TrueHoop: Other People's Writing

Magic and American Myth

August, 14, 2009
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

On its surface, David Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game" tells the story of how the Portland Trail Blazers, just two years removed from an NBA championship and with all the makings of a dynasty, fell back to earth. But since its initial publication almost 30 years ago, Halberstam's book endures as much more: It's a fascinating portrait of the NBA at the most pivotal moment in the league's history.
Magic Johnson Earvin "Magic" Johnson: The NBA's game-changer (Focus On Sport via Getty Images)

At the start of the 1979-80 season, the NBA was an afterthought for most sports fans in North America. The networks treated the game like a stepchild. Sponsors were disinterested. There was talk that hockey and -- yes -- pro soccer could eclipse the NBA.

According to Halberstam -- but you don't need a journalist or cultural history of the league to tell you this -- much of that dynamic had to do with race. In the late 1970s, the game was perceived as unrelatable to the kinds of fans (read: white) that franchises and advertisers wanted to reach.

Halberstam's discussion of race in "The Breaks of the Game" can be a startling read in 2009, not because anything he wrote was untruthful, insensitive, or even outrageous, but because the conversation about race and the NBA today resides in a much different place.

When LeBron James came into the league with unprecedented fanfare in 2003, few considered his certain stardom in any context other than: Here is a kid who has the talent to surpass the game's most totemic stars. Sponsors couldn't wait to throw their dollars at James, and the league primed itself for one of the great marketing pushes in sports history.

As Halberstam chronicled in "The Breaks of the Game," it wasn't always that way.

When did things begin to change?

About the time Earvin Johnson first took the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers, as Halberstam wrote in 1981:
Now, after the Laker practice, the press waited for Magic. Everybody wanted a piece of him. It had been a long time since a black athlete had come into the league who was so enthusiastic and thus so reassuring. Perhaps not since Willie Mays in another sport and another era had there been a black athlete so ingenuous and so boyish. But no one had ever had to sell the innocence of baseball -- baseball was innocent as the memory of every village green, even to those who had never set foot on one. But basketball was different. Its media franchisers, the people in the commissioner's office, the people who ran CBS Sports, the people who sold the commercials for television, were finding it worrisome. Not only was it less linked to American myth, not only were its players blacker -- and more obviously so, given the skimpiness of their uniforms compared to baseball and football -- but they had also become, over the years, more politicized, prouder, and more outspoken. Some, like Kareem, had been unwilling to play for the U.S. Olympic team. Madison Avenue already had its doubts about professional as opposed to college basketball. Athletes were increasingly viewed by Madison Avenue as articulate but surly and ungrateful or, just as bad, grateful but inarticulate.

Thus did the network and league fasten on Magic...

... The crowd gathered early under the Laker basket to watch Magic. He brought with him not just his own joy but a public display of his excitement. At his best, he was one of the most innovative new players in the game; he appeared to invent a new pass and a new move every time he had the ball. He had the height of a forward, 6'8", but he played guard, where men in the past had only been 6'4", or, at best, 6'5". He had the potential for changing the way the game was played. In basketball there is something called the transition game: a team is on offense, it puts up a shot, the shot misses, the defensive team takes the rebound and starts downcourt. The second or two in which the teams change over, offense to defense, defense to offense, is called the transition period: traditionally, it was the bigger men who had to rebound, and then, because they were not very good ballhandlers, they passed the ball off to smaller guards who were ballhandlers. But because Magic was so tall he was able to at once rebound and then lead the attack up the court without passing off himself. That made it harder for the defensive team to set up and it dramatically altered the flow of the game. Still, the other players were not sure he was a player yet. That was their word, a player. All the hype and hoopla worked against him. Hype and hoopla were white, written by whites and sold by whites, and they did not often connect to the core of basketball.

Was Johnson's most profound impact on the NBA what Halberstam called his "potential for changing the way the game was played," or was it that he was "reassuring" to white fans? The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in between.

The NBA does a lot to promote the D-League. A lot of it, sadly, doesn't work. The truth is that most NBA fans just aren't that fascinated by basketball that's almost as good as the best basketball. It's not fair, it's not right, but it is.

To me, however, the D-League represents a wholly different opportunity. While it may not be a source of many headlines, there's no reason it can't be a source of tremendous stories. 

Pay someone a million dollars as an NBA player, and there is a natural tendency to get conservative around the media. Why be pubilc about the time I tried to shoplift a comic book, or punched my brother in the face, or disappointed a teacher, when it could somehow interrupt the PR-based gravy train of contracts, endorsements, and celebrity that are my career?

But outside the NBA, people are ready to tell some stories. And as luck would have it, Coleman Collins, a 6-9 power forward who just finished a season as a Fort Wayne Mad Ant (and used to play at Virginia Tech and in Europe, and has played some NBA summer league) can write!

He has agreed to keep a semi-regular blog on TrueHoop, as he travels the world, works out, and lives the life of a professional basketball player this summer. I'll let him introduce himself.

As a general rule, I hate introductions. Every introduction is, at its core, a plea for attention. "This is who I am," you are saying. "Notice my posture -- my handshake is firm! Like me! Love me! Friend me on Facebook!"

You are the oddly-dressed kid on the playground -- a sad fact that is only magnified online.

Let's just make this as quick and painless as possible.

My name is Coleman Collins. I am to be listened to, read, and taken seriously (at times) because I am smart enough to have found a way to make a living playing a game. The game is basketball. I am a Professional Basketball Player. I have been a PBP for several years, on the outskirts of the NBA, the inskirts of the D-League, and deep in the nether regions of Europe.

With the publication of this entry I will have become a Professional Writer as well. This is because I am getting Paid, and handsomely at that; my contract is striking for its genius and simplicity. I have been contracted to write semi-regularly about anything and everything. I will be getting compensated, as is my custom, on a strict per-consonant basis.

