The Outlet 3.14: Exceptional Follies and Our March Madness

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • LAL vs GSW: Exceptional Follies, Exceptional Fields (by Alex Dewey)
  • GENERAL: Our March Madness (by Adam Koscielak)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading

Small Market Mondays #15: The Second Standings

Remember our cracked-skull columnist, Alex Arnon? He hit his head a while back, fainted, and woke up a delusional man with tidings of a world where small markets ruled all comers. Over the past month, Arnon has been dealing with "personal matters", a thinly veiled cover-up for Arnon's voyage through the serengetti to produce his new TV pilot for the local access channel: "What Blue Wildebeast Wants to Be A Millionaire?" (I tried to tell him it wouldn't work, especially with a total production budget of $3.54, but Arnon is a freakishly determined young man who doesn't need my sass.) Regardless. He's been kidnapped by a rampaging horde of zebras and is being ransomed off for drugs and money, even though zebras don't have the opposable thumbs necessary to do drugs or the credit score to spend the money. Until I can patch together a resolution to the situation, I'll be taking the reins to our Small Market Monday feature. Just let me knock myself in the head with this small market butter churner and I'll be right with you.

Hello, friends! Welcome to the comeback edition of Gothic Ginobili's mainstay Monday feature, Small Market Mondays. Today, I'd like to talk about the NBA's big race that everyone is talking about. It's what some people call "the second standings." I know it's what I look at first when I see a big slate of standings. Some strange people spend the late season examining playoff position. Others look at the race for pole position in the lottery. But the real NBA aficionados know that there's only one race that matters. That race?

Why, the race for the 14th pick, of course!

All throughout history, the 14th pick has been an absolute sweet spot for teams looking to snag the lowest priced barely-rotation young player who is technically still a lottery pick. And the announcers won't ever let you forget it, either! You want to forget that Marcus Morris, Earl Clark, and Anthony Randolph were all technically lottery picks? Too bad! Every single time those players visit the franchise that drafted them, they'll be inexplicably referred to as "lottery picks." Every time, for the duration of their entire career. For a small market team with scarce funds in the coffer and a need for a convenient scapegoat, there isn't a better pick in the game. It's great! It doesn't matter that every pick from 10-20 is roughly as valuable as one-another -- picks 10-14 pick have the additional cachet of being lottery picks, and 14 has the additional cachet of being the last one! When they inevitably fail to draft anything remotely approaching an NBA starter, the management can point to their cheap-yet-poor draft selection and cast a wool over the eyes of their adoring fans to hide from their terrible free agent strategies. It's brilliant! As the race stands today, here are the main competitors for that elusive last lottery pick:

  • THE FAVORITE: The Utah Jazz! Led by the "stormin' Mormon" Jimmer Fredette, these Utah Cowpokes ain't a sight for sore eyes! [ED. NOTE: Fredette isn't on the Jazz. Also: they aren't a sight for sore eyes BECAUSE THEY'RE A TERRIBLE BASKETBALL TEAM. Also: why am I leaving an editor's note for myself?] They wrangle the snakes and keep the lid on the butter-churnin' mayhem over at the Ener-Gee-Whiz Solution Farms-n-stuff (or, as some call it, "EnergySolutions Arena"). They're the overwhelming favorite to check into their summer vacations with the 14th pick in tow.
  • THE SNAKE IN THE BUSHES: The Los Angeles Lakers! True to form, the Lakers are trying to play spoiler to Utah's race for the 14th pick. It wouldn't be a real NBA race if there wasn't a big-market snake here to try and take away the small-market spoils now, would it? The Lakers are currently 2 games out from the #14 pick, but if they're terrible enough down the stretch, they could clutch victory from the jaws of defeat and pull out the requisite mediocrity needed to rip it out of Utah's hands. Oh the humanity! Fun fact, though -- even if they DO steal it from the Jazz, they won't actually get the pick. The Phoenix Suns own the Lakers' pick if it falls in the lottery. Take THAT, large markets!
  • THE UNDERDOG FORGET-ME-NOT: The Dallas Mavericks! Some might consider them the favorites, given that they entered today tied with the Jazz at a record of 34-36. But I don't! They're a better team than the Jazz, sporting a slightly better point differential and a far better roster at this stage of the game. Unfortunately, their closing schedule is quite a bit harder than Utah's. They're one to keep an eye on, but they're an unlikely winner for the 14-spot when all's said and done.

