20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

ESPN Attempts to Revive the Tim Donaghy Scandal

ESPN has published a very lengthy piece about disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, and has made the very inflammatory declaration that their story explains how Donaghy "conspired to fix NBA games." There is a saying that applies equally to science and to the law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Just because something may seem plausible when viewed in a certain way does not make it true, or likely to be true, or even admissible in a court of law. Much has been made of the size of the ESPN article but an article's length should not be construed to signify its depth: a 10 line poem can be profound and deep, while a 10,000 word article can be superficial and shallow.

The factual background concerning the allegation that Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games is that the federal government and the NBA conducted separate, independent investigations and could not prove this to be the case. Donaghy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to transmit wagering information. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. In an attempt to draw attention away from himself, and perhaps get a lighter sentence, Donaghy alleged to the court that the NBA conspired to alter the outcomes of various games--including the much-discussed game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a game that Donaghy did not officiate--but no proof was ever presented or discovered to support that allegation.

After Donaghy made the accusation about the league conspiring to fix multiple games, I wrote that the NBA should publicly release the grades for the three referees from game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Does the NBA classify that as a well-officiated game or a poorly officiated game? How did each of the controversial calls grade out? Such transparency would be welcome. The closest that the NBA has come to doing this came within the Pedowitz Report, which contained the findings of an independent investigation conducted in the wake of the Donaghy scandal; Pedowitz' team broke down game six in great detail and concluded that, while the game was poorly officiated, there was no evidence that the officiating was biased in favor of the Lakers.

When the Donaghy case first became publicized, then NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly stated that Donaghy had graded highly as a referee. That may be true but it is also worth noting that Donaghy never officiated in the NBA Finals--which is where the highest graded referees go--and he did not officiate a large number of playoff games. It would be helpful if the NBA released the data concerning how Donaghy graded out.

It is difficult to reconcile the conflicting notions that (1) Donaghy was objectively a good referee and (2) Donaghy deliberately made incorrect calls and/or incorrect non-calls in order to change the outcomes of games. How could both statements be true? That would be quite a tightrope act., to figure out how to influence the outcome of games by generally making calls that favor one side, but doing so predominantly on calls that are so close in nature that no matter which way they went they would not be graded as incorrect. If the NBA has objective data that shows that Donaghy did not make an unusual number of bad calls/non-calls, that data could put to rest any notion that Donaghy fixed games.

The ESPN article does not present much new information, and the new information that it presents does not prove anything; just counting the number of foul calls that went for or against one team is not meaningful without supplying context concerning time, score, playing style/philosophy of both teams, individual matchups/mismatches, etc. Is it unusual that one team was whistled for x number of fouls in a row? Maybe yes, maybe no. It may be "statistically significant" in the sense that a coin flip would not be expected to generate x number of heads or tails in a row but that statistical significance does not prove that a certain official made those calls to change the outcome of that game.

Other than the number crunching--and the NBA disputes the conclusions that ESPN drew from the number crunching--the rest of the ESPN article primarily consists of statements about Donaghy from dead people, anonymous people and/or convicted criminals. Little if anything in that article that was not already presented in court would be admissible in a court of law. The ESPN article does not prove how Donaghy allegedly conspired to fix games but it presents a scenario that may or may not be true about how he could have conspired to fix games.

Do I believe that Donaghy fixed games? It is certainly possible, and that possibility is very disturbing to me as a lifelong NBA fan who loves pure athletic competition. That which we know Donaghy did is bad enough, and a black eye for him and for the league that did not figure this out sooner. If he fixed games, that is awful; if he is right that the league fixed games and that many referees were involved, that would make me incredibly sad.

However, more than a decade after Donaghy's illegal activity was discovered, there is no smoking gun, no proof that he did more than bet on games that he officiated and provide inside information to gamblers. The league would have everything to lose and nothing to gain by conspiring to fix games; the NBA has been booming financially for decades, and changing the outcome of a few games is not going to provide enough financial upside to cover against the huge downside of getting caught committing such a crime. If it were proven that the NBA fixed games, that would be the end of the league.

