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November 17, 2009

Fourth-and-short for traditional sports punditry

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:57 am

I am by no means an analyst of the NFL. I leave that to Aaron Schatz and his superb crew at Football Outsiders. But I am both an NFL fan and a voracious consumer of sportswriting and analysis. And in the wake of the Indianapolis Colts‘ thrilling come-from-behind 35-34 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, it struck me that the game threw a harsh light not only on a growing divide between two ways of “covering” sports, but more basically on two differing conceptions of how sports should be perceived and described.

At root there are two ways you can write up Bill Belichick‘s now infamous decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 with a six-point lead and 2:08 to play in the game. Like this:

This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. Had it been a playoff game, it would have been right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz.

And Bill Belichick played the part of Grady Little.

Or like this:

Really, no matter how you play with the numbers, it will come out about the same. Try it. There is almost no way–without suppressing the numbers–to make the percentages even out. The Patriots’ best PERCENTAGE chance was to go for it on fourth down. Of course, football is not really a percentage game for most of us, is it? No, it’s a game about emotion and passion and momentum.

When the game ended and Belichick’s gamble failed, people lined up to bash him–and normally I’d be all for this. Former Patriots player Rodney Harrison called it the worst coaching move Belichick ever made. Former Patriots player Teddy Bruschi wrote that Belichick dissed his defense by not believing they could stop the Colts over 70 yards. Tony Dungy said, “You have to punt there. You just have to punt there.” And so on and on.  

But–and believe me, I’m not trying to defend Belichick’s last-minute coaching here (more on this in a minute)–I think in many ways all these knocks sort of miss the point. This is who Bill Belichick is, who he has always been. He is about winning the game without passion or prejudice. He doesn’t give a damn if there were some hurt feelings on his defense.

I see what you’re thinking. The first excerpt must be from an old-school unabashed Plaschke manque; the second is obviously from some daring young quantitatively savvy blogger in his jammies.

You’re half-right. The first excerpt comes to us courtesy of an old-school unabashed Plaschke manque. It doesn’t particularly matter which one, for there are many, many writers I could have quoted there.

I can’t say the same of excerpt number two, which was written by Joe Posnanski. Note that Posnanski learned his trade not in his mother’s basement but at the Kansas City Star, his words appeared not on a message board but at, and he pulled his “percentages” in this case not from some obscure grad student blogger but from the New York Times

In other words, “traditional sports punditry” is denoted not by what kind of resume you have, how old you are, whether you sit in the press box, or even whether your thoughts are packaged in 800 words of ink, 1600 words of pixels, or two minutes of streaming video. No, “traditional sports punditry” denotes merely that you’re not staying current within your own field: “What the hell is Belichick doing?” as opposed to “Whoa, talk about trusting the percentages–what the hell is Belichick doing?”

The days when you could stay current simply by talking to players and coaches ended emphatically this decade. Posnanski has stayed laudably current, plus he’s an outstanding writer. In this passage he links an understanding of the situation’s abstract quantitative imperatives to a perceptive–and, I think, correct–read of Belichick’s particular inner qualitative motor.    

To be aware of what Posnanski calls the “PERCENTAGE”s, ones that indicate that probability was in Belichick’s favor over the course of a thousand tries, does not rule out disagreeing with the coach in this single instance. But to not be aware of these percentages is to fail in the most basic journalistic sense. To write about a decision, much less try to criticize it, without displaying any understanding of its self-evident context is to fall down on the job in the “why” department, even if you do get the who, the what, the when, and the where.

Humans would be well-advised to nail the “why,” by the way. Computers can now do those other four pretty well. 

November 16, 2009

Jackson to Charlotte

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:14 pm

The NBA’s first in-season trade is done, and it’s one that has been in the works for a long time. The Golden State Warriors at last shipped out disgruntled swingman Stephen Jackson, sending him and Acie Law to the Charlotte Bobcats in exchange for Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic.

As usual, there’s two key aspects to this trade: the basketball and the financial. While the latter is an apparent win for the Bobcats, the Warriors have made out well on the latter aspect. Next season, Jackson begins a three-year contract extension that will pay him $28 million over that span. Meanwhile, Golden State takes on just $7 million past this season (Bell’s contract, like Law’s, expires at season’s end; Radmanovic has one year left on his deal).

So, is the upgrade from Bell to Jackson worth it? Unlikely. Certainly, Jackson will provide much-needed offense for a Charlotte team that has been starved for points in the early going. The Bobcats rank last in the league in Offensive Rating, in large part because of a distinct shortage of players capable of creating offense for themselves or others. Count Bell among the offenders; a shooting guard who uses just 18.2 percent of his team’s possessions needs to do better than a .533 True Shooting Percentage. Jackson has never been especially efficient, but if motivated he should score about his efficiently while taking on a larger load.

Charlotte has been one of the league’s better defensive teams, so there’s the chance to improve if the offense becomes even remotely competent. Still, the Bobcats have started 3-6 and have been outscored by more than six points a night. What’s the upside here? .500? Lower? That doesn’t appear to be worth taking the ugly back end of Jackson’s contract, which takes him through age 35.

This is all about the money for the Warriors, who now have the chance to get under the cap in 2011, when they only have significant money invested in three players–Andris Biedrins, Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette. In the meantime, the biggest downside to this trade is that adding two rotation-caliber players further muddles Don Nelson‘s inconsistent distribution of playing time. Bell could move on again to a contender for whom a defensive specialist makes more sense.

(John Hollinger, by contrast, argues the issue for Golden State is not taking a deal with Cleveland that could have yielded cap space and/or the chance to make unbalanced trades using nonguaranteed contracts this year. That’s all true, but I think the argument is the Warriors are such a mess right now that it’s too early to figure out their direction or what they need. Is Anthony Randolph a core piece? Can Ellis and Stephen Curry coexist in the backcourt? How long will Nelson’s reign of madness last? All of those questions are far more likely to be answered by 2011 than 2010.)

Northwestern will make the tournament in 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:27 am

The news that Kevin Coble is out for the year with a foot injury is of course devastating to Northwestern fans. Not to plug the book yet again but, well, said book does make the case that Coble has long been woefully underrated nationally, due largely to pace-deflated per-game stats that look ho-hum. (And while the sports information office at NU was typing the words “out for the year,” Jeff Ryan decided to meet that description as well, suffering a season-ending ACL injury Friday night in the Wildcats’ 77-55 win over Northern Illinois.)

If there’s good news here, though, it’s that Bill Carmody is reportedly hard at work trying to talk Coble into taking a redshirt and coming back as a senior next year. Assuming Carmody is successful there, the ‘Cats would actually look pretty robust on paper for 2010-11. With Coble and Ryan out, the only remaining senior in the rotation in 2009-10 is Jeremy Nash. Everyone else you see in Evanston this year–most notably Michael Thompson and John Shurna–should be back next year.

Coble’s absence will almost certainly mean more shots and possessions for Shurna, who was notably effective as a freshman starter last year. Perhaps freshman guard Drew Crawford will develop this season into a Craig Moore-type perimeter shooter. Heck, seven-footer Kyle Rowley might even make something of himself in this his sophomore year. 

Anyway, given all of the above I’m getting an early start on this bracketology ’11 thing and penciling in NU as an 11-seed. Assuming Coble does indeed come back for a fifth year.

The (physical) book is here! Chat today!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 7:36 am

I am pleased to announce that the hard copy version of our College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10: Major-Conference Preview is now available for purchase online for just $16.95. Note additionally that if you’re an Amazon die-hard the book will be popping up there as well any time now. I will keep you posted.

Meantime the season’s first live chat on college hoops will be happening today. Click here to chat live starting at noon ET or to submit your question in advance. There’s a whole season spread out before us to talk about. Let’s hear what’s on your mind. Looking forward to chatting hoops with all of you.

November 13, 2009

Everyone, please! Stay off my side!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:32 am

Once again I take laptop in hand to dissent from someone I agree with completely. I am on the record as thinking one-and-done has got to go but every time I read a standard-issue anti-one-and-done piece such as Michael Rosenberg’s I wonder if maybe I should reconsider.

From this day forward take everything you encounter on one-and-done and put it through the following two-pronged “Worth my time?” detector. If the piece emerges unscathed it’s safe to read.  

