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Friday, October 18, 2019

Fun With NBA Finals Field Goal Percentages

Do you remember the NBA Finals when one of the team's guards just kept shooting and shooting despite his low field goal percentage, instead of passing to the team's dominant big man who had a high field goal percentage?

Here are some field goal shooting numbers from that NBA Finals:

"Gunner" guard: 72-160 (.450)
Dominant big man: 70-112 (.625)

You might think that after losing that championship series the "Gunner" guard would have learned something, but the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals the field goal percentages and field goal attempts of the "Gunner" guard and the Dominant big man were separated by an even larger margin:

"Gunner" guard: 38-117 (.325)
Dominant big man: 39-65 (.600)

Surely the guard must have learned from that experience, right? Nope, the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals here is how those two players shot:

"Gunner" guard: 42-95 (.442)
Dominant big man: 22-42 (.524)

Quick, call Mike Wilbon or Jon Barry or Bill Simmons to revisit their numerous anti-Kobe Bryant screeds; that "Gunner" guard is Kobe Bryant, right?


The "Gunner" is Jerry West, who fired a lot of blanks while playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA Finals in 1970, 1972 and 1973 as the L.A. Lakers lost two out of three of those series to the New York Knicks. Chamberlain was the MVP of the 1972 series that the Lakers won; the Lakers lost in seven games in 1970 and in five games in 1973. It should be noted that West, in his first season playing with Chamberlain, won the first Finals MVP award in NBA history in 1969, shooting .490 from the field as the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. West is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP.

Kobe Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals, winning two Finals MVPs. Jerry West went 1-8 in the NBA Finals, winning one Finals MVP. Yet, West is immortalized as "Mr. Clutch," while Bryant is the pinata for "stat gurus" and self-proclaimed basketball experts who blame Bryant for the titles he did not win but are reluctant to give him much credit for the titles he won. To be fair, West's clutch reputation was formed early in his career, when he had many scintillating playoff series, during which time he posted these Finals scoring/field goal shooting numbers as his Lakers lost five times to the Celtics:

1962: 31.1 ppg .456 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 Boston d. L.A., 4-2
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 Boston d. L.A., 4-1
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 Boston d. L.A., 4-2

West's earlier numbers duly noted, it should also be noted that his low Finals field goal percentages relative to his teammate Chamberlain were not in any way construed to harm West's "Mr. Clutch" reputation or legacy. The media understood that West performed well overall given the roster construction of the Lakers and their opponents, the style of play, the matchups and other factors--and the media understood that West was playing through significant injuries in the 1972 Finals, the one Finals in which he shot poorly by any standard.

The disparate "conventional wisdom" narratives about Bryant and West demonstrate why statistics should not be taken out of proper context and why it is misleading to try to summarize a player's legacy in a soundbite. Ironically, and in direct contrast to the popular narrative about the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo, one contemporary narrative regarding the Chamberlain-West dynamic blamed Chamberlain, not West! For example, after the Lakers lost to the Knicks and a hobbled Willis Reed in game seven of the 1970 Finals, Bill Russell criticized Chamberlain for not exploiting Reed's lack of mobility; Russell--who was surrounded by Hall of Fame scorers throughout his great career and thus never carried a significant scoring burden--stated that he would have been insulted if a player as limited as the injured Reed had the temerity to play against him. Chamberlain was deeply hurt by Russell's remarks, which led a to rift between the two men that was not resolved for quite some time.

I am not aware of quotes, comments, articles or TV clips that suggested that West shot too much and/or that West should have fed the ball to Chamberlain more frequently. West was praised for carrying such a heavy offensive load, and his numerous losing trips to the Finals were portrayed with much pathos and sympathy. Chamberlain, who went 2-4 in the NBA Finals, was often portrayed as a loser--even though he won twice as many titles as West, and even though he won his first title without West after beating Russell's Celtics, a team that West never defeated in a playoff series. So, while the media gave a fair--or even lenient--appraisal of West, Chamberlain was portrayed much more harshly. Chamberlain lamented, "Nobody loves Goliath" and one might also wonder if there was at least some racial/racist component at work.

The nuanced reality is that West was not a gunner--at least in terms of the negative connotations associated with that word--and neither was Bryant. The incorrect assumption that often leads to flawed conclusions is that if Player A has a much higher field goal percentage than his teammate Player B then Player A should shoot less often and Player B should shoot more often. Superficially, that may sound reasonable and mathematically sound, but the problem is that it is not necessarily true that Player B can or will maintain his current field goal percentage if his shot attempts increase. A rhythm jump shot by Jerry West or Kobe Bryant with the team having proper floor balance to either go for the offensive rebound or retreat into a good defensive position may very well be a better option than trying to force the ball into a crowded paint area; forcing the action can lead to turnovers or contested shots that fuel the opposing team's transition game. Jeff Van Gundy often says that one should not judge the correctness of a play or a shot attempt based on the outcome; a good shot is a good shot even if it does not go in, while a bad shot is a bad shot even if the ball swishes through the hoop.

The previous paragraph is more baffling to many "stat gurus" than the bizarre implications of quantum mechanics are to physicists. "Stat gurus" are convinced that Kobe Bryant's best option was to pass to any teammate of his who had a higher field goal percentage, from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown). It is interesting that even as "stat gurus" are now deriding the post up shot as one of the lowest percentage shots they still cannot resist hammering Bryant for his supposed basketball sins (a recent story suggested that the key for Jayson Tatum's success this season will be to unlearn everything that Bryant taught him last year, which sounds like a satirical piece from the Onion but was meant to be taken seriously, though Tatum has publicly rejected the article's anti-Bryant premise).

Why shouldn't West have passed to Chamberlain every time? Why shouldn't Bryant have passed to O'Neal every time? (If you don't understand why Bryant should not have passed to Kwame Brown every time, it is surprising you made it this far into the article without your brain exploding). There are a host of reasons that could apply: if the big man is too fatigued to obtain prime post position (or if a sagging defense is preventing him from doing so early enough in the shot clock) then the offense--mindful of the ticking 24 second shot clock--cannot wait forever; if the big man received the ball in the paint, was trapped and then passed the ball to the open man then that open man may be looking at the highest percentage shot his team will get on that possession; injuries, foul trouble and matchups may also be factors that work against just pounding the ball inside every time down the court. An open shot early in the shot clock may be a better option than a contested shot later in the shot clock.

Does this mean that every shot that West and Bryant took was optimal? Of course not. Basketball is a free-flowing game of continuous action played under duress; only in a computer simulated game is it possible for every player to make optimal choices all of the time.

"Stat gurus" are correct that it makes sense to track five on five actions and determine which plays are the most successful over a large sample size. That kind of analysis, done properly, can influence lineup changes and matchups; that is "advanced basketball analysis" at its finest (one example of which is the Dallas Mavericks' insertion of J.J. Barea into their 2011 championship rotation; his individual statistics were not gaudy, but the five on five data indicated that the team performed better overall when he was on the court).

When you read or hear stories about teams utilizing "advanced basketball statistics," keep in mind that the smart teams are not using these numbers to "prove" that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan or other nonsensical, headline grabbing declarations that "stat gurus" and their media buddies like to propagate; smart teams utilize analytics as one tool to figure out how to optimize their team's performance in various five on five situations. The "stat guru" who proclaims that James is better than Jordan or Pau Gasol is better than Kobe Bryant is just trying to commercialize his "unique analytics" to line his own pockets; meanwhile, the "stat guru" who you have never heard of is working behind the scenes for an NBA team looking for exploitable competitive advantages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

NBA Cares About Profits

"NBA Cares" is a clever marketing slogan, but some people are just now figuring out what all of us should have always understood: the NBA is a multi-billion dollar business that "cares" first and foremost about profits. Any public stance that the NBA and/or its players or coaches have taken on a social or political issue has rarely involved sacrifice of money or freedom for a larger principle (see below for one notable exception, involving Enes Kanter).

