Archive for the ‘humor’ Category

Assessing Cleveland’s Game 1 Strategy

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals is in the books and the game is being dissected by millions. The Cavs directed so much attention to Steph and Klay that the “others” killed them. Each team came in with a game plan and because the Golden State won, most people feel the Cavs screwed up. Due to the fact that basketball is a continuous action game (until the league decided to review referees’ calls, anyway) and there are so many possessions, everybody screws up – players, coaches and, as reviews have shown us, occasionally, refs. So there is much discussion to be had when dissecting game plans after games end.

Because the Warriors’ offense was such an aberration of its normal self, people are talking about what the Cavs did and why it didn’t work. Let’s take a deep breath and give some thought before we go down that road. Prior to the game, had someone from the Cavs’ staff told “The All-Knowing One” (obviously a fictional character) what their defensive game plan was and the wise sage told them that, if they employed that strategy, Curry and Thompson would shoot 8-27 from the floor (that the former would have more TOs than FGMs), that neither guy would make a free throw and they’d combine for 20 points, do you think they would consider changing it?

Two things that were natural for me were numbers (eventually I would major in and teach math) and look at (any) game from the coaching perspective (I was the “coach” when we were kids, e.g. when somebody was needed to organize games and make sure everyone was there,  then I coached various sports from high school days until I retired from coaching 50 years later). As my coaching philosophy began to take shape, numbers (my own form of analytics) began an integral part. One theory I came up with was based on the two teams that were competing. Seldom are they equal, meaning one has a better chance to win, all factors being the same. Essentially, that’s what home court advantage is all about.

As far as putting together a game plan, here’s where I would begin. “If both teams play to 100% of their effectiveness, which would win?” The point spread for Game 1 (which the wise guys who set it have a goal of evening the money bet either way) had the Warriors as six-point favorites. This meant that, not only did they consider the Warriors the better team, but that playing at home would favor them even more. Therefore, it was up to Cleveland to do something to make Golden State inefficient, while making certain their own level of play didn’t shrink too low, i.e. they had to play at a higher level than their opponent - something that was the exact opposite of every playoff series they had to date.

The Cavaliers coaching staff, in putting together a game plan probably asked themselves what was it that made Oracle Arena really rock? Obviously, the answer is when the Dubs score but, beyond that, when did the building shake more than any other time? If you’ve seen Golden State’s home games like I have (living in Fresno, we get the Bay Area sports station – meaning we get every Warriors’ game, home and away), the decibel level is way up there but never so loud as when Steph or Klay knock down one of their insanely quick “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” three pointers. Can anyone blame the staff for thinking items #1 & 2 on the to-do list was find those two – and limit their shot attempts (at the very least, contest every shot they take).

However, the wise old sage said, using that strategy will leave others open. Someone like Shaun Livingston could score 20 points, Andre Igudola could score double figures and even a bench player like Leandro Barbarso could come in and go 5-5 from the floor. In fact, their bench could outscore yours to the tune of 45-10. That’s a huge deficit – but even that could be overcome as long as you limit the points they get off turnovers. Just make sure you’re not so careless that you give up 25 points off 17 TOs.

Armed with all that knowledge, imagine how strongly hearing hold Curry and Thompson to 20 points would resonate with them. Don’t think they might not try to run a similar game plan, of course with a few adjustments, again. The question they need answered following their Game 1 defeat is:

“How do we score more than 89?”

Even the Pros Can Have Lapses

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

If you’re a loyal reader of this blog, you know that I feel that the NBA is made up of the best athletes in the world and that this belief has been formed from 35 years of coaching. I find it impossible to believe that anyone who watches the NBA Playoffs isn’t in awe of the physical talent the players possess. Forget about the superhuman moves they make on a nightly basis, just try to replicate the routine plays they make every game.

It’s futile to attempt to compare eras when discussing who the “best ever” players are, e.g. if three-point shots were a part of the game, does anybody doubt Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or any other premier shooters wouldn’t have made several (hundred)? Thousand? The game has evolved, rules have been changed to “level the playing field” (most of them because of the sheer dominance of Wilt Chamberlain) but also to make the game more aesthetically pleasant for the fans (with the possible exception of the Detroit Pistons fans).

So, while it still the same game, there are those (mainly Baby Boomers) who lament how much greater pro hoops were “back in the day.” Of course, the younger generation thinks the current players are the best who have ever played. Independent of which era you consider yourself from – or whether you feel you’re a basketball aficionado and belong to every period of the NBA – there is one segment of the game that is befuddling. Not only to me, but other coaches, past and present.

There are cardinal rules coaches have used throughout the years, many of which have become outdated. I’ve always maintained that Pete Maravich not only could compete with today’s stars, but that he would be better than he was during his fabulous career. His “style” was frowned upon as showboating whereas today much of it is encouraged – not only because it’s now accepted but because it draws fans. Other teaching points such as “no cross-court passes” and “wings should make a 45 degree cut to the basket on a fast break” (as opposed to run to the three-point line in the corner) have been eliminated.

However – and this is something that makes me cringe when I see it – is breaking one of the major no-no’s of coaching. Every practice I’ve ever held, every coach I’ve ever worked for, heck, every coach I’ve ever spoken to, we all have the same philosophy when guarding three-point shooters: DON’T FOUL GUYS SHOOTING THREES!!! Think for a moment and count off the number of times you’ve seen a three-point shot blocked. Maybe, maybe, at the end of the game when a team is down three or more, the shot or game clock is down and the offense is just hoisting a desperation attempt. Sure, Steven Adams got one in, I think, Game 3 but, pretty close to 100% of the time, a three-point shot will not be blocked. Now, that is not to say three-pointers should not be contested; they certainly should. Three-point shots are a major part of the game. The Warriors are using it with incredible frequency, resulting in remarkable success. The second best team in the NBA in three-point percentage is San Antonio. Third? Right, the Warriors’ foe in the Finals – Cleveland.

Armed with this knowledge, you would think, with points being so precious, a team would be foolish to give away easy ones. Yet, time and again, three-point shooters are fouled, meaning a team is sending a good shooter (the bad ones seldom shoot threes) to the free throw line for three attempts – at the only shot that stays the same from junior high to the NBA, i.e. 15′ away, 10′ high, at a rim whose diameter is 18″ with a ball whose diameter is 9″ – unguarded. The only shot a player gets to take when no one allowed to so much as put a hand in his face.

Throughout the regular season, as well as the playoffs, three-point shooters are going to the line to shoot three FTs – if not to complete a four-point play, a happening that has to feel absolutely devastating (uplifting for the team who scored). Why?

Although there hasn’t been any definitive data done, much of the reason can be traced back to Reggie Miller, the, now, third greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Reggie would come off a screen, feel his defender trailing, trying to catch up so as to disrupt the shot, even if it was no more than a hand in his face, and Reggie would ever so slightly kick out his legs. At the merest touch of a defender (or maybe not even a touch), referees would see the poor shooter flailing, falling on the floor as if he’d been bulldozed. Reggie was slick. A career 88.8% FT shooter (he shot 90% or better from the stripe eight of his years in the league), he scored 6,237 freebies during is time in the NBA.

Other shooters saw it (not to mention the defenders who knew what had really occurred) and, soon, the Julliard School with Professor Reggie Miller was in session. Instant replay has tried to curtail the action but, the game is simply too fast for referees to catch it. Whether this kind of flailing led to other incidents (Draymond?) is a topic for another time but it is prevalent in shooters. One of the greatest coaches – and far and away the best coaching clinic lecturer ever, Hubie Brown – was one of the first to decry fouling jump shooters. Although virtually impossible, it wouldn’t shock me if, during a game in which Hubie is the color commentator, a player fouls a three-point shooter at a crucial time in the contest:

“and Hubie’s head explodes.”

The Enigma Facing Most of the NBA Franchises

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Two items of business: first, a personal emergency caused me not to blog yesterday. I was in such a rush, I didn’t have time to alert readers and for that, I apologize. Secondly, it’s that time of the year when all the work, blood, sweat, tears and money come to fruition. Yep, college graduation. Younger son, Alex, dons the cap and gown at Cal State Monterey Bay. An academic presentation by him and his group is first, then final residence check out, a grad party or two and the actual commencement ceremony wrap up the week.

For all of those reasons, this blog will take a week hiatus and will return on Tuesday, May 24.

Tracy McGrady made a statement that appalled many, was applauded by many, and is nothing that hasn’t been said before – as in when he was playing. When asked about Steph Curry and his unanimous MVP award, T-Mac said, “Just tells you how watered down our league is. Seriously, think about when MJ played, Shaq. Those guys really played against top-notch competition, more superstars on more teams than it is in our league today. But it’s well deserved; he had a hell of a season.

Big of him to acknowledge the Curry had a hell of a season, wasn’t it? In addition, he was just saying that the vote was unanimous because there aren’t the players in the league that there were when he was in it, trying to point out that the stats accomplished by Curry were done so because there are so many inferior players in the league now, what with expansion and all. That a guy like LeBron James doesn’t provide worthy enough competition?

His comment isn’t as controversial as it seems for the simple reason there are claims like that made every year – made by players from previous generations. Not only that but there is little doubt, today’s players will fully agree with him – years down the road, i.e. after their careers are over and it’s time for them to reminisce. Hey, imagine what the really old timers think. Back when they played, there were only eight teams in the league. Wouldn’t they be considered the absolute cream of the crop?

Sir Charles Barkley made similar remarks, saying the overall talent in the league is the “worst I’ve ever seen it.” Barkley backs up his statement by saying players are coming into the league much too early, that they need to stay in school. On one hand, Chuck makes an excellent point. How can anybody 19-years old (with the exception of Moses Malone and LeBron James) be ready – physically and mentally – to excel in an 82-game season (plus exhibitions and playoffs) against grown men five, ten, fifteen years older, wiser and more mature than they are? Yet, if memory serves me correctly, the law is what caused the mandatory one year after a youngster’s graduating class to be eligible to be drafted, i.e. the “one-and-done rule.” So while what Barkley says is common sense – that it’s foolish to allow it -it’s illegal to hold the kid back.

Football and baseball have a different set of rules but each of those sports allow early entry as well. So what’s the magic age? Certainly, staying in school sounds good but friends of mine who were on the staff at Auburn used to kid that while Charles loved college, he hated class. Even he has said, when asked if he has a degree, “No, but a lot of the people who work for me do.” So staying in school or masquerading in school?

