Facts on the ground

Just a quickie for now.

ESPN has published the results of a survey of high football recruits. It asked ESPN’s 2015 top 300 a range of questions. Over half responded.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority (seven out of eight) favor receiving a stipend for their efforts.

Sixty percent also answered yes to the question: “Should players be allowed to unionize?”

This is, it should be noted, a misleading question. As it stands (an appeal is pending), college football players are workers under American labor law. That is the result of the initial ruling, in March, by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

In other words, players *are* allowed to unionize. Whether they would *choose* to is a separate question. The distinction is important, though. Remember that the NCAA continues to insist that the athletes are students first, athletes second and, in no way employees. Unless the NLRB subsequently rules otherwise, the NCAA is simply wrong, when it comes to college football players. The premise of the question – unless the goal is to query the players’ opinions on American labor law – is that we’re still having a theoretical debate about whether college football players are workers.  But we’re not. It’s a legal question that, as of now, has been answered.

I know it’s just a quick and dirty survey of high school kids, but perhaps a better question would have been: “as of now, college football players are considered employees. As university employees, do you think you have a right to negotiate some of the conditions of your work?”

Disappearing Act

Bill Simmons’ piece this week about ‘Melo manages to dress up a simple argument in a lot of numbers and verbiage: Carmelo is a great player, even if not an all-time great, because he scores a lot. He’s been unlucky, says Simmons, in that he’s had relatively little help in his career.

Contrary to the naysayers, Simmons believes ‘Melo can be a top-dog on a championship team, were he to have the right pieces around him. Simmons contends that the 2011 Mavs, led by Dirk Nowitzki, provide an interesting potential model for how a Melo-led team could win an NBA title . Notable about Simmons’ analysis of that Mavs team is that he does not so much as mention Jason Kidd.

Here’s Simmons on the 2011 Mavs:

“The 2011 Mavericks won the title with a veteran team built around a spectacular coach (Rick Carlisle), an elite rim protector (Tyson Chandler), an elite perimeter defender (Shawn Marion), an elite heat-check guy (Jason Terry), quality 3-point shooting (39.4 percent and 184 made 3s in 21 playoff games), savvy team defense and one historically good scorer with crunch-time chops (Dirk Nowitzki). If you believe Carmelo can lead a championship team, you’re leaning heavily on that 2011 Mavs playbook — you’d need all the elements we just covered, and you’d need Carmelo to unleash a damned good Dirk impression.”

You’d never know Kidd so much as suited up for them. It’s kind of funny, especially in the context of what Melo needs to contend, since he just happened to be on a 54-win Knick team in 2013 that included Kidd. The 2013 Knicks and 2011 Mavs had something notable in common – Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd were, by far, the most productive players on both those teams. Indeed, for all the reading of entrails about why the Knicks were so much worse in 2014 than in 2013, it wasn’t that complicated – 1) they lost Kidd to the coaching ranks and 2) Chandler missed substantial playing time. Those two factors alone accounted for the bulk of their decline to 37 wins in 2014.

Kidd’s skill set is vastly undervalued by Simmons’ preferred metric for basketball production, PER. That’s because PER prizes shot-taking, whereas Kidd just did everything else well on a basketball court, including in 2011, when he produced the most wins on the team. OK, we can argue about player performance but, seriously, Jason Kidd doesn’t even rate a *mention* in a discussion of the 2011 Mavs? Don’t tell me this is a debate about intangibles, or making your teammates better, or any of that stuff. Kidd would rate super-high in such discussions.

This is a debate about whether shot-taking and point totals are the best way to evaluate players. Simmons reflects well conventional wisdom in NBA circles in this regard. Here’s wondering whether folks will start catching on to the fact that the Spurs, for instance, tend not to see the world that way. Suggestively, in that regard, the Spurs did not have a single player in the top 50 in field goal attempts in the NBA this season.

 

The Eye Test; also Cal Ripken

A few notes:
1) Catching up on some old New Yorker reading. From last December, Douglas Starr has an interesting article about false confessions.It has become an article of faith that what is most telling in potential criminal suspects is what they don’t say: their non-verbal behavior. According to the standard set of techniques police have been using in interrogations for decades, reading non-verbal tells for hints of lying or anxiety are central to a detective’s ability to suss out a liar and, in turn, to solve a crime.Only it turns out, according to a range of different studies and real-world experiences, that interrogators are very often wrong about who is lying and who isn’t and that non-verbal cues are far less reliable an indicator of a individual’s veracity than the conventional wisdom supposes.

Finally, evidence suggests that police are more likely to rate themselves highly in terms of their ability to read people’s body language *and* more likely to be wrong when they do.

In sum, the eye test, if you will, has been central to police interrogations for decades and it is badly flawed.

 

In the never-ending (and yes, tiresome) debate between “traditional scouting” and “analytics” the point that is most often missed, in my humble opinion, is that we humans allow our eyes to deceive us all the time. Properly used, actual empirical data isn’t an arrogant assertion of intellectual superiority. It’s an acknowledgment of our inescapable limitations. Of course, we also misuse data all the time, because our flaws and biases don’t only inhere in what we see with our eyes.

In sports analysis, however, the “eye test” in all too many cases has just become lazy short hand for “I don’t need to learn anything new – I know what I see and my judgment is not really subject to challenge.”

2) Cal Ripken, Jr. was on set with the Mikes this morning and was thoughtful and enjoyable to listen to. Greenie asked Ripken at one point what was the secret to longevity – to being a really productive player after the age of 34 or 35.

The premise, of course, was that Ripken was such a player. I am not ripping on the guy – in his prime years, Cal was great and all respect to the Streak.

But he did, indeed, experience a precipitous dropoff well before the age of 35. In 1991, his second MVP season, Cal had an OPS+ of 162, where 100 is the league average. Combine that with gold glove play at shortstop and you’re talking about a really terrific season. 1991 was Cal’s age 30 season. In his remaining decade in the bigs (dude played a long time), Ripken managed to top an OPS+ of 100 just three times. He was slightly above average in 1994 and 1996 and had a spike in production at age 38, in 1999 (though he missed about half the season). His power numbers and walk totals all fell off significantly after 1991. Once he moved to third base full time at age 36, he really wasn’t helping the team much at all, at least in terms of on-field production.

Again, I am not knocking a worthy Hall of Famer. But he was not a really productive player after age 35, or even age 31.
3) At another point in the conversation with Cal today, Greenie said that Ripken, as a power-hitting shortstop, broke the mold of the singles-hitting prototype that had defined the position in the 1970s. In doing so, he paved the way for the great offensive shortstops of the 1990s and aughts – especially Jeter, Nomar and Arod. With Jeter’s passing from the scene, Greenie said, that type of shortstop no longer exists. Cal demurred really nicely on whether he was responsible in anyway for the likes of Derek Jeter.
Greenie, on the other hand, was forgetting someone – that shortstop out in Colorado, who’s having the best year of any major leaguer so far this season. Tulo leads the National League in homeruns, batting, slugging and OBP. He’s got a big home/road split this year, but with an OPS+ of 175 (which accounts for park effects), he’s easily rivaling Cal in his prime.
4) As I am typing this out, I am remembering one of the very dumbest arguments I’ve ever heard on sports radio. There used to be a sports talk guy named Peter Brown who, sometime near the end of Cal’s career, argued that, in evaluating Ripken’s career, one should not compare his production to other shortstops. Instead, the relevant frame of reference was – you’ll love this – other players who were 6′ 4″. In that context, Ripken really wasn’t so good. 

 

In case you were wondering – major league baseball does not limit the number of 6′ 4″ player who can suit up for a game.

Coming Home

As I mentioned earlier today, I think LeBron’s coming home to an overrated roster. But there are still moves to be made, for sure, and if Kevln Love does land in Cleveland, the Cavs are already good enough to compete for the conference title.

But LeBron’s made it quite clear that this is, as he said today, about more than basketball.

As he told SI’s Lee Jenkins:

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

This is good image-management, but I have no reason not to take LBJ at his word. He was mocked mercilessly when he said last year “‘I’m not even supposed to be here.” The mocking was par for the LeBron course during the Miami years. It is a fact, however, the James grew up in extraordinarily tough circumstances. Akron is a high crime, high poverty city. His mom was sixteen when he was born. He spent several years living with another family. Lots of young African Americans do not make it out. There was nothing self-pitying or self-aggrandizing about what James said. Just a lot of ignorance on the part of a sporting world that still can’t really comprehend what it is that many African American have athletes endured on their way to the spotlight.

That LeBron still carries the challenges of his childhood with him should be obvious by now. That a commitment to helping kids who face similar challenges live a better life appears to have been a factor in his decision to come back home is pretty extraordinary.

LeBron, etc.

It’s all stating the obvious, but it’s nice to hear Colin Cowherd discuss this morning some of the realities of race in the NBA. The context is his contention that the “sickening” letter Gilbert sent to Cleveland fans four years ago is, indeed, a legitimate reason for LeBron to hesitate about going back there.

A few of of Cowherd’s comments (my comments in parentheses):

When guys fight in other leagues, you don’t hear the word “thug.” In the NBA – “thug.” (And of course, the NBA is the one league that has virtually banned fighting).

The dress code. (And yes, Commissioner Stern more or less acknowledged that the degree to which his league is dominated by black players necessitated that kind of image-management, especially in the aftermath of the “malice in the palace.”)

No one says a word about the fact that Kevin Love, who is still under contract with the Timberwolves, has apparently visited other teams this summer. (and see this interesting piece on media treatment of Love, from David Leonard).

Many of Colin’s listeners argued with him for months that Jimmer Fredette was going to be a star and for years that LeBron really wasn’t.

Colin said that after the just completed draft – and his producer backed this up – the player whose prospects his listeners most wanted to hear about wasn’t Wiggins or Embiid or Parker. It was Doug McDermott (I am guessing Colin’s audience probably has a pretty strong demographic tilt).

“We don’t like black superstars having power and leverage,” Cowherd said.

By the way, call me crazy, but I think Cleveland’s roster is *vastly* overrated. Kyrie Irving is still very young. But he profiles as a classic overrated player. There is really nothing he does better than the average point guard in the NBA – assists; assists-to-turnovers; rebounds; shooting percentage. What does he do “better” – he takes a lot of shots, just like every other overrated player in the league. Has anyone noticed the kinds of players who are *not* on the Spurs’ roster?

If LeBron is going back to Cleveland to play with Irving and Andrew Wiggins (who also looks like a player whose perceived value might reside in his shooting frequency), he’s going to be sorely disappointed. If Kevin Love ended up in Cleveland, that’d be much more interesting. But as it stands, this is not a championship team, even with LeBron.

A trip down memory lane

Just came across this item about the Green Bay Packers’ national television revenues for this past season. As a publicly held company, they are required to disclose financials. The other teams are not.

Hold on to your hats – they’re making a boat load of cash.

The revelation that the Packers (and every other team) are rolling in it led me on a trip down memory lane, to the fall of 2010, when a coming lockout loomed over the NFL.

At the time, Peter King wrote at length about the key issues at stake in the then brewing conflict between labor and management. And despite an attempt at even-handedness, he ultimately could not help but subtly side with the owners.

Here was my response to King. Owning a major sports franchise is not like owning a mom-and-pop store. There’s essentially no risk involved these days, particularly in the NFL. Only a river of cash and ever-increasing franchise values.

The NFL, it’s worth noting, will see a large spike in revenues beginning next season when its new TV contracts kick in.

In the meantime, Judge Anita Brody is in the process of giving final approval to the settlement in the concussion lawsuit brought by thousands of retired players against the NFL.

Silly Season

The “reporting” on NBA free agency is best understood as self-parody. It’s really nothing more than useless speculation, dressed up as “news,” as if Chris Broussard’s (or any other sports talking head’s) recent thoughts about where LeBron might or might not end up have any relationship to where LeBron might or might not actually end up. I mean, yes, I am sure one of Broussard’s theories about where LeBron is going to play next season will turn out to be true, though he could really cover his bases by telling us that he considers it extremely likely that the King will, in fact, be in the NBA when the new season tips.

My daughter and I sometimes joke about US magazine stories (which, yes, we both enjoy reading). They’ll pass along a rumor – like, say, that Lena Dunham has switched to drinking a new brand of coffee. They’ll hew closely to certain journalistic conventions for writing such pieces, using phrases like “a source close to Dunham,” “a pal of Dunham’s,” “those familiar with her coffee drinking habits say,” or “a barista who served Dunham coffee three years ago” to make it sound as if they’ve seriously investigated the issue so as to bring the reader fresh (and important) information. In other words, that this is real journalism, or is supposed to sound like real journalism, even if it’s really just a joke.

The typical reporting on NBA free agency is, I would say, perhaps half a step up from your standard US Magazine item.

Clearly there’s an appetite for this stuff and it serves the NBA’s business objective of becoming a year-round phenomenon, like the NFL. So kudos to those with a vested interest in the NBA for having achieved this purpose.

It’d be nice, though, if there were a little more analysis of the likely impact of players who’ve already signed on their new teams.  Or a serious attempt to consider whether Chris Bosh, for example, is a max player (the evidence strongly suggests he’s not).

On a related note, it was reported this week that, as of the end of the weekend, the Cleveland Cavaliers had removed from their official website the letter that owner Dan Gilbert wrote to the team’s fans in 2010, in the aftermath of LeBron’s decision to leave the club.

The newsworthiness of this report presumably lay in the fact that the Cavs were stepping up their pursuit of LeBron and, it was being widely “reported,” he was taking their overtures very seriously.

What I found most noteworthy about the report when I first heard it was that the Cavs had left the letter up on the site for four years. After all, it’s an utter embarrassment, doing nothing so much as illustrating what a jackass the owner is. As a reflection of Gilbert’s frustration in the immediate aftermath of the original DECISION, one could perhaps forgive the man an in-the-moment hissy fit. But to leave the letter in plain sight for four years? Yeesh.

In fairness, the Cavs claim that they thought the letter had been removed “years ago,” but due to a spike in traffic to the letter over the weekend, discovered it was still active on the site. Sources close to me say I am little dubious, but that’s their story.