Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

October 29, 2009

Instant reax to Bissinger reax!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:29 am

In today’s fast-paced world, what with our Otis elevator safety brakes and self-scouring steel plows, reaction arrives quickly. One minute I’m posting my piece on Buzz Bissinger‘s call in the New York Times for the swift and fiery destruction of one-and-done. The next minute I’m going to sleep.

But the minute after that I’m rolling into my corner office here at the luxe Google-style campus that Prospectus maintains for its hoops analysts (it’s like Sterling-Cooper only, alas, no Joan) and finding a very gracious and interesting email from Jon Nichols of Nichols authored the research on NBA rookies that Bissinger cited in his piece.

Here’s what I said about Bissinger’s cite:

Bissinger noted that players who entered the NBA straight out of high school have historically performed better as rookies than have their counterparts who were drafted as as college juniors or seniors. Good grief, of course they have. The NBA may not be my beat–it says college hoops on my business card–but even a tyro like me knows that in any statistical comparison between two sets of NBA rookies, the group that includes LeBron, KG, Kobe, McGrady, Dwight Howard, and Amar’e Stoudemire is probably going to fare pretty well.

So let’s be clear. The fear that permeated the air around the NBA draft in the old days before one-and-done was never that these players plucked straight from high school would fail to pan out as a group. It was that the high-schooler that your team drafted might fail to pan out. And in this sense it’s revealing that Bissinger was able to perform the not inconsiderable feat of penning a 1300-word piece on one-and-done without using two words in particular, “Kwame” and “Brown.”

And here’s what Jon emailed me on the interrelated subjects of Buzz Bissinger, yours truly, and the highly variant fates of NBA rookies with the initials K.B.:

Hi, John,

I enjoyed your piece regarding Bissinger’s article. Although it’s been a few years since I wrote that research and my style of work has changed, there are a few things I’d like to clear up.

Whether or not Bissinger actually understood this, I think your point about phenoms like LeBron, Howard, and Kobe further supports the research rather than discredits it.

Only the true elite coming out of high school are going to make the jump to the NBA (if legal). And some/many of them will fail. So the typical argument is that well of course the high school players look better! It’s only the elite talents that would have been great in the NBA had they stayed a few years in college anyway!

But that’s the point. For those elite talents it does make sense and the numbers in their rookie years (and careers) can prove it.

You also made the point that had it not been for such-and-such superstars the high-schoolers wouldn’t look so good. Each of the age groups has its ups and downs, so specifically selecting the ups and somehow discrediting them doesn’t seem like a fair argument. I believe it was in fact in that article of mine where I mentioned the disparity in success of high school players. You take the good with the bad, I guess. The fact that some general managers are trying to minimize the risk for the sake of their job security is no excuse to limit the freedoms of 18-year-old kids.

Anyways, good article. In the end we have the same idea. (Although I think narrowing the impact of one-and-done’s to just ticket sales ignores the large impact they have on things such as TV ratings, especially for more casual fans.)


Jon’s exactly right: We have the same idea, and if anything in my phrasing suggested I was seeking to discredit the notion that the high-school-to-NBA cohort is a variegated bricolage of outcomes just like any other age category, I hereby correct myself. My point was simply that, as Jon states, the best players in the world will be drafted at the earliest moment when they’re eligible. Subsequent research, including and especially research as rigorous and intelligent as Jon’s, will therefore find that this particular age group looks really good on paper. So far so good.

To say the data for that age group looks really good, however, cannot support the weight Bissinger puts on it in this single discrete instance. (Keeping in mind both Bissinger and I want to chloroform one-and-done. I just think his argument’s a bit creaky while mine’s flawless as always.) You could set the age minimum for 25 or 18 and Bissinger could well note that lo and behold 25- and 18-year-old Kobes and Howards did really well as rookies! The apposite question, of course, is not the moment at which the outliers should be allowed to shine but rather when should the first round’s 50th percentile be allowed to tempt fate.   

Lastly I do wonder if perhaps Jon overstates the impact of big one-and-done stars on things such as actual revenue to schools and TV ratings. I would instead fling out a reckless but winningly intuitive Gasaway Mayo Paradox, wherein huge one-and-done stars make their biggest revenue splashes precisely at the relatively sleepy hoops backwaters like USC, places where elastic revenue sources like merchandise sales are slack and less elastic ones like gate receipts are currently hampered by the ubiquity of fans cleverly disguised as empty seats. At Kentucky, by contrast, John Wall is certainly bringing excitement to a fever pitch and he may even be selling an added increment of jerseys. But: Wall’s excitement-added increment would represent a couple flights of stairs on top of a preexisting Everest of revenue; it’s physically impossible to get more cash-paying customers into Rupp; and the very term “casual Kentucky fan” is surely an oxymoron on a level with “classy Deadspin.”

As for TV ratings, I eagerly await the robust study on number of eyeballs vs., well everything: teams, conferences, stars, time of night, etc. In the meantime anecdotal evidence and my Spidey sense unite in serene albeit provisional accord right about here: Said ratings may turn out to be driven in no small measure by the passionate followings that adhere to schools that can claim six-figure alumni populations from the non-hoops-dormant pluralities of the Big Ten and ACC (plus Kentucky, duh).  Those ratings hit the bottom lines with a loud crash at ESPN and CBS, of course, but they’re little more than a distant murmur at the NCAA and indeed virtually silent by the time you get to the programs themselves. Whether the recipient of the millions in cash is the NCAA (with its somewhat popular tournament in March) or the conferences (with their regular seasons from November to February), TV money is locked in by the decade precisely to avoid downswings in the economy and the occasional wacky and unforeseeable decision by the likes of David Stern

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