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kottke.org posts about NBA

Boris Diaw, the most interesting man on Earth

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

boris.jpg

The NBA right now is surprisingly flush with “unicorns”: long, thin athletes like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Kristaps Porzingis, seven-foot-tall guys who can handle the ball and shoot from range like the best guards from twenty years ago. The impossible build-your-own players from old video games are suddenly real and dunking on your head. Everyone is enamored of them.

I love them too. But before the unicorns, there were the mules. (Mulicorns?) Short, often chubby swiss-army-knife frontcourt/backcourt players who were nearly as versatile as the unicorns, but won through a combination of toughness, savvy, surprising athleticism, and unsurprisingly big butts. The mulicorns didn’t shoot as well from range (everyone shoots better now), they didn’t look as superhuman, but they were just as fun to watch. Okay. Almost as fun to watch. They got the job done. And as an amateur undersized, thoroughly chubby, surprisingly versatile power forward myself, they’ve always been my favorite guys to watch play.

Charles Barkley was a mulicorn. Ricky Pierce, Fat Lever, Adrian Dantley, Wes Unseld, Larry Johnson, Super John Williams. Magic Johnson was just a few inches too tall to be a mulicorn, but he’d be a mulicorn today. The best true mulicorn in the league right now is Draymond Green, whose bizarre blend of physical traits, creative skills, photographic memory, and I-will-tear-your-house-down-to-win attitude might prove as tough to clone as a hundred Giannises.

But the all-time mulicorn, and one of my favorite players ever, is the recently not-retired, just-playing-in-France, could-sign-with-a-competitive-NBA-team-at-any-time, Boris Diaw. Behold his majesty:

I asked my brother Sean, a math teacher and football and basketball coach who may be an even bigger Boris fan than I am and never, ever writes things on the internet, to tell me why he loves Boris so much.

Boris Diaw is like the bass player who always makes the song sound better. Or your buddy who the group just works better when he is there. He is the ultimate glue guy.

He also reminds me of that dude at the gym who you pick up on your team and you would win the court all day, and you couldn’t really keep track of who scored all of the points. But everyone would defend a little better, run a little harder and throw that extra pass.

He had the Sabonis thing where he passed really really well for a big guy. He also fit into my theory that every guy I liked could have played on the old Celtics team or the Bad Boys Pistons. Super smart; plays the game the “right way”; plays defense and moves the ball. A role player who understands their position on the team but can be the guy at least for moments. Tend to be really skilled and tough big guys. Guys who play the way that you hope you would play if you were 6’8”.

His teams were always better when he got there and worse when he left. He got traded for Joe Johnson, and somehow the Suns got better. That is a reoccurring story with him. His teams were always better when he got there and worse when he left. That one time he went to the Bobcats and then they were good. It was like him and Stephen Jackson and they made the playoffs.

When he went to the Spurs, it was a whole other level. Who has Tim Duncan and gets more fun to watch when they sub? He and Manu made everyone on the team play basketball. It was what people who like soccer describe, but I never really understood.

He is like the real life most interesting guy in the world.

There are amazing Boris Diaw stories. This Jonathan Abrams profile for Grantland sets a high standard. But this anecdote from David Griffin might be my favorite.

“Boris walks into the gym one day wearing flip-flops and holding his customary cappuccino, which was a staple for him every morning,” Griffin recalled. “It was during pre-draft workouts, so he sees the Vertec [machine] and asks what it is.

“We tell him it measures your vertical leap by determining how many of the bars you can touch. He asks what’s the highest anyone has ever gone, and we tell him Amare’ [Stoudemire] cleared the entire rack.

“Boris puts down the cappuccino, takes off his flip-flops and clears the entire rack on the first try. Then he calmly puts his flip-flops back on, picks up his cappuccino and walks away, saying, ‘That was not difficult.’”

I hope he comes back.

The Tinderization of the NBA

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2017

Since the late 1980s, the winning percentage of road teams has been rising in the NBA. After speaking to dozens of players, coaches, and team officials, Tom Haberstroh found a fairly accepted answer: “NBA players are sleeping more and drinking less”. Players are taking their careers more seriously and partying less on the road while transportation coordination has improved. Ubiquitous cameras and big sponsorships keep bad behavior in check. An additional factor is that with apps like Tinder and Instagram, companionship can be delivered to a player’s hotel room like Seamless or Postmates without the need to drink at the club for a few hours beforehand.

Indeed, various apps have done for sex in the NBA what Amazon has done for books. One no longer needs to leave home to find a party. The party now comes to you. And lifestyle judgments aside, the NBA road life is simply more efficient — and less taxing — when there aren’t open hours spent trolling clubs.

“It’s absolutely true that you get at least two hours more sleep getting laid on the road today versus 15 years ago,” says one former All-Star, who adds that players actually prefer Instagram to Tinder when away from home. “No schmoozing. No going out to the club. No having to get something to eat after the club but before the hotel.”

The NBA player staring at a 9:30 a.m. team breakfast in a hotel conference room the morning of the game can now log seven or eight hours of z’s and still enjoy a tryst. Thanks to direct messaging and texting, some NBA players even arrange to have keys left at the front desk so dates can be inside the room when a player arrives at the hotel.

As Haberstroh says further down in the article, “Partying is the midrange jumper of nightlife.” (via mr)

The case for Dennis Rodman

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2013

At Skeptical Sports, Benjamin Morris (who was just hired at FiveThirtyEight) has an extensive series of posts about Dennis Rodman. The conclusion he arrives at after many graphs and a dozen different posts is that Dennis Rodman was probably way better at whatever it was that Dennis Rodman did than any other NBA player was at what they did over the past 25 years.

While there may be room for reasonable disagreement about his character, his sportsmanship, or how and whether to honor his accomplishments, my research and analysis has led me to believe — beyond a reasonable doubt — that Rodman is one of the most undervalued players in NBA history.

I admit to not reading the whole series, but the ramifications of Rodman being “the best 3rd-best player” in the history of the NBA by a wide margin laid out in the finale was fascinating:

“Well, it’s not like he’s as valuable as Michael Jordan, but he’s the best 3rd-best player by a wider margin than Jordan was the best 1st-best player.”

“So you’re saying he was better than Michael Jordan.”

“No, I’m not saying that. Michael Jordan was clearly better.”

“OK, take a team with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it. Which would hurt them more, replacing Michael Jordan with the next-best primary scoring option in NBA history, or replacing Rodman with the next-best defender/rebounder in NBA history?”

“I’m not sure, but probably Rodman.”

“So you’re saying a team should dump Michael Jordan before it should dump Dennis Rodman?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, I’m not sure exactly how valuable other defender-rebounders are, but regardless, it would be weird to base the whole argument on who happens to be the 2nd-best player. I mean, what if there were two Michael Jordan’s, would that make him the least valuable starter on an All-Time team?”

“Well OK, how common are primary scoring options that are in Jordan’s league value-wise?”

“There are none, I’m pretty sure he has the most value.”

“BALLPARK.”

“I dunno, there are probably between 0 and 2 in the league at any given time.”

“And how common are defender/rebounder/dirty workers that are in Rodman’s league value-wise?”

“There are none.”

“BALLPARK.”

“There are none. Ballpark.”

“So, basically, if a team had Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it, and they could replace either with some random player ‘in the ballpark’ of the next-best player for their role, they should dump Jordan before they dump Rodman?”

“Maybe. Um. Yeah, probably.”

“And I assume that this holds for anyone other than Jordan?”

“I guess.”

“So say you’re head-to-head with me and we’re drafting NBA All-Time teams, you win the toss, you have first pick, who do you take?”

“I don’t know, good question.”

“No, it’s an easy question. The answer is: YOU TAKE RODMAN. You just said so.”

“Wait, I didn’t say that.”

“O.K., fine, I get the first pick. I’ll take Rodman… Because YOU JUST TOLD ME TO.”

“I don’t know, I’d have to think about it. It’s possible.”

“So there you go, Dennis Rodman is the single most valuable player in NBA History. There’s your argument.”

I loved watching Rodman play when he was on the Bulls. (One of my early web efforts was The Dennis Rodman Hair Page, which used JavaScript to change Rodman’s hair color.) The guy had such a weird role that he often seemed to be doing either the wrong thing or nothing. But the sheer number of rebounds and his defensive effort were hard to deny.