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to participate in the military draft, he sacrificed his heavyweight world championship title, a significant amount of money and the prime years of his boxing career. Whether or not you agreed then or agree now with the stance that he took, there is no denying that Ali placed his beliefs and his principles above profit. In marked contrast, the NBA with its slogans, and its individual players sporting t-shirts and spouting comments, have rarely displayed the kind of courage that Ali did.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has a fiduciary responsibility to his bosses--the owners of the league's 30 franchises--to maximize the NBA's profitability. That is Silver's primary job, and the owners can fire him if he does that job poorly, or if they determine that someone else could do a better job. Understand that, and you understand why Silver is doing everything in his power to appease a totalitarian Chinese regime that does not approve of Daryl Morey's tweet regarding Hong Kong.

On October 4, 2019, Darryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' General Manager, tweeted "Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong." After a major backlash from China's Communist government--including economic reprisals against the NBA--Morey deleted his Hong Kong tweet. Hong Kong dealt with many anti-government demonstrations this past summer regarding a proposed bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, whose judicial system's fairness is questionable, to say the least. China's long, awful history of oppression and government-sanctioned violence is well-documented--including the ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims-- so it is understandable why Hong Kong 's citizens would prefer to maintain as much autonomy as possible.

On Sirius XM Radio's NBA channel, former NBA player Brendan Haywood summarized the NBA's policy considerations succinctly and accurately. Haywood said that the NBA is primarily focused on profits, which explains why the NBA took a pro-LGBT position regarding the All-Star Game in North Carolina, and also explains why the NBA will continue to bow to Chinese pressure regarding Morey's tweet: the LGBT community and the Chinese government both represent constituencies that are significant income sources for the league. Haywood concluded that if the LGBT community did not have purchasing and lobbying power, and if China did not provide a significant portion of the league's Basketball Related Income (BRI) then the NBA would have had different policies in both situations.

The NBA's policies are not based on "caring" or being "woke" or any other high-sounding principles. The NBA's policies are based on generating income and increasing profits--period.

One could argue whether or not that is the way the NBA should run its business, but there is no disputing how the NBA is running its business, and therefore the NBA should stop publicly emphasizing how socially conscious the league is. The NBA should admit that it does not want to lose billions of dollars of revenue from the Chinese market, and therefore the league is willing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government's oppressive policies, even though some of those policies adversely affect the very same groups and people who the NBA purportedly "cares" about in other circumstances.

Regarding NBA coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich who have been very outspoken about selected topics but are following the company line regarding China, we understand that China is paying a significant portion of their salaries and thus they may find it imprudent to offend their master, but it is disingenuous for them to act like they take high-minded, thoughtful positions on social and political issues if they are unwilling to speak out about China. Think back to any previous public policy pronouncement made by Kerr or Popovich; have they ever risked or sacrificed their money or freedom to uphold a principled belief the way that Muhammad Ali did?

Kerr's specific statement that he does not feel well informed enough about China to comment does not pass muster; Kerr, Popovich and other world famous NBA figures have made numerous personal appearances in China, and those appearances lend comfort and support to that country's regime. When you do that, and when China is paying part of your salary, you have an obligation to be informed. Further, Kerr's comment that all countries, including the United States, have issues to address is, to put it mildly, an ignorant comparison/moral equivalency. China is a dictatorship whose citizens do not have the most basic rights: no right to vote, no right to due process, no right to free speech. Chinese citizens can be arrested or even killed without consequence.

In the United States, citizens have the right to elect government officials, the right to due process and the right to publicly speak out--including the right to criticize government officials, a right that Kerr and Popovich regularly exercise. The American Experiment--the American Dream--of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community living together in peace and freedom is not perfect, but it is unprecedented in human history and it is a beacon of hope for many people around the world; that is why people tend to flee China and countries like China, and why people flock to America. If you cannot understand the differences between the challenges of holding together a fragile, free and open multicultural society versus the systematic evils committed by a totalitarian regime then you are a fool. If you understand those differences but decline to speak truth to power because it might cost you money, then you are something far worse than a fool. I respect Kerr and Popovich as coaches, as leaders, and as generally intelligent individuals, and that is why I expect a lot more from them on this issue than they have provided thus far.

