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July 28, 2011

Agents, hoops, and competitive balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 7:14 am

Next month the NCAA will bring a few dozen Division I college presidents and a handful of conference commissioners to Indianapolis to discuss the future of collegiate athletics. In honor of the occasion I will soon be offering my own turn-key proposal on what form that future should take. With any luck the assembled decision-makers will simply adopt my plan unanimously in the first five minutes of the meeting and adjourn to pedal-boats on the Central Canal. But before we get that far there’s a piece of old business that needs to be brought to the floor.

Last year I asked what good a student-athlete derives from the NCAA’s blanket prohibition on outside compensation. As it stands now and as it has stood for decades a huge star like, say, Harrison Barnes is forbidden from striking his own deals with an agent or advertiser. Why is that, exactly? What rewards — material, educational, spiritual, or otherwise — does Barnes reap specifically from this prohibition?

In May I repeated the question, and in response I heard from a lot of college basketball fans who were worried that lifting this prohibition would result in a competitive advantage for programs with free-spending and nefarious boosters. The hoops fans that I heard from fretted that such boosters would find ways to buy players and stockpile rosters, whether by posing as strangely well-paying advertisers or simply by taking advantage of a system where it’s already accepted that some players will be receiving some money on some occasions.

I’ll cop to one count of being unable to predict the future with complete confidence and accuracy, but I do have to wonder whether this particular fear is somewhat overblown. Here are my grounds for wondering, in order of importance:

Nefarious boosters will prove to be imperfect evaluators of talent — like everyone else.
Everyone knew that Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, and John Wall would be pretty good at basketball, even before those guys had played a minute in college. But not every recruit is Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, or John Wall. We simply don’t know with certainty, in July of 2011, whom we’ll be praising to the skies come April. And once we walk that horizon back a year or two or three, our uncertainty is near-total. In any given year nefarious boosters for Team X will have only three or four or five open roster slots to be nefarious about. Those boosters will become well acquainted with the murkiness that besets even the finest talent evaluators: trying to project how a player will perform against D-I competition two years from now based on watching preternaturally talented 17 year-olds play against competition of varying and mysterious quality.

Playing time.
It’s everything. Even the No. 1-ranked player in the country at a given position will choose his college with an eye toward which player his prospective head coach has returning at that same position. Any player that believes he might have a shot at the NBA someday (i.e., all players) knows he needs playing time to show what he can do. And if the program that’s his first choice has already committed to another player of equal or higher recruiting buzz at the same position, an elite recruit will go elsewhere in a heartbeat. It has always been thus, and that’s not about to change.

One-and-done.
Maybe when the NBA sorts out the current dispute between owners and players one-and-done will be a thing of the past, but for the time being it reshuffles the talent deck on an annual basis.

Define “stockpile.”
I have a hard time believing any program will be able to recruit much better than what coaches like John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Thad Matta are already doing, and those guys haven’t monopolized national titles. Or look through the other end of the same telescope. The only team to win back-to-back national titles in the 2000s has been Florida. The group of players that arrived in Gainesville as freshmen in the mid-aughts did so with relatively little fanfare. Just one of those Gators, Corey Brewer, was a McDonald’s All-American.

The new system wouldn’t be so very different.
Maybe allowing someone that has celebrated their 18th birthday to enter into contracts even if they play college basketball and even if the contract’s with an agent is just the right thing to do. Then again most recruits sign with a school before their 18th birthday.

No matter what reforms the NCAA enacts, there will continue to be programs that break the rules. And the NCAA will never be able to catch all the rule-breaking in real time. As a result it will always be vitally important that programs self-report their violations, and that the NCAA reward programs for doing so (relative to ones that don’t). But regarding the question of basketball’s competitive balance, I am not yet persuaded that allowing college players to exercise their contractual rights as legal adults would in and of itself have much of an impact.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

July 26, 2011

Cross-Gender Similarity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:55 am

If you’re missing professional basketball, there’s never been a better time to give the WNBA a chance. Currently celebrating its 15th anniversary, the WNBA is entering the second half of the season with excellent races in both conferences. Since the move to a 24-second shot clock in 2006, the WNBA has emphasized the growing individual skill of its players, especially on the perimeter.

For curious NBA fans looking to put the league in familiar terms, here’s a statistical solution. Using the same similarity scores that form the basis of the SCHOENE Projection System, I’ve found NBA peers for WNBA stars based on their skills relative to their leagues. Here’s a look at the 10 players voted starters in last Saturday’s All-Star Game, as well as a handful of other key players.

Sue Bird, Seattle: Jeff Hornacek, 1994 (98.2), Derek Harper, Chauncey Billups, Mike James
How does Bird, the league’s best point guard, draw a shooting guard as her best comp? In part, it’s an issue with using just this season’s statistics. Bird has been more of a scorer with Lauren Jackson sidelined after hip surgery. Also, Hornacek had more of a playmaking role in Philadelphia before being traded to Utah in February 1994. Billups is a better match.

Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota: Horace Grant, 1995 (96.0), Dennis Rodman, Dale Davis, Kevin Willis
Apparently, Brunson–the league’s leading rebounder–would be ideal as the starting power forward for the ’90s Chicago Bulls.

Swin Cash, Seattle: Paul Pierce, 2009 (97.0), Detlef Schrempf, Dan Roundfield, Clifford Robinson
There’s something about Seattle small forwards who complement a point guard-post duo (making Bird and Jackson, in a certain sense, the neo-Payton and Kemp).

Tamika Catchings, Indiana: Scottie Pippen, 1998 (94.8), Kevin Garnett, Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving
The WNBA’s top defensive player, Catchings swings between the two forward positions, so it’s fitting that she matches up with one of the NBA’s best defensive small forwards and one of its best defensive power forwards.

Tina Charles, Connecticut: Chris Bosh, 2007 (97.1), Al Jefferson, Elton Brand, LaMarcus Aldridge

You wouldn’t know it from this list, but Charles is a pure center who does share with this group the ability to step away from the basket or score in the post.

Katie Douglas, Indiana: Ray Allen, 2008 (97.2), Scottie Pippen, Eddie Jones, Jeff Hornacek
The sweet-shooting Douglas is knocking down 46.2 percent of her three-pointers this season and is also a very capable ballhandler.

Sylvia Fowles, Chicago: Patrick Ewing, 1988 (97.5), Amare Stoudemire, Alonzo Mourning, Shawn Kemp

At the break, Fowles and Catchings seem to be the leading candidates for MVP. Despite playing for a .500 Chicago team, the 6-6 Fowles has stood out by topping the WNBA in both scoring and shot blocking.

Becky Hammon, San Antonio: Tim Hardaway, 2001 (98.1), John Lucas, Sam Cassell, Gary Payton
Hammon is the league’s best scorer at the point. A shooting specialist when she came into the league undrafted out of Colorado State, Hammon has broadened her game to develop into one of the league’s Top 15 Players of All Time, as unveiled at the All-Star Game.

Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta: Alvin Robertson, 1987 (88.2), Ron Harper, Darrell Walker, Ron Artest

The defining point of McCoughtry’s game statistically is her high steal rate, which explains this list. She’s also a streaky, dangerous scorer who got hot at the right time and led the Dream to the WNBA Finals last year. The McCoughtry-Artest comparison is amusing because, although their games are relatively similar, McCoughtry is as slender as Artest is stout.

Maya Moore, Minnesota: Quentin Richardson, 2002 (97.4), Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce, Mike Brooks
The former UConn star has been solid across the board as a rookie for the Western Conference’s top team. That’s been a bit of a disappointment to the extent that Moore was expected to be a dominant superstar since day one, but her future remains bright.

Candace Parker, Los Angeles: Kevin Garnett, 2001 (97.6), Chris Webber, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki

I think I like the Webber comp best for Parker because it emphasizes her versatility. Parker, currently out after arthroscopic knee surgery, starts at center but can also handle the basketball and shoot from the perimeter.

Cappie Pondexter, New York: Mike Bibby, 2007 (97.3), Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, John Starks

Not quite sure how the league’s best one-on-one player ended up with so many point guards. Yes, Pondexter is starting at the position this season, but she’s a scorer first and foremost. I’d think of her more as a super-Monta Ellis.

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix: Steve Smith, 1998 (96.7), Mark Aguirre, Paul Pierce, Alex English
Taurasi’s list is also a weird group. Subjectively, I’ve always considered her comparable to Kobe Bryant because of their ultra-aggressive mentalities. Pondexter and Taurasi have the most NBA-friendly games of any WNBA players, and Taurasi’s run-and-gun Mercury are probably the best introduction to the league possible.

Penny Taylor, Phoenix: Clyde Drexler, 1992 (94.5), Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Manu Ginobili
A perennially underrated Aussie, Taylor actually inspired this list because of a thread on the RebKell WNBA message boards. Subjectively, I came up with Schrempf as a comparison. As it turns out he’s nowhere close, both because Taylor is playing at a near-MVP level this season and because she’s turned into a top playmaker, ranking sixth in the league in assist rate.

From time to time, we get emails asking us to cover the WNBA here at Basketball Prospectus. That’s not possible, but I do track advanced statistics as part of my coverage of the Seattle Storm at the StormTracker blog.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton and @kpeltonWBB.

July 9, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Yao

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:52 am

Friday morning, a couple of hours after I posted an article on his dim chances of returning to All-Star form after missing nearly all of the last two years with related foot and ankle problems, Yao Ming retired from the game of basketball. A long history of trouble with his feet became too much for Yao, who was not certain to ever be able to play healthy again. His career, which will end up consisting of just seven healthy seasons, was far too short both for him and for fans deprived the opportunity to see one of the game’s most unique talents.

I’m happy to have witnessed much of Yao’s last, and possibly greatest, NBA triumph. In the spring of 2009, he led the Houston Rockets to their first playoff series win since 1997, knocking off the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2. Yao got the series started by scoring 24 points on 9-of-9 shooting and 6-of-6 from the free throw line in a Game One win at the Rose Garden. Three games into the following series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao suffered a hairline fracture in his left foot, setting in motion the series of injuries that led to his retirement.

Because of his shortened career, Yao didn’t put up the kind of career statistics that would put him in the Hall of Fame discussion. As noted elsewhere, his international career and off-court significance will likely be enough to get him elected. A healthy Yao probably would have made it on the merits of NBA performance alone. In December, I used SCHOENE to project out a complete career for Yao, including the last two seasons. The results: 18,145 points, 9,147 rebounds and a career WARP total (107.4) similar to that of Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and Chris Mullin, for two.

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