Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The NBA Draft: On Potential(part 1)

Every year, the NBA holds it's draft in which teams take turns picking the best and brightest of the NCAA and the foreign leagues in the hopes that they will become the superstars of the next generation.  If only it were that simple...

Scouts and GMs are of course looking at players not only as who they are, but as who they might be.  The question is: what is his potential?  Then we also must ask: how do we determine potential?  And this is where things get tricky.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell observed in Outliers that in general, we aren't very good at figuring out potential.  We often assume that child who is the best musician at 5 is the most talented in musician.  In reality, that child might just have had more training or grown faster and had more physical capacity to perform actions related to an instrument.

Obviously GMs don't simply pick the most accomplished player.  They consider their physical and mental makeup, as well as age, contract situation for foreign league players, and other factors.  While much simpler, I want to suggest here three aspects of players which we might consider, examples and categorizations of players based on these aspects, and some of my thoughts on prominent prospects based on this method of thinking.

The Aspects

1. Tangibles - Includes physical and athletic characteristics like size, speed, height, and vertical.  These are highly valued because they can't be taught or learned.  A big, tall, athletic person has an inherent advantage in the NBA.

2. Achievement - How dominant was the player relative to the field and considering the strength of the field?  What skills were demonstrated in games?  Skills can be learned, but if someone who has the tools to be dominant hasn't been particularly successful, it is important to ask why.

3. Mental/Ethics - Is the player a hard worker?  Does he love basketball?  Has he demonstrated an ability to be successful in nonbasketball or even nonathletic fields such as academics, music, or theater?  Is he a head case?  Most of these are straightforward, but an ability to succeed outside athletics might seem odd.  However, research into learning and intelligence has suggested that there is such as thing as being good at learning and having Adaptive Expertise.  This could be the kind of advantage that allows a project player to build the skills necessary to succeed or that allows a player to retool their game to adapt to a new role.

The Categories

1. "Check, Check, Check" - the guy who has it all.

Examples - Grant Hill, LeBron James

This Year - No one, which is why the draft is supposedly devoid of superstars.  If Kyrie Irving were more athletic and had played a full season at the same high level as he played the few games he did, he would qualify and probably be considered a future star in the league.

Outlook - Obviously the safest type of pick since they have shown they have what it takes to succeed physically and mentally in the NBA and have translated that into success in the past.

2. "The College Player" - Poised and accomplished, but lacking the size and athleticism of an NBA player.

Examples - Stephon Curry, Adam Morrison

This Year - Jimmer Fredette is the ultimate example.  This category would also include players like Ben Hansbrough and Andrew Goudelock.  Kemba Walker sort of fits here, depending on if he can play point guard in the NBA and how big and issue his lack of size ends up being.

Outlook - Obviously these kinds of players have been both great and busts in the past.  I tend to think they have gotten a bad rep from busts like Morrison.  Many of these players will have to adapt their play significantly to the NBA, which is always a challenge.  I also think, for this reason, that these types of players' successes and failures are strongly influenced by the situation they end up in.  LeBron James or Blake Griffin can come in and immediately play well anywhere.  Jimmer needs to go to a team that is willing to work with him to figure out how to best use his strengths and best shore up his weaknesses, either internally or externally.

3. "The Student-Athlete" - Intelligent, mature, and athletic, but has yet to demonstrate success on the court expected of his talent level.

Example - Brandon Jennings

This Year - Brandon Knight kind of fits here.  The really big one is Bismack Biyombo.  In addition to his ridiculous athleticism, the life story of Biyombo is one that shows maturity and adaptability.

Outlook - These guys seem to do better than the 2s, especially if they are supremely athletic and smart/mature.  They can be athletic players who demonstrate the desire, maturity, and insight necessary to significantly develop their games.  It's also likely easier to learn to shoot jumpers than to learn to compensate for being a slow footed guard defensively.  And of course, no matter how much one learns to compensate for a lack of size or athleticism, it's still not the same as being big and athletic.

4. "The Head Case" - Great athlete, dominant player in college/abroad, serious mental/maturity issues

Example - Rasheed Wallace, DeMarcus Cousins

This year - No one really

Outlook - Could be a great value pick if the red flags cause other teams to back off.  Could also be a disaster.  I think the key is figure out exactly what kind of crazy the guy is.  Talented players who are lazy and malcontent rarely do well on the court.  Talented players who are hard workers and love basketball but can be difficult and out there have a better chance.  Players like Rasheed Wallance and Ron Artest really brought a lot to their teams on the court in their primes.  Of course, even if the on court results are great, an incident like the Artest melee can obviously wreck a team's season of more.  But this is a risk that might be worth taking if the player is good enough.

5.  "The Scholar" - Very intelligent player who is unathletic and a college roleplayer.

Example - Steve Danley

Outlook - These players don't get drafted.  However, they could end up become scouts, or writers, or contribute to the league in some other way with their intelligence, work ethic, and knowledge of basketball.

6.  "The Mega-Athlete" - Only real asset is incredible size/athleticism.  Lacks a history of production and particular maturity

Example - Stromile Swift, maybe Latavious Williams

This Year -  Perry Jones, if he had declared.

Outlook - This is my least favorite type of selection.  It seems like every year, some guy gets drafted because of his incredible physical ability despite the fact that he has never yet demonstrated an ability to be a productive basketball player and despite his subpar maturity or work ethic.  Athleticism isn't enough to succeed in the NBA.  There are too many other athletic players for anyone to get by on athletic gifts alone.  It takes skills, and absent these, the maturity, drive, and insight to acquire them as a "project" player.  Most of these players don't pan out.