The discussion of Rodman’s worth reminds me a bit of Rickey Henderson, another unconventional player and a favorite of my pal David, who is always saying Henderson doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the best players of all time. (via @pieratt)

Michael Jordan returning to the NBA for one game?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2013

In talking to Bill Simmons for a Grantland NBA preview show, former NBA star Jalen Rose predicts that Michael Jordan will play one game for the Charlotte Bobcats this season.

Per Betteridge’s law of headlines, Jordan will not play in the NBA this season, but it’s an intriguing possibility. Jordan’s 50 years old but he owns the team so you never know.

The Big Fundamental

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2013

Lovely piece by Joe Posnanski about Tim Duncan, who at the age of 37 and in his 16th NBA season, finds himself in the Finals again seeking his fifth NBA championship.

Duncan almost certainly would have been the first pick in the draft after his sophomore year, but he came back to Wake Forest. He would have been the first pick in the draft after his junior year, for sure — and just about everyone thought he would go out — but once more he went back to Wake Forest to complete his senior year. Odom says that they were in the car after Duncan’s junior year and heading to the airport for the Wooden Award ceremony (Duncan did not win it until his senior year). He told Duncan, “You will get a lot of questions there about why you’re coming back to Wake Forest.”

Duncan, typically, looked out the window and did not say anything.

“No, Tim, this is important,” Odom said. “Let’s pretend I’m one of those reporters? Was it a hard decision to come back to Wake Forest?”

Duncan kept looking out the window, but he said: “No. It wasn’t hard.”

Odom: “It wasn’t? You didn’t agonize over leaving millions of dollars on the table?”

Duncan said: “I didn’t agonize. I just thought, why should I try to do today what I will be better prepared to do a year from now.”

Odom looked over at the best player he would ever coach, and he wondered: “What kind of college junior thinks like that? Who has that sort of confidence, that sort of patience, that sort of inner peace? And then Duncan said the words that Odom thinks about almost every day.”

He said: “You know something coach? The NBA can do a lot for me. It really can. But there’s one thing it can’t do. The NBA can never make me 20 years old again.”

In 2003, Duncan was 27 years old and the MVP of the NBA and the Spurs won their second championship. Ten years later, at 37, his statistics (per 36 minutes) are remarkably similar:

2002-2003: 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.7 blocks, 0.6 steals.
2012-2013: 21.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.2 blocks, 0.9 steals.

NBA player comes out of the closet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2013

NBA player Jason Collins is the first active player in a major US sport to come out of the closet. He explains why in a piece for Sports Illustrated.

Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn’t come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.

A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn’t yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I’ve struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.

The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.

Free thrown

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2013

Buried in this column about the 2013 NBA playoffs is an astounding statistic:

Dwight Howard missed more free throws this season (366) than Lakers teammate Steve Nash has missed in his 17-year NBA career (322). Howard: 355 for 721 this season, 49.2 percent; Nash: 3,038 for 3,360 from 1996-97 through 2012-13, 90.4 percent.

Now, Howard takes more than double (and sometimes triple) the amount of free throws than Nash does, partially because center/forwards get fouled more than point guards. But Howard also gets intentionally fouled because he’s such a bad free throw shooter whereas a reach-in foul on Nash is almost as good as a basket and so players almost never do it, unless they want to find their asses on the bench.

What was it like guarding Michael Jordan?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2013

Michael Jordan just turned 50 and so Deadspin’s Emma Carmichael asked former Cavs guard Craig Ehlo what it was like to guard Jordan in his prime. Sometimes Jordan would tell Ehlo what he was going to do ahead of time and still score.

Usually, Ron Harper would start on him, then I would come in and go to him, and Ron would go to Scottie Pippen or something like that. I always felt very lucky that Coach Wilkens had that faith in me to guard him. Michael was very competitive when he got between the lines. He was never a bad talker or too arrogant, but it was just like what Jason [Williams] said: He’d tell you. He only did that to me one time, from what I remember. It was his 69-point game, and things were going so well for him that I guess he just went for it. We were running up the court side-by-side and he told me: “Listen man, I’m hitting everything, so I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do this time and see if you can stop it. You know you can’t stop it. You know you can’t stop this. You can’t guard me.

“I’m gonna catch it on the left elbow, and then I’m gonna drive to the left to the baseline, and then I’m gonna pull up and shoot my fadeaway.”

And sure enough …

Ehlo famously guarded Jordan during The Shot:

See also Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building and Jordan’s top 50 greatest moments.

The Kobe Assist

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2012

The trouble with using statistics to improve the performance of sports teams is the difficulty in choosing what stats to track. Kirk Goldsberry makes that case that we should be tracking a new statistic called the Kobe Assist, which is actually a good kind of missed shot.

Kobe was wide-open; he caught the ball and shot without hesitation. He missed, and despite the great screen by Howard and the great playmaking by Nash, this beautiful basketball sequence was seemingly fruitless. Nash would not get his assist.

However, while Nash was busy playmaking and while Kobe was busy jump shooting, Dwight Howard had taken about seven steps toward his happy place — the restricted area — fought off the gigantic DeMarcus Cousins, and gained optimal rebounding position. Kobe’s miss ricocheted upward from the rim before descending back down into the hands of Howard, who quickly put the ball in the basket; the Staples crowd went wild (in the dark). Did Kobe just miss a shot or did he just inadvertently set up Dwight Howard for an easy score? Are some of Kobe’s missed shots actually good for the Lakers? Are some of his misses kind of like assists?

Sixth man infraction spotted 19 years after Rockets/Sonics game

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2012

This is one of the nuttiest sports things I have ever seen. Ethan Sherwood Strauss was rewatching a second round game from the 1993 NBA playoffs. Shawn Kemp’s Seattle SuperSonics vs. Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. Game seven. Overtime. Hakeem has the ball in the closing moments of the game. And suddenly, Strauss spies a sixth player on the court for Houston. The refs missed the extra player and so did most everyone else for the last 19 years. Take a look for yourself…the play in question starts at 16:50:

Number 22 just wanders off the bench and into the game!

The rise of the NBA nerd

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2011

Carlton Wade

NBA players, especially the younger ones, are dressing like nerds.

In their tandem press conferences, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, of the Miami Heat, alternate impeccably tailored suits with cardigans over shirts and ties. They wear gingham and plaid and velvet, bow ties and sweater vests, suspenders, and thick black glasses they don’t need. Their colors conflict. Their patterns clash. Clothes that once stood as an open invitation to bullies looking for something to hang on the back of a bathroom door are what James now wears to rap alongside Lil Wayne. Clothes that once signified whiteness, squareness, suburbanness, sissyness, in the minds of some NBA players no longer do.

If you happen to be someone who looks at Durant, James, or Amar’e Stoudemire’s Foot Locker commercials — in which he stalks along a perilously lit basketball court wearing a letterman’s cardigan, a skinny tie, and giant black glasses (his are prescription) — and wonders how the NBA got this way, how it turned into Happy Days, you’re really wondering the same thing about the rest of mainstream black culture. When did everything turn upside down? Who relaxed the rules? Is it really safe to look like Carlton Banks?

See also Kanye West and his entourage circa 2009. (thx, sveinn)

Michael Jordan’s final shot

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2010

After the Chicago Bulls won their final championship of the Michael Jordan era, David Halberstam wrote this fantastic article for the New Yorker about Jordan’s final season, final game, and final shot, a jumper over the sprawling body of Bryon Russell.

The crowd, Jordan remembered, got very quiet. That was, he said later, the moment for him. The moment, he explained, was what all Phil Jackson’s Zen Buddhism stuff, as he called it, was about: how to focus and concentrate and be ready for that critical point in a game, so that when it arrived you knew exactly what you wanted to do and how to do it, as if you had already lived through it. When it happened, you were supposed to be in control, use the moment, and not panic and let the moment use you. Jackson liked the analogy of a cat waiting for a mouse, patiently biding its time, until the mouse, utterly unaware, finally came forth.

The play at that instant, Jordan said, seemed to unfold very slowly, and he saw everything with great clarity, as Jackson had wanted him to: the way the Utah defense was setting up, and what his teammates were doing. He knew exactly what he was going to do. “I never doubted myself,” Jordan said later. “I never doubted the whole game.”

When NBA history is written, my guess is that no one will be able to top what Michael Jordan accomplished on the court (Bill Russell, possibly, aside). He was a fantastic athlete and possessed the focus and discipline to make the most of his physical gifts (by which I mean he had the pathological need to completely and totally dismantle everyone else on the court: opponents, teammates, officials, etc.). Basketball is full of mostly-one-or-the-other players: Larry Bird, for example, was not particularly physically gifted but more than made up for it in discipline and Shaq is an amazing athlete but lacked a certain focus at times. Oh, you’ll say, but what about: 1. LeBron (might be more talented than Jordan but is missing the necessary clinical insanity that Jordan had) or 2. Kobe (slightly less talented and driven, but might make up for it with longevity).

But to be fair, the shot against Russell was not the final shot of Jordan’s career. After that article was written, in 1998, Jordan returned to the NBA for two lackluster seasons with the Washington Wizards. His last NBA shot was a free throw in the final two minutes of a meaningless 107-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Acting on the orders of his coach Larry Brown, Sixers guard Eric Snow fouled Jordan so that Jordan could score some points and leave the game on a high note. The Wizards fouled shortly after and Jordan left to a standing ovation. The intensity that propelled Jordan to such great heights early in his career also drove him to retire too early (twice!) and then come back after it was too late to put an odd sort of question mark on an exclamation point of a career. (via jb)

Manute Bol, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2010

Former NBA player, shot blocker extraordinaire, and humanitarian Manute Bol died over the weekend at age 47. He died of a rare skin condition caused by a medication he took while in Africa.

“You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he’s so tall and awkward,” Charles Barkley, a former 76ers teammate, once said. “But I’ll tell you this — if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it’s a world I’d want to live in.”

According to Language Log, Bol may also have originated the phrase “my bad”.

Ken Arneson emailed me to say that he heard the phrase was first used by the Sudanese immigrant basketball player Manute Bol, believed to have been a native speaker of Dinka (a very interesting and thoroughly un-Indo-Europeanlike language of the Nilo-Saharan superfamily). Says Arneson, “I first heard the phrase here in the Bay Area when Bol joined the Golden State Warriors in 1988, when several Warriors players started using the phrase.” And Ben Zimmer’s rummaging in the newspaper files down in the basement of Language Log Plaza produced a couple of early 1989 quotes that confirm this convincingly:

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10, 1989: When he [Manute Bol] throws a bad pass, he’ll say, “My bad” instead of “My fault,” and now all the other players say the same thing.

USA Today, Jan. 27, 1989: After making a bad pass, instead of saying “my fault,” Manute Bol says, “my bad.” Now all the other Warriors say it too.

Update: As a recent post on Language Log notes, several people picked up on this and kinda sorta got rid of the “may have” and the story became that Bol absolutely coined the phrase “my bad”. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support that theory (although it doesn’t entirely disprove it either). The internet is so proficient at twisting the original meaning of things as they propagate that Telephone should really be called Internet.

Foul trouble

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2010

Q. When should NBA coaches take players out of games because of fouls? A. A lot less than they actually do.

Conventional wisdom seems to regard foul management as a risk vs. safety decision. You will constantly hear something like, “a big decision here, whether to risk putting Duncan back in with 4 fouls.” This is completely the wrong lens for the problem, since the “risky”* strategy is, with the caveats mentioned, all upside! Coaches dramatically underrate the “risk” of falling behind, or losing a lead, by sitting a star for too long. To make it as stark as possible, observe that the coach is voluntarily imposing the penalty that he is trying to avoid, namely his player being taken out of the game! The most egregious cases are when a player sits even though his team is significantly behind. I almost feel as though the coach prefers the certainty of losing to the “risk” of the player fouling out.

(via mr)

Best NBA players of the 2000s

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2009

I’m not exactly sure what I expected from such a list, but this wasn’t quite it. Kobe at #3 and Shaq is #6? Hrm.

Michael Jordan’s 23 most memorable moments

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 10, 2009

Michael Jordan is set for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend and in honor of the best player ever, ESPN is counting down with video of his 23 most memorable moments.

The overtime spike in NBA basketball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2009

The distribution of point differentials at the end of NBA basketball games shows that a tie is more than twice as likely as either team winning by one point. A possible simple explanation from the comments:

1. Teams down by 2 late are most likely to take a 2 point shot, while teams down by 3 will most often take a 3 point shot. The team’s choices make ties a likely outcome.

2. A Tie is a stable equilibrium, while other scores aren’t. If a team leads with the ball, they will be fouled, preventing the game from ending on that score. IF a team has the ball with a tie, they’ll usually be allowed to wait and take the last shot, either winning the game or leaving it as a tie.

Update: This study about golf putting seems to have something in common with the overtime finding.

Even the world’s best pros are so consumed with avoiding bogeys that they make putts for birdie discernibly less often than identical-length putts for par, according to a coming paper by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After analyzing laser-precise data on more than 1.6 million Tour putts, they estimated that this preference for avoiding a negative (bogey) more than gaining an equal positive (birdie) — known in economics as loss aversion — costs the average pro about one stroke per 72-hole tournament, and the top 20 golfers about $1.2 million in prize money a year.

Bill Simmons on, what else, basketball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2009

In an interview with the New Yorker about basketball and his new book, The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers up his take on how players skipping college impoverishes the NBA.

The lack of college experience also means that you probably have less of a chance to have a conversation with a Finals player about English lit or political science. For instance, if you’re a reporter, maybe you don’t ask for thoughts from modern players on the Gaza Strip or Abdul Nasser, or whether they read Chuck Pahlaniuk’s new book. These guys lead sheltered lives that really aren’t that interesting. Back in the seventies, you could go out to dinner with three of the Knicks — let’s say, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier — and actually have a fascinating night. Which three guys would you pick on the Magic or Lakers? I guess Fisher would be interesting, and I always heard Odom was surprisingly thoughtful. I can’t come up with a third. So I’d say that the effects are more in the “didn’t really have any experiences outside being a basketball player” sense.

The other drama

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2009

During the TV coverage of the NBA playoffs, the NBA is running commercials showing great moments in playoff history that have been edited to isolate the players from the crowd. There’s Bird stealing the inbound pass, Dr. J’s improbable behind-the-backboard reverse layup, and Kobe lobbing the ball to Shaq for a thunderous dunk.

The Kobe/Shaq clip is worth a closer look because although the NBA picked this clip because it represents a dramatic moment in the NBA playoffs involving two of the best players in history on a storied team, what it actually shows is how dysfunctional Shaq and Kobe’s relationship was even then, in their first championship season.

Bryant creates 95% of the offense here by crossing Pippen over and throwing a perfect lob to O’Neal. O’Neal throws it down and the camera follows him as he heads down the court yelling in celebration, totally blowing right past Kobe, who has his hand out to high-five Shaq. Kobe half-heartedly grabs at O’Neal’s forearm as he passes; Shaq doesn’t even notice. From his celebration, you’d think Shaq had made an amazing play, but Kobe made that whole thing happen. And if you look at the box score for the game, it was clearly Bryant’s game: he had 25 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocks to O’Neal’s 18/9/5/1.

The unedited clip of the play1 shows an awkward ending to this awkward moment. After celebrating with the Laker bench, Shaq looks for Kobe and the two finally acknowledge the play together. But it’s a brief moment; they slap hands and go their separate ways, foreshadowing Shaq’s departure four years later.

[1] What’s also striking about the clip is that it shows just how much Kobe has improved the mechanics of his game since then. Even though he makes a great play here, he’s still got those jittery feet that characterized his early career, at times looking like a dog skittering around on freshly polished linoleum. Any stuttering footwork is now long gone, replaced by the silkiest and smoothest of movement.

Update: fxguide has a good look at how these commercials were made from a technical standpoint.

Kobe vs. LeBron

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2009

From a few days ago on TrueHoop, a lengthy debate about who is the better player: LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. LeBron has the statistical dominance but Kobe’s game is the prettiest.

[LeBron] just doesn’t move like the best basketball player in the world. Put almost any part Kobe Bryant’s game in super slow motion, and you’ll see beauty. Every little part of his game is refined, perfected, tested and honed … Put LeBron James clips in super slow motion, and you’re liable to find things here and there that he could do a little better. That footwork, that release, that way that he walks a little bit like a duck. There is a cognitive leap. Could the best basketball player in the world have noticeable flaws?

There’s also an interesting argument in there that LeBron’s game is such that it’s very difficult to say why he’s so good other than, well, just look at him play! In the same way, LeBron is difficult for kids to imitate on the playground whereas Kobe’s catalog of moves are easy to imitate but difficult to get perfect to the extent that Kobe has.

