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Friday, October 03, 2008

Sixth Sense: Odom Less Than Thrilled About Not Being a Starter

The number one issue facing the Lakers this season--assuming, of course, that Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are healthy--is Lamar Odom's role. The mercurial forward is not pleased about talk that he will be the team's sixth man. Informed that Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson wants to bring him off of the bench, Odom declared, "He must have woke up and bumped his head. He probably hit his head on something--boom. To start off like that, you've got to be out of your...mind."

While some people believe that the return to health of Andrew Bynum automatically will enable the Lakers to win multiple titles, after game six of the Finals I wrote, "All of the talk about a Lakers' dynasty in the making is extremely premature. Andrew Bynum has yet to put together half a season's worth of productive NBA games, let alone prove that he can be a reliable playoff performer. When--if--he fully returns to health he can give the Lakers more paint presence but he will not single-handedly correct all of the problems that the Lakers had in the Finals. Also, I have yet to hear serious discussion of the fact that he, Gasol and Odom cannot possibly play extended minutes together because none of them is a small forward. Bynum or Gasol can play center with Odom at power forward or Bynum can play center with Gasol at power forward but if Gasol and Bynum are on the court together then Odom will have to be on the bench in favor of someone who can play small forward. The ideal scenario for the Lakers would be for Bynum to quickly prove that he is healthy and productive so that the Lakers can trade Odom in exchange for a legitimate starting small forward; that is a position that is a glaring need for them, because Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza are each best suited to be bench players."

In my 2008 playoff recap I reemphasized those points: "If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either."

Regardless of how much Odom or his admirers overestimate his abilities, what Odom does best is rebound but if Bynum is healthy and in shape he is not only a better rebounder than Odom but he also provides more paint presence defensively. Odom has never been a great fit in the Triangle Offense but he was at his best last season when he was the third offensive option behind Bryant and Gasol, as opposed to being relied upon as the second offensive option (the next person who uses Odom's name in the same sentence with Scottie Pippen should immediately be sent to basketball purgatory). Add Bynum to that mix and you certainly have a big and talented frontcourt but one that does not mesh together well from a skill set standpoint; Odom is not a reliable outside shooter, nor can he be depended on to guard top flight small forwards on a nightly basis. Coach Jackson is obviously correct that the optimal solution from a strategic standpoint is to bring Odom off of the bench but there are two problems here: (1) Odom is in the last year of his contract and he obviously wants to put up big numbers so that he can get the largest possible deal after the season; (2) Odom's concentration and focus are not great anyway but being a sixth man requires a player to be very aware of what is going on in the game when he is on the bench so that he can have an instant impact when he enters the fray. Some people may assume that issue number one will help Odom resolve issue number two but I don't think so; if Odom comes off of the bench he is not going to be more focused so that he can put up good numbers: rather, he is going to force the issue because he is going to be concerned that he won't play as many minutes as he did last year.

Truthfully, the ideal solution for the Lakers is the one that I mentioned right after game six: Bynum quickly proves that he is healthy and effective, enabling the Lakers to trade Odom for a true small forward. Even if the player that they get in return is less talented than Odom, the Lakers will come out well if they get someone who enables them to properly balance out their rotations. Perhaps the Lakers could even package Radmanovic and some other reserves along with Odom in order to get not only a legitimate starting small forward but also a power forward who is better suited mentally to come off the bench than Odom is.

If Gasol and Bynum are healthy and Odom is not traded, Odom's dissatisfaction with his role and his lack of productivity will be the top stories in Lakerland. Strange as it may sound, if the Lakers cannot trade Odom they will almost be better off if Bynum gets hurt and the Lakers can use the lineup that dominated the Western Conference in the second half of last season. That may sound extreme--and I certainly am not wishing any ill on Bynum or anyone else--but Odom's role is a serious issue that the Lakers will have to address.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pedowitz Report Implicates Only Donaghy but Recommends Several Changes to NBA Officiating Program

The much anticipated Pedowitz Report has been released. You can read the 133 page document by visiting http://www.nba.com/media/PedowitzReport.pdf. If you are just interested in the bottom line conclusions, the NBA has issued a two page press release that contains four crucial bullet points:

Along with his recommendations, Mr. Pedowitz reported the following findings:

• He found no evidence that any NBA referee other than Mr. Donaghy bet on NBA games or leaked confidential NBA information to gamblers, and no evidence that phone calls between referee Scott Foster and Donaghy were attributable to criminal activity.

• He found no evidence that any referee miscalled a game to favor a particular team or player, or that the League has asked referees to call games to favor particular teams or players.

