Lies and NBA myths
1. NBA Players Can't Shoot
Easy … but wrong.
"It's funny," says Washington Wizards forward Caron Butler, a 44.5 percent shooter from the floor last season. "You take the average NBA player and put him in a gym, just work him out and shoot, he'll look phenomenal."
So what's the problem?
"In a game, you don't get a lot of open shots," Butler adds. "You've always got a hand in your face, coming from a guy with a 40-inch vertical, athletic as I don't know what, coming right at you."
In other words, forget a lack of skill. Think degree of difficulty. For one, mid-range shots largely have been replaced by 3-pointers; more to the point, scoring from anywhere on the floor has never been harder. Defenders are longer, stronger, quicker and more aggressive.
Thirty years ago, a 7-footer such as Kevin Garnett would have been patrolling the paint almost exclusively; today, he roams the entire floor, challenging perimeter jumpers.
Open shot? Relative term.
"And if you beat a guy like Ben Wallace," says Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, "you've got another guy coming."
From Gregg Popovich to Larry Brown to Pat Riley's forsaking showtime for chest-to-chest, no-layups basketball, being a good coach means being a good defensive coach. Sophisticated schemes and hyper-detailed scouting reports have followed suit, propelled by advances in stat-tracking and video technology.
"In the playoffs, you'll get a whole [scouting] pamphlet on one guy," Butler says, shaking his head. "What he likes to shoot going right. Going left. His percentage on pull-ups. Drives going right. Drives going left. What he likes to do when it's raining outside, when it's snowing outside. Everything."
Still think today's NBA teems with inept marksmen? Consider the following test, suggested by ESPN Insider columnist John Hollinger.
Free throws are uncontested. The foul line hasn't moved in 75 years. If shooting is truly a lost art, numbers should tell the story. Let's take a look:
|YEAR||AVG FT %|
Hmmm. Seems as though contemporary players are slightly more accurate than players of the '50s and '60s. And that's after accounting for Shaquille O'Neal. Go figure.
Heck, Jordan and his peers could possibly -- just possibly -- make it through the preseason without developing puffy, blue-gray bags beneath their eyes.
"That's a huge myth," Jordan says. "Of course, people like to see the end of a close game, like in any other sport. But as a coach, it's 48 minutes. You need to take care of each possession. Each one means a lot."
The same goes for the guys on the floor. Is play more intense at the end of a tight game, what Magic Johnson once dubbed "winnin' time?" Without question. Focus goes up. Adrenaline kicks in.
Even so, don't think players are lollygagging the rest of the way. Slack off early? Your team may not have a chance to make up the deficit. And you probably won't be on the floor to help.
"Some guys don't even play in the last five minutes of the game," says Wizards guard Antonio Daniels. "So what about when they get in for that six or seven minutes earlier on? They're not playing hard?"
Remember: every NBA player wants to start. Every player wants to finish. The time in the middle is a rolling audition.
Even Superman needs help. When Washington won the 2001 NBA draft lottery -- just months before Michael Jordan came out of retirement to play for the club -- NBA fans swamped a team message board, each post more conspiratorial than the next.
Of course it was rigged.
The implication? The league fixed the lottery to spur Jordan's return, in turn juicing interest, ratings and an upcoming television deal.
In other words, just a typical, unremarkable, massive follow-the-ping-pong-ball plot linking Jordan, David Stern, the NBA, the networks, the accounting firm of Ernst and Young, the CIA and the Freemasons.
And, possibly, whoever shot Tupac.
"When I opened the envelope, it hit me: Michael [Jordan] won the lottery," recalls league deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "I said, 'Well, we're going to hear from the conspiracy theorists.' I don't think the talk will ever go away."
Indeed. For many, the NBA's Secaucus, N.J., soundstage is nothing short of a grassy knoll. Sinister theories have surrounded the lottery since its 1985 inception, when the Knicks finished with the league's fourth-worst record but beat out six other teams for the top slot, placing Patrick Ewing in the nation's biggest media market.
Other eyebrow-raising results? Try 1993, when Orlando entered the lottery with a one-in-66 shot, snagged the top pick for a second consecutive year and paired Penny Hardaway with Shaquille O'Neal to become a national attraction.
