TrueHoop: Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons on tanking

April, 3, 2012
Abbott By Henry Abbott
HoopIdea has a lot of roles.

One is to attempt, as best we can, knowing darned well we'll fail constantly, to acknowledge, curate and promote the many great ideas made public before we got started.

And when it comes to re-imagining the NBA, Bill Simmons has been a leading voice for a long time. One of our recent obsessions, tanking, is one of his pet topics.

In "The Book of Basketball," Simmons takes us back to the heyday of tanking:
With Hakeem and Jordan looming as draft prizes, both the Rockets (blew 14 of their last 17, including 9 their last 10) and Bulls (lost 19 of their last 23, including 14 of their last 15) said, "Screw it, we'll bastardize the sport," and pulled some fishy crap: resting key guys, giving lousy guys big minutes and everything else. Things peaked in Game 81 when a washed-up Elvin Hayes played every minute of Houston's overtime loss to the Spurs. Since none of the other crappy teams owned their picks, only Chicago and Houston controlled their destinies (hence the tanking). ... The unseemly saga spurred the creation of a draft lottery the following season. And even that didn't totally solve the tanking problem; Team Stern has changed the lottery system five times in twenty-four years, and we're probably headed for a sixth soon.

In a 2007 "Tanks a lot" column he noted that the NBA is fun when really good players play on really good teams:
I blame the lottery for foisting modified parity on us. Ever since Orlando went back-to-back, top picks have gone to lousy teams every spring, creating a vicious circle in which the lottery replenishes weak teams with blue-chippers who aren't ready to carry weak teams. In the past 14 years, only one No. 1 pick made his team instantly competitive: Tim Duncan, who joined a contender that had slipped only because of injuries. Looking back, was it bad that Duncan and David Robinson played together? Was the NBA's competitive spirit compromised? Of course not.

And that's why the lottery sucks: Not only does it render the occasional Duncan/ Robinson pairing nearly impossible, not only does it reward poorly run clubs like the Hawks (103 games under .500 since the 1998-99 season), it encourages also-rans to bottom out once they suffer some bad luck because they know it's their best chance to eventually contend. So can't we admit that the lottery system has failed? Shouldn't the element of luck play a bigger role than it does?

Simmons proposed a return to "the envelope lottery," where the 14 teams that miss the playoffs each receive an equal chance (an envelope with their logo in it) to win the top pick.

Two years later, in a conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, Simmons renewed the call for decent teams to have a crack at top picks:
I am a fervent "Every lottery team should have the same odds" believer for two reasons: Not only would it eliminate any incentive to tank down the stretch for a "better" draft pick (really, better odds at a better draft pick), but the current setup penalizes potential franchise players by giving them too much responsibility for carrying inferior teams. A borderline lottery team defied the odds three times: In 1993 with Orlando (the Magic reach the NBA Finals two years later); in 1997 with San Antonio (the Spurs bottom out only because of Robinson's injury, land Tim Duncan, then win the title two years later) and in 2008 with Chicago (the Bulls land Rose, turn into a fringe contender, then give us the best first-round series ever). Was it a bad thing that we turned a half-decent young team into a contender? Did anyone not like how this turned out?

The bigger issue (you already hinted at it): Of all the professional sports, parity hurts the NBA the most. Ideally, you want a league with a distinct upper class and a distinct lower class.

More recently, on Grantland, Simmons re-capped the other element of his anti-tanking agenda: A season-ending tournament for the eighth playoff spots in each conference.
My Entertaining as Hell Tournament -- the top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then the other 16 teams play a single-elimination tournament to "win" the no. 8 seeds. This would discourage tanking for lottery picks, reward late-bloomer teams and generate extra interest because, again, this tournament would be entertaining as hell. All 14 games would be televised -- eight in Round 1, four in Round 2, then a doubleheader final at Madison Square Garden to decide the no. 8 seeds -- over a week as the other 14 playoff teams regrouped and rested up.

Rajon, the overrated?

February, 28, 2012
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
I was shocked to see Rajon Rondo at No. 17 in #NBA Rank and recently irked by his presence in the All-Star game. I am what you might call a "Rondo hater," insofar as that term means believing an athlete to be worse than consensus. Obviously, Rajon is good, obviously he can help a squad. This is simply a matter of, "Should he really have made three All-Star teams?," the way even Nash admirers question Steve's two MVPs.

This touches on a broader issue, one of what we expect from our point guards. The position has a certain cachet in the league. It means more to the average observer than say, power forward. A point guard is a team's "quarterback," its "engine," that drink-stirring straw. The point guard does not play on a squad so much as he animates it, infusing four others with his giving spirit. Or so the legend goes.

There is a platonic ideal for the point guard position, and that is to be an unselfish distributor. Rajon Rondo passes that test, no pun intended. The man is second in assists this year, and he notched a whopping 11.2 per game last year. For this reason, Rondo is considered a "pure point guard," the way other role-fitting stars might be considered "pure scorers." That he embodies an archetype might help explain how Rondo received a No. 17 #NBARank after a season in which he garnered a No. 69 PER.

But Rondo does not fit my platonic ideal for a point guard, because Boston's offense, to put it mildly, stinks. They are 23rd ranked in offensive efficiency this year, and this season is not exactly aberrational. In five-plus years with Rajon, the Celtics have only had a top 10 offense once. There are external factors to explain the anemic attack, but Rondo might be somewhat to blame despite his respectable PER.

To quote Bill Simmons on the matter: "Any smart team (like the Lakers last night) plays six feet off Rondo in tight games, daring him to shoot, paralyzing Boston's offense and leading to the dreaded "Clogged Toilet" play (Pierce ending up with the ball 25 feet from the hoop with seven seconds left trying to create something)." So he racks up assists, and certainly contributes. But Rajon's shooting woes might prevent him from running the kind of humming offense that Nash puppeteers.

Boston's defense was paramount during Rondo's reign, and the ball-hawking sprite deserves credit for his role. The issue is that point guard--as a position--might be less important defensively than those frontcourt spots. Recall how KG's arrival brought with it a renaissance of stringiness. While it is important for every man to play his defensive role, defense relies on occupying space, and the largest players are often the best space takers. This might have something to do with why Gary Payton was the last point guard to win Defensive Player of the Year, way back in 1996.

So this is a question of what you think a point guard's role is. Is it to get assists? Is it to run an efficient offense? Inject the question of whether defense is really 'half the game' for an offense-oriented position, and you have perhaps the NBA's hardest player to gauge.

The keynote panel from MIT Sloan

March, 8, 2011
Abbott By Henry Abbott

Justin Bieber plays basketball

February, 19, 2011
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Justin Bieber took the court in the All-Star celebrity game, and he was not the best player on the court -- he missed eight of his eleven shots, had some frustration fouls and was a liability on defense. He wasn't the biggest, either. But thanks to fan votes determining the pick, he was both the MVP (despite his team losing), and the player who had the NBA talking:

Many thanks to Bryan Gold for editing.

Brent Barry's report from Daryl Morey's conference

April, 7, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Brent Barry has been thinking about statistics.

"Statistics," he says, "are like bikinis. They're really nice to look at but they don't tell you the whole story."

Barry attended the recent MIT Sloan Sports Conference with an NBA camera crew, and captured meaningful insight from the likes of Bill Simmons, Daryl Morey, Adam Silver and Mark Cuban.

My favorite moment comes when Barry asks Johnson if stats have ever really helped him as a coach, and Johnson talks about when he coached the Mavericks in a playoff series against the Rockets.

The numbers showed that Dallas was getting killed whenever Brent's brother, Jon Barry, checked into the game.

Brent, at this point, accuses Johnson of lying.

Then Johnson goes on to explain how, with this insight, the Mavericks changed tactics and went small whenever Jon Barry checked into the game, and it turned things around for them.

Perhaps you have already read the super long and interesting e-mail exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons (complete with Gladwell's tale of blowing off Jennifer Aniston in a Miami coffee shop). In Part 2, Gladwell suggests that the league should not reward teams for performing badly, as they do by giving worse teams better draft picks. 

The consistent failure of underdogs in professional sports to even try something new suggests, to me, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the incentive structure of the leagues. I think, for example, that the idea of ranking draft picks in reverse order of finish -- as much as it sounds "fair" -- does untold damage to the game. You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about "moral hazard." Moral hazard is the idea that if you insure someone against risk, you will make risky behavior more likely. So if you always bail out the banks when they take absurd risks and do stupid things, they are going to keep on taking absurd risks and doing stupid things. Bailouts create moral hazard. Moral hazard is also why your health insurance has a co-pay. If your insurer paid for everything, the theory goes, it would encourage you to go to the doctor when you really don't need to. No economist in his right mind would ever endorse the football and basketball drafts the way they are structured now. They are a moral hazard in spades. If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM, where's my incentive not to be an atrocious GM?

I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team's name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don't think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.

Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic -- like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad -- you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can't-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important. What do you think?

Even as I don't totally buy this, I'm intrigued.

First of all, does the NBA really have a lot of teams locked in the cellar? In fairly recent memory, every team still alive in the playoffs has been either pretty bad or really bad (Remember when Magic Johnson was resigning as Laker coach, Antoine Walker was getting booed in Boston, and the Cavaliers were a laughingstock?). All kinds of traditional powerhouses (Pistons, Spurs) are asking hard questions as they look forward. And teams that have been seen as inept, like the Hawks and Warriors have had their thrills in recent years.

No, I'm not optimistic about the Clippers -- but I can't see changing the whole league for them.

Also, it really would be hard to watch the NBA champions tack on a Kevin Durant or similar every year. I don't love the idea of alternating between a lottery and a draft with best team's first -- essentially you'd be making some regular seasons more valuable than others. With three games left, if you're close to getting homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, do you rest your banged up superstar for the post-season or not? In this system, that would depend on the year ... Which is weird.

But I am intrigued by the idea of having every team in the draft lottery. I believe that some teams are poorly run. Putting every team in the lottery every year would put real pressure on owners of bad teams to innovate, and to find front office leaders and coaches who got real results. That process could not help but inspire innovation.

One other idea that has been on TrueHoop before, and that Gladwell brings up: How about no lottery at all? What if there was no draft, and every rookie was a free agent? That would make things very interesting. Perhaps you'd need to give everybody the same budget -- $5 million max for rookies or something. You can spread that around as much or as little as you'd like. But there's no way that wouldn't be interesting as hell.

UPDATE: Also, on his website, Gladwell addresses criticism of his New Yorker article about the full-court press and underdog strategy.