Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Duke falls from #1, America exhales

Tonight in Winston-Salem NC, #4 Wake Forrest survived, despite blowing a 8pt lead at home with 4:07 left, to beat #1 Duke on a layup with under a second left.

Until a loss to Virgina Tech last week, the team's only loss of the season, WF had held the #1 spot, but this didn't stop the students from rushing the court, of course.

Wake had been in control for seemingly the entire second half, building up a lead of 13 at one point, while shutting down the three-point game, always a Duke staple, to the tune of 18.2%, along with inside shooting of under 41%. Aside from a slight rebounding edge, everything was tilted in WF's favor, including home-court advantage.

And yet the Blue Devils Duke'd their way back into the game, nearly pulling out a big come-from-behind road win in-conference on national television, which wouldn't have shocked anyone.

This is why most of us hate this team.

Now, in this country there's a longstanding tradition of shifting from indifferent to hateful of a team that's very successful, regardless of the sport. The Yankees, USC, the Cowboys, and the Lakers are good examples of this.

But Duke is on another level in this regard. The Blue Devils are far more hated than NCAA basketball legacies such as UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, and UConn, despite not being notably better over the last 25 years.

You'll notice a common thread among the other schools I've listed. They're all public universities. This plays into the other side of the Duke mystique that sparks national hatred: Privilege.

It's easy to hate people we perceive getting things handed to them. We see Duke University, on their quaint little southern campus, playing in a quaint little gymnasium filled with rich scrawny white boy students who, despite going to an expensive private school with a top academic reputation, have the time to camp out for tickets to a basketball game for weeks at a time.

We see a coach with an impossible name to spell, managing to bring in the only good white players in the country, working the referees into handing him half a dozen iffy charge calls a game.

We see a team that always sees the preseason top 10, despite actual team talent, and seems to regularly pull out outrageous comebacks despite awful play, like almost occurred tonight.

We see the most annoying sportscaster in the game salivating over every second he gets to talk about the team, to the point where they made him do an NBA game this year to get him away from it.

It's easy to hate this team, it's fun to hate this team, and I, along with most of the country, will continue to hate this team until they go the way of Notre Dame football and it's just no fun anymore.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A poor year for Canadian hockey in the NHL

Ice hockey is the pride of the nation of Canada. Hockey is the only of the major sport sports leagues to have more than one representative team from north of the border, boasting six different teams, all of which have better support than some of their singular counterparts in other sports.

However, these Canadian NHL teams just aren’t living up to the hype this year. None of the Canadian teams are in the top five in points in the league right now, and only one division leader is a Canadian team.

It’s not just that the best of the best are in the US this year (which they are), but even on the average the US teams are performing better. Up to this point, the 24 American teams are averaging a negligible 0.26% more goals scored per game, but a very notable 4.89% less goals against per game. This has led to an average of nearly two points more for the American teams than their Canadian counterparts (52.38 vs. 50.50) through the halfway point in the season.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising, taking a look back at the last decade or so of hockey. A Canadian team hasn’t brought home the cup since 1992, and four out of the last five years there’s been a Stanley Cup Finals the runner-up was a Canadian franchise. This must be just so disheartening for a people so proud that the teams just haven’t put in the full effort this year.

Or it could be a random occurrence, considering Canadian-born players play on every team in the league, and foreign-born player play on all the Canadian clubs. But let’s not ruin the story, and continue to just blame Canada.

It’s never failed us before.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Live by the three, die by the three, starring the Orlando Magic

Outside of the crazy D'Antoni-ball being played in Madison Square Garden right now, nobody in the league shoots more deep shots than the Orlando Magic. They're quite good at it too, shooting over 40% for the year, compared to a league average of just over 36%, and use it to play a fantastic inside-outside game with the beast that is Dwight Howard under the basket drawing defenders.

Even the starting "Power Forward" for the Magic is shooting over 42%, so combined with some other pesky shooters and a defense holding opponents to the third lowest FG% in the league Orlando now sits far atop their division and in discussion for a title run.

While the three has been the Magic's friend most of the season, it has proven to also be their enemy when things go sour.