• He found no evidence to support specific allegations of game manipulation or misconduct made by Mr. Donaghy and his attorney in June 2008, including allegations regarding a 2005 playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets and a 2002 playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.

• He found that a number of referees engaged in forms of gambling other than betting on NBA games, in violation of League rules. The League previously decided not to discipline referees for these violations.

Pedowitz and his investigators were not able to interview Donaghy directly but according to the report they "conducted approximately 200 interviews," speaking with 57 referees plus numerous team and league executives. I read the entire report and my initial impression is that it will not change too many people's minds: those who believe either in some NBA "conspiracy" to affect the outcome of games and/or those who simply believe that NBA officiating is bad will still believe those things, while those who believe that the NBA has done the best job that it can will say that the Pedowitz investigation offers substantial proof that this is the case. My opinion is that there is no conspiracy to alter the outcomes of games/playoff series and that the NBA referees are among the best in all sports but that the NBA must be vigilant not only to avoid impropriety but the perception of impropriety and that the NBA should be more aware of the personal conduct of referees on and off the court.

It is clearly problematic that neither Pedowitz nor the NBA were able to speak with Donaghy and Pedowitz's report acknowledges this without dwelling on the issue. Without talking to Donaghy, Pedowitz and his investigators basically had to resort to context clues and process of elimination deduction to even figure out which games should be looked at more closely. Of course, even the most casual NBA fan immediately realized that two of Donaghy's most well publicized accusations concerned the 2005 playoff series between Dallas and Houston and the 2002 playoff series between L.A. and Sacramento. The Pedowitz Report looks at both series in great detail but if you just interested in the bottom line here is what the Pedowitz Report concluded:

Dallas-Houston, 2005 Playoff Series:

We have found no evidence of any inappropriate conduct in this playoff series. There is no evidence that anyone in the League office or any of the referees were intending to favor one team over another. Based at least in part on the Mavericks’ complaints, the League identified a type of erroneous non-call that referees had made in prior games and sought to correct it for future games. While Van Gundy continues to take issue with how he believes the message to correct the erroneous non-calls was delivered to the referees, he does not believe the referees or anyone else intentionally sought to manipulate a game or injure his team.

This incident has caused us to focus on the process by which team complaints
about officiating are received and resolved. As we discuss in our Recommendations, we believe that all team complaints about officiating during the playoffs and the League’s response to those complaints should be posted for both teams to see.

L.A.-Sacramento, 2002 Playoff Series:

The game was, in the opinion of the reviewers, poorly officiated. There were a total of fifteen incorrect calls or non-calls. Of these fifteen errors, eight favored the Lakers, while seven favored the Kings. The bulk of the game’s incorrect calls and non-calls occurred during the first three quarters. In the critical fourth quarter, there were only three incorrect calls or non-calls: two favored the Lakers and one favored the Kings. The officiating errors were found to be distributed among the three referees as follows:

• (Dick) Bavetta made nine errors in the game, five of which favored the Lakers and four of which favored the Kings. None of these errors occurred in the fourth quarter.
• (Ted) Bernhardt made six errors, four of which favored the Lakers and two of which favored the Kings. In the fourth quarter, Bernhardt made one error favoring the Lakers.
• (Bob) Delaney made four errors in the game, two of which favored the Lakers and two of which favored the Kings. In the fourth quarter, Delaney made three of his errors: two favoring the Lakers and one favoring the Kings.

The gist of the Pedowitz Report's findings regarding this game is that it was poorly officiated but that there is no evidence that the referees intentionally did a bad job. However, there is an interesting passage about the interactions between Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney that is disquieting; if two high profile referees have personal issues that may be affecting the quality of their officiating when they are on the same crew then the league should either compel them to resolve those issues, never assign them to work together or terminate one or both referees. Here is how the Pedowitz Report explains what happened during this game and in particular why two rather infamous calls were incorrectly made:

We also discussed Donaghy’s allegations with Ed T. Rush, who was Director of Officials at the time. Rush was present in the arena and supervised the referees during the game. He told us that he was well aware during the game that the referees were having a bad game and making errors. Rush told us that he has reviewed the video of this game on a number of occasions, and the pattern of calls, in his opinion, do not reflect favoritism. He added that it was also inconceivable to him that any of the referees would set out intentionally to extend a series. He pointed out that all of the referees are in competition each year to officiate playoff games and said it was impossible for him to believe any referee would deliberately make erroneous calls and subject himself or herself to having their calls repeatedly reviewed and criticized by the media.