Bill Simmons in conversation with Malcolm Gladwell

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2009

I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on underdogs the other day. It’s one of the many subjects that he and Bill Simmons tackle in a three-part email conversation they had recently: part one, part two, part three. Simmons says of LeBron James:

Let’s wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he’s still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel’s amp. He alternated between “9” and “10” in the regular season, and he’s been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can’t shake the feeling that he has an “11” in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that’s it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It’s a whole other ball game: You aren’t just beating teams, you’re destroying their will. You never know when you’ll see another 11. I’m just glad we’re here. End of tangent.)

I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They’ve got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.

I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team’s name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don’t think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that’s simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.

Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic — like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad — you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can’t-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.

Simmons and Gladwell did this once before in 2006: part one, part two.

Star Trek lens flares

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2009

Did you notice all the lens flares in Star Trek? JJ Abrams’ rationale for them — he refers to them as “another actor” in the movie — is pretty interesting.

I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn’t be contained in the frame. The flares weren’t just happening from on-camera light sources, they were happening off camera, and that was really the key to it. I want [to create] the sense that, just off camera, something spectacular is happening. There was always a sense of something, and also there is a really cool organic layer thats a quality of it.

Someone clever took some footage from the old series and added a bunch of lens flaring to make it look like the new film.

The result is supposed to be funny but I thought it also somewhat validated Abrams’ remarks above. (via snarkmarket & waxy)

Henry Jenkins and Snarkmarket also address my biggest problem with the movie, that the cadet-to-captain thing happened way too quickly to Kirk and his crew. Jenkins’ contention is that the new movie treats the Enterprise as a start-up company; Tim adds this gem of a line:

But it’s not academia; it’s the NBA. You give these kids the ball.

So, which NBA player is Kirk supposed to be? While not an exact comparison, I’m going to say that Kirk is Tony Parker to Spock’s Tim Duncan. And Scotty = Manu Ginobli?

Dikembe Mutombo’s career done

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2009

Dikembe Mutombo’s long NBA career came to a sad end last night with an injury to his knee.

His 18-year NBA career ended Tuesday night with a gruesome knee injury midway through his 1,297th game. He left the floor on a stretcher after every single teammate had surrounded him on the floor. That gesture spoke volumes about what they thought of him. He’s the funniest, smartest professional athlete you will ever meet.

Aside from the finger wagging, I always liked Mutombo. Back when I still watched college ball, Georgetown was my team and it was a lot of fun seeing Alonzo Mourning and Mutombo block all those shots. (via truehoop)

Bill Simmons’ NBA MVP picks

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2009

I need to make more time to read Bill Simmons’ column each week. His NBA MVP picks are an informative hoot. (Informative Hoot happens to be on the shortlist of possible alternate names for kottke.org.)

All But the Championship

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2009

TrueHoop looks at the recent ABC teams in the teams in the NBA, those that have flown high but have not secured a championship.

Some may argue that the true window to win a title began when Jerry Sloan took over as head coach [of the Utah Jazz] during the 1988-89 season, and while Karl Malone and John Stockton had been paired up since the 1985-86 season, the Jazz did not make it to the Western Conference Finals until 1992. That’s when they became title contenders. As we all know, Stockton’s career consisted of dishing out over 15,800 assists, which is over 5,000 assists more than Mark Jackson, who is 2nd on the NBA’s all-time assists list. Karl Malone, meanwhile, went on to finish 2nd on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. To have that kind of talent for so long and not come away with a title is almost unimaginable, if not crushing to a franchise. The window came to an abrupt close in 2003, when Stockton retired and Malone went to the Lakers in a last-ditch effort to win a title. The ultimate kicker? Between 1991 and 2003, Utah’s 632 wins were the most in the NBA.

Is two steps really traveling?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2009

TrueHoop recently investigated a seemingly simple aspect of the NBA game: the traveling violation.

The question is basic: If you’re dribbling the ball in the NBA, and you pick up your dribble … how many steps can you take before you have broken the traveling rules? It’s a fundamental part of the game. But I asked several NBA players, and the answers were far from simple.