The Magic as a team shoot over 33% of their shots from behind the arc, compared to a league average of 22%, and (D'Antoni-ball excluded) 6% higher than anyone else in the league. Because of this, a 5-6% variation in 3P% has a greater effect on total points than most teams.

So when the shots aren't falling, things get bad. Teams can start to collapse harder onto Howard without fear of paying for it from deep. Additionally, the shooting culture of Orlando leads to cold shooters continuing to shoot anyway, which can't help.

Tonight, for example, the Magic lost 90-80 at home to the Boston Celtics, in a match-up of two of the three best teams in the East. Seven weeks ago, the Magic also lost to the Celtics, in Boston, by a 107-88 margin. The common factor? Poor shooting behind the arc.

In the first match-up, Orlando shot 5/26 (19.2%) from deep, leading to a 19pt margin of defeat despite winning the rebounding battle and breaking even in turnovers, the two regularly telling factors in swinging a game.

Tonight, the Magic shot 7-22 (31.8%) from deep, not awful but still almost 9% below their average for the year. The ten point loss, then, stems also from being outdone slightly in turnovers and rebounds, without a dominant deep ball to bail them out.

A good three point shooting team can be as dangerous as anybody, making leads disappear in just moments. The Magic have the ability to be that team, as they've shown, and have the ability to be far from it, as they've also shown.

The question then is this: Can the Magic be hot from deep four out of seven games in a series come playoff time? Can they adjust to an off night without relying on a titanic performance from Dwight Howard?

Regardless, it's fun to watch. Let's hope they don't change a thing.

Notable Stats, January 21st

At random intervals of my choosing, I'll pick a few random chunks of box score that I find interesting. Enjoy.

The big story out of the Lakers-Clippers game was the big game out of Andrew Bynum in addition to the triple double of Kobe Bryant. However, the Clippers' young center, DeAndre Jordan, deserves another look too, in only his second big-minutes game since Marcus Camby's injury.

Andrew Bynum (21yrs old)

The Stats: 17/24 FG (70.8%) and 8/11 FT, totalling 42 points, in addition to 15 rebounds (8 offensive), 3 blocks, and only two fouls and two turnovers in 36+ minutes of work.

Analysis: For a guy averaging only 10 FGA/gm, 24 shots is crazy, but he completed a very high percentage. Adjusted for minutes played, he also rebounded at a higher rate than normal on both sides of the floor, and stayed more in control with regards to both fouls and, to a lesser degree, turnovers. This kind of explosion is what makes it less outrageous when Bynum brings up being on the olympic team.

DeAndre Jordan (20yrs old)

The Stats: 11/12 FG (91.7%) and 1/2 FT, totalling 23 points, in addition to 12 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 blocks, and only two fouls and one turnover in 43+ minutes of work.

Analysis: This rookie was drafted based on raw physical ability, with scouts expecting a big learning curve in the pros of at least a year or two. Now that he's been thrust into a bigger role early, he's made the best of the opportunity. Between this performance and the prior game's 8pt/10reb/6blk affair, Jordan could be an important piece of rebuilding an awful-looking team.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Guess who's not missing Elton Brand?

Could it be Willie Green?

Since Brand's been hurt, he's seen plenty of starts in the Sixers small-ball lineup. His overall minutes haven't really increased though, nor have his stats.

Could it be the Sixers team?

In games Brand doesn't play in, the team is 10-8, compared to 10-13 with him. That said, it's been a season of streaks for this team, so things could swing at any time.

Could it be his old team, the LA Clippers?

Quite the opposite. Brand may have been injury-prone, but at least he doesn't work for Jenny Craig.

It's...Marreese Speights, that's who.

In the absence of Elton, Speights has really managed to shine, dominating rookies in John Hollinger's PER stat, and nearly matching the resurgent Chauncey Billups.

It's tough to figure out how the PER number is attributed between Brand and Brand-less time, so lets take a different approach (on a per-minute basis, of course) to see how this jump from 12 to 19 minutes per game has affected his game:

Fouls and Turnovers: A big man is only useful if he can stay on the floor, out of foul trouble. In Brand's absence, the amount of time Speights sees per foul has gone up almost 50% (from 6:00 to 8:44), moving him from a liability to around average for a forward/center. A similar story for turnovers, with a 25% increase (from 20:20 to 24:21).