As you are undoubtedly aware, this method of payment can occasionally be distracting -- it lends itself to obscure discussions of Eastern European politics and marine biology -- but I assure you that I am a different breed of PW. There will be no consonant-spiking here.

The things written will be what I am absolutely sure are true, or what I am completely positive are not true. The discerning reader may decide which is which. There will be no retractions; or, failing that, all retractions will be made halfheartedly and grudgingly, through gritted teeth.

Irony and sarcasm are still alive, I hope, and if not we will do our best to resurrect them. There will be many topics to discuss over the summer.

Plenty of basketball, of course.

We will take all questions and comments concerning the game's past, present, and future. We will discuss the various leagues -- NBA, D-League, Europe, elsewhere. There will be insights into things pertaining to the business of Playing Basketball Professionally. This will unavoidably be basketball-centric, but there will ultimately be more than that. There will be Paris. There will be glimpses of the Monaco Grand Prix. There will be buckets of international intrigue. There will be a lot of New York, and various other cities. There will be random capitalization and entries written entirely in the second person. And pictures, lots of pictures.

And after this sentence, with two exceptions, there will be a strict ban on the phrase "there will be." Because, having read this, you are already well-apprised of what there will be. There will be life, the universe, and everything.

More than this I cannot give, and more than this you would be unwise to expect.


(Photo courtesy of Coleman Collins.)

Matthew Rachamkin, die-hard TrueHoop reader, (it's the homepage of his computer and his phone) was nice enough to write up an account of an incredible experience he created for himself at February's All-Star Weekend in PhoenixHere are his words and photos from his big night.

For months I had hoped that I would be able to make it to Phoenix for NBA All Star weekend. Just so happened to work out: Two days in the Bay Area and one day in Arizona set me up perfectly. Luckily I also got to travel with my company's co-founder Rich, who just happened to have a cousin out here who has season tickets to the Suns.

Matt Rachamkin
Memo to NBA Security: The man sitting in Suns' owner Robert Sarver's seats was not really with Pau Gasol and actually does speak English. An investigation would have revealed one second-hand nosebleed ticket, to go with one ton of moxie.
(Photo courtesy of Matthew Rachamkin.)

My initial thought was that the tickets would be ridiculously expensive and I would just try to sneak into to some of the events. Randomly enough, right before I left I checked StubHub and found two tickets to Friday's rookie/sophomore game for $15 (in nosebleed seats) way, way up there. Done and done. I bought the tickets for Rich and me and the plan was in motion.

Rich spoke with his cousin who said he also was going to the game (with his son) so we planned on meeting for dinner and then heading to the stadium. Rich's cousin and his son happened to be awesome, awesome company and after a great dinner we all walked to the Arena.

Unfortunately since this was not a regular season Suns game, they did not have their usual seats and were up in the nosebleed section with Rich and me. But we tried our luck. As a season ticket holder Rich's cousin has an "All Access Pass" to the basement of the stadium through a private elevator. Although that "Pass" isn't valid for All-Star weekend, we tried it anyway. Luck was on our side, the lady that was doing security at the elevator recognized him and let us all in.

The goal was to just take a few pics from behind the basket and then head up towards our seats. That was their goal, not mine. I took out my iPhone and start taking pics left and right as I maneuvered closer and closer to the court.

Finally, I was standing at the corner of the sideline and baseline when a security guard approaches and says, "Sir, may I please see your credentials?"

Pau Gasol
Great player. Even better cover story.
(Photo courtesy of Matthew Rachamkin.)

Instead of hesitating I just said, "Sorry" and walked right past him. Please note, I did not turn around and walk back through the tunnel, nor did I head up towards the stairs. I walked past him, onto the court's sidelines, past the scorers' table, until I found myself right next to Pau Gasol and this lovely little Spanish woman sitting in the first two seats. I also saw two empty seats next to them. I sat in one of those empty seats. Courtside. First row.

Pau gets up to do whatever it is 7 foot Spanish people do when they aren't playing basketball and I find myself alone with this pretty lady. A second later a security guard comes up to us with a stern look on his face and says, "May I please see your credentials or tickets?!"

It is in that moment where my true genius exposes itself (sarcasm?). Instead of saying something I wait and let the lil lady talk, "I'm with Pau!" she exclaims in a thick Spanish accent.

What did I do? What did I say? Nothing. I said absolutely nothing. I just nodded. One simple tilt of the head up and then down. Apparently the security guard interpreted my head nod perfectly as "he doesn't speak English well but he is also with Pau."

So here I was sitting courtside next to Pau Gasol when I got a call from Rich who was by then up in the nosebleed seats with his relatives. "Matt don't you dare leave there," he said. "That is incredible! But you might want to move over a seat or two. I just heard that the seat you are in belongs to the owner of the Suns. GOOD LUCK! I will see you on Tuesday!"

Chris Bosh
Life adjacent to Chris Bosh.
(Photo courtesy of Matthew Rachamkin.)

Apparently the owner of the Suns is not a big Rookie/Sophomore game fan because he didn't show up. I took full advantage of my opportunity, and took out my $15 e-ticket and ask Pau for an autograph. I proceeded to ask Michael Beasley and Russell Westbrook (who were literally five feet in front of me shooting around before the game) for their autographs, and they obliged.

Right before the game started they introduced TNT's special guest announcer... MR. LEBROOOOOON JAAAAAAMES! So then I was sitting about 15 feet from LeBron and I realized this might be my only opportunity in life to get LeBron's autograph. I waited until a TV timeout and snuck over to his announcers table and ask if he would mind signing my ticket. He didn't mind at all and signed it.

The whole game was just unbelievable. Since I was so ridiculously close to the players I had a chance to talk with them, "Yo OJ (Mayo) lemme see something!!" I yelled. He responded with an, "aight" and then wet a 3 next time down the court.

The haul.
(Photo courtesy of Matthew Rachamkin.)

Halftime came and Kevin Durant appeared right in front of me. He signed my ticket too... then my boss's cousin's son, Chris, realized that he had sneaky powers too and ended up right next to me as I was charging my phone at the press table. Then when we realized, "Oh s---, Chris Bosh just took my seat!"

Ok, phew -- there was still room next to him. We sat down where we could, and the order became Pau Gasol, Spanish lady, Chris Bosh, Henry Thomas (Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade's agent) me, then some dude who had the illest watch I've ever seen and then Chris. Unbelievable.

The game continued and I started yelling to D. Wade, who was coaching the rookie team, "Dwyaneee you gotta get em to play some D" When he finally looked up I mouthed, "You owe me an autograph!" He responded with, "After the game." He stuck to his word. Then I politely asked Chris Bosh for his autograph. He was cool as hell and gave it to me.

The game started getting intense and then Kevin Durant just went nuts and hit three 3s in a row, ending the game with 46 points, setting a game record, and winning the MVP.

I ended the game with a record of my own:  Seven autographs. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Michael Beasley and Russell Westbrook all signed the back of my $15 ticket.

Thank you Rich. Thank you Rich's cousin. Thank you Pau. Thank you demented security guard. Thank you LeBron. Thank you life.

Everyone Buddy Up

April, 2, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

If you watched the Bobcats-Lakers game earlier this week, the interplay between Kobe Bryant on the floor and Michael Jordan courtside was infectious. Bryant drained an unconscious shot in the third quarter and as he ambled down the court his eyes were locked on MJ. In some sense, it was completely natural.  Bryant has been staring at Jordan since childhood, studying every facet of his hero's game -- his mannerisms, his biomechanics, his competitive spirit. It's undoubtedly one of the things that makes Bryant the killer he is. So far as Jordan goes, there are reasons icons are icons. There probably isn't a guard born in the 1970s or 1980s who hasn't imitated MJ on some court somewhere in some fashion.  

Figuring out who to imitate is half the fun. In David Thorpe's new Rookie Watch feature, he assigns each rookie a veteran mentor to study. I like the homework he gives Sacramento's Jason Thompson, taking a closer look at second-year big man, Al Horford :

I actually think Thompson and Horford are already very similar -- both have great size, length and speed for either post spot. But while Thompson plays at 100 mph at all times, Horford is a model of tremendous effort under control. The Hawks' second-year man never takes a play off, is always around the ball and basket and, despite playing out of position, has not fouled out of a game this season.

Thompson has the right motor, but he needs to adjust his speeds better so he can finish around the rim more and foul less. He's starter material for a good team when he learns this trait.

Thorpe tells another big, the unrefined but talented J.J. Hickson, to track down some David West game tape: 

Hickson has loads of raw potential, so who better to study than a technique guru like West? The Hornets' two-time All-Star is an expert at creating angles for easier shots by using fakes and changing speeds on his back-in moves. And he has all the shots within 15 feet of the rim.

West also competes at a high level with passion, but under control. He is a great example for Hickson and other young power forwards.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Doug Pappas, a mainstay at both the Society of American Baseball Research, then Baseball Prospectus before his death in 2004, devised the "marginal dollar per marginal wins" metric, a system that measures how efficiently each of baseball's front offices spends on salary. Pappas' data underlie a lot of Michael Lewis' conclusions in Moneyball

Kevin Pelton is an admirer of Pappas' work, and began to apply it to the NBA about five years ago. Unlike baseball, the NBA has a salary cap, which makes it a somewhat inefficient market. The existence of a max salary means that superstars are paid below their market value. Can you imagine what LeBron James' next contract might look like if there was a free bidding war for his services? Various other limitations and artifices [Bird rights, rookie scales] contribute to this inefficiency, but by and large, a pretty fair measurement of NBA teams can be made -- and Pelton has the numbers at Basketball Prospectus.   

Which GM's are using their recession dollars efficiently this season?

Who would have guessed, when the Magic signed Rashard Lewis to a lucrative deal and extended Jameer Nelson's contract, that a season later they would be the most economically efficient team in the NBA? Yet with the pieces fitting together perfectly and Orlando getting production from bargain youngsters like Courtney Lee and Marcin Gortat, GM Otis Smith has put together a championship contender for a payroll that comes in right around average. The other three elite teams in the league are all well into luxury-tax territory, though the Lakers and Boston have still spent their money very effectively, all things considered.

Few teams manage their cap better than the Jazz does, although that position may be tested when Paul Millsap hits the free-agent market this summer and Carlos Boozer has the option of joining him. San Antonio has also done a great job of winning championships without breaking the bank. Having Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all on reasonable contracts has helped that process.

Pelton points out that the system isn't a perfect one. For instance...

[T]he Oklahoma City Thunder, for example, have a payroll around $68 million this season. GM Sam Presti has maneuvered the Thunder in position to be under the cap starting this summer, but because the contracts of players like Malik Rose, Donyell Marshall and Joe Smith are still on the books (the latter two players having been bought out), Oklahoma City technically has an average payroll.

The most efficient teams in recent memory are the 2007 Charlotte Bobcats [only $79,909 per marginal win], and the 2006 New Orleans Hornets [$148,308 per marginal win].  To iron out some of those previously-mentioned inefficiencies, Pelton combines the last four season to come up with a moving average, of sorts.  The top of the heap: 

Charlotte         $ 313,755
New Orleans    $ 426,128
Atlanta            $ 520,246
Detroit            $ 525,177
San Antonio    $ 542,044

More interesting Pelton conclusions: 

The surprise here is that Minnesota snuck in as the second-worst spenders of the last four years, ahead of only the Knicks. They've been bad without ever being able to cut their payroll a la Memphis or Atlanta. Something similar is true of Milwaukee, while Philadelphia has had above-average payrolls without above-average results before this season.

The Book on FreeDarko

November, 13, 2008
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

There's a fantastic moment toward the end of the third quarter of Monday night's Boston-Toronto game. The Celtics have trailed by as many as 15 in the period, and now they're mounting a run. Kevin Garnett nails a jumper from about 18 feet to cut it to six. The building, which has been hushed most of the night, erupts. Garnett is now wired. He begins to clap emphatically, which stokes the crowd ever more. Garnett then decides, unilaterally, that he wants to guard the ball. Rajon Rondo drops back deferentially, allowing Garnett to cover Jose Calderon as the Toronto point guard brings the ball up-court. Garnett towers over Calderon, clapping in his face and pointing at him all the way up the floor. Somehow, though, Garnett's antics aren't offensive. They're more theatrical than combative. Or, more precisely, it's combat through theater.

That's precisely the kind of distinction Free Darko concerns itself with in The Marcrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. While the Toronto broadcasting team was calling for a technical foul on Garnett, FreeDarko would probably deny that Garnett was guilty of poor sportsmanship. At the same time, FD wouldn't be so reductive as to dismiss the episode as just 'KG being KG.' Garnett's performance here is an expression of something larger. "Garnett embodies the ideal that a man can become bigger than the battles he fights," writes FreeDarko in its chapter on Garnett. It's that idealism that guides both Garnett and FreeDarko on matters of basketball.

FreeDarko's almanac revels in these kinds of nuances. The book is an academic survey that elevates pro basketball's pop to poetry. The prose is intentionally esoteric and will be a deal breaker for some -- but a revelation for others. For junkies who revel in taxonomies, the mythical classifications are a thing of beauty. Those who embrace the more cerebral elements of the pro game, the symbol-rich FreeDark Style Guide will delight. And for those who love the transmission of big ideas through graphic art, the illustrations are eye candy.

The book opens with a foreword by Gilbert Arenas (with requisite Gilbertish whimsy), followed by "The Free Darko Manifesto." Like much of what FreeDarko does, the manifesto conveys self-importance with a wink. The basketball polis is asked to "discount mere wins and losses" because the true life of the game resides in a less binary narrative; we should "embrace the primacy of the individual," because the most compelling subjects are the game's personalities -- not the teams, which are mere constructs of ownership, GMs, and coaches. It's this Pentecostal view of the NBA that makes FreeDarko's work so infectious. In their world, NBA Superstars reveal themselves to you without any filters.FreeDarko book

And in Macrophenomenal, they reveal themselves as creatures of myth. The book's primary core is a series of short biographies bundled in chapters, each with an archetypal header. Chapter One is "Master Builders" (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett); Chapter Two is "Uncanny Peacocks" (Gilbert Arenas, Gerald Wallace & Josh Smith, Leandro Barbosa); The almanac also leaves room for "Lost Souls" like Tracy McGrady and "Phenomenal Tumors" like Stephon Marbury. Each player is assigned a spirit animal and has their skill set animated through the Style Guide.

These profiles -- some less formulaic than others -- are really just vehicles for Macrophenomenal's best features: An intoxicating collection of cool charts and graphs, rich illustrations, and ingenious sub-features. Inside Macrophenomenal, you'll find a paper trail of faux job applications and visa requests from the likes of Isaiah Rider and Robert "Tractor" Traylor. You'll also be drawn to an illustrated analysis of Lamar Odom's Facial Action Coding. How about Stephen Jackson's mayoral campaign platform? Or the lunar cycles of Ron Artest? Or "Marbury Parcheesi"?

Macrophenomenal is a beautiful collision of the textual and the visual, and an array of stimuli this wild demands repeat viewing. When I first cracked Macrophenomenal, I was reminded of the first time I opened up a copy of Might Magazine in 1995. I knew there was absolutely no way I'd digest everything I'd want from the magazine in one sitting. It was too conceptual. But that was its beauty -- just as it is for Macrophenomenal. You know there will be something new to absorb the hundredth time you read the thing.

Macrophenomenal is fraught with irony and an academic's self-deprecation (We're Geeks!), so it's hard to offer sincere critiques, but there are a couple. The manifesto maintains that "the appeal of the individual Players transcends the boundaries between Teams," and implies that people who root for teams are engaged in some crude brand of tribalism. But this is wrong. If you apply enough mental dexterity as a fan, you can be both a partisan and a FreeDarkoite. It isn't easy, but a fan's home or chosen team can offer a firm basis from which to view the Association. The stickier dilemma is how FreeDarko ascribes supernatural attributes and a hyper-complexity to these guys as if they were comic book heroes. I realize it's an artistic exercise, but to endow them with this level of soulfulness can seem dishonest on occasion. FreeDarko's hagiography can get a little creepy at times. But I suppose that's the measure of good myth -- it defies the earthly in favor of something much more improbable. Just like an NBA Superstar.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Basketball's statistical revolution has come a long way in recent years, yet PPG is still stubbornly entrenched as basketball's defining stat.  A lot of clubs are starting to employ more sophisticated metrics in evaluating a player, but points still command a lot of power at the negotiating table.  Players know it.  Their agents know it.  And ownership knows it.  Coaches evangelize about the value of the little things, hustle, and stuff that doesn't show up in the box score, but NBA salaries are more closely correlated with points than any intangible factor.  

David Berri at Wages of Wins Journal has documented this phenomenon as well as anyone.  He uses a recent piece by Rick Bonnell on 22-year-old Bobcat guard Shannon Brown to illustrate the point. It's a familiar story: Brown felt that he was in the doghouse, but didn't understand why.  His assistant coach told him that despite his recent success shooting the ball, the team had plenty of other guys who could score [see Richardson, Jason and Morrison, Adam].  What the Bobcats' coaching staff needed from Brown was "something else."  

These stories highlight a problem that coaches face throughout the Association.  Players have an incentive to shoot.  The more a player scores, the more he will get paid and the more acclaim he will receive. You can see this when you look at the determinants of free agent salaries.  And you can see this when you look at coaches' voting for the All-Rookie team. 

Given the player's incentives, it's not surprising that Shannon Brown would look for his own shot.  What's encouraging is that it appears the Bobcats are getting through to him.  After seven games, Brown is shooting 50% from the floor and his overall production of wins - which was in the negative range during his first two seasons - is now well above average.

Berri builds on this final point.  Despite Brown's efforts to conform to his coaches' demands, he's not seeing much PT.  WoW suggests that despite the lip service paid to having guys play the right way/[insert your favorite sports cliché here], there's still a financial and systemic disincentive for players like Brown to not shoot...

All of this must make the relationship between the player and his coaches quite confusing.  On the one hand Shannon Brown is being told to take good shots and focus on the non-scoring aspects of the game.  On the other hand, Morrison and Richardson - who have not consistently hit shots this year - are not being punished with less playing time (or fewer shots). 

Of course it's still very early in Charlotte's season.  Certainly it's more than possible that the Shannon Brown we saw during his first two seasons will re-emerge.  In fact, given that his effort to play the right way is not being fully rewarded, it seems likely that Shannon Brown might want to go back to taking shot after shot.  After all, the data strongly suggests (although his coaches voice disagreement) player evaluations and decisions in the NBA are still driven by scoring (which happens when you take lots of shots).

Berri also does a nice job highlighting the problematic irony of a team like Charlotte.  The players the staff regards as their scorers are less efficient than the guys who are asked to sublimate their urge to shoot in favor of doing the other stuff. 

Slideshow Fun

November, 11, 2008

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The Slate slideshow was one of the great early advents of cyber-journalism.  When it offers an architectural survey of Megachurches, it's really interesting.  But when the slideshow is titled, "Rasheed Wallace is a Toaster," it's ingenious. 

A couple weeks ago, Henry teased FreeDarko's new book, "The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac." [I'll have a review up in the next couple of days]. In the meantime, head over to Slate for a preview of the book's Periodic Table of Style

The Style Guide exists at the nexus of generic description and high-def motion capture, representing players' games as a composite of descriptive text and symbols-what we call the Periodic Table of Style. Kobe Bryant, maneuvering between defenders, isn't just driving toward the basket; he's exemplifying the practice of "lock and key." Carmelo Anthony doesn't display excellent footwork; he dances the salsa, takes baby steps, and bounds like a deer.

Dialing the Help Line

November, 10, 2008

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Pelton lost his treasured Seattle Supersonics this year. But there's an ancillary benefit for the rest of us -- Pelton will have more time to apply his otherworldly basketball analytics to the rest of the league.  He's got a brilliant piece at Basketball Prospectus that breaks down the Lakers' retooled -- and very potent -- defense.  I noticed on Wednesday night at Staples Center that the Lakers were employing an unusual number of halfcourt traps. Pelton explains why that is:

The biggest area where what the Lakers are doing diverges from conventional NBA wisdom is in terms of the so-called "help line." That's where defensive players on the weak side away from the ball are taught to go to be in position to offer help should the player with the ball beat his man off the dribble. The help line can be the hash mark located a few feet outside the outer edge of the key, but most teams generally use that boundary of the key to define help...

The Lakers are using a help line on the strong side near the basketball, which creates natural double-team traps on the ballhandler.

Pelton offers some nice visual aids that convey the central point -- the Lakers defense is making life miserable for opposing ballhandlers, and making ball movement much more difficult.  As a result, the Lakers are forcing turnovers in huge numbers. 

Pelton stipulates that a trapping-oriented defense isn't without its drawbacks.  If your rotation isn't prompt, you're going to get burned.  And with the help line all the way over on the strong side, teams with an ability to reverse the ball should be able to find open looks on the weak side. But thus far, the Lakers' length, quickness, and communication has been keeping those things from happening.  

What's the long-term prognosis?  Promising, says Pelton, particularly with Andrew Bynum healthy:

While expecting the Lakers to post the league's best defense all year as teams adjust might be a stretch, I believe their system can be very successful for them. The biggest reason might be a simple one: By working so much on the defense, the Lakers are committing to that end of the floor more than they have in recent seasons. Players are putting in the effort..

The other major reason is a big one literally--Bynum. Even if he did not possess a budding post-up game, Bynum would still be a very valuable player because of his defensive ability. Charting reveals just how much impact Bynum had against the Nuggets, forcing five-and-a-half misses without surrendering a single score. Add that to the turnovers Bynum forced and he dominated the game defensively. Bynum's quickness allows him to help and play the role of stopper while being able to recover and contest a shot attempt by a player cutting from the weak side.

Tweaking the Plus/Minus Rating

November, 4, 2008

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

One of the things that makes baseball such a satisfying milieu for stat geeks is the beautiful independence of the plate appearance.  Sure, there are countless variables that go into a plate appearance (i.e. facing Johan Santana is vastly more difficult than facing Adam Eaton, and a plate appearance in San Francisco is more challenging for the batter than one in Houston), but there are fairly simple ways for statisticians to isolate these variables.  In basketball, a shot attempt doesn't offer the same kind of stability when it comes to figuring out a player's offensive value.  As Dan Rosenbuam wrote in 2005 for the New York Times, "Unlike baseball, with its repeated encounters between pitchers and batters, basketball is not a series of one-on-one contests.

In response to this statistical challenge, the "plus/minus differential has emerged in recent years as one of the favored tools.  At the risk of oversimplification, a plus/minus rating measures a player's performance by comparing what his team does when he's on the floor versus what they do when he's not.   It's a good tool&but not a perfect one.  What if the player in question is the weak link in a championship starting lineup?  Won't he have an artificially high plus/minus rating?  And what if the player is a defensive specialist who is on the floor against only the most potent offensive performers? 

Steve Ilardi and Aaron Barzilai are mindful of these concerns:

At first blush, the metric might even seem like the "holy grail of basketball statistics a single measure that captures the precise effect of each player on his team's bottom-line scoring margin. But it, too, has a major drawback: as a mathematical estimate, each adjusted plus-minus rating contains measurement noise, i.e., a margin of error. It's important, therefore, to get this noise (error) level as low as possible.

To mitigate the noise, Ilardi and Barzilai went to work by expanding their samples:

&we've used five seasons' worth of data (provided by weighted very heavily in favor of the 2007-2008 season to disentangle the individual effects of teammates who frequently appear on the court at the same time. As a result, we are able to present below the most accurate (low-noise) adjusted plus-minus ratings ever to appear in the public domain. In addition, we've modeled separately each player's impact on offense and defense, treating these as completely independent variables.

Check out the new numbers here.

When You Paste, It Cuts

September, 6, 2007
Posted by Kelly Dwyer

Most of my turns here at TrueHoop have seen me create some sort of paean towards certain sportswriters, or detail some of the needless frustrations sports scribes have to endure. What I'm about to do with this post goes a little past that, and it probably won't be that popular: because it pits a guy who gets to write sports for a (always broke, always frustrating) living against proprietors of message boards that allow the fan to have an unfettered voice.

Most of these message board owners or webmasters pay the costs of these boards out of pocket, usually at a loss; and too-often have to deal with the petty sniping inherent in allowing anonymous fans to argue with each other over a sport and/or team they care quite a bit about. It's usually a thankless gig.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Or, at least, a little bit of tact.

Last week, Sactown Royalty's Tom Ziller pointed us all towards a Sacramento Kings message board that had lifted an entire interview between Henry Abbott and Kevin Martin's high school coach Scott Aronhalt, and pasted it within a thread.

The poster credited Henry, but offered no link to the actual post, and left the message board readers without a single reason to come over to TrueHoop to read anything else. Effectively usurping advertisers, and appropriating the hard work that Henry and his co-workers come through with every weekday for a WEBSITE YOU GET TO READ FOR FREE.

Let's let Tom take it from here:

Anyways, so yeah -- stealing Henry's hard work. Not cool. I made a post yesterday afternoon to that affect. I bet you can guess what happened to it. Deleted. Almost immediately. The post with the full article? Still there. Message: It's OK to steal; it's not OK to protest said stealing.

It wouldn't be a big deal if it were a one time occurance. It happens multiple times a day. They steal The [Sacramento] Bee's stuff, other blog stuff, SI, ESPN, anything that pops up on HoopsHype, pretty much any content which can be copied and pasted, they steal. And if you say a damn thing about it (or anything negative about [the message board], or by extension positive about another Kings community), your post gets deleted.

See what I did there? I quoted the guy. I didn't paste his entire post, even though he's done a better job at detailing this sort of skeeviness at all angles thus far. I also provided you with links to his blog above, in case you wanted to read more on this particular subject, or whatever else he has to say on his website.

But the message board we're talking about, and several others that are pretty dang popular, doesn't see any point in that. Pity.

Of course, as is my trademark, the first thing I did after reading TZ's initial take on the mess was to search my own name at the message board in question. Sure enough, an entire cut and paste of this column - which details who I thought to be the best and worst GMs in the NBA back in mid-June - was available to read on the site.

It doesn't provide a link to give me the hits needed to prove to editors, "hey, this guy's worth more than Antoine Walker jokes." Doesn't do anything for the editors that worked around the clock, on weekends, and in spite of the probable frustration of their bosses who may have wanted to spike what was originally filed as an 11,000-word column. It doesn't do anything for anyone save for a few message board denizens, who have to move their finger one fewer time to click over to the original column, and get to read it on a message board that replaces links, graphics and pictures with avatars, smiley faces, and clever signatures.

It stinks. And it's not something that writers should have to put up with just because we get to write about sports for money. And it especially boggles the mind as to why message board moderators would allow the content to be copied from a free website.

Listen, I'm always a day late and 49-dollars short, so I know the frustrations with ESPN's Insider. But I also remember when Insider was re-launched in 2001, with the NBA side of the site taking its biggest content boost from Chad Ford and Terry Brown, two guys I had worked with at The NFL and MLB sides also hired writers from that site. I was the NBA guy that was left behind. I was hurt, I was ticked, I was living in an apartment that had just been flooded and Michael Jordan was about to debut in a Washington Wizards uniform.

And yet, bombing around RealGM's message boards back then, I kept a careful eye on posters that were cutting and pasting Insider content on threads, hoping the moderators didn't see. I tried to call out each of these posters - ESPN might be the Worldwide Leader, but there are writers with livelihoods at stake here. Don't endanger that. I'm not being overly dramatic, here.

And though I probably didn't have much influence, RealGM started cracking down on these posters. To this day, they make it so posters can only quote a snippet of any article or column online, and the poster has to provide a link - Insider or otherwise. And I don't think it has hurt those boards one iota, as there are still some awful good basketball conversations going on over there.

And if I, the spurned and angry one, can ask that these columns be taken out, then how hard is it for a message board moderator to go, "Hey, 'Jamison_steaksauce_87?' Not cool"?

I Love This Site

September, 6, 2007

Posted by Kelly Dwyer

Yes, the graphic at the top might throw you, but the rest of is so, so good.

It's one of the best, most thorough NBA sites out there - and yet you never see it linked-to, talked-about, bandied around, thrown a stick, chased out of the yard, or whatever else the kids say these days.

Sham's actual blog boasts only eight posts, and the most recent one is three weeks old, but it includes some of the funniest and accurate NBA scribin' you find this side of the Thames. Sham's English, so I had to shoehorn that in there. Number Four, "the Zoran Planinic," really speaks to my condition. Give it a read.

The rest of the site, you'll need it. By and large, I've found his salary information to be more accurate than HoopsHype's, I know for a fact that Sham is pretty dogged in his research; and the salary pages also dovetail nicely into something you can truly get lost in: his individual player pages.

For a school project, I put together an NBA almanac in high school. Inspired by Zander Hollander's yearly NBA output, I wrote ellipses-driven breakdowns of every player who showed up for the 1997-98 season. I went in with the best of intentions, but after a while, the snark starts to set in.

You watch so many games, and have so many players to write about, that you have to bust out the smart-aleck tone just to stave off nature red in tooth and claw. So bits about things that annoy or impress you seep in to the player profiles (which later turned up on, and comments about a player's facial hair or dainty footwork start showing up alongside mentions of a guy going to Mercer College or being the last active player from the Kansas City/Omaha Kings.

Sham's got that, in his player profiles. Get lost in there; it is well worth the loss of a few hours.

Organized Chaos

July, 18, 2007

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

David Roth of Can't Stop the Bleeding has a fun piece in Slate about the absurdities and guilty pleasures of watching Summer League ball. Roth appreciates that the anarchy of Summer League makes it "worthless" for evaluating talent, even though we all desperately want to glean something about the talents of our team's second round draft picks and potential twelfth men. Need proof?

"...the Knicks' Nate Robinson was the MVP of this year's Vegas summer league."

Enough said. But "[w]atching ['even marginal NBA players'] play pickup ball, in which defense is secondary and creativity is king, is thrilling." Besides, the menagerie of players, drawn from "a reality-show casting call," is worth the price of admission for Roth:

"Gabe Muoneke, an undersized power forward still seeking his first NBA shot at age 29, scored 31 points in a game in Orlando. Coby Karl, a thyroid-cancer survivor, starred for the Lakers' Vegas summer league entry. The Sacramento Kings' summer roster boasts a whopping seven centers, as well as the previously unknown 300-pound brother of Ron Artest. The Golden State Warriors' summer-league team is the best example...There's a player who recently got out of prison for burglary, professional street-ball players nicknamed "The Assassin" and "Homicide," a 7-footer from Harvard, and a former lottery pick who spent his collegiate summers as a line chef at an Italian restaurant. Oh, and an undrafted rookie from Creighton named Nate Funk."

Back at Can't Stop the Bleeding, Roth's fellow contributor Jason Cohen offers us more sights from Summer League, including Steve Kerr wagering on the premises.

Tobias Seitz not only plays professional basketball in Europe, but also runs a German basketball blog called

He has also written for's German version. Here's his bio from HoopNation:

Hallo, mein Name ist Tobias Seitz. Ich spiele nun selbst seit ueber 10 Jahren Basketball. Durch Kontakte zu professionellen Spielern, Spielerinnen und Trainern aus den USA (WNBA, NBA, NCAA), Frankreich und Deutschland kenne ich mich natuerlich recht gut im Basketball-Umfeld aus. In diesem Blog versuche ich meine Erfahrungen und Erlebnisse rund um den Basketball zu beschreiben.

I don't speak German either! No idea what it says!

He offered to write an article about professional basketball in Europe, and specifically how American players fit in that scene. Here it is:

The biggest difference between college basketball and playing professional overseas is the fact that it is your job and you must perform at a high level. In college, it does not matter whether or not you play well. As long as you follow the rules, you will have your scholarship. Some people take the "free ride" to college for the party and chill on the bench their whole career. As a professional, if you continuously have poor performances, you will likely get fired and have a short career. A player must learn how to be a "professional", which basically means doing the things that must be done in order to keep their job. A lot of it is politics, just like everything else in life. This is knowing how to conduct yourself with people within the club, being on time, putting in extra work, and most importantly getting your job done in games by winning and having a full stat line. (Not just points!)

The biggest adjustment for an American at a high level, such as the Euroleague, is to adapt to the style of play. First of all, it is less power, more finesse and fundamental. The next thing, is figuring out how to, "do your job", as they say. A player must learn to be a star within the concept of team play. European basketball is surely a team sport with emphasis on defensive and many offensive systems. This is a difficult transition for many players. Obviously, most college teams and especially in the NBA, "the star player" is the focus and everything else falls around that. In the U.S., there are many rewards for individual achievement and this is taught from an early age. In Europe, many national teams have played together since they were very young and you can definitely tell. The focus is on winning championships. All of these things became apparent to Americans with our men and women's basketball teams taking home the bronze in the World Championship. Team basketball will beat individualistic basketball on any given day, regardless of talent (almost). It is much easier to guard one player, than an entire team of five.

There is also a big cultural difference when you live in another country. Another language, that you do not understand, is constantly being spoken around you. Imagine sitting in a restaurant and the entire table is speaking a language that is completely unknown to you. It is quite frustrating. Maybe you have no desire to speak the language fluently, however, it is smart to learn basic communication, to be able to read things such as a sign on the road or food packaging in a grocery store. And believe it or not – most of the Europeans such as French people do not like to speak English.

This will make your everyday life much easier. The less stress off the court, the better, because there will definitely be stress on the court, no matter what. The key is be able to look yourself in the mirror and say that you sincerely gave your best effort and that is most important at the end of the day. There will always be someone to say that it was not good enough. For example, you could have 30 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals, but it was not good enough, you lost. Sometimes, you wonder what more can you do? You think, I can not do it alone, I need some help.

In playing overseas, it is very important to be open minded and experience all that you can. If there is something to see, go and see it. Make the most out of your time there both on and off the court. You will be able to have once in a life time experiences that most people will never have the chance to have.

But what do the native players think about you? Well you have to know that you come to a team to help them so somebody is probably not good enough. It's the same thing in the NBA. Every team has at least one or two foreign players. Of course you love them because they are the best players (well some of them) from their country but he will always be that "French guy" or "Germanyguy", right? Same thing in Europe: If you are a point guard and you play overseas make sure you really pass the ball. If you are a post player, make sure you will get all your rebounds.

In France I played with an American post player. He averaged 32.5 points a game. Never passed the ball. He did not come back after the Christmas break because the team told the managers that they are not happy with that guy.

A lot of players in countries like Germany look up to the American players. They want to know how they practice, how they lift or want to go shoot with them all the time. But it's really tough in the big leagues like France, Spain and Italy so make sure you will be ready for Europe.

Big Man in the West Bank

August, 13, 2006
Playing for Peace is a non-profit that uses basketball as a tool to foster relationships between warring peoples. It has highly effective programs in post-conflict Northern Ireland, and post-apartheid South Africa. As TrueHoop has been discussing a lot lately, Playing for Peace is now tackling the Middle East.

Brian Sigafoos is due to become a program director for Playing for Peace (PfP), and has been sending TrueHoop regular updates from his travels. You can reach him directly at "bsigafoos" [at] "playingforpeace" [dot] "org".

For more background, check out:

Here's the latest from Brian:

Welcome to the West Bank

From Jerusalem Sean and I arrange a ride to Ramallah with Ghassan, a local PfP coach. The path is not easy or obvious, even for Palestinians who drive it regularly, because of multiple checkpoints and roadblocks—literally giant stones blocking the road. They are no detour signs. Ghassan navigates us hit-or-miss through small residential streets with large speed bumps and potholes to circumvent the roadblocks. We follow the wall built to separate Israel from the West Bank and end up doubling back half a mile (along with ten other cars following our same route) because some more giant stones are strewn across the street.

Getting closer to Ramallah, we join a long line of cars and trucks inching forward to a new temporary checkpoint, just out of sight around a bend in the road. We come to a halt as the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint close the road to vehicle traffic. A stream of taxis pull up and let out their passengers who try their luck walking through the checkpoint and finding another taxi on the other side. A large truck next to my window spews a black cloud of diesel exhaust over us for the next 20 minutes as we sit and wait.

I naively ask Ghassan what he thinks is going on, if there is some unusual militant activity or a pro-Hezbollah rally. He laughs and says that “this is nothing, this is normal.” He interprets the Israeli soldiers' actions: “They were bored so they make a checkpoint. And when they see that everyone waits and traffic is backed up enough, they let everyone go. There is no reason.” As Ghassan reiterates the need to be patient we hear five gunshots in quick succession and a small explosion. We cannot see what happened, but some cars and trucks begin figuring out how to make a u-turn in bumper-to-bumper traffic. We contemplate turning around too when five minutes later traffic suddenly begins moving again. As if nothing happened, we ease past four young Israeli soldiers who are no longer interested checking the traffic.

In Ramallah, we meet with Nader at the Orthodox Sports Club. The club treats us to pizza and beer—as a Christian club it is one of the few places you can get a pint of beer after a game in all of the West Bank.

Why Not?

We discuss the war and PfP's hesitation to send anyone over because of uncertainty about the conflict widening (Sean and I both came over unofficially, on our own). Some more Palestinians from Ramallah join our discussion and information gathering session. They do not see what the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has to do with them and why PfP might not return. Sean says that if Tel Aviv is hit by a rocket, the four Americans PfP has hired to be program directors will be not sent. There is no consensus on whether Tel Aviv will be hit, but all insist that such an event would not affect PfP program directors living and working in Jerusalem and the West Bank. No terrorist group or Muslim nation, including Syria and Iran, would ever risk damaging the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Not only the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam (known as the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, it includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.) Our Palestinian hosts cite Nasrallah's warning for Arabs to leave Haifa as evidence that Ramallah, and much of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, are safe from longer range rockets.

After we eat, Sean and I run an impromptu basketball practice for about ten kids before a growing crowd of interested onlookers. Their enthusiasm is evident even if their fundamentals are not.

Issiwiya shooting form. By Brian Sigafoos.

The art of the dribble. By Brian Sigafoos.

An Invitation

Our host, Nader, coaches the men's team at Orthodox Sporting Club (half the team is Muslim) and begins to recruit me to play for him. When Nader learns about my situation (not having an official job or place to stay) and that Sean is only here for five days, he insists I stay in Ramallah with him and play for Orthodox. We also discuss where we can expand PfP in Ramallah. Nader promises to show us four Palestinian refugee camps within walking distance of one another.

Without exception, all the Palestinians we have met are kind, helpful, and giving. We stay in the Al-Hajal hotel in Ramallah overnight. Wednesday morning, I find myself awake at five am and take a walking tour of the city. I wander into a bakery before it opens and the two men inside, Ashraf and Ali, seeing that I am a foreigner, offer me breakfast and make me feel welcome. I share their pot of sweet mint tea and dunk just about every type of bread they have into my cup.

Ali and Ashraf. By Brian Sigafoos.

Sean and I next take the bus from Ramallah to Tulkarm and the bus ride is uneventful. In Tulkarm, Issiwiya, and Beit Safafa, over the next three days, we visit our local coaches and hold small unofficial practices with some of the kids in our programs.

Playing for Peace founder Sean Tuohey addresses basketball players in Issawiya

Besides listening to the local coaches' perspectives, we also listen to the kids. These kids are surrounded by a barrage of television images and discussions of the war. They all have their own opinions about what is going on. They might empathize more with one side than the other but they are still kids. They joke around, love to high-five, and get fired up in competitive situations. During the practice sessions, their enthusiasm and energy is uplifting. The kids are not bashful about telling us how much they want us to be here.

I am definitely looking forward to holding some more unofficial practices next week. This weekend my plan is to get settled in Ramallah and hang out with my new teammates. After a night out in Jerusalem, our friend Samir praised the girls in Ramallah: “You just wait. What they have in Ramallah, they don't have in all of Israel. The girls there are so nice.” My first practice with the Orthodox team is tonight and first Palestinian Basketball Federation game is next week.

Brian Sigafoos and Sean Tuohey at the Dead Sea. By Brian Sigafoos.

Brian Sigafoos and Sean Tuohey at the Dead Sea. The shorter of the two, Tuohey, is 6-3.