"That first one with Patrick, that perpetrated a whole wave [of theories]," Granik says. Then again, so did the Kennedy assassination. And like Oliver Stone's "JFK," the whispers involving the draft are overheated. Granted, the team with the worst record has scored the winning ping-pong ball just four times; that said, consider some of the teams that have beaten the odds: Charlotte. Golden State. Houston. Milwaukee.
Ask yourself: If Stern were truly a master of puppets, wouldn't he have made sure the Knicks or Bulls walked away with Yao Ming in 2002? Or that once-proud, long-lousy Boston landed Tim Duncan in 1997?
Instead, small-market San Antonio took home the Duncan prize. In fact, the glam-less Spurs have won the lottery twice, as have the near- invisible Bucks. Oh, and Washington? Jordan used the top pick on supposed franchise savior Kwame Brown.
Hot-dogging, no-passing, me-first one-on-one streetballing, Iverson jacking 50 shots, Kobe shooting over three defenders while four guys stand in the corner checking out the Laker girls, that's why you won a bronze medal at the Olympics, can't play as a team, I hate this game, whatever happened to Hickory High and the '72-73 Knicks, losers!
Or something like that. Is team ball nearly extinct in the star-obsessed world of pro basketball?
Not according to the numbers. Last season, the percentage of shots taken by the top two scorers on each team ranged from 24.4 percent (Atlanta, New Orleans) to 41.1 percent (Houston). Most clubs were in the 30-percent area.
"A lot of it comes down to the teams you watch," says Wizards center Brendan Haywood. "If Philadelphia is on, that's [Allen Iverson's] team. If you saw the Lakers last year, Kobe was pretty much going one-on-one. But if you watch a good team like Detroit, they ran sets to get Richard Hamilton open. They ran counters off that to get Tayshaun Prince open. Then they'll come out of a timeout and have a play to get Ben Wallace a lob.
"There's a lot of game-planning in the NBA. It's not just catch the ball and put it up."
The Pistons play as a unit. So do the champion Spurs and plenty of other squads. Don't see it? That's because (a) you're only watching the ball, and (b) no one has told you what else to look for.
Consider the average NFL broadcast. Announcers use Telestrators and replays to illustrate the nuances of a zone blitz or a play-action pass. Many of us have never played a down of organized football, yet we still have a good grasp of how a Cover 2 defense works.
Now think of an NBA game. Phoenix is on the break. Slam dunk by Marion! Does anyone outside of Hubie Brown explain how the Suns' helter-skelter transition game is actually by design? Or go through the five or six scoring options the Wizards have in a typical half-court set?
Uh-uh. No chance. No time, really, since basketball moves so quickly. And that's a shame. The pro game isn't just a series of spectacular moves; it's the coordination and teamwork that puts players in position to make spectacular moves.
(Speaking of time limitations: The NBA shot clock is only 24 seconds. Expecting pro clubs to run a college-style motion offense is downright ludicrous. So let it go, already.)
"Honestly, certain guys are more talented offensively than others," Jamison says. "But teams do a great job of getting them the ball in their spots. Look at Amare Stoudemire last year. He couldn't have got the job done scoring if [Shawn] Marion wasn't spotting up, if [Steve] Nash wasn't coming off the pick-and-roll finding everybody."
As for complaints that the NBA overemphasizes one-on-one matchups, focusing too much on star players? Guess what: Coaches like winning. Talented scorers make it happen.
Of the seven clubs to have their top two scorers take less than 30 percent of their field-goal attempts, only Memphis and Indiana made the playoffs. Meanwhile, the leading scorers on supposed team-first Phoenix, Stoudemire and Marion, took nearly as large a percentage of the Suns' shots (37.4 percent) as two-man-gang O'Neal and Dwyane Wade did in Miami (37.9 percent).
Again, compare basketball to football. No one whines that San Diego hands the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson 25 times a game; to the contrary, the Chargers would be stupid to do anything else.
How is having LeBron James taking the bulk of Cleveland's shots any different? Especially when the alternative is … Anderson Varejao?
"I'm not even touching that," Daniels says with a laugh. "I will say this: it's not a coincidence that the same guys lead the league in free-throw shooting every year."
Daniels is correct. It's no coincidence that Iverson and Stoudemire led the league in free-throw attempts last season. Both players shoot frequently. Both players get hacked a lot. Do the math. Nothing sinister about it.
"As players, we're taught to foul hot scorers and put them on the line," Jamison says. "And great scorers know how to draw contact. They even know how to make it seem like they were fouled. That's part of what makes them great."
As for a larger officiating conspiracy? Hard evidence is lacking. Look again at last year's free-throw attempt leaders: O'Neal, Wade, Bryant, James, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Gilbert Arenas, big-name players who routinely take shots in traffic.
Also in the top 10? Corey Maggette, hardly a marquee attraction. If NBA referees truly favor the league's top draws, how did Maggette finish with 19 more free-throw attempts than James, particularly when James took 698 more shots?
"I won't say superstars get the calls," Jamison says. "But certain guys get the benefit of the doubt. Michael Jordan did. The game is played at a fast pace, and if it's a close call between a Michael Jordan and someone else, of course you're going to be like, 'He's a great offensive player.'"
Maybe so. Yet while Jordan got away with a few memorable playoff noncalls -- pushing Bryon Russell in 1997, grabbing Hersey Hawkins' arm in 1995 -- those don't equal a smoking gun, let alone a full-blown plot.
To the contrary, The Sporting News last March added up player offensive touches (shot attempts, assists, offensive rebounds, turnovers), then divided the total by free-throw attempts to get a crude idea of which players get to the line most frequently.
The results? Duncan got fewer calls per touch than Dwight Howard. Austin Croshere beat out James. And the most prolific whistle-inducer in the league was none other than Danny Fortson, whose 1.9 touches per foul shot topped the likes of O'Neal (2.2), Iverson (3.5) and Garnett (4.4).
Unless Fortson has deeply compromising photos of league officiating director Ronnie Nunn, superstar favoritism is vastly overrated.
Fact is, you're not making much of difference.
"The balloons, the signs, all that stuff that goes on behind the basket never bothered me much," says former NBA guard Steve Kerr, an 86.4 percent career shooter from the foul line. "The only thing I was ever distracted by was the situation." Kerr has company. Lots of it. Last season, the 25 teams with split stats listed on NBA.com shot an average of 75.7 percent from the foul line at home and 75.3 percent away, a whopping difference of 0.4 percent. Ten squads even shot better on the road.
All of which suggests that those oh-so-clever BRICK signs aren't exactly getting the job done.
"Just sitting there yelling, waving your arms, that doesn't work," says Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. "It has to be something you haven't seen before."
"When I was at Arizona, the Oregon Duck had this big smile," Arenas recalls. "He stands in the back, kicking the goal over and over. We must have missed six free throws straight because we were laughing at him."
As it turns out, Thunderstix and wiggling balloons have little effect because the brain simply blocks out random motion, like white noise on a television screen. According to this Slate.com article, fans behind the baseline would be better off moving side-to-side in unison.
Why? Confronted with a field of background motion, observers tend to believe that they are moving while the background remains still -- think of sitting on a stopped subway train while an adjacent train passes. David Whitney, a visual scientist at the University of California-Davis, has demonstrated that a field of background motion can influence hand motions, such as the flick of the wrist on a free throw.
"The most effective one I've seen might have been at Duke, or maybe Kansas," he says. "As soon as the guy was about to shoot, the fans would all move from the right side to the left. It would create this visual of everything moving."
Put those same fans in Duck costumes? Now we're getting somewhere.
But play with more energy? Please.
"Coming out of college, I had no idea what it took to be successful in this league," Daniels says. "It took me going to San Antonio and playing around a professional group of guys.
"Things happen so quickly at this level. Decisions are made so much faster. Guys are a lot craftier, they think a lot quicker and they react a lot quicker."
College players show emotion. For sheer atmosphere, pep bands and rabid fans trump corporate boxes and Jock Jams Vols. 1-5. Couple that with a lower degree of skill, and the college game can appear more intense.
Don't be fooled.
In the time it takes a campus star to pound his chest, drop into a defensive stance and raise a fist, a pro player can use a quick hesitation dribble to get to the rim. Economy of motion does not equal economy of effort.
"When you watch Tracy McGrady score, it doesn't look like he's working," Haywood says. "But that's because he's just that good. College guys look a little more rugged, like they're playing extra hard when they're doing the same thing we're doing."
In college, an NBA-level player can sometimes coast -- he's that much better. In the pros, even the scrubs were campus stars. Come out flat, and you're bound to get hammered. Then there's playing through pain: think Jerry Sloan ignoring two broken ribs, Isiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter on a severely sprained ankle, Iverson cutting off his own cast to play with a broken thumb.
Would most college players do the same?
Hollinger suggests another test. Defense, coaches say, is mostly a matter of effort. When was the last time a rookie -- fresh from hustling so very, very much in college -- made the All-Defensive Team?
Blaming officials is nothing new. But during a 2001 playoff series between Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the Bucks took carping to a new level, submitting a self-spliced videotape of questionable calls to the league office.
Why the Zapruder-esque documentary?
"Nine times out of 10, when you have a referee you know there's no biases," then-Bucks guard Ray Allen told reporters. "But in the back of everybody's minds, it's like Philadelphia and the MVP [Allen Iverson] needs to play in the finals.
"I used to always think the series were fixed when I was in high school, then when I got to the NBA I said there's no way they could be fixed. But even last year against Indiana in Game 5 [of a first-round series] it seemed like everything went against us."
Join the club. Small-market teams getting an intentional league shaft is the T-1000 of NBA myths. That's what they do! That's all they do! They won't stop! Ever!
Think Tim Hardaway, referring to referee Dick Bavetta as "Knick" Bavetta. Or Ralph Nader, calling for an investigation after the Los Angeles Lakers shot 27 fourth-quarter free throws in a pivotal 2002 playoff victory over Sacramento.
Three years earlier, Pacers fans pointed to a series-turning, phantom four-point play by Knicks forward Larry Johnson as proof that the league wanted no part of an Indiana-San Antonio matchup in the Finals.
"We'll never get the benefit of the doubt like the big-market teams like New York and Los Angeles," former Pacers guard Reggie Miller lamented the following season. "That's just the league being the league."
Is it? Not if you look at the evidence. After all, Indiana made it to the Finals. So did New Jersey (twice) and San Antonio (three times).
Did the dynastic Lakers benefit from a few bad calls? Sure. So does every team. Besides, any club featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant is going to draw a lot of fouls, too.
Also keep in mind that NBA ratings have less to do with a team's local market size than its national following.
"When Michael [Jordan] was playing baseball, our highest-rated team was Orlando, with Shaq and Penny," Granik says. "And that's one of our smallest markets."
Then there's this: After a Game 5 loss that prevented his team from closing out the Western Conference finals a few years back, a well-known player sounded an accusatory -- if familiar -- note.
"If I open my mouth and say anything about the officials, that would be making an excuse," he told reporters. "…[But] you can't have the NBA on NBC when it's 4-1."
The grumbler in question? Rick Fox. Who happened to be playing for the Lakers.
Wait a second. Aren't they in on the fix?
If I were to ask you right now who the best five players in the league in terms of scoring are, what would you look up? The answer most people would give is points per game. The stat is good at telling us one thing, and that one thing is literally just points per game. It does not tell us how good of a scorer a player is, and it definitely does not tell us how efficiently that player does it. Before I go any further, the importance of efficiency should be emphasized.
Basketball can be looked at as a game of possessions (an idea well expressed by Dean Oliver in his book Basketball on Paper). In some ways it can be compared to baseball. Baseball teams have 27 outs to score runs, exactly the same amount as their opponent. If the game goes extra innings, both teams are given an equal amount of additional chances to score. Opposing basketball teams, just like in baseball, also have equal amounts of chances to score. Every possession ends in the other team getting the ball.
That is where efficiency comes into play. You must make the most out of your possessions, and you do this by shooting high percentages, getting offensive rebounds, drawing fouls, and not turning the ball over. The more efficient team in any NBA game is guaranteed to win. The Denver Nuggets score over six more points per game than the San Antonio Spurs, but the Spurs are the better offensive team because they are more efficient with their fewer possessions than the Nuggets are with their many possessions. On the other end, the Phoenix Suns are actually an above average defensive team despite allowing more points per game than all but five teams in the league. They do not allow their opponents to be very efficient on the offensive end.
To sum it all up, you can not outshoot your opponent. For every possession you get, the opponent is getting one right back. Your team can take 3 shots per minute, but that just means your opponent is doing the same thing. The key is to make those three shots.
Now this all seems simple, and I doubt many people would disagree with what I've said so far. The problem is that people have a hard time translating this idea to the evaluation of individual players. Individual players need to be efficient with their possessions just like teams do. Although there is value in being able to create your own shot and carry a team's workload, this ability is often overrated. The Philadelphia 76ers, despite having one of the league's top scorers (in terms of points per game) in Allen Iverson every year, have been a very bad offensive team since drafting the Georgetown Hoya in 1996. This is to be expected when most of your shots are being taken by a player who tends to be inefficient. Iverson and Gilbert Arenas score more points per game than Dirk Nowitzki this year, but it is not a stretch to say that Nowitzki helps his team the most offensively out of the three.
Points per game is often the result of the desire to score, not the ability to score. Antoine Walker put up gaudy offensive numbers with the Boston Celtics through 2003, but in reality was hurting his team on the offensive end. The Celtics were one of the worst offensive teams in the league throughout Walker's career there. Walker's averages dropped dramatically once he left the Celtics. Did he forget how to score? No, he just took fewer shots because he was moved to different situations.
Yet somehow, the misleading stat known as points per game has been parlayed into some impressive paydays for many players.
The best players are generally on the best teams, this much is true. But the key word is generally. People often forget that you can have really good players on not-so-good teams. When people see this, they tend to assume that this player just must not be as good as we thought. Clearly, if he was any good, his team would be in the playoffs fighting for the championship, right?
Look no further than Kevin Garnett. He is arguably one of the best three players of this decade, but you won't find many people who agree with that statement. Although people acknowledge that he's been surrounded by lackluster talent for most of his career, they still hold it against him that he's never made the NBA Finals and that he usually does not make the playoffs or gets knocked out early. He just doesn't have what it takes to win.
The problem is that it takes more than one good player to make an NBA team good. It takes more than two, more than three, more than four or five. Championships are often won by superstars, but those superstars are surrounded by efficient players who compliment their star's talents well.
This common misperception often plays a big role in the MVP voting process. Garnett received no votes at all for his efforts last season, despite having a dominant season as usual. However, Tony Parker and Shawn Marion received votes, and Chauncey Billups finished fifth overall in voting. It would take a lot of convincing for me to believe that any of those three are more valuable to their team than Kevin Garnett is to the Minnesota Timberwolves. It would also take a lot of convincing for me to believe that any of those three had better individual performances during the year than Garnett. In the end, the MVP award is a team award, something that seems redundant considering the league already gives out a team award at the end of the Finals.
Team chemistry is a tricky subject. Intangibles, which by definition can not be measured, are often measured and compared among different teams. Chemistry and intangibles are often the catchall for anything an analyst doesn't see or doesn't understand. The analyst doesn't see that the Detroit Pistons are actually quite efficient on offense to go along with their great defense, so he or she assumes that it must be the intangibles and “locker room chemistry” that make them good.
I do not want to say that every good thing a player can do is measurable. Statistics tell a lot of the story, but they don't tell the whole story. Players that play well together, go for loose balls, and make the hustle plays are invaluable to their teams. Most championship teams have a few of those guys. I have no problem crediting those guys for teams' victories.
The problem is when things like locker room chemistry are given as reasons for team success. It's easy to pick examples of teams that have won with a group of players that got along and shared the same mentality, but it is just as easy to pick examples of teams that were quite the opposite. Michael Jordan once punched out Steve Kerr in practice, and MJ often verbally tormented his players. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three championships despite not being the best of friends. Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton exchanged verbal jabs with each other during a playoff series last year against the Bulls, and then held up the championship trophy a few weeks later.
Instead of attributing team success to things that don't have much to do with the game of basketball, we should instead focus on analyzing what we do know. Instead of just taking the easy route and calling every thing intangibles, we should improve our understanding of the many little aspects of the game. Tools such as statistics are becoming more advanced and better at picking up on the little things, and in time they may be able to tell us a whole lot.