Rush told us he thought that Bernhardt’s performance that night had been satisfactory, and nothing about his performance suggested that he was trying to favor either team. As to Bavetta, while he made a substantial number of errors, Rush felt there was nothing about his call patterns that suggested he was deliberately trying to favor the Lakers. Rush also noted that Bavetta had performed well in the fourth quarter, making no errors.

As to Delaney, Rush was aware that he was involved in the two most controversial calls in the fourth quarter--plays that Donaghy appears to single out as suggesting manipulation. Rush told us that he has known Delaney for many years and believes Delaney is a highly honorable person. He noted that Delaney had been a highly decorated law enforcement officer before he joined the NBA. (Delaney served with the New Jersey State Police for fourteen years before becoming an NBA referee. Delaney’s career included a three-year undercover assignment in connection with a major organized crime investigation. In 1981, Delaney testified as a law enforcement expert before a Senate subcommittee during hearings on waterfront corruption. Senators Warren Rudman and Sam Nunn praised him for his effectiveness and bravery. To this day, Delaney regularly gives speeches at federal law enforcement training sessions and to undercover operatives in the United States and Canada.)

Rush also recalled that Delaney made only a few errors but was nonetheless quite upset with the errors he had made in the fourth quarter. Having known and observed Delaney on and off the floor, and knowing how hard he tried to avoid mistakes, Rush said that he could not imagine Delaney ever deliberately manipulating a game. Rush told us that he had been in touch with Delaney and his wife after the game and learned that Delaney was so upset about his performance in that game that he had suffered sleepless nights.

Rush also told us that he thought that it had been a mistake (for which he took some responsibility) to have teamed Delaney with Bavetta in this game. While Delaney and Bavetta once had a close friendship, they had a falling out in connection with a personal matter some years before this game, and Rush felt that the poor chemistry between the two referees contributed to the crew’s poor performance in this game.

We reviewed the video of this game and discussed with NBA Basketball Operations personnel the erroneous call against Divac and the non-call against Bryant. They explained to us how Delaney and Bernhardt (on the second call) could have missed these calls. The first play, which resulted in Divac receiving his sixth foul, came while Divac was on the floor battling for the ball. Delaney saw numerous players in the scramble and blew his whistle as Bryant was moving in front of him, obstructing his view of the play. The instinct to make a call was understandable; Delaney just made the wrong one.

The second play occurred with twelve seconds left in the game, when Kobe Bryant, trying to free himself on an inbounds play, elbowed Mike Bibby in the face. While Bryant’s elbow, though seemingly inadvertent, was a foul, it occurred only after Bibby grabbed Bryant’s arms in what appears to be an effort to prevent him from freeing himself to receive the inbounds pass. Delaney was positioned on the baseline at an angle that prevented him from getting a good look at the play. Bibby had his back to Delaney, and contact of the nature of the elbow to Bibby’s nose is often incidental. The blood from Bibby’s nose was not seen until later. Bernhardt was the slot official at the time. Bryant moved away from Bernhardt’s position, so Bernhardt also did not have a good angle to see Bryant’s elbow to Bibby. Indeed, the Basketball Operations personnel told us that the television camera had by far the best view of this play.

As noted above, we also re-interviewed all of the current referees after Donaghy’s allegations surfaced in June 2008. There was not a single referee among the dozens we interviewed who supported Donaghy’s claims about this game. The referees told us that the consistent message from the League is to make accurate calls. It has never been suggested to them that they should favor a team or try to extend a series.

Some referees also told us that no rational referee would deliberately make incorrect calls in a game (let alone a playoff game) and subject him or herself to the embarrassment of having calls replayed over and over on ESPN. Some told us that not only was the allegation illogical for that reason, but there also is no economic incentive for referees to try to extend a series. While a referee receives additional compensation for each round of the playoffs he or she officiates, this compensation is the same for a given round whether a referee officiates one or two games in that playoff round.

A number of referees also noted that, because of the strained personal relationship between Delaney and Bavetta, the two men were unlikely to engage in any cooperative venture, let alone one that involved clearly improper conduct. A number of referees also offered the following observation: Game 6 was a controversial game with which almost every veteran referee is familiar. Because it is well known that the referees made numerous errors in the game, it was easy for Donaghy--trying to avoid a jail sentence by providing information about other referees--to suggest that he had a conversation with one of the referees to the effect that two of them hoped to extend the series.

One of the referees told us that he had discussed this game with Donaghy years earlier. While Donaghy had noted the many errors by the referees, he never suggested that he had heard that referees in this game made bad calls to extend the series. We also found it noteworthy that, while referee basketball gossip travels quickly throughout the referee ranks, the referees had not heard any suggestion that Bavetta and Delaney had tried to extend the series.

