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Monday, November 26, 2018

Separating the Grownups From the Kids in Basketball

Whenever a professional sports team starts a season in a particularly atrocious fashion, someone inevitably half-seriously says that (insert name of best college team that season in that sport) could beat the struggling professional team. While that may be a good punchline for a joke, it is not serious analysis.

For a hot minute, we heard speculation that Duke's basketball team could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Duke looks like a serious NCAA championship contender and the Cavaliers do not look very good at all--although they have played a lot better in their past two games, beating Philadelphia and Houston--the idea that a college team is better than an NBA team is not well thought out, as we could all see on Wednesday as Gonzaga defeated Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational Championship game. Are we now supposed to think that at least two college teams could beat the Cavaliers?

The notion that even the best college team is better than the worst NBA team is not logical. The worst NBA team has multiple players who starred in college and/or internationally; the NBA players are, in general, much more mature physically, mentally and emotionally than college players. Even if the best college team on its best day could beat the worst NBA team on its worst day one time (which is possible, though not likely if the NBA team is taking the game seriously), that college team would not win 10 games over the course of an NBA season, while that worst NBA team would be a heavy favorite to win the NCAA title.

The reality is that Early Entry Players Have Diluted Both College and Pro Basketball, as I noted over a decade ago: "March Madness is always exciting...but it is obvious that the overall level of play in college basketball is not as high as it used to be--and that is hardly a surprise considering how many of the very best players are 'one and done' guys who go to the NBA after their freshman seasons, not to mention the number of players who went straight to the NBA from high school in the past decade before the NBA forbade that from happening. For better or worse, most of the best basketball players in the world who are 19 or older are all in the NBA."

The college game was undoubtedly better and deeper in the past than it is now, which is not to say that the great college teams from previous eras could have beaten the worst NBA teams. Think about it this way: it has been three decades since the best college players in the U.S.--not the best team, but the best players taken from all of the top teams--could win an Olympic gold medal. The pro game, whether overseas or in the NBA, is simply a level above the college game. Both sports should be appreciated on their own merits but no matter how good a college team looks against other college teams and/or how bad a pro team looks against other pro teams there is a clear separation between the pro ranks and the amateur ranks.

Charley Rosen put it well over a decade ago in response to a reader's question about the pro game versus the college game: "The NBA game has a huge advantage in player talent, offensive and defensive prowess, coaching, officiating and the overall quality of performance in every aspect but one. The only advantage the college game enjoys is the consistent enthusiasm of its players. And this is true only because some veteran NBA players on basement-dwelling teams will take an occasional game off late in the season. The worst NBA team would trounce the NCAA champs by upwards of 30 points." 

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM


Vince Carter Joins the 25,000 Point Club

On Wednesday night, Vince Carter scored on a slam dunk as the game ended. That used to be a routine play for Carter but this particular dunk was anything but routine, as those two points enabled Carter to become the 26th player in ABA/NBA history to amass at least 25,000 career points. The club "officially" only has 22 members, as the NBA still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the ABA statistics of Julius Erving (30,026 points; eighth all-time), Moses Malone (29,580 points; ninth all-time), Dan Issel (27,482 points, 11th all-time) and Rick Barry (25,279; tied for 23rd all-time). Carter scored 14 points as his Atlanta Hawks lost 124-108 to Carter's first NBA team, the Toronto Raptors.

Carter has evolved from a high flying eight-time All-Star who averaged at least 20 ppg for 10 straight seasons (2000-09), including six seasons during which he scored at least 24 ppg, into a veteran leader who serves as a role model of professionalism for his younger teammates. The soon to be 42 year old has the enthusiasm of a player half his age, as he noted right after attaining the milestone: "I still love it. I still love playing. I was willing to do whatever it took to stick around. All of the things I have to do to play a game, to be prepared, to get prepared for the season, I'm willing to do. I'm asked constantly, 'What's the secret? What are you doing?' Well, the secret is I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

As I noted when Carmelo Anthony joined the 25,000 point club earlier this year, this is a significant accomplishment for a scorer; every player who has scored at least 25,000 points is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or is a lock to be inducted as soon as he becomes eligible. Simple math shows why this is the case: a player could score 25 ppg while playing 80 games per season for a dozen years and still be 1000 points short of qualifying!

Younger fans may not realize that the 25,000 point club used to be even more exclusive. The "charter" members, so to speak, are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and John Havlicek, who founded the club from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, the club added six members: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who is still the all-time scoring leader), Julius Erving, Dan Issel, Elvin Hayes, George Gervin, Moses Malone and Rick Barry. The club has since more than doubled in size. This is similar to the dramatic increase in the number of chess players who have at least a 2600 FIDE (International Chess Federation) rating; there were just 15 such players on the first official rating list in 1971 but by 1991 there were 33 and by 2004 a 2600 rating was not enough to earn a top 100 spot in the world rankings. Chess ratings are affected by the composition of the entire pool of players (it is easier to gain points when there are more players who have high ratings), while pro basketball point totals are affected not just by skill but also by rules changes, style of play changes, training advances that have extended careers and other factors. None of this is meant to denigrate Carter’s accomplishment but rather just to place it in context. Being one out of four or five is different than being one out of 25 or 26, regardless of what is being measured or how it is being measured.

That being said, Carter deserves congratulations for his longevity, his skill level, his dedication and his willingness to accept a lesser role as his skills declined, something that has proven to be difficult for some of his contemporaries (including fellow 25,000 point club member Carmelo Anthony).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM