The 2014 San Antonio Spurs -- A Team for All Seasons

Posted on Mon 16 June 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

confetti spurs

"Sir Thomas More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons." -- Robert Whittington on Thomas More

There's going to be a lot of time to reflect on exactly where these incomparable Spurs stand historically. Legacies are written with the benefit of hindsight, not as in-the-moment missives. They ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, managing to win more games than anyone else despite dealing with injury trouble that would cripple their peers. They were the first team since the NBA/ABA merger to go without a single player averaging 30 MPG in the regular season, and they were one of just five title teams in the history of the league to field a Finals MVP who didn't make an all-star game. There are lots of team-wide accolades and accomplishments to thrust upon them, and many ways to tell the same story about their collective brilliance. It is beautiful. But it is hardly the be-all and end-all of the Spurs. Being the so-called "perfect team" can get you far, but to spin their accomplishment like that is to necessarily minimize the individual components that make up the whole.

Sir Thomas More was the philosopher-statesman who refused to recognize King Henry VIII's authority as the supreme head of the Church of England, given Henry's ill-begotten marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was executed. He's historically relevant for both the courage of his convictions and the uncommon range of character and nobility he embodied -- as his friend Robert Whittington described him, More was a man of all seasons. Gentle, mirthful, noble, grave. He had a range of emotion and character rarely discussed when those around him canonized and idealized him. They simplified his character for ease of reference, and boiled him down to an uncomplicated idea in order to better share his story with future generations. They glossed over his flaws (see: his rabid persecution of protestants) to tell a simple and beautiful story. They obviously succeeded -- we're still talking about him, right?

Inevitably, we will simplify the Spurs. The 2014 Spurs will always be remembered as a stunning achievement of a team that redefined the NBA's hierarchy. But there will be time to reflect on the team as a whole later. For now, while the taste is fresh, it profits us to discuss the range of characters that conspired to bring about this singularly dominant run. The motley crew of oddballs and weirdos who collectively made up one of the finest NBA teams to ever run the gamut. There are fun men, there are sad men, there are hard-working men. There are strange, strange men.

These are their stories, at least a taste of them.

• • •


If you're looking for San Antonio's resident smiley-sacks, you'd do well to start with the first point guard off the bench. You know who I'm talking about -- Patty Mills, professional towel-waver. His background was covered rather extensively in the player capsule I wrote about him and his little-known history. Ethnically, Mills is an aboriginal Australian, a long-suffering race of people who were subjugated by the British and whose children were forcibly torn from their homes with little-to-no records kept to put the pieces back together again. Patty's mother was taken from her family at the age of two, and Mills proudly waves the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as strongly as he waves his Australian flag.

Mills could be a gloomy man. He could be of grave disposition -- he could be stoic, silent, sad. But he's not. He's the happiest man on the Spurs roster, a whirling dervish of energy and smiles that makes the court shine every second he steps on it. His family has had hardships to last a million lifetimes, but the man virtually never stops smiling. He's Australia's most famous basketball player. He averaged 22 points per game at the most recent Olympics, and he's finally filled an NBA niche as a hyper-efficient bench scoring guard with a great handle and a pestering defensive activity. His incredible turn in the 2014 Finals likely priced him straight out of San Antonio's budget for next season, but I doubt there's a single Spurs fan who won't remember him fondly. And nobody can deny the warm and tender feelings of his first title. He made it to the top of the mountain -- and with him, he brought his people and flags along for the ride. He gets to cement his aboriginal flag straight to the NBA's pinnacle.

Matt Bonner already won a title. And he was a bit player to end all bit players in this one, averaging the fewest minutes-per-game of his career (11.3) and even fewer in the playoffs (6.2). That said, he still filled a role, at least for me. Every single time he checked into the game, he was a threat for one of his patently hilarious lumberjack teardrops. That's what I call his unbelievably weird attempts at driving to the rim and scoring, a lumbering ginger determined to sniff the rim. Teams would generally leave him wide open, mostly because he's Matt Freaking Bonner. Matt Bonner took four free throws in the Finals this year -- prior to the Finals, his last free throws were in early March. That's right -- he went THREE MONTHS without taking a free throw in an NBA game. He made three of the four, because Matt Bonner is wonderful. Thanks, Coach B.

Austin Daye seems to enjoy the game of basketball. That's a good thing, because Spurs fans made it a point to give him "honorary MVP status" midway through the season. Clearly, he lived up to the task -- the Austin Daye Spurs have yet to lose a playoff series. When you compare it to the Nando era, it's like night and Daye. (... yeah, that pun was pretty bad. I'm sorry, but I'm also not really sorry in the slightest.) And then there's Aron Baynes. I've been really happy to watch Baynes this year, mostly because he's (fittingly) the NBA player who's closest to imitating the way I play in pick-up basketball. I'm skinnier than him (...obviously), but I can't shoot the ball to save my life and just try to constantly bruise in for post-ups. Aron Baynes is the Aaron McGuire of the NBA. Watching him play amuses me to no end. He's also the Aaron McGuire of the NBA in how he celebrated his title:

With his country's flag wrapped around his shoulders, Aron Baynes bellowed out, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just Australian!" as he dumped champagne on his own face.

Yep. That's pretty much how I'd play it too, Baynesie.

• • •

manu celebrates


There are weirdos on the Spurs roster, too. The organization may be mundane and buttoned up from the outside, but some of the NBA's strangest stories come from the sweltering San Antonio heat. (Yes, that's a joke about the air conditioning mix-up in Game #1 that's likely doomed to be forgotten in a year or so. If you're a future generation of NBA fan reading this to remember the 2014 Finals, run a Google search for the air conditioning kerfuffle in Game #1. It was kind of absurd.) To wit, three of San Antonio's weirdos:

  • Marco Belinelli. Yeah, I know. He played like rubbish throughout the entire playoffs. Doesn't matter. He's a champion now! And him being a champion gives me an excuse to go back to one of this season's most hilarious sideshow stories -- Marco's early-season attempt to use Twitter as Tinder and match up with a randomly selected cute follower. Seriously, spend a moment to really take that pickup line in. It's astonishing. Possibly the worst pickup line ever. How weird of a person do you need to be to think that's a reasonable line? WHO EVEN SAYS THAT?! Look. Every single time Belinelli shot the ball during the playoffs, I was scared for my life. But we'll always have this pickup line, and he'll always have his ring. (Somehow.)

  • Boris Diaw. When people refer to the Spurs as a team built of men taken from the garbage heap, Diaw is probably the first player everybody will flock to. After all... Boris was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats, a team then in the midst of a season where they'd come ever-so-close to the worst record in league history. People don't quite remember the circumstances correctly -- he was waived less because he was useless and more because he wanted to go to a new team but there wasn't a team in the league that would trade for him. But it's a fine story regardless. Diaw is roly poly to a fault, a post-up passing mastermind whose nicknames range from the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Center" to "the Cream Shake". He's a tubby maestro whose basketball success is based on a multifaceted game the league may very well never see again. He was 3rd or 4th on most people's Finals MVP ballots despite averaging 6-9-6 in 35 minutes a night. The league will see other superstars, certainly. But it will NEVER see another Bobo. (Read this, when you get a chance. You'll understand.)

  • Jeff Ayres. Okay, no. He's not that strange. Ayres is the player formerly known as Jeff Pendergraph, if you weren't familiar. Pendergraph was the surname of his stepfather, a man who married his mother when he was in elementary school. Pendergraph Sr. left the picture when Ayres was in high school, and when Ayres and his wife had their first child this past summer, they decided that they didn't want their daughter to have the name of a stepfather that left his life years ago. Ayres is the name of his biological father, chosen to hearken back to his ultimate roots. There's nothing particularly strange about the idea of changing your name to better reflect your heritage -- it's a beautiful sentiment. But it is a bit out of the ordinary, and the story itself is sort of funny. There was a point in their name choices where they were jokingly considering renaming themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Awesome. Seems legit.

Finally, there's the player who most embodies the fundamental weirdness of the San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili. All praise in the world to San Antonio's star shooting guard, the doting father whose weirdness is more on-court than off-court. We call ourselves Gothic Ginobili for a reason -- we're a weird blog, and Manu's a fundamentally weird player. He completes passes that exist on the fringes of human possibility. He's always a billion steps ahead of everyone -- sometimes, in his turnovers, this precognition is a curse. But all too often he just sees things that nobody else can. For all the talk about how teams should "play the right way" and play like San Antonio does, there's hardly a single player in the NBA who makes as many ridiculous and unnecessary plays as Manu Ginobili does. A Manu by any other team could be considered a chucker, or a risky daredevil who gets too cute for his own good.

It is strange, then, that he is so important to the Spurs.

But he is. And that's his charm. That's the odd twist at the core of the San Antonio system. The precise, rigid machinations of San Antonio's pinpoint passing are possible partly because of the wild unpredictable chaos that Ginobili brings on the court. Any lineup of marginal players becomes an offensive nightmare with Manu on the court. Any lineup of star players becomes unpredictable when he's on the court, and it disorients the defense in a way that few other players accomplish. His passing is similarly prolific, but it's fundamentally different from that of Steve Nash or LeBron James -- he doesn't JUST put his teammates in a position to succeed, and he doesn't JUST dominate the ball and score like an all-time great. His game isn't that simple.

Ginobili is an unstable chemical compound. He's an acid that reacts with the basketball to turn the game into a chaotic storm of air-bending passes and impossible step-back jumpers with barely a hair of space. He whips the ball from butter to cream, shakes defenders, and scoffs at the impossible. Manu Ginobili essentially blew out his hamstring on a dunk earlier this season. In Game #5 of the NBA finals, Manu rose and threw down exactly the same dunk -- in traffic, under duress, without fear or hesitation. That's his way. That's how he plays the game. He doesn't know how else to play. That's what it means to be Manu Ginobili. And the Spurs would crumble without him.

• • •


Not all players on the Spurs can be considered weirdos. Not all players are likely to be smiling on any random moment you turn on a Spurs game. The overriding narrative about the Spurs places them as a team of lunch-pail strivers, a team of diligent workhorses who do their jobs and operate within their system like the blue collar folks that watch their games. This is, for many players, bluster. Nothing about Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, or Patty Mills is "blue collar." They all work hard, but the Spurs don't necessarily work any harder than any other NBA team. They're more talented, more successful, more beautiful (to certain eyes). But that's silly. To conflate talent and success with how hard they work is to make a rank mistake in how you assess any team.

That being said, there ARE a few strivers on the team -- and they're worth mentioning, even if you reject the broader storyline. There's Cory Joseph, of course. He was a bit player during this run, and he wasn't a very important player to San Antonio's season on the whole. He played a tiny bit over six minutes in the Finals, when all was said and done. But his tiny role undermines his evolution as a player, and the importance he held in one key play. Joseph used to be a generally useless player -- no real defense to speak of, little shot, passing of ill repute. He's hardly perfect now, and he can't really get minutes in San Antonio given their reliance on Parker, Green, Ginobili, Mills, and Belinelli. But he's gone from a marginal-to-worthless player to a skilled spark-off-the-bench, mirroring the transformation Patty Mills went through from his marginal spark in Portland to his key rotational cog this year.

And, as I mentioned, he had that moment. Amidst a deflating blowout loss that had Spurs fans in peptic nervous terror, there were few positives for Spurs fans. The Thunder had roundly destroyed San Antonio's system in the fourth game of the Western Conference Finals, making Duncan and Parker look mortal and keeping Kawhi Leonard completely in check. Virtually the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, and Spurs fans are used to the random back-and-forth of those minutes -- it's hard to really take anything from it. Usually. Except for Cory Joseph, who used those garbage time minutes to do something nobody else on the Spurs had the courage to do. To wit -- he went straight at Serge Ibaka, rose up, and threw the damn ball in the hoop like an angry pint-size rottweiler. It's funny that a play as visceral and emotional as that one can be considered a triumph of process and work ethic, but it was. It stood as a culmination of Joseph's evolution as a player up to this point. And the Spurs took notice -- from that moment onward, the Spurs went hard at Ibaka regardless of their fear of his blocks, and the Spurs offense stopped getting quite so gummed up. Even though he barely played in the Finals, that play cemented Joseph's impact on this title run. It changed the complexion of a series the Spurs could have lost. He earned that ring.

And what of Tiago Splitter? The Spurs' oft-criticized starting center was beyond essential in the first two rounds, taking primary coverage on Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge (who both had, not coincidentally, a terrible time scoring on him). He matched up less well against Miami and Oklahoma City, but he hardly backed down; he simply accepted the matchup difficulties and accepted his move to the bench with aplomb, impacting the game with his quiet defensive brilliance and his impeccable movement, screening, and box-outs. He doesn't play loud, and his skills are subdued. But he was as essential to this run as he needed to be, showing himself to be mightily deserving of the large contract he got last offseason.

Oh, and that other guy. Danny Green. Don't forget him either. Green's story is one of redemption and evolution above all else. He entered the league as a marginal player, a bit piece from one of the greatest college teams ever whose NBA skills seemed lacking. He was less than a nonfactor on LeBron's final Cavaliers teams, and he (like Diaw) was waived by a bad Cleveland team and left to the trash heap. He went abroad, and played in the D-League, and came back to the league as one of San Antonio's young guns. And he worked. For all the credit Chip Engelland gets for San Antonio's shooting stars, it takes an incredible amount of work to actually apply the tips and form overhauls Chip gives a player. And Green was ready to do it. He had his coming out party last year, with his NBA-record threes-in-a-Finals. This year he was less impressive, offensively -- he made 9 threes, a far cry from last year's 27. But his defensive achievements were many, including a national coming-out party for the best-in-class transition defense that silly egghead Spurs fans like myself have appreciated for a few seasons now. And he solidified his status as one of the league's absolute best shooting guards, full-stop.

He represents the absolute ideal of a roleplayer, and he's a roleplayer so game-changing and impressive that he's very nearly as valuable as a star. He always had the talent, but it took so much work to unlock it that one would be remiss not to point that out. He's got his ring.

And then there's -- in my view -- San Antonio's last strictly blue-collar player. It's strange to call him that, especially given his personality, game, and tastes. He's the drama. He's the one who wanted to go to New York. He's the one with the occasional bouts of heroball and isolation basketball. But Tony Parker's game has hardly stayed the same with time, and that's part of what makes him so similar to the Josephs and Splitters and Greens of San Antonio's universe. Think about it this way: Tony Parker was a superstar, back in the day. He was San Antonio's most essential offensive player for 3-4 years, a cog without whom the offense simply wouldn't function. San Antonio's constant playoff failures rarely fell squarely on his shoulders, but there was always a decent case that they should have. He was their rock, and he never quite seemed to be all there in the bitter end.

But now? Years later, as the Spurs ran roughshod over the league and ripped the title out of Miami's lethargic grasp, Parker had... a profoundly nonessential playoff run. He was important, of course -- he held the ball more than any other Spur, he darted across the court to make the plays and the reads Pop needed, and he kept the ball under control against Miami's tired-yet-dangerous defense. All of this is good. But part of Parker's brilliance was that he too sunk and faded into the background, letting the threat of his breakout game keep the floor open for the shooters San Antonio knew they could rely on. The Spurs offense could've worked with Parker averaging 20 points a game, most likely. But Diaw and Joseph were the only two Spurs who shot worse from the field over the NBA Finals, even with his garbage-time padding at the end of the final game.

Which is really the point. Miami spent much of the 2014 Finals chasing the shadows of Parker's prior accomplishment, covering him hard as they dared San Antonio's lesser lights to beat them. They were so scared of the threat of a throwback Parker game that they refused to leave him, even if it left a few open shooters around the rotation. At an earlier time in Parker's career, he would have seen that as a challenge -- he would have driven into the double and thrown up a wild layup, or accepted the long two and tried to drain fadeaways until the lights went dark. But this is a more evolved Parker -- he still does all of those things, but he does them contextually. He does them when the game really demands it, not when it's merely convenient.

Parker could have averaged 20-25 points a night in these Finals. But the Spurs wouldn't have won quite so emphatically. Perhaps they'd still have taken it in five -- it's hard to imagine any individual switch flipping the last three games. But the feeling of annihilation, this overriding sense that the Spurs demolished the competition en route to the title? That was accomplished by pushing every lever, and understanding EXACTLY which threats should remain threats and which roleplayers should shine to keep the opposition disoriented and disheveled. Parker couldn't have done that five years ago. Hell, he couldn't have done that three years ago.

But he's there now, and the Spurs are too.

parker grin

• • •

Yes, I know. I'm missing two of San Antonio's players. You know the ones -- Duncan and Leonard, the past and the future. This post has gotten too long to do them justice, so I'll have to return to them later this week. They deserve more words than I could possibly give them, but I'll try. Until then? Welcome to the offseason. Basketball will be back, before long.

Do try to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

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What if the NBA Shortened the Playoffs? (A Look Back)

Posted on Thu 20 March 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

Everyone loves March Madness. As we enter the NBA's least favorite time of the year, fans of the oft-maligned professional league are constantly reminded about how well the NCAA accomplishes something that the NBA's never quite been able to muster. That is, the twitchy oversimulated madness of the NCAA tournament's one-and-done stylings. The tournament, at its best, is a several week supercharge of the NBA's "league pass alert" nights with 1 or 2 crazy games on at once.

In Zach Lowe's column on tanking yesterday, he offhandedly noted that one way to increase the underdog benefits of being a lower-seeded team in the NBA playoffs would be to decrease the number of games in a series. He has a point. In almost any situation, the easiest way to inflate your variance is to lower your sample size. Many of the smartest NCAA bracket predictors bake in adjustments to account for the fact that teams like Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers play at a deathly slow pace, slow enough to increase the inherent variance in their performance. This can lead to obscene pace-adjusted blowouts that break projection models (see: their numerous 30-40 point wins in 2012 that legitimately broke Ken Pomeroy's ranking system), but it also can lead to a game where the Badgers simply don't have enough possessions to prove they're the better team (see: their near-upset to Vanderbilt one game before nearly beating a fantastic Syracuse team in the 2012 tournament).

The NBA, though? It's one thing to say "hey, let's decrease the number of games in a series." It's quite another to actually figure out how that would impact things. Thing is, this isn't actually all that hard to check. So long as you have the right data. Luckily, I have exactly that. I've got a lot of data lying around that I can manipulate like this, and the question bugged me. This post endeavors to answer that very question -- if the NBA playoffs were a single elimination tournament, how would the course of NBA history change? I went back a decade, but given the size of the images, I'm probably going to post the specific brackets for five years and share the other five (and further) in a later bracket-dump post of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. For now, let's go back and look at the last five years. The results are, if nothing else, hilarious.

As for the methodology here, it was surprisingly simple. Playoff seedings remained the same, but each existing series was decided by the first game in the series. For instance, the Spurs and the Heat still made the finals in 2013 under a first-game-wins scenario -- as such, the Finals were determined by San Antonio's 92-88 win in Game #1. When the series DIDN'T exist in reality, the series was decided by the first regular season game that was played with the home court configuration that would've been at play. For instance, in 2012, Chicago's new second round series against Atlanta was decided by a January 3rd win where the Bulls defeated the Hawks at home. That's about all you need to know. Let's get to it.

• • •

nba playoffs 2013

For the first single elimination tournament, we actually see three fewer upsets than we saw in the actual playoffs. Oklahoma City beats Memphis, as they won the first game of the series behind Durant's heroics. Golden State similarly falls to the Andre Miller-led Nuggets. And Chicago falls to Brooklyn. Of course, that doesn't mean much for Denver, as their first regular season meeting with San Antonio was an embarrassing 26 point blowout in San Antonio. And it doesn't mean much for Brooklyn, as they lost their first matchup with the Heat by 30 points. The Spurs beat the Thunder in the WCF due to their win in the first game of the season. Out of the decade I've looked at so far, this is the only year where the Finals matchup actually stayed in tact. Were the Finals to end after a single game, Duncan would've probably won the Finals MVP with a 20-14-4 performance. That said, a single elimination style bracket doesn't seem to do a whole lot to 2013. What about 2012?

• • •

nba playoffs 2012

This one was actually pretty interesting. Due to the way I was assessing winners (that is, with regular season matchups), the Bulls technically had Rose for this entire playoff bracket. There were a two big upsets here that didn't happen in real life: Orlando over Miami and Atlanta over Boston. (NOTE: There's a typo on the MIA/ORL series -- MIA wins it 90-78, not ORL.) In the west, things actually go almost exactly the same as they went in reality -- the only thing out of wack was the WCF, where the Spurs won due to winning Game #1 of the actual series. In the East, Chicago romps the competition and makes it to a finals matchup with San Antonio. The Bulls win in what essentially amounted to a bracket made of chalk. Rose wins a tepid Finals MVP over Noah for his 29-1-4 game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2011

Here's the first one where upsets completely change the complexion of the bracket. The East stays untouched through the 2nd round, but Atlanta upsets Chicago in the Elite Eight and ruins the brackets of statheads everywhere. Meanwhile, in the West, Dallas is the only top-3 seed remaining after round one after the Hornets upset the Lakers and the Grizzlies upset the Spurs. The Grizzlies (America's team!) keep it going by upsetting the Thunder and the Mavericks in quick succession, becoming the first eight seed to make the finals in quite some time. (Not since Houston -- I don't think Houston makes the Finals in this scenario, but I haven't gone back to check yet.) Regardless. Miami makes it to the Finals and roundly obliterates Memphis for LeBron's first title in Miami. In a funny reflection of real life, Wade wins Finals MVP after LeBron's disappointing game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2010

Look, it's our first overtime finals!

This one ended up being quite a bit different than the way things actually played out -- other than ATL/ORL and BOS/CLE, none of the other series actually ended up mirroring real life. The Blazers upset the Suns in the first round, then keep it going by rallying in their Elite Eight matchup in Dallas. (No, really. They were down 4 entering the fourth -- they took a lead with 6 minutes left in the game and held on in a wild one to pull it out.) Meanwhile, the Lakers suffer a disappointing end to the Denver Nuggets, who stomp into Staples and end their one-seed dreams. Denver makes use of their surprise four-seed home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals by dispatching Portland in short order, getting the LeBron/Melo matchup we all wanted to see. Melo gets the better of LeBron this time, leading his Nuggets to a 118-116 overtime win in the Championship game. Melo scored 40.

• • •

nba playoffs 2009

The story is essentially same as the one we saw in 2010, just with a different ending. This time we see a lot more upsets -- the Sixers upset the Magic and the Bulls upset the Celtics (and then the 41-41 Bulls upset the Sixers!), while the Rockets upset the Blazers and the Lakers in quick succession. The Nuggets, meanwhile, make it all the way to the finals against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers. (Yes, that means a single elimination tournament would've produced two consecutive Denver/Cleveland finals.) This time, LeBron's Cavs roundly upend Melo's Nuggets, with LeBron getting his first ring and his perfunctory Finals MVP for a workmanlike 22-8-11 game. Mo Williams scored 24, Ben Wallace shot 100%, and Billups scored 26. Fun times.

• • •

Tomorrow, I'll share five more years of brackets (including... a Detroit threepeat?!) and some collected statistics for the "single elimination" playoffs as compared to the NBA's more traditional seven game version. Stay frosty.

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NBA Chessboxing Power Rankings: Who's Toad-Style?

Posted on Mon 13 January 2014 in Features by Alex Dewey

da mystery of brad millerboxing

A game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move.

Chessboxing is one of the most well-known sports of our time. I don't think there are more than two or three people who don't know what chessboxing is. With that in mind, I don't intend to actually define chessboxing at any point in this post. I only seek to answer a simple question: which teams would do best in a chess boxing match? We explore, you decide.


30. Bucks - Tremendous upside, as Alph-bent-etokounmpo could surely play chess and box and have a puncher's chance against just about any other team's lineup. Everything else about this franchise? Incredibly depressing. No clue why chess boxing would be an exception.

29. Knicks - I'm not necessarily saying they're unintelligent, or bad, or that they'd have some kind of trouble executing the most basic things and having their best ideals and decisions stymied by an owner that alternates between laughably ignorant and seemingly malicious. [EDITOR'S NOTE: You won't fool me, Dewyn Davis. That's exactly what you're saying!] All I'm saying is that the Knicks playing chess is just about the funniest thing you can possibly imagine. Try to think of the worst possible move to make on a chess-board. Got it? Good. There's probably a way worse move that someone from New York's organization intentionally made happen to the Knicks.

28. Sixers - They're fine right here, thank you very much. Check back in a few.

T - 25. Bobcats, Cavs, Raptors - What do you want me to say? You're not very good at chess, and you're not very good at boxing. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I dunno, man. Anderson Varejao is a wild man and you never count Kyle Lowry out in a fight. And Luol Deng would be a chessboxing superstar. I don't like what you're doing here. I don't feel like I have a lot of outs.]

24. Pistons - I keep trying to put them somewhere but they keep going down and down and down the list. I think they'd lose the chess match in the first round, is the bottom line. What are Drummond's free throw struggles but a gigantic strategic target on their backs? You just have to dare Josh Smith to throw a right or hypnotize Drummond to think he's at the free throw line. And what's Greg Monroe doing? How does he fit in, to either chess or boxing? Brandon Jennings is fine, and probably an asset to boxing, but he's not an elite chess player. They could win if they have a good match-up that gets Smith in the thick of boxing. Or whatever the heck actually works for and/or motivates this team. They have yet to discover this on the court, so I don't know how they'd adapt to a new situation like chessboxing.

23. Orlando Magic - In Wu-Tang's "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," it sort of sounds like they say Jacque Vaughn at one point. They aren't, but let's pretend.

22. Thunder - Westbrook is injured, and I have a feeling that Brooks would feel obligated to start the first round of chess with Fisher and the first round of boxing with Perkins to "get them involved." Also, because Kevin Durant is too lean to be an elite boxer. [EDITOR'S NOTE: While Fisher is an obvious downgrade from Westbrook, we should at least accept that chessboxing is easily the most perfect sport in the world for him. Have you SEEN how bulked he is? Guy's a bulldog, he'd destroy the point guards of the vast majority of other teams boxing! And he's extremely intelligent (head of the NBPA!) and cockroach-style adaptive (somehow still getting NBA minutes!) -- both things that help on a chessboard. Also, Perkins is huge. Who boxes against him and beats him?]

What's more, Durant's particular blend of creativity and athleticism doesn't seem to be the same sort of creativity that would help him excel at chess, in a hard-to-explain way. So let me try: Part of KD's particular charm is the virtually limitless continuum of possibilities he embodies at any given moment on the court. Durant's special creativity is built in part on the dramatic foundation that at any moment, he can go to a until-that-moment-impossible place on the court and react naturally. Every trip down the court feels like the first time someone with his particulars has handled the situation before him. This is maybe tautological -- technically, the present moment is completely new to everyone reading this and presents an endless series of... et cetera, you know where I'm going. And we're all unique snowflakes (no, really). It's just that KD is so obviously and visibly different from all of his peers (and seemingly his historical peers as well), and watching him is (and not "is like", but the flat "is") watching the first player like him to handle a specific situation. It's watching the logic of basketball applied to a thitherto-impossible-even-as-a-metaphor situation, which is perhaps right there (old rules, new context) the heart of all creative thought.

The only problem with Durant as chessmaster is thus that you're taking away a whole lot of the "new context" part of the formula right from the get-go, because chess is a discrete, well-understood sport. Durant is probably not different enough in his mentality from his peers in the same way he's different physically from his peers. Plenty of prodigies modern and historical, plenty of room for creativity, but all of it is bounded by mutually-understood rules and exhaustively-understood context, and I just think KD would find such a vast degree of context and creative history overly-imposing. And for us as viewers of the chess boxing, we'd find that KD's creative output would seem far more pedestrian when stripped of his instantaneous ability to create a new context simply by existing, as he can on the basketball court. Chess itself just feels like something KD would not want or be able to excel at, and any time he would spend dwelling on chess would constitute a tragic stunting of his inevitable phoenix-like basketball ascendancy that spans the universe entire. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Eh...]

(Okay, time to come clean. They're an easy top-10 team, but I'd forgotten about them until the end and didn't want to re-number everything from 10 to 22. Sorry.) [EDITOR'S NOTE: That's better. I accept your apology.]

21. Jazz - Look, I could point to the structural flaws and successes with chess boxing here: Like that Richard Jefferson's just not a good boxer (SOURCE: intuition, watching him on the Spurs). Gordon Hayward would rather play Starcraft than play chess (even if he and RJ likely have some chess game between them).

But the bottom line is that -- for whatever else I could say -- both chess and boxing are sort of violent. Yes, obviously boxing is filled with physical violence. But beyond that, both sports have a dramatic spike in activity centered around a decisive end-move. The knock-out. The check-mate. The end-game. There's a sort of Rube-Goldberg-machine series of alternating game-theoretic levers in an exchange of chess or boxing whose end goal is (eventually) the strategic obliteration of a contestant or an army. Yes, there is a detached, intellectual pleasure to the science of chess (and, to many generations of sportswriters past, to the sweet science of boxing). But ultimately I'm thinking jugular as soon as my pawn crosses the halfway point.

Chess and boxing - unlike the long, obviously-accumulative grind of basketball - are not about having a steady, patient hand through 48 minutes to help your team preserve, endure, and eke its way into a hard-fought 5-point victory (as the Jazz are eminently capable of with the development of Trey Burke). No, these sports - and therefore chess boxing - are about having a steady, patient hand only for the purposes of pulling a world-ending trigger. And - as great as Hayward has looked in stretches - the Jazz are not a team that pulls the trigger. Nor Burke, nor Favors. And especially not Richard Jefferson, despite his pleasant career renaissance on the Jazz.

Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert (eligible) are going to be crucial. After all, it's possible to force check-mate with just two rooks.

20. Wolves - In theory, a great chess boxing team. Plenty of great athletes (and a world-beater in Love), a total savant in Rubio that can probably visualize chess openings in his head given a brief description, and a good system that they're able to adhere to. The only problem is that the Wolves suck in close games, and boxing and chess are always incredibly close games. You're hardly two feet from your opponent!

19. Bulls - Top-five boxing, bottom-five chess. Kirk Hinrich plays an important role in both, which makes people that watch kinda sad.

18. Lakers - Top-five chess, bottom-five boxing. Nick Young plays an important role in both, which makes people that watch irrepressibly mirthful.


T - 16. Pelicans and Kings - The Pelicans are only here because Pierre isn't technically eligible_._ I have no doubt Pierre would consume the opposition, the only unknown is whether that's a literal statement or not. The Kings are here because they average out to a very average chessboxing team. Some mechanical issues aside, Isaiah Thomas and DMC would be excellent at chess and boxing respectively (even if I have my doubts about DMC's patience in a game of physical momentum). The only problem is that no one else on the Kings would be remotely passable. Except for Rudy Gay, and I don't know that I'd want him playing chess or boxing if I were coaching. Also, "Kings"? Talk about having a target on your back, as far as chess goes. Yeesh.

15. Hawks - "Never Trust The Hawks" is a bit like "Nothing Was The Same" in that they're both common four-letter short-hands you'll see in the intersection of basketball and hip-hop culture. Unfortunately, they're mutually contradictory. You have to choose one. If "Nothing Was The Same," then you could wake up tomorrow and trust the Hawks. If you can never trust the Hawks, then something is the same. QED. As for me, I'm going NTTH. Sorry, Drake. Here is a vocoder; why don't you sing how you feel?

14. Nuggets - Altitude gives them a cheap advantage or they'd be 20th. Oddly, despite the NBA influence being more athletic-based, the Nuggets benefit more in chess than in boxing. Impulsive moves from queens and rooks are generally easier to avoid when you don't have to go to bed in Miami and wake up in an ice fortress in the sky.

13. Mavericks - They'd be good, it's just that I'm pretty sure DeJuan Blair is something like 1-13 against Tim Duncan all-time in the Spurs' surely-extant offseason boxing work-outs. They're fine, but I don't trust that frontcourt to box and also play chess. I bet Monta is sneaky-good at chess but plays too impulsively to bank on.

12. Clippers - With Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Stephen Jackson [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.], and J.J. Redick, the Clippers would certainly have the advantage during the chess rounds over most teams. Chris Paul is probably the smartest single player in the league, or, at the very least, he's the most visibly and tangibly cerebral player in the league. He probably knows those tricky openings that can kill beginning chess players before they get a chance to fight back. And Stephen Jackson probably has a gigantic chess set in his backyard. I don't know why. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.] Their weakness comes in the boxing category. Immense athleticism, and not taking anything away from their toughness, perceived or otherwise, but physically I don't think it works. After all, this isn't chess kickboxing. T-Rex arms by Blake and late (but improving!) off-hand defense by DeAndre Jordan will neutralize their athleticism and guarantee that they'll be above-average but mediocre at chess boxing. Sorry. And S-Jax would be - and likely is - a great boxer, but he's aging badly. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.]

11. Rockets - Morey would teach them the high-leverage points in both sports, and how to take advantage of the single moment of opportunity that will raise Houston's chess and boxing games above an average nerd's into some super-human realm of self-actualization that is still really hard to watch with all the free throws (... technically they're called en passant and holds, but still). [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cu--wait, you didn't mention him, my B.]

10. Suns - Scrappy, will beat the Vegas odds every time. The Morris twins will run interference for each other and end up upsetting better chess players using their brotherly wiles. Miles Plumlee went to Duke, which -- for once in his life as an NBA player -- might actually be valuable.

9. Nets - Yes, they're a little long in the tooth. But they're also long in the arms and the legs and the career histories. As for chess? I wouldn't necessarily want any of them to play chess except for Deron Williams and maybe KG. Actually, I haven't decided if KG would be an incredible chess player, or just someone that constantly tried to use the king to shove pawns off the board when it wasn't anyone's turn and the opponent wasn't watching, thinking that he was winning the "psychology game". Or maybe that's what an incredible chess player actually does. I don't know.

8. Heat - They're great on paper, but it's a gimmicky tournament and Wade is going to be in full branding mode. He'll demand the Heat only move bishops and bishop's pawns ("Three" moves). He'll endorse a new product (Connect Three),__ be featured in a commercial and say "I got you. Diagonal-three." on your TV screen ad infinitum on what is basically tic-tac-toe (like the ticky-tack fouls he draws!). [EDITOR'S NOTE: ...What?] Spolestra will have crow's feet and circles under his eyes as he gets no sleep for a month trying to compensate for Wade's demands, and in the end Spo'll do a pretty good job putting together a chess boxing squad, helped by the fact that LeBron turns out to be possibly the best boxer on the planet and a passable chess player.


T-6. Wizards and Celtics - I think John Wall could handle this all himself. Cerebral and athletic. He's a player that can credibly contest Greg Monroe at the rim in a game. Twice. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the length. As for the Celtics, Rondo and Brad Stevens both advanced past chess when they were five (were given cap and gown to signify their graduations in brief, private ceremonies) and moved on to the real hard stuff: Connect Four. They are both aficionados of the sport, which is probably the closest single-game encapsulation of chess boxing. Will we ever understand da mystery of chessboxing? No, but Rondo and Stevens probably already have. They got you, diagonally.

5. Grizzlies - we in the mud.

4. Wa--... [EDITOR'S NOTE: Four words for my Grizzlies, Alex? THAT'S ALL YOU WROTE?!?! FOUR WORDS???]

5. Grizzlies - Apparently Aaron is literally refusing to let me continue this post until I expand on his favorite chessboxing team. I'm willing to bet money that Tony Allen is actually a grandmaster under multiple aliases he maintains as he red-eyes between dozens of seedy Russian airports and hotels. I'm willing to bet he's also pretty good at boxing. This is one of those matchups that's straight-up unfair for most other teams, given that the Grizzlies have 5-6 legitimate large-dude big men on the roster that include 3-4 of the most unguardable boxing talents in the league. And that's BEFORE you get into scrappy technical never-say-die fighters like Conley and the wildcards like Allen. Mike Miller strikes me as a decent chess player, too. Really strong team.

4. Warriors - Start with Bogut and Green for boxing, Curry and Barnes for chess. Iguodala for both. They could be a contender, although I have issues with their depth and don't really know where David Lee fits, which sounds not-dissimilar to my preseason thoughts about their basketball roster. Still, a virtuoso like Curry and bruisers like Bogut and Green are going to put you high on any chessboxing rankings. Just a fact.

3. Blazers - They have the presence to get offensive boards, they have somewhat-unguardable length, and their general level of production is pretty much sustainable. They don't have any obvious weaknesses, except for defense, and they have enough energy to weather a storm. They don't lack confidence, poise, or mechanics. Their collective footwork and handwork -- Lopez aside -- is pretty darn good. That will pay off in the sweet science. Lillard and Stotts can handle the chess, making moves that are unorthodox and risky but that pay off precisely because no opponent is on Lillard's wavelength enough to bring about the down-side. They're exciting, they're dynamic, they're elite. But I'm putting them here largely by default, because of health, random chance, and the lack of better alternatives. The Spurs of Chess Boxing Power Rankings.

da mystery of chessboxin

T-1. Pacers and Spurs - These teams have to be at the top for several reasons.

  1. The Spurs are the most likely team to have several chess players, followed closely by the Lakers, Heat, and Pacers, in that order.
  2. As you can see above, both team spend time in the off-season boxing, and the Spurs have for several seasons. We know this practice dates at least back to Fabricio Oberto.
  3. Roy Hibbert boxes through his connection to Tim Duncan. George Hill was on the Spurs for a few wonderful years and likely boxed several times. And David West obviously boxes every day of his life and knows every boxer in the world personally from having boxed said boxer. Paul George is a ridiculously lengthy athlete entering his prime who relishes defensive assignments.
  4. The Spurs have Kawhi Leonard.
  5. Aaron and I are contractually obliged to post this image whenever we possibly can.

Physically I'll give the slight advantage to the Pacers. They have tremendous length and know how to use it. Hibbert with his rather slow frame might be susceptible to toppling, but that's assuming you're able to reach him to put your full weight at Hibbert, a gambit that, if it misses, is immediately disastrous. And there's a good chance Hibbert's just too large for that to even become a consideration, even against NBA athletes. You might be able to tire him out, but then the Pacers can just go to West or George to spell him. The Spurs are - at least in terms of starters - plenty old and on a bad night could end up getting destroyed like the sad later career of Ali, before they even get to play a round of chess. Duncan would get toppled at it would be so sad. But on a good night, they're not only formidable but elite. Also, Boris Diaw is impossible to move intentionally and would likely be deceptively elite at dodging and using your momentum against you.

As for chess: With Pop on the sidelines, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu, Danny Green, and Patty Mills? I'm sorry, this is a lopsided match-up for just about anyone. Maybe Chris Paul takes control of the Clippers/Spurs chess match. I doubt it.

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Putting on a Fertility Clinic: CLE/CHI Trade Thoughts

Posted on Wed 08 January 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

"Fertility Clinic photograhs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

"Fertility Clinic photographs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

If I had to venture a guess, I'd assume that most of our readers aren't married with children. It's okay, friends. I'm not either. But if there's one piece of advice I would -- and have! -- given to virtually all of my friends who eventually want to be mothers and fathers, it's to eschew sweating the small stuff and make absolutely positive they cut into the context of any childbirth statistics ever given in an effort to push them into a certain course of action. This is important in all walks of life, obviously, but it's never more important than it is when you're dealing with something as important as a child. Whether the data is inspiring them to get a child or entreating refrain, it's a decision that's way too important to let apocryphal data and societal mores dictate the way you and your partner proceed. There's an exceedingly excellent case study to this effect centered around a truism presented as statistical fact by a vast majority of the doctors advising on childbirth in the 21st century.

"One out of three women over the age of 35 will not have conceived after a year of trying."

Simple, short, sweet. If you want kids, everyone had better start before 35, or you're in for years and years of sitcom-quality disappointment! Built in laugh tracks and sad trombones will follow you around as the process goes awry again and again. If you're looking for a fulfilling child-filled life, better jump in the sack early and conceive as soon as possible. Get on it! There's just one small nit to pick with this conclusion, and it has to do with the data the statistic is based on. It's not that it's without data. In fact, it's got some very strong data behind it, at least compared to a lot of the bunk medical statistics that inundate junk science and crazy recommendations. It's from a dataset of 3,508 families from church records spanning over 150 years. It included rural areas and areas of significantly higher socioeconomic status. It was performed in France, a decent reflection of the world at the time.

The problem: this 150 year study spanned 1630 to 1780. That's right -- the statistic doctors and armchair experts love to cite when convincing women to bear children early is based on a study that's well over 200 years old. Things were a little bit different back then. For one thing, lower life expectancy meant that at birth, the average person would be dead by 39. (Modern medicine has pushed the expected-age-at-death upon birth all the way up to 70 this past year.) Women who were between 20 and 24 years old at marriage bore 7 children on average, with only 3.7% of them remaining childless. (That's 2.6 children per women today, at least in the United States.) The most important part? There was absolutely no fertility treatment in that day and age, no contraceptives, and no widely available healthcare at all. There were midwives to help the birth along but little guidance on moving the process along, something we have in spades today.

Although women do clearly lose fertility at a certain age, there's scant little present-day evidence supporting the idea that modern infertility dawns before 40. In fact, there are a number of important studies to the contrary. A 2004 study found that 82% of 35-39 year old women conceived within a year (as compared to 86% of 27-34-year-olds, hardly a vast gap). A 2013 study found that 78% of 35-40-year-olds conceived within a year. Some smart takes have suggested the gap is rooted less in an inherent tendency of older women with children being slightly less fertile to begin with, noting that the most fertile ladies have a higher probability of "accidentally" filling out their family earlier and that women who are fastidious about birth control usage have roughly the same chance of a mid-20s woman of bearing children easily.

My point, in short: even strong data with a huge sample size and a large tail is eventually made obsolete. The study that doctors are referring to with the scare statistic on women in their 30s is very real, and it's one of the best pieces of data we have from back in the 1700s. It's immensely valuable to historians and it's immensely interesting to analyze. But that's about as far as we can take it. The surrounding facts are simply too different to easily generalize the findings of generations past in a modern context, and citing it when discussing modern decisions is about as irresponsible as advice wrought from citing no data at all.

• • •

On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers swapped Andrew Bynum's non-guaranteed $12 million dollar salary for half a year of Luol Deng. As sweeteners, the Cavaliers threw in two second round draft picks, a protected-to-the-moon Sacramento draft pick, and the lottery-protected right to swap picks in the 2015 draft. For the Bulls, this was considered a decent haul for a player they weren't intending on paying going forward. Expiring contracts don't mean much in the modern NBA, and as Bill Simmons might say: any time you can pick up three draft picks and save money, "you have to do it."

A lot of the analysis of the trade was focused on Cleveland's future. Most of this analysis ended up rather negative. After all, the future plan here isn't exactly golden. What's Cleveland really doing? At 11-23, the Cavaliers entered the trade at 3 games out of the Eastern Conference playoffs with three teams separating them and the eight seed. Deng should improve them, but they can reasonably expect New York and Brooklyn to be improved in the season's second half as well. Not to mention the obvious fact that they looked like a solid lottery team in the much-ballyhooed "best draft in the history of the human race." (OK, nobody's said that. They've just heavily implied it and been hilariously overenthusiastic about it.) Why give that up -- and draft picks! -- on a lark?

All that said? I think both these conclusions are a bit hasty. The way I look at the trade is thus: Cleveland just acquired an immensely solid player that fits perfectly with their long-contract coach's style and playbook. The player in question is currently having the best season of his career on a cap-friendly expiring deal that neither imperils their summer cap space nor takes minutes from any in-position rookie. Acquiring a player like that is rare. Very rare, actually. Anthony Bennett might lose a few of his struggling out-of-position minutes, but that's probably for the best when it comes to his future development. It's very easy to mention the assets Cleveland liquidated in scare quotes and laugh lines. "The Cavs just gave up three draft picks on a rental! What's wrong with them? WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?" It's true -- their future is confounding, and their goals are a bit unclear. But what assets did they really give up? To wit:

  • 2015 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Unless the Blazers implode in a flaming rush of flighty glory, chances are pretty high that Portland's 2015 season looks a lot like Portland's 2014 season. At least in broad strokes. I'd say 50 wins or so is the most likely scenario, barring a crazy injury, and that should be enough to push this pick into the second round's bottom ten. Let's say 50.

  • 2016 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Handicapping a team two years in the future is difficult. But Aldridge and Lillard should still be in their primes, and the team as a whole is quite young. So I don't see any particular reason why we shouldn't expect another win total in the 50s in 2016, either.

  • The Most Protected First Round Pick Ever: Okay, that's really quite unfair. But it was essentially the point when Sacramento traded the pick in the first place, and it remains the point today. If the Kings finish with a top-12 pick in 2014, they will not convey the pick this year. As they currently stand at 11-22 (on pace for the fourth overall pick), that seems exceedingly unlikely. In 2015 and 2016, the pick is protected such that if they finish with a top-10 pick, it doesn't convey. I did some simple math to calculate the average win-range of the 11th worst record in the league. The range spanned 35-40 wins. It's not unattainable for Sacramento, but it's going to be rather difficult -- DeMarcus Cousins is having an all-star caliber offensive season this year and Isaiah Thomas is at the peak of his potential. They're still one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and in a conference like the modern West, it's hard to see them winning 35-40 games unless they manage to adapt defensively in such a way that lets them stop a team or two. Will the rookies of the next few years improve the Kings defensively enough so that 40 wins is realistic? Color me unsure. Best case scenario would be the 11th pick in either draft. Worst case? If the pick doesn't convey in 2015 or 2016, it becomes Sacramento's 2017 second round pick, which is problematic given that 2017 is far enough away that it's easier to imagine a better-constructed roster having taken hold at that point.

  • Lottery-protected swap rights in 2015: This is an asset for Chicago, as it represents a potential maximum pick gain of (if they have the best record and the Cavaliers are the worst playoff team) around 15 spots, and gives their own pick more upside in trade talks if they decide to flip some of their now-owned picks for veterans that can bolster Rose after his return next season. This is also quite possibly one of the easiest things Cleveland has ever given up. Look at it this way: if the Cavs fail to improve enough to make the playoffs this season or next, they'll keep their lottery pick and give up nothing. If they improve enough to make the playoffs this season, the general youth of their team would have them internally thinking they'll have the potential to make the leap to a 4/5 seed team next season and lose -- at worst -- 4-5 spots in the draft to Chicago. And this whole strategy is a very high-upside/low-downside one for Chicago -- if Chicago flames out and ends up a marginal playoff team next year, the swap could be as little as one or two picks or -- if they miss the playoffs (a situation more possible than most care to admit) -- completely impossible.

When you take the picks out of the amorphous and scary "three draft picks" verbiage, it becomes a lot less enticing. And Chicago's haul in the trade becomes a lot less fun for Bulls fans. At their very best, barring future moves, they'll have a pick at #11 overall (ideally in 2015, since they'll want their high pick to be contributing at a high level at some point before Noah's body gives out), two picks in the fifties, and... maybe they get to pick a few spots higher in the 2015 draft? The real benefit for them is the one that Cleveland didn't care much about at all -- Bynum's contract was only half-guaranteed, and to my knowledge, Cleveland's already paid almost all of that guaranteed money. Reinsdorf saved something in the neighborhood of $20 million dollars on the deal, which was the real reason the Bulls traded away the guy who was playing the best ball in Chicago for four shaky assets. Cleveland was going to waive Bynum regardless -- this trade allowed them to flip some of their shakiest, lowest-probability assets and a contract they didn't care about for a player that could -- quite possibly -- end up as a big part of their long term plan, a la David West in Indiana. As the Gilberts might say: "what's not to like?"

• • •

"No, Manu, get back to the end of the draft order. Future people need you for some specious arguments."

One last thing, and a tie-in to the earlier tangent regarding fertility rates. (No, that wasn't the start of an attempt to gradually turning Gothic Ginobili into a blog about historical fertility, tempting though that may be.) One of the oft-repeated truisms that's been shared ad nauseum in response to any ambivalence about these so-called "assets" is the idea that every draft pick is an asset. After all, you can find talent everywhere in the draft. Manu Ginobili was selected at 57. Isaiah Thomas was selected at 60. Tons of great undrafted players make the league every year. There's still talent down there, and we need to always state that and heavily price it in when assessing the value of late second round picks. Right?

You know what? No. Not right. It's a factor, and it's context that needs to be noted. But it's also incredibly misleading without the contrary context. When doctors and armchair fertility experts cite scare quotes about the women-over-35 statistic, they're being intellectually dishonest despite being factual and accurate. Lies by omission can be as insidious as simply making things up. When someone makes things up it's generally easy to track back their statement and discover they were lying to begin with. It's significantly harder to take a factually correct statement and discover what contextually made it inappropriate for your situation. And simply stating "Manu got picked there" as though it invalidates aspersions to the draft pick's value ignores a lot of the context around Manu getting picked there at all, not to mention the basic context about relative pick value in the first place.

In the 1990s, foreign scouting wasn't just a small-scale enterprise. It was virtually nonexistent. At the time Manu was drafted, he'd been leading professional basketball teams since the age of 17 and putting up high-quality numbers for four years. He was an athletic NBA-size player with a beautiful game and a ridiculous work ethic. In the modern world, a player like Manu Ginobili would be isolated much like Ricky Rubio -- he'd be on the radar of NBA teams from 14-15 years old, and competing internationally at a very young age. This is not to say that every single market inefficiency that keeps a player from being picked early is gone. There will always be new places to find value, and there will be ways to get decent value at that range of the draft. But it IS to say that as scouting has improved and international players have made their mark on the league, the exact market inefficiency that caused a Hall of Fame player like Manu Ginobili to go in the late 50s has closed. And it's difficult to imagine what future market inefficiency would cause something as unfathomably unlikely as that to ever happen again.

And none of this even gets into the biggest issue in treating all draft picks as amorphous "assets" -- draft picks are all assets, but the NBA's extremely late draft picks are akin to playing scratch cards for $50 winnings. To try and support the case of "value in the late draft", a good friend and quality analyst in Kevin Draper sent the following 17 player list of good players that were picked in the late 50s or undrafted: Manu Ginobili, Kyle Korver, Marcin Gortat, Amir Johnson, Ramon Sessions, Patty Mills, Isaiah Thomas, E'Twaun Moore, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Jeremy Lin, Jose Calderon, Wesley Matthews, Anthony Morrow, Reggie Evans, J.J. Barea, Chuck Hayes. It's a great list, and it does much to support the idea that smart teams can find some value in the late reaches of the draft.

But, again, consider context -- that list of 16 players arrived over fourteen_ years___ of draft picks.

Assuming that every season there are 11 picks from 50-60 and about 10 guys who went undrafted that'll make the league (a fairway assumption, I admit, but a lowball one), that's still something in the neighborhood of sixteen NBA-quality rotation players out of a group of THREE HUNDRED OR MORE POSSIBLE PLAYERS. Sixteen in three hundred! That's around a 5% chance of the pick panning out, if you're counting. That means a draft pick in the 50s is an asset where 95% of the time you're looking at a wasted roster spot or a waived player with no recognizable value to the team. Five percent of the time, if you're lucky, you might get a guy like Patty Mills or Reggie Evans, a 9th or 10th man that you could've gotten for a few million on the open market. And then, if your team is really really lucky, and your scouting department is years ahead of the game on a glaring market inefficiency that nobody else has keyed into yet, you might get the next Manu Ginobili. Oy gevalt.

Draft picks are valuable. Unbelievably so. But a draft pick cannot only be valued by its very highest upside potentiality -- it must be valued rationally as a function of the upside, the downside, and the overall likelihood of both. For low draft picks, they're genuinely low-upside value plays with extraordinarily low probabilities on the upside scenario. The Cavaliers are flush with draft picks in a general sense -- even after trading away three draft picks, they still have four first round draft picks in the next two years and four second round draft picks as well. (Yes, that's right -- pre-trade, the Cavs had eleven draft picks in the next two years. Gilbert had officially become the exact opposite of Ted Stepien.) They flipped the uncertainty inherent in their two least valuable second round picks, a contract they were going to waive anyway, and their amorphous protected first round pick for an expiring deal on a player they've coveted for a while.

What's more, that player fits. Very well. He plays their by-far worst position and doesn't crowd out the minutes of any of their younger players. He fits well with their long-contract coach. If Cleveland didn't hit a slam dunk on this trade (and indeed got as "embarrassed" as some very smart analysts have said), is it even possible for a non-title-contending team to "win" a trade in media discourse if they give up a single draft pick? Does giving up draft picks -- no matter how low-upside those draft picks may be -- foment an instant loss in every trade for a team that isn't playing for June? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Question Cleveland's future plan all you want -- it's about as questionable a future plan as they come. But they weren't being irrational, and they definitely weren't getting bilked.

Special thanks to the December 2013 issue of Significance magazine for alerting me to the fertility story. I enjoyed it.

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When expertise doesn't inform: Tanking & Krzyzewski

Posted on Thu 14 November 2013 in Features by Aaron McGuire

coach k teaches typing

“If [tanking] is happening, shame on whoever is doing it. … As an American I wouldn't like to think that an American team would [ever] want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose,” he said. “I can't even fathom -- I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Maybe I'm naïve and going to read a fairytale after this.”

-- Mike Krzyzewski, post game after a 94-83 loss to Kansas

How do you really feel, Coach? Say this for Coach K -- he doesn't mince words. Many of those who detract tanking couch their detractions in caveats. Bill Self expressed light disapproval before saying that he didn't believe it ever happened. NBA commentators often express distaste at the idea of "losing to win" a la tanking, and morality plays are common. But few people bring a jingoistic nationality play into it, and few people outright shame any team involved. He has a strong opinion. And I understand why seemingly every news organization has posted some sort of analysis or report of the quote. It all makes sense.

Here's the thing: I'm really not sure Coach K can properly contextualize NBA decision-making.

• • •

I'm fully aware of the humor in that line. Coach Krzyzewski is one of the finest basketball minds in the world. In terms of knowledge about the game itself and the shape of college's competitive sphere, he's nearly unparalleled. The man has won almost 1000 basketball games at the NCAA level. He's orchestrated two gold medals and a revitalization of America's Olympic basketball program. He's won four NCAA championships. He's won the greatest hair plugs known to man. (... Alright, maybe not that last one.) Still: Coach K is one of the greatest basketball minds ever, and it's a tall order to say that his opinion isn't particularly well informed on ANYTHING related to the game. But I'm game, so let's attempt it.

The main issue, in my mind, lies in the quite different motivations Krzyzewski optimizes for when he's solving the competitive calculus of the college game. Team building in the NCAA isn't just a tiny bit different than the NBA, it's essentially a completely different game. And the penalties for failure, insofar as a franchise or school are concerned, are unquestionably lower. The best way to think about this is to consider how long a failed move impacts your team. Let's compare two big ones -- on the college level, we'll actually use one of Coach K's failures -- his inability to entice John Wall to attend Duke University. At the NBA level, we'll look at Toronto's failed first-overall-pick of Andrea Bargnani back in 2006. Let's examine what both franchises lost as a result:

  • DUKE MISSES OUT ON JOHN WALL, 2010: John Wall played extremely well as a college basketball player, producing first-team All-American performance for Calipari at Kentucky and leading them to an elite eight loss to a very good West Virginia team. He then opted to jump to the NBA. Coach K's failure to recruit Wall resulted in missing out on one year of production from a very good player. Funny enough, Duke won the title that year. They weren't missing Wall all that much, despite Wall's excellent college production. And even if Duke had bottomed out, they would've only missed a year. See: Kentucky's 2013 college basketball season. Length of impact: One year.

  • TORONTO PICKS ANDREA BARGNANI OVER LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, 2006: This is essentially the exact inverse of the above miss. Bargnani ended up being a pox on the organization for seven years. While Aldridge was blossoming as a valuable piece in Portland, the Raptors continually doubled down on the failed Bargnani pick, trying to push him into more minutes and different roles. All told, over Bargnani's tenure, the Raptors fired two coaches and let a general manager go. They never quite got over blowing the 2006 draft, and have effectively spent eight years rebuilding the roster in an effort to create a contending team. One wonders what the Raptors would've looked like with a Bosh/Aldridge core instead of a Bosh/Bargnani core. All we do know? Bargnani was a horrible waste, and the 2014 season is the first one where his husk isn't looming over the franchise as a whole. Length of impact: Seven years.

The key here isn't that Coach K's mistake didn't matter. It did, and anyone who tells you the 2010 Duke team wouldn't have been better if John Wall had been running point (or even playing shooting guard alongside Jon Scheyer) is nuts. And the point isn't that Toronto is a terrible franchise, or that their pick was even particularly bad. Bargnani seemed like a good pick at the time, and although he didn't pan out, these things happen. The point is more a reflection of the overall calculus behind decisions in the NBA. That is to say: virtually any personnel decision you make in the NBA is going to impact your roster for 3-4 years at a bare minimum. Sign a player? You're dealing with that contract over the duration of its lifespan, and that's (on average) 3-4 years. Draft a player? You probably just made a seven year investment, better hope it was a good one. Hire a coach? Unless you're the Lakers, you've probably tied yourself to at least a few years of leeway for the new guy.

In college, any mistake you make -- whether in recruiting, player development, or implementing a bad system -- is reasonably fungible. No player is going to be on your team for more than five years, and generally speaking, few game-changing players are going to be on your team for more than two. The impact of a bad decision is thus quite a bit lower. Missed out on John Wall? Who cares, it was just a year. Completely misused Andre Drummond for reasons passing understanding? Who cares, you get a clean slate the next year. Tried to implement a terrible offensive system that didn't fit your players? In two years, 75% of your team will have churned away, and with it all the habits and tics you mistakenly gave them will wash away as well. Mistakes simply don't matter as much to the decisionmakers in the college game, for better or for worse.

This works both ways, also -- if you're a smart franchise with good management and good coaching, the length of impact of a good decision can span just as long or longer. Just look at the Lakers and Spurs. One made a great move for Kobe, the other had a great tank for Duncan. Both of those moves have had sixteen years of profoundly positive impact for both franchises. Conversely, we'll go back to Coach K's 2010 season -- the player development and long process of molding Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek into lights-out NCAA players was a fantastic piece of work from Coach K and his staff. But they only really got to experience the tidings of their good work for a single season -- Scheyer was OK in the seasons leading up to 2010, but he only really came into his own in that final season. And Zoubek was little more than a running joke for his first three years. The year ended, Duke won the title, and Scheyer and Zoubek moved on. Scheyer tried and failed to make the NBA, settling down in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Zoubek started a cream puff dessert shop that recently closed.

But nothing more for Coach K, and that's kind of the point.

• • •

Tanking -- to me -- represents an NBA franchise that is actively sitting players and liquidating veterans for draft assets in an effort to accelerate a natural rebuilding process. That's my definition. I don't think it happens obscenely often -- perhaps one or two teams per season, on a large scale. I think it may be a larger problem this season than most, given the generally agreed upon glut of talent in the 2014 draft. But I'm of the view that most awful teams are simply bad because they're bad. It's not rocket science. There was no greater power that was holding Bismack Biyombo back and preventing him from being a great basketball player -- he simply isn't very good, and he still represented Charlotte's best option for a year or two. A team where that's the case is going to be pretty vile, and there are few avenues the front office really had to make the team better. But the teams that do actively tank draft position are -- in a general sense -- trying to avoid the depressingly long downside that a bad decision has in the NBA.

Understanding the longstanding impact of a bad decision is essential to anyone trying to get to the bottom of the NBA's tanking problem. An NBA team that makes a mistake on who they draft feels the repercussions for a long time. That period often spans an entire management staff's tenure. If one were to be hired as a new GM of an NBA team and one were to immediately make a poor decision with a high draft pick or a bad free agent acquisition, chances are reasonably high that the poor decision would outlast you in the organization. As it was with Bargnani -- he outlasted two coaches and a GM that (hilariously) won executive of the year twice. The NBA draft is one of the best pick-to-talent drafts in professional sports. The marginal value of a higher pick in the NBA is much larger than the marginal value of a higher pick in the NFL or the MLB. In basketball, the good players simply matter more -- they have more on-court impact and can make-or-break a franchise in the long term in a way that's more rare in the other professional sports.

And, of course, the rub: the way that a top prospect can makes-or-break a franchise for a decade or more is completely nonexistent in the NCAA. It's a ridiculous, absurd stretch from anything a college coach has to contend with. Period. I reiterate: Coach Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches ever, and disdain for his views on tanking has nothing to do with how good he is at his job. But I can't help thinking that Coach K's tanking views are less a reflection of a top basketball mind placing his attention on a grand problem and more a reflection of how vast the gulf is between franchise building in the NBA and program building in the NCAA. The motivations are as different as the game of chess and the game of darts. Does Garry Kasparov do color commentary for the World Series of Poker? Does Usain Bolt critique Michael Phelps from the booth? Did Rambo analyze Rocky's left jab?

Of course not. While all of those would be varying levels of awesome, they're all patently ridiculous. And maybe -- just maybe -- going to college coaches for thoughts on NBA team-building strategies is a tiny bit ridiculous too.

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Entomb the Past and Embrace the Unknown

Posted on Tue 29 October 2013 in Features by Aaron McGuire

the wrong side of the tracks

I was on the wrong side of the tracks. That's what they told me, anyway -- when it came time to transition from elementary school to middle school and high school, the school district told me that I'd be going to a school far removed from most of my peers. This was disappointing, although unavoidable -- it was true, I was in a block that was barely outside of the boundaries of the school we all grew up at. It wasn't a big deal, and in fact, it was retrospectively a blessing. The schools I ended up going to were better than the ones I would've gone to if I'd stayed on the same path everyone else went.

But there was one thing that really stuck in my craw about the move. I had a decent group of friends in elementary school, but our hanging out was very school-oriented. We would hang out in classes, hang out in recess, then go by each others' houses after school and hang out until our parents ordered us to go home. We didn't really "do" scheduled hangouts, and we didn't really talk outside of school. I didn't have AOL Instant Messenger yet, after all -- the only way to contact each other was through the phone, and none of us were particularly chatty people. When the last day of elementary school came around, we all promised to stay in touch and hang out... even when they were all going to the school across the bend and I was going to the school they'd never even heard of.

As you may have surmised, that promise of perpetuation didn't turn out that way. That day turned out to be the last time I'd speak to any of them until well after my college days began. In that first summer between elementary school and middle school, I did the same thing I did every summer -- I'd hang out with friends on my block, I'd read a lot of books, I'd draw a lot, I'd watch a lot of TV, I'd surf the internet. Et cetera, et cetera. But as time went on, the window for calling my friends across the way seemed to wax and wane. At first it was as though I didn't want to accept that they wouldn't be there when middle school came. Then it simply became a matter of tact. "Oh, hey, it's Aaron! You know, that guy who never ever calls? What's up, BRAH?" It didn't seem right. So days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. Months to years, years to graduations, graduations to jobs. And all the while, there was this large group of once-close friends going further and further in my rearview, never to be seen again. That is, until I was in a Durham airport in 2010, reading through the newest issue of SLAM magazine on a bench near my gate to Arizona.

"Yo, no way... Aaron? Aaron McGuire? Is that really you?!"

• • •

Our overall presence at Gothic Ginobili has been effectively nonexistent the last few months. I've written 14 posts in the last four months (with only 8 of those being even tangentially related to the NBA), averaging out to less than a post a week. One year ago today, I was writing 15,000 words of player capsules a week. Stark difference, there.

I don't really intend to apologize for this -- while I don't particularly enjoy letting down readers who've come to expect a certain standard, I've noted several times that last year's player capsule experiment was absolutely terrible for my health. I have a full-time job that generally demands 50-60 hours a week of work. Add in 25-30 hours a week of writing and my requisite volunteering and I found myself in a situation where every waking moment was consumed with stress and work. During the process of producing the capsules, I was dumped by my girlfriend and managed to go on an expense-paid trip to Las Vegas where I literally did nothing for fun.

No -- no matter what was going to happen this offseason, some delightful capsule reboot was never in the cards. I somehow managed to stay on top of my actual job while also finishing the capsule project in my allotted timeframe, but it wasn't like that project was going to get redone this year. If it happens again, it'll happen again in a year or two, when I can take more time off work and give myself a bit more breathing room. Not this year, certainly, and not after last season's slow burnout. All that said, while I intended to take a lighter load here over the summer, I never really intended to COMPLETELY eschew basketball writing. Which is essentially what happened, somehow. Here are a sampling of the things I never got around to that were on the docket for our summer plans:

  • General manager capsules, outlining each and every move and transaction the league's reigning GMs had overseen. I'd rate the GMs out in a general sense and try to get at the tenor of their decision-making. (I still want to do this, and I actually had written up a skeleton interview template, but I never sent it out to any of the GMs I was able to wrangle emails from. This will happen someday, though. Pinkie promise.)

  • Historical player capsules, looking at historical game tape to analyze the John Starks and Chris Welps of the not-so-modern era with a critical eye. The fact that all of my sources for historical games have dried up over the last year made putting this together unfathomably hard, and would basically have kept the series to players that happened to appear on a game I'd previously downloaded. Tough breaks.

  • A new-age STEVE NASH projection system, using some of the new tricks I'd learned to meld random forest classification methods and the finalized aging curves from the soon-to-be-published thesis I wrote years ago. Combining those methods with a few ad hoc data aggregation tools would've -- hopefully -- led to some interesting results. Also, some easily-explained minutes projections, which I'd make publicly available because I love you guys. Guess I'll put this one off until the next offseason.

Kinda wish I'd gotten around to these. Don't they sound fun?

I tried to start all of them, mind you, but something curious kept happening on the way to the well.

• • •

"Home, she is the grand illusion. She is a time, not a place. And your time here was over." (x)

As time goes on, the familial bonds that tie your birth family together waver from your life. You don't stop loving your parents, generally, but distance and time conspires to drastically alter the relationship you came to hold dear. A person is forever connected to the souls they love as family, but this connection is never quite the same as it was to a wide-eyed youth. This is to say nothing of friendships, which wax and wane and vanish accordingly. Life moves on. The inexorable march of man towards our vaguely sinister end continues unfettered, regardless of our wants and whims.

And, of course, it all comes back to game six.

I'm a Spurs fan. Every single long piece I've attempted to write about basketball in the last four months has boiled down to, at its core, some sort of inane rumination on that oh-so-memorable night. I'm not exaggerating. I've personally produced mountains of deleted drafts trying to get at the core of what that game really meant. And I didn't usually start the draft out with the intention of talking about it, either. I'd start the first GM capsule or the first historical capsule and I'd balk. I'd start modeling and instead I'd start writing about how improbable game six really was. I wish I could say I've gotten anything out of the dismal exercise. I can't, though -- I've gleaned nothing. A lot of people laughed when Kawhi Leonard responded to an inquisitive journalist's prodding ("Have you thought about the finals at all since the epic series?") with a perfectly fitting "No. We lost." I nodded sadly.

Kawhi Leonard is 22 years old. Later in his career, he'll probably feel a bit more dismay at the outcome of last year's finals -- his entire playoff experience currently consists of a rookie year WCF run and a sophomore year Finals run, after all. It's hard to contextualize how unreasonable that was when your only experience is at such a high level. There will probably be the tiniest mote of regret for the opportunities lost and the general improbability of it all. But perhaps not. Because Kawhi has keyed into perhaps the most important fact about game six: it's over, and nothing at all is going to change that.

• • •

As for the one-off elementary school tale I started above, the end is hardly happy. Sure enough, one of my long-forgotten elementary school friends managed to recognize me eight years later in an airport 2,153 miles away from our old school. It was fun, at first, and it was interesting catching up. After all, we hadn't seen each other since 2002. But then we stopped reminiscing and started trying to talk about our recent lives, and all basis for comparison ended. He'd dropped out of college after flaming out spectacularly in his first semester, going from rave to rave and blowing other people's money like nobody's business. He was currently returning from an expense-paid summer vacation provided lovingly by his doting parents. I hadn't ever gotten drunk (at that point), I was battling a bout of depression and endless sinus infections, and I was taking a beyond-ridiculous overload schedule to grease the skids on an early graduation. The amount we had in common at that point in our lives could fit in a thimble. Although we added each other on Facebook, we haven't come anywhere close to contacting again, because we both figured out the somewhat uncomfortable truth.

At the end of the day, there's only so much you can say about the past. You can poke it and prod it and orient it and try to recapture it. You can analyze it as much as your heart desires. But the past is the past. Your old friends -- whether you meant them to be or not -- are old friends for a reason. Any rekindled friendship is necessarily a new creation, wrought of the people you've grown to become rather than a reflection of what you once were. The past cannot form the full basis of your frame of thought, and it can't consume you. I'll never really know what could've been if I hadn't neglected to call all of my old friends -- maybe we'd all still be the close-knit bunch we were back in the day. Maybe it wouldn't have been so jarring to meet my old friend after all those years. Things would be different, probably. But try as I might to reconstruct the past and figure out how things could've been, it won't change that it's not so.

No matter how many times I dream about game six, it is never going to change the one-in-a-million sequence of events that brought the ropes down and put the trophy back on lockdown. No matter how many times Gregg Popovich and LeBron James rewatch the game and wonder how they lost and won, it is never going to change the fact that it happened. Tim Duncan can relive the missed bunny in game seven every day for the next decade. Matt Moore and Bill Simmons can make painful jokes for the rest of eternity. It's history, now -- the property of textbooks and retrospectives and truth. We can debate its meaning and its significance, but we can't debate that it happened. For me, I'm reasonably sure my inability to write is tied in that last bit. My desire to talk about game six is primarily rooted in a completely irrational desire to strike it from existence. There's a better present, now, though -- there's a new season, with new challenges and new stories to chase and bottle. What's done is done. What's to be done, that's the real question. And that's the one we're aiming to capture now.

It all boils down to this: it's hard to let go, but it's harder to hold on.

Welcome back, NBA. We missed you.

• • •

"The truth is that returning to old wells is rarely truly satisfying. It's often empty and rather sad."

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Bill Don't Lie: Congressional Efficiency through the NBA

Posted on Tue 22 October 2013 in Features by Alex Dewey

dwight and bob

This post was compiled and written by Evan Kalikow, known as @killakow on Twitter. During the recent shutdown, Evan had some free time. Instead of posting #ObstructionIsNotGovernance every day (love you, Amin), Evan chose to connect his love of the NBA with the curious working habits of our United States legislative branch. What follows is the resulting piece. Happy reading!

Like most sports, basketball is a game of efficiency. If your team has players that can score more often and on fewer attempts than your opponents, you’re in pretty good shape. Ever since basketball became a fully-realized sport, scouts, coaches, and general managers have used shot efficiency (in one form or another) to evaluate players.

Hey, maybe the same is true of U.S. politics!

Just like NBA players, Congress talks a big game. But does it deliver? Can we use similar measures to evaluate politicians? How efficient are our members of Congress, though? Are they more like James Harden or more like 2011 Mike Bibby? I found myself wondering these questions the other day, when it became apparent to me (and countless others) that Congress can’t get a dang thing done... more like the 2011 vintage of Mike Bibby. I decided to dive into the data and figure out how efficient our men and women of Congress really are, comparing the 113th U.S. Congress (January 2013 to October 2013) to NBA players from the 2012-2013 season (October 2012 to April 2013).

First, to define the measures of efficiency that I will be using. For NBA players, efficiency is measured simply by Field Goal Percentage, or FG% (field goals made divided by field goals attempted). We'll look at every NBA player who took at least 100 shots during the 2012-2013 regular season. I hear you -- FG% isn't a perfect measure of player quality or player efficiency, and the metric is biased toward certain types of players (more on that later), but look at it this way: when U.S. Senators were young enough to play basketball without immediately tearing every ligament and tendon in their body simultaneously, Field Goal Percentage was state-of-the-art. And I'm all about communication.

Things get slightly trickier for measuring congressional efficiency. To get these values, I took all 538 members of both houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) and created a similar measure; essentially, Congressional Efficiency is defined as bills and resolutions passed divided by bills and resolutions proposed*. Again, this measure has flaws -- some of them hilarious -- and simply measures efficiency, not difficulty.

_*NOTE CONTAINING GORY DEFINITIONAL DETAILS: Bills are considered passed if they passed the House, passed the Senate, agreed to as a simple resolution, passed the House with changes, passed the Senate with changes, agreed to as a concurrent resolution, enrolled (i.e. passed by the House and Senate and presented to the President to sign), or signed by the President. Conversely, bills with a most recent status of introduced, referred to committee, reported by committee, failed under suspension, failed cloture, failed House, or failed Senate are considered not passed. Although this definition of success is relatively broad, it works well for our purposes.


After compiling and organizing the data, the first thing that struck me was how much less efficient Congress was than the NBA, even though I was using the lowest-skewed NBA field goal statistic. To wit: the average efficiency of a Congressperson was 8.06%... compared to an average field goal percentage of 44.55% for an NBA player. Statistically, that notorious bill on Capitol Hill probably should have died on the steps. To make it a bit easier to see comparisons between the two, I took the difference between the two averages and added it to each Congressperson’s efficiency, giving us equivalent averages and comparable agents. Adjusted Congressional Efficiency (ACE) I'll call it, but only this one time.

The Senators, Representatives, and Delegates of the 113th Congress naturally separated themselves into seven distinct groups based on their adjusted efficiencies. Let’s take a look.

To access the spreadsheet with the data for all congressmen and NBA players, click here.

• • •

Group 1: The No-Shows

Description: These four Congresspeople alone - out of all of Congress - have proposed exactly 0 bills or resolutions so far. Not a single one. This makes sense for Brown and Scott, who are in their first terms. It makes extra sense for Chiesa, who was only appointed in June and has barely set up his office. But John Boehner, Speaker of the House? That’s downright pathetic, man. Write a bill or something, dork!

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Andrew Bynum, Charles Barkley, you, your grandma, anyone you saw on the street today, a baby who was literally born yesterday.

Best One-On-One Comparison: John Boehner (0%) is exactly as efficient as an orange (0%).

• • •

Group 2: League Minimum

Description: The Senators and Representatives in this group all proposed at least one bill, but passed none. Due to the fact that we're equalizing the averages by adding, their 0% actual efficiency gets adjusted into an ACE of 36.5%. In basketball terms, that is horrendous. To put this into perspective, Austin Rivers -- a man who put together one of the all-time worst rookie seasons ever last year -- had a FG% of 37.2%, which is higher than every single senator or representative that graces this list. And make no mistake: there's a lot of them. A total of 331 Congresspeople ended up in this group with absolutely zero bills passed, which just goes to show you (a) how difficult it is to get a bill passed, and (b) how much less efficient Congress is than the NBA.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Austin Rivers, Ricky Rubio, Kirk Hinrich, Kent Bazemore, Ason Kidd.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Ted Cruz (36.5%) is slightly less efficient than Sixth Man of the Year vote recipient Luke Babbitt (36.8%). Ted for 6MOTY!

• • •

Group 3: Point Guards and Role Players

Description: The NBA players in this group are slightly below league average in terms of FG%. You’ll find some stinkers in there (Royal Ivey), but also a lot of excellent point guards (Russell Westbrook, for one). PGs tend to shoot the ball a lot, so their FG% drops accordingly. The men and women of Congress in this group mostly follow the high-usage PG model, with high-usage, low-efficiency Senators like Bob Casey and David Vitter, as well as Representatives like Diane Black and Cody Gardner. This makes sense--over half of the Senators and Representatives in this study didn’t get a single bill passed, so you see more Congressional Goran Dragics and fewer congressional Jodie Meekses.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Rudy Gay, Jordan Crawford, Kemba Walker, Jrue Holiday, Russell Westbrook

Best One-On-One Comparison: TIE. On one hand, you have Diane Feinstein (38.7%) doing her best Rasheed Wallace (38.7%) impression. But on the other hand, Chuck Grassley (42.8%), everyone’s favorite tweeter, is a slightly better Ray Felton (42.7%). It’s tough to say which one of these comparisons is better. Which will happen first: Diane Feinstein getting a T on the Senate floor, or Chuck Grassley dropping 50 on the Dems?

• • •

Group 4: Very Good Players

Description: This is the first group of NBA players that are all above the league-average in FG%. Lots of these players are, as the group name would suggest, very good. You have guys like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving who are better shooters than the PGs in the last group, and you have guys like Jeff Green and Jimmy Butler, who are solid. There are also some higher-usage Centers like Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, as well as classic big men in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. On the Congressional side, there are some heavy-hitters, like Richard Blumenthal. But a lot of this group is made up of low-usage, high-efficiency types, who propose fewer than 10 bills but can get at least one passed. This is exemplified by Rodney Davis and Richard Hanna, who each only proposed 8 bills, but each also got 1 passed, giving them both 49.0% adjusted efficiencies.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Roy Hibbert, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Josh Smith, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Michele Bachmann (47.6%) comes out of the pack as a slightly more efficient version of DeMarcus Cousins (46.5%). I’m buying $1000 worth of stock in whatever TV network can get them to live in a house together and videotape the results.

• • •

Group 5: Lots of Tall People

Description: I mentioned earlier that FG%, as a measurement, is biased toward a certain group of NBA players. By that, I of course meant tall people. The kinds of shots that Centers take and make are generally close to the basket and highly efficient on their own. This gives Centers a leg up when comparing FG% data, and it shows in this group. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Ed Davis’ or Tiago Splitter’s immediate families who say that those are better players than Kevin Durant, but that’s what the rankings in this group say. A similar phenomenon develops with the Congressional members of this group, where even more low-usage, high-success rate candidates emerge. Patrick Leahy, who proposed 23 bills and passed 4 of them, is one of the exceptions. Good on you, pal.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Kevin Durant, Larry Sanders, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin.

Best One-On-One Comparison: I don’t know too much about Senator Mike Johanns (55.3%), but the Personal Life section of his Wikipedia page is pretty dull; he had some kids and grandkids, got divorced, and then remarried. This dullness makes him a perfect complement to Kenneth Faried (55.2%), who has been described as many things but never dull.

• • •

Group 6: Even More Tall People (and LeBron!)

Description: Every single player on here either plays Center or is named LeBron James. They take a lot of close-range and low-risk shots, they’re at or near 7 feet tall, or they’re LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet. At the top of this list is Chris Wilcox, who took 153 shots and made 110 of them, earning an FG% of 71.9%. At the bottom of the list is LeBron James, 4x winner of the Most Valuable Player award, who made a paltry 56.5% of his shots (he also made exactly 5 times as many shots as Chris Wilcox, but who’s counting?). Basically what I’m trying to say is that a lot of very tall people who make a high proportion of their low-risk shots make up this group, a group that also contains perhaps the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan. LeBron James. I’m talking about LeBron James in that last part. As for Congress, more of the same. Many props to Candace Miller of Michigan’s 10th district for hitting 7 of 20 and posing a 71.5% adjusted efficiency.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Arnett Moultrie, JaVale McGee, Serge Ibaka.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Robert Menendez (58.1%) is only slightly more efficient than Dwight Howard (57.8%). Fun fact: Robert Menendez is the size of a regulation basketball. Take that, Dwight!

• • •

Group 7: The MonSTARS

Description: This group of Congresspeople is small, but it’s ridiculously efficient. The least efficient member of this group, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, had an adjusted efficiency ranking of 72.9%. And that’s the worst of this group. Major props are also due for Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Rob Woodall, Pete Sessions, and Xavier Becerra, who each posted adjusted efficiencies of over 100% with at least 7 proposed bills each. Let’s put it in basketball terms. To get an adjusted efficiency as high as Becerra’s 125.4%, an NBA player would have to make 5 out of 4 baskets, which is capital-I Impossible. That’s why these ladies and gentlemen are the MonSTARS: like the popular Space Jam villains, they can defy time and space to be incredibly efficient.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: The MonSTARS, Superman flying around the world quickly to turn back time, Michael Jordan at the end of Space Jam, two LeBrons playing at the same time.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Harry Reid (100.3%) is slightly more efficient than Al Horford was from the 3 point line during the 2009-2010 season (100%).

• • •

There were a few interesting takeaways. In Congress, like the NBA, high-efficiency "centers" are rare to come by and highly desirable. The Congressional Centers take few chances, low-risk chances, or some combination of the two when proposing legislation, and as a result are highly efficient at getting their priorities legislated. If you’re a Democrat or Republican, that's the type of Congressperson that you hope gets elected.

Lots of people take issue with the NBA (and basketball in general) as a superstar-driven sport. It’s easy to see how that can be, but it’s nothing compared to Congress. Over half of the Congresspeople barely get any of their legislation passed! At all! Then again, maybe the 113th Congress is a poor example--it’s on pace to be the least productive ever, after all. In any event, we can take a small bit of comfort in the concept of DeMarcus Cousins and Michele Bachmann living together, right?

NBA data courtesy of Congressional data courtesy of; current as of October 3, 2013.__

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Their Last Rodeo: A Farewell to the Journeymen (Part I)

Posted on Thu 17 October 2013 in Features by Aaron McGuire

"Bad Porn", in his more serious days.

Corey Maggette retired earlier this week. Supposedly, anyway -- he'd said that if the Spurs didn't sign him he'd be on the outs, and sure enough, the Spurs didn't sign him. This should probably be a departure that tugs a heartstring or two: old man Maggette has been a mainstay of the league for 14 years now. Don't count me among those with heartstrings atwtitter, because Maggette's ridiculous tenure scarcely feels real. Seriously -- he was around for 14 years? It feels simultaneously longer and shorter. Shorter because it doesn't feel like he's got the cachet of a 14 year veteran, longer because... well, have you ever watched him play? Part of it's his playing style, which eschews the aesthetically pleasing for a questionably entertaining mix of "wild drives with no intention of making a basket" and "poorly-timed long twos." Another part is the lack of mystery that surrounds him. After all -- he's Corey Maggette. He went to Duke, he stat-padded on a scad of excruciating lottery teams, and his greatest career accomplishment was being a 1998 McDonald's All American. He's Bad Porn.

I don't want to belabor the point about Maggette's retirement. In last year's capsules, I clearly stated my distaste for his game and nobody really wants to hear someone rail on about a retired player he didn't particularly like. But Maggette's departure has me thinking about the mortality of the NBA's journeymen in a general sense. Check out this list of NBA players whose careers most likely met their end last season: Kurt Thomas, Chris Duhon, James White, Troy Murphy, Eddy Curry, Josh Howard, Hakim Warrick, Darko Milicic, and Samardo Samuels. These players have been mainstays of the league for years -- in some cases, they were legitimately useful players a few seasons prior. But none of the listed players are currently on an NBA roster, and in the case of some, have been rebuffed at all turns in their attempts to get back up to the big leagues (see: Samardo Samuels in summer league, which was strangely compelling and hilarious all at once).

Fans don't tend to notice when such players vanish because they play their last game around the end of the season -- that is, when everyone is focused on the playoffs and the quest for an NBA title rather than the slow attrition of the league's middle class. But they DO leave, and given that we're currently in the waning moments of a slow offseason, it seems like as good a time as any to look back on the players that the NBA has left behind and start to ruminate on who will join that list this year. This will be a several part post, because a ton of players retired and/or left the league by force last season. This list is not necessarily all-inclusive -- I've left off a few players who are not currently on rosters but may yet make it back, and I've included a few players who are certainly trying to make it back but whose comebacks I deem unlikely. But it should cover a good swath of the league's newest retirees, whether they left on their own accord or through attrition of their reasonable options.

• • •

JASON KIDD (2043 MP, PER of 13.5, 48 starts) -- 40 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

CAREER HIGH POINT: Led the Nets to two consecutive NBA finals and making Richard Jefferson into a legitimate basketball player that was considered a near-max player for several inexplicable seasons. Has a reasonably solid case for his generation's best point guard. Easy hall-of-fame player.

WHY HANG IT UP? ... dude, Jason Kidd is 40 years old. The fact that he played this well this long is somewhat impressive in and of itself, but it's perfectly reasonable that the man didn't want to be the league's reigning 41 year old fogie. Also, the head coaching job keeps him in the NBA's general milieu, so he isn't even missing up on cribbage with his old teammates. (Does Jason Kidd play cribbage? It seems unlikely, but it's such a hilarious image I can't help but think about it.)

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: I rarely dabble in certainties, but I'll say 100%. I just can't see him coming back. At all.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? New York's final game, a 7-point loss at Indiana to end their season. Kidd had a rather ignomious line by his standards -- just one assist and one steal in six pedestrian minutes. At least he didn't miss a shot, right?

• • •

_KURT THOMAS (392 MP, PER of 13.3, 17 starts) -- _40 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Finishing up rehab on a tricky broken foot he suffered last season.

CAREER HIGH POINT: Strangely enough, it was probably last season. Thomas has never exactly been a player that lights the league on fire, although he's always been a decent and serviceable big man. His greatest accomplishment over the course of his career is probably his laughably absurd longevity for a big man. Ergo, his high point is his age at retirement, which is only something obvious at his final season. Sort of a strange high point, but that's Kurt Thomas for you.

WHY HANG IT UP? Love is love, and old is old. Thomas was never exactly a high-flying trapeze aficionado, but his age has sapped him of a lot of what made him valuable. His rebounding has fallen off a cliff these last few years, and his relative efficiency from the floor (second highest true shooting percentage of his career) is undermined by his complete inability to draw fouls at this stage of his career. He isn't particularly useful at this point, and exists mostly as a stopgap once-in-a-while big man to rest your main guys. Given how much the NBA's big-man game ravages your knees, it doesn't really make sense to overstay your welcome if you aren't really doing much on the court regardless.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 75%. High, but with a non-negligible chance of a comeback if his knee is feeling good and a contender gets a key injury among their backups. Mr. Thomas -- like most NBA players -- would like the league to express its love for him by putting a ring on it.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? A late season 7-point Knicks win at Utah. This win set off New York's last big winning streak, turning around their season and allowing them to put some distance between them and the Pacers. Thomas had 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. He played much of the game with a broken foot. Whattaguy.

• • •

_CHRIS DUHON (820 MP, PER of 8.0, 9 starts) -- _30 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? The hospital, because an Orlando Magic fan ran him over with their car after having an argument with him and realizing he was Chris Duhon. No, that sentence was NOT a drill.

CAREER HIGH POINT: He was an AP All-American his last season at Duke, which means (for the uninitiated) that he was one of the best college players in the country. This did not translate particularly well to his NBA career, but he'll always have the college accolade. As well as the 2001 NCAA title. Also, he was Louisiana's Mr. Basketball early in his college career. Lots of high points. His NBA high point was being a part of one of the best dancing GIFs ever.

WHY HANG IT UP? Because he's degenerated to the point where people are running him over with a car when they realize he's Chris Duhon. End of story. ... No, okay, real answer. Duhon has never been a particularly stunning NBA guard, but these last few years have been something of a horror show for every team that's had the displeasure of playing him. He hasn't cracked 40% from the field, he doesn't draw free throws, and his assist rate has fallen off a cliff. Early in his career his passing ability was how he made his bread. That's gone, and all that's left is a player of questionable defensive utility with no present offensive utility and a turnover rate that defies reason for a player as out-of-the-offense as he tends to be. In short: sometimes players hang it up because they can't really crack it any more. That's Duhon's case, at the moment.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 85%. Another high-likelihood retiree who may yet return if the stars align. Granted, those stars are a bit less likely than Kurt Thomas -- despite Duhon's lesser age, he's a markedly worse player in comparison to his contemporaries and he lacks the clout to command a paycheck on his name alone. Still, if he impresses in a workout with a bad GM, it's not out of the question.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? The Lakers' last game of the season, where San Antonio swept them in a 21 point laugher. Duhon played almost 43 minutes. He had 11 points and 7 assists on 10 shots. Four turnovers, too. Arguably his best game of the season, which is... kind of disturbing, actually.

• • •

_RASHEED WALLACE (296 MP, PER of 16.7, 0 starts) -- _38 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Coaching assistant for the Detroit Pistons, which is perfect given the mercurial big-man talent that Dumars has amassed for him to mold.

CAREER HIGH POINT: Many people would gravitate towards Rasheed's ridiculous quality of play on the Jailblazers or his incredible versatility on the dynastic Pistons. Me? I'd go with his technical fouls record. At the end of the day, it's a rare few players that have set a record that has an air of never-to-be-broken permanence to it. And Rasheed managed to do it.

WHY HANG IT UP? Well, just look at last season. He was patently decent when he saw the floor, but he could only manage 21 games out of his wizened body and wasn't really much of a factor. A Rasheed Wallace that isn't a factor is just sorta weird. So, yeah -- perhaps it really is time to hang it up.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 65%. Less likely than any of the guys above, but still reasonably likely. Extra variance on this prediction because, well -- it's Rasheed Wallace, guys. YOU try predicting what Rasheed Wallace is gonna do as a general rule, about anything. See where that gets you.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? An 11 point Knicks loss to Charlotte. He made one shot and missed two threes in his three minutes on the court. Classic 'Sheed.

• • •

_JAMES WHITE (435 MP, PER of 9.1, 16 starts) -- _30 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Absolutely no idea. Google search and asking around didn't get me anything on this one. I assume he's trying to get back into the NBA, but I honestly couldn't tell you.

CAREER HIGH POINT: Getting a legitimate NBA chance at all. From his college graduation in 2006 to the beginning of the 2013 NBA season, White played 10 NBA games. Not 100 -- TEN. Last season, White was granted 57 games and 435 minutes of playing time, dwarfing everything he'd got before in terms of an NBA opportunity. Granted, he didn't do a whole lot with it, and even the dunk contest didn't turn out quite as planned. But getting that shot is pretty thrilling.

WHY HANG IT UP? James White is an NBA player whose dunks are his first, second, and third skill. He's entering his thirties, when dunking ability begins to degrade and athleticism starts to wane. Might be time to pick up a second career.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 70%, if only because the only real reason the Knicks picked him up seemed to be the dunk contest angle and he washed out so poorly as to make sure nobody ever does that again. Teams have seen enough of White -- pretty sure he's not in anyone's long term plan.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? White played 5 minutes in New York's 26-point victory in game 2 against the Indiana Pacers. He made a two-foot two point basket and did little else. Doesn't look like it was a dunk, which is kind of disappointing. Alas. So was he.

• • •

_STEPHEN JACKSON (1075 MP, PER of 8.0, 6 starts) -- _34 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Hustlin' and grindin' before the other'n be findin' him. (Sorry.)

CAREER HIGH POINT: Winning an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, later returning to play a reasonably large role on the 2012 "Euroball Revisited" Spurs and post an unexpectedly meaningful contribution. Alternatively: he actually merited a few vote in the MVP race in 2010. Yes, as a Bobcat. I love you, Stephen Jackson.

WHY HANG IT UP? When you've effectively burned bridges with every organization in the NBA that was willing to work with you to try and put you in a position to succeed, it's kind of hard to get back in the game. He obviously wants to, but it feels like San Antonio might've been the last team willing to handle his idiosyncrasies, and that bridge is thoroughly crisped.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 75%. Hard to see it, but I suppose it's possible he wows a contender in workouts and has a 10-20 game end of season stint with a contender that needs a defender. Makes me a bit sad, since he's one of my favorites, but c'est la vie.

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS FINAL GAME? A 2-point Spurs win in Atlanta. He scored 9 points in 18 minutes and had a handful of assists, rebounds, and steals besides. Didn't get too many of the headlines, given that Tim Duncan had a line of 31-14-3 in 32 minutes. Tim Duncan is 37 years old. Tim Duncan is a baffling, beautiful, babbling brook. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

• • •

TROY MURPHY (256 MP, PER of 9.1, 1 start) -- 32 YEARS OLD

WHERE IS HE NOW? Much like James White, I have legitimately no idea. Google didn't help and nobody seems to know. I'd assume he's trying to get a job, but he isn't showing up anywhere that I can find.

CAREER HIGH POINT: While Murphy never made an all-star team, he was legitimately close in 2009 and 2005. He averaged 15-11 in 2005 and 14-12 in 2009, combining a ridiculous (and hilarious to watch) nose for the boards with a more-than-respectable three point shot (he shot 45% on five threes a night in 2009, which is insane), excellent free throw shooting (especially for a big), and a moderately passable midrange game. Granted, his defense was always an absolute horror show, which kept him from an all-star game and will relegate his career to a dusty footlocker going forward. But he was certainly a talented offensive player at his peak.

WHY HANG IT UP? Notice I said "at his peak." Murphy has been essentially unplayable for three years now -- he went from a nearly all-star caliber 2010 season to playing like hot garbage in New Jersey's awful 2011 campaign. Despite shooting 40% of his shots from three point range in those three seasons, he's shot a relatively abysmal 32% on those shots -- compound that with his free throw rate falling off a cliff and his significantly worsened rebounding and you have a player whose offense no longer compensates in any way, shape, or form for his laughable defense.

LIKELIHOOD HE STAYS OUT: 80%. Murphy was hard enough to play when his offense was near all-star caliber. How can teams keep giving him a shot when his three has left him and his rebounding faded?

IF HE'S GONE, WHAT WAS HIS LAST GAME? A 23-point loss to Chicago early in the 2013 season. The Mavericks were missing Dirk, so the result made sense. Murphy made two of three shots, including a perfect one-for-one from three. He had two rebounds and two blocks. The blocks should be frozen in amber and saved for future generations -- we finally have real proof that miracles do happen.

• • •

More tomorrow. Or next week, if work continues to bury me. Good to be back. The season begins in 13 days.

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The Fruitless Pursuit of Objective Optimality

Posted on Fri 04 October 2013 in Features by Aaron McGuire


There are a few cardinal rules in statistics. Correlation is not causation (although it often portends it). There is rarely a single cause behind a complex event (although one is often more important than the others). Then there's the big one: you simply can't model a binary outcome with a linear regression model. If you're modeling to a zero/one output (think wins/losses, hits/outs, makes/misses), logistic regression is clearly superior to linear regression. There's no situation where linear regression is acceptable in that situation. You are doing your data a gross disservice and breaking all assumptions of your model. To put it in layman's terms: if you use the wrong model with your data, you f**ked up. That's the one unimpeachable truth in all of statistics. Right?

As my uncanny vehemence to the point might imply, that's not actually the case. Linear regression is often sub-optimal in cases of binary outcomes, it's true. And it's important to teach first-year statisticians to always take care in picking their model. Taking a raw linear regression model and expecting it to produce results fitting expectations on a binary outcome is doomed to fail -- you'll get outputs beyond your expected values and coefficients that honestly don't make sense. But I was recently person to a talk that made me realize something important. The clever statistician can actually get around that problem. Completely side-step it, in fact. It takes a little bit of post-run tinkering to adjust your linear model to a logistic scale -- I won't give you the gory details, but: you need to convert the coefficients through a surprisingly simple transformation (arrived at by equating the derivatives of your respective loss functions) to apply proper bounding to your outputs. Then you need to convert the intercept using a more complicated integral. But that's all math you can do by hand.

Linear regression DOES break the assumptions of a binary outcome. But when you apply the necessary transformations to compare apples to apples rather than apples to oranges, the cost of breaking that assumption can be negligible at best. In fact, in certain datasets, the binary outcome reflects a normal distribution just enough that a transformed linear regression is actually slightly superior to a logistic model. And even in cases where it ISN'T the optimal path, logistic regression models take quite a lot more processing power than linear regressions on even the most modern servers. Hence, modeling data in a linear regression framework with the proper transformations can be significantly more computationally efficient. When you're dealing with data orders of magnitude above the kinds you examine in college (think datasets over 500 gigabytes, which I work with surprisingly often), understanding link functions and ways to convert linear regression estimates to logistic approximations can save you days of processing time and get you quicker results that are nearly as good. The moral: even a discipline's most sacred rules can be broken by a clever, intuitive agent who's playing even a slightly different game.

The rules are the rules. Until they aren't.

• • •

The NBA is almost back. It's close. So close you can taste it. Close your eyes and put your ear to a basketball. Can you hear it? The squeak of the hardwood, the squeal of new Jordans, the swoosh of the net? ... alright, honestly, I can't hear it either. And I probably look really silly right now sitting in my office holding a basketball to my ear. If basketballs were seashells we'd definitely be able to hear it, though. And that's what matters. The disparate agents on your favorite team are collecting. The old and the new, the wizened and the precocious, the Juwan and the Jrue. We're all rapt in anticipation, I tell you what. At this stage of the game nobody really knows what's going to happen. That's the real beauty of the preseason. Every team that wants to be is a playoff team -- every team that's punted the year has the first overall pick in their sights. Nobody's mediocre. Nobody's adrift. We're a winner, damnit!

And so the fans and players enter the NBA's new season with high hopes and a fervent desire to get things right. But it's useful to take a step back and really ruminate on what that means. There are a few rules that the mass commentariat generally agrees on. Contested long two pointers are the worst. Dunks and threes are the greatest. Efficiency reigns. Wins are valuable -- a title, priceless. Sports is a binary exultation of right and wrong. Play the "right" way, you win. Play the "wrong" way, you lose. I'd like to refute that, if only just. Because efficiency, wins, titles are all optimal in a certain frame of thought. But that's the key, isn't it? It's a certain frame of thought.

Sports, like art, is a pursuit of what you value. One must bear in mind the obvious -- any given fan chooses the parameters of their own optimality. And any given player chooses the parameters of THEIR own optimality. Some fans and players have their own deep-seated appreciation for raw efficiency and the calculus of the ideal. But to pretend that those fans and players are the only game in town is to miss the forest for the trees -- there are fans who don't give a moment's thought to the efficiency of the game before them, and there are players who don't really give a flip that the corner three is almost always superior to a fruitless top-of-the-key chuck. There are people who couldn't live without a hyper-efficient basketball team and there are people who couldn't care less. Variety is the spice of life.

• • •

For me, it boils down to this. We can look for what makes a winning basketball player. It's a valuable search, and it's one I'll join in often throughout this year's action. I don't mean to nag, or prescribe, or wag my finger. I'll be right there in the trenches with you, scouring for efficiency and looking for the next big innovation in pursuit of eternal wins. There's always going to be more to learn about the game and the agents that enact it. It's not that we should STOP looking for that. The search of a sort of basketball ideal -- that perfect play, that perfect game, that perfect moment -- is the kind of holy grail quest that can captivate for lifetimes. But sometimes I wonder if the lay basketblogger has overvalued efficiency to the point of incomprehensible lust. I point you to one of the most maligned statements from media day:

Is he wrong? Not factually, although his implication here is somewhat tragic from an efficiency perspective. It's classic Monta behavior. He's being intransigent. He could take better shots if he wanted to. He could be less of a drag on his offense. And he could be "better", by the normal definition of the word. But from a devil's advocate perspective, there's something to be said for remaining true to one's game and sticking to one's guns in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Is it always going to work out for the best? Obviously not, if his goal is to win games. But anyone who's enjoyed their fair share of Cervantes and Camus should be intimately familiar with the idea of a tragic hero. And that's essentially the role Monta's playing here. He's conceding that he takes bad shots and conceding that he could be better. But he's gotten where he is today by playing a certain brand of basketball. Perhaps he likes feeling control over his destiny. Perhaps he feels that success would hardly taste as sweet if he gave up his guns to get there. Perhaps he just likes it better.

Although it's difficult to write a story commending him for that, it's not particularly hard to feel a faint tug away from a bleak world of black and white outcomes. You don't need to be Mick Jagger to feel sympathy for Monta's efficiency-forsaken devil. There's more than one way to play the game and there's more than one way to feel like a winner. There are "better" ways to win, certainly, if winning is your only goal. But basketball is a game of feelings and desires as much as it is a stark pursuit of the angular "W." If Monta feels better when he wins a game his way, that's his prerogative. If a fan prefers to watch Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant chuck prayers in pursuit of a heroic victory in a hard-fought game, that's their bag. If a coach overvalues an inefficient oldie because he plays the game in a way that fits the coach's style, that's their deal. Et cetera, et cetera.

At the end of the day, I'm a fan who values efficiency and the tenets of winning above many things. I appreciate watching a pinpoint Popovich offense predicated on every player's perfect pass. I appreciate a defense where no man misses their cue. But I can also appreciate the allure of the tragic hero, too. One can value the sharp report of the pistol as the gunner shoots his team in the foot without denying the dread inefficiency of the play. And as we enter a new season full of hope and wonder, it's useful to remind oneself of the many different ways to love our favorite game, and to appreciate the league's Don Quixotes. Those merry players that aren't anywhere near the best that they can be, but are comfortable enough to own up to their foibles and win or lose in their own tragic way.

They do not value efficiency and wins above all things. They are imperfect and improper without regret or regard for convention. And their steadfast devotion to that which popular thought considers outmoded and discarded can be the incomprehensible dash of spice that makes the NBA so enthralling, if only you chance to let it.

• The 2014 season begins in 26 days. •

Monta Ellis have it all (credit to USA Today for the photo)

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What the [BLEEP] do we know? ... (About Role Players)

Posted on Tue 09 July 2013 in Features by John Hugar

Pretty sure this has more role players per pixel than any other image I could've possibly found, folks.

Hey, all. Please give a warm welcome to Gothic Ginobili's newest contributor, Grizzlies fan and blogger wunderkind John Hugar. His work has been featured at Three Shades of Blue, The Classical, and The Beast. He's one of the many who followed the Grizzlies on their trek from Vancouver to Memphis, and in a strange turn of events, he ended up in Buffalo. And don't jest, readers -- due to his residence, John knows better than any of us how Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. For John's first Gothic Ginobili piece, he's examining the ever-expanding definition of a "role player" in today's NBA. Do give it a read.

The idea of the elusive role player gets a lot of mileage in NBA circles, no matter where we are in the year. In the playoffs we pontificate about how the Heat benefit from the production of role players like Shane Battier and Mike Miller. When the draft gets into the 20s, we tell ourselves that this is the part of the draft where teams find valuable role players rather than the part where it officially becomes okay to change the channel. Then, in free agency, any time a contender gives the veterans minimum to a guy who can drain a few threes we talk about how that player will help them down the stretch. We imagine him randomly exploding for 25 points in a key playoff game, and throughout the regular season, commentators wax garishly on their rare moments of positive glory. That's the way of the role player, after all. On the surface, this all seems well and good. Who doesn't love role players?

There's just one teensy-tiny problem: no one has the slightest idea what a role player is. For good reason: the definition of "role player" has widened to the point where it means whatever you want it to mean (like "hipster" or "pornography"). These are some of the definitions of a role player that I've heard at various points over the past few years.

  • Any player who is only good at one or two things

  • Any player who isn't a star

  • A nice way of describing a player who sucks

  • Any marginal backup who can put in 10-15 minutes a game on a contender

  • Any player who is often referred to as a "good locker room guy" (see no. 3)

At this point, the term is completely relative. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant would qualify as role players if you only compared them to LeBron James. So it has to be an elastic term. It means all things to all people. I first noticed this definitional crisis was when I heard multiple people refer to the 2011 Mavericks as "Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of role players." To anyone who actually watched that team, this is patently false. Tyson Chandler was one of the best centers in the league that season. Shawn Marion, while slightly past his prime, was still a very effective player who contributed on both sides of the ball. And Jason Terry? He was one of the best sixth men in the league. Clearly, the "bunch of role players" schlock was an exaggeration of the highest order.

But where does this idea come from? I refer to #2 on my list: the star player/role player dichotomy. The idea that anyone who isn't an All-Star must be a role player exists because... well, people are lazy! There are plenty of players who don't fit into either category, and no one wants to take the time to describe them with any nuance. Think of a guy like Caron Butler. He's a former All-Star who still makes plays on both sides of the ball. He's still good enough to be a starter in the NBA. He is Butler University's namesake. (OK, he isn't that last one.) All that said, Butler's clearly not what he used to be, and it would be vastly inaccurate to call him a star in any perceptible way. But he's not really a role player either, since he doesn't exist to fill any specific niche. He's the kind of guy you can't really pigeonhole. Of course, this doesn't stop laziness -- we're all tempted to call him a role player anyway.

If we want to talk ourselves into pretending a crummy player is any good, we can tag him with the role player label. Good thing Shelden Williams is out of the league -- we no longer have to pretend he provides any value to an NBA team ever again. His defense may have been not horrible, but he was a terribly clumsy ball-handler, and as his cringeworthy minute-or-so of play in the 2010 NBA finals proved, he's not someone you ever want on the court in crunch time. I really enjoyed how little we saw of Joel Anthony this past season, who carries a lot of the same dead weight. When the Heat replaced him with the Birdman, they became a better team, and a far more watchable one. Nazr Mohammed may or may not be part of this group, depending on how much value you want to assign to his few good games he had against Miami in the playoffs. He had a strong series against the Heat, which caused the Bulls to commit themselves to one more year of his services. Maybe Nazr makes a few key plays in a playoff series, and leads a rejuvenated Rose and company over the Heat, but it's also quite possible that he'll spend the year merely occupying a roster spot, with those few good games against Miami severely inflating his value to the team. Perhaps it's even likely.

• • •

Now, let's talk about the one definition of role player that does make a little bit of sense: the guy who only does one or two things right. In my view, this is the definition that actually fits the term; a player who is there to perform a specific task or role. Like a character actor, but for basketball. Usually, these players come in two categories: guys who are only there to shoot threes and guys who are only there to play defense. Sometimes, players can fit into both categories, like Danny Green.

Even though I'm partial to that definition, Green's performance in the Finals added another wrinkle to it: what happens when a role player is consistently the best player on the floor? Is he still a role player if he contributes more than any of your star players over a brilliant five-game stretch? In the first five games of the series, Danny Green dominated. He set a record for the most threes made in the finals, and forced the Heat to watch his every move in the final two games. After Game 5, there was serious talk of him being the Finals MVP. If you look at everyone who's won this honor over the award's duration, it's pretty much always a star player. Nine times out of 10, it's the best player on the team -- the other time, it's the second best!

Of course, Green fell out of the running for the honor when the Heat paid closer attention to him and his hot streak ran out. Had the Spurs won the series, Tim Duncan would have almost certainly been named Finals MVP. But Green's run reminds us that when an alleged role player is at his apex, he can be just as valuable as anyone else on the team. Of course, this didn't just happen in the finals -- Green was one of the better shooting guards in the league this season, shooting .429 from the field while averaging in double figures for the West's best team. Does the fact that his skill set is still essentially "three and D" confine him to a role player's fate, or does the fact that he's so ridiculously good at both put him in a different category? The term is meant to help simplify things, but when it comes right down to it, the term gives us more questions than answers.

If Green is actually a role player, he's obviously one of the best ones in the league. For some of the other guys, their value can be inflated and overstated. In each of the past two seasons, the Miami Heat won the title after a guy who had been struggling hit a ton of threes in the deciding game. Last year, it was Mike Miller. This year, it was Shane Battier. If Battier doesn't drain those six threes in Game 7, there's a fair chance the Spurs are champions right now. So, yes -- Battier and Miller are both "valuable" players to the Heat's team. But I doubt either one is irreplaceable. To be a contender, you need a guy who can come off the bench and hit open threes. That's true. But it doesn't need to be any specific guy. Does anyone really think the Heat would have won fewer games if they replaced Mike Miller with, say, Daequan Cook? And suppose we swapped out Battier with Steve Novak -- does that swing the title in San Antonio's favor? I have my doubts. Sure, Battier's six threes carried Miami over San Antonio, but he's not the only player who could have pulled it off, especially when you consider how dreadful he had been in the playoffs up until that point.

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It's not that these players have no value. That's not the moral here. The moral is that real role players -- the one-to-two tool players that really fit the definition -- are fairly interchangeable. You probably do need a few random dudes who can hit threes in order to win a title, but that's what they are: random. The pool of players with limited offensive games who can still hit two out of every five from downtown is wide enough that no one should be hurting in that area. Same goes for big men who just play defense; you can find a big, scary dude who can stand in the other team's way if you try hard enough. (For teams who are interested, I hear Jason Collins is looking for a deal.)

The discussion of role players has gotten completely out of control. We're at the point where we have no clear picture on what a role player is or how much value one actually provides. The role player tag is applied to various players at completely disparate talent levels, making us over-value some and under-value others. Rather than being an efficient way of describing what a non-star player does, the term complicates thing, and makes it all the more difficult to determine a player's true value. I propose one of two solutions. Either we all agree on one definition of a role player: a guy who is only there to shoot threes and/or play defense (and we also agree that Danny Green is by far the best of these players). Or, we agree to eliminate the concept of role players altogether, and do what the folks of Springfield did with Seymour Skinner's previous life as Armin Tamzarian: never speak of it again, under penalty of torture.

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