Watered Down Competition – Trying again edition

(because I started this a couple of weeks ago, when I posted it fell back in the queue. So, here it is again.)

In the oh-by-the way category:

It’s nonsense, but you still regularly hear complaints that, because of expansion and the general decline in our culture, quality of play in pro leagues (and colleges) is watered down.

Nate Silver has some evidence to the contrary concerning the NBA:

But it could be argued that the average quality of competition was higher during the 1960s, with just 10 teams or so, instead of 30. Elo doesn’t make too many assumptions about this.6 I’m not sure it’s a winning argument, however. Consider:

In other words, it seems likely that the NBA talent pool has grown at least as fast as the number of franchises since the 1960s. The 1960s didn’t even feature particularly great “fundamental” basketball. League-wide free-throw percentages were typically about 72 percent or 73 percent, compared with more like 75 percent or 76 percent now. The Celtics were the best team of their era, but also a product of it, and that era isn’t as rich for NBA competition as the one we have now.

To which I would respond, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.”

And to which I’ll reproduce here what I wrote last year about the related alleged decline in the quality of play in the NBA over the past generation, specifically in connection with the supposedly detrimental effect of having more young players enter the league:

“Is there something in the data that suggests the overall quality of play is worse now than it was thirty years ago? If there is, I couldn’t find it. Teams score, on average, about ten points fewer per game now than they did back in the days of high Reaganism. But it’s not because shooting is worse. League wide free throw percentages are very similar – about 75% or so now, versus about 77% (varying by year) back when EVERYTHING WAS GREAT. So is two-point shooting – it was in the ballpark of 49% back in the late 1980s. It’s about 48% now. The biggest difference is from three-point range – last year, the league average was about 36%. Back in the day, it ranged from 30-33%.

Players aren’t turning the ball over more today and, league-wide, assist-to-turnover ratios are slightly better now than they were in the Jordan/Bird/Magic era.

The biggest statistical difference is that teams shoot the ball much less frequently today than they did in 1987 (and shoot lots fewer free throws). In other words, there are fewer possessions per game. What explains this? Well the old-timey types aren’t going to like it, but I think it’s pretty obvious. Night in and night out, teams play better defense than they did thirty years ago (and Bill Simmons agrees!). Possession to possession, teams have to work harder to get good shots nowadays and there are fewer gimmes than there used to be. Nostalgia and selective memory cloud our judgment here.  We recall some bloody battles between the likes of Robert Parish and Bill Laimbeer and (mistakenly) read back into the historical record that every night in the NBA was hand to hand combat, where real men never gave an inch and you had to earn everything you got (there were more fights back then, it’s true. But that’s because – post-Malice in the Palace – the league simply doesn’t allow them anymore).

Anyway, this idealization of the typical NBA game of yore is nonsense. Speaking of Laimbeer, it’s hard to overstate what a shock to the NBA system the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were when they started winning big in the late 1980s. They upset the applecart by punching their opponents in the mouth, by making each team they played work harder than it was accustomed to working. It was ugly basketball, many complained, but it was damn effective. And it upended a longstanding fact of life in the NBA – that during the long grind of the regular season, players took lots of possessions off on the defensive end.

Can I “prove” that? No. But the data are more consistent with a world in which fewer possessions are throwaways than was the case in the good ole days. Yes, the Dream Team was a staggeringly awesome collection of talent (Christian Laettner notwithstanding). Those players were a great showcase for the league, as were the five teams that collectively won every NBA title between 1980 and 1993. But that doesn’t tell us about the overall quality of play. If too many young and inexperienced players are resulting in teams being sloppier with the ball, taking a greater number of ill-advised shots and playing less defense – the parts of the game that would presumably most benefit from more seasoned players – it’s not obvious in the numbers. And I know that I spent many nights watching mediocre players (the Knicks had a surfeit of those from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s) trudge indifferently through games.”

These finals game haven’t been the prettiest so far. But the overall level of competition and talent in the NBA is, one can make a very good case, the best it’s ever been.


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