The Dissent of Man

It was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday or whatever last Thursday. Today, Darwin is, of course, known primarily as the namesake of the underwater data-retrieval dolphin from SeaQuest DSV. But he also made a significant contribution to science.

This contribution was what Darwin called, in On the Origin of Species, natural selection. In retrospect, the correctness of natural selection seems so indisputably obvious–more or less–that it’s difficult to believe it was once considered so earth-shaking. After all, as Darwin pointed out at the time, your average pig farmer had a pretty strong intuitive understanding of the process by which favorable hereditary traits grow more common in successive generations.

That natural selection was earth-shaking was due not only to what Darwin proposed, but how he arrived at the proposition. Naturalists before Darwin held a certain ideal in their minds, and then scoured the globe to find examples of that ideal. Flora and fauna was sorted and sifted according to how closely they resembled the preconceived ideal. The more naturalists focused on cataloging similarities, the more orderly the world seemed, and the more orderly the world seemed, the stronger they believed their initial ideal to be true.

Darwin’s singular insight was that variations are much more important than similarities. In fact, Darwin realized, what others considered the most basic taxonomical unit of nature–the species–didn’t really exist at all. There was no firm, constant category called “finch,” there was only a fluid, variable “finchness.”

Point being that Darwin was paying attention to something everyone else–again, more or less–disregarded. While others focused on the purpose behind an adaptation, Darwin was interested in its function. It was this shift of conceptual focus that enabled him to eventually deduce the biological mechanism at the heart of evolution.

All this came to mind–really, it did!–while reading The No-Stats All-Star, Michael Lewis’s profile of Shane Battier. Lewis has built a career investigating those people who, like Darwin, achieved some unlikely success by valuing what others ignore and ignoring what others value. It’s come to be known as the Moneyball approach, but it’s apparent in The New New Thing, The Blind Side, and his recent articles uncovering the origins of the financial crisis. Lewis typically writes really, really engrossing narratives that do a good job making you, the reader, interested in the nerds featured therein while still remaining faithful to the essential nerdiness that motivates their pursuits.

I say typically because, in the case of Battier’s profile, Lewis kinda misses his mark. For a story about the hidden truth of overlooked stats, Lewis seems to play it a bit loosey goosey with the facts. Lewis suggests that Battier, an unsung role player, confers on whatever team he plays for “some magical ability to win”, and cited as evidence the improvement of the Grizzlies over Battier’s first to third season with the team, and the 18-win gain the Rockets experienced the year they acquired Battier in exchange for the draft rights to Rudy Gay. Lewis totally omits the fact that Battier’s playing-time steadily declined over his first three years in Memphis, and that the “improvement” in Houston was more likely just a return to form after a disappointing year in which the team’s two best players, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, combined to miss nearly 40% of the season due to injury.

Lewis did something similar in Moneyball. In extolling Billy Beane’s sabremetric-influenced scouting and drafting philosophy, Lewis downplayed the effect that Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson–all hitting their peak at the same time–had on the A’s overall success. The omission wasn’t that damaging to the book, though–in a way, it actually ended up further underscoring the constraints Beane operated under, and the brilliance of his response. Even with three Cy Young-caliber pitchers, he still needed to maximize the usage of his scant resources to even compete. It suggested that any apparent advantage is so temporary and ephemeral–so random–that adopting a strategy that merely maintains that advantage is no better than squandering it.

The No-Stats All-Star doesn’t overcome Lewis’s oversights or manipulations or whatever. It seems like, for once, Lewis has fallen into the trap of the pre-Darwin naturalists: He first constructed a story, and then found facts to support it. In making the argument that the traditional box score hides a player’s true value, Lewis ends up doing the same to Battier.

This isn’t to say that Battier isn’t a good player. He is pretty clearly useful, and a fuller understanding of his usefulness could be of great value to the league. One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the examination of Battier’s extreme unselfishness. Professional team sports are plagued by what I’m told economists call the Principal-Agent Problem. The problem arises whenever a principal–let’s just say, the Knicks–contracts an agent–call him Zack Randolph–to execute the principal’s agenda. The Knicks (presumably) want to win, so naturally they pay for the best players they can. But Zebo knows he is judged by individual stats, not wins, so he has no incentive to help the team unless it also helps himself. The principal and the agent’s interests are incompatible.  Developing a more robust statistical vocabulary for a player’s usefulness may go a long way to bridging this gap.

Another thing of note from the article was the brief mention of the Rockets’ scrutiny of other teams’ strategies. If the Rockets notice that another team’s tendencies mirror the ones the Rocket’s have identified as valuable–like three-point shooting from the corner–then the Rockets are given a clue that that team shares their approach. This solves one of the shortcomings of the statistical analysis of sports–small sample size. By recognizing and paying attention to likeminded teams, the Rockets are increasing the data points with which to test their theories. It also gives them a sort of distributed research tool–the Spurs, for instance, might not share their data with the Rockets, but they can’t hide their on-court tendencies. A smart team should be able to discern the Spurs’ philosophy, and in essence reverse-engineer it.

So yeah, the Rockets–or at least the Rockets as portrayed by Lewis–don’t seem to have the keys to the kingdom just yet. But the real lesson to be learned, the one that Lewis when at his best explains better than anyone, is that those who think they have the key to the kingdom usually use it to lock themselves inside. The secret to competitive advantages is that they are in a way subject to a kind of uncertainty principle–as soon as they are identified, they disappear.  By the time Moneyball was published, OBP was more properly valued in the baseball community, and Beane had to move on to some new undervalued asset–defense, youth, moustaches. There is no end to the search.

Thanks?

When asked, usually by Craig Sager and his weaponized haberdashery, what makes All-Star weekend such a special event, to a man every player said it was the chance to do something meaningful for the fans.

Which is so nice, you know? That these guys would take time out of their busy schedules to play a basketball game just so we could watch? I mean, that’s really, really thoughtful.

LeBron’s Aim

Well, today seems as good as any to talk about LeBron James’s shortcomings.

OK but first, let’s be real clear here: the only real question about LeBron’s career is how high up the list of all-time greatest players he’ll ascend. His career has already reached pretty freaking stratospheric heights, and he can probably take it higher, so his shortcomings are really more like “shortcomings.” And anyway, it’s really only one singular “shortcoming” that is at issue now. Namely, he can’t really shoot.

Well, he can shoot. This here stat page shows that his Field Goal % this season is .491, outstanding for a wing player. Plus, his True Shooting %, which takes into account his success at field goals, three pointers, and foul shots, is even better at .583.

But all that means is that LeBron is really, really efficient shooter–which isn’t the same as being a good shooter. Offensively, LeBron’s strength is his strength–he can easily get to and finish at the rim, as the stats bear out. Only a few perimeter players take a higher percentage of their shots in the paint, and they are typically penetrating point guards who really, really can’t shoot, e.g. Rajon Rondo.

LeBron’s stellar overall and adjusted FG% is a testament to how otherworldly he is at finishing at the rim, because once he takes a step or two back, he’s not the same ol’ LeBron. On the season, he’s only making .373 of his 2-point jumpshots, and .297 of his 3-point jumpers. Furthermore, his 3PT% has basically declined every year of his career, and his FT% is only now, in his 6th year in the L, beginning to creep up towards respectability.

That LeBron’s jump shot is not the best part of the game is no great insight. Even some dude just plucked entirely randomly off the street could point this out. And, so the thought goes, once LeBron develops his jumper, he’ll be truly unstoppable. Just like Mike.

Let’s think on that for a second, though. Yes, MJ is famous for, well…a lot of things, but one of them is remaking himself from a gravity-defying aerial artist* with a receding hairline into an apologetically good, totally bald sharpshooter . But he was also Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Is there another example of a superstar doing the same thing while still maintaining superstar-level production? Some players develop a hyper-specialized skillset–rebounding, defense, whatever–in order to maintain a roster spot, but MJ added shooting while keeping the rest of his arsenal. Other players begin to rely more on guile and basketball IQ as their physical gifts diminish, sure, but that’s not exactly what MJ did, either. His career was in many ways split into two totally different ones, like Babe Ruth dominating as a pitcher and then one day deciding he might as well jack loads of dongers. As freakishly transcendental as LeBron James is, asking him to do something that has only really ever been done once, by the greatest of them all, is a tall order.

Also, but is it true that Michael couldn’t shoot at the beginning of his career? His overall FG% was much better than LeBron’s at the same point in each’s career–though the shot chart records don’t go back that far, so it’s hard to judge the inside/outside split of his 2-point field goals. His 3PT% is way lower than LeBron’s to start, though he also took far fewer–one reason possibly being that maybe, since the 3-point line had only been established in basketball the year before he started at UNC, he didn’t have any real incentive to develop his long-range shot during his early basketball years. Anyway, by his sixth year, he was making 37.6% of them, better than any year of LeBron’s career to date. MJ was also a much better free throw shooter right out of the gate, quickly establishing and never really deviating from his career average.

Good free throw shooting seems like a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of being a good jump shooter. Mastering the repeatable, undefended 15-footer suggests that a player at the very least possesses proper shooting mechanics. And while some very few players are good free-throw shooters but not good jump shooters, the opposite is almost unheard of. So while MJ still had room for improvement, he entered the league with basically a picture-perfect shooting motion intact. Maybe, then, the perceived late-career development of a jump shot was really just a decision by an older Jordan to score points in a less physically enervating manner rather than constantly having to beat his defender off the dribble and then contend with some Entish brute at the rim. More likely it was just the by-product of  playing in the Triangle Offense, a scheme designed to get easy shots by exploiting player spacing and ball movement, rather than just having to dunk on chumps. Whatever the real reason, it wasn’t like His Airness just woke up one day and found out he could shoot like the lost Paxson brother–chances are, he had been able to shoot all along, we just hadn’t really noticed.

The same can’t be said for LeBron. People have been saying since high school that he needs to add a jumper to his game. Betting against LeBron to do it–or anything else–is a dangerous proposition. Even without a trusty J, he’s still probably the best basketball player alive. But there is an expiration date on the expectation, and though he hasn’t yet reached his peak, it’s possible that, in his 6th year as a professional, that date is rapidly approaching.

———————-

*That image is courtesy of a helpful eHow article on how to dunk like Michael Jordan. I’ll save you some time by just reprinting the easy-to-follow steps here. NOTE: all steps are equally important–skip even just one, and YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO DUNK LIKE MICHAEL JORDAN:

Step 1: Stretch every muscle that you can.

Step 2: Do calf raises and wall squats.

Step 3: Stretch again.

Step 4: Go to a basketball hoop and try dunking. If it is too hard lower the height of the hoop if you are able to.

Step 5: Keep practicing every day.

Step 6: Once it is easy to dunk raise the height of the hoop and try to do cool tricks.

Eerie, Pennsylvania

So LeBron James pretty clearly traveled. 

The postmortem of this incident raises a lot of really interesting and vexed and probably insoluble for the NBA, its officials, and its fans, especially in the wake of the Tim Donaghy game-fixing scandal. Like, are rules selectively enforced in ways that favor certain star players–or is it the other way around, does the selective enforcement of rules create stars by allowing certain players to gain an advantage which other rule-abiding players cannot? And anyway how is it determined who is a star? Is it just a subconscious, prefrontal cortex assessment on an individual ref’s part, or is there something more convolved and systematic and league-directed going on? And most troubling, what business does DeShawn Stevenson have woofing at King James from the bench while wearing this?

Of special note is LeBron’s postgame response to the call. Check it:

“I took a crab dribble, which is a hesitation dribble, and then two steps. What happens is when you take a crab dribble and you hesitate, that is not one step, because you still basically have a live ball. And then when you go into your one-two, that’s when the steps get counted. So if you look at the play, I take a crab dribble and find a crease and then I take my one-two. So it’s a perfectly legal play, something I’ve always done and always been successful with.” 

First thing to note is his liberal statutory interpretation of what constitutes a dribble. As commonly understood, the rules mandate that a player in possession of the ball must dribble once for every step taken, excluding the last two steps, provided those two are taken in the process of taking a shot or making a pass. With the “crab dribble” or whatever, LeBron seems to invert this relationship. Instead of “I’ve taken a step, so I must dribble,” he’s saying something like, “I’ve dribbled, so I get to take a step.” Rather than viewing the rule as a restriction, he’s choosing to see it as some sort of bestowal of a right. 

Which is wrong, but also pretty telling. LeBron is admitting to taking three steps, which means–regardless whether it was the right call in that situation, or should have been ignored because of the whole megastar-in-the-deciding-moments-of-a-game corollary–LeBron seems to be admitting that he traveled. 

Except that isn’t what he is doing. He confesses to acting in a way that violates a rule, but maintains that he in fact did not violate that rule. His explanation is that the crab dribble is his “trademark move,” and that “it’s a perfectly legal play, something [he’s] always done.” 

Echoes of this excuse-by-exceptionalism can be heard in movie theaters nationwide right now. At the climactic moment of Ron Howard’s gripping but troubling* “Frost/Nixon”, the glibbly fey Frost manages to wheedle Nixon into proclaiming about an alleged crime that, “when the President does it, it means it isn’t illegal.”

In the movie, this admission is portrayed as audacious and ballsy and pretty incriminating. This is only partly true. Public response to the interviews at the time doesn’t indicate that this moment was a decisive victory for Frost or an American people supposedly hungry for a reckoning. And also, the President is granted some extra-legal privileges, though these privileges are vague and controversial and pretty constrained. Though the words sound downright dastardly coming from Tricky Dick, a whole bunch of administrations have advanced similar claims at some time or another.

This is in no way a defense of Nixon. And anyway Executive Privilege is kinda beside the point, which is that, given his biography, psychology, and stature, Nixon almost undoubtedly and utterly believed that he hadn’t done anything illegal. His response wasn’t cagey, or evasive, or hair-splitting–he truly believed that he, Richard Nixon, had and could do no wrong.  He was filled with an unassailable, pathological presumptuousness. Anything he could do he was free to do–which, considering he was a bitter, paranoid, intolerant, and vindictive hard-drinker from nowhere who nevertheless managed somehow to get himself elected to the highest office in the land, was true. Right up until it wasn’t.

Maybe this, to answer an earlier question,  is what makes a star a star. In his postgame interviews, LeBron James claims to have watched the replay of his crab dribble 10 times, and still can’t understand what all the hubbub is about. Everyone else who watches it can see the hubbub plain as day. And maybe that’s part of the reason why we’re everyone else, and he’s LeBron James. A world in which he cannot do whatever he wants whenever he wants–in basketball, at least–is literally unenvisionable to him.

****** 

Ready to be SOMEWHAT ASTOUNDED! Then continue reading this post!

Some idle basketball-reference.com noodling lead me to the 1992-93 Philadelphia 76ers team page, and just if you will check out this comparison of team-/soulmates Hersey “The Hawk” Hawkins and Jeffrey “The Horn” Hornacek

Hawkins: 20.3 ppg  4.3rpg,  3.9apg,  1.7spg,  2.2TO,  2.3PF, .470FG%,  .3973P%,  .860FT%

Hornacek: 19.1ppg  4.3rpg,  6.9apg,  1.7spg,  2.8TO, 2.6PF, .470FG%,   .3903p%,  .865FT%

Eerie, right? And further check this out: both players stood 6’3″ and weighed 190lbs, and both were from Illinois. Also, Hawkins once booked a theater in a warehouse, while Hornacek warehoused a theater in a book.

*Some questions arose regarding the play/movie Frost/Nixon’s faithfulness to its source material. Clearly some dramatic license was needed to turn what was essentially two dudes chatting in a living room into compelling theater/film. But, considering that the play/movie’s plot is the real-life effort to get a real-life person to confess to a real-life scandal using his own words, how much can you amend those real-life words before you betray the motives–and results, for that matter–of those real-life people? I certainly don’t have clue one.

Weakside Putback

Commenter Luc Longley posted an interesting counter-argument to the earlier post about the relative success of Greg Oden:

“usually I am struck dumb by the brilliance of the new enthusiast’s analysis, but in this case I have a couple of thoughts. The question isn’t just whether oden will grown into a slightly-above-average center, it’s whether the blazers were right to draft him ahead of durant, right? Excluding pre-1992 big men who aren’t “true” centers makes Oden look like a better pick than he is, because it doesn’t account for how the position has changed…

In the late 80s/early 90s, almost all the top big men were true centers: ewing, parrish, robinson (with “the dream” being a notable exception). shaq and zo aren’t anomalies as much as they are the last/best of a dying breed. In the late 1990s/early oughts, versatile F/C’s like nowitzki, duncan, camby, gasol, and esp. garnett started to face the basket and play outside and created very tough defensive match-ups for traditional centers. And then in 2001 zone defense was legalized, which spread the floor and made centers even less important on both ends. I’d argue “true” centers have slowly become obsolete.

So if oden is a back-to-the-basket post player whose utility is (arguably) limited in today’s NBA, why do you draft him #1 overall? You don’t, you take durant and build around him instead. The blazers front office has essentially bet that parrish would be a dominant center if he played today.

Which brings me to my main argument: oden and robert parrish are actually the same person. seriously, look at pictures of them side-by-side. pretty much open-and-shut…”

A lot of good points are raised in there that deserve some closer inspection. First, yes agreed, the analysis was sloppy and probably too cavalierly back-of-the-envelope. The point wasn’t to make a conclusive argument for or against Oden, just to give his performance to date a little–and I do mean little–context.

Second, at least half of The New Enthusiast campaigned in favor of the Blazers selecting Kevin Durant at the time, though blogs hadn’t been invented in 2007 so there’s no recorded evidence of this. But, while the Blazers can’t redo the pick, it’s still worth considering what Oden’s career might look like, even if Durant is and will likely always be the better player. Oden can still be a good pick even if he wasn’t the “right” pick.

Also, Robert Parish was really good. If Oden matches the Chief’s 10-year peak of around 18ppg/11rpg, the Blazers would probably consider his selection a success–especially if in Brandon Roy they have someone whose career approximates Durant’s.

The central presumption of Luc’s post–that “true centers” of the 80s/90s vintage are obsolete–is what I’m interested in. It seems anecdotally true. Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki–the league is filled with versatile, face-up big men, with Hakeem probably serving as the hybrid link between these two eras. But there are still a number of back-to-the-basket goliaths who produce at a pretty high–and efficient–rate. Yao and Big Z come to mind. I doubt anyone would prefer them over the previously mentioned hybrid big guys, but I wonder if this is purely because the hybrids are better (which, ok yeah, those used in the above example admittedly are), or if there isn’t some amount of bias against them at play because they don’t fit the current NBA zeitgeist.

How did we arrive at this place where we consider a certain style of player better than another? Does it matter that a hypothetical  Kevin Garnett  gets his 20 and 10 facing the basket, while the hypothetical Yao gets his turned the other way? I bet there are some actual on-court differences–like, maybe KG’s high-post position spreads the defense for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce or something–that someone smarter than me could demonstrate. Maybe it’s that KG presents a match-up problem for Yao, but then why shouldn’t Yao also present a match-up problem for KG?

In baseball, positional requirements are pretty rigid. A catcher has to possess a necessary skillset in order to successfully field his position–a skillset so rare and important that it’s excusable if the catcher can’t really hit. Other positions have easier requirements, which means that players filling those slots have to offer something valuable above and beyond the basic skillset. This is why first basemen are so often hypertrophic home run hulks–since anyone else could field their position while they couldn’t field anyone else’s, they have to do something no one else can do, i.e. jack a lot of dongers.

In the NBA, positions are much more fluid. There is no one, best way to win, which is part of the ever-renewing drama of the game. Magic Johnson, Lebron James, Seven Seconds or Less–they’re all examples of the constant category-busting that takes place in the NBA. Still, that doesn’t prevent a conventional wisdom about archetypal players from calcifying. Take a look at this chart from upsideandmotor.com*:

This has been rightfully generating a lot of talk on the basketblogs. It’s fun and provocative and true in a way that’s only apparent to those who look closely enough to see the magic behind the numbers. But I think it also points out some of the difficulties in constructing a positional/skill taxonomy that does for basketball what Bill James’s defensive spectrum did for baseball. First off, the categories, while deeply funny and true like only deeply funny things can be (Megalomanical small guard!?!), are often too vague or too specific to be helpful. Also, it can be reduced to something of a tautology–is Chris Paul at the summit of the NBA because he’s in the class “Elite Point Guard,” or is “Elite Point Guard” at the summit of the hierarchy because of Chris Paul?

I think it also demonstrates a line of thought that lurks behind a lot of NBA analysis, a sort of deductive fallacy of converse accident that concludes a general truth based on specific and rare examples. I.e. there are no dominant back-to-the-basket big men because back-to-the-basket big men are obsolete. There are plenty of alternative reasons, though. Being 7’2″ and 300lbs while still having the dexterity to end up like this and not like this is exceedingly rare. So is being 6’10” with the ability to run the court and knock down elbow-extended jumpers. The simultaneous presence of one and absence of the other may be nothing more than genetic happenstance. It could also be result of the faddish scouting and developing of talent that resembles Kevin Garnett, et al, due to a decade of prominence from such players. It also could simply be a result of rule changes that favor the slightly smaller, more athletic big men, though this strikes me as a little chicken-and-the-egg.

All of which is to say that, yes, Luc Longley is entirely correct in saying Kevin Durant is likely to be more valuable over his career than Greg Oden, and it’s not unthinkable that the Blazers will at some time regret their decision–though I don’t think that time is now. But it’s also possible that there is a True Postman on the horizon who will force us to re-examine our existing archetypes of success in the NBA. Maybe that will be Greg Oden, maybe not. I just don’t think we yet have a firm enough grasp on all the moving parts of success in the NBA to confidently say that any player’s success–or failure–is attributable to something outside of the player’s abilities themselves.

*The Enthusiast is totally and willfully ignorant about all matters having to do with etiquette, especially when it comes to the internet. So if it’s uncool to reporduce images from other sites, let us know.

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

Central to this blog’s fascination with sports–and I’d guess this is true of most ardent sports fans–is the question, “What is it like?” As we’ve mentioned here before, athletes at the pinnacle of exertion attain a level of conspicuous grace that we mere onlookers, in our humble, daily trials, can never truly access. We’re desperate for anything that can make this sort of unfathomable genius discernible to us. Or as David Foster Wallace put it, we’re trying to “get intimate with all that profundity.”

Our inability to understand is matched by the athlete’s inability to explain. Wallace dissects this disconnect in his essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” He suggests that the banal, unenlightening postgame clichés an athlete offers up aren’t evidence of his or her lack of intelligence, but instead are real and deeply true and essential to the athlete’s success in ways we can’t grasp. I think this is echoed by the A.A. members in “Infinite Jest.” For recovering addicts, like top-flight athletes, success is only possible by abandoning oneself and trusting in the mercy of some higher power. “One day/pitch/serve/foul shot/putt at a time,” then, takes on a terrifying, mind-clearing urgency. 

Dock Ellis, former Major Leaguer and recovering addict, died yesterday. He wore curlers in his hair, and once set out to bean every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was maced by a stadium security guard who didn’t believe he was who he said he was, and spent his post-baseball years as a drug and alcohol counselor in Los Angeles. He was a man of his time, especially because he and his time didn’t often see eye to eye*. He also threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.

Still high from the night before, Ellis woke up the morning of June 12, 1970, in his girlfriend’s Los Angeles apartment. Believing he had the day off, Ellis dropped acid again before one of his companions pointed out that the newspaper listed him as the starting pitcher in game one of that day’s doubleheader. In San Diego.  The no-hitter wasn’t of the Kerry Wood, untouchably dominant sort. Understandably, Dock had trouble locating the strike zone, walking eight batters and–naturally–hitting one. But, c’mon, give him a break. He was really, really high.

This is a great story, great for so many reasons. But one reason, for me, is because it both emphasizes and explodes the divide between athlete and spectator. Asking Ellis what was going through his mind that day would have been absurd, and absurd not in the existentially tragic, Sisyphean way, but absurd in a way that was funny and potentially revealing. What could his response possibly have been? “I don’t know, freaking Yodas and shit?”

Or maybe something more like, “I noticed that there was a hole in a corner of the sky, and through it I had a complete view of the universe and the secrets it contained, and I watched as these secrets leaked through the hole like liquid, and I was filled with the knowledge that we, every one of us, are bathed by this liquid, today and forever.”

And everyone in attendance would have understood him, for once, because that day at Jack Murphy Stadium they had seen the same thing, too.

*For more on Dock’s struggle with race, drugs, and baseball, check out this book, which is also the source of this post’s title.