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Thursday, April 17, 2014

2013-14 Playoff Predictions

The Miami Heat have flown under the radar about as much as any two-time defending championship team can; mainstream media attention has focused on the upstart Indiana Pacers, the streaking San Antonio Spurs, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the sinking Philadelphia 76ers and many other storylines, while largely ignoring the fact that the Heat have a chance to place themselves in a rare group of teams that have reached the NBA Finals four straight years. That feat has only been accomplished by three legendary dynasties: 1957-66 Boston Celtics, 1982-85 L.A. Lakers, 1984-87 Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of three-peats (1991-1993, 1996-98) but Jordan's first two retirements prevented the Bulls from potentially reaching the Finals four consecutive times.

This season, the Heat posted their worst winning percentage of the "Big Three" era but the same thing was true for the Jordan/Pippen teams in the third year of their two three-peats; sustaining a high level of excellence exacts a mental and physical toll but no one should expect that it will be easy to beat the Heat four times in seven games. The 1993 Bulls looked weary during the regular season and they faced a 2-0 deficit against the number one seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but then the Bulls ripped off four straight wins against the Knicks before defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs are rightfully considered to be the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are hungry--though flawed and vulnerable--challengers to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy and the Oklahoma City can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook stays healthy but the Heat are chasing history while being led by a historically great player and it would be foolish to count them out. The Heat made it through the regular season with a good record while staying as healthy as could reasonably be expected and they will elevate their game in the playoffs. I expect them to join the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers and Bird Celtics by making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2014 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Indiana (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta (38-44)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Atlanta can win if...their perimeter players get hot from three point range and if the Pacers fail to exploit their inside strength at the other end of the court; the Hawks ranked second in three point field goals attempted but just 13th in three point field goal percentage, so their best chance for an upset is to hope that enough of their long range bombs hit the target.

Indiana will win because...the Pacers are an elite defensive team, while the Hawks are mediocre at both ends of the court, as demonstrated by their sub-.500 record.

Other things to consider: Much has been made of the Pacers' struggles in the second half of the season but an 82 game marathon inevitably contains some ups and downs; the bottom line is that they maintained the number one record in the Eastern Conference for most of the campaign and, despite some embarrassing recent performances, they achieved their goal of earning homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers have some obvious weaknesses (including half court offensive execution, chemistry issues and Lance Stephenson's volatility) but the Hawks are not a good enough team to exploit those weaknesses.

#2 Miami (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte (43-39)

Season series: Miami, 4-0

Charlotte can win if...team owner Michael Jordan enters a time machine, emerges two decades younger and signs himself to a pair of ten day contracts.

Miami will win because...this is the kind of series that has always brought out the best in LeBron James; even before he learned how to consistently excel in playoff series against elite teams he always demonstrated the capacity to put up huge numbers against inferior teams in early playoff rounds. All season long, James' critics have accused him of coasting and that storyline will probably cost James the MVP award but he will take out those frustrations in this series; look for him to post at least one 40 point game.

Other things to consider: Charlotte's rise to respectability has been remarkable; rookie Coach Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for improving the team's defense and overall mindset, while Al Jefferson provided leadership and great post presence. Dwyane Wade's inexorable physical decline could be a problem for Miami during the postseason but it will not be a major factor in this series.

#3 Toronto (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Toronto can win if...the Raptors' youthful enthusiasm trumps the Nets' veteran savvy.

Brooklyn will win because...this veteran-laden team was put together to peak in the postseason; they are getting healthy and figuring out how to play together at just the right time.

Other things to consider: Many NBA fans have probably never heard of Masai Ujiri but when he ran the Nuggets he fleeced the Knicks out of several good players in exchange for an overrated Carmelo Anthony; it is not a coincidence that after he moved to Canada the Nuggets got worse while the Raptors instantly transformed into one of the top teams in the East. The Raptors posted the best record in franchise history and seem poised to make the playoffs for years to come but this is not a good playoff matchup for them.

#4 Chicago (48-34) vs. #5 Washington (44-38)

Season series: Washington, 2-1

Washington can win if...their young, talented backcourt duo (John Wall/Bradley Beal) suddenly acquires the wisdom of the ages--the kind of wisdom that is generally obtained by losing playoff series against tough-minded, veteran teams.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will cause fits for the young, impatient Wizards.

Other things to consider: Tom Thibodeau is the coaching equivalent of MacGyver: no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no problem: just give Thibodeau some duct tape (and a throat lozenge for his perpetually hoarse voice) and he'll work wonders. The Bulls do not have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run but their defense and Thibodeau's strategic acumen will carry them into the second round.

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas (49-33)

Season series: San Antonio, 4-0

Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback and starts regularly posting 30 points/15 rebounds, if Monta Ellis goes off for about 25 ppg and if the Mavericks contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration without opening up opportunities for Tim Duncan inside and the Spurs' sharpshooters who camp out behind the three point line.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are not only the better team overall but they have shown that they match up particularly well with the Mavericks.

Other things to consider: Armchair psychologists said that the Spurs could not recover from their devastating loss in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals--but the Spurs refuted that idea by playing valiantly in game seven. Then the armchair psychologists asserted that it would be too much for the old Spurs to make yet another championship run but the Spurs have been the class of the league for the better part of the season. The Spurs do not match up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they have no one who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook but they have no reason to fear any other team in the league.

#2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis (50-32)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate inside while the Grizzlies' wing players hit enough outside shots to prevent the Thunder's defense from clogging the paint.

Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this series and two of the five best players in the league. They will spearhead an offensive attack that will overwhelm the Grizzlies.

Other things to consider: Here they are in all of their glory, the team nobody wants to face; the Grizzlies needed a late season flourish to sneak into the playoffs with six fewer wins than they had last year but the top teams are supposedly petrified of them. Here is a different theory: the Thunder know that they would have beaten the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs if Westbrook had been healthy and they are very eager to prove that point on the sport's biggest stage. Look for the Grizzlies to struggle to score 90 points per game and look for a lot of Durant/Westbrook highlights as the Thunder stun the "experts."

In other "expert"-related news, objective observers are still searching in vain for a shred of proof that letting James Harden walk in order to keep Serge Ibaka has in any way weakened the Thunder or hurt their chances to win an NBA title.

#3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if...Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson--aka the "Splash Brothers"--rain jumpers from all angles and if David Lee picks up the slack inside for the injured Andrew Bogut.

L.A. will win because...Doc Rivers has spent the season changing the team's mindset; the Clippers are now more focused on defense and on half court execution as opposed to making the highlight reels as "Lob City." Chris Paul's extended absence due to injury proved that he is not, in fact, the best player on the team; that title belongs to Blake Griffin.

Other things to consider: Vinny Del Negro did a solid job with the Clippers when the team had a lot of players who needed to mature and it is worth noting that in Rivers' first year the Clippers only increased their victory total by one--but the coaching change is still justifiable because it is reasonable to believe that the Clippers have a higher ceiling with Rivers on the bench than they did with Del Negro calling the shots.

#4 Houston (54-28) vs. #5 Portland (54-28)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard dominates in the paint at both ends of the court and if James Harden shows that he can be a productive and efficient scorer/playmaker in the postseason as his team's number one option (as opposed to doing so as the third option, which was his role when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will outplay Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Other things to consider: This is a "pick 'em" series; the teams have identical records, they are both talented offensively but flawed defensively and I cannot see either one making it past the second round unless their opponent suffers a serious injury to a star player. The deciding factor for me is that I trust Portland's style of play in the playoffs just a little more than I trust Houston's style of play.

The Rockets launch a lot of three pointers--leading the league in makes and attempts--but they only rank 16th in three point field goal percentage. If they get hot, they can put a scare into any team but this is not the NCAA Tournament, which means that they have to get hot for four out of seven games in order to advance.

The Blazers will try to establish Aldridge in the post, while also using Lillard's ballhanding ability and shooting touch to put pressure on Houston's suspect perimeter defenders. Harden will probably go off for 30-plus points in one of Houston's home games and he probably will have a couple 4-17 field goal shooting performances on the road. The series will be entertaining and closely contested but Portland will win in six or seven games.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Indiana-Chicago, Miami-Brooklyn, San Antonio-Portland and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Pacers-Bulls series could make for some brutal TV watching, with both teams struggling to score 80-85 points against suffocating defenses, but in the end the Pacers will prevail. The Nets were built with the primary goal of matching up with the Heat and they did so quite nicely during the regular season, sweeping the series--but the playoffs are a different animal and the Nets' geezers will run out of gas trying to chase around the athletic Heat. The Trailblazers have had a surprisingly good season but they will fall to the Spurs in the second round. The Thunder and the Clippers are developing an intense rivalry; that series will probably go the distance but in game seven at home Durant and Westbrook will not be denied.

Indiana has all of the necessary tools to beat Miami: size, toughness, defensive intensity, homecourt advantage. After a season during which the Pacers vowed to beat the Heat in the playoffs if game seven would be played in Indianapolis, the Eastern Conference Finals will be put up or shut up time for the would-be champions. From a historical standpoint, part of me does not believe that LeBron James and the Heat are quite equipped to reach territory only inhabited by three of the most legendary squads in pro basketball history--but, focusing purely on what we have seen from the Pacers this season, I don't quite trust Indiana in the biggest moments. James will likely add another page to his legacy by authoring a classic game seven performance on the road as the Heat survive what figures to be a grueling series.

The San Antonio-Oklahoma City series will be high level basketball at its finest. Russell Westbrook is the key factor in the series, because the Spurs simply have no answer for him, much like the 1980s Boston Celtics had no answer for the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney. If Westbrook is healthy, the Thunder will win. Perhaps I should not count on Westbrook's health, considering his recent injury history, but I am picking the Thunder.

A rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals will be fun to watch. LeBron James is now older and wiser but so are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The James-Durant battle will be epic but the series could be decided by the battle between the health of Dwyane Wade's cranky old knees and Westbrook's cranky young right knee. The Thunder were not quite ready two years ago but they have learned their lessons and Westbrook's injuries have also helped them to understand that every trip to the NBA Finals is precious because you never know when--or if--you will return. James is the best player in the NBA but the Thunder will prove to be the best team. If the Thunder win the championship with the much-criticized Westbrook and without the much-praised Harden it will be interesting to hear what the "experts" say.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2013-2014 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went six for eight in my 2013-2014 Western Conference Preview, including placing the top four in the correct order. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 56/72 in the East and 57/72 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .785.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 98/135 (.726)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past nine years I have correctly picked nine of the 18 NBA Finals participants. In three of those nine years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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This playoff preview article is, to some extent, a coda for 20 Second Timeout. I am beginning a two year law school journey that will limit the amount of time and energy I can devote to watching pro basketball, much less analyzing it at a high level--and then in late August I will become a first-time father, which obviously will be a life-changing experience in many ways. From my days at Basketball Digest through this website's nine year run, I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge about and passion for pro basketball with a dedicated group of loyal readers; I will miss being able to write extensive treatises about Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other great pro basketball players past and present but the new chapter in my life promises many new adventures and opportunities for personal growth. I will continue to post here as my schedule permits and I like to think that the archival material in the main page sidebar can serve as a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning about basketball history and basketball analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM

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Backspin Chronicles Pete Strobl's Basketball Odyssey

"They say that you should never stop learning if you want to keep a youthful outlook. They also say that the best way to really master something you love is to teach it to someone else. So, I'm going to go find a gym and teach somebody how to play basketball."--Pete Strobl

Pete Strobl's autobiography Backspin tells the story of his evolution from a Niagara University freshman who received little playing time to a successful pro basketball player in Europe to a highly respected basketball skills development coach. Hubie Brown (the Basketball Hall of Famer equally known for his great coaching career and his great skills as a TV commentator) and Calvin Murphy (who averaged 33.1 ppg during his college career before becoming an NBA All-Star and a Basketball Hall of Famer) are two of Niagara's most famous alumni. Brown came back to Niagara to give a clinic when Strobl was a freshman and Strobl's description of his failed attempt to impress Brown is priceless.

A key moment in Strobl's career happened in his first year at Niagara when he was very disappointed about riding the bench. Assistant coach Tom Parrotta listened to Strobl's complaints and provided a blunt response that sharpened Strobl's focus. Strobl writes (p. 25), "He didn't try to sell me anything; he didn't give me some threadbare speech from a coaching manual on how to deal with immature players who think that they should play more because they were high school studs. He simply listened. He listened to something he's probably heard a hundred times, possibly even from his own mouth when he was a struggling young player hungry for minutes of his own. He hit me right between the eyes with some truth. 'Prove it!' he said. And by not trying to alleviate my pain, he helped to fuel my fire."

Strobl's roommate during his first two years at Niagara was Alvin Young, also known as "Al-Boogie"; Young led the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg) as a senior in 1998-99. Young earned a basketball scholarship to Niagara despite not playing one minute of organized high school basketball. He honed his game on the playgrounds and learned how to get his shot off against any defender. Strobl recalls (p. 31), "The most valuable thing I learned from watching Al was that offensive moves are all about execution and repetition. Time after time, I watched him make the same move, make the same ball fake, hesitate for just exactly the same split-second, and many times against the very same defender. Time after time the result would be the same. He could tell a defensive player exactly what he was going to do and still execute the move flawlessly to get his shot off every time."

Strobl earned his bachelor's degree in just three years and completed his MBA by taking two summer semesters after his senior season. Strobl then began his professional playing career in France, where he initially experienced tremendous culture shock; he quickly adapted to the different language and different way of life and now he looks back with fondness on the time he spent in France. Strobl performed well enough to earn the opportunity to play in high level leagues in Austria and Germany, enabling him to explore his family's roots--and expand his game: Strobl was a late bloomer as a player but in Austria he began to display his full skill set, culminating in a playoff game when he scored 56 points while making 10 of his 15 three point field goal attempts.

While he was in Austria, Strobl began his coaching career by working with his club's Under 12 team. Strobl played a cerebral brand of basketball and he applied that same approach to his life--planning his next move much like "Al-Boogie" set up his next shot--because he realized that a playing career lasts a relatively short amount of time while a coaching career can last for decades.

Strobl subsequently played for teams in Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland, where his playing career came to an abrupt and unexpected end; after the birth of Strobl's second child, Stobl's team declined to provide adequate health insurance for Strobl's family or to release him from his contract so that he could play for a more accommodating club. For his entire life, Strobl had defined himself primarily as a basketball player but now he shifted his focus and made the decision to return to the United States. The lessons Strobl learned during his college career and his European odyssey prepared him for the next phase in his life. In 2009, he founded The Scoring Factory, a Pittsburgh-based basketball skills development academy that trains high school athletes, NBA-bound athletes and athletes who plan to play professionally in Europe.

Recognizing connections between seemingly disparate pursuits is an important aspect of coaching, because this enables a coach to teach by using analogies that can vividly resonate with his students in a way that straight, rote instruction may not. Strobl's father worked as a professional musician and Strobl explains some qualities that are shared by basketball and music (pp. 196-197): "Both require a lot of discipline and have structure and rules. A group of musicians has to play in the same key and time signature, just as a basketball team has to run some kind of offensive set and know what the defensive strategy is. There are role players or accompanists in both music and basketball. But for the great soloist, both music and basketball have plenty of opportunity for creative improvisation. Role players sometimes go unnoticed, but are often the difference between a hit record or not."

Backspin is an entertaining and informative book, full of insights not just about basketball but also about coaching/teaching, the benefits of stepping outside of one's comfort zone and the importance of learning from every life experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 PM

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

LeBron James Versus Kevin Durant: One More Chapter in the Eternal Debate About MVP Criteria

Most informed NBA observers agree that LeBron James is the best all-around player in the league, an unofficial title that he seized from Kobe Bryant several years ago. However, it seems unlikely that James will win the 2014 MVP award, because popular sentiment heavily favors Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion who has finished second in MVP voting in three of the four seasons that James won the award. Durant is posting career-high averages in scoring and assists while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to the second best record in the NBA; the Thunder are four games ahead of James' Heat with one game remaining on both teams' schedules. Durant has indisputably authored an MVP caliber season and he has been an MVP caliber player for several years but should he win the award over James based primarily on a slight difference in their respective teams' records and some form of voter fatigue regarding James? Or, should the MVP award go to the player who is still the best all-around performer in the league?

The names are different now but the questions are the same ones that have been debated for many years. Michael Jordan was the consensus best all-around player in the league for roughly a decade--though he missed nearly two full seasons while he pursued a pro baseball career--and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all-time but he "only" won five regular season MVP awards. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Jordan annually battled another greatest player of all-time candidate--Magic Johnson--for MVP honors and then Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each received one MVP during Jordan's prime, supposedly because voters were reluctant to give the trophy to Jordan every single year, a form of "logic" that makes no sense: there is no good reason that one player should not/cannot win eight or 10 MVPs. I much prefer the Rucker League precedent; if I recall the story correctly, even though Connie Hawkins missed most of the season he still made the Rucker League All-Star team because a Rucker League All-Star team simply wasn't authentic if it didn't have Connie Hawkins on it--and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that during the Jordan era an NBA MVP award was not authentic if it went to someone other than Jordan. Obviously, in a more formal league like the NBA a player cannot miss most of the season and still deserve All-Star or MVP consideration but Jordan should have won every regular season MVP from 1988 through 1998, except for 1994 (when he missed the entire season) and 1995 (when he only played 17 games); he was the best all-around player in the league and even though Hall of Famers Johnson, Barkley and Malone had some MVP caliber seasons during that era no knowledgeable observer would have picked any of them ahead of Jordan if all four players were available to be drafted or signed.

Kobe Bryant got an even worse deal than Jordan; at least Jordan still racked up the second most MVPs in pro basketball history, falling just one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s (circa 2003-2009), he proved equally adept at carrying decrepit teams to the playoffs and at leading a solid but not particularly deep Lakers' team to three straight Finals appearances/two straight championships but he only received one regular season MVP (2008). Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and he also played at an MVP level in 2003 and 2009, though Tim Duncan and LeBron James were slightly better than Bryant in those respective seasons (injuries knocked Bryant out of serious MVP contention in 2004 and 2005, as he missed 17 and 16 games respectively).

According to the popular, media driven storyline, this is Durant's time: he is supposedly having a career year while James is allegedly just coasting and waiting for the playoffs to begin. The reality is that Durant is essentially playing at the same level he has been playing at for several years, with two notable exceptions: he is attempting about three more field goals a game and he is dishing off about one more assist a game, though assists are so subjective that this change may not even be statistically significant or have much to do with an actual increase in playmaking ability. Durant is shooting and passing more often not because his skill set has changed but rather but because the Thunder's other All-NBA First Team caliber player--Russell Westbrook--missed almost half of the season due to injury, forcing Durant to shoulder a bigger load. Durant's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding average, steals average and blocked shots average are all lower than they were last season.

What about the "coasting" James? James has been remarkably consistent since he joined the Heat four years ago, averaging between 26.7 and 27.1 ppg, between 6.9 and 8.0 rpg and between 6.2 and 7.3 apg. He has increased his field goal percentage for seven straight years (including 2013-14), his free throw percentage annually hovers around .750 and this season he has posted the second best three point shooting percentage of his career. There is no discernible evidence that James is taking it easy or that he is declining. The "stat gurus" claim that James' defense has fallen off but while it is true that James' shotblocking--always an overrated part of his game (his best seasonal total is 93, five fewer than the best seasonal total posted by that noted high flyer Larry Bird)--has decreased to a ridiculously low level for a player with his athletic gifts (.3 bpg) James is still the multi-positional anchor for a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two best players in the NBA for several years and figure to remain the two best players for a few more years. In any given year, either player could deservedly win the MVP award--but James is the more physically imposing player at both ends of the court, a better inside scorer, a better passer and a better/more versatile defender. James used to be the better rebounder but Durant has closed the gap in that department. I doubt that any GM or coach would prefer to have Durant over James but because of the storyline that the media has relentlessly crafted throughout this season Durant will win the 2014 MVP. Honoring Durant will not likely turn out as badly as presenting Dirk Nowitzki the 2007 MVP hardware in a broom closet at an undisclosed location and perhaps Durant will soon have his day in the Finals' sun much like Nowitzki eventually did but I will always say that the MVP award should go to the league's best all-around player (unless there is a big man like Shaquille O'Neal whose physical dominance trumps the best all-around player's versatility) regardless of storylines, "advanced basketball statistics" and any form of voter fatigue directed against multiple MVP winners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 PM

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Monday, April 14, 2014

"Stat Gurus" Forced to Consider Possibility That the "Hot Hand" Exists

"Stat gurus" puff out their chests and declare that their proprietary methods give them a significant edge over "old school" talent evaluators but research shows that tanking does not work precisely because of just how difficult it is for anyone--even a "stat guru" armed with reams of "advanced basketball statistics"--to predict/project future player performance. Another cherished "stat guru" assumption is that the "hot hand"--also known as being in the "zone"--does not really exist. Many people who have coached, played or even just watched basketball believe that they can recognize when a player gets "hot"--when he is in an unstoppable "zone"--but "stat gurus" dismiss such ideas.

"Stat gurus" have been mocking the "hot hand" for decades, deriding the concept as nothing more than a figment of the imagination that reveals the inherent fallibility of evaluating players by using the "eye test." Old school basketball talent evaluators say things like "Eyeball is number one" but many "stat gurus" believe that the "eye" lies and that it is more effective to read spreadsheets than to watch games. Of course, a wise talent evaluator combines the knowledge he gains from the "eye test" with the information he gleans from pertinent statistics to paint a full picture of a player's strengths and weaknesses. 

"Stat gurus" cheered when a 1985 study conducted by Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky indicated that what may look like a "hot hand" is really just a random occurrence. One major problem with that study, though, is that it did not represent a meaningful sample size. The researchers focused on the shooting statistics of the Philadelphia 76ers because the 76ers were the only NBA team at that time which kept complete shot by shot data. That is kind of like looking for your lost keys in one small area not because that is where you think that you lost them but because that is the only place where there is enough light to conduct your search.

The amount of available statistical data has exploded in recent years and, after examining more than 70,000 NBA shots from the 2012-13 season, three Harvard researchers concluded that a player who has made his previous several shots is at least slightly more likely to make his next shot. Does this study conclusively prove that the "hot hand" exists? Of course not. The scientific method requires that hypotheses be repeatedly tested; Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity is perhaps the best known and most successful theory in scientific history but researchers to this day still test Einstein's hypotheses regarding space, time and gravity. Any "stat guru" who asserts that he has created the definitive player rating system is not practicing science; he is peddling snake oil.

When I criticize the flawed reasoning employed by many "stat gurus" and when I point out the inherent limitations of "advanced basketball statistics," some people misinterpret my analysis to mean that I harbor some reflexive biases against using the best possible statistical tools to better understand basketball.  My main point is that "advanced basketball statistics" should not be worshiped as some infallible bastion of truth; "stat gurus" should habitually create testable hypotheses and then see if the best, most comprehensive data that can be gathered supports or refutes those hypotheses. If Player X supposedly has a "rating" of 33.8 and is supposedly exactly 2.5 rating points better than Player Y, what is the margin of error in that rating system? If a player rating system cannot be tested objectively then it is of limited use; anyone can juggle certain basic boxscore numbers in order to create a rating system that is biased toward particular statistics at the expense of other statistics. For instance, a player who sports a relatively high field goal percentage may be a very limited offensive player while a player who has a relatively low field goal percentage may be a very dangerous and versatile offensive player whose skills force the opposing team to trap him. A "stat guru" who favors "efficiency" (as defined by his own preferred rating system) will be unduly swayed by the gaudy shooting percentages of an offensively challenged big man, while a shrewd talent evaluator will see that big man for who he is: a player who is dependent on other players to create his scoring opportunities.

Ironically, as more data about basketball is collected and analyzed, it is becoming evident that assumptions made by allegedly objective "stat gurus" are not any more trustworthy than assumptions made by supposedly subjective and/or biased observers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 PM

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