Stephen Curry

Perhaps the most remarked upon aspect of Curry’s game, other than its Platonic beauty, is that it appears to lack the kind of merciless ferocity that characterized the often brutal genius of Michael Jordan, who, when he wasn’t soaring through the air, punched a teammate or two and trash-talked heckling fans. Curry makes impossible, throat-cutting plays that somehow look both human and imbued with a kind of sweetness, if not mercy.
 
“What made Jordan so great,” Miller told me, “was that he could get the ball way up in the air and finish it. But you don’t have to dunk to be like Steph. Every kid looks at Steph and thinks: I can shoot and dribble. I can do that. You don’t have to be like Mike anymore. You know, Mike was an asshole. I was an asshole, too. But you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. Steph is living proof.”
 

Reggie Miller on Stephen Curry's game (in The New Yorker of all places; they are stepping up the volume of their sports coverage, though in that distinctive New Yorker style).

I worshipped Jordan as a child because I grew up in Chicago when he came to the Bulls and became a star. But he's the type of player you idolize because of his competitive spirit and demonic will to win, not because his game is one you can emulate.

Watch video of Jordan's jump shot and you see a jumper released at the apex of his jump. I couldn't shoot like that, and neither can most recreational players. It relies on great athleticism and strength, and it helps to have gigantic hands. I had neither. Shooting that way I could only really shoot from the free throw line in. What made Jordan's jump shot so effective was that he jumped so high it was nearly impossible to block.

Later in his career, as his athleticism declined, he added a variant: the fadeaway. Falling away from the defender, it was still impossible to block even with his decreased vertical leap. It was the primary weapon that allowed him to post up any guard in the league, and even most small forwards, until the day he retired.

[Earlier in his career he'd post up players on either block and then spin baseline and blow past the defender for a dunk or layup, but officials started to call that a travel, and later he lost the explosiveness to execute it consistently anyway.]

Stephen Curry has a jump shot but it looks more like a normal human being's jump shot, which is more of a set shot. It's a style of shooting that involves the legs and core more, and as a Bulls fan the players that come to mind who've shot in that style include Steve Kerr, Craig Hodges, Ben Gordon. It's how I have to shoot from that distance.

What sets Curry's shot apart from others who shoot that way, however, is the speed at which he can get the ball out of his hands. It's truly stunning to watch, whether on TV or in person. Estimates are that his release takes just .4 seconds. So despite releasing the shot from a much lower vertical distance than Jordan's jumper, Curry's is still very difficult to block.

Curry's version of Jordan's fadeaway, his unfair additional advantage, is his ball handling. If Curry needs an extra bit of separation from the defender, he can throw in a jab step or step back at any time, and literally in the blink of an eye (estimated to be 300 to 400 milliseconds, or exactly how long he takes to shoot) the ball is out of his hands.

Much of modern basketball is predicated on ball movement or actions like a pick and roll that create a temporary "power play" for the offense. The Miami Heat championship teams were really effective at using athletic and lanky lineups to smother the ball handler on a pick and roll and force the offense to reset, nullifying the pick and roll. With Stephen Curry, even if you double him off a pick and roll he can get a great shot off. That makes him as dangerous a weapon as there is given the modern three point line (I've referred to the 3 point shot as the NBA's modern arbitrage opportunity because it's worth 50% more than a 2-point shot but is nowhere near 50% as difficult to execute, not just for Curry but many NBA players).

Is there another feat in sports more suited to deliberate practice (popularized with the 10,000 hour rule) than the basketball jump shot? It's trivial to toss up a jump shot, and the feedback on whether you performed properly is near immediate. That's about as clean an instance of deliberate practice as there is, like playing a musical piece on the piano. You either play the right notes or you don't.

The difference between playing a piano and shooting a basketball, however, lies in that brief gap of time between the release of the basketball and its arrival at the basket. In that moment after Curry releases the basketball over the defender's head, as it traces its parabolic arc through the air and all the opposing players on the court have no recourse but to join everyone in the stadium in watching the ball flight, hope, anticipation, resignation, and appreciation meld for an instant. There is nothing to do but wait, knowing that the laws of physics have already determined whether the ball will go in the basket or miss, and there's nothing anyone can do about it any longer. It's just enough time to inhale, or exhale. Or to hold one's breath.

Trim the fat on the NBA schedule

Tonight, the Boston Celtics crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers. Of course, the Cavs played without Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith? Why? Because the Cavs had clinched the second seed in the East and so the games really don't matter to them anymore.

Years ago, David Stern fined the Spurs for not even bringing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Danny Green to Miami for the last game of a road trip. Granted, that was earlier in the season, and Stern said the fine was because they didn't inform the media and league far enough in advance that those players wouldn't be there, but let's be honest, the strategy in each case was the same: rest your best players for the playoffs, when it really matters.

Greg Popovich is by far the best coach in the NBA, and he's just doing something more teams should do. If your ultimate goal is to win in the post season, resting your players during the regular season makes all sorts of sense, especially if home court advantage is diminishing. Lebron took a self-imposed sabbatical of a couple weeks mid-season this year, mostly because he was tired. This might become an annual tradition for him, and why not? He came back noticeably fresher and the Cavs have been on fire ever since. As he ages, he should preserve the best of his remaining minutes for the highest leverage moments. The regular season falls below that cut line. 

Of course, if you're a fan who paid several hundred dollars or more for your seats, only to find one or both teams resting their best players that night, you might have a different idea of just how wonderful a strategy that is. One reason I've stopped attending many NBA regular season games is that even when both teams are at full strength, the intensity is often noticeably throttled down. Given the steep price of a half-decent seat these days, a regular season NBA game often isn't a great entertainment value. I'd rather spend a lot to see one playoff game than spend the same amount to see three or four middling regular season games.

A better solution would be to shorten the number of games in the regular season. Everyone knows it's too long, even if they won't admit it publicly. As always with professional sports, it's doubtful the owners, league, and players would be willing to forego the additional revenue from all those superfluous games. But if more and more players like Lebron just choose to watch games from the sidelines in their three piece suits, as if they were taking “personal days” in the business world, perhaps the league will try to save face and pare back the schedule. During Lebron's sabbatical this season he wasn't even at all the games he missed, he spent some of that time vacationing in Miami. Why was he even on the bench tonight? What if he were posting photos to Instagram from Drake's set at Coachella tonight instead?

If the NBA won't shorten its regular season (let's be honest, they won't), perhaps on days when the teams choose to just sit their stars, the league should give some of the ticket revenue back to fans in the form of a credit towards concessions and the gift shop, or towards a future game. Or perhaps even offer a partial refund.

Can you imagine purchasing a ticket ahead of time to see Furious 7, only to arrive at the theater to be told that Vin Diesel is taking that night's showing off because he is feeling beaten up from all the movie's stunt work?

“The role of Dom Toretto will be played tonight by Mr. Diesel's understudy, former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry.”

Give kickers the boot

Benjamin Morris notes that the consistent improvement in NFL placekicker accuracy across the years means we need to update our fourth down strategy cards.

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated.

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But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8:

My problem with field goal kicking is that it's boring. It's nothing at all like the rest of football. I dislike any sport which suddenly morphs into something else entirely, something worse, near the end of the contest, when things should be at their most tense and dramatic.

In basketball, a fluid, fast-paced game often ends with one foul after the other, forcing 9 world-class athletes to stand around while one guy shoots free throws. In football, if teams aren't just running the clock out or kneeling down at the end of the game, they're often lining up for a field goal, a specialized craft that has nothing to do with running, throwing, or catching the football. It's as if a tennis match that went to a tiebreak were settled by having the two players go to the sideline, replaced by two random people coming in to settle matters by playing Cornhole. I'd just as soon do away with field goal kicking in football and have teams go for it on fourth down all the time.

This is one advantage for baseball. To finish off the game, you have to get batters out just like you had to for the previous innings in the game.

Kobe Bryant's lonely imperiousness

Even at his peak, Kobe Bryant made greatness look grueling. He had every gift, every natural blessing — but he made having them look hard. He could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court, but being in charge of that kind of skill was exhausting, and the strain showed. It was as if he had to keep the Amazon flowing with nothing but his own force of will. The scorn he directed at other players — at rivals, at his own teammates — always seemed to come from a place not just of superior ability but also of superior suffering. You call that a river? He defined himself through his talent, but in the sense of someone who takes pride in carrying a heavy burden without mislaying it. He had contempt for anyone whose burden was smaller, or who didn’t take it as seriously; this was why, after he’d made something of himself, he couldn’t go on tolerating Shaq. His stringency and his ferocious responsibility to himself left him sealed inside a closed circle. People wanted to be like Mike. When Kobe came around, they wanted to get the hell out of his way.

He wasn’t humorless, nor was he above showboating. But where Michael Jordan’s little backpedaling shrug was a gift to the crowd, a way of inviting fans in, Kobe’s smirk was a provocation. Jordan knew instinctively that the final inch of dominance was earned through a certain lightness, and he cultivated it as ruthlessly as his jump shot — the tongue-waggling, the pranks at the All-Star Game, the celebrations where he wept unself-consciously or seemed to float in the air. It was theater, but it completed the aura of invincibility; here was an athlete whose supremacy was so unshakable that he could afford to act unconcerned about it. Kobe could never be unconcerned, because unlike Jordan (or LeBron, or Shaq, or Kevin Durant, or Allen Iverson), he didn’t inhabit his talent so much as angrily oversee it. His smile had a way of making moments feel more tense, of ratcheting the stakes to a level at which only he could cope with them. It wasn’t in him to be generous. If you’re Superman, you can have fun flying; if you’re the CEO of Exxon, oil is never a joke.

Those are the opening two paragraphs to a magnificent piece on Kobe Bryant by Brian Phillips. This was a money quote to me: “He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport.” Not a single teammate invited to his wedding. Not a one.

I love that we have so much more data with which to understand the value of basketball players in a sport like basketball which has so many interaction effects (Kirk Goldsberry's piece is an exemplar of the form). But Phillips' piece is a type of piece I hope we don't lose in sportswriting, a form of exploration of the fans' emotional relationship with particular players.

Respect, or the value of gravity in the NBA

Tom Haberstroh lists his top floor-spacers of the year in the NBA (ESPN Insider paywalled article). He came up with a composite of SportVU's proprietary gravity and distraction scores, two pieces of data which, as far as I can tell, are only provided by Stats Inc. to ESPN Insider and other professional paying customers (if any of you NBA Hoops fans know where I can find the data myself online, let me know!).

Haberstroh explains these two scores and his methodology for generating a composite:

To recap, gravity score measures how closely a player's defender sticks to him off the ball. Higher gravity scores generally belong to bigs because their primary defender must stay close and also protect the basket. On the other hand, guards typically have lower gravity scores simply because defenders have more liberty to shade off their guy on the perimeter. But elite shooters typically generate more attention off the ball.

Then there's distraction score, which quantifies how much a player's defender is willing to help off the ball to stop the ball handler. The worse he is as a shooter, the more likely his defender will be distracted by the ball handler. To identify the most effective floor-spacers in the NBA, I created a composite score that combines the two metrics. The result is what I've called "respect rating," which has now been translated to a 1-to-100 scale with 100 being the most magnetic (think sharpshooters) and 1 being least magnetic (think non-scoring bigs).

No surprise, Steph Curry tops the list with a respect rating of 97.9. He was #1 in Haberstroh's composite ranking last year as well. Klay Thompson is third with a rating of 94.4, and you can understand much of the Warriors success this year in those two rankings.

What's interesting to me as a Bulls fan is that Derrick Rose ranks 14th. Much analysis of his value to the Bulls is built off his raw individual stats, but the interaction effects of basketball mean he's undervalued in terms of his value to the team as someone who keeps defenders away from his teammates.

In the modern game, where zone defense is allowed and where the trend is for heavy help defense to swarm the ball, having players who have high gravity and distraction scores, who you can't help off of, is critical to maintaining the type of floor spacing that opens driving lines or provide open jump shots. There's a reason that the most trendy NBA offense now is "pace and space"; both pace and space are ways of trying to neutralize the trendiest style of defense, the Thibodeau-style defense that punishes isolation plays and post-ups.

I still wish Rose would decrease his number of three point shot attempts, at least until he finds consistent form in practice. His form on threes has been so erratic this season, and he squanders his value as one of the top floor-spacers in the NBA when he chucks one of those up. When he drives, he not only increases his chance of drawing a foul, but his gravity increases the odds one of his teammates will come open for a higher percentage shot.

I'm still super bullish (pun sort of intended) on the Bulls this season. Cleveland is a mess, the Bulls are deeper than they've been in years, and the East is much weaker than the West as a conference. Noah is still coming back into fitness and health after offseason knee surgery, Butler has blossomed into a true two-way star, Mirotic adds a legitimate floor spacer as a true stretch four, Brooks is an effective source of offense for the second string team, and declarations of Rose as Grant Hill Part 2 were premature. 

One of the kinks they still have to work out, however, is how for Rose to best maximize his gravitational pull. Three-pointers and layups/dunks are the two most efficient forms of offense, but only if you can get them. The mid-range jump shot may be inefficient and a dying art, but Rose is one of the rare players for whom that seems to be an exception.

Eyebrow on fleek

Look at the NBA's current league leaders in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and you'll find one player towering over the rest of the league by about the same margin as he towers over the average human being:

Rank Player PER
1 Anthony Davis-NOP 37
2 Brandan Wright-DAL 28.3
3 Stephen Curry-GSW 27.4
4 DeMarcus Cousins-SAC 27.2
5 Dirk Nowitzki-DAL 26.2
6 LeBron James-CLE 25.3
7 Chris Paul-LAC 24.8
8 Tyson Chandler-DAL 24.4
9 Derrick Favors-UTA 24.4
10 Dwyane Wade-MIA 23.8
11 Brandon Jennings-DET 23.7
12 Damian Lillard-POR 23.6
13 Gordon Hayward-UTA 23.4
14 Kyle Lowry-TOR 23.1
15 James Harden-HOU 22.9
16 Klay Thompson-GSW 22.8
17 Kyrie Irving-CLE 22.7
18 Jimmy Butler-CHI 22.6
19 Isaiah Thomas-PHO 22.3
20 LaMarcus Aldridge-POR 22.2

PER is a metric developed by John Hollinger who defined it this way: “The PER sums up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance.”

But without diving into the complex formula, all you need to know about Anthony Davis' current PER of 37 is that Michael Jordan owns the NBA record for career PER at 27.9. Jordan also owns the NBA career playoff record for PER at 28.6.

There are many great stories in the table above, but this is by far the most astonishing. Small sample size notwithstanding, what Anthony Davis has done thus far this season is play some of the best basketball that's ever been played. Just enjoy.

Eyebrow on fleek.

Personal statistician

Another sign of the gradual ascent of statistical analysis within sports: some NBA players now employ a personal statistician.

Justin Zormelo, a 30-year-old Georgetown graduate, is at the forefront of a growing industry, his services a must-have accessory for the playoffs. Zormelo, who spends hours every day hunkered over a laptop in his home office, has become the go-to source for players who want a private guide through the emerging world of advanced analytics.

Let others conduct wind sprints and weight-room sessions. Zormelo, who works for individual players and not their teams studies film, pores over metrics, and feeds his clients a mix of information and instruction that is as much informed by Excel spreadsheets as it is by coaches’ playbooks. He gives players data and advice on obscure points of the game — something many coaches may not appreciate — like their offensive production when they take two dribbles instead of four and their shooting percentages when coming off screens at the left elbow of the court.

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Zormelo’s career took off three years ago when he began working for Kevin Durant, the league’s leading scorer and most valuable player. Zormelo spent last season living out of two suitcases in Oklahoma City as Durant’s full-time stats guru. He attended Thunder games with his iPad in tow, watched film with Durant at night and even slept on Durant’s couch. Zormelo ended their season together by presenting Durant with a five-page report full of pie charts and bar graphs.

This season, Zormelo worked with All-Stars like Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, John Wall of the Washington Wizards and Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics. At least three of his clients are still in the playoffs. When they require hands-on involvement, he heads to the airport.
 

One of the chief challenges for teams that employ quantitative analysts is getting the coach and players to embrace the recommendations that come from the analysis. It's a good sign for those teams when players themselves are turning to the numbers for self-improvement, though the conflict between recommendations from a player's own statistician and the team's analysts can be troubling.

Fluid team sports like basketball are trickier from a strategic standpoint than a sport of individual confrontations like baseball. In baseball, individual statistical achievement and team achievement are usually highly correlated. In basketball, one player may pad their scoring stats by shooting a lot, but that may not be best for the team.

Atul Gawande once wrote a great article about how most of us could benefit from more coaching. It seems that one of the greatest investments for someone with wealth would be coaching, and yet I don't observe that happening.

I suspect that the people hire coaches when the marginal value of the coaching is very clear, and that tends to be in areas where the price or market signals are explicit and efficient. Athletes have very public contracts, their statistics are tracked at an increasingly fine resolution, the correlation between improved play from coaching and both team success and personal financial wealth is visible and clear.

Many people hire fitness coaches because they can see the results on the scale each morning, or in the bathroom mirror, and in society's well-documented preference for people who are fit.

Hiring a coach for your professional career may have greater returns, but the signals may not be as consistently reinforced or even as measurable as for an athlete, and where do you find a good coach anyhow when the labor market is so tight? Given that the practice is not common in many disciplines (take product management as one example) there is real inertia that means most practitioners have to own their own development.

Whatchoo talkin' bout Willems?

“Like most bipedal parents, we all discovered Harry Potter together, reading the books aloud to our kids,” said [J.J.] Abrams in an interview with The New York Times. “But one of my favorite children’s authors was introduced to us by our youngest son. When he was in kindergarten he brought home some books by Mo Willems, who has one of the most remarkable comedic voices I’ve ever read. His sense of humanity — of heart and generosity — is staggering. I was so blown away, I got his number from his agent and called him. I was essentially a sycophant, expressing what a deep fan of his I am, how I would love to work together one day. He was quiet on the phone, almost monosyllabic, disinterested. Frankly it was a bit of an odd reaction. It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that I had, in error, called Mo Williams of the Portland Trail Blazers.”
 

J.J. Abrams on a case of mistaken identity. This is a story from last year, but I hadn't heard it until now. 

“I got a lot of friends and I played in L.A., so I got a lot of Hollywood friends, so I thought it was someone I had met or someone I came across,” said Williams. “I was corresponding with him then I realized he might have have me kind of messed up with somebody else. We’re going back and forth on email, that’s the new age of communication. We were actually talking and he was giving me a lot of compliments. I felt like he was talking about me, you know, how great of a person I was. I was like ‘Yeah, that’s me! That’s me.’ I told him thank you. Then he said something that caught me like ‘Well, I don’t really remember that.’”

The “something that caught” Williams was Abrams referencing Willems’ work, which includes titles such as “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale”, “Don’t Let The Pigeon Stay Out Late” and “The Duckling Gets A Cookie?!”. But as it turns out, Williams was considering going into Willems’ business, which only added coincidence to confusion.

“The crazy thing about it, I’ve been talking to friends about writing children’s books because I have a lot of kids,” said Williams.
 

This story is particular funny because it's this specific NBA player, Mo Williams, who isn't a superstar but also isn't a scrub who sits at the end of the bunch. He's just the right level of NBA famous. It wouldn't be as hilarious if it were someone much more or much less famous.