Thursday, April 16, 2009
More than that though, I was hoping to be impressed with the sport. I wasn't. HD TV was supposed to be hockey's salvation, but it is only marginally more interesting on television now that it was back on standard definition tubes. I watched the last Winter Olympics and thoroughly enjoyed the hockey play. Olympic hockey is fast paced and free flowing. The NHL has supposedly tried to become more like Olympic hockey. It has largely failed.
The Caps have far superior talent to New York, hockey experts assure us. Then why might they lose? Because since 1988, tired of the continual domination of hockey in serial fashion by four franchises, the Montreal Canadiens, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers, hockey engaged in what Glen Sather, coach of the Oilers called "hockey socialism."
They took deliberate and intentional aim at handicapping the Edmonton Oilers and their star, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky would never win another title. The Oilers and Canadiens would win one more each, but neither has won in close to twenty years.
The NHL removed their product from ESPN, at the same time, opting for something called the Sports Channel, surely one of the stupidest business decisions in the history of major league sports.
Hockey's popularity, already marginal in the United States, began to plummet.
The NHL had ended the reign of the dynasties which had propelled the sport for fifty years. The New York Rangers, the Chicago Cubs of the NHL, even succeeded in winning a title, even as the sport became dreadfully boring, with rules and tactics that deliberately punished high scoring teams and rewarded teams that played a hockey version of Italian soccer, where 1-0 is considered a resounding victory.
One of the hardest things to achieve in any sport is the balance between skill and random events. Sports become boring if one player or team wins all the time and they can become equally boring when anyone can win at any time. As long as they are not overwhelming, dynasties promote sports, as do rivalries promote sports. ESPN knows this. The NFL knows this. MLB knows this. Why doesn't the NHL?
Duke and North Carolina are currently in symbiosis in basketball, as are the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball. College basketball began to prosper when teams besides UCLA were finally able to win a championship and yet, at the same time, college basketball still has its royalty of schools that are always near the top. The NBA went twenty years without a repeat champion and many years in the 1970's without good rivalries. But it was only when the Lakers and Pistons and Bulls became dynasties and repeat titlists, that the NBA peaked.
Basically, the NHL now has Detroit and everybody else. One year, Detroit will win, probably this year, or was it last year, and the next year, some team you have never heard of before, like the Florida Hurricanes, oops, Carolina Hurricanes or the Tampa Bay Lightning get the prize.(Apparently, it helps to invoke the weather to garner an upset title). Then, that upset-winning champion will fail to even make the playoffs the next season.
The Rangers, Washington's opponent, are one of those throwback teams still stuck in the first Clinton term, where clutch and grab hockey was all the rage. I still can't root for teams like the Rangers because they are anti-hockey. They are the same types of players and coaches who began killing the sport back in 1988. If NHL Hockey is about anything, it is about making sure that the guys with the least talent have a great chance to win, and that every single team in the league has a winning record. Only hockey has found a mathematical way to do this. Don't ask me how.
Perhaps the most maddening part of NHL Hockey is what I will call the "mad sandtrap dance."
During fifty percent of every game, there are three or four guys from both teams hacking at the puck behind the nets like a high handicap golfer in a sandtrap. They all swing from the hip, all hoping that the puck might pop just in front of the net, in the same way that a week-end hacker hopes his wild sand shot will hit the pin. They almost never do, in either case.
After failing to pop the puck out from behind the net, the players from both teams, then attempt to trap it with their foot against the boards. This is extremely exciting, watching a guy on skates hold a tiny puck against white boards with his skates, until a big guy from the other team smashes into him and then finally, maybe the puck goes down to the other end of the rink and the same dance continues down there for a while.
Olympic hockey is a beautiful sport and really shows the possibilities. In Olympic hockey, the larger size of the rink and rules of play might it possible for talented players to actually pass the puck between themselves with some regularity. NHL Hockey is more like pinball action, or if you have ever watched one, a soccer game between five and six year olds. Yes, goals are scored, but you never know where the puck is going and a series of completed passes is largely wishful thinking.
The NHL seemed to be making steps in that direction but basically, hockey has lost its momentum again. They need to adopt the Olympic rules and then maybe it will be watchable.
Oh, and by the way, last night was the first hockey game I have watched all year and that was only during the third period, which either makes this article even more right about the current state of NHL Hockey, or completely off-base. I'll let the reader choose.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Anyway, watching the Democrats bumble away their chances made me think of what it takes to get the best of the Republicans, calling to mind a famous movie line, with which I have taken a couple of artistic liberties:
"You wanna know how to beat the Republicans? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. They sends one of yous to the hospital, you send one of deres to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you beat the Republicans. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"
The Democrats weren't ready to do that in 2000.
By 2008, they no longer needed to do that to win.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
In order to perform due diligence, reporters across the country are questioning the coaches in their respective states, probably hoping for a meltdown similar to Calhoun's.
Here's the full text of the question and response by Roy Williams coach of the UNC Tar Heels, followed by some of my thoughts.
Q: Would you be willing to take a paycut providing that it would help the University system? I am aware of the fact that your salary doesn't come through the same revenue of other state employees, but even just as a gesture…would you be willing to do that?
WILLIAMS: "Well, I think first of all, there's no way to answer that question. You say 'Yeah,' but then somebody's going to call today and say, 'give it all to me back.' And if you say no, you come across as being insensitive. Right now, I'm the most sensitive person in this room to the state of our nation's economy.
"My son called yesterday, and it was a great day, because they just told him he was finished. He’s a bond trader for Wachovia Securities, and it was bought by Wells Fargo, and Wells Fargo doesn't do what Wachovia Securities did. So I'm more sensitive than anybody in here; I've got a son that's part of the nation's unemployed. Now he's a cocky little rascal that think he's going to have a job by tonight. I said, 'Son, people aren't hiring, they're letting people go.' ….
"It's a tough time. I'm also sensitive in that I do give a great deal of money to the university every year. I am sensitive to the fact that the initial contract I signed in the spring of 2003, that it was in the contract that we would revisit and renegotiate my contract after the second year. Second year was a pretty good year, we won the national championship.
"I never asked to have it renegotiated. In fact, I forgot about it. The athletic director came to me six months after we were supposed to revisit, and I said, don't worry about it. The next year, 2006, I had maybe the most satisfying year I've ever had as a coach. I was National Coach of the Year, and he asked me whether I wanted to renegotiate again. And I said I was fine, I was satisfied with it. And we did something the year after that.
"I don't think I'm in the business to make money. If you convince me that me giving something up would help somebody, then we would really have a great discussion. Because I'm willing to do a lot of things; I'm not willing to stand up here and say 'Yes,' and I'm not willing to stand up here and say 'no' because I think it's a question that there's no good answer. I just know from my buddy Jimmy Calhoun that I'm not going to tell you to shut up.
"These are tough times, these are times that nobody knows. I can look around the room and know that it's affected the people in the room right here. But it is a fact … I am not paid by state funds, and we've had some success, and we've made a lot of money in men's basketball. And if we start losing games and losing money, they're not going to ask me to give any of the money back, they're going to fire me. And that's something else I understand.
"But again … I don't believe there is anybody who is more sensitive to it than I am. I do believe I give a great deal of money, whether it's Carolina Covenant or other programs here in our department or to build other buildings over there, or to help build baseball stadiums. So I'm very proud of what my wife and our family have done there, and I'm going to continue doing it.
"We have video equipment in our office that's used by … six other teams here, that I bought. If they fire me tomorrow, I don't think I'm going to give a darn about that video system. It was a system that was good for other people, and there wasn't necessarily a place in the budget for it, so I bought it. And I could care less – if they fire me, I have 13 free weeks at the Maui Marriott. And I am not going to give a darn about that video equipment at that time, so they can keep the sucker." http://blogs.newsobserver.com/accnow/would-ol-roy-take-paycut-to-help
Thursday, February 26, 2009
His performance in Star Wars was eagerly anticipated by many, but ultimately both his character, Mace Windu and his performance, turned out to be hollow and dissatisfying.
Maybe it would have been over the top, but wouldn't it have been great, if Windu/Jackson, upon confronting Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, had said the following:
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know the true meaning of the Force when I lay my fury upon you."
With Tiger Woods coming back from injury, and the Master's just around the corner, it brings to mind to me, some comparisons between golf and basketball, which is really in full swing.
While statistical analysis of baseball and basketball, is all the rage in sports now, golf seems to me, in many ways, almost impenetrable to comprehension.
Even Tiger a few years ago seemed to have lost his swing. Overnight, seemingly, Tom Watson lost his putting stroke, only to re-gain it years later as a Senior.
The other thing that I wonder about is the equipment. I don’t understand why golf and tennis did not mandate stasis in their hitting instruments. Would basketball allow flubber shoes?
In terms of mathematical analysis, one thing that I find very interesting is a comparison of the careers of two of the greats of golf and basketball, respectively, Greg Norman and Jerry West.
These guys were very similar in many ways. Both served as the masculine image of rugged good looks for his sport for years. Both were generally recognized to be among the top three or four talents in their sports. Both of them seemed to be virtually always in competition at the very end, which for Norman, was on Sunday, and for West, was in the Final Four and NBA Finals.
And both of them usually lost. West lost in the Final Four with West Virginia and then lost in the NBA Finals.
Seven straight times, West lost in the NBA Finals to Boston, and then the N.Y. Knicks, as a member of the L.A. Lakers. In 1972, West would finally win a title with the Lakers, besting the Knicks, but then the Lakers would go on to lose one more time in the Finals against the Knicks in 1973.
All told, West played in 9 Finals and his team lost 8 of them.
I won’t do a detailed sketch of the Aussie Norman, except to note that his career resembles West’s in a lot of ways.
My question about Norman is, was the man really a choker, or was he simply on the bad end of some of the worst luck, some of the most unfortunate random events in golf history?
Like John Thompson of Georgetown, who with a gentle nudge of help from the Furies, would have won three college basketball titles in four years and been acclaimed as an all time great coach, was Greg Norman really an all-time great golfer whom fate simply disdained?
Jerry West ended his career as successful general manager, became the insignia for the NBA logo, and was acclaimed by all as an all-time great, and recognized by all by his nickname, Mr. Clutch, in spite of his team's failures so many times on the big stage.
Greg Norman at the height of his career was to play in a pro-am with President Clinton, in the mid-1990s. In preparation, Norman invited Clinton to his home to talk golf and prepare for the match together, and the president ended up falling down his backstairs, which required surgery and a cancellation of the match.
That kind of luck pretty much epitomized Norman's career. And no, Greg Norman's nickname is not Mr. Clutch. http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/article/41384
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
In considering this subject, I took a look at Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver, which is probably the foremost guide to statistical analysis of basketball and the author of that book notes that he believes the phrase "Defense wins championships" probably goes back to the titantic Boston-Philadelphia and Boston-L.A. NBA play-off series of the 1960's.
The media leaped on defense as the simple explanation for what was happening since Russell was great at defense, and Chamberlain, West and Baylor were great at offense.
In reality, things were a lot more complicated. But what does stand out from my study of the NBA standings is that adjusted point differential or SRS, seems to be the greatest predictor of success in the NBA play-offs. Because, as in college ball, NBA teams have not played equal schedules, the records are often misleading.
For example, the 1969 Lakers, who finished 55-27 and first in the West, are often chided for losing to the 48-34 Celtics, who only finished in fourth place in the East. But guess what? Due to statistical anomalies, Boston essentially tied for first in the NBA that year in SRS, finishing at 5.38, while L.A., which won seven games more, only had an SRS of 3.84. Boston ended up beating L.A. in the finals in a close seven game series.
Celtic fans try to have it both ways with the Celtic teams of the late 50's and 60's. They try to say that they were both the best teams of all time and that they were incredibly clutch. I would say that it is much more true to say that they were the best teams of that period by far and that they managed to avoid being upset by inferior teams, although often just by the skin of their teeth.
Out of the 13 years Bill Russell was with the Celtics, the Celtics had the best SRS in the league 11 times(including 1969 which was essentially a tie with the Knicks), and guess how many championships they won?
If there is a critique to be made of those Philadelphia teams with Wilt and those Laker teams with Baylor and West, and later with Chamberlain, it is not that they lost to Boston in the play-offs. That was the expected outcome. It would be why couldn't these teams match Boston in the regular season.
As regards Wilt Chamberlain, he played on four teams that led the league in adjusting scoring differential, in 1967, 1968, 1972 and 1973. Thus, Chamberlain played on four teams that would be deemed the play-off favorites and he ended up winning twice, in 1967 and 1972, although the 1972 Knicks were only a couple of points behind the Lakers during the regular season.
Adjusted point differential (SRS) is simply a team's offensive average minus its defensive average, with an adjustment upward or downward based upon schedule strength. Among power ratings in basketball, this is basically what Sagarin in USA Today calls "pure points" adjusted for schedule strength and I would bet that if we look, we will find that teams that win the NCAA title generally have excellent point differentials. Sagarin indicates that pure points is not politically correct but does the best job of predicting success.
Generally, in the NBA, an SRS of over 8 points is outstanding and will almost always result in that team winning the title. As far as I can discern, no team has ever led the league in SRS at an average of 9 points or more, without winning the title. This select group includes the 1971 Jabbar/Robertson Bucks, the 1972 Chamberlain, Goodrich, West Lakers, the 1986 Walton/Bird Celtics, and three different Jordan-led Bull teams.
Because expansion, injuries and improvement throughout a season can affect team success, SRS is not the final arbiter of greatness, but it certainly is highly correlated.
Only three teams have exceeded 11.5 points: the 1971 Bucks, the 1972 Lakers and the 1996 Jordan/Rodman Bulls, and all three won 66 games or more during the regular season and went through the play-offs at a clip of .800 or above.
The 1972 Lakers, who went 69-13 in the regular season had to play the almost equally worthy Bucks that year in the Western Finals. The Bucks went 63-19 and had an SRS of 10.70, which is one of the five highest of all time, but went down 4 games to 2 versus the Lakers.
So, it might be worth thinking twice before simply accepting the old "defense wins championships" platitudes. The defense versus offense paradigm may not, in fact, be especially illuminating. It may be useful for coaches in making team adjustments or for discovering why a particular game was won or lost, but it may not be particularly informative in terms of telling us which team is better, when an "offensive" oriented team faces a "defensive" oriented team. I doubt any of this will stop the television announcers from making the claim, however.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Thursday, January 8, 2009
This year, UNC, coming off a 36-3 season and Final Four appearance with virtually their entire team intact, appeared to be practically invincible and talk of an unbeaten season for Carolina was sweeping the nation. Yet, surprisingly enough, UNC went down to a crushing defeat, at home, no less, in its first ACC regular season game against the somewhat lightly-regarded Boston College Eagles, 85-78.
It was not the finest moment for this group of players, who have largely been together for three years and won two ACC regular season crowns and two ACC tournament titles, followed by trips to the Elite 8 and Final Four respectively. It was also a bit reminiscent of some other big game losses by this core of players, most notably a first half collapse against Kansas last year in the Final Four and a late minute and overtime collapse against Georgetown in the Final Eight in 2007.
Most strikingly, the Tar Heels shot a miserable 29% from the floor in the second half against BC, and only earned 15 points from 28 free throw attempts.
If the only issue in the game had been poor shooting, then I think you can write that off somewhat. Here, there were just a whole host of mental mistakes and sloppy and lackadaisical play. It is one thing to lose, but to go, as the Heels did, from a two point deficit to a fifteen point deficit around the eight minute mark, in a matter of a few minutes, is kind of strange, especially at home.Nobody likes to lose but many Carolina fans were mystified by the performance, sure in their convictions that the other great ACC and Tar Heel teams from the past didn't have days like this.
Well, not so fast. Perhaps the four greatest teams in the history of the ACC, not to mention some other great Tar Heel squads, have also had some puzzling outings. A further and related point, is that with the exception of perhaps a handful of UCLA teams, there have been almost no teams that have been able to glide effortlessly to a title. It generally takes skill plus a whole lot of luck.
NC State went 57-1 during the 1973 and 1974 seasons, going undefeated in the ACC both years and then earned the ACC its first national title since 1957 by winning it all in 1974.
But along the way, State got annihilated by 18 points by UCLA, 84-66 on a neutral floor during the regular season, after its chief rival Maryland had only lost to the Bruins by one point at UCLA. NC State had actually led the Bruins 33-32 at the half. The Wolfpack benefited from Bill Walton's four fouls in the first nine minutes that kept him out of the game until the last ten minutes of the second half, but then when Walton returned, with the score tied 54 all, NC State just fell apart as UCLA went on a 19-2 run.
David Thompson, State's great clutch All American, went 7-20 from the floor and 3-7 from the foul line in the loss, while allowing Keith (Jamal) Wilkes to drop 27 points on him, on 11-20 shooting from the floor.
State also almost lost to Purdue in a tough road game in Indiana, and needed a huge rally to get past them. The Boilermakers were decent but ended up in the NIT.
State ultimately got past UCLA the second time, but as great as the Wolfpack were, it took two huge comebacks, first, just to get the game into overtime, and second, after going down seven in the second overtime period. NC State was certainly fortunate that the Final Four was played in Greensboro, North Carolina that year.
I still think that the 1974 Bruins with Bill Walton, Dave Meyers, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson were slightly better than NC State and would have won a seven game series, but they weren't better on the day that they had to be.
UCLA, as great as they were that year, also saw their 88-game winning streak end against Notre Dame, when the Bruins blew a double-digit lead in the final three minutes--no, the Bruins did not stall, ever.
Although UCLA would destroy Notre Dame the next week in a re-match, 94-75, UCLA then proceeded to lose back-to-back games at Oregon and Oregon State, a result so shocking that media wags deemed the "Bruins in Ruins," and Sports Illustrated ran a cover story with the caption, "UCLA's Lost Weekend."
The Bruins actually had to win their last regular season game, (which was televised nationally late at night on the East coast by the Hughes Network--a rare thing in those days) just to qualify for the NCAA but put a hurting on rival USC the likes of which have seldom been seen in college basketball. USC and its star, Gus Williams, finished 24-5 and 11-3 in the Pac 8 but would miss the NCAA tourney, just as it had in 1971 when the Paul Westphal-led Trojans went 24-2 and 12-2 in the Pac 8.
The 1991-92 Blue Devils are often seen as an all-time great team but in the regular season they lost to average UNC and Wake Forest squads, and needed overtime to beat a very green Michigan early in the year, and then needed overtime and a prayer to get past Kentucky in the regional finals.
The 1982 Tar Heels are another squad often touted as an all time great team. Nevertheless, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy needed to go to overtime that season to beat Penn State in the Cable Car Classic! They also lost at Virginia by 16 points, which was a considerable margin back then, and then barely beat James Madison 52-50 in Charlotte in the NCAA tourney, where a defeat would have been seen as an incredible humiliation for Dean Smith and his team.
Maybe a step behind the above four in the pantheon of great ACC teams were the 1993 Tar Heels, but the national champion 1993 Heels also simply annihilated many rivals, similar to this year's Tar Heels.
The 1993 Heels beat South Carolina by 31; they beat Texas by 36 and Ohio State by 20 in Columbus. They beat NC State by 33 and 46 points; they beat Maryland by 28, 14 and 36 points; they beat Virginia by 22 and 20 points; but then seemingly out of nowhere, the 1993 Heels had a three game interval where they could do very little right.
The Heels fell behind FSU by twenty-something points and had to stage a huge rally to get an ugly win at home; except for the ultimate outcome, the Heels' play here was not all that different from the current squad's game against BC. They actually trailed by more, but started their comeback sooner and were just able to eek out a win by the somewhat deceptive score of 82-77.
In their next game, the 1993 Tar Heels proceeded to lose by 26 points to Wake Forest, followed by a 14 point thrashing by Duke. With the exception of a close loss in the ACC finals to Georgia Tech, (without Derrick Phelps and where Donald Williams shot horribly) the Tar Heels would not lose again during their final 18 games.
What does it all mean? That remains to be seen. Is this squad more like the 1993 Tar Heels or is it more like the 1994 Tar Heels squad that had Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Eric Montross and was also seen as a sure title bet but then didn't even make it to the Sweet Sixteen?