Gasaway’s EZ Screening Device for a Robust and Non-Hacky Critique of One-and-Done:
1. David Stern is not Dr. Evil, Mr. Potter, Mr. Burns, or whomever your favored stock figure of malignant malevolence might be. If I read one more piece that weeps openly over the plight of poor one-and-dones banished to “dorms” because Stern is off somewhere laughing like The Penguin while rolling in large piles of cash I will give up the present endeavor entirely and start using points-per-game in one-sentence paragraphs. To recap: David Stern is a dull and rather colorless but demonstrably effective professional who is in the business of promoting his professional basketball league. That is his job. It’s better for the NBA if their rookies arrive as well-known stars. Conversely, I feel it’s better for college hoops if NBA-bound players get to the league without a needlessly illicit and potentially win-vacating detour through the college ranks. What’s good for the league is not necessarily good for college hoops. This is called conflict and it occurs naturally, even and indeed sometimes especially between people of good will. It is the warp and woof of existence. It is not the product of Stern hatching schemes in a hollowed-out volcano.   

2. American higher education is not such a fragile and gossamer-like chalice that it can’t withstand some knocks from a few notably diffident “student-athletes.” If you want one-and-done gone, and I do, say that it will be good for the college game to have it gone. Do not imply ominously (“It contributes to the mockery of education that is major-college basketball”) that MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chicago will all collapse into rubble by 2011 if one-and-done is not killed. She’s a tough old gal, this thing we call higher ed in this country. If it can survive a genuine outrage like the long and unfailingly sleazy arm of Rod Blagojevich wreaking havoc in the University of Illinois‘ admissions office, it can certainly withstand the nonexistent spring semesters of 12 to 20 would-be one-and-dones per annum. 

Someone, please, do a spirited defense of one-and-done. I’ll disagree with it but it can’t be any more dispiriting than what “my” side is putting out.

Programming note: First live chat of the year Monday at noon ET. Get your questions in line ahead of time here. Y’all come! 

November 12, 2009

Hornets Fire Scott

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:29 pm

When a team goes from 56-26 and a couple of shots away from the Western Conference Finals to a laughingstock within two years, there is plenty of blame to go around. On Thursday, New Orleans Hornets head coach Byron Scott took the fall for his team’s disastrous 3-6 start when the Hornets fired him after five-plus years at the helm. Scott will be replaced by New Orleans GM Jeff Bower, who has served two previous stints as an assistant for the team in addition to his lengthy run in the front office. The Hornets also added Tim Floyd–their head coach in 2003-04, when Bower was his assistant–to their coaching staff to serve as Bower’s lead assistant.

There are plenty of explanations that can be offered in Scott’s defense. The Hornets’ wing positions have atrophied over the last two years, with Peja Stojakovic aging in dog years, Morris Peterson struggling to live up to the mid-level deal he signed with New Orleans prior to the 2007-08 season and Rasual Butler now with the Clippers, a victim of the Hornets’ high payroll. Injuries haven’t helped. Emeka Okafor missed all of training camp, making it difficult to get him comfortable in the system and with his teammates (surely part of the reason New Orleans is a dismal 28th in the league in Defensive Rating), and Ike Diogu has yet to play.

Ultimately, though, Scott sealed his own fate with his reluctance to trust young players. Part of an optimistic assessment of the Hornets in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 was the belief that Bower had upgraded the team’s bench by signing Diogu, trading for Darius Songaila and drafting Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. Though Diogu has been unable to play, Collison and Thornton have been biding their time on the bench. Instead, the Browns–Bobby and Devin–have been given entirely too many minutes. Bobby Brown has the team’s second-highest usage rate (26.2 percent of possessions while on the floor) despite a dismal 44.4 percent True Shooting Percentage. All of that is consistent with his miserable rookie season split between Sacramento and Minnesota. Why was he playing over Collison, the Hornets’ NBA-ready first-round pick? Brown is nothing more than a replacement-level stopgap at shooting guard, and while he might be better than Thornton right now, Thornton at least deserves an opportunity–especially with the team struggling so badly.