Mark Warkentien, a high-level consultant to the president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks, shared with me his philosophy. “Stein,” as he’s known to many in the business, is one of the most creative thinkers and down-to-earth people I’ve met in all my years in coaching. When asking him about kids coming out before their eligibility is used up, he turned the tables and posed a scenario to me. “With the NCAA’s 20-hour maximum rule and no such restriction in the NBA, where can a kid improve more – especially considering that 20 hours includes, weight lifting and meetings, not to mention team practice? The NBA has no such rules, plus each team has a staff member (who usually has an assistant or two) whose job is designated as a player development coach? Damn good argument.

NBA coaches, possibly because they make so much money (not their fault when franchises are throwing it at them), are getting fired not only for losing or not making the playoffs, but for making the playoffs but not advancing far enough. David Blatt, Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, Kevin McHale, Frank Vogel, Dave Joerger are all examples and while there might be other underlying reasons other than record, it does seem pulling the plug has become easier and easier to do. And, really, how many teams who practice this henchman technique wind up doing that much better?

So, players are entering at such an early age – largely because the NBA is so enamored with “upside.” Meanwhile, coaches are getting the early hook. The dilemma for the coach (or whoever’s job is on the line) becomes how can we improve our roster – quickly? If the answer is through free agency, allow me to let you in on what an NBA coach told me a few days ago (actually, I’ve heard this from several coaches and front office people). “There are only about 5-6 teams where players really want to play: both LA teams, New York, Miami, Dallas and Chicago.” San Antonio can do well because of their history (see how much of a destination it will become when Pop decides to hang ‘em up). Golden State is flying high now but in the recent past, nobody was clamoring to play for the Warriors. Sure, Texas, Tennessee and Florida don’t have state tax but don’t think for a minute players put playing in Memphis and Orlando in the same category as Dallas and Miami. Another factor is the owner. Look no farther than the Clippers to understand that importance. The Warriors and Mavs are winners in that area as well.

The one bit of criticism that makes more sense than anything – certainly more than most of his comments – is what Charles Barkley has been preaching for quite some time regarding the draft. It used to do what it was designed to do – vastly improve a struggling franchise. But now, as Charles says:

“If my team sucks, I don’t want a guy who might be good in five years. That doesn’t help me. I want immediate help.”

 

 

Van Gundy Admits Defeat Without Much of a Fight

Saturday, May 14th, 2016

When I met Jeff Van Gundy he had just completed a graduate assistant season under Rick Pitino at Providence. The occasion was a self-improvement clinic Larry Shyatt and I began a couple years prior. Jeff had written a letter, requesting to be a part of our group, whether as a clinician or just an observer. We asked him to speak on Providence’s full court press.

Jeff showed up with personalized, three-rind binder for each of us (approximately six other assistant coaches), with every drill the Friars used, accompanied by a thorough, enthusiastic explanation of each one. It didn’t take long to realize this cat had exceptional knowledge and, even after his career skyrocketed all the way to attaining NBA head coaching gigs, he continued to attend our gatherings. It was blatantly apparent this young guy was a sensational coach. His knowledge of the game and attention to detail, combined with his ability to communicate with players of any generation, translated to a long-term career in the game.

Whether he fell into the color commentary position or he sought it following a couple successful head coaching tenures, he’s excelled in that area as well. In addition to being able to understand the nuances of the game – and having the ability to explain to the fan – combined with his self-deprecating style captures the hearts of his viewers. His penchant for including the audience, providing thought-provoking commentary and reminiscing about years gone by keep everybody glued to his observations. Unlike many in his field, he doesn’t come off as a know-it-all, more like a fan with an educated opinion.

A couple games ago, while working a Golden State-Portland game, he remarked that the Blazers’ backcourt of Damian Lilliard (Weber State) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) had to be as good a pair of guards from “non big time” colleges as ever graced an NBA floor. Independent of whatever challenger someone came up with, the viewing audience just knew there would be a debate. Until play-by-play man, Mike Breen, countered with, “How about the Knicks’ duo of Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois) and Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State)?” With such small colleges as a Big Sky team (Weber) and a Patriot League institution (Lehigh), listeners were ready for an argument.

Instead, Van Gundy (a Knicks’ fan as a youngster) simply gave the following replay:

“That’s the winner. Game over!”

“We Done Seen It All”

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

The Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat played an exciting playoff game last night that, for the third time in the four games of this series, took overtime to decide the winner. Then, the main attraction came on.

The Golden State Warriors set the record for most games won in a regular season (73) but, apparently, someone forgot to tell the Portland Trailblazers. The first three games of the series were won by the home teams, so with the game in Portland, the Blazers felt pretty good about their chances, especially with this year’s sure-fire MVP Steph Curry (assuming the players association doesn’t vote for James Harden) having missed each of the first three games and doubtful for this one. Even with a rumored 25-minute restriction placed on him – which probably was the plan.

Until a bad no-call (instant replays have to be #1 on referees’ most hated inventions list) after Shaun Livingston scored on a fast break – and got hit in the head as he did. Playoff basketball is ultra-intense and Livingston complained for the ensuing 60 feet. The official, invoking the referees’ code “don’t show me up,” slapped a tech on Livingston. (The late Jim Valvano once remarked to a ref who made that claim after giving him a T, “Show you up – who do you think came here to watch you?“) Although his emotions were running high, Livingston lost his cool, received another technical – and with it, an automatic ejection. He let down his team in numerous ways. 1) he was the one starting in Curry’s place and was counted on to play the majority of the minutes at point guard, 2) playoff games are usually close and it’s not like you need to be giving away free points to your opponent and 3) by getting thrown out, it meant either playing Curry more than anticipated or going deeper into the bench – neither of which were part of the game plan.

My feeling, especially now that instant replay is so much a part of sports, is that officials usually know when they’ve blown a call. In that case, they should (certainly after issuing one technical) do whatever they can to get away from whoever’s arguing – just so you don’t compound your mistake by making another one, i.e. don’t penalize someone even further for your error. In spite of how bad the call was – and, admit it, you’d be highly upset if you got smacked in the head while you were in a vulnerable position – Livingston needed to display more self-discipline, independent of (or maybe because of) the circumstances. Instead, he continued to complain, knowing a call like that has never been a reversed. From one particular camera angle, you could lip read the “mf” he dropped on the official, which everyone knows simply cannot be overlooked – especially when the player is so close to the referee. That’s, as it should be, automatic.

There are two items in Livingston’s defense. One is that it was an obvious missed call. However, there are so many obvious missed calls in an NBA game – some that go against you but some in your favor – that you just eat your pride, control your anger and hope you’ll get the benefit of the doubt later in the game. Why Shaun Livingston should be given a pass on this one is because it was the first time in his 11-year NBA career that he’s been tossed from a game. Therefore, one would hope this will definitely serve as a learning situation. It will become an even stronger one if Curry incurs any serious repercussions from having played more than he probably should have.

Back to the game. Curry sat the first four minutes. When he entered, it was clear his timing was off, as everyone expected it to be. He didn’t seem as comfortable, nor in the flow, right away. His shots weren’t dropping. Although he’s had some off nights shooting, I’m sure research will show (I’ll leave something like that to the stat heads) there weren’t too many contests in which he played where he missed his first nine threes. It did seem as though the game was getting more and more familiar to him as it went on. Because of the type of shooter he is, it looked like, when he made a deep step-back two (his foot was on the line) late in the game, his rhythm had returned.

That last line might be in the running for understatement of the season. He hit his first three-pointer with 4:35 to go in the fourth quarter and, from then on, it was Katy bar the door. They were the first three of 23 points he would score from then through the overtime. His final line was 40 points, nine rebounds, eight assists in 37 minutes. The 17 points he scored in the overtime period were an NBA record for points scored in an OT – of any NBA game, not just playoff games. His only flaw down the stretch was not making the floater he created at the end of regulation. Maybe that wasn’t dramatic enough for him.

It was then that the viewing and listening audience knew what Curry yelled at the Portland crowd after one of his late threes:

“I’m back.”

Why You Need to Share Your Speech with Others You Trust

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Villanova University won the national basketball championship. If they think that was special, wait until George Raveling, a 1960 ‘Nova graduate, delivers this year’s commencement speech. I was one of George’s graduate assistants at Washington State between 1973-75. Early in my stay there, I caught a few typos in communication we sent (back then there was no spell check or autocorrect – heck, there were no computers) so anytime we’d send out any written material (letters, camp brochures, media guides, etc.), George would have me proofread them. Without patting myself on back too excessively, I’ve shown a penchant for being able to write and speak as well as spell. For those reasons, George sent me (and a couple others whose opinions he trusted) a rough draft of his commencement speech, requesting we check it out. Without divulging any of the contents, let’s just say the class of 2016 will walk away educated, inspired and entertained – as everyone who is in the audience for a Rave production is upon leaving.

Throughout the years, George and I stayed close. For the record, no one is better at relationship building than George. We reconnected at USC in the early 1990s. He was the one who encouraged me to join the National Speakers Association which I did around the turn of the century (although I no longer am a member). George also helped me (as I did him) when, during our time at WSU he’d receive requests to speak at high school banquets throughout the state. The state of Washington consists of somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 square miles so, try as he might, there was no way he could fulfill all the requests.

I got the majority of these engagements for reasons beyond George not being able to accommodate everybody. First of all, I was the only single guy on the staff and when there was a chance for the other assistants to be with the families, they relished the time at home. It definitely wasn’t a matter of money because these engagements didn’t pay. Finally, I thought this would help my career – and I actually liked speaking.

One such opportunity came from Washtucna, a small town in eastern Washington. When the request came in, there was little doubt which coach was to be honored. Making $1550 for the year, a free meal and mileage money were a good supplement to my meager existence. As I drove into town, I noticed a sign that said, “Welcome to Washtucna, population 311.

When I entered the gym, which had been transformed into the banquet hall for the evening, the athletics director approached me and thanked me for coming. We made some small talk and, before too long, the room was packed. I was surprised at the turn out, as it wasn’t like the team had a championship season or anything extraordinary. Apparently, it was just a group of special people who had bonded and were proud of their youngsters. “How many people are here tonight?” I asked him.

He said there would be 250 people in attendance. I always like to begin with an observation to show people I can be extemporaneous, as well as deliver a prepared speech. I came up with what I thought was a really funny line – although, after saying it, I was in a minority – of one. “When I drove into town, I noticed your population is 311. (Your AD) advised me there will be 250 people here tonight, which leaves me with one question:

“Where are the other 61 of you?”

I can’t begin to tell you how much I wished I’d run that line by others before deciding it was a good opener.

What We Can Learn from Frank Vogel Being Let Go

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

When discussing the best players in the history of the NBA, Larry Bird’s name consistently pops up in the top five. Never lower than top 10. Never, though, is he listed as one of the most athletic guys (really, how many white guys are), but is always mentioned as one of the smartest players (completing the stereotype).

Why, then, would a guy with such wisdom, not renew his highly successful coach’s contract? After hearing and reading his reasons, I’ve come to the conclusion that the situation, unlike Larry Legend, is quite complicated. Larry’s strength was to outwork those he competed with and against. He had marvelous skills, including the ability to think a few steps ahead of everyone else on the floor, but mostly his love for the game trumped anything else in his life. He’d spend more waking hours in the gym than other players because that’s where he felt most comfortable. His work ethic paid off, leading his Indiana State team to the Final Four with an undefeated record. Although his guys lost to a Magic Johnson-led Michigan State squad, which was abundantly more talented (I’ve never heard anyone challenge that remark) in the final game, the run Bird’s team made was one of the more remarkable in NCAA history.

OK, then, back to why let Frank Vogel go? Here was a guy who also was a workaholic, incredibly knowledgeable, humble and was a winner. He began as a student manager with Rick Pitino at Kentucky and moved with his “boss” to the Boston Celtics – as a video coordinator. He worked his way up to become an admired NBA head coach. If it sounds familiar, it’s a similar plot to the Erik Spoelstra story – except Vogel worked for four other NBA franchises before he got to Indiana, unlike Spo who began and is still with the Miami Heat. A major difference between the two is, although both have guided his respective team to the NBA Playoffs in every year but one, Vogel is the franchise’s all-time leader in NBA wins, while Spoelstra has captured two NBA titles (and lost in the Finals on two other occasions).

Further analysis illustrates that, in each of the four years Miami played in the NBA Finals, their “Big Three” were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Sure, there are other differences between the two young coaches but none – repeat none – as important as that fact. No matter what anyone says (and there aren’t too many who would say it), give most any competent NBA head those three ballers, along with the remainder of the rosters the heat had during that four-year stretch and, independent of the coach, that team would be the odds-on favorite.

The complicated situation referred to above is made up of, but not limited to (since I’m not on the inside of the club) the following: money (salary cap/luxury tax and player vs coach imbalance), agents/”posses,” sensitive people skills, NBA championships (and the fact there’s only one per year), owners’ egos, draft picks and free agents, sponsors’ and fans’ expectations and “others’ ” job security. The last one, while huge for some franchises, e.g. the Bulls, doesn’t apply to Indiana.

The one that cannot be fixed, unless professional basketball follows the path of PC youth leagues, i.e. give each player a participation trophy, is that there is only one Larry O’Brien trophy. At the conclusion of each season, one of the 30 NBA coaches is presented with the shiny piece of hardware, meaning each of the other 29 coaches went “another year without a championship.” The years start to mount once a coach wins one (do you realize it’s been eight years since Doc Rivers has won it all)? Hey, getting one ain’t that easy.

As far as owners go, here’s an overall description (obviously, with the exception of one): guys who have made gobs of money, albeit outside basketball; guys who have been ultra-successful, once again, albeit outside basketball; guys who understand how to build an empire, uh yeah, albeit outside basketball. The way a championship basketball team is assembled has nearly nothing in common with mega success in any other business (excluding other sports franchises). Additionally, in business, a company doesn’t have to be better than all other businesses to be considered the world champion. Unfortunately, for many owners, an NBA championship can’t be purchased.

Having been involved in the coaching profession for 35 years, naturally, I’ve made friends and acquaintances in the coaching world. A number of these people are currently members of NBA coaching staffs and front offices, e.g. I’m close with a few within the Clippers organization. Each one says every encounter with owner Steve Ballmer has been enjoyable and educational. They say it doesn’t really hit them that they’re talking with one of the country’s wealthiest individuals. Contrast that with a friend of mine who was employed with the Brooklyn Nets. When I asked him what Mikhail Prokhorov was like, he told me he didn’t know because in the two years he was there, he’d never met him.

Let’s move on to those on the payroll. Basketball has always been considered a “poor man’s game,” in that a player can get great at it if he or she only has a ball and can find a hoop. If that person can find another person to practice against, or three others (most basketball insiders agree that 3 on 3 is the best way to learn how to play the game), the sky is the limit (although the person’s genes have something to do with skill level). Therefore, many in the NBA were kids who grew up with very few items of monetary value. According to the list of NBA players’ salaries for the 2015-16 season, there were 140 players who were making in excess of $5,000,000. In fact, 345 of the 421 players on the list were making a million or more. About 1/3rd of the coaches make $5M or more. Coaches are authority figures and there’s a segment of the NBA player population that has a track record of unpleasant memories of authority figures. Because “Their self-worth is tied to their net worth” is an applicable phrase to a good number of players in the Association, they feel comfortable confronting head coaches. In addition, it’s not unheard of, in fact, it’s more like the norm, that there are players who listen to their “friends” and agents more than they do their coaches, often leading to conflict. How good a player is, often, determines the coach’s longevity with his team.

When explaining the decision to remove Vogel as head coach, Bird spoke of the optimum length of an NBA coach’s tenure as being three years. Possibly that belief came from his playing days which saw him playing for several coaches even though the Celts were usually winning, meaning Bird would hear different voices throughout his career. The Pacers’ president couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Vogel as a coach and as a man of high character, going so far as saying he’d give him a glowing recommendation and being of the feeling his (now) ex-coach would land one of the head coaching spots that are currently open.

My only guess is that what Larry Bird was telling Frank Vogel was the old line:

“It’s not personal, only business.”

To which can safely be added. a screwed up business.

Stat Heads Are Way Above the Rest of Us

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

One of my biggest pet peeves is someone who refuses to acknowledge that life changes. Or, the improvements that have been made. You know which people I’m talking about – the ones who start conversations with, “Back in the day . . .”  I used to belong to that group, maybe not as a charter member, but, if there were ID cards, I definitely would have had one.

Being a techno-idiot (there was a time I hoped that computers were a fad), it was difficult coming to grips with the fact that I had become a dinosaur. The two main skills I possessed during my youth were 1) I was great with numbers (adding and subtracting, even multiplying and dividing – in my head) and 2) I was a sensational speller. Then, along came calculators and spell check. So, it was join the crowd or allow myself to get left behind.

Or . . . find somebody (or somebodies) who could help. You see, in life, you don’t need to know everything, just know others who do. What I found out was, when you begin to allow others to think for you, if you have a shred of self-respect, the pursuit of knowledge calls and you actually learn how yo do some things yourself. Not everything – but improvement nonetheless. What I’ve learned has quintupled since I opened my mind (don’t be so impressed, the beginning number times five is still somewhere in the neighborhood of infinitesimal).

And so we come to the point of this blog. Due to my love of stats, I could keep score at a baseball game – when I was 10 years old. I knew which opposing player to foul at the end of a game. I understood (depending on certain variables like the weather or what the scouting report said) what play to run if 2 or fewer, 3-7 or more than 8 yards were needed for a first down. I loved statistics.

Until they became lord and master of which players to play, which ones to trade for or draft, which group should play the most because the stats said they made up the best unit. In other words, when, for lack of a better term, the stat heads took over. Joe Lunardi, Brian Windhorst, Skip Bayless and Mel Kiper Jr have a place in the game. Their long term track record are proof of they should be included. They found a shtick, e.g. young guys who had zero physical talent but wanted to be “in the game” so they studied and did whatever they could to get noticed – and carved out a niche. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they spawned a flock of wannabes, some of whom have taken statistics, in particular, to new and unnecessary heights, who really and truly believe that every contest can be explained by their set of statistics. Usually after the game has been played.

Analytics have overtaken everything else in terms of how a game should be evaluated. The Oakland A’s won with a small budget, a book was written, it turned into a movie and now there are actually people in power positions in all of the major sports who think these numbers and formulas were carved out of stone and brought down from the mountaintop. Take basketball, for instance. We used to have points, rebounds and assists per game. Every player had a field goal percentage, free throw percentage and, later, a three-point field goal percentage.

That wasn’t good enough because too many people understood it. The stat heads thought, “What can we come up with to get us accepted? We have no skill or feel for the game. Let’s find something in our wheelhouse – that’s waaaaay beyond what the ‘old-timers’ can easily understand. We have to make sure it sounds relevant, i.e. uses actual recorded stats, but make sure they can’t be comprehended without our help.” What am I talking about? The following are a few examples, along with how they are calculated.

Turnover percentage, the measure of how often a team loses possession of the ball before creating a scoring opportunity.

Or this one I heard yesterday during the Miami-Toronto game: “In games decided by three points or less, the Heat was third in winning percentage.” Does that mean Spo tells his guys to just work on cutting their opponent’s lead to three and “we got this one.” Except, of course, when they’re playing one of the top two.

During that same game, there was mention made of a team that “was second best in the NBA in contested shots.” How proud that club’s fan base should be.

Then, there’s the all-important NBA efficiency rating which is computed by the formula, (points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks − ((field goals attempted − field goals made) + (free throws attempted − free throws made) + turnovers)). To get a player’s efficiency rating per game, divide all that by the number of games played. Makes the game a lot more interesting, doesn’t it?

And, finally, for the true stat head geek, the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In order to figure it out, remember that all calculations begin with what is called unadjusted PER (uPER). That formula is (and you have to scroll right for a while):

 uPER = \frac{1}{min} \times \left ( 3P + \left [ \frac{2}{3} \times AST \right ] + \left [ \left ( 2 - factor \times \frac{tmAST}{tmFG} \right ) \times FG \right ] 
+ \left [ 0.5 \times FT \times \left ( 2 -  \frac{1}{3} \times \frac{tmAST}{tmFG} \right ) \right ] - \left [ VOP \times TO \right ] 
- \left [ VOP \times DRBP \times \left ( FGA - FG \right ) \right ] - \left [ VOP \times 0.44 \times \left ( 0.44 + \left ( 0.56 \times DRBP \right ) \right ) \times \left ( FTA - FT \right ) \right ] 
+ \left [ VOP \times \left ( 1 - DRBP \right ) \times \left ( TRB - ORB \right ) \right ] + \left [ VOP \times DRBP \times ORB \right ] + \left [ VOP \times STL \right ] + \left [ VOP \times DRBP \times BLK \right ] 
- \left [ PF \times \left ( \frac{lgFT}{lgPF} - 0.44 \times \frac{lgFTA}{lgPF} \times VOP \right ) \right ] \right )