Scoring: A slight increase, from 0.50 to 0.52 points per minute, which still keeps him in the league of Pau Gasol and Amar'e Stoudemire in scoring frequency.

Rebounding: The only negative, possibly as a result of smaller lineups, Speights drops from 0.30 to 0.22 rebounds per minute, dropping him from the league of Tim Duncan and Al Jefferson to the league of Rasheed Wallace and Andray Blatche.

Blocks: Leaps and bounds here, jumping from a rate of 1.8 per 48 minutes up 78% to 3.2 per 48, a rate trailing only a former D-POY Marcus Camby and Ronny Turiaf. Perhaps a product of the system, teammate Samuel Dalembert also saw a 75%+ jump in block rate without Brand.

I think it's safe to say that Marreese Speights is thriving in Elton Brand's absence, with amazing productivity and efficiency. Will he be included in rookie of the year discussion? No, because he doesn't shoot fifteen or sixteen times per game on a team that hinged all their hope upon him.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Forget the stats: AFC Championship Game

The Game

It was the hard-nosed battle we had hyped it up to be. The picture to the right sums it up quite well.

In a game with five fumbles (two lost) and three interceptions, both teams combined to average only 3.85 yards per play, barely more than half the 6.53 yards per play of the earlier game.

The rookie QB finally showed his youth, untimely turnovers, big overthrows, and a QB rating less than his young age.

A superstar safety scored a defensive touchdown that defined the game. The problem was it wasn't who the hype expected. And so the team with the most super bowl wins and second most appearances is to take on the team that barely knows what a super bowl is.

The Rant

Contained within this old-school defensive game is a troubling trend in this league, one that will make me sound like an old woman as I rant about it.

Clearly both the Steelers and Ravens make their name being imposing defenses, with players scared for their skins should they leave themselves unprotected. This doesn't justify, however, the amount of wreckless head-first tackling in this game and throughout this season by defensive backs and others.

Tonight featured a direct helmet-to-helmet hit from a frustrated Limas Sweed, on what was a meaningless block, along with a similar hit by Ryan Clark, of Wes Welker destroying fame, causing Willis McGahee to be carried off the field on the cart. In related super bowl conversation, Anquan Boldin knows just what I'm talking about.

Now, I'm all in favor of big hits and hard play, but this helmet-to-helmet viciousness has to stop. The more kids at home see this on the pro field, the more they'll think it's an appropriate and desirable way to make tackles, when in fact it's dangerous to both parties and unnecesary. Concussions and neck injuries are far more likely, while it'd be a better football play to hit the ball, not the helmet.

Then why do it? To make the opponent fear for his spine while your coach fears for your own? To beat your chest and bark into the camera? For the pride of standing over your victim?

You're better than that, NFL. Think of the children.

Notable Stats, NFC Championship Game

At random intervals of my choosing, I'll pick a few random chunks of box score that I find interesting. Enjoy.

Arizona Cardinals passing attack, Weeks 12-16 (1-4 record) vs Week 17 and the playoffs (4-0 record)

Larry Fitzgerald
Week 12-16: 4.8 receptions, 72.4yds, 0.8 TDs/gm, average long of 36yds
Since Wk 17: 7 receptions, 137.3yds, 1.75 TDs/gm, average long of 49yds
Impact: Cemented himself as the best wide receiver in the league, showed he should not, under any circumstances, be single-covered. Also is looking forward to potentially tearing apart the hearts of his early fans.

Kurt Warner
Week 12-16: 59.9% passing, 233yds/gm, 73.5 QB rating, 1.2 TD/gm, 1.2 INT/gm, 0.6 fumbles/gm
Since Wk 17: 65.6% passing, 258yds/gm, 114.9 QB rating, 3 TD/gm, 0.75 INT/gm, 0.25 fumbles/gm
Impact: Renewed debate about his 5th place in the MVP voting, while reminding us he's already got two MVP's in the bag. Also instilled an increased fear of the influence of higher powers, and brought two more weeks of face time for one of football's favorite spouses.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Notable Stats, January 13th

At random intervals of my choosing, I'll pick a few random chunks of box score that I find interesting. Enjoy.

Tony Dungy - NFL Coach 1996-2008

Lifetime: 139-69, 70gm over .500, 66.8W%

Tampa Bay: 6 seasons, 12gm over .500, 53.6W%
Median Team Defensive Rank: 6th in pts, 4.5th in yds.

Indianapolis: 7 seasons, 75.9W%, at least 10 wins per season, 12 wins per season last six years.
Median Team Offensive Rank: 2nd in pts, 3rd in yds.

All-time win% rank: 11th place, 6th in the Super Bowl Era.
Playoff appearances: 11, T-8th all time.

Questions about his character: Zero
Debate of HOF status: Zero

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tebow and Hansbrough: The Pro Shortcomings of a College Legend

It's hard not to draw the comparison between Tim Tebow and Tyler Hansbrough. Both are goofy half-redneck white boys, the motor of their respective teams, have piles of accolades, have loyal followings and outright haters.

They also have another thing in common: They're going to be very underwhelming professional athletes. Don't get me wrong, they'll both eventually go pro, and more than likely be drafted in a respectable but not spectacular position. Despite being dominant in the college ranks, both have obvious shortcomings that will hinder them at the next level.

Hansbrough, at 6'9" 250lbs, is big enough to bump around in the lane for rebounds and tough baskets in the college game. In the pros, however, players of that size that stay in his natural Power Forward position, such as Tim Thomas and Rasheed Wallace, have a much more developed outside game and lateral quickness and coordination, to make up for a lack of dominating power, that the clumsy hustle of Hansbrough can't match.

Tebow, on the other hand, has quite the opposite problem. Quarterbacks don't tend to be 6'3" 230lbs of neckless force in the NFL. Linebackers do. The experiment of Tim Tebow the pocket passer didn't work at Florida leading up to their only loss of the season, so why would it work in the NFL? The experiments of Vince Young and Tavaris Jackson show running quarterbacks are not the path to success in the league.

This isn't to say that these two players' inability to dominate at the next level diminishes their achievements in college. Hansbrough already has the career scoring record for UNC, a school with such prolific scoring players as Michael Jordan and Bob McAdoo, and is a NCAA poster-boy, staying in school four years after winning freshman of the year.

Tebow, with one Heisman on the shelf and the most 1st place votes in this year's crazy Heisman race, could easily finish his career with three championships, two (and a half) Heismans, 100 passing TD's and 60 rush TD's with less than 20 INT's, he could surpass Vince Young (if he already hasn't) as the most transcendent college QB of this era.

But that's where these legends will end. Like any of us that were great athletes in high school to be obsolete come college, or playground heroes as kids to find our names not on the freshman team roster, they can only achieve so high.

The difference, and some consolation?

At least their grandkids will believe their legends.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New Yankee Stadium, same old greedy sports teams.

(Note: I know this is old news, but the Texiera press conference put this back fresh in my mind)

Sports teams are run like any other business.

We’re given this refrain time and time again, whether it’s when a NFL team cuts a player because he got hurt, or a baseball team raising ticket prices for another year. Teams have a bottom line to watch, and winning may only be a means to help support that bottom line. We follow player contracts, salary cap rules, and even know the names of sports agents, as the business side of sports interests us so greatly.

In several important ways, however, sports are quite different from any other business, thanks to a variety of legal exceptions.


You’ll notice you don’t see Cedars-Sinai, Mass General and the Mayo Clinic lining up in an orderly fashion to select the highest rated med-school grads from Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins, then paying them a set salary based on how early they were selected, with no bargaining power in the hands of the doctor-to-be.

Sports have been granted some big exemptions to certain antitrust laws to allow them to operate the way they do now, allowing leagues to restrict entrance into their league based on otherwise discriminatory practices, trade players against their will, like machines if not slaves, and, until 1972, never allow a player to leave the team that drafted them unless the team consented. Baseball has the biggest of these antitrust exceptions.


Despite these government granted advantages, sports teams still crave more ways to pad their bank accounts. That's where lobbying comes into play. Not just reserved for the Pfizers and Exxon Mobil's of the world, once teams are done milking their local area financing half their stadium, sports teams beg for tax advantages from big brother at the federal government.

This is where the city and state of New York and the NY Yankees come into the picture. Currently there are three projects for major stadiums in the city, between the new Yankee Stadium, CitiField (Mets), and the basketball arena in Brooklyn for the Nets. Accordingly, upwards of $500,000 of taxpayer money was spent to encourage the IRS to create tax loopholes for stadium bond issues.

In October, their wish came true as the IRS passed regulations tightening up tax-free financing of private stadiums, but making exceptions for the three New York projects.

A Yankee Windfall

This comes just in time for the Yankees, who at the time claimed to be running out of cash from their original $942 million bond issue and need $366 million more to finish the project. By comparison, the new $1.318 billion price tag is more than twice the $612 million for Citi Field.

While the new Yankee Stadium will be more complex and thereby more expensive than Citi Field, a large chunk of this excess value disappears with some scrutiny. The assigned value of the land on which the stadium is built is an important piece of the total amount that can be borrowed tax-free. Originally, the city assessed a value to the 17+ acre plot of $26.8 million, or $36 per square foot, similar to recent assessments of surrounding plots of land.

The Yankees weren't happy, so they got the city to change it. By over 650%. The city revised its assessment to $204 million, or $275 per square foot.

The area of the Bronx where the stadium sits is far from prime property. When there isn't a game going on, there really isn't much going for the area. (Even when there are games, no permanent jobs are really created) So an assessment of $275 per square foot then seems especially outrageous when compared to the implied $87 per square foot value of the Hudson Railyards, sitting in a prime position at 30th & 11th in Manhattan, according to a proposed deal.

It's next to impossible to defend this kind of a value for the land beneath the stadium, but the city had no problem jacking up the value to help the Steinbrenners. They've even got emails to prove it.

As icing on the cake, the timing of these IRS exceptions saves the Yankees $247 million in interest costs on their borrowings, or a little more than the combined contracts of CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett. Should be a nice condolence to the New York taxpayers who can't afford admission to any of the home games that they can at least watch these two big additions.

That is, if they can still afford cable, including the YES network, owned by the team.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Notable stats, January 5th

At random intervals of my choosing, I'll pick a few random chunks of box score that I find interesting. Enjoy.

Game: Texas 24 - Ohio State 21 [Fiesta Bowl]
Team Stat: Ohio State rushed for 5.6yds per carry, 1.0 more than their season average, and double the Longhorns' average allowed of 2.8yds per carry. OSU also rushed for 213yds on a Texas D averaging under 74yds rushing allowed.
Player Stat: Colt McCoy 41/58 for 414yds, including 74yds passing on the game-winning drive. McCoy's 58 attempts was greater than Texas' 54yds rushing.
Bigger Picture: McCoy finished the season, including this game, with a 76.7% completion percentage, crushing Daunte Culpepper's 1998 record of 73.6% set at UCF. Plus, girlfriend. That's the real big picture.

Game: Denver 135 - Indiana 115 [NBA]
Team Stat: Nuggets first half: +4pts, +8 turnovers, including 7 TO to none in the 2nd quarter. Nuggets second half: +16pts, -1 turnovers.
Player Stat: Danny Granger had 26pts at the half, and finished with 36 on 50% shooting from both 2 and 3, with 5 assists and only one turnover in 41 minutes. Granger continues to be a rising star in this league.
Bigger Picture: It took Denver, a clear playoff contender, a huge run fueled by 58% shooting for the game (10% higher than season average) to pull away from a talented but sputtering Indy team. Despite having a dead even turnover differential, having 9th highest turnover averages counteracted by 8th highest turnovers against should lead to volatile games, and losses to inferior teams, which Denver has avoided so far.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Doc Rivers rears his ugly head once again

The Celtics skid now stands at four losses out of six games. Granted, five of these were road games, four of which on a west coast swing, so a grain of salt is necessary, but we can still take this as a sign of future problems. I know where I'm starting to look: Doc Rivers.

Now, I'm usually in favor of not giving a coach too much credit for success or blame for failure, and I'm not saying Rivers has caused this recent slide, but he's not necessarily helping it either, especially when it comes to bench management.

The Celtics bench, as heavily reported, has been very sub-par this year after losing James Posey, PJ Brown, and Sam Cassell (sort of) from last year's title squad. To quantify this, I took a look at the last ten games played, which included the six games from this "skid", three home blowouts, and the tight Celts-Hawks game.

In these games, the Boston Bench played 77 minutes per game (49 low, 105 high) compared to opponents' 81 minutes per game (41 low, 127 high). Opposing benches outscored the Celtics 33.2 to 28.5 in this span.

Applying the bench point-per-minute numbers to a full quarter (12 minutes) for five players (broadly assuming starters play 3/4 of the game), the failure of the bench becomes incredibly telling. One of the ten games was to the Celtics advantage (the blowout @Sac), while the three biggest deficits came in losses: -17.1 tonight @NYK, -12.0 @Port, and -6.6 @Lakers.

Despite using less bench minutes, Doc has still reverted back to playing all twelve players regardless of situation, as noted in prior seasons by a certain overzealous fan. Seemingly every time the Celts build up a lead, the bench gives it right back when the starters rest.

Brian Scalabrine, a man with no discernible skills other than being the only white guy on a team in a racially challenged city, continues to average ten minutes per game. Listed as a power forward, Scal has shot under 39% for his career, which would be bad for a guard. He ranked dead last in Hollinger's PER rating for PF's last year, and is sitting pretty at 6.17PER for the year right now.

It could be said that Rivers is coaching the team for the playoffs, not the regular season, and resting his stars while he can, knowing full well they'll make the playoffs. It's also tough to form a second unit or rotation when Eddie House, a player built to run and rain threes off-ball, is handling the ball at point.

But this still doesn't excuse the lack of cohesion on this bench, whether it's Scalabrine tossing up aimless threes, Tony Allen dropping his head down and charging toward the basket without recourse, or Glen Davis dropping passes in the post. This should be a focus in practice, and Rivers needs to make it happen before Boston complacently slips to the 3rd seed in the East, or worse.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Finally, the real Brett Favre

Those who know me know I've never been a fan of Brett Favre. It wasn't so much that I thought he was a prick or anything, or particularly cared about the Packers, or had some weird jealousy complex. I guess the issue I've always taken with the man is his idol status in the media.

The Good

Brett had a good run with the Packers about a decade ago. He won three consecutive MVP awards in the 1995-1997 seasons, including a Superbowl following the 1996 season. He possessed one of the strongest throwing arms we'd ever seen in the NFL, and had that golden Louisiana smile and charm. He was a bona fide superstar. This was the apex.

In the time since, Favre has been a solid starting quarterback in the league. He's been the epitome of durable, has only led one team with a losing record, and has thrown for 3000yds or more for seventeen straight years. As a result of his longevity, Favre owns nearly every career passing record, including total yards and touchdowns.

The Bad

However, Favre also owns the record for career interceptions. He currently sits tied for 20th in career QB Rating, behind such studs as Jeff Garcia and Trent Green.

Many explain away Favre holding the interception record the same way one explains away Cy Young having the pitching loss record: "He played for so long!". While yes, Favre has started the most games at QB ever, he still throws a disproportionate amount of interceptions. See the chart below:
I used most of the quarterbacks that have been active at some point since 2004 with ~2000+ pass attempts. Favre sits in the company of lifetime mediocre but consistent starters Brian Griese, Jon Kitna, Kerry Collins, and Vinny Testaverde, along with the perpetually poor-decision making Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.


All things considered, this man should not even be in the discussion for greatest QB of all time, the same way Pete Rose isn't the best contact hitter of all time simply because he has the most hits.

The Jets have learned this the hard way, having put all their faith in Favre, costing Eric Mangini his job, missing the playoffs despite six Pro Bowlers, tearing apart a locker room, and watching bloggers everywhere revel in the schedenfraude.