I agree with one assertion in the ESPN article: the advent of widespread, legalized betting on NBA games opens up the potential for a large number of problems; as the ESPN writer noted, citing some research done on this issue, the more money that is added to this situation the greater the likelihood for wrongdoing and scandal. Just look at the recent Anthony Davis melodram; is he going to play, is he not going to play, is he going to play hard, is the team going to play him in the fourth quarter--there are numerous ways for one or more unscrupulous parties to manipulate the point spreads for New Orleans' Pelicans' games. Then you have the issue of rest (or "load management," the new catchphrase for sitting out otherwise healthy players), not to mention the issue of tanking. What if someone is able to get the inside scoop about which stars are going to rest for which games, or which teams decided to tank 10 games before the general public could tell that those teams are tanking? The NBA's recent embrace of widespread legalized gambling is fraught with peril.

It has been interesting for me to look back on my coverage of the Donaghy scandal. When the Donaghy story first broke in the summer of 2007, I was several years away from even considering going to law school; now, I am several years removed from graduating law school, passing the bar and being a licensed attorney. So, understandably, I view the Donaghy story--at least in terms of the legal aspects concerning burden of proof and other issues--through a different prism than I did when I was a journalist who did not have any formal legal training. That being said, when I review what I wrote at that time--see the links below--I stand by my coverage; I grasped the issues and I raised pertinent questions without jumping to conclusions or succumbing to unsupported speculation.

The ESPN story is a page-turning drama but it does not provide any new facts or evidence, just speculation. I am not naive enough to say that there is no way that Donaghy was fixing games but I would be interested to hear an explanation for how he could grade out at least adequately while also deliberately making enough bad calls/non-calls to fix the outcome (or cover the point spread) of multiple games for a period of several years.

20 Second Timeout's Coverage of the Tim Donaghy Story:

New York Post Reports that an NBA Referee is Under Investigation for Fixing NBA Games (July 20, 2007)

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case (July 21, 2007)

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation  (July 24, 2007)

Tim Donaghy's Media Guide Bio Contains Discrepancies (July 26, 2007)

How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating? (July 28, 2007)

Are Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell Really the Best Authorities on Refereeing? (July 31, 2007)

What is the Purpose of a Basketball Blog?  (August 2, 2007)

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy (August 5, 2007)

The Other Shoe Set to Drop in Donaghy Case (August 15, 2007)

Donaghy Pleads Guilty to Two Felonies, Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison (August 15, 2007)

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing? (August 18, 2007)
Tim Donaghy's Tales (June 12, 2008)

Donaghy Sentenced, Key Questions Remain Unresolved (July 30, 2008)

Pedowitz Report Implicates Only Donaghy but Recommends Several Changes to NBA Officiating Program (October 2, 2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM


Monday, February 18, 2019

Kevin Durant Wins his Second All-Star MVP as Team LeBron Overcomes 20 Point Deficit to Defeat Team Giannis, 178-164

The NBA All-Star Game is not as good as it used to be, and it probably never will be again. If one understands and accepts those premises, it is possible to still derive enjoyment from watching the world's best basketball players showcasing their athleticism and skills. I have been watching the NBA All-Star Game since the 1980s and I have seen highlights--if not complete game footage--from many of the pre-1980s All-Star Games as well. The All-Star Game used to showcase both a higher fundamental skill level and a greater level of competitiveness than it does now. Today's players can do incredible things but they don't understand that those things are even more incredible when accomplished against defensive resistance as opposed to defensive indifference.

The All-Star Game sunk to such depths a few years ago that there were even whispers that it might be discontinued. Instead, the league changed the format from East versus West to a format in which the top two vote-getters conduct a draft consisting of a pool of other All-Stars selected by fans, coaches and media members. LeBron James faced off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in this year's All-Star draft. Popular consensus was that James, whose draft strategy seemed to be focused on acquiring every major player who will be a free agent soon, got the better of Antetokounmpo--but it did not look like that initially, as Team Giannis led 53-37 after the first quarter and 95-82 at halftime. Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 38 points on 17-23 field goal shooting, including 10 dunks. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists. He set the tone in the first quarter with 16 points. Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee teammate/All-Star teammate Khris Middleton added 20 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, including 6-10 from three point range. Middleton scored 12 first quarter points.

To coin--or repeat--a phrase, it seemed like Team LeBron was in "chill mode" during the first half, but in the second half they exerted at least some defensive effort and they rained down a barrage of three pointers. Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 96-69 in the second half while shooting 22-49 from three point range. The teams combined to attempt 167 three pointers during the game, compared to 108 two pointers attempted.

Kevin Durant earned MVP honors by scoring 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from three point range) while also contributing seven rebounds. He had 11 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson finished second on Team LeBron with 20 points on 7-16 field goal shooting (6-12 from three point range) and he had eight rebounds and four assists as well.

James had a subdued game by his standards, finishing with 19 points on 9-17 field goal shooting (including 1-8 from three point range), plus eight rebounds and four assists. Kawhi Leonard also had 19 points, along with five rebounds and two assists. Leonard had nine points--all on three pointers--in the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving was the unlikely Team LeBron rebounding leader with nine. He also had 13 points and six assists, one behind Ben Simmons' team-high seven assists. Simmons contributed 10 points and six rebounds. Damian Lillard had 18 points, six rebounds and five assists while compiling a game-best +20 plus/minus number. He scored nine points in the third quarter to help kick-start the comeback.

Paul George scored 20 points for Team Giannis, doing most of his damage from beyond the arc. His Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook added 17 points, four rebounds and three assists. Westbrook shot too many three pointers--ending up just 1-8 from beyond the arc--and his gait has not seemed quite right all season in the wake of his knee surgery, but he played with his customary energy and made a point of trying to get his teammates involved, twice passing up shots in the paint to set up open three pointers.

Stephen Curry had some nice moments but he fell apart in the fourth quarter, shooting just 3-11 from the field (including 1-8 on three pointers) as Team Giannis collapsed down the stretch. Curry finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists but he shot a woeful 6-23 from the field (4-17 on three pointers), and one of his six makes was an uncontested dunk as time ran out.

Joel Embiid led Team Giannis with a game-high 12 rebounds but he scored just 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting and in the fourth quarter he fumbled the ball like he was Edward Scissorhands, repeatedly letting smaller players slap the ball away on plays when he should have scored or drawn a foul. Officially, in the final stanza he shot 1-4 from the field and had one turnover but it looked/felt like he squandered more possessions than that.

Charlotte fans enjoyed watching the Hornets' Kemba Walker amass a game-high eight assists, but he shot just 2-8 from the field and scored only four points.

The Commissioner's special selections, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade, delighted the fans during their cameo appearances for Team Giannis and Team LeBron respectively. Nowitzki scored 9 points on 3-3 shooting from three point range in four minutes, while Wade had seven points, four assists and two rebounds in 10 minutes. Nowitzki moves like he is encased in ice and he looks like he will need a week long ice bath for recovery after every game, but he shoots like he will be able to make spot up, tippy toe three pointers forever.

The golden age of the NBA All-Star Game took place in the 1980s, when perennial All-Star point guards Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas set a tone that nicely balanced showmanship and competitiveness. For example, look at the 1988 contest (Magic Johnson was injured and did not play in the 1989 game 30 years ago): the East won 138-133 over the West in a high scoring, up tempo game, but a game that was not completely out of the context of how the regular season games were played during that season when the average team scored 108.2 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Denver Nuggets) averaged 116.7 ppg. Also, the East shot 3-6 from three point range and the West shot 1-5 from three point range. The East shot .519 from the field, while the West shot .426 from the field. No one is suggesting that the 1988 All-Star Game was a defensive slugfest but there was at least some defensive resistance and it looked--both visually and statistically--like some semblance of a "real" game. Players shot from the post, from midrange and on drives, showcasing a variety of skills.The East had 11 steals and 11 blocked shots, while the West had 11 steals and seven blocked shots. The East committed 29 fouls, while the West committed 27 fouls.

In contrast, this season, the average team is scoring 110.7 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Golden State Warriors) is averaging 118.8 ppg but the All-Star game made a run at matching those totals in the first half. As noted above, the vast majority of shots attempted in the 2019 All-Star Game were three pointers, many of which were fired up early in the shot clock from well beyond the arc. Team LeBron had nine steals and six blocked shots while committing nine fouls and Team Giannis had eight steals and one blocked shot while committing six fouls; those numbers starkly contrast with the 1988 numbers, and suggest that the 1988 All-Star Game at least resembled a real game, while the 2019 All-Star Game was much more like an intra-squad scrimmage--and a low intensity one at that, not like the famous Dream Team scrimmage pitting Michael Jordan's squad against Magic Johnson's squad.

NBA players have remarkable athletic ability and shooting skills but those abilities and skills are best demonstrated in an environment that is at least semi-competitive.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145 (2018):

"LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008."

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce (2017):

"The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark"

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM