Getting Nihilistic with Bias and the Sports Guy

Posted on Fri 04 May 2012 in Features by Aaron McGuire

A "footnote title" respects the champion while also acknowledging that, "Look, SOMETHING funky happened and you can't discuss that postseason in detail without mentioning that one funky thing."

-- Bill Simmons, The Footnote Title

The other day, when Derrick Rose was injured, Bill Simmons tweeted a curious tweet. He said that the 2012 title was officially an "asterisk" title. I was a bit confused by this. I'm of the opinion that if you squint hard enough, you'll fail to find a single NBA champion who didn't play in a season where something funky disqualified a strong contender. We love to delve its pores for meaning, but sports is primarily a game of ephemera and luck. When your team wins the title, they deserved it essentially as much as any other, and relied on luck essentially as much as any other. According to Bill, quite literally every Spurs title deserves a footnote, as he stated outright the reasons that each and every championship they've ever won was fishy. This was a pretty big come-to-Jesus moment for me -- if my team's titles aren't really titles, well, damn, what does anything mean anymore? I feel like I've come out of the experience a better, more nihilistic person, fast approaching @NickFlynt levels. Given that this was helpful to me in my personal development, I figured I'd do our readers a solid and help fans of every team that's ever won the title learn why their titles can't be discussed without important, team-degrading footnotes.

• • •

One footnote I was actually shocked that Simmons didn't mention was the pall hanging over his beloved Celtics during the Auerbach tenure. One of the most underreported and understated stories from the Red-and-Russ era was the pernicious facilities tampering that Red engaged in for virtually his entire tenure as coach. I'm not talking about small-scale stuff, either -- Auerbach openly admitted after he'd retired that while he was a coach and General Manager, he did a number of things to make sure the Celtics had the absolute most home court advantage they possibly could. This includes (but is in no way limited to):

  • Redirecting the Garden's sewage system into the visiting team's water fountain. (Really. I realize this is so disgusting we don't like talking about it, but it's been confirmed by multiple sources and even made his obituary. Absolutely insane.)

  • Bugging the visitor's locker room, leading to most teams talking in code when discussing strategy knowing that if they said what they were doing outright Red would listen in on them. J. Edgar Auerbach?

  • Cutting the heater in the visiting locker room, leading to a freezing mess in the winter. In Boston. He also turned the heat all the way up during hot summer days, ensuring that the players would be sweating like stuck pigs and desperately need water, which in turn was connected to... oh yeah. The sewage. Whoopsies.

It shows, too -- consider the Celtics' home and away records during the Auerbach era. Not only did they never lose a game 7 at home (something that has never happened before or since), their regular season records were often comically disparate. As a teaching example, look at the 1958 Celtics. That team ended up 11-17 on the road over the season, but went a sparkling 24-4 at home. Including a double-overtime game 7 against the Bob Pettit-led, defending champion St. Louis Hawks (at home, of course!) to win the title. The invented Auerbach-based enhancement of their home court advantage generally tended to -- ever so slightly -- inflate the win totals of the 60s Celtics. From 59 to 69, not a single Celtics team had a higher expected record than their actual record. For those not in the know; expected wins and losses are calculated based on a team's point differential.

It's extremely rare for a team to over a long period (anything more than 4 or 5 years) consistently overperform or underperform their expected wins, as all things equal, the things that cause expected wins to vary over a several season period would be things left to chance -- a team's record in close games, years where they do unexpectedly poorly at home, the number of times your team gets blown out of the building, et cetera. Given the inherently better home court advantage that Auerbach made sure his Celtics had (as well as the predictive power of wins on point differential) the effect of the inflated win totals were felt two-fold. They helped the Celtics outperform the record a team of their caliber would have gotten in the regular season, all things equal. They also ensured that out of the ten 7-game series the Celtics played in 12 years (in the shortened playoffs), only two involved having to win a game seven on the road to advance -- more tellingly, perhaps, neither occurred with Red at the helm. Again, absolutely shocked that Bill didn't mention this. It's not like he's a Celtics fan or anything -- after all, he's the head editor of Grantland. Completely unbiased. It was a homer-free list. He said it himself!

• • •

If we're really talking about titles from this era, isn't it also worth noting that you had a shorter season, an incredibly small league (eight teams, for much of the 60s -- fourteen teams entering the 70s), and only 3 rounds in the playoffs to win to get a title? It was a different game. In fact, back in the 50s, the playoffs were compressed to an absurd two rounds. The team that won the finals was essentially the equivalent of a western team that got to the WCF in two tough series. A bit insane. So let's ignore those titles. We followed with the 70s, when basketball started to look like basketball. We've invalidated every pre-ABA title, but we can't forget the ABA, either, as a factor that provides a "funky" problem with the team's title. Due to the existence of the NBA, the ABA's titles mean less than nothing -- that's a dead league! It died! Of course ABA titles don't matter! But alack. The ABA's existence also invalidates the champions of the NBA, as the ABA had "all of the talent" according to hyperbolic journalists like Simmons. This takes all titles from 1967-1976 off the table, if we're looking for a champion that really meant something. Simmons started the column in an effort to find the champions that can't be mentioned without their own funktastic footnotes -- and truly, what could be funkier than having two quality professional basketball leagues running at the same time?

Post-ABA merger, you have the cop-out that the three point line didn't exist, which would have naturally made rangey burst scorers like Pistol Pete and George Gervin quite a bit more valuable and the process of getting a title easier for them. After all, if you take 4 or 5 shots a game from three point range (as I believe those two did in their primes, from the game tape I've seen), that's an extra 3-4 points per game that these already-prolific scorers would be scoring. Adding that to a solid team's point differential can take a team from decent to dominant -- imagining what players like that would've done with the three point line is legitimately insane. In the 80s, you have the Simmons-fueled cocaine meme to fall back on if you want to simply ignore those champions -- the NBA's overall atmosphere led itself badly to cocaine abuse among stars and a gross number of players that simply never touched their ultimate potential due to the tragedy of excessive hedonism and drug abuse. You also have the Stepien era in Cleveland, where Ted Stepien would (yearly) give one or two teams a far better shot at a title by completely ruining his own team and running a fire sale on any good piece (or draft pick) he happened to have. Like James Worthy, who he traded away in one of the rare trades that was both insane when it happened and worse as time went on -- the Cavs traded the #1 pick in the draft (James Worthy) for -- of all people -- Don Ford and the #22 pick. Don't know who Don Ford is? Ted Stepien apparently didn't either -- he averaged 3 points per game in 11 minutes for the Los Angeles Lakers before the midseason trade. Great trade, Teddy.

Then, the 90s! Truth be told, I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to invalidate Jordan's titles. I'd thought that I'd finally found a set of titles that I couldn't erase. Luckily, the master himself helped me out here. To quote Simmons directly: "And by the way, Worthy missed the 1983 playoffs, but Lenny Bias missed the playoffs from 1987 through 2004. So there's that." What this really means isn't that he's an absurd homer, but that all titles won in this period are by their very nature invalidated. After all, this period may have encapsulated the Jordan dynasty, the Hakeem domination of the mid 90s, two Spurs titles, and the threepeat Lakers... but who really cares? Len Bias wasn't playing. And don't you forget the truth. Bias was all set to average a miraculous 50-20-10 (truly a legendary leap, to average such totals straight off his rather pedestrian senior year averages of 23-7 in a down ACC) on the way to 17 straight titles, before he was eliminated from the game by Stern for a gambling addiction (thus retroactively footnoting the 5 years after he stopped playing, because he would've kept playing if it wasn't for the evil eye of Stern.) Thanks, Bill. I owe you one here. As for the rest? The Len Bias problem takes us to 2004 -- Simmons has applied personal footnotes to 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012. So I don't need to deal with those guys. Thus, the only champion in NBA history now with no footnote: the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

... except, you know, that Miami team's 4th and 5th best players played the entire series coming off of brutal injuries that had ruined their seasons. So if 2010 is ACTUALLY a footnote-type series in the Simmons view, don't really see how you get away with not mentioning that key fact in any mention of the Dallas title. After all. Four is greater than five. (I know this because I am a statistician.) You could also mention any of the injuries that knocked out contenders (or weakened teams that played the Mavericks tight); pick any Blazer injury (the team took the Mavs to 6 in the first round -- with a healthier team, is it really that impossible to consider them winning it?), the Manu/Duncan injuries that crippled a Spurs team that matched up very well with that Mavs team, the Rose wear and tear that he played through that sapped his strength and allowed the Heat to get past them. Or perhaps the incredible, unprecedented collapse of Dwight Howard's supporting cast. Or maybe the fact that LeBron had the most inexplicable finals no-show ever. Hm. You know what, I guess they do have a footnote, dang. Sorry, Dallas fans. Tough luck.

• • •

I don't really want to lose the point of this post, so I'll drop the sarcasm. No, I don't think the things I've mentioned here really should invalidate any of these titles, or even that they are necessarily things worth mentioning. In most occasions, they really aren't. But that's just me -- I also don't think the idea of a title involving shenanigans that require some kind of footnote is at all reasonable. The entire heft behind the Simmons piece is one key conceit -- the idea that it's possible to separate the idea of a footnote or a caveat-to-the-crown from the annals of vicious homerism. Is it really, though? And would we want to?

I've mentioned this to several in regards to that post -- I'm absolutely irked that Simmons neglected to mention the 2000 Lakers. In 2000, the Spurs (then the defending champion, less than a year removed from going a sizzling 15-2 in the playoffs and sweeping both the Lakers and Blazers) were a reasonably good team. They had 58 wins, the 2nd best defense, and the 11th best offense -- the usual marks of a contending San Antonio team. Duncan was playing out of his mind that season, with to that point the best PER of his career and a marginally more dominant defensive presence with his body more conditioned to the league and his scouting of player tendencies better than ever. He was co-MVP of the all-star game, and after a slow start, the Spurs were preparing for a strong title run. But alas; Duncan fell on the 77th game of the season. He'd torn his meniscus. The Spurs bowed out in 4 to a vastly inferior Phoenix Suns team in the first round, as the Lakers crushed the Suns in the 2nd and went on to take the title. The problem? That Spurs team had gone 7-1 in their last 8 games against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. Duncan resoundingly won the matchup with Shaq every game that season, and David Robinson was getting into a good rhythm going into the playoffs. The 1999 Spurs -- no matter what you want to say about the lockout season -- had one of the absolute most dominant playoff runs of all time. Duncan is one of the 10 best players of all time, and he was entering his absolute prime. And you're telling me that the reigning finals MVP going down in the 5th-to-last game of the season -- robbing the Spurs of a rematch with a team they'd swept the year before -- is somehow less of a "funky note" than Kendrick Perkins missing a single game of the 2010 playoffs?

Now. I just wrote a long paragraph that was -- if nothing else -- extremely homer-ish. Other than a Spurs fan, virtually no NBA analyst would immediately think of that paragraph's content when they think of the 2000 title. A Spurs fan would. And even if it isn't the guiding view on that year's title, it's also a pretty damn good point. As all of Simmons' footnotes are, in theory. But the guiding idea behind the Simmons piece isn't rooted in the individual merit of the footnotes (which they almost all have in spades). It's rooted in the idea that you can create a fair and honest cardinal ranking of champions by an unbiased ranking of "footnotes" you have to discuss when you discuss those champions. But you can't do that. You simply can't separate the homerism from examining the "footnotes" to apply to every NBA title precisely because it's the absurd logical leaps of being an unabashed homer that leads fans to ones that are actually worth talking about. Assessing which footnotes you think matter and which footnotes you think are absurd will depend on what you value in an NBA season, and what team you're paying the closest attention to -- there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all set of values, and there's no font of all NBA knowledge that's paying close attention to every team and every contender (except for Kelly Dwyer). There's really no way to properly assess a homer-free list of the nature Simmons proposes he's created.

And in the end, we're left with a list that reflects Simmons' values and the way Simmons views the game. It's a valid opinion. It's a reasonable list. But it's also -- above all else -- the absolute essence of subjectivity. And that's not a bad thing. What IS a bad thing is pretending that a subjective view is anywhere close to unbiased, and that gets at the heart of what makes many recent Simmons columns so frustrating. This is bar-room chatter. It's "smoking with a few friends and drinking a beer" discussion. Fun, but really. It's impossible to come up with an unbiased view on a subject so inherently tied to your fandom, no matter how hard you may have tried and researched. AND THAT'S OKAY. It's perfectly fine for this sort of an exercise to be dominated by sore losers and the half-credible whining of a fan who mourns a title lost. But if you claim to be assessing the 20 teams that most deserve footnotes in history, and ESPN plasters your story on the front page saying you've got the all-inclusive list of "champs that had the most help"? No.

Just because you got famous as "the Sports Guy" and got a nice job doesn't really make your bar-room chatter any more credible than a well traveled old Schmo at the bar. For most of his career, he's understood that. But with Grantland, post-novel, post-developing NBA connections? He's lost the thread of honest humility that made him engaging. He's lost the ability to say "here's a list, and god damnit, I am going to make it incredibly biased because I am a Celtics fan and this list is inherently biased" and be straight with his readers. THAT'S why Simmons has aggravated me over the last few months. And -- as John Lennon might say -- I'm not the only one.

In the end, bias is fine -- just admit it, own up to it, and stop pretending you're an unassailable font of all sport knowledge. That's all. I'm done.