7. "The College Egotist" - Great player in college despite both a lack of athletic gifts and maturity issues.

Example - A crazier, better version of Greivis Vasquez

This Year - No one, unless it turns out Jimmer is actually a massive tool.  These players are pretty rare.

Outlook - Similar to 2 in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but obviously the mental question marks make their chances of turning out well somewhat more dubious.

Look out for part 2 in which I look at some of the top prospects using these factors and share my feelings on them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sports: Why Narrative Matters

Over the course of this season and especially during the finals and now, their aftermath, we've been hearing quite a bit about the compelling narrative of the good vs. evil finals, the counternarrative to that, and criticism of the overly simplistic nature and irrationality of narratives.  It seems like a good time to examine the prevalence of narratives in sports.

When John Krolik of Cavs: the Blog writes: "The thing about sports is that they are not a story: they’re what happens when the best athletes in the world compete with a common goal in mind," he is, in a rational sense, completely correct.  The games are not rigged.  The season is not planned out by Disney or Vince McMahon.  This is a huge part of why we watch sports.  We never know what will happen.  There's always the possibility of a 2004 NBA finals or 2008 Super Bowl.

Of course, for this same reason, the idea of narratives in sports is rather silly.  Someone gets dubbed a hero or a choker based on one shot at the end of a game that he usually makes 40% of the time.  Or maybe if his team wins, he played with "heart" and "determination" and "willed them to victory" despite shooting 25% from the field while jacking up bad shot after bad shot.  We generally make up the narrative that makes sense after it is all said and done, even if it isn't true.  We just forget the stuff that doesn't line up with the story.

Analysts and statisticians object that these simplified stories impede our understanding of the game-Team X won because of it's rotation optimization and defensive scheme, not because they starred carried his teammates on his back by scoring 35.  It can be unfair to great players who have to live with an asterisk next to their career simply because they had the never won a championship, often because of bad luck or because their teammates weren't that good.  We should appreciate the skill and purity of the game.  Yet despite these faults, I think these narratives are the lifeblood of sports.

I think that an important part of the identity of the sports fan is often overlooked in these discussions about narrative vs. purity of the game.  Namely, we fans don't have as good an understanding of what we are watching as many seem to think.  I am probably in the top 10% of basketball fans with regard to the amount of time I spend watching, playing, analyzing, and reading about basketball, and I freely admit that when watching a game in real time, I am rarely able to see everything that is happening at once.  I can't figure out the close fouls or block/charge calls without the super slo-mo HD replay.

This problem is especially present in basketball.  The combination of the complexity of 10 players moving on the floor at once and the frenetic pace of the game make it difficult for the fan to analyze in the game.  In football, the 40 dead seconds between plays allows for multiple replays and explanatory commentary.  In tennis, it's just two guys.  In basketball, it's easy to watch someone like LeBron throw down a dunk in traffic and think to yourself "this guy is 6'8'' and 230lbs with explosive leaping ability; why doesn't he just attack the basket and do that every play?" without seeing the the availability of the driving lanes and lurking help defenders in the same way that LeBron does.  For many fans, "the purity of game" is a bit too close to watching a bunch of guys running around a jumping really high, and occasionally, one of them jumping really high and dunking or something.  Sure, it's impressive athletically, but without a good way to frame the purposes and reasons behind the actions happening on court, it is a lot less compelling.

This is why narratives are so important.  Absent massive technical knowledge and analysis, they give fans a reason to watch, a context in which to frame the action, and ultimately, an explanation for the outcome.  In the battle of the AAU All-Stars vs. the veteran teammates, unselfish play won out.  Dirk closed in the 4th because he learned from his defeat and became tougher while LeBron wilted because he couldn't handle the pressure.  Whether or not these things are true, they give the fan a means of which to make sense of the often confusing on-court action.

Even the misguided narratives can serve as an opportunity to deepen our love and understanding of the game. The debates that arise from them often lead to edification for fans.  It was through the LeBron vs. Kobe debate that I first got involved with and eventually came to understand many of the advanced statistics available in basketball.  And Abbott's writings on what is now called "heroball" have helped me view the late game in a new light.  I went in compelled by the stories and came out a more knowledgeable fan.

Dig even deeper than story lines about individual players and games and it is inescapable that narrative plays a central role in the team-fan relationship.  On a rational level, why should I care about a bunch of guys getting paid millions to play a game just because they happen to be located near me? Even if I enjoy watching their skills in action, why should I care if they win or lose to another bunch of similar guys from another city?  It's completely irrational.  Except that, through the power of narrative, that bunch of guys on the court comes to represent that city, and by extension, its citizens.  As someone who calls Cleveland home, the city is a part of who I am and because of that, the Cavaliers, in some small way, represent me.

It is through this power of narrative that sports can become magical.  Sports can make you too excited to sleep.  Sports can make you feel like you just got kicked in the gut.  Sports can bring all sorts of people together to share in exuberance and anguish.  And without narrative, I don't think these things are fully possible.  Without narrative, the excitement, the bonds, and the passion all flicker.  So I am not ashamed to say it: however crazy it sometimes gets, long live sports narrative!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Welcome to Hoop Themes

I've been an avid follower of sports, particularly basketball, for a while now, and as the internet community has grown, I've found myself participating more and more in the discussions.  Thus, I felt it time to start my own blog.

I'm am an adopted Clevelander and Cleveland Cavaliers fan, but I am also interested the NBA and basketball in general, as well as the fan experience.  I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading.