This week in NBA Twitter

That should be a television show. It's too bad Twitter wasn't around when Michael Jordan was at the height of his basketball powers because his homicidal competitive streak would have had him up all night looking for any perceived slight on Twitter and then responding in some terrifyingly inappropriate manner.

Having MJ-wannabe Kobe actively tweeting is a solid consolation prize, though.

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.”

ESPN Draft Rankings altered after the fact?

According to this Reddit thread, Chad Ford's NBA draft rankings in recent years have been changed after the fact to make the rankings seem more favorable based on actual NBA performance of the draftees.

Looks like Chad Ford changes his draft boards after the fact to make himself look better. Take the 2013 draft board for instance.

Here's a cache of the page a month after the draft: https://web.archive.org/web/20130729144022/http://insider.espn.go.com/nbadraft/results/top100/_/year/2013

And here it is now: http://insider.espn.go.com/nbadraft/results/top100/_/year/2013/

Notice how he's raised players that have done well (Antetokounmpo, Carter-Williams, Hardaway Jr., Dieng, Gobert) and dropped those who haven't done so well (Karasev, Larkin, Jamaal Franklin).

Kinda shady I think.

After this story got a bit of play, ESPN reverted Chad Ford's rankings back to their original state. Ford claims he didn't make the alterations, and ESPN issued a statement saying they believe him. My guess: some poor, blameless CMS will take the brunt of the scapegoating.

Given enough eyeballs, all ex post facto malarkey is shallow.

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.

Miscellany

  1. Fewer Harvard MBA's took jobs in finance this year than last. That might be a good sign for the stock market according to one theory.
  2. Don't like the idea of the Miami Heat's Big Three taking pay cuts to lure in Carmelo Anthony to form a Big Four super team? Perhaps the solution is a radical one: remove the ceiling on individual player salaries. There is no small measure of poetic justice that the a team in which its top three stars took a discounted salary to allow their owner to sign other strong players (the Spurs) just defeated a team in which the top three stars took the maximum salary possible, leaving the rest of their roster very undermanned (the Heat).
  3. We're living in an art market boom. I'm saving up for my first Jeff Koons'. I may have to settle for stealing a kleenex after he blows his nose in it.
  4. The wonderful economic test beds that are multiplayer video games. “A multiplayer game environment is a dream come true for an economist. Because here you have an economy where you don't need statistics. And elaborate statistics is what you use when you don't know everything, you're not omniscient, and you need to use something in order to gain feeling as to what is happening to prices, what is happening to quantities, what's happening to investments, and so on and so forth. But in a video game world, all the data are there. It's like being God, who has access to everything and to what every member of the social economy is doing.”

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.