Monday, February 24, 2014

Simmer down Cleveland – Kyrie isn’t going anywhere, but you might be better off if he does.

Uncle Drew ain't going anywhere...unless Cleveland really wants a ring.

Kyrie Irving caused a stir in Cleveland when he became the latest athlete to hold the city hostage, threatening to leave for greener pastures. Although he never admitted as much on record, word on the street is that he’s already champing at the bit to leave the Paris of Ohio.

Lucky for Cleveland fans, I know two secrets that should put a smile on their faces (no, the secrets have nothing to do with the citizens of Cleveland no longer having to live in Cleveland (1)). 

OK, ready, Clevelanders? Know how Kyrie Irving is threatening to leave? Truth is, he has 0 say in the matter, so he isn’t going anywhere for the next couple years unless Cleveland chooses to move him. There you go, Clevelanders, I can see you’re smiling already!

OK, but now are you ready to really have your mind blown? The second secret is that it’s actually in Cleveland’s best interest to trade him now, because his market value (especially coming off the All-Star game MVP) exceeds his productivity.

Don’t believe me, guys who call this “hating?” Fine, I’ll walk you (slowly) through these 2 “secrets,” by playing another round of: “3 truths, ball don’t lie!”

Truth #1: Kyrie Irving cannot leave on his volition until 2016 at the earliest.        

Because the NBA is essentially a legalized cartel with no real competition for talent (like most major American sports league, mind you), the rules that govern the league are very much skewed in the favor of team owners.
Subsequently, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that dictates league rules has mechanisms in place to minimize any free-market activity that would take money out of the owners’ yacht funds and put it into the player’s “Roth IRA’s” (that’s what the players call their BourrĂ© fund) (2). One such mechanism is the draft, in which players entering the league aren’t allowed to offer their services to the highest bidder (you know, like roughly every other industry in our capitalist democracy), but are rather selected by a team and offered what essentially amounts to a “take-it-or-leave-it” contract (3).
But wait, it gets better! This non-negotiable contract gives the team control of the player for a minimum of 2 years with team options that enable the team to control the player’s right for up to 4 years (4)!

In other words, Kyrie can’t even begin to think about ditching Cleveland until 2016 at the earliest.

Truth #2: The number of players who have declined a max-level contract extension to their rookie contract is a robust 0.

And you thought we were done discussing the slave trade that is the CBA – pshhh, lovely reader, it only gets better!

You see, the CBA has this other fun clause known as the “Early Bird Extension” that enables the team that drafted a given player to offer that player both a longer contract and more money than other teams are allowed. Moreover, the drafting team can offer the player that guaranteed money before competitors can even put in a bid. In the case of Kyrie, Cleveland will be able to offer him said max contract this summer and you can bet your favorite Pog slammer that he’ll take them up on their offer (5).

What makes me so confident that Irving will accept an extension? How about the fact that no player in modern history has ever turned it down? Because turning down guaranteed millions in a profession where careers are short and can end abruptly is loonier than the Pelicans mascot’s creepy face (pre-surgery).  

Truth #3: Kyrie Irving is a good, young player who may turn into a great player. But he is not the superstar many perceive him to be and likely never will be.

Kyrie Irving’s ungodly handles, unconscionable shooting range and frequent trips to the line make him a highly effective scorer. Unfortunately, just about everything else he does reeks of “meh.” Namely, his defense ranges from average to porous and his possession statistics (rebounds, assists, turnovers, steals, etc…) all scream “average.”

Add up the total package and you get a pretty good player who has a change to be very good player…but Kyrie ain’t a superstar and he probably never will be. To wit, I compared Kyrie’s first three NBA seasons to other perimeter players who entered the league at 19-20 years old. What you’ll see is that while Kyrie has performed better than some other players who went on to have highly productive seasons (and he’s one of the more productive high-usage perimeter players to enter the league at 19), he is nowhere near the superstar levels of the NBA’s best:

As you can clearly see, even accounting for the fact that Kyrie has a very high usage rate, he's much closer to the Tony Parker/Mike Conley star-level player than he is the Chris Paul/Rajon Rondo superstar-level performer.

To be clear, none of this is meant to imply that Kyrie Irving won’t be a valuable player for the foreseeable future. At 21, he’s still very young and again, his turnover rate can be somewhat justified by his high usage percentage, which portends well for this future. 

But at the end of the day, he’s not the current or burgeoning superstar much of the league perceives him to be.

If Cleveland really wants to capitalize on their best asset, they should sign Kyrie Irving to an extension…and then trade him to some sucker who thinks Irving will be the type of superstar who leads his team to a championship.  

(1) Kidding. By all accounts Cleveland is a lovely town...especially if you ask someone from Cleveland :)

(2) Thankfully for the players, NBA decision makers are dumb enough that a free market isn’t even necessary for teams to totally overpay players! There’s nothing better than having the league owners lockout the players because the owners can’t control their own absurd spending habits ;)

(3) This rule is cleverly veiled as a means of promoting parity (which the league incorrectly believes is important to attracting fans) as the league claims its improving competitive balance by rewarding the worst teams with the best picks (unfortunately, this doesn't work nearly as well as the media would have you believe). Because rewarding incompetence and undesirable behaviors (like losing on purpose to improve draft position) is how incentives are supposed to work…right?

(4) I’m referring to first round picks here. There are differing rules for 2nd round picks and undrafted free agents as well as additional minutiae that you’re welcome to dive into here.

(5) It should be noted that NOT all players accept the maximum number of years available. For instance, in 2006 Lebron James signed a 3-year max extension with the Cavaliers rather than the 5 year deal he was offered. Sorry Clevelanders, bad example L  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Danger of Following Bad Stats

“Some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than for illumination.”

It’s an annual rite of passage around this time of year for NBA pundits to generate countless columns bemoaning the fact that certain players were undeservedly selected to the All-Star game while other more deserving candidates were robbed of the honor (1). I typically ignore this cacophony of kvetching (2) given that I’ve come to view All-Star selections as a reflection of popularity and Q score rather than production, plus I’ve been advised by my doctor/Father to cut down on the snarky tweets.

There was, however, one such post that piqued my interest. Said article aimed to determine the “25 Worst All-Stars” of the last ten years according to advanced metrics. Unfortunately, the advanced metric employed was none other than ESPN’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the ubiquitous algorithm developed by the renowned John Hollinger.

In scrutinizing this list of allegedly undeserving All-Stars, I was surprised by the number of egregious false positives: truly great and sometime elite players that PER deemed unimpressive. Rather than angrily tweeting at the author (doctor’s orders), I instead opted to use the flawed list to illustrate yet another truism that flies over the heads of most fans, even the more well-researched ones: not all advanced stats are good and many can even be (gasp!) misleading!

To illustrate this point, I’ve taken the players PER deemed the worst All-Stars of the last ten years and compared their PER that year to two other advanced metrics that are more comprehensive and more highly correlated with wins: Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) and Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) (3). What you’ll see is that while there are some players that all the metrics agree were merely average (or even below average) there are others on whom the metrics vehemently disagree:

*2012 WP48 not available 
What’s important to note about the players PER undervalues is that they each marvelously reflect the flaws in PER’s model: in overvaluing scoring totals and undervaluing the worth of a possession, PER rewards players who employ many possessions at the expense of more productive players who don’t shoot as frequently but boast high True Shooting Percentages (Allen), or absurd rebounding and shot-block rates (Wallace) or guards who do just about everything else at an elite level (Rondo, Kidd).

So what lesson should we take from this experiment, endearing reader? When it comes to advanced metrics, there is no democracy – certain measures are better than others and deserve greater input.
So the next time you read some pundit (looking at you, ESPN) point out this Player X has a surprisingly good PER or +/-, kindly explain that they are using statistics the way a drunk uses lamp posts – for support, not illumination.


1. And yet I can help myself: How the coaches selected the wildly overrated Iso-Joe Johnson over the far more deserving Kyle Lowry or Lance Stephenson AND missed out on both DeAndre Jordan (the league leader in rebounding and fg% on a great team!) and Anthony Davis (until injuries forced the latter into action) is literally mind-boggling to me. Seriously, I had to take off work for a week, my mind was so boggled. 

2. Great name for a Jewish rock group.

3. For the math behind why PER is an inferior metric, check out this FAQ.