Fun times! We'll be keeping you posted on 14th pick news over the next few weeks of Small Market Monday action. Keep an eye out! Continue reading

The Outlet 3.13: Streakin' Ain't Easy (also: #TheReturn of Alex Dewey)

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • DEN vs PHI: Streakin' Ain't Easy (for ESPN by Aaron McGuire)
  • SAS vs GSW:  Still Confusing After All These Years (by Alex Dewey)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading

The Outlet 3.12: Nuggets of Redemption (also: a Tribe Called BLECH)

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • OKC vs DEN: Nuggets of Redemption (for ESPN by Aaron McGuire)
  • SAC vs LAC: A Tribe Called BLECH! (by Aaron McGuire)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading

"At Long Last, Mortality" (or, Spurs Creak)

tony parkour again

I didn't watch the Portland meltdown live. No, I chose to watch it. I chose to pull up League Pass and watch the Spurs get their hearts torn out by a lottery team in front of their home crowd. It was sort of funny -- the Spurs themselves resembled a physical manifestation of what happens when I play small-stakes poker against my work friends, all of whom are actually very good at it. That's actually exactly what I did Friday night instead of watching the game. I got score updates periodically, and somewhat fittingly, I bought into the pot the last time when I noticed the Spurs were only down 12 with 6:00 left in the contest. Given how much of a better team the Spurs are than the Blazers, I figured San Antonio's luck could help me play out the string and get my original buy-in back. (The Spurs were outscored by 18 points in the last 6 minutes. In a related story, I lost my buy-in in less than 20 hands. Luckily, it's a small stakes game and the financial damage is completely dwarfed by the fun had playing the game. Unluckily, I detest losing games and still get rather irritated about it.)

Anyway. Point is, I didn't watch the game live. I got home, saw that they'd lost by 30, and found myself staring at the box score completely at a loss. How in God's name could the Spurs -- a team that's played the entire season as one of the three best teams in the league -- get obliterated like that? At home -- where they were once 22-2 -- to a lottery team. How could their vaunted system allow it? Especially given the fact that Duncan played, Manu was active, and Leonard was on the floor for over 30 minutes of burn. I was curious. I was so curious, in fact, that I cued the game up and watched the second half, on replay. Every aching moment of the flesh-flaying. And after the thrashing was done and the blood began to dry, I wrapped myself in the sheets and nodded off to a simple truth that often gets lost in the adulation and the fandom of a team as systemically great as the Spurs.

They're mortal. Continue reading

Adam's Weekly Nettles: Turnovers, Callouts, and Dwight Howard

kobe bryant

This week, we're trying a new column proposal from Adam Koscielak, our Poland correspondent. The gist? Adam is an angry contrarian man who hates everything and everyone. Virtually everything in the known universe annoys him. Given this, every week, Adam has dozens and dozens of weekly grievances and complaints. Even about things like the NBA, which he actually enjoys! In this new feature, Adam shares with the world his top three NBA-centric complaints of the past week, as well as a single positive statement in a hopeless effort to retain what little humanity he has left. Enjoy.

Grievance #1 – Fans Ignoring Turnovers (AKA the Bryant conundrum)

I really dislike Kobe Bryant. I don't enjoy watching his game, despite the skill involved. See, even when he passes, I don't really feel any sort of team spirit within him. That team spirit drives my love towards basketball -- why do you think I like Steve Nash so much? And while I'll readily admit that I hate players like Kobe PARTLY because I'm never going to be a player capable of being like Kobe, I'll also note how even in a great game, Kobe Bryant still manages to get away with the deadliest basketball sin of them all: the turnover. Or, in the case of Bryant's Friday game against the Toronto Raptors, a whole nine of them.

As with every game, I ended this one on Twitter, discussing the results. Many swooned over Bryant's incredible 41 point 12 assist performance, but I did not -- I sat back and kept staring at his nine turnovers. Usually, the main reason a critic would harp on Bryant is his tendency to shoot too much and too inefficiently. This time? The turnovers just bugged me. I got into a few heated discussions about this, with others telling me I should just let go and enjoy his wonderful performance. That, though, would mean I  don't want perfection in basketball! And that would mean I'm not myself. So, I decided to look at it from a less Twitter-centric point of view. I decided to look at what exactly a turnover does to the score. And you know what? Not enough people realize this: Basketball is about points. Not about clutch, not about dunks, not about flash -- it's about points. Doesn't matter when you score them so long as you outscore the other team.

The Lakers succeeded in doing this, led by Kobe, in an epic 15 point comeback. But what people don't realize is that if Kobe didn't turn the ball this often, odds are the Lakers wouldn't have needed that comeback to tie the game. Want proof? Let's use some stats. Now look, I'm no statistician, and Aaron will probably kill me for all the simplifications that will come with these calculations (Ed. Note: Aaron is seen looming in the background, casually whistling as he sharpens a blade), but I want to show a basic logic I use in harping on turnovers, rather than the specific math behind it. Even if I wanted to, it'd probably be impossible, seeing as I barely passed math in high school. (Ed. Note: What.) With that said, let's get to it.

First, I will be only counting the 8 turnovers Kobe made in regulation, since the theory here is that had Kobe not turned the ball over this much, the Lakers would've had an easy win. Since I do believe that it's understandable to have 3 turnovers per game when you're handling the ball as much as Kobe, I will count this out only for 5 turnovers. So, I used nbawowy.com to see how Kobe and the Lakers faired against the Raptors generally that night. It's a bit of a flawed approach, given how the turnovers themselves affect the stats, but since the game had 88 possessions with Kobe on, I will let it slide. I could always use general Lakers data for this, because of larger sample sizes. But I wanted to see precisely this game.

Basically, the Lakers generated 1.114 points per possession during the game, meaning that the 5 turnovers I'm taking into account lead to the forfeiting of around 6 points based only on that trend (Ed. Note: ....................). This already means that if Kobe doesn't turn the ball over more than 3 times, the Lakers win handily in regulation. Add to that a 28% chance of getting an offensive rebound off the shot, the points may grow as high as 10 (Ed. Note: ............................................). Once again, I don't know enough math to draw it out to make sense, but you get my point. Turnovers are the worst play in basketball. If not for the turnovers, Kobe Bryant wouldn't have to make a giant comeback, or hit a clutch three. He'd handily win against the Raptors, who actually helped him by killing themselves with an overuse of Rudy Gay. (Ed. Note: Hey, don't criticize. You're about to be killed by an overuse of "stats.")

Now, I'd just like to ask fans and media alike to remember that NBA basketball is played for 48 minutes, not just for the last five. This is why the refs did not screw you by taking away two points in the last minute of that game a few weeks ago, and this is why a magical half-court shot isn't what won the game. The team won the game, by scoring more points.

Basketball is about points. Really. You can look it up. Continue reading

The Stretch Run Primer: Who's In? (The Western Playoff Race)

STRETCH RUN PRIMER

Hey, folks. Until I finish this series, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a stretch run awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few posts, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we won't be covering any awards at all -- we'll be covering one of the few late season storylines with any considerable heft. That is to say, we'll be looking at the Western playoff race. And, well. Yeah. The Lakers.

• • •

THE WESTERN PLAYOFF RACE

About two months ago, you couldn't go two steps without seeing a piece or two eulogizing the Lakers and bidding farewell to their ever-dimming playoff hopes. They'd just lost a shockingly lopsided home game to the Thunder and played the Spurs close in San Antonio, but that didn't really matter -- the idea of a 17-25 team making the playoffs was insane. On the date the Lakers lost to the Grizzlies and chalked up that record, they were 9.5 games behind Golden State, 5 games behind Utah, and 3 games behind Houston -- to put that in perspective, the Lakers were only 3 games ahead of having the worst record in the Western conference. They were closer to being the Sacramento Kings than they were to being a playoff team.

The thing is? They weren't dead yet. It certainly SEEMED like they were, especially when you looked at the numbers and looked at what kind of ball they'd need to play to get back in the playoff race. Compound that with an understanding of their generally tepid play, Pau Gasol's injury, and how good the rest of the west looked? It was reasonable to get a bit hyperbolic, but most people -- myself included -- probably took things a bit too far. After all, this is a team that people thought could win 60-70 games. While they obviously weren't THAT good, they weren't some kind of Sacramento-level abomination either. Eventually, they'd stand a good chance of winning a few of the close, chippy games they lost in the first month or two. Eventually, Golden State's fairy dust stood a good chance of running out. Eventually, Houston's Grinnell-esque three point stylings could come back to haunt them. And if everything conspired for a good few weeks, the Lakers could find themselves right back in the thick of the race.

And make no mistake -- it's not just a race for the #8 seed anymore. Golden State's collapse has vastly increased the complexity of the playoff picture, giving every team currently in the playoff race reason to believe that they can leapfrog 8th and make it all the way to 6th. With the third seed essentially locked in for the Los Angeles Clippers, I don't need to explain why the Lakers might covet such a spot -- excellent though the Clippers are, they haven't looked quite as imposing as the Spurs or the Thunder in the aftermath of Paul's injury, and any Lakers/Clippers series essentially amounts to a 7-game homecourt stand for a Laker team that needs every advantage it can get. There are currently 6 teams jockeying for 3 playoff spots -- two are extreme dark horse candidates, but for the remaining four, I've put together a basic view of their games remaining, split into three buckets -- probable losses, tough wins, and easy wins. I've then wrote two short paragraph discussing both their rough chances at reaching the #6 seed and their rough chances of missing the playoffs. Teams are ordered in the order of the current standings. Let's get to it.

Continue reading

Sloan Conference, Conclusions: When Statisticians Paint a Picture

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One of Sloan's standouts this year was Kirk Goldsberry, the intrepid visualization expert you know from Grantland, the New York Times, and Court Vision. Goldsberry's value starts with his data, which is simply better than the data most of us have to play with. He partners with SportVU, allowing him to delve into an increasingly rich set of real-time court location data. It's pretty amazing stuff. That said? For the second year in a row, Kirk Goldsberry didn't win Sloan's yearly paper competition. In it, eight finalist papers and presentations are assessed by the conference leads in competition for a ten thousand dollar prize. Every year, the vast majority of the people who attend the presentations swear that Goldsberry has a lock on it. "His work is the best," they say. "There's no way any of the other presentations can stand up." For the second year in a row, they were completely wrong.

The reason's straightforward. Much like last year, Goldsberry had the best presentation. It doesn't take a genius to understand Goldsberry's goals and methods, and his visual metrics, humor, and graphs made his presentation infinitely more fun and engaging than any of the other competitors. But the ten thousand dollar prize isn't awarded to the best presentation in a vacuum. It's awarded for the paper's analytic heft. Goldsberry's metrics were simple, straightforward, and extraordinarily well presented. I can't imagine that more than 1 or 2 individuals who attended all the paper sessions thought otherwise. When I think back on the 2013 conference in a year or two, I can almost guarantee that Goldsberry's paper will be the one I remember. But Goldsberry's success at capturing our minds with visuals and intuitive presentation obfuscates the fact that his work simply wasn't the most technically advanced or statistically interesting of the presented papers.

He calculated field goal percentage based on a defender's distance from the offensive player, and delved into some particularly excellent examples. It was a nice sleight of hand and an excellent filtering of data. It wasn't rocket science, but it was effective and intuitive rather than gaudy and statistically brilliant. Contrary to popular belief, Goldsberry's intuitive statistical arguments don't have to be the sort of analysis that wins a paper competition. Goldsberry's work has its own value, and outside the carefully combed and regulated world of the paper competition, it's far more valuable for real-world analytics than anything that won the competition over him. Immediately after his presentation last Friday concluded, R.C. Buford made a beeline for the podium and gave him a business card. R.C. Buford! Goldsberry has a good shot at consulting with half the teams in the NBA by this time next year.

His value becomes even more obvious when the conference attendees step back and take a look at themselves -- I talked to dozens of smart analysts who swore up and down that Goldsberry's presentation was not only the best presented presentation, it was also the greatest step in analytics since Babbage invented the difference engine. It wasn't, and I'd venture that anyone who'd read the papers would agree with me -- it was smart and poppy but significantly less interesting as a statistical concept than any number of the competing papers. But it never had to be that advanced. It simply had to be well-communicated. It was a real-time example of the conference's general theme. Having the best ideas can win you a paper competition among your statistician peers, and it can earn you the respect of many.

But if you really want to resonate, it's simply not enough to present good numbers.

You have to be able to tell a story.

 • • •

Advocates of statistically minded basketball analysis have an odd tendency to conflate the strength of a communicator with how advanced and groundbreaking their statistics are. It betrays what I find to be a fundamentally hilarious undertone to most of the statistics-backing analysts in the basketball sphere. The sphere of basketball analytics has been blessed with a large group of brilliant and clever individuals with some incredible ideas. But for the most part, they aren't statisticians. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, mind you! But the fundamental truth that most members of the "statistical movement" aren't statisticians becomes a bit ridiculous when you note just how vehemently the very same people assert themselves to be excellent judges of statistical technique and complexity. When people insisted that Goldsberry's work was statistically brilliant, I was bemused -- it's phenomenal work, but calling it brilliant because of its statistical heft is just wrong. It was brilliant because Goldsberry is a borderline savant at distilling numbers into a story. He's a phenomenal communicator who relates to his audience in a way that should be the envy of all who profess to analyze anything.

Now, granted, the point here in the most general sense is that there's nothing wrong with being unable properly assess the statistical complexity of a person's argument. But it's terribly confusing to me that people insist on doing it anyway. There's this strange desire to attribute Goldsberry's brilliance to everything but his status as a communicator, as though that somehow lessens his accomplishments or his ideas. It doesn't. At all. Let me put it this way -- I'm a statistician in the corporate world, and I'm not going to reveal to anyone who isn't close to me exactly what I do. But communication isn't just some tertiary part of my job. It's essentially my entire job. I make models, big and small, and I work with statistical analysis daily. But if I couldn't communicate the results of my work to an exceedingly wide range of people, I'd be homeless. Once you get to a certain level in the professional frame, the discipline of statistics is less about coming up with amazing statistical innovations as it is simply finding ways to share the ones you already have. It's about couching your numbers in the proper confidence intervals, and figuring out the best ways to differentiate your story as your audience changes.

In fact, one could say that it's about painting.

See, the numbers don't tell a story on their own. They simply don't. An advanced database of basketball statistics isn't a storybook, it's an exceedingly large collection of paints and primers. The analysts -- the ones sifting through the database and poking at insight -- they're the one the story comes from. They're the painters. A palette tells you nothing without a painter around to unveil the contents of their mind. The numbers are not self-explanatory. You can't simply hand a smart person a spreadsheet and tell them to read it -- you need to guide them to the point and the core idea, and you need to persuade them that the ideas are worth their time. You need to paint different styles for different audiences, too. A young painter may look at your 10 minute modern art splatters and understand your point immediately -- a crotchety old traditionalist may need a classically-minded several-hour portrait if you want to express to him the same one. It's a process. A beautiful painted process.

 • • •

I've read a few response pieces to the conference openly questioning the focus on communication. "Are there really GMs and team owners who don't understand that you need to hire communicators?" First: yes, there are a few. Second: even if there weren't, I'd argue that the message isn't just for them. The message is to the statistically minded analyst who wants to be listened to. The message is to the fans who lean on statistical arguments. The message is to everyone who thinks that any numbers -- no matter how overwhelming -- can speak for themselves. There's a reason numbers never lie, you know -- they can't talk. They're illuminating under the right conditions and support good arguments under many other conditions. But it's the responsibility of the communicator to ensure that they're presenting an argument their audience can get on board with. It's not the responsibility of the audience to ensure that they're attuned to the presenter's whims and fancies.

Kirk Goldsberry's communication isn't some tertiary part of what makes him an excellent analyst. On the contrary -- it's the core. As someone who works professionally in the field, I respect that quite a bit -- Goldsberry is an academic, but he's got exactly the skillset that would make him an amazing industry statistician. The moral of the Sloan conference, to me, was a reflection of Goldsberry's success. The ability to function as a good communicator is the most important skill you can have if you're a statistician working in industry. News flash: statistical analysis in sports is no longer an academic exercise. Sports statistics have become their own large-encompassing industry, and along with that, the skills that make statisticians valuable in industry have become the focus in sports statistics.

Statistical analysis in sports is no longer a novelty -- it's a necessity.

It's time for the communicators to match that reality.

The Outlet 3.11: Apple Turnovers for a Balky Spring

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short piece is as follows.

  • OKC vs LAL: Apple Turnovers for a Balky Spring (by Aaron McGuire)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading

Sloan Conference, Day #2: "The Lockout is Dead, Long Live the Lockout"

Hey, folks! This year, I'm covering the Sloan Sports Conference straight from Boston's Convention and Exhibition Center. If you're there, be on the lookout for the tall guy in a suit who hasn't slept in a decade. Over the duration of the conference, I'm going to try to post some quick reflections on the panels I attended. Fun stuff, right? Here are the panels covered in the post, thus far:

  • 9:00-10:00 -- "THE CHANGING NATURE OF OWNERSHIP" In this panel, Peter Keating-- from ESPN the Magazine -- asked questions about how ownership is changing over time and the challenges of owning teams. I responded by spitting like an alpaca and neighing like @horse_ebooks. It was a weird moment, I admit.
  • 10:20-11:20 -- "BIG DATA: LESSONS FOR SPORTS" A bunch of experts on Big Data -- people from HP, MIT, m6d, and other specialists -- got together to talk a bit about big data. I spend a bit of time recalling prior experiences with Big Data conferences and generally express appreciation for the overall tact taken by the presenters. ... Even if the overall panel was a bit forgettable.
  • 11:40-12:40 -- "ESPN'S USE OF ANALYTICS IN STORYTELLING" Michael Smith headed a panel including Tom Haberstroh, Dean Oliver, Alok Pattani, and Mike Sando in a discussion of how ESPN uses analytics and statistical data in storytelling. Although Haberstroh was the Bledsoe of the panel (thanks for the joke, @kpelton), it was a really fun look at how ESPN has attempted to incorporate more statistical thoughts and methods into their work. I reflect on the general themes. Continue reading