We have not seen or heard evidentiary or logical support for Donaghy’s allegations about this game.

Any person who is objective realizes that even the best referees are going to miss some calls for a variety of reasons and that fans watching games on TV have the benefit of numerous camera angles plus instant replay, luxuries that the referees do not have; they get one chance at full speed to make the right call. The bottom line is that coaches, players and referees all make mistakes. That is just part of the game. The goal for all parties concerned is to minimize those mistakes. In game seven of the Lakers-Kings 2002 series, the Kings lost by six points in overtime after shooting just 16-30 from the free throw line; if they made more of those free throws then they would have won the series even though the referees did not have a great game six. I think that it is reckless and irresponsible to say that game six was "fixed." I would suggest that anyone who says this take a look at his or her own job performance and consider what standard he or she expects to be held to and if that standard equals the call accuracy that NBA officials maintain.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:19 PM


Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis

"Economists cannot predict tomorrow's economy; they cannot agree on the state of the economy today; they cannot even arrive at a consensus on why the economy behaved as it did in the past...We may not ever be able to build a positive science of economics based on empirical knowledge but that is no reason to wrap the little we know in a pseudoscientific fog of superstition."--Walter Russell Mead, 1993.

Considering how the U.S. financial markets are crumbling right before our eyes, don't those words from 15 years ago send a chill up your spine? Economists want the general public--and especially their employers in the academic world--to think that they are practicing science but sadly that is not the case. What does this have to do with basketball? In recent years, many people who trained academically as economists and/or statisticians have tried to use "econometric" style models to make evaluations about basketball players and teams. Frankly, I'm not sure if it would be more frightening if these guys devoted all of their energies to confusing the general public about basketball or if they abandoned this effort and resumed their failed attempts to understand our past, present and future economy. In either case, they will no doubt continue to make bold pseudoscientific declarations with complete confidence that they understand the issues better than anyone else.

Roger Lowenstein's review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan does not mention basketball at all but the way that he debunks the idea of economics as science provides a good template for explaining much of what is conceptually wrong with "econometric" based basketball statistical analysis. Lowenstein summarizes Taleb's thesis simply and bluntly: "His heavy artillery is aimed at financial academics and economists, the latter because they try to forecast such stuff as market moves and interest rates. He calls them frauds. It’s as good a word as any." Taleb used to be a derivatives trader on Wall Street, so he has firsthand experience with just how poorly economists understand what they are talking about. Lowenstein says, "The academics who drive him to tears are the ones who have explained—or misexplained—his old profession. They think that markets are from Mediocristan when in fact they inhabit Extremistan." Lowenstein explains, "Mediocristan is the terrain of the ordinary, the part of the world that conforms to the bell curve. It answers to statistics and knowable probabilities. Height resides in Mediocristan. You may find one 7-footer on your block, almost certainly not two...Personal wealth, however, is from Extremistan. For instance, the average wealth of 1,000 people will be very different if one of those people is Bill Gates. This distinction is potent. In Extremistan, past events are a faulty guide to projecting the future. Gates may be the world’s richest person, but it isn’t unthinkable that someday, someone (at Google, perhaps?) will be twice as rich. Wars also reside in Extremistan. Prior to World War II, the planet had never experienced a conflict as terrible. Then we did. Suppose you frequent a pond. Day after day you see swans—always white. Naturally (but incorrectly) you presume that all swans are white. World War II was a black swan—horrific and unpredictable. Market crashes are black swans. Winning at blackjack is not one. The odds in casino games are known. The finance profession has badly mischaracterized markets in such a way as to overlook the possibility of black swans. Business schools teach that risk is quantifiable—that markets resemble a casino. You will draw the bad queen once in a deck but never twice. That is why securities analysts presume to define the 'riskiness' of stocks in precise, arithmetic terms. They model the future on the past. But stocks, alas, are from Extremistan. Taleb makes much of the example of Long-Term Capital Management, a subject about which I wrote a book. The spectacular meltdown of the hedge fund, run by Nobel Prize-certified economists and intellectual heavyweights, was a primo example of faulty precision, of modeling markets according to past events. The fund’s genius managers couldn’t predict the black swan of the Russian debt default; they drew a run of bad queens, and down they went. And L.T.C.M. is merely emblematic; it is the entire profession of finance, its edifice of modern portfolio theory, and virtually every tool that financial consultants regularly rely on, that Taleb identifies as wrongheaded."

It is precisely that kind of wrongheaded thinking--and arrogance--that leads to much of the nonsense that is spewed by people who think (or at least claim) that they are scientifically analyzing basketball (I'm not sure if these guys know better but enjoy selling books and getting a lot of publicity for themselves or if they really believe what they are saying). Unfortunately, the general public suffers not only from illiteracy (or at least poor reading comprehension) but also from "Innumeracy." If I make a skill set-based comparison of two players based on my informed opinion--i.e., an opinion based not only on watching a lot of basketball but also on interacting with professionals who make their living evaluating basketball players--every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks that his opinion is just as valid and informed but if some guy invents a formula, gives it a catchy name and says that player x is worth 30.2 but player y is worth 28.7 then Tom, Dick and Harry are ready to bow down to those numbers as if they are the Golden Calf. Guess what--all those numbers reflect are the knowledge (or lack thereof) and bias of the person who created that formula; the numbers may be 90% correct or 90% incorrect but most people don't understand math or statistics so they don't feel comfortable challenging the numbers, or else they only lash out at the numbers that speak poorly of "their guy" but they love the numbers that elevate "their guy" and/or downgrade "their guy's" rival. One tell-tale sign that these numbers are not the products of science is that you do not hear their creators speak of margin of error. If a scientific formula spits out the number 30.4 as a player value the reality is that there is a certain probability that the actual value is somewhat higher or lower than that--but the "stats gurus" rarely if ever mention this and they certainly don't emphasize this point as much as it should be emphasized; they like to promote the idea that their numbers are "exact" while observations by seasoned professionals (scouts and other talent evaluators) are subjective. It is true that observations are subjective but so are the stat formulas; that is why intelligent people understand that you have to combine observation with statistics and that you have to watch games in order to figure out what the numbers really mean. For instance, who is charged with a turnover is not nearly as significant as what really caused the turnover. If Pete Maravich throws a great pass to a stiff who fumbles the ball out of bounds, Maravich may get a turnover in the boxscore but anyone who understands the game realizes that the problem is that his teammate can't catch the ball; on the other hand, if Maravich carelessly throws the ball away or makes a pass that no one could reasonably be expected to catch, then that reflects badly on him regardless of how the scorekeeper officially documented that play.

"Stats gurus" plainly do not want to discuss or consider the fact that some of their most precious numbers--the raw data that they plug into their formulas, stats like assists, steals, blocked shots and turnovers--are subjectively recorded. During last season's playoffs, I did a detailed post demonstrating that Chris Paul's supposedly record setting playoff assist totals were in fact inflated by generous scorekeeping. Shouldn't that be of interest to the "stats gurus"? Isn't that claim something that they seriously need to investigate on their own to either confirm or reject? I provided very specific information so that anyone could watch a tape of the game and find the exact plays that I described and thus judge for themselves whether or not each of those assists should have been awarded. Yet I see no indication that the "stats gurus" are the slightest bit concerned about the fact that a lot of their basic data is seriously flawed. A lot of these guys spent a good portion of the season pumping up Chris Paul as the MVP and it is highly likely that they did so on the basis of bogus assist numbers. Based on a skill-set evaluation of Paul's game, I consider him to be the best point guard in the NBA and a top five MVP candidate but that is not the point; the point is that if you are basing your whole analysis of the NBA purely on numbers and some of the basic numbers you are using are not right then your whole analysis is bogus. If a real scientist finds out that the raw data he has gathered is flawed then he understands that he has to gather new, accurate data. Unfortunately, many of the basketball "stats gurus" are not scientists; they are "mad scientists" at best.

No one should misinterpret what I am saying to mean that I am some kind of Luddite who is against using basketball statistics; what I am against is the misuse of basketball statistics, just like I am against the misuse of media platforms by people who spout hype and biased commentary as opposed to communicating information in a fact based, objective manner. Dan Rosenbaum and Dean Oliver are two welcome exceptions to the above critique of basketball statistical analysis; everything that I have seen of their work indicates that they understand the limitations of what their statistical analysis can show and that they are working hard to improve what their models can do as opposed to acting like they have everything figured out already. In an insightful post titled Using statistics in basketball: the bar is higher, Rosenbaum writes, "Statistical analysis can play a critical role in basketball decision-making, but it can also be misleading if the complexities of the game of basketball (and the statistical issues generated by those complexities) are not well understood. In other words, the bar is higher for statistical analysis in basketball than it is in baseball. Ultimately this will greatly benefit the teams that incorporate skilled statistical analysts in the right way, because the greater complexities in basketball will mean that it will be harder for other teams to ever catch up with the first teams that get this right. It will be fascinating seeing how this all plays out over the next few years."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM