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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Has Anyone Been a Basketball Hall of Fame Presenter More Times Than Julius Erving?

In 2011, I noted that Julius Erving had been a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter five times and I wondered if he held the record. I sought confirmation from both the NBA and the Basketball Hall of Fame. The NBA replied by suggesting that I contact the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame answered my original inquiry by stating that their records only went back to 2001 (which is strange for an organization that is supposed to preserve and celebrate the history of the sport). The Basketball Hall of Fame informed me that from 2001-2011, Erving, Dr. Jack Ramsay and Lou Carnesecca each served four times as a presenter.

In the past four years, Erving has been a presenter three more times--twice in 2012 (for Katrina McClain and Ralph Sampson) and once in 2015 (John Calipari). During his 16 year professional career, Erving was widely recognized as basketball's "ambassador" and it speaks volumes that nearly three decades after he retired various Basketball Hall of Fame inductees still tap him to be a presenter. Popularity is fleeting but hard-earned respect is timeless and it is clear that Erving has earned respect among the sport's elite.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Basketball Reference Elo Ratings Reveal Extent of Fan Bias Against Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant

Ranking the greatest basketball players of all-time is a challenging and, to some extent, subjective exercise; there are so many factors and variables that it is difficult to make a completely objective evaluation, though it is possible to reasonably classify players into various broad categories such as top 10 or top 20--but even that cannot be done without controversy. My Pantheon series examines the careers of 10 of the greatest retired basketball players of all-time, plus four active players who also deserve consideration for Pantheon status. I do not dispute that the placement of players within the Pantheon can be intelligently debated, nor do I deny that a good case can be made for some players who I did not include.

Physicist Arpad Elo, a chess master who won the Wisconsin State Chess championship eight times, developed a rating system that not only ranks players but can also be used to predict the probability of victory based on the rating differences between players. The Elo rating system is most widely identified with chess, though it can and has been used for a variety of different games.

BasketballReference.com publishes so-called Elo player ratings for all NBA players who reached at least one of the following statistical levels: 10,000 points, 5000 rebounds, 2500 assists or 1000 steals plus blocked shots. BR.com assigned each qualifying player an initial rating of 1500 and then created fictional matchups between various players; visitors to BR.com can vote on who they think would win a given matchup. The matchups are generated randomly, so visitors cannot deliberately vote up (or vote down) any one particular player.

BR.com describes this project as "a community-based project with the goal of rating the best players in NBA history." Presumably, the idea is that by collecting the votes of a large number of people, bias will be smoothed out and a reasonable consensus about pro basketball greatness will be reached.

The ratings fluctuate but certain trends are consistent. Michael Jordan is usually ranked first by a fairly sizable margin and he is the only player currently rated above 2400. Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Karl Malone, John Stockton and David Robinson fill the next spots in various orders and players in that group have ratings clustered between 2300-2360. One could quibble with some of those choices--I would not put Malone or Robinson in the top 10--but Stockton is the only player who never came close to winning an MVP and who does not even belong in the top 30, let alone the top seven.

The BR.com ratings look objective superficially--each player has a four digit rating, just like chess players do!--but of course the ratings are not a product of actual competition; they are a product of fan voting, which is little more than a popularity contest. It is revealing to look at the list as a whole and see which players are so hated by the fans that the fans are unwilling or incapable of separating hate from reality.

For instance, an excellent case could be made that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest basketball player of all-time. He holds the career regular scoring record (38,387 points), he holds the record for most regular season MVPs (six), he won six championships and he was a dominant player for most of his 20 year career (winning the Finals MVP as a 23 year old and as a 37 year old). It would be very difficult to rationally argue that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not at least a top 10 player of all-time. However, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not very popular and thus in the BR.com rankings he barely cracks the top 50, trailing Ray Allen, Chris Mullin, Dikembe Mutombo and Reggie Miller, players who had a fraction of the impact that Abdul-Jabbar did.

However, by far the most ludicrous rating for an all-time great player belongs to Kobe Bryant. The last time I checked (ratings change continuously), Kobe Bryant ranked 326th out of 560 qualifying players, just behind Darrell Armstrong, David Wesley, Joe Smith and Caron Butler and just ahead of Michael Adams, Johnny Green, Kurt Thomas and Mo Williams. One can have an intelligent conversation about Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James or Kobe Bryant versus Michael Jordan; one cannot have an intelligent conversation that begins with the premise that Bryant is not just outside of the 50 Greatest Players list but that he misses the cut for the top 300! If you hate Bryant that much, then why vote? How does that vote contribute to the conversation or add value to BR.com's Elo ratings? Placing Bryant in the midst of players who were fringe All-Stars at best makes BR.com's Elo ratings look amateurish and silly.

Then there is Bill Russell; the greatest winner in the history of North American professional team sports barely makes BR.com's top 40. I don't think that fans hate Russell the way that they apparently hate Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant but I do think that fans fail to understand the nature and extent of Russell's greatness. I am baffled that Russell's accomplishments are not more widely appreciated and that so many fans denigrate his skill set, particularly as an offensive player; he scored at least 16 ppg for six straight seasons en route to posting a solid 15.1 ppg career average, he ranked in the top 10 in assists four times and he ranked in the top four in field goal percentage four times. No, Russell was not an offensive powerhouse but he was hardly a liability at that end of the court and the things that he did well offensively--run the floor, pass and rebound--would translate very well to the modern era. Furthermore, the idea that a player of Russell's size could not play post defense in today's game is belied by the success of players like Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace.

In theory, having fans vote about thousands of player simulations in order to rank the greatest players of all-time sounds like a fun idea that should produce a fair list, but in practice BR.com's Elo ratings simply reveal widespread ignorance and bias even among the subset of fans who are interested enough in analytics to visit BR.com.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tristan Thompson Should Have Hired a Real Agent

Many media members laud LeBron James for being a shrewd businessman but it is fair to wonder how much of James' business success is the result of shrewdness and how much is just the result of possessing overwhelming leverage as the best player in the NBA. James got his way with just about everything during his first tour of duty in Cleveland not because he is so smart but because the Cavaliers were terrified that he might leave town when he became a free agent. Of course, even though the Cavaliers built a roster around him that was good enough to post the best record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010, James left anyway--and did so in a way that damaged his reputation as a player and his brand, though both his reputation and his brand largely recovered after James led the Miami Heat to championships in 2012 and 2013.

Billy Martin once said that George Steinbrenner was born on third base and thought that he had hit a triple. James was not born on third base; he came from a tough background and worked very hard to develop his basketball skills. However, James has been nationally famous since he was a teenager and he signed endorsement deals worth millions of dollars before he played one minute of NBA basketball. If he had been a total bust as a player he still would have been set for life (provided he used that money wisely) not as a result of great business acumen but simply because he cashed in on the leverage he possessed as a prized commodity.

James has used his money and influence to set up great business opportunities for his childhood friends. This shows commendable loyalty but is not necessarily a sign that James or his friends are great businessmen. One member of James' entourage, Rich Paul, is now an agent. Paul represents James' teammate Tristan Thompson, who is currently a restricted free agent. Not long ago, Paul was being praised for shrewdly advising Thompson to decline to sign a contract extension so that Thompson could cash in during free agency. Thompson played well during the 2015 NBA playoffs and increased his market value, though it must be noted that a major part of Thompson's market value is that he is represented by one of James' friends; the assumption is that the Cavaliers want to do everything possible to please James, who has made it clear that he will only commit to staying in Cleveland on a year to year basis (which maximizes James' personal leverage but is of questionable value in terms of attracting players to Cleveland long term to play with James, who may not be in Cleveland long term). The Cavaliers offered Thompson a five year, $80 million deal--an incredible contract for a bench player who has had one good (partial) season. At that point, a shrewd businessman would realize that he had maximized what he could realistically get and sign the contract. Instead, Thompson not only did not sign the deal but he threatened to sign a much smaller one year contract and test free agency next summer. The Cavaliers essentially responded, "Good luck to you" and withdrew the $80 million offer, whereupon Thompson and Paul made the apparently shocking (to them) discovery that there is not a huge market outside of Cleveland for an overpriced, offensively limited power forward who will bring with him the baggage of being de facto represented by James without the benefit of playing alongside James.

Thompson, presumably based on advice from Paul/James, has overplayed his hand and now has no leverage. Maybe everything will still work out for Thompson. Kevin Love could get hurt or James could (privately, so as not to damage his newly rebuilt brand) threaten to leave Cleveland if Thompson is not signed to a huge contract. Right now, though, it looks like being represented by Paul (James) is going to cost Thompson millions of dollars.

Supposedly, James, Chris Paul and a new wave of players will go on the warpath versus the NBA owners regarding the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. I suspect that if this happens it will turn out the way it did the last time, with the players being locked out and losing money they'll never get back until they agree to the NBA's terms. As I wrote in one of my lockout-themed articles in 2011 after Dwyane Wade supposedly bolstered his "street cred" by yelling at then-NBA Commissioner David Stern during a meeting, "On the court, I'll take Wade over Stern every day of the week but in a boardroom the matchup is just as lopsided in the other direction, something that Wade will have plenty of time to ponder as Stern and the owners refrain from paying Wade and the other players for an extended period of time."

James is more polished than Wade and has much more leverage than Wade but he will find that even his power has limits; Pat Riley and the Heat did not bow to James' every wish when James played for Miami and, at least on paper, the Heat have put together a pretty good team just one year after his departure. If James and the NBA Players Association overplay their hands versus Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA owners, James and the NBAPA may be praised by some media members but they will cost themselves and their constituents a lot of money.

James is such a global icon now that he will likely always have at least some leverage in any business deal involving him but it will be interesting to see if 20 years from now he will have parlayed that recognizability into as broad and diverse a portfolio as Magic Johnson, let alone enjoy the post-basketball business success of someone like Junior Bridgeman, who has been extraordinarily successful without having a fraction of the worldwide fame that James enjoys.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 PM

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