 14.0 reb., 2.9 blk. with .568 FG.
- Had a 25-20 on Jan. 16 vs. LAL, a 30-16 on Feb. 8, a 45-19-8 blk on Feb. 17, a 32-17 on Feb. 22, and 24-21-4 blk on Feb. 25.

- 24.9 PER
- Averaging 21.0 pts, 11.1 reb., and a career-high 3.9 ast.
- Had a 30-15-5-4 blk on Jan. 23, a 32-15-5 on Feb. 2.

Note that all of the game lines I cited have occurred since Jan. 1. That's what's knocking me out - it's getting to the point where it takes an ungodly stat line to get my attention each morning, with guys having 30+ pt/10+ ast games and beyond so commonly. What these guys are doing on a regular basis is nothing short of staggering.

All of this is to say that the idea that this is "The Year The NBA Quit Early" is ridiculous. It's "The Year That An Abnormal Number of NBA Teams and Players Performed at a Abnormally High Level." Not too much of a ring to it, I know, but the bottom line is that we are in an NBA golden age, folks. Savor it.


We have a few more nits to pick with Futterman:
1. Having 5 teams with a legitimate shot at the title by this time of year is actually pretty good. You can argue with Bill James about whether that's a good thing, but we have no problem with it. But the biggest point is that 5 teams in title contention at this point is reasonably consistent with past years. There's nothing special about 2008-09 in that regard.

This doesn't mean that the rest of the league has given up. You've got a huge logjam between 3 and 7 in the West. The Jazz and Rockets are making moves and seem poised to try to take the next step in the playoffs, the Blazers are trying to make a name for themselves, nobody is going to want a piece of D-Wade and the Heat in the playoffs, the Bobcats are making a move in what promises to be a wild scramble for the 8 spot in the East (did the Heat and Bulls look like they were trying last night?), the young Thunder have been working to improve as the season rolls on, yada yada yada.

All of this is to say that there are lots of reasons why teams keep competing even if they are not in championship contention in a given season, most notably to take a step in the direction of contention in future years. Will there be some tanking this year? Sure, just like any other year (probably less so, though, since this year's Draft class looks weak). But again, it's mostly like any other year from a competitive standpoint, across the entirety of the league.

2. Futterman goes on to write:
    For the first time in NBA history, team owners, executives, and fans in numerous markets say they have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season and that, given the state of the economy, they could not make the sorts of expensive moves that would help them improve. "We all want to win, but we have to be aware of the uncertainty of our future revenue," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

    Beyond the obvious disappointment for fans, what's most troubling about this situation is that for the first time in the long history of North American professional sports, the majority of the teams in one league have no financial incentive to improve. Most will be better off financially if they do nothing, and in many cases, will fare even better if they make personnel moves that are certain to make them worse.
It's comically shortsighted to think that finances have not affected personnel decisions in pro sports before now. In fact, it actually *has* been the case that finances have affected personnel for most of the "long history of North American professional sports."

Go back and research how the old Kansas City A's basically served as a farm system for the New York Yankees back in the day. Want an NBA example? How about the fact that Celtics owner Walter Brown convinced the Rochester Royals not to draft Bill Russell in 1956 by promising to bring the Ice Capades cash cow to fill the arena in Rochester, clearing the way for Boston to draft him at no. 2.

The examples of economics affecting competitive balance in pro sports history go on and on and on. Even with the current economic crisis causing teams to manage costs cautiously, the competitive balance across the NBA is still at a relatively historic high, overall.

3. Now, I'm not in denial - I understand that the economy *is* having an impact on NBA transactions, and I would have understood if Futterman had used the example of how New Orleans nearly traded away its championship aspirations due to economics with the rescinded Tyson Chandler trade. Valid point, valid story.

However, Futterman used three curious examples to explain how economics were affecting personnel decisions:

  • He claimed no one wanted to take on Vince Carter's hefty contract.
  • He noted how the Pistons suffered on the court after trading Billups for Iverson, though they were saving money because AI's deal expires this summer while Chauncey's still has years to run.
  • He also noted how the Knicks are clearing payroll with their eyes on the 2010 free-agent class headlined by LeBron.

I really don't want to spend too much time on these because anyone who follows the league at all can see how flawed these examples are, and we're 90,000 words in as it is, but for the record:

Vince. No one wanted Vince primarily because he's already 32 with an expensive contract that runs until he's 34, when he'll be in decline. This is a bad contract in any economy. The Portland Trail Blazers were rumored to have plenty of chances to grab Vince, and they are not a team that's hamstrung by the economy. They (presumably) didn't want a declining player (with a reputation for being soft, at that) as they start to enter championship contention.

Pistons. Again, this is basic sound team-building in any economy. You have a promising young point guard, so trade the older point guard with a long contract for an expiring contract, and start rebuilding the team sooner rather than later. A classic unsentimental, smart Joe Dumars move, and I think that ripping off the band-aid like this, so to speak, will get the Pistons back into contention more quickly than the slow-bleeding declines of the Mavericks and Suns.

Knicks. After spending ridiculously in perpetual pursuit of a quick fix for the last decade, the Knicks are long overdue to rebuild in a sensible manner. Futterman quoted Donnie Walsh as saying, "It's what you have to do if you want to be a contending team." It's true - and it has nothing to do with the current economy. New York remains one of the league's richest teams. They are rebuilding this way by choice, not because of the world's very legitimate and increasingly scary economic woes.

Alright, enough words for tonight. Good night.


At 4:43 AM, Blogger Nate Jones said...

I really hope this gets blasted all over the internet. It's good to know that there is someone out there writing about the NBA that actually knows what they are talking about. I just wish you had the Wall Street Journal as a platform.

At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. People disparaging the NBA in favor of the NCAA at this time of the year is one of my pet peeves. Nice work.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Brian McCormick said...

Good stuff. I wrote this two years ago along the same lines:

I am, however, slowly changing to Wade for MVP.Where would Miami be without Wade?

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tha Pistons-Nuggets example is really lame. One would only have to point out that even if a team is taking a shorter contract etc, then it means that the other team (Nuggets) are taking the longer contract in order to compete...

Not that it makes much difference, your answer was fine, but this short-sighted opinions from mainstream media are infuriating

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to mention the Knicks are also winning a lot more games this year.

Also, I'm from Rochester and had never heard that story before. I already knew my hometown was a sad place, but passing up Bill Russell for the ice capades really takes it to a whole other level.

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering Miami did not HAVE to win that game last night I do not understand the argument that the NBA is better in March. The NBA lets you lose 3 games in any given series before you have to play a MUST win. The NCAA tournament gives you no such luxury, neither do the conference tournaments.
The NBA certainly offers superior level of talent and matchups but the passion?
The only time both NBA team HAVE to win is in a game 7! Every team has to win every game in March Madness.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But to Anon,

who really wants to see those cinderella 13 seeds falling back to earth in 20 point blowouts in the round of 16 as happens every year.

i want to see the challenge increasing every round as it does in the nba. ala the celts hawks,cavs, lakers gauntlet last year.

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I disagree that the only must-win game during the playoffs is game 7. Every game is a must-win during the playoffs. I don't know if it makes sense or not, but I consider every game a must-win in the playoffs. I'm quite sure NOBODY wants to lose a playoffs game, even if it's game 1 of a best-of-seven series.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You're probably right overall, but the fact that the NBA has great games and great buzzer-beaters even during the regular season doesn't mean much on its own, because the NCAA also has great games and great buzzer-beaters during the regular season. But point taken.

Putting aside the WSJ arguments, I'm guessing that the preference for the college game among some fans has a lot to do with having a stronger loyalty to their alma mater (or whatever other college they are attached to) than to some NBA team. I also think that if you polled basketball fans on whether they preferred watching the NBA or the college game, a lot of it would come down to geography. If you're from North Carolina, do you think you're going to pay attention to the Bobcats, or one of the THREE NCAA title contenders in that state? The fact that the Bobcats could probably beat any of those three teams means nothing to us. There's no question the level of play is better in the NBA, but fans might prefer the college game for a lot of subjective reasons.

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ad nauseam, not nauseum

At 10:06 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Thanks, anon - fixed. We're going to have to cut the pay of the copy-editing staff.

Meredith, that is a fair and rational take, and that's all I really ask for.

I essentially rate the NBA as a 90 on a scale 1-100 for viewing enjoyment and NCAA hoops as about a 60.

If people want to rate NCAA as a 90 and the NBA as a 60, I can understand.

My problem is that many college fans seem to rate NCAA as a 100 - without flaw - and the NBA as a big 0. It just gets emotional instead rational, and people make their arguments based on (often-faulty) perceptions rather than reality and observations.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

M. Haubs, I totally agree.

A few days ago I was reading a blog and came across a guy who trashed the NBA and was basically repeating the same old overused stereotypes about this league. I highly doubt the league can do anything to change those stereotypes. People, sadly to say, have their minds set and nothing will change their minds. Heck, I even heard people saying that Wade's performance against the Bulls was nothing special and was boring. And someone even said that the NBA doesn't have superstars anymore and players are all criminals. Go figure. The NBA got to be the most unfairly treated league in pro sports.

It's depressing to listen to those people. And it will only get worse in the next few days with the ncaa tournament, which is the only time many casual fans even remotely pay attention to basketball.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent point about the NBA being in a golden era. I remember the vacuum that was left when MJ left after '98. It was pretty bad for a few years, but the NBA has it's superstars again. James, Wade, Kobe, Duncan, CP3... not to mention 2nd tier superstars who are exciting such as Brandon Roy and Kevin Durant. The league is fun to watch once more and It's good to take a step back and acknowledge that now and again.

College Ball and NBA shouldn't be compared IMO. They're different games entirely. Different rules, different players, different stakes. I think both should be appreciated for what they are instead of pitted against one another in a no-holds-barred death match to see who gets to have all the fans. I love the tourney. I love the NBA. At the end of the day, it's just basketball.

Also, I have to commend you on your take of the Detroit situation. Most people just freak out like "OMG what a dumbass trade- AI suxx!" without realizing that that team needed to get blown up and they got great value for Billups. They are underperforming right now but the Pistons are in a good position.

Nice Blog- added to my favorites.

At 4:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


just found out this article. I can't help but shake my head. It would be nice if people who don't watch the NBA avoided to write about it.

and the sad thing is that just about everyone in the comments agree with the author. The NBA can't win, no matter what :(

At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really belive that it's mostly about race: about having to openly confront urban black styles. the mlb fan, the ncaa fan, even the nfl fan (helmets, impersonality, interchangable parts): all can, to some extent, avoid this confrontation. the nba fan? not so much. many of the stylistic/moral criticisms aimed at the nba can be read as coded racial discourse: laziness, lack of discipline, excessive flash, etc....


At 9:56 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

I have to say I very much agree with you, Nick.

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