In addition to asking the players, TH’s Henry Abbott also talks with some NBA officials, gets the low-down on how the call is really made, and makes an argument that the rule should be rewritten. The intro to the series is here.

No free throw improvement

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2009

As athletes get bigger, stronger, faster, and more well-trained and records repeatedly fall in other sports, the percentage of free throws made in college and NBA games has largely stayed the same.

The consistency of free-throw percentages stands out when contrasted with field-goal shooting over all. In men’s college basketball, field-goal percentage was below 40 percent until 1960, then climbed steadily to 48.1 in 1984, still the highest on record. The long-range 3-point shot was introduced in 1986, and the overall shooting percentage has settled in at about 44 percent.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s amazing that with so much at stake in the NBA game (wins, money, championships, glory), there are still players whose FT% is in the 50-60% range over the course of a season…for a shot that undefended and never changes! I wonder how the putting percentages have changed over the years in golf (if they even keep such statistics). The Times’ Room for Debate blog has a related discussion on unbreakable sports records.

LeBron averaging a triple double?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2009

If the NBA game were played at the pace of the 1962 season, the year Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double and Wilt put up 50 PPG while pulling down 26 RPG, LeBron James might be averaging 40.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 10.0 assists this season.

Okay, so you’ve all seen Wilt and Oscar’s numbers from 1962… but have you ever sat down and looked at the league averages that year? In ‘62, the average team took 107.7 shots per game. By comparison, this year the average team takes 80.2 FGA/G. If we use a regression to estimate turnovers & offensive rebounds, the league pace factor for 1962 was 125.5 possessions/48 minutes, whereas this year it’s 91.7. Oscar’s Royals averaged 124.7 poss/48, while Wilt’s Warriors put up a staggering 129.7 (the highest mark in the league). On the other hand, the 2009 Cavs are averaging a mere 89.2 poss/48. It turns out that the simplest explanation for the crazy statistical feats of 1961-62 (and the early sixties in general) is just that the league was playing at a much faster tempo in those days, with more possessions affording players more opportunities to amass gaudy counting statistics.

(via truehoop)

Basketball, Moneyball

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2009

Michael Lewis cast his Moneyball lens on basketball in this week’s NY Times Magazine. The Billy Beane of the roundball story, more or less, is Shane Battier, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Battier doesn’t seem like a great basketball player, but he does a lot of little things that helps his team win.

Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages.

Battier sounds like an intriguing fellow but the most interesting part of the article is about how the players’ incentives differ in basketball from other major American sports.

There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group. On the baseball field, it would be hard for a player to sacrifice his team’s interest for his own. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one: by doing what’s best for himself, the player nearly always also does what is best for his team. “There is no way to selfishly get across home plate,” as Morey puts it. “If instead of there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hit every single time and damage the efficiency of the team — that would be the analogy. Manny Ramirez can’t take at-bats away from David Ortiz. We had a point guard in Boston who refused to pass the ball to a certain guy.”

No wonder it’s so hard to build a basketball team with the right balance of skills and personalities. Take five guys, put them on a court, let them do whatever they think they need to do to get a larger contract next year, and maybe you get some pretty good results. Now, consider a situation where the plus/minus statistic is the basis for player salaries and all of sudden, players need to figure out how they can make the other four guys on the floor better. And while everyone is making adjustments to each others’ games, each player is adjusting to everyone else’s game, and the process becomes this fragile and intricate nonlinear dance that results in either beautiful chaos or the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.

PS. The brief author bio at the end of the article continues the recent game of “next book” Whack-A-Mole from Lewis. Since the publication of The Blind Side in 2006, Lewis’ next book has been listed in various outlets as being about New Orleans/Katrina, financial panics (which turned out to be an anthology edited by Lewis), his sequel to Liar’s Poker about the current financial crisis, and now is listed as “Home Game, a memoir about fatherhood”. I give up.

Former Sonics fan files for free agency

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2008

When the Seattle Supersonics up and moved to Oklahoma to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sonics fan John Moe became a fan free agent. He arranged recruiting calls and visits with several teams around the league to see if they would have him.

So was he welcoming me aboard then?

“I am absolutely welcoming you into our franchise. We could use some [Timberwolves] fans right now. You’re part of the blueprint. Absolutely.”

I thanked him for the offer but told him I had other teams to talk to.