This is not meant to suggest that players should "shut up and dribble" or that coaches should "shut up and coach." The point is that there is a vast difference between speaking out publicly only when it benefits you financially--or, at the very least, is unlikely to cause you any financial harm--as opposed to speaking out publicly in a way that could potentially cause you financial harm. Many years ago, Michael Jordan was heavily criticized for allegedly saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too" to justify not endorsing a Democrat, but at least Jordan was honest and not hypocritical: he did not want to make any political statements that might cost him money.

LeBron James' recent comments criticizing Morey's tweet are the height of hypocrisy; however you think or feel about Jordan, he was honest: he was not trying to be Muhammad Ali or Curt Flood or Oscar Robertson. James strives to be perceived as "woke," but chides Morey for a tweet because "so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually." Translation: "Shut up and be a GM, Mr. Morey, because you are potentially costing me a lot of Chinese money."

James added, "I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand and he spoke," and James later tweeted about Morey, "Could have waited a week to send it." So, was Morey truly not "educated" or should he have just "waited a week" to save the NBA's money?  How would James respond if someone suggested that he is not "educated" about the issues that he addresses publicly, or that James should wait before commenting because his comments might affect others on his team or in the league? Has James ever considered how anyone but himself is affected by his statements and actions? Let's take a poll of his teammates from last season--or his Cleveland teammates circa 2010--on that point.

In contrast to James, Enes Kanter has publicly spoken out against the repressive policies of Turkey, Kanter's native land. Responding to James' reaction to Morey, Kanter tweeted the consequences of his public statements about Turkey:

"-Haven't seen or talked to my family 5 years
-Jailed my dad
-My siblings can't find jobs
-Revoked my passport
-International arrest warrant
-My family can't leave the country
-Got Death Threats everyday
-Got attacked, harassed
-Tried to kidnap me in Indonesia


Kanter has made many sacrifices as a result of his public stance. If he wants to call himself "woke," he has earned that right (but most, if not all, people who are truly "woke" would never describe themselves that way). Most of the other members of the NBA community are more interested in counting dollars than making sense.
In today's globally interconnected economy, it is probably difficult it not impossible for most of us to have no economic connection to China or Chinese products (It could also be debated whether it is better to boycott, or to engage with the hope of changing policies over time; a detailed discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this article, but as a starting point to that conversation I would suggest boycotting authoritarian regimes, while working with countries that have free elections and free speech even if we disagree with some policy decisions made by those countries). However, the NBA has chosen to actively participate in China's economy to a significant extent, and to reap billions of dollars in income from that participation. The NBA could decide to participate to a much lesser extent, or to make any participation at all contingent on policy changes that enhance personal freedom for China's citizens. The NBA has chosen otherwise, and it is weak for Kerr, Popovich or anyone else to ignore that choice or to plead ignorance about it. To put it in the vernacular phrasing, regarding China, I would suggest, "If you don't know, ask somebody"--and ask somebody outside of the NBA cocoon, somebody who understands the issues. To borrow a phrase, this is more than a game--this is a life and death situation for the Chinese people.

It would be unfortunate if Daryl Morey loses his job as a result of his tweet, but Haywood made a good point about this as well: the Constitutional right to free speech means that the U.S. government cannot prevent you from voicing your opinion, but it does not protect you from being fired by your private employer. It is interesting that, for all of Morey's self-professed analytical acumen, he could not figure out that tweaking the totalitarian source of billions of NBA dollars would not go over well with the league. However if Morey is fired, it should not be because of his tweet, but because he is a flawed talent evaluator who ranks James Harden ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer and because the advantages that he self-promotes as a "stat guru" have failed to translate into a single NBA Finals appearance after more than a decade of wheeling and dealing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:25 PM