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Re: Dilution, balance, and Bob-bashing

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  • schtevie2003 <schtevie@hotmail.com>
    New Year s Greetings, I am a longtime anonymous reader who is now joining the fray and would like to add a few pennies worth of thought on the issue of
    Message 1 of 35 , Jan 2, 2003
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      New Year's Greetings,

      I am a longtime anonymous reader who is now joining the fray
      and would like to add a few pennies worth of thought on the
      issue of inter-temporal comparisons of NBA performance.

      First a note on motivation. Being a transplanted Illinoisan in the
      greater-Boston area, in the mid-90's I was confronted with the
      outrageous chauvinism of the Boston media in asserting,
      without doubt, the superiority of both the Bird and Russell-led
      Celtics teams over Jordan's Bulls. This goaded me to
      investigate the issue of how one would compare teams across
      time, and I think there were some persuasive conclusions which

      Let me frame the issue in my own words, and in doing so,
      necessarily repeat a lot of what has been discussed (my

      When comparing teams across time, there are two significant
      issues that need to be confronted. The first is talent dilution or
      concentration (in which category I would include strength and
      conditioning of the athlete) and the second then is the catch-all
      of all other factors influencing the ability to compete which I will
      just label as coaching.

      It seems to me that the only reasonable prior belief regarding the
      first factor is that talent has improved dramatically over time.
      This point is obvious to me on two grounds. First, reasoning by
      analogy, in every sport where increases in "athleticism" (again,
      defined as a catch-all of raw talent and physical training) can be
      measured, the conclusion is relentless, monotonic progress
      with diminishing returns. Take track or swimming where times
      have plummeted, weight-lifting (ignoring steroids) where more is
      hoisted, or even the quasi-sport of figure-skating where the
      ability to rotate in the air has improved dramatically. In this
      context, it seems inconceivable that basketball would have been
      exempt from this generally observed progress. Second, if one
      really believes that time stood still in terms of physical
      improvements in basketball players, one must necessarily
      believe that players doing arduous off-season and on-season
      physical conditioning routines are wasting a great deal of time,
      both absolutely and relatively - in that time would be better spent,
      say, practicing foul shooting.

      A similar point could be made as to the only reasonable
      inference regarding the quality and quantity of coaching. Why
      would owners spend millions of additional dollars for these
      services if there were no return? Anyway, so much for the
      rhetorical points.

      The more important point I wanted to make here regards the
      interpretation of the familiar historical trends that existed from the
      late 50's/early 60's until the late 70's or early 80's. (I apologize for
      the fuzziness of the dates, but I actually did this research some
      time in the mid-90's and the results are on some pieces of
      paper in a box somewhere.) I speak of the trends of two data
      series: points per possession (what I then called points per
      common possession, similar to definitions I have seen
      discussed here) and possessions per game. As we all know,
      the pace of the game slowed dramatically, yet over this time
      period offensive productivity soared, such that on net (and this is
      important for the resulting inference) there was a very significant
      increase in points scored per possession.

      Now the question at hand is "given these data series, can we
      determine how an average team from the early 60's would have
      competed with a team from the early 80's?" The answer is
      clearly "yes" and the result would be that the latter would blow
      out the former. No question.

      To believe otherwise is to believe that the increased offensive
      productivity is the result of a decline in defensive prowess over
      time. However, this view is untenable given the opposite trend in
      game pace. The logic is this. If all one knew is that the average
      time per possession dropped over time, then, all else equal, one
      would expect that offensive productivity would also have fallen.
      Why? Consider offensive possessions being of two types,
      fast-breaks and half-court sets. Now one way game pace could
      have slowed is if defenses decreased the number of
      fast-breaks. This, of course, would have decreased offensive
      productivity. The other way game pace could have slowed is that
      half-court sets were being drawn out longer. This too implies
      that, at least, one could not expect offensive productivity to
      increase, with offenses being, at best, obliged to be more patient
      to get equivalent quality shots.

      But what happened is that despite the dramatic slowdown in
      game pace, there was on net an overcompensating increase in
      offensive productivity. I can come up with only one interpretation
      of why this was, and that is that coaches were taking control of
      the game and wringing bad player decision-making out of the
      game. I like to think of it as the NBA curing itself of Celtic-itis. Let
      me explain.

      It is pretty clear (though I can't say I investigated this aspect
      conclusively) that the NBA followed the stylistic lead of the Celtics
      - not surprising given their success. However, the Celtics,
      proponents of a run and gun style, were actually a pretty
      mediocre offensive team (and in fact, by my measurement, they
      were in one championship year a below average offensive team
      - an accomplishment only once else achieved in the history of
      the NBA). And though I never watched them, they must have
      been downright below average in the half-court. It was defense
      that carried them (all hail Mr. Russell).

      I find this stuff interesting on a variety of levels, especially
      regarding the time required for the diffusion of optimal
      innovation, but somewhat paranthetical to the issue at hand.

      Regarding the comparison of teams over time, I would offer this
      summary. First, regarding talent dilution/concentration, it would
      seem most prudent to believe that in fact talent has actually
      increased over time and at least has not decreased. Second, at
      least regarding the two decades of the 60's and the 70's, a
      reasonable (in fact low-bound) estimate of the average
      improvement in team strength is the increase in offensive
      productivity (I say lowbound because the estimate assumes that
      the gains were exclusively offensive whereas there were likely
      were greater offensive improvements still but with offsetting
      defensive improvements). And this is huge. Again my numbers
      are fuzzy, but as I recall, this improvement was on the order of
      about 10 to 12 points per game at a "modern" pace. As I recall
      framing it back then, the 60's Celtics would have been
      competitive only with the doormats of the modern era.

      To finish the timeline, after the early 80's the analytical "gift" of
      dramatically offsetting trends in game pace and offensive
      productivity is gone, with the pace still slowing, but at a
      decreasing rate, and middling offensive improvements
      accounted largely by the introduction of the three pointer (what I
      like to call the above-average below-average shot). Finally, in the
      90's, as is well known, offensive productivity actually began to fall
      discernably. Despite this, my opinion of general progress
      remains the same, just now that the net improvement was

      Well, that's it from me. Thoughts?

    • John Hollinger <alleyoop2@yahoo.com>
      ... watched ... Put me firmly in the pompous windbag camp. The best thing about the Mason comment, for instance, was that Rosen said the reason Mason can t
      Message 35 of 35 , Jan 11, 2003
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        > I particularly enjoyed Rosen's article on the Sonics where he
        > one game (one of the worst of the year, for what it's worth) and
        > acted like he knew something about the team. Apparently, Desmond
        > Mason can't make a jumper because he had one bad night.

        Put me firmly in the "pompous windbag" camp. The best thing about the
        Mason comment, for instance, was that Rosen said the reason Mason
        can't make a jumper was his "low release point", which was hilarious
        on several levels:

        1) Apparently he's never watched Steve Kerr. Or Andrew Toney. Or
        Bryce Drew. Or about a hundred other guys who shoot from under their
        chin but make everything.

        2) Mason's release point isn't low, especially given that he's about
        20 feet off the ground when he shoots it.

        3) Mason's problem isn't the release point, it's the lack of arc on
        his shot.
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