When multiplied out and refactored, the equation above becomes:

 uPER = \frac{1}{min} \times \left ( 3P - \frac{PF \times lgFT}{lgPF} + \left [ \frac{FT}{2} \times \left ( 2 - \frac{tmAST}{3 \times tmFG} \right ) \right ] + \left [ FG \times \left ( 2 - \frac{factor \times tmAST}{tmFG} \right ) \right ] + \frac{2 \times AST}{3} + VOP \times \left [ DRBP \times \left ( 2 \times ORB + BLK - 0.2464 \times \left [ FTA - FT \right ] - \left [ FGA - FG \right ] - TRB \right ) + \frac{0.44 \times lgFTA \times PF}{lgPF} - \left ( TO + ORB \right ) + STL + TRB - 0.1936 \left (FTA - FT \right ) \right ] \right )

Where

  • \ factor = \frac{2}{3} - \left [ \left ( 0.5 \times \frac{lgAST}{lgFG} \right ) \div \left ( 2 \times \frac{lgFG}{lgFT} \right ) \right ] ,
  • \ VOP = \frac{lgPTS}{lgFGA - lgORB + lgTO + 0.44 \times lgFTA} ,
  • \ DRBP = \frac{lgTRB - lgORB}{lgTRB} .

Maybe this will clarify it for the reader. The highest career player efficiency rating ever belongs to Michael Jordan and the highest single-season player efficiency rating was that of Wilt Chamberlain. If the casual fan was asked the questions, “who had the highest PER ever and who had the highest PER for a single season,” I’d venture to say most people would have each of those in their top 5 guesses. In fact, the top 27 players on the PER list are, or will definitely be, in the Hall of Fame. So, did we really need stats to tell us that?

 

Basketball is a game of action-reaction. My last college boss – and Hall of Famer – the late Jerry Tarkanian was fond of saying, “The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.” The best players ever were cerebral – in a basketball sort of way. There’s absolutely no doubt that the stat heads think they’ve got the game figured out. It’s just that:

“No matter what you believe can be solved, no matter how smart you are, don’t think you can predict, or even influence, the outcome of a basketball game – or most any sporting event – by crunching some numbers.”

A Playoff Memory that Will Last Forever

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Although the referee obviously missed the call on the final out of bounds play (whatever that call was, no one’s sure, only that the ref blew it, er, didn’t blow it), there were other factors that contributed to the San Antonio Spurs’ 98-97 loss – or Oklahoma City Thunder’s hard fought victory – depending on which side is your favorite.

After being thrashed in Game 1, a 124-92 romp in which the Thunder were down by as many as 43 points, the only chance OKC had was to come out with incredible energy. They did exactly that – and made early shots. In addition, the Spurs missed so many easy shots (1-13 overall to start), maybe due to lack of focus. Even though they’re pros, winning the first game with such ease, human nature sometimes overtakes what a player knows he needs to do.And, sure enough, the game returned to reality.

Every basketball lover recalls seeing the Spurs’ video from a couple years ago, entitled, “The Beautiful Game” in which they move the ball again and again, always being one step ahead of the defense and winding up with a layup or wide open shot they inevitably knock down. Last night, however, it seemed as though they were going “iso” more and more often, e.g. eschewing “the beautiful game” for mismatches for either LaMarcus Aldridge or Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge did have 41 points but the Spurs’ offense didn’t resemble what we’ve become used to seeing from them. Other than the score, the most telling stat was, the severe dip the number of assists San Antonio had – from Game 1’s 39, to 19 last night.

OKC is the league leader in blown leads after three quarters. This one, however, looked safe after Russell Westbrook knocked down a pair of free throws to give his club a five-point lead with about 18 seconds to go. Gregg Popovich called time out to design something – most certainly a three – while Billy Donovan was imploring his guys not to foul.

Just to show professionals can behave inappropriately after hearing explicit instructions, Serge Ibaka fouled Aldridge on a three-point attempt, after the latter player shot faked the former. Whether caught up in the emotion or lacking necessary discipline, Ibaka made a play that, after it occurred, Donovan could be seen (on the replay) mouthing the words, “I can’t believe it.”

Then everything went to hell in a hand basket, e.g. 1) should it have been a five-second violation prior to OKC’s inbounds, 2) why didn’t the ref call the blatant elbow Dion Waiters used to clear space, 3) was Kevin Durant fouled on the desperation lob/inbounds pass, 4) was Patty Mills fouled on his last shot and 5) was it not shocking that, during the last scuffle for the ball that either Aldridge or Leonard didn’t pick it up and get it in the hoop before the buzzer sounded (seemed like destiny).

Chris Webber went so apoplectic over the non-call on the elbow – and continued his rant well past the final horn – you’d think he had money on the outcome. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley both said they’d never seen anything like it. Kenny Smith’s reaction to the non-call on the out of bounds play?

“That might be the worst non-call in a playoff game I’ve seen in the last five years.”

Why quantify it, Kenny?

You’re Never Too Old to Make a Fool of Yourself

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

For the past week my wife, Jane, and I have been in Colorado. I caught up with a former colleague of mine – and his family – while she got to spend time with a friend of hers from decades gone by. The main purpose of my mission was to receive treatment for my chronic pain.

However, this blog is not about the friends my wife and I reconnected with, nor is it about the technique I experienced (which, to date, has afforded some relief). Rather, it’s about how the week long trip ended. The story of what happened during the week might be told in a subsequent post but, for now, allow me to elevate each reader one spot on the intelligence ladder.

A brief history first: last December, Jane and I flew to Oregon to watch younger son, Alex, play in a basketball tournament south of Portland. Because Alex’s team, Cal State Monterey Bay, played on the coast on Wednesday prior to the tourney which was scheduled for Friday-Saturday, instead of going back to Fresno, we drove up the coast and flew out of San Jose.

We parked in Parking Lot 6, which was located next to the terminal that was for Alaska Airlines flights (short term Parking Lot 5 is in between the two). A shuttle bus picked us up at one of two designated stops and took us to the terminal. Short and sweet – and if I remember correctly, the charge was $8/day.

For our trip that began a week ago Sunday, I drove past one terminal, then proceeded past the other (there are only two) to the parking lot. I glanced at the sign for Parking Lot 5 which had an hourly rate (and a maximum rate of $30/day). Immediately beyond was the entrance to Parking Lot 6. I pulled in, went to the end and saw a spot right on the end of the row, one I’d never forget (because as we get older, our memories . . .).

We got our luggage and went to the area for the shuttle bus to pick us up but, with no bus in sight, and us having plenty of time, remarked to Jane that we should just walk. Rolling our suitcases along (where were suitcases on wheels when I was recruiting in college and had a suitcase, hanging bag, brief case, portable VCR – highlight videos were allowed but many families couldn’t afford VCRs – an overcoat, the book I was reading and the day’s newspaper), we went to the terminal. Our first problem was we were flying United and all of their flights went out of the other terminal. We trekked on to the next one (about 1/4 mile hike).

On our return, naturally, we were at the same terminal. When I asked where to catch the shuttle for Parking Lot 6, no one was quite sure but one fellow said I should take the blue shuttle. It was around 9:00 pm and no blue shuttle was in sight. “Let’s walk,” I bravely said. 1/4 of a mile or so later, we past Parking Lot 5 and rolled into Parking Lot 6. I was telling Jane that I’d remembered where the car was because of the spot on the end. Until I got near that area and . . . everything looked different. Our car was nowhere in sight.

Hmm, what’s a guy to do? I was certain I had parked there. I knew it. Yet, everything looked different. I’ve seen enough TV shows to realize that changes can be made but, come on, who did I think I was? I took out my car key and began to press the unlock button – to listen for the sound that would reveal the car’s whereabouts. Nothing. Then I realized it was an absurd move because I knew that wasn’t where I’d parked the car.

I went to the shuttle area and picked up the phone to let someone other than Jane know of our predicament. The phone was dead. Maybe the TV idea wasn’t so farfetched. Nah. I began to call AAA but thought of what I’d say – “Hi, I’m a AAA member. I’m having car trouble. I’m at the San Jose airport parking lot – and – can’t find my car!”

Then, I remembered being in a similar situation about 10 years ago, coincidentally at the San Jose airport. As was the case on this trip, the plane tickets were about half the price from San Jose as they would have been from Fresno, so we flew out of San Jose. Alex was in a basketball tournament in 7th or 8th grade and we ran into traffic. We were hustling to catch the shuttle bus, get to the terminal, check in, go through security, get to the gate and make the flight – that I had completely forgotten where we’d parked. Since then, I have never left a parking lot without knowing where the car was.

What bailed us out back then was after the attendant at the parking lot heard my story, she said that if I could tell her my license plate number, they could locate my car through video surveillance and computer (something or other). I was so frazzled I have no idea exactly what she said except a guy came around in an airport vehicle and drove me to car. Jane found such a gentleman. First I reported the dead phone. He explained that since the beginning of the month, they no longer shuttled people to the terminal since it was so close. Huh.

He drove me around the lot. He felt that, since I was sure I was in Lot 6, the spot at the end of the row might have been my mind playing tricks on me. Finally, I requested he call into wherever and check my license plate. After a few minutes – it must have been a busy night for people needing such information – a woman said she’d located my car. It was in Lot 5. Since I had looked there as well, I was suspicious until he said he’d drive me to it. In fact, I had checked Lot 5 – but not all of Lot 5. Sure enough, right on that corner spot, was what I’d been searching for. I gave the guy a $20 bill for saving the night and for all the trouble I’d caused him. He refused but I insisted, thinking of all the alternatives to the evening if we couldn’t find the car. Plus, when he retells the story, at least I’ll be a grateful schmuck.

I drove it over to where Jane was keeping the luggage company, we loaded up and, breathing a sigh of relief, headed out for the 2 1/2 hour ride to Fresno. You can imagine how much greater of an idiot I felt, when putting the card into the slot, the machine read, “$210.” For parking!

As I learned long ago:

“The difference between genius and stupidity is genius has its limits.”