Add in the fact that New Orleans apparently quit on Scott–as first witnessed by their unthinkable 44-point loss to Denver in Game 4 of last year’s playoff series, which probably should have signaled the end of Scott’s run as head coach–and a change on the sidelines was long overdue. We have little idea of Bower’s Xs and Os ability, and I would certainly feel more comfortable if Floyd was not prominently involved. However, one consistent trait when GMs are asked to coach their own teams is that they tend to play guys they’ve drafted. If Bower simply does that, the Hornets have a chance to get better. I still believe there’s enough talent on the roster–if only because of Chris Paul, who is having an MVP season–to not only make the playoffs but contend in the Western Conference. Last year’s study of midseason coaching changes showed they were best done by past playoff teams early in the season. By making a move now, New Orleans has given itself a chance to right the ship before it’s too late.

November 10, 2009

A New Approach to APM (Plus Chat)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 10:59 pm

I’ve written plenty at Basketball Prospectus about adjusted plus-minus, both touting its potential as a rating system and also making note of the limitations created by the high standard errors associated with single-year ratings. It is the latter issue that new adjusted plus-minus numbers made available at by Joe Sill help address.

The math is beyond me, but Sill has utilized a technique known as “ridge regression” or “regularization” that serves to reduce the impact of multicollinearity that can be problematic for adjusted plus-minus (this is a concern when two players tend to share the court for the vast majority of their minutes, making it difficult for adjusted plus-minus to distinguish their impact). This method had previously been suggested by other economists on the APBRmetrics board.

To check his work, Sill used cross-validation–testing ratings from the 2008-09 season through February in terms of their ability to predict results from March and April. (Working within the same season minimizes the effect of aging in muddling comparisons.) What he found was that using regularization nearly doubled the predictive power of adjusted plus-minus.

Besides changing the ratings for a handful of individual players, in practice the other difference made by regularization is that the magnitude of the adjusted plus-minus numbers is compressed toward zero. To me, given the uncertainty that still exists in adjusted plus-minus, that seems appropriate. Keep your eye on for 2009-10 numbers. already has adjusted plus-minus (using the traditional regression method) for this season, updated on a regular basis, though right now the standard errors are so enormous that there is little to be gained from APM at this point.

CHAT THURSDAY: After pausing for the World Series, it’s time to get back into a regular routine of chatting at I’ll be taking your questions Thursday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific. As always, you can leave yours now if you are unable to join us live during the chat.

On tap: Bulls-Nuggets (His name is Earl edition) and other housekeeping notes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 7:27 pm

I’m on another H-Pro outing at the United Center tonight, where the Bulls will try to keep their home record perfect against the Nuggets, who will have played six of their eight games on the road after tonight.

One of the main storylines from the UC will be the season debut of Denver super-sub J.R. Smith. Only don’t call him J.R. — Smith now wants to be called by his given name of Earl. Smith is a third generation Earl in his family so, officially, he is now Earl Smith III. Works for me — anything to differentiate his name from the other J.Smiths in the NBA is chicken soup for my database’s soul.

I’ll also be scouting Ty Lawson, tracking Vinny Del Negro’s rotation in the absence of Tyrus Thomas and watching the intriguing matchup between Carmelo Anthony and a resurgent Luol Deng. I’ll be Tweeting during the game. Catch up with me at @bdoolittle.

Some other BP-related notes:

* We’ll have our stats up and running in the next day or two. The hold up is entirely me. I’ve been revamping NBAPET, as I do every year about this time, it seems. This time, however, the overhaul is major as I’m converting it from a box score-based system to a play-by-play-based system. I’m beyond excited about the possibilities, but the task of decoding play-by-play is stretching me to the limit of my data-parsing abilities. The going is slow. Since I’ve been working on that, I haven’t been coding box scores and thus NBAPET 2009-10 is empty. I’m close to finishing a workaround which will allow me to keep our data updated until I finish the play-by-play parser. (I will make absolutely no promises as to when that might be finished.) I’ll be working off of aggregate data rather than box scores so there will likely be a couple of casualities in terms of metrics I used to compile from the game-by-game set-up of my database.

* I have a back log of half-finished analytical pieces and features. I’ll do my best to start rolling those out this week. The problem has been the NBAPET overhaul. I am horrible about balancing time between projects. I get zeroed in on one thing and it’s all I can think about until it’s finished. But you guys need stuff to read, so hang in there with me.

* Yes, I will be doing the Hoops List this year. I am aiming for Monday publishing on that, though I’ve obviously missed that already this week. The first one will be up right after I finish the aforementioned workaround for the fact that I’m not coding box scores. Until I do, I have no power ratings to assign to the teams.

The end of complaints about the beginning

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:46 am

In the hours leading up to its occurence the opening of the college basketball season came in for some discursive abuse yesterday, but I’m not going to do one of those one-link-per-word sentences that documents the abuse. You saw it, I saw it, and I’ll admit at the top that the abusers have a point.

Every year it does feel kind of weird. The sequence goes like this: Most important game imaginable, one with confetti and net-cutting. Followed by months of nothing. Followed by North Carolina suddenly wearing odd throwback uniforms with red (!) waistband piping and beating a hapless and overmatched opponent called FIU by the score of 88-72. 

But I kind of like the weirdness. If I were my friend Kyle I’d say something like: The season begins with an ending. The last time we saw this game we cringed in the tenebrous opulence of its ceaseless glare. Now in the quiet November dusk of our game’s dawn we commence where we finished. It is at once a ritual, a harbinger, a compulsion, and an invitation. An invitation to hope, to follow, to care, and to dream. If only we will take it. 

But since I’m me I say: I like it. One day there’s nothing, the next day I’m seeing John Henson for myself, instead of merely puzzling over fuzzy YouTube clips and maddeningly diffuse recruit rank-ese (big upside!). If you had a governor cutting a ribbon and giving a speech beforehand it really wouldn’t change those essentials for me.

Only thing: Call me naive but I really thought that once we had Jay Bilas chipping in with a Foreword for our book he’d be our mole, so to speak, in Bristol. Not so fast, Gasaway! Jay may be spreading copies of the book around the water cooler but the copies haven’t all been read yet. If they had, I wouldn’t have heard during last night’s game that last year the Heels “just tried to outscore their opponents. They really didn’t start playing defense until deep into the tournament.”

Oy vey. Sometimes I think that to be tempo-free and conscious about North Carolina is to be in a constant state of correction.

BONUS season-so-far note! More book excerpting: Ed Davis is going to be a monster this year, about like Cole Aldrich last year but with way better national visibility. He had ten defensive boards and four blocks in just 23 minutes. Yes, FIU was a little on the, uh, diminutive side. With Davis you will find he does this no matter who the opponent is.  

November 9, 2009

It’s here! College Basketball Prospectus 09-10

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:18 am

I’m delighted to announce that the College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10: Major-Conference Preview is now available for purchase as a pdf. For the low-low price of $7.95 you can download the best preview available anywhere of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC.

Want it as a “real book”? In a few days you’ll be able to order your glossy-cover version of the CBP for just $16.95 plus shipping and handling.

I’m also pleased to reveal the identity of the august figure who contributed our Foreword. Since hinting a couple weeks ago that we’d have a surprise guest dropping by, I’ve received guesses ranging from Pat Summitt all the way to Renardo Sidney (“Assuming he’s still not eligible”).

In fact our surprise guest star is none other than ESPN’s own Jay Bilas. Speaking purely as a hoops fan, I’ve long thought Jay was one of the most informative college analysts in the business. Then last year, after hearing him repeatedly and correctly deploy the term “efficient,” I began to suspect he might be following what we do over here at Prospectus. Sure enough, my people lunched with his people and here we are. In this brief and gracious Foreword the former Duke star praises the mode of analysis pioneered by North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Yes, at Prospectus we are all about bringing people together.

Note that if you want to kick the tires a bit before you decide to buy the CBP, we’re offering a complete team preview for your inspection. And if by chance you’re an Oklahoma fan, you’re really in luck. The preview of your team is free. Have at it and remember me this holiday season.

When purchasing the pdf you’ll be ushered into the Baseball Prospectus store, where, if you haven’t done so already, you’ll want to sign up for a BP basic (free) account. Signing up is quick and painless, plus it will come in handy for you down the road as a reader of the Hoops Prospectus. 

In no time you’ll be lapping up what Ken Pomeroy has to say about Washington (“Nationally it was completely missed in the blur of possessions that the Huskies crammed into each contest, but the Dawgs were a defensive force”), what Dan Hanner has to say about Syracuse (“I’m not quite ready to anoint Wesley Johnson as the best player on this team”), or, heck, even what I have to say about Kentucky. “My prediction: John Wall will….”

Will what? Just $7.95. Step right this way and enjoy.   

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