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Friday, December 24, 2010
The Value of Skepticism
Einstein's Theory of Relativity has led to countless scientific breakthroughs and greatly increased our understanding of the universe, yet physicists are still constantly running experiments to test it and make sure that it provides the most valid description of how gravitational fields work. This is because real science is based on skepticism, doubt and questioning--not credulity, certainty and censorship of opposing ideas.
I used to be an active contributor at APBRMetrics, the website for the "stat guru" wing of the Association of Professional Basketball Research, but I stopped going there after several discussions degenerated into name-calling and after it became apparent that many "stat gurus" have no understanding of (or interest in) the methods of genuine scientific inquiry.
Recently, I stumbled on an article that argued that Gilbert Arenas had once been an elite player. Since I strongly disagree with that idea, I posted a respectful comment and then I wrote a brief article here that linked to the ongoing discussion. The original author of the Arenas piece never really directed addressed my points--let alone attempt to refute them--but some other people offered their opinions and I have been responding to those comments over the past few days. The Basketball Reference.com blog used to contain a link to 20 Second Timeout but, oddly, after I posted my most recent comment there I noticed that the sidebar link to 20 Second Timeout had been removed. Perhaps Neil Paine and his Basketball Reference cohorts don't want to have too many people visiting here and possibly getting the idea that "advanced basketball statistics" have not completely solved all questions regarding individual and team evaluations. That's too bad, because the truth is that if the "stat gurus" refuse to listen to valid criticisms regarding their methodologies and conclusions then it is unlikely that they will ever achieve their goal of better understanding basketball (if, in fact, that is really their goal).
Neil Paine wrote an interesting article asserting that Gilbert Arenas was an MVP level player back in 2007 and an elite level player for several seasons. I disagree with Paine's premise, his evidence and his conclusion, so I wrote a comment responding to his article. This initiated a very interesting exchange of ideas that provides an instructive look at the difference between the way that I think and write about basketball and the way that other people (particularly "stat gurus") think and write about basketball.
Here is the first comment that I posted in response to his article:
The 2005-2009 time frame is a very interesting choice. The 2009 Wizards were not only without Arenas' services but Caron Butler missed 15 games, Brendan Haywood essentially missed the entire season and Antonio Daniels--who filled in very capably for Arenas in previous seasons--was on his last legs before being traded to the Hornets.
The period when Arenas was allegedly an elite player had already ended by 2009, so let's just look at 2004-05 through 2007-08; during those four seasons Arenas made his only three All-Star appearances and earned his only All-NBA selections (Third Team in 2005 and 2006, Second Team in 2007). The Wizards won 45, 42, 41 and 43 games during those seasons. Keep in mind that in each of those seasons Arenas had at least one other All-Star or All-Star caliber player by his side. Here are the Wizards' records with and without Arenas in each of those seasons:
2005: 44-36 with, 1-1 without
2006: 40-40 with, 2-0 without
2007: 39-35 with, 2-6 without
2008: 6-7 with, 37-32 without
The Wizards were 129-118 with Arenas during his prime (.522) and 42-39 without Arenas during his prime (.519).
It would also be very interesting if you shared with your readers the Wizards' record in games that both Arenas and Butler missed as opposed to the games that only Arenas missed. I am surprised that someone who is trying to look at things analytically would not want to factor in the impact of another All-Star being out of the lineup at the same time that Arenas was out.
The reality is that even when Arenas was at his best he was on the fringe of being elite (I consider elite to be top five to top 10, but some people throw that term around so loosely it seems like there are supposedly 20 or 30 "elite" players at any given time) and his team only performed slightly better with him than it did without him. The Wizards were slightly above .500 during Arenas' prime when he played and they were slightly above .500 during Arenas' prime when he did not play.
Paine responded simply, "Arenas still had the benefit of the doubt through 2009. It wasn't until 2010 that he definitively proved he was no longer his old self."
Obviously, that hardly addresses the points that I made, so I answered with this comment:
You do not find it statistically significant that throughout the period when Arenas was an All-Star/All-NBA player (1) his team was barely above .500 when he played and (2) his team essentially posted the same winning percentage whether or not he played? How many "elite" players barely led their teams to .500 records during their primes over a period of four years? How many teams performed essentially the same without an "elite" player even when that "elite" player missed a substantial number of games?
"There is a stark and dramatic contrast between the Rockets’ record when McGrady plays (162-83, a .661 winning percentage) versus their record when he is not in the lineup (19-46, a .292 winning percentage). Prorated over 82 games, the Rockets have essentially performed like a 54 win team with McGrady and a 24 win team without him. This year, the numbers read 36-13 (.735) with McGrady and 8-7 (.533) without him, which prorates to 60 wins and 44 wins respectively."
From 2005-08, McGrady made the All-Star team three times and made the All-NBA team three times (Third Team twice, Second Team once) but he had a much greater impact on his team's won-loss record than Arenas did during that same time frame. Overall, McGrady made the All-NBA First Team twice and the All-NBA Second Team three times and he was clearly an elite player (when healthy) for an extended period of time, whether one looks at his skill set, his individual numbers or the striking impact that he had on his team's won-loss record--when he played the Rockets were a contending team (projecting to 54 regular season wins) but when he did not play the Rockets performed like a lottery team.
The burden of proof is squarely in the corner of anyone who suggests that Arenas ever was an "elite" player, because the evidence strongly suggests that this is not true--unless you define "elite" to be top 20 or top 30; I am defining "elite" to mean someone is one of the top five to 10 players in the NBA, which usually corresponds to making the All-NBA First or Second Teams. Granted, sometimes there can be mistakes in the voting and a player could theoretically be "elite" without making those teams if there is a glut of talent at his position (voting is done by position, so in theory a non-elite player could make the All-NBA team at, say, center, while an elite level guard fails to make the team).
Since you elected not to share the Butler splits with your readers, permit me to quote from some research that I did two years ago:
"In 2007-08, the Wizards essentially replaced Arenas with career journeyman Antonio Daniels--a solid pro who has played with five teams in his 11 year NBA career--and not only did not miss a beat, they actually performed better. It is important to remember that Butler missed 24 games last season; the Wizards went 33-25 (.569) with Butler and 10-14 (.417) without him--and five of the losses with Butler also came with Arenas in the starting lineup. Washington's best starting lineup last season (by winning percentage, with a minimum of 10 games) was Butler, Daniels, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. That group went 23-16 (.590) for nearly half a season without Arenas, which projects to a 48-34 record, a mark that would exceed the Wizards' best season since acquiring Arenas."
Each of us posted several subsequent comments. If you want to follow and/or contribute to the conversation just click on the link I provided in the first paragraph.
I wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the 12th of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.
I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I have posted a bibliography at the end of this post. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.
The NBA went through a dizzying roller coaster ride in the 1970s. The decade began with the retirement of the greatest winner in the history of the sport, lawsuits seemingly flying in all directions and a costly rivalry with the ABA. Teams such as the Knicks, Lakers and Bucks quickly stepped to the forefront, as a veritable galaxy of stars battled for individual honors and championship glory. By 1976, the resolution of various legal issues paved the way for a merger between the leagues. NBA attendance climbed to a record 8.8 million in 1975-1976 and nearly reached 10 million in the first season after the merger. Pro basketball seemed to be living up to its billing as the "Sport of the Seventies." The era of good feelings after the merger was short-lived, however. Although the NBA and CBS agreed to a four year, $74 million contract in 1978, each party soon became disenchanted with the other. In his classic book The Breaks of the Game, Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam explained the conflict: "CBS privately charged the owners with expanding too fast, out of greediness; the owners in turn thought that CBS had been too greedy, too concerned with ratings, to give their game a fair chance at developing its true constituency." CBS sought to boost sagging ratings by only televising the games of select marquee teams. Halberstam noted, "there were in effect two leagues--one consisting of the twenty two NBA member teams, the other a six or seven team league covered by CBS…"
Some of the seeds of future trouble were sown when the NBA's television contract with ABC expired in 1973. Many of the NBA owners at the time were new to the scene and had not been around for the previous decade when Roone Arledge, ABC's sports impresario, had overseen telecasts that effectively and enthusiastically presented the NBA to a growing national TV audience. These owners did not appreciate what Arledge had done for the league. All they cared about were the larger broadcast deals that the National Football League and Major League Baseball enjoyed; the NBA owners decided to claim what they felt was their fair share of the TV dollar. Although ABC had an option to renew its TV deal with the NBA, the NBA owners demanded that ABC split the contract with CBS and agree to televise Saturday afternoon games in October and November, knowing that ABC would not be able to comply without abandoning its coverage of college football. When ABC refused these terms, CBS ended up with the whole NBA TV package. Arledge took the NBA owners to court, but lost the case.
As Red Auerbach and a few wise NBA executives predicted, Arledge did not take this setback lying down. He launched a full fledged programming assault against CBS' NBA games. ABC promoted its Saturday college football games to an unprecedented degree, capturing the lion's share of ratings and Madison Avenue advertising dollars. The NBA and CBS soon conceded defeat and abandoned Saturday telecasts. Arledge attacked the NBA's Sunday games with a new program called Superstars--which pitted athletes from various sports against each other--and a Sunday version of Wide World of Sports, his wildly successful Saturday program. Halberstam notes, "In the first year of the CBS contract the ratings plummeted from 10 to 8.1; soon the decline became steady and very serious. Along Madison Avenue it was known as Roone's Revenge." The NBA's television troubles reached an infamous nadir when CBS chose to broadcast the 1980 Finals on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., an unthinkable indignity for the Super Bowl or World Series. One of the unsavory undertones of CBS' progressive neglect of the NBA was the perception of many observers that CBS did not want to showcase pro basketball because the vast majority of the league's players were black.
Another serious problem for the NBA as the decade closed was an escalation of on-court violence. The conclusion of game two of the 1977 Finals was marred by an ugly brawl involving the 76ers' Darryl Dawkins and the Blazers' Maurice Lucas. Early in the 1977-1978 season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand while punching Bucks' center Kent Benson in retaliation for an earlier blow that had gone unnoticed by the officials. Adrian Dantley, at the time a young player with the Pacers, was suspended for three days after following Dave Meyers of the Bucks to the locker room and attempting to fight him. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. In a December 1977 game, an altercation broke out between Lakers' forward Kermit Washington and Rockets' center Kevin Kunnert. Rockets' All-Star forward Rudy Tomjanovich came over to attempt to break up the fight and ended up in intensive care after Washington wheeled around and connected with a thundering punch that basically shattered Tomjanovich's face. Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season and Washington was suspended for 60 days by the league.
In the wake of these and other incidents the NBA formed a committee of league executives, referees, and players to look into ways to limit flagrant fouls and fighting. Over time the NBA developed a number of ways to regulate on-court violence: the addition of a third official so that "cheap shots" do not go unnoticed and lead to fights, automatic ejection for any player who throws a punch (even if it does not connect), a flagrant foul point system that culminates in fines and suspensions, and a rule that any players who leave the bench area during a fight are automatically suspended.
While declining ratings and escalating violence were serious causes for concern, two cornerstones of the NBA's dramatic recovery in the 1980s arrived in the fall of 1979: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Their rivalry for individual and team supremacy would push the league to new heights. The spirit of the ABA also played a major part in the 1980's renaissance as well: players such as Julius Erving (1981 MVP), Moses Malone (1979, 1982 and 1983 MVP), George Gervin and other ABA veterans were among the most successful and popular stars in the league; in addition, the adoption of the ABA's three point shot rule and All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest added excitement and attracted fans.
Here are the two statistical charts that I researched for this project and that were published as part of this chapter:
The 1970s By the Numbers
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers
New York Knicks
New York Nets
Charts includes ABA wins, division titles and championships.
^ Includes 1975-76, when the Denver Nuggets had the best record among the seven ABA teams that completed the season in a one division league.
Norm Van Lier
Jo Jo White
Chart includes ABA statistics for Barry, Issel, Erving, Haywood, Gilmore and Dampier.
Tied players listed in order of per game averages.
Bjarkman, Peter C. The Biographical History of Pro Basketball. Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois: Masters Press, 2000.
Bjarkman, Peter C. The Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball Team Histories. New York: Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Brown, Gene (editor). The Complete Book of Basketball: A New York Times Scrapbook History. New York: Arno Press, 1980.
Carter, Craig and Hareas, John (editors). The Sporting News 2001-2002 Official NBA Guide. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2001.
Cole, Lewis. Dream Team. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1981.
Gilmartin, Joe. The Little Team that Could…And Darn Near Did! Phoenix: Phoenix Suns, 1976.
Halberstam, David. The Breaks of the Game. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.
Harris, Merv. The Lonely Heroes: Professional Basketball's Great Centers. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.
Lazenby, Roland. The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration. Indianapolis: Masters Press, 1996.
Libby, Bill and Haywood, Spencer. Stand Up for Something: The Spencer Haywood Story. New York: Tempo Books, 1972.
Neft, David S. and Cohen, Richard M. The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Basketball (second edition). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Pluto, Terry. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Sachare, Alex. 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time. New York: Byron Preiss Multimedia, 1997.
Williams, Pat (with James D. Denney). Ahead of the Game: The Pat Williams Story. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999.
Wolf, David. Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1973.
Articles in Newspapers/Magazines/Journals:
All-Pro Picks. Street and Smith’s College & Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1972-1973.
Barry, Rick. “All the Fantasies Came True.” Sport, November 1975.
Dexter, Pete. “Darryl Dawkins the Powerful.” Inside Sports, April 30, 1980.
Gilmartin, Joe. “NBA Preview.” Street and Smith’s College, Pro and Prep Basketball Yearbook, 1976-77.
Gilmartin, Joe. “Where Does the NBA go from Here?” Streeet and Smith’s College, Pro and Prep Basketball Yearbook, 1977-78.
Izenberg, Jerry. “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Rick Barry!” Sport, April 1975.
Lapin, Jackie. “Phil Chenier is no Longer a Hardship Case.” Sport, April 1975.
Leahy, Michael. “For Jordan, Insatiable Drive Yields Heavy Toll.” Washington Post, March 3, 2002.
Libby, Bill. “Who Says Wilt’s in his Second Childhood?” Sport, March 1972.
Moore, Ralph. “George McGinnis is Discovering Defense in Denver.” Basketball Digest, February 1979.
NBA Briefs. Basketball Pro-Style, March-April 1980.
Papanek, John. “Off on a Wronged Foot.” Sports Illustrated, August 21, 1978.
Vecsey, George. “Pistol Pete is the Player of the Future, Admits Pistol Pete.” Sport, December, 1973.
Geno Auriemma's University of Connecticut women's basketball team has won 88 straight games and they are going for win 89 tonight versus Florida State. This is obviously a tremendous accomplishment but it is foolish to compare UConn's record with UCLA's record 88 game winning streak in Division I men's basketball (set from 1971-1974). Anyone who is honest and objective realizes that there is a huge gap between the level of play in Division I men's basketball and Division I women's basketball; UConn's team certainly could not even compete with any top 25 Division I men's team and, because of the significant differential in size and talent, they could not beat even the worst Division I men's team.
I have heard some people say that UConn is setting a basketball record and that therefore UConn's record can be compared with UCLA's record by that standard. That makes no sense. Bobby Fischer set a likely unmatchable standard by winning 20 straight games without a draw versus elite Grandmasters in Interzonal and Candidate Match play (that is roughly equivalent to an NBA team sweeping five straight series at the Conference Finals and NBA Finals level or an NFL team winning three straight Super Bowls); I am a strong amateur chess player (USCF Expert level, which is approximately 95th percentile among U.S. tournament players) but if I win 20 straight games against players rated Expert and below I have not come close to equaling Fischer's accomplishment even though both streaks would be chess streaks. Perhaps one might counter that UConn is competing at a higher level in the women's game than I am competing at in the chess world, so consider this analogy: if a Grandmaster wins 20 straight games at events like the World Open, National Open and Chicago Open that would be a great accomplishment but it still would not be the same as winning 20 straight games against elite Grandmasters (the hypothetical Grandmaster at the World Open, National Open and Chicago Open would have faced some non-GM players along the way, while Fischer faced nothing but the best during his streak).
Auriemma understands this very well; he recently recently told Time magazine, "...it shouldn't be that I'm eclipsing John Wooden. It shouldn't be Geno Auriemma, and the University of Connecticut, owns the longest winning streak in the history of basketball. No. It's men's basketball, and women's basketball. But we've accomplished something that most people can only dream of accomplishing."
Auriemma and his players deserve tremendous praise for setting a great women's record and for raising the bar of excellence in women's basketball--but it is wrong to suggest that their accomplishment has anything to do with the record set by Wooden's UCLA teams.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan