TrueHoop: Mark Cuban

NCAA a bigger threat to NBA than FIBA

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
videoIt’s truly insane that the NBA allows its best talents to risk their careers playing in a different league for different coaches, but sometimes tradition codifies insanity. Perhaps the latest gruesome injury will cause the league to reconsider.

How can a sport trafficking in billions allow its brightest stars to fall into a nebulous area where top medical attention isn't assured? How can such a powerful corporation toss the reins to a bunch of slapdash programs that have little incentive to help the NBA and every incentive to win right now, even if the player suffers long term? In the parlance of Mark Cuban, it’s the epitome of stupidity that the NBA allows itself to be used so that other corporations make hundreds of millions, if not billions.

I'm talking about NCAA basketball, of course. Right now, quite a few owners and executives are fixated on FIBA, with some seeing Paul George's sickening injury in a Team USA scrimmage as a "game-changer," or at least a validation for long-held concerns. There's a revulsion at how an event NBA teams have no control over can alter the trajectory of an entire franchise. The aforementioned Cuban has emphatically tweeted in opposition to a system in which players don't get paid, the NBA doesn’t get paid and all the money flows to an opaque sports bureaucracy.

Thing is, that arrangement perfectly describes NCAA basketball -- just without the hand-wringing from NBA executives on how something must be done. How does this one major injury in the history of American international play prove that it’s a big, scary risk while the many college ball injuries aren't used as an indictment against that particular system?

NBA teams aren't technically linked financially to college players like the Indiana Pacers are to George, but injuries at the NCAA level can be just as devastating to pro franchises. Say you have a top pick in a year when the top prospect (say, Nerlens Noel) shreds his knee. There are few (and sometimes no) franchise guys in a draft, and now you're either incurring the risk of selecting an injured talent or casting your lot with a more dubious talent (say, most of the players drafted before Noel). The Pacers will probably be without George's services for a season. Missing on a high draft pick might haunt a team for a decade.

Injuries in college aren't just a threat to specific NBA teams and owners, either. Apart from the obviously negative impact on the afflicted player, they're an economic threat to players in general. The players' association loses incredible amounts of basketball related income (BRI) if the next LeBron James suffers something career derailing for whichever one-and-done mill.

And yet, there's little concern over how the NBA might be hurt by loaning out its talent to a game with different rules, part-time refs and medical oversight that runs the gamut. Even though the NBA's most famous stars (James, Kobe Bryant) reached that echelon without any help from college basketball, there's a pervading notion that the college game is a necessary component of the pro game, that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Former commissioner David Stern even went so far as to help the college game with an age limit that keeps generational talents battling the likes of Alcorn State. Current commissioner Adam Silver isn't satisfied with that arrangement and lists raising said age limit as his "top priority."

The NBA just loves supporting college basketball, and it's not as if it faces opposition from owners and executives in the way it does for supporting these monthlong FIBA jaunts. Yes, a month, unlike the college system that's a season unto itself, one that actually runs parallel to the NBA's season.

It's often said that NCAA hoops is the NBA's "free farm system," but what kind of free farm system competes financially with the sport it feeds into? The cost of "free" is a postseason that's more popular than yours and runs smack-dab in the middle of your season. College football shows deference to the NFL product by being a Saturday event, leaving Sunday to the pros. College basketball runs on a "Whenever we please, NBA be damned," schedule. In fact, the NBA avoids holding its games during college basketball's championship tournament.

When you step back from warm associations with March Madness and curmudgeonly coaches in sweater vests, it seems as if the NBA just gives prized talent away to an ungrateful competitor. It's a competitor that hasn't proved it can develop talent for the NBA, either. The more time a player spends in college, the less likely he is to prosper as a pro.

Given the enumerated headaches the NBA gets in return for helping college basketball, it's a wonder there's pushback within the league against players helping out FIBA in their free time. Sure, the NBA can't wholly monetize international competition. It can't monetize the college game, either. Sure, there's a risk of NBA stars getting hurt playing in FIBA competition. There's a risk major draft picks get hurt playing domestically for colleges. At least the rare FIBA tournament helps spread awareness around the world about the NBA’s product. College basketball serves primarily as an advertisement for watching more regularly programmed college basketball.

So why is the NBA establishment content with college and uneasy with FIBA? It might have something to do with just how many people in the NBA establishment are college basketball fans. The NCAA fan demo skews older and wealthier than NBA fandom, matching up well with the demographics of those who actually run the NBA. There are many positive, nostalgic associations with the college game among pro basketball's power brokers. The FIBA World Cup just doesn't have that kind of emotional pull. College ball is familiar, playfully tribal. FIBA is quite literally foreign. Perhaps that difference is why one kind of basketball inspires fondness and the other evokes fear.

MIT Sloan 2014: Oh, the humanity

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference isn’t about stats anymore. Not coincidentally, it’s much-improved.

Stats really never stood a chance at Dorkapalooza. As Danny Nowell demonstrated, a belief in information as currency quickly begets a reluctance to share information. If you think stats are the future, you’re hoarding the future a la Biff and his Grays Sports Almanac in "Back to the Future Part II."

Yes, there are still academic papers at the conference up for discussion. But the stars of the show are the stars -- the nationally famous owners, general managers and coaches.

So don’t attack this conference as a bunch of geeks trading slide rule war stories. The convention is no longer proliferating the academic advancement it symbolizes. They moved this thing away from MIT, remember.

Instead, SSAC 2014 offered us an enticing look at the future of sports entertainment. Paradoxically, that future has all to do with messy, imperfect humanity, and little to do with statistics.

Malcolm Gladwell grilling newly minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver on James Dolan’s tax benefits? Yes please. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive getting into it over which of their teams is tanking? Don’t mind if I do. Stan Van Gundy mocking the Sixers in extreme language? Pass the popcorn already.

After so much focus on the rather dehumanizing process of commodifying athlete performance, the Sloan Conference somehow managed to commodify the humanity of its speakers. Nearly everyone at Sloan believes in the competitive power of data, but Sloan, like sports, is a personality-driven business. Selling tickets to Phil Jackson talking extemporaneously is easier than selling tickets to a guy you’ve never heard of expounding on rebounding.

It’s hard to beat live, reality TV. Adam Silver seemed a bit nervous and it was riveting. Stan Van Gundy waxed angry and it was hilarious. In their panel on negotiations, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers appeared vulnerable and it was cathartic.

The latter event was the least contentious, which is funny when you consider how these men are supposedly tasked with swindling each other up until trade deadlines. Morey and Myers both vented about the travails of dealing with GMs who try to lecture you on what’s best for your team. They expressed frustration with peers who seek to win the trade as opposed to finding common ground. The normally opaque general managers dropped the veil and conveyed the exhaustion of working in a world so steeped in secrecy and paranoia.

Most memorably, Morey dished on his fear in response to Golden State’s deal for Andre Iguodala. Morey revealed how he thought the trade might put Houston’s Dwight Howard venture in jeopardy: “This is where my emotion takes over. I go into a complete panic. I really did. I thought it was down to us, Dallas, L.A." What followed was an anecdote about how a frantic Morey called Mark Cuban to inquire about Dirk Nowitzki (Cuban assumed that Morey was sarcastically taunting him).

Morey is among the most media-friendly GMs -- he invited the media to this conference that he co-founded, after all. “Friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean “open,” though. But alongside Myers, Morey was startlingly open.

That’s the secret for turning a suit into a storyteller. He needs some company up there on stage, people who hail from his cloistered world and can validate the statements. This is how many of these panels evoked the loose, conversational, and at times, contentious comedy of shows like HBO’s "Real Time" and ESPN’s "Pardon the Interruption."

The Parade of Loosened Ties has yet to reach the mainstream in the way many advanced statistics have. The Sloan conference is more entertaining than ever before, but it still (intentionally) plays to an exclusive audience. In Boston, we can see the future of how sports leagues will feed the fan’s increasingly voracious appetite: Get the most powerful people in sports together and get them talking.

Might you enjoy a panel of GMs discussing team needs a week before the trade deadline? Would you listen to two famous coaches razz each other for your amusement?

Suit-based sports entertainment would be the natural outgrowth of the statistical revolution that turned Billy Beane into someone Brad Pitt plays in a movie. And even though “suit-based sports entertainment” sounds terrifyingly corporate, the results at the Sloan petri dish were captivating.

Information is currency, so owners, GMs, and coaches won’t spend it on us. But celebrity is the rare currency that earns as you spend it. If the analytics movement pulled "the geeks" into the spotlight, it’s only a matter of time before those geeks grab the mike and make use of their newfound fame.

Monday Bullets

August, 19, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • Premiering Friday in Chicago: "Lockout: The Musical," by Ben Fort and Ballerball's Jason Gallagher.
  • Chris Hansen, the hedge-fund manager whose bid to bring the Kings to Seattle, contributed $100,000 to a PAC aimed at torpedoing a plan to build a new arena in Sacramento. Hansen says he regrets the decision. James Ham of Cowbell Kingdom: "Once a white knight for Seattle, Hansen now comes across as vindictive, smug and bitter. He is still holding tightly to a 'binding agreement' that was never really binding. By taking the next step and attempting to spoil Sacramento’s arena deal, he comes across as petty and small."
  • The sad mystery of former Pacer and Israeli Basketball Super League legend Kenny Williams, who was deported from Israel to the United States, where he's now confronting a new series of legal problems.
  • Seerat Sohi at Hardwood Paroxysm: "You learn that the whole of life is just a gigantic struggle between deciding when to be selfish and when to be unselfish. When to shoot and when to pass. When to drive the lane with reckless abandon and when to set the offense. You learn that these things are as simple as they are impossible. It takes experience, it takes a cerebral, Chris Paul-esque sense of everything that’s happening around you."
  • Never seen "Space Jam" on the big screen? The E Street Cinema in Washington, just four blocks or so from the Verizon Center, has you covered on Aug. 30.
  • When Jarrett Jack clowns J.R. Smith about spending $450,000 on an armored truck, Smith tweets back with, "Man stop it u spend that on clothes!"
  • Interesting stuff from Ian Levy at Hickory High about the rote perceptions surrounding pot and pro basketball players.
  • Roy Hibbert send thanks to the Spurs for letting him use their facility to work out.
  • Metta World Peace will be playing a twin-bill comedy show on Aug. 31 at the Hollywood Improv.
  • Finally getting around to reading "Nixonland," a fun, narrative, pulpy political history of the mid-60's through mid-70's. When Richard Nixon gets serious about targeting political enemies with instruments of power like the IRS and FBI, one of his early targets is longtime Democratic operative Larry O'Brien, who would later become NBA Commissioner.
  • If the Warriors win big this season, could a healthy Stephen Curry emerge as an MVP threat?
  • If we're in the Wireless Age, then why are we still plugging so many things in? Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is part of a group of investors funding an endeavor by Meredith Perry that wants to solve that problem with piezoelectrical technology.

Should the Mavericks draft Griner?

April, 4, 2013
By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Information

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCould Brittney Griner hold her own in the NBA?
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently said that he would consider drafting Brittney Griner in the second round of the NBA Draft.

Could Griner play in the NBA? Would it be wise for the Mavericks to use a second-round pick on the Baylor superstar?

Mavericks don’t draft well
Since Cuban became the majority owner of the Mavericks in 2000, the team's 22 draft picks have a grand total of one career All-Star appearance. That was 2003 first-round pick Josh Howard, who was an All-Star in 2007.

Since 1995, the Mavericks are the only NBA franchise whose draft picks have fewer than two combined career All-Star appearances (other than the Bobcats, whose first season was 2004).

The Mavericks have selected 16 players in the second round under Cuban. Of those picks, 10 never played a game in the NBA and just two – Dan Langhi (2000) and Kenny Satterfield (2001) – even scored more than 200 career points.

Those 16 second-round picks have a combined 295 career games and 945 career points. Based on this track record, it appears the Mavericks aren't so great at finding the "sleeper" second-round picks.

The success rate for second-round picks isn't very high league-wide. From 2000 to 2011, only 30 percent (108 of 356) of second-round picks have played at least 100 career games in the NBA.

Griner dominates
Griner is different than most female players in that she can play above the rim. Griner has 18 career dunks, more than every other woman in Division I history combined. Griner dunked three times in one game, while Candace Parker is the only other woman to dunk more than three times in her entire college career.

Griner led all women’s players in points per post-up play, points per play overall, points per play allowed and opponent field-goal percentage this season. She held opponents to 23 percent shooting as an on-ball defender.

Of course, men's college basketball is a completely different game than Griner's competition. Griner doesn't face the same size, athleticism and strength that she would face in the NBA.

But for what it's worth, if Griner posted the same numbers in the men’s game, she would’ve led the country in points per post-up play, points per play allowed and opponent field-goal percentage.

She wouldn’t be the first
If Griner were to be selected, she wouldn't be the first woman ever selected in the NBA Draft. In 1969, Denise Long was selected in the 13th round by the San Francisco Warriors.

Long was a high school player who averaged 62.8 points per game during her senior year. However, the NBA later voided the selection because they felt it was a publicity stunt.

In 1977, Lusia Harris was selected in the seventh round by the New Orleans Jazz. The Delta State star officially became the only woman ever picked in the NBA Draft, although she never actually played in an NBA game.

Eddy Curry's reboot

October, 31, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Eddy Curry
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Eddy Curry: The Mavs' newest reclamation project.

LOS ANGELES -- Would you look at Eddy Curry? Wrestling Pau Gasol down on the right block, taking him middle after a massive drop step, then deking him with an up-and-under move?

Eddy Curry?

"I was just trying to get Pau off his feet a little bit," Curry said with a sheepish smile. "It worked. I got him out of position, and I was able to stand between him and the basket and bank it off the glass."

As Curry toweled off at his locker, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stood outside in the concourse snarling, "The Curri-nator!"

"Eddy was a beast," Cuban said. "He still has a long way to go defensively, but underneath and in the post, he's not afraid of anybody."

Curry's line Tuesday wasn't beastly -- seven points, four rebounds and four personal fouls in 17 minutes -- but he bothered Gasol all night on both ends. Once a ghastly 300 pounds-plus, a slimmed-down Curry bumped Gasol on both ends of the floor. While he was out there, Curry was the most physical player for an undermanned team that had to resort to guerrilla warfare to beat the Lakers 99-91 in Los Angeles.

"I asked [Gasol], 'You got something personal against me or something?'" Curry said. "'You trying to body me?' But it was fun."

Fun hasn't played a prominent role in Curry's career since he was drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2001, except for legions of NBA fans for whom Curry has been a reliable punch line over the years. Between his weight issues, personal turmoil, serious heart problems that jeopardized his career, and his association with the Isiah Thomas Knicks, Curry became a cautionary tale -- a young project gone bad.

On Tuesday night, Curry was effusive after the game. His exuberance wasn't glib or an expression of self-satisfaction. Curry was simply a guy who'd had a blast for two hours.

"It was a fun game, man," Curry said. "I'm a physical player, and I look for contact. We're out west, so we'll see them again. It was fun."

Curry is the unlikeliest of reclamation projects. He had a cup of coffee with Miami last season but never played meaningful minutes for the Heat's championship team. Claimed off waivers less than a week ago, he didn't figure to play a much larger role with the Mavericks. But with injuries to Chris Kaman and Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas' front line was thin, especially against a starting frontcourt of Dwight Howard and Gasol. The Mavs needed Curry's size Tuesday -- they'd worry about the skills later.

For Curry, Dallas is the perfect lifeboat, an organization that demands professionalism and features a coach who can maximize the strengths -- few as they might be -- of every rostered player.

"[The Mavericks] take guys who kind of float around," Curry said. "They give them a home. They give them confidence and just reboot them a little bit. If Mark gets you over here, he sees something in you, and the team will get it out of you."

Seventeen minutes in October does not a restoration make, but if the Mavs can bank some wins against a relatively soft schedule with a 29-year-old Curry as a contributor, his story just might take a turn.

More from Mark Cuban on the Chris Paul deal

February, 14, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Mark Cuban made his feelings about the Chris Paul trade saga public back in December, and reiterated them last night as the Mavericks and Clippers squared off in Dallas:
The right deal, in Cuban's opinion, would have been none at all, even if that meant losing Paul for nothing at the end of the season.

"You're better off just taking the cap room, or whatever," Cuban said.

... "I don't think it was about the Lakers, per se," Cuban said before the game. "I think it was just the way they did the deal, which was ridiculous. I don't think it was about which team. I think it was the fact that, even with the Clippers, we just went through this whole (collective bargaining agreement) and said the incumbent team still has the advantage and then the team the league owns (wimps) out. And look how it's worked out for them.

"Bad management gets you bad results."

That was meant as a jab at NBA commissioner David Stern, not Hornets general manager Dell Demps.

"It's not about being better or worse," Cuban said when asked to compare the offers for Paul. "It's hard to judge any trade until it's done. It's about the concepts involved and the integrity of what we went through for the CBA. That's what it's all about. (The league office) screwed the pooch either way.

"The whole idea about having most of these rules is that you'd have an advantage and wouldn't have to trade people."

Cuban has made a bunch of smart points about the clumsiness of the events surrounding Paul's departure from New Orleans, but here's where I take issue with his logic. He's repeatedly stated that the negotiations of the new collective bargaining agreement should have empowered the Hornets to dig their heels in and hold on to Paul for the full duration of his contract. After all, why fight for a new CBA only to cave on the very principles the battle was waged when a superstar asks out?!

The problem here is that the new CBA didn't adequately address the issue Cuban refers to with regard to the incumbent team still having an advantage at retaining the services of a superstar. Yes, the Hornets would still be able to offer Paul more money than any other club -- and I also agree with Cuban that letting Paul walk while getting nothing in return wouldn't have been the worst outcome for the Hornets -- but what other assets do they have other than some abstract notion of incumbency?

If the league's owners were serious about giving teams like the Hornets the leverage they needed to hang on to players like Paul, they should have demanded a franchise tag, plain and simple. While they were at it, they should have also radically reformed a system that rewards franchises with low-priced, high-ceiling talent when they dump good players. The Lakers/Rockets package was rejected, in some part, because the players coming to New Orleans would've made the Hornets too competitive which, in turn, would've made it difficult for New Orleans to get its hands on the best young talent on the draft board for the foreseeable future. [I personally disagree with the first proposal and agree with the second].

Cuban's frustration is understandable and even justified on many levels. But the idea that the new CBA should've prompted the Hornets to hang onto Paul doesn't pass muster. The incentives simply weren't strong enough -- otherwise Paul would still be a Hornet. The spirit of the law and the law itself are two very different things.

We made LeBron boring

December, 27, 2011
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
I’ll certainly enjoy Tuesday’s Boston Celtics-Miami Heat game, but it won’t have the deed to my attention span. Last season’s Celtics-Heat opener owned my anticipation, attention and, later, my ruminations. I sat bolt-upright in a musty, saw-dusted sports bar, eyes bulging toward the TV. I interrogated the game for some kind of predictive meaning. I interrogated bar patrons for how they felt about LeBron.

LeBron, the interest generator. His ability to do so has almost come to define him. And yet, there isn’t much current buzz tailing James this season. Much of that is attributable to Lob City’s zeitgeist hijacking. The Heat are a known quantity, whereas nobody quite grasps the ceiling of a Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin flying trapeze act. The Los Angeles Clippers' season makes for a new story, while the Heat are a sequel.

But there is another interest-sapping factor.

After Sunday’s Dallas Maver-Miami NBA Finals rematch, Brian Windhorst expertly described the empty feeling that came with a superb LeBron James performance:

“But despite the opponent, setting and marquee billing, this exorcised no demons. It was James playing without pressure, a reminder of both how good he is and how bad he was in that series.”

Last season was great fun for Miami, due in part to how seemingly every game was a litmus.

Can this team make the NBA Finals? Is this loss reflective of why these guys are losing losers? Does this win mean they “get it”?

There was a real chasm between those who believed Miami to be fatally flawed and those who thought them a super team. Playoff events dismissed the doubters, right up until the very end. Then, a shocking turn. LeBron faded out, fell apart, shrunk, whatever you want to call it. James was not himself, which according to some, revealed his true self. But if the final word on LBJ is only uttered in June, why should people stick around for the months of noise that precedes it?

The shadow of LeBron's postseason failure used to stir interest in his regular-season exploits. Today, it creates a sense of relative meaninglessness per his in-season accomplishments. In our zeal to make a championship the ultimate referendum on LeBron’s greatness, we’ve stolen intrigue from all that leads to it in this second Heat attempt. We've made him LeBoring.

Looking across the aisle

July, 14, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
When the lockout happened in 1998, it made a lot of sense for the league. While it sucks that we lost three months and 32 games of regular season basketball, it was a necessary evil for the league to give themselves a timeout and figure out the lay of the land.

Kevin Garnett had just signed one of the biggest contracts in sports history and he was only 21 years old. The NBA was losing its dynasty and greatest player with the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls and the retirement (one of them) of Michael Jordan. The league had to figure out where it was going and how to get there in the most stable and lucrative financial situation possible. There was no guarantee of a transcendent star carrying a league on off nights and through national broadcasts throughout the week.

Heading into this lockout, the league is in a similar situation. It’s not the same in terms of losing a transcendent star (Shaq lost his luster years ago and Yao Ming has been sadly absent for far too long because of injuries), but it’s similar in that the league needs to get a hold of the financial parameters of its business. It needs to try to ensure that no matter what the accounting books tell you or what the owners tell you the books tell you, the NBA is ready to recover from the recent economic spiral and set itself up to be as profitable as possible in the coming future.

With so many hundreds of millions of dollars at stake now, and even billions of dollars at stake over the course of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it makes sense in theory for David Stern to have a strict policy of teams and players not interacting during this “negotiating period.” (Although, it would be nice if they were actually, you know, negotiating). The owners and the players union both need to show solidarity and unity in their actions during the lockout, so they can appear to be as strong as ever when they do actually sit down and try to hammer out a deal again.

So when Seth Meyers at the ESPYs was making jokes about the Mavericks being glad they aren’t allowed to talk to Mark Cuban during the lockout and we see the camera cut to Cuban and Jason Kidd sitting across the aisle from each other, laughing at the joke, and then sharing a moment of eye contact in recognition of the joke and the meaning behind it, I wondered just where the line in the sand actually was drawn.

It seemed like the seating chart and the longing looks across the aisle were set up to cost Cuban $1 million for interacting with players. I figured I was just reading into it too much and hoping for some kind of controversy during this NBA lockout. A short time later, Dirk Nowitzki won the ESPY for best NBA player and said, "I also want to thank Mark Cuban, but since I can't talk to him you've got to say hello to him."

However, there really wasn’t any “harm” done and the entire scene seemed to be bordering on a broken up couple that was trying to figure out how to greet each one another after crossing paths at the grocery store (if that grocery store was full of professional athletes and giving out awards).

Then the Mavericks won the ESPY for the best team of the year and all relative hell broke loose. Mark Cuban and the players got up, crossed the aisle (literally), and began hugging and congratulating each other. There was no getting around this contact between an owner and its players. Cuban was talking to his guys and Jason Kidd joked that since Cuban wrote the checks, he could pay the fine.

This is where we have some confusion and weakness within the guidelines of the lockout gag order. If the NBA gave Mark Cuban a reprieve of sorts for the night’s festivities, it shows weakness. It shows that award shows and moments of charity could be a loophole of sorts for owners and players to find a way to interact. It lessens the threat of Stern’s iron fist.

But if the league didn’t give Mark Cuban a reprieve for the evening and the NBA’s most maverick owner of sorts (see what I did there?) is willing to pay a heavy fine and break the links of the ownership chain for an evening, just to accept another shiny trophy, then the players union looks stronger than the owner’s stance, even if for a night.

Clearly, Cuban can afford a million dollar fine. And even if it’s a million dollar per player he interacted with last night, he can afford a $7 million fine as well. However, the money isn’t the issue here.

Stern and Cuban have had their issues in the past. Cuban has been looked at as a threat to Stern and the way he runs the league and oversees the officiating. He’s been looked at as a troublemaker and someone that doesn’t mind spitting into the wind of the NBA. He’s willing to accept outrageously massive fines in order to make sure his team and players are being taken care of and treated in a fair manner by the league.

However, this act of a brief moratorium on a league-mandated order of silence, whether allowed by the league or not, is a win in every way for the players union.

It doesn’t mean the lockout will end tomorrow and the players will win every issue and compromise on the table. It just means the players have held stronger together than the owners and league have so far during the first two weeks of the lockout. That gratification from an Internet of voters on was briefly more important than negotiating tactics.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Not because I side with the players (I don’t really side with any side in this lockout), but because I think it’s ridiculous that while the two sides are supposed to be working out a business agreement for the next five to ten years, they’re not actually allowed to talk to each other unless there are lawyers present.

I understand the concept of unity when it comes to a labor dispute. My dad was the president of a law enforcement union for a long time, and I watched him deal with relative but similar issues every day for the better part of a decade. However, it makes no sense to me that interaction between an employer and its employees would have to be such a taboo occurrence.

When you tell two teenagers that they’re no longer allowed to see each other because the parents don’t like one another, it doesn’t stop the teenagers from wanting to be together and spend time together. If anything, it intensifies the situation and turns it into a more immature circumstance than previously feared.

At this time, Billy Hunter and Stern need to understand that not letting the owners and players date this summer isn’t going to make them not want to be together. It’s just going to lead to more hopeful looks across the aisle.

The keynote panel from MIT Sloan

March, 8, 2011
Abbott By Henry Abbott

Sounding the whistle on referee analytics

March, 4, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
When Jon Wertheim was researching his new book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games are Won," someone associated with NBA officiating told him, "There’s a code that when the game steps up, we step down.”

Codes are human constructions, and for those who are disgusted by the idea of referee bias, that unwritten rule is precisely the kind of variable that corrupts the game.

The Tim Donaghy scandal and a study by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers on racial bias have focused the lens on NBA officiating in recent years. And the issue was the subject of a panel at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Moderated by Bill Simmons, the panel included Wertheim, NFL official Mike Carey, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and sabermetrician Phil Birnbaum.

Call the game uniformly for 48 minutes
Among the findings in Wertheim's book is the revelation -- pretty obvious to most NBA fans -- that "whistle-swallowing" is rampant in the fourth quarter. For instance, the number of traveling calls falls precipitously.

This might be Cuban's biggest beef with NBA officiating, though he exercised a lot of restraint during the discussion. "I got an email from the league saying be careful what I say that there will be an intern watching," Cuban said in one of the bigger laugh lines of the panel. Throughout the discussion, the 2006 Finals between the Mavs and Heat sort of lingers beneath the surface. As a subtext, it provides a few chuckles.

Let's refine Cuban's stance a little bit more. More than anything he doesn't want context to have any place in officiating a call. Whether it's the first quarter or fourth quarter, LeBron James or Quinton Ross, a close game or a blowout, Cuban feels that each possession of an NBA game should be governed by the same rules.

"I don't want officials to have to worry about context, whether it's the crowd, whether it's the players, whether it's the time or the score," Cuban said. "It's a hard enough job as it is. If you have to worry about all those other elements, then it makes the job even harder."

Cuban said that games have monetary value to him as an owner, so getting this stuff correct is vital. Remove as much subjectivity as possible and include more clarity, he suggests, in the rule book. Cuban insisted that players are adaptable and cited the change in hand-checking and jump-stop rules as an example.

Cuban feels that, though it has helped the game, replay in the NBA has room for improvement. He put forward the following hypothetical: If in the process of reviewing an out-of-bounds call, the officials see that the player traveled with the ball, they should have the authority to call traveling. If there's a clear foul on the play, they should have the freedom to call it.

There was a general agreement that the NBA wouldn't be well-served by a football challenge "flag." Both Simmons and Cuban like the fact that the NBA corrects 2-point vs. 3-point calls during dead balls rather than interrupting the flow of the game.

Interestingly, Cuban approves of the NBA's using replay only for the final two minutes (with the exception of clear-path reviews and to determine which player should be taking free throws), which that runs counter to his opinion that games should be officiated consistently irrespective of time of the game. After all, if we want uniformity, shouldn't there be as much opportunity to correct a call in the first minute as the final minute of a period?

Referees are human beings
One of the more interesting exchanges occurred when Bill Simmons recounted Antoine Walker's time in Boston. Walker was notoriously surly to referees and would rarely, if ever, refer to them by their names, preferring to address officials as "You." Simmons suggested that dislike of a player probably had an adverse effect on how an officials treated that player. Cuban didn't take a specific position in response, but was adamant that if an official wasn't temperamentally equipped to deal with guys like Walker, then they were in the wrong business.

Wertheim expressed amazement at the lifestyle of NBA referees. He heard the term "chasing sleep" when he was researching his book and was floored by the travel demands and schedules officials endure. These are factors that are likely to impact performance. This launched an interesting conversation about whether there should be age limits for referees. After all, doesn't reaction time suffer as a person gets older? Carey disagreed strongly. He insisted that, as he ages, he’s becoming a better official. He sees new things and is continuing his mastery of the game. The added experience more than compensates for whatever atrophy comes with age, he said.

Recruitment and development of officials
When Cuban first bought the Mavericks, he said he was shocked to learn that a large plurality of NBA officials came from a couple of conferences (Count the number of NBA officials who came up as refs near Philly). A lot of the hires were nepotistic and this upset Cuban. He then praised the league for making corrective measures, including hiring General Ronald Johnson to oversee the recruitment, training and development process. Cuban has been pleased by most of the league's crop of younger referees, "who are actually good."

The counterintuitive public
Wertheim might have had the most interesting observation of the discussion. He spent years researching these findings, yet encounters people all the time who really aren't that bothered by them.

"I was surprised by how many people said, 'So what?!'," Wertheim said. "'I like that when I run a stop sign at three in the afternoon, but run it at three in the morning, he lets me go. I like that there's subjectivity built in here and that the officials do call it a little bit differently' ... 'I like that the whistle is swallowed and that LeBron is getting a few extra calls a game.'"

This human observation is fascinating. As much as fans bristle at any perceived bias, many of them want the drama produced by conflict.

Wednesday Bullets

August, 25, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Mark Cuban vs. the bottom line

May, 14, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Mark Cuban and David Stern
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
Is owning an NBA team about fun and games, profits, or both?

There are a couple of lawsuits going on down in Texas, and it's much ado about nothing -- except for one huge thing.

It began not as a fight about the Mavericks, but about the arena they play in. Mark Cuban owns the majority of American Airlines Arena. Unlike the Mavericks, the arena has made some money in recent years.

When you own a business that makes money, the nice thing is you typically get some of it. But not in this case. That led to the first lawsuit, last summer. Cuban took money from the arena and, instead of handing it out to arena ownership, loaned it to another business he owns most of: the Mavericks. Ross Perot Jr. (the son of the presidential candidate with the ears cartoonists loved) is Cuban's minority partner in both businesses. He didn't like that move, and sued, saying that loan was not it was fair and proper.

Cuban chastised Perot for whining about all that, especially with a great line about looking for some change in the couch cushions. The bad blood blossomed into a second lawsuit, this week, in which Perot accuses Cuban of running the Mavericks into the ground. He says they have lost a staggering amount of money, and are only still operating thanks to having borrowed around $200 million and counting.

Cuban tells TrueHoop Perot's numbers are inaccurate. "None of it is right," he e-mails. "He pretty much misrepresented the entire situation. His projections don't take into account a new CBA and he has no idea what player salaries we will have. So he just made up numbers to suit his claim."

Perot's legal filings somewhat confirm Cuban's notion that the actual financial picture of the team is murky, accusing him of refusing to open the team's books as required by their partnership agreement and the law. One of the things the lawsuit seeks is better information about how the team is doing.

Nevertheless, Perot takes the position that Cuban's mismanagement has been so staggering that a receiver ought to be appointed by the court to run the team in Cuban's place. (Perot also suggests, as Lester Munson explains, that the Mavericks may have been overly generous in their dealings with some other Cuban businesses.)

Cuban, a billionaire, says he has the money to pay everybody who needs to be paid, so what's the big deal? There is no chance, he says, the Mavericks will become insolvent.

"I back all the debt," he writes. "All the other partners have no problem with how things are run. Perot is just being himself. Over time we will more than make it all back. And then some."

A lot of that money the Mavericks owe, they owe to Cuban. The rest Cuban says he is good for, telling the Dallas Business Journal, for instance, that "everyone always has been and will be paid on time."

Formever Mavericks coach Don Nelson -- who shares Perot's lawyers -- might dispute that last point, but in general there's no reason to doubt Cuban, and it's worth noting that, stressed though the Mavericks may be on paper, this is not a lawsuit initiated by worried creditors. The people the Mavericks actually owe -- besides Perot -- haven't appealed to the courts.

"We have invested in the team to turn it around from the joke the team became when Perot ran it," says Cuban. "Look at it this way: It the team is mismanaged and undervalued because of losses, why wouldn't he make me an offer to buy it, run it his way and immediately reap the benefits? He won't because the team isn't undervalued or mismanaged."

On some schedule, Cuban and Perot will presumably work out their differences. Whatever happens will likely not matter all that much outside the swankiest quarters of Big D. Mostly it's a couple of angry guys swiping at each other. Maybe somebody will get a black eye, maybe not. A few Texas-based lawyers will pad their kids' college savings, and we'll move on. Nothing here will mean much to NBA fans.

Except for one thing: When the shell on this lawsuit cracked, one very important chestnut did fall out, and it could have big ramifications.

Could it really be that the Mavericks -- one of the NBA's most successful franchises on the court, in a good market, with a modern arena -- really nowhere close to making money?

Perot paints a picture of total financial disarray, with losses of $50 million over the last fiscal year alone, while on track to be nearly $300 million in debt in the coming years, that over the last nine years net losses have exceeded $273 million, that the team has made "future cash commitments for deferred compensation" of more than $300 million as of last summer.

Who knows what the real numbers are. Presumably as the case evolves Cuban's side will present their evidence that the team is in better shape than that. But Cuban does not dispute that the team has lost money, and Perot's entire case would be a waste of time of Cuban was in position to easily demonstrate the team was doing well.

As fans and journalists we pretty much mock owners for being cheap, and we praise them for "going all out to win." Our business analysis of team ownership tends to be along the lines of "you have to spend money to make money."

Cuban rolled into the NBA nearly a decade ago as in icon of first-class thinking, and has never looked back.

Not too long ago I stood in the Nets' sad locker room at the Izod Center, where the TV is not even high-definition. You can get a big HD screen for $300 at Walmart these days.

Mark Cuban wouldn't do it that way, right? The implication is that's because Cuban is smarter, more forward thinking, or classier.

Cuban has never made any bones about the fact that going all out -- for free agents, extra assistant coaches, nutritionists, nicer lockers, airplanes and everything else -- did not exactly pay for itself. For instance, he said at the Sloan Sports Business Conference a couple of years ago that the best way to make money from your NBA team is to be in New York, L.A. or Chicago, or to be "rebuilding" and spending the bare minimum on salaries.

His own approach of spending through the nose in a good-but-not New York market, by his own analysis, would be no recipe for financial success. It can't be that big of a surprise to learn that he has been dipping into his own pocket pretty heavily to subsidize the Mavericks. He has also been clear that short-term profits take a back seat to winning.

But I think we always thought that there was some amount of money a team might make, and the Mavericks were spending somewhere close to that. If they lost $50 million last year, or anything like that number, doesn't that change things a bit? If the team is close to making money, adding, say, Shawn Marion is a prudent insurance policy. If the team is already well into the red, how crazy is it to shell out another $40 million on a slowing role player?

Let's say your rich neighbor likes fixing up cars, and spends $10,000 on his old Mustang. Indulgent, right? But how about spending $500,000 on that Mustang? At some price, hobby spending crosses into Imelda Marcos territory.

The way we think about how owners spend -- believing, basically, that spending lots of money was basically always good -- is colored by an amazingly rich sports business era that may have recently ended. George Postolos, former NBA and Rockets executive who advises sports team investors and is interested in leading a group to buy an NBA team, told me a few weeks ago that the last few decades have been special in way that may or may not be sustainable:
Between, say, 1980 and 2000 or 2005 or 2007 or whenever you want to define that period, you had such substantial appreciation in franchise value. A rising tide lifted everybody’s boat. It had to do with new stadiums coming online. Several broadcast networks that needed sports programming grew to be hundreds of cable channels. The development of all-sports networks, the development of suites, expansion of corporate sponsorship, companies using athletes to promote their products, and the economy in general was strong during that period … lots of thing were happening to increase values. The equity markets were growing almost as quickly as franchise values.

So the value of all companies was growing.

We may be in a different era now.

Postolos also said, in the same interview, that investors getting into sports these days are scarce, and choosy. By and large, they're looking to be able to turn a profit. Which makes the Cuban model sound that much more outlandish -- driving into an era of slow growth .

In recent months we've had the Bobcats sold at a loss, the Jazz owner saying almost any other investment the Miller family would have made would have been more profitable, as well as steep discounts on tickets in places like Minnesota and Washington. The Cavaliers, despite having one of the biggest stars in the sport, LeBron James, at a below-market contract, are said to be close to break-even. And even though the economy is weak, meaning it's not an ideal time to sell, nearly a third of the NBA is either on the market or has recently changed hands, which tells you something about how those on the inside are projecting the next few decades.

Who cries for the owners? Nobody. But as fans, we want a league where teams can be run competitively as businesses, not just as hobbies.

All of which leads, of course, to the ongoing talks between the league and union about the next collective bargaining agreement. What is the main lesson of Perot's lawsuit against Cuban? "It validates," says Postolos, "David Stern's argument about needing a new CBA."

You never know whose numbers to believe, but the evidence is mounting that the owners may have strong reason to drive a very hard bargain with the players. The players union is coming up with a proposal of its own for the next collective bargaining agreement. I hope that takes the realities of 2010 into account.

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.

What geeks don't get

March, 6, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
The marquee panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday was titled, "What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball," moderated by Michael Lewis. There's little doubt that the analytics movement in sports has strong momentum, but are there elements that practitioners of advanced stats are missing? M. Haubs has an insightful dispatch from the session at The Painted Area. Among the highlights of the discussion:

Lewis asked Morey if he believed in clutch stats, long a controversial difference between common fans - who worship the art of the clutch - and statheads - who tend to believe that the idea of clutch statistics are not definitive and conclusive.

Morey artfully answered, "We don't make any decisions based on the belief of that." Interestingly, Cuban disagreed, and said that that was one reason he wanted Kidd, whom he believes plays differently in "win time" than he does in the other 45 minutes of the game.

Mark Cuban on collective bargaining agreements

February, 22, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
There are a lot of great storylines around the NBA these days. All those trades! Playoffs on the horizon! LeBron James and the class of 2010!

That's all fascinating, but sometimes it feels like worrying about such things might be a little like fussing over the radio as you drive the car off the road.

Because this labor situation is pretty serious, and could be getting worse.

In trying to understand it better, one thing that is missing is frank talk from owners. It's just not something most of them are willing to talk about in any detail. The gist of what I'd like to know is: Are you looking for a total reinvention of how this business works? Is the model totally broken? Are lots of you really losing your shirts? Or, is this simply a case of the economy has been bad, and you'd like to control player salaries?

Perfect information along those lines is very hard to come by. However, while not talking much about the NBA itself, Mark Cuban has been waxing poetic about sports leagues in general, and the kinds of business models they have. You can learn a lot about his NBA positions by reading carefully.

In 2008, Cuban explained how salary caps are really bad for small markets. Basically, leagues look at all the major income sources, and make a salary cap that is a percentage of that. That means, however, that if one team is doing really really well, and has a huge increase in income, while a small market team might lose a little money, then the next year's cap will be quite a bit higher, which leaves the money-losing small market team further in the lurch. His solution at the time was that in calculating the salary cap, leagues should ignore local revenues, and instead focus only on national revenues like the league's TV deals, which come with income for each team.

Now Cuban is blogging some more about collective bargaining agreements, and taking things a bit further. And it's clear that he's saying he believes the current system needs more than a little tweak.
We have seen bankruptcies in the NHL. If pro sports leagues don’t do a better job of risk management, it could get worse. ... What about the players side? They have kicked ownership’s ass in every league. ...

While individual NFL players take on significant risk, the players as a whole take on ZERO risk. If their membership just shows up for games, 53 guys on each team are getting paid. They never have to give the money back or contribute capital to make up losses.

The solution? It's a system where risks and rewards are allocated properly. Owners should take on more risk than players because they have more upside from franchise appreciation. They shouldn't take on all the risk. Nor should players be excluded from sharing in the upside of equity appreciation. I'm not saying that for example players earn a share of the sale price when an NFL franchise is sold. There are a variety of ways to track or index appreciation of franchises that rewards players that can work better and more efficiently. When the index appreciates the economics available to players appreciate. When the index depreciates, the amount available to players should be reduced as well.

The bottom line of the bottom line is that its time for a new model for professional sports.

What I hear him saying there is that it's possible teams will go out of business, he doesn't like the current revenue sharing at all and the meaningful long-term solution he envisions will be unlike anything we have ever had in the past.

Oh by the way he also points out that when players are locked out, owners lose some income, but players lose all of their income. That's yet another kind of tough talk.

If lots of owners are thinking like this owner, things could get messy.