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Archive for December 2010

James the Abdicator

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'The Decision' & Miami is in a Frenzy!

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In many ways, 2010 was the year of LeBron James.  Unfortunate to be in the situation where you emerge as the biggest story around and have so many of the storylines be based around things you did wrong and reasons why everyone should hate you.  So many opportunities has James given the world to hate him that’s it was hard to pick which narrative to go with.  James the Quitter?, James the Traitor?, James the Selfish?  All work.

For my part, I don’t hold LeBron in near the negative that many others do simply because of his choice to leave Cleveland for South Beach.  Certainly I’d have respected him more if he’d said he was staying Cleveland because he saw it his duty to help his city though tough economic times – but how can anyone expect that kind of maturity from a 25 year old famous because of what he can do with his body?

Of course, the way he left Cleveland, making a spectacle of himself, was ugly.  Beyond that, he’s seemed to hit every branch of hater tree on the way down since then.  Starting with his walkabout performance in the 2010 NBA playoffs, following that up with (alleged) stubbornness against his new coach in Miami, and then just recently, showing he doesn’t care about other players by advocating for contraction of weak NBA teams, and then proving to be both clueless and dishonest by claiming that he didn’t even know what “contraction” meant and that he had been talking about something else (he wasn’t).

In the end though, the most enduring narrative shift of 2010 for LeBron will be as abdicator.  As the man anointed as King James, expected to be the next Michael Jordan leading his modest supporting cast to a dynasty, and who then took off the crown not having the stomach to risk continued failure to reach the promised land with all aspects of his team’s strength reliant on him alone.

What’s so fascinating about this is that basketball is probably the only major team sport in existence where such ridiculously high expectations exist for a superstar, and those expectations are not entirely reasonable.  It is still a team sport, and no Michael Jordan didn’t do it alone either.  Jordan didn’t start winning championships until he had a supporting cast far stronger than the one James had in Cleveland.  While it is very much reasonable to expect great basketball players to play on some great teams because of the immense impact one player can have in the sport, it is irrational to expect that the best player will magically come out on top.

The other narratives surrounding James, and really those surrounding the other athletes I’ve written about, are often much less forgivable in my book, and yet they are also much more easily re-shifted.  Mayweather can kill the coward narrative by manning up, taking on Pacquiao, and coming away victorious.  Mayweather and LeBron both can grow past the various selfish and immature narratives simply by growing up.  I don’t see how LeBron ever makes the abdicator label go away.  He can make sting less by achieving great success, but his career will now always be viewed through a lens colored by The Decision.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 31, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Mayweather the Coward

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Floyd Mayweather, Jr in a WWE ring. Bradley Ce...

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I’ve got a ton of respect for the kind of rapid strategy you see in boxing that you rarely see elsewhere – but with the move of the sport to pay-per-view, and the utterly inane inability of the sport to actually book good fights, boxing has fallen off my radar.  With that said, when thinking about the biggest narrative shifts in sports for 2010, there was no question that I’d either have Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. on here.

Mayweather is the one who brought this to a head, so I’ll go with him.

For those unaware of the circumstances here, Pacquiao and Mayweather are considered the two best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, and the boxing world is dying to see them go head to head.  Things were going according to plan until Mayweather added new steroid testing requirements in at the last minute of negotiations.  Pacquiao refused, and the negotiations broke down.    Later Mayweather made news for a racial slur filled rant against Pacquiao.  Both fighters fought another match against lesser opponents, and then word came out that Pacquiao had agreed to Mayweather’s previous ultimatum…only to have Mayweather not respond.  Pacquiao went on to beat another opponents, Mayweather proceeded to get in trouble with the law and raise questions as to whether he’ll be even available to fight outside of prison any time soon.

So, obviously, Mayweather has done a number on his reputation.  If you knew nothing about him before, you now know that he’s a fool.  A variety of characteristically can reasonably be attached to him, but the one that cuts deepest is “coward”.

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 31, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Cassel the Trojan Horse

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Matt Cassel, a player on the Kansas City Chief...

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The story of the year in the NFL is clearly Michael Vick.  Big star has big comeback, hard to top that.  As much as a press magnet Vick is though, Matt Cassel is a magnet for narratives like very few guys in recent history.  And while Vick can argue to have been one of those guys back when his dog fighting habits were exposed, he can’t compare to Cassel in 2010 simply by coming back.  Quite the feat for someone with such small celebrity.

All narratives involving Cassel begin with assumptions made based on the fact that he was a back up through out his entire collegiate career.  With the powerful meme that is “the system quarterback”, any backup who has success as a starter immediately creates a narrative that diminishes both his success, and the quarterbacks who have played on the same teams he has.  Cassel kicks things up another notch by literally having far greater success at the pro level than he ever did at the college level.

This initial narrative shift crossed over in 2008 when Cassel took over for the injured Tom Brady and led the New England Patriots to a solid season.  This was used to knock Brady and his record breaking 2007 season.  What was particularly odd about this line of thinking was that the Patriots actually won 5 games less than they had the previous season, and didn’t put up anywhere near the same passing numbers.  One would think that any quarterback that could claim to have improved his team by 5 games as doing something extraordinary, but that was not the dominant narrative.

Cassel is now putting up a great year in Kansas City complete with one missed game in which the Chiefs fell apart without him.  So now, it really should be clear that he’s no system quarterback.  He’s just damn good.

Meanwhile of course, the guy who beat out Cassel for starting status, and eventual superstardom, at USC (Matt Leinart) isn’t doing anything in the pros.  Kind of begs the question of whether then USC coach Pete Carroll made the right call in favoring Leinart.  Now my opinion, I’m sure Carroll had valid reasons for his choice, and I certainly wouldn’t assert that Matt Cassell at USC would have resulted in even greater success.  Cassel’s superior NFL career is undoubtedly due to some combination of luck, perseverance and attitude – none of which was found lacking in Leinart at the college level.  However, I also have a hard time believing that we’d have seen any major fall off in USC had they been forced to rely upon Cassel’s abilities instead of Leinart’s.

Getting back to Brady, one would think that Cassel’s year would have put the last nail in the coffin of the narrative of Brady as a system quarterback, but it hasn’t.  People are still using Cassel’s success in New England as a reason for why Vick is more valuable this year.  Completely bizarre given that the drop off from success with Brady to success with Cassel is actually quite a bit greater than how much Philly has improved this year now that they have Vick as quarterback.  This goes to illustrate two points:  1) Even a good new narrative “New England discovered another diamond in the rough with Cassel”, won’t totally kill off a disprove narrative immediately and completely, and 2) People really like to think that running quarterbacks are contributing far more than standard pocket quarterbacks.  With the latter point, I don’t disagree in some cases such as Randall Cunningham on the Eagles, and quite a few college QBs like Vince Young and Cam Newton.  However in general, we still see no great trend of running quarterbacks thriving consistently in the pros.

For a bit more on the Cassel/Brady/Vick triangle, check out this solid analysis.

In the end for Brady, what this season is doing, between Cassel’s success and Brady’s own all-time great level performance, is erasing question marks that could have forever dogged him in the comparison with Peyton Manning and other great quarterbacks.  If the Mannings of the world go down in history as superior to Brady it will be because they simply accomplished more, not because of the belief that any college backup could have led the Patriots to titles.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 30, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Narrative Shifts of 2010

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The next few posts are going to be me looking back at what I consider the biggest narrative shifts of 2010.  If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase ‘narrative shift’, it’s a meme that essentially means a change to the narrative, which is a short explanation for what happened and why it happened.

Narratives can be very powerful.  Barack Obama would not be our president today if not for the incredible power of his narrative as well as the great skill with which he wielded it.  In Hollywood, a bad narrative can kill a reputation (yes, Mel Gibson really is a racist) or keep a mediocre talent in work (poor Jennifer Aniston just wants to be loved).

Because of the clear closure we get after the completion of a competition in sports, I would argue that sports are actually the best topic on which to study the narrative shift.  With the end of the year upon us, now’s a good time to reflect.

Written by Matt Johnson

December 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm

What if Dwight goes to the Clippers in 2012?

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With the summer of Lebron and Wade’s free agencies over, on the horizon we can already see a similarly crazy summer of free agency: 2012, when Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Dwight Howard hit the market. It’s only a year and a half away and in NBA terms perhaps much less if there’s a lockout next season. Rumors of Howard wanting out have already kickstarted after he was photographed wearing a Lakers hat earlier this month and Ric Bucher tweeted about his interest in LA.

But are the Lakers a wise choice? Kobe will be an old 34, Gasol 32, Odom 33. Furthermore with Kobe and Gasol’s maximum contracts, the Lakers having capspace for a major FA won’t happen. I’m predicting after Kobe’s fall, the Lakers will hit a down rebuilding period for the first time in well, ever.

Here’s what I really want to see: Dwight going to the other LA team. Yes, the Clippers. Can you imagine a Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard frontcourt with Eric Gordon scoring from the perimeter? Scary. Titles are won by owning the paint and no team in the league would come close to the interior defense, offense, and rebounding power a Griffin and Howard frontcourt would have. A perimeter all-star scorer in Gordon completes the puzzle. Furthermore all 3 players are great team players without egos who don’ t need to dominate the ball. Using the Spurs “3 all-stars + role players” model, it’d be easy to fill the PG and SF spots and bench with defenders and shooters and walk to contention. I truly believe with Gordon, Griffin, and Howard, the Clippers 2010s decade could be every bit as succesful as the 2000s was for the Spurs. And what a great story it’d be for the Clips to finally find success. The reaction of Howard leaving the Magic wouldn’t be negative like it was for Lebron, because the Clippers are an underdog like the Cavaliers. Furthermore I think most of us believe if Howard wants to be the best player on a title team, he’ll likely need other all-star scorers to help him like Ray Allen and Paul Pierce did for Kevin Garnett in 2008. Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin are perfect for him.

The only cause for concern I could see is Donald Sterling not being an ideal owner with a history of cheapness and bad decisions. But with a Gordon, Griffin, Howard team, it’s hard to imagine how he could screw that up.

Of course it’d probably be best for the NBA if Howard, Paul and Deron stay with their present teams. But the free agents moving again is unavoidable, I’d like to see the Clippers finally hit a home run in 2012.

2011 NBA POY Watch 12/27

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My version of the NBA MVP list. Updated weekly.

Player (Last Week’s Rank)

1. Dirk Nowitzki (1)

Remains easily out in front.  We’re at a point now where all the major lists agree with me, but still I’m hearing people question how Dirk can be so clearly #1 when his volume stats aren’t much different from previous seasons.   The advanced stats paint a stronger case for Dirk, but it also has to be noted just how much weaker the competition is this year.  All the big players from previous years have fallen off – except Dirk.  What this says more than anything else, is that it is the perfect time for some new blood to step up.

2. Deron Williams (2)

Deron, I suppose, is leading the charge of the “new blood”, but he’s not that new, and he really doesn’t seem like a legit #2 MVP candidate.  Still, props to the guy, leading the Jazz to another great year.

3. Derrick Rose (4)

Rose keeps climbing.  The Bulls lose Noah, and they’re still scrapping.  I could see Rose becoming a top tier superstar by year’s end.

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Why the faith in OPS?

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First off, I’m not a sabermatrician. I won’t pretend to be in their league in advanced baseball knowledge.  But I have a problem with their most widely used advanced batting stat: OPS.

OPS stands for On-Base Plus Slugging. In short, On-Base Percentage measures how often a player gets on base and Slugging Percentage accounts for the value of extra bases. Both these stats are fine. But I don’t see the basis for simply adding them together 1 to 1. Since they clearly aren’t worth the same, this immediately makes the stat flawed.

The consensus is OBP is worth more. It’s more important to not waste one of the precious 3 outs than advance more bases when you get on. The number I’ve heard is OBP is worth 1.8x more, though some have estimated as high as 3x and up. If true, OPS is very off. Furthermore, SLG% itself is also flawed because it weighs singles and walks the same. Singles are worth more because they advance players on 2nd and 3rd without a force from 1st, making them much more potent for scoring runs. Once again this just trips up any pretensions of accuracy for OPS.

The real basis for it is adding them together happens to coorelate pretty well with offensive production. So under the guise of “it works”, it’s stuck. I’m not buying it. Stats should be equated for reasons making sense on their own, not just because they give us the good looking answer. We shouldn’t accept flawed stats because it gives us an answer we want. Especially in baseball, a sport where eventual statistical exactness is not only possible, but realistically attainable.

In truth, OPS is a great ballpark stat. The basketball equivalent is John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) or Win Shares (WS). In one number it can tell you who the MVP candidates, all-stars, and mediocore players are. It should not be treated as more.

Recently OPS+ was introduced, adjusting OPS for ballparks and giving OBP 1.2x weight. It’s not enough. It still doesn’t make sense without relying on the conclusion looking right. To me the answer is a multiplication equation involving OBP and SLG%, not addition.

My quick glance across the internet has shown me fringe sabermatricians have realized the faults of OPS and tried to develop better, multiplication based batting stats for years. Much credit to them. I’d only say not to treat OPS as gospel or the end of the line because it’s clearly not. Baseball is a sport where we can truly exact offensive value. It’s all on the paper. To treat simply adding together OBP and SLG% together 1 to 1 as enough, is selling ourselves short.

UConn’s Streak and Gender in Spectator Sports

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The Connecticut Huskies of women’s college basketball just broke a record that has garnered some crossover attention:  They’ve won 89 games in a row, which breaks the streak of 88 wins that John Wooden‘s UCLA Bruins achieved in men’s college basketball way back when.  Perhaps what’s getting most attention of all though is UConn‘s coach Geno Auriemma taking issue with the attention his team is getting for this accomplishment.

Now there are some layers here:

Yup, Sports Fans are kinda Sexist

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 25, 2010 at 9:43 pm

The fall of Evgeni Malkin and drive in sports

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I know a lot of people don’t follow the NHL. But what we can learn from the story of Evgeni Malkin‘s career applies to most sports.

A brief recap of his career is as follows. After the lockout in 2004, 3 superstar talents emerged: Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the last two of course terrifyingly on the same team. The first two racked up more fame and traded MVP awards early, but the latter caught up to an equal level of dominance. In 07-08 Malkin finished 2nd in both the points race (with 115) and MVP voting behind Ovechkin. In 08-09 he finished 1st in points (with 117) and 2nd in MVP voting to Ovechkin again, then dominated the playoffs and won the playoffs MVP (Conn Smythe trophy) as the driving force behind the Penguins’ Stanley Cup win. This made him the unofficial “player of the year” and arguably the league’s alpha dog. After this dominant display you could call him no less than a generational, all-time talent. Nobody in the league had a more complete package of size, speed, skill, and hockey IQ. That summer he signed a contract as rich as any the NHL has had (only 9 million a year, but hey, it’s the NHL).

And then it fell apart. Last year he scored 77 points in 67 games (adjusted for 82 games: 94) which would still be good for top 6 or 7 in the league, but a clear dropoff from before, to go along with shockingly bad +/- stats. This year it’s gotten much worse – with 30 points in 29 games, he’s on pace for about 84 over an 82 game schedule which would make him barely top 20. He’s also posting a negative +/- score on a team sporting the best point differential in the league. This is nowhere near his previous pace. What looked like the an all-time great player is now a merely pretty good one who might have a bad contract. The first off year there were rumors of fatigue and soreness, but it appears this has gone on too long for it to be body related alone. It appears this is a matter of effort on and off the ice.

But even in his dominant seasons you could see signs. He never seemed the natural fit leader of Crosby and Ovechkin, never had the aura of full effort, never seemed as possessed by the game. At the time it seemed like Malkin simply had more in common with the rest of the league and it was the other two who were the outliers.  But perhaps this is why the fame and respect always seemed to follow them and not Malkin. He played like a superstar, but didn’t carry himself like a franchise leader. Put it this way: If you went back two years ago and asked which of the three was likely to fall off and seemingly lose his heart for the game, everyone would’ve chosen Malkin.

Perhaps this is a blip in his career and he’ll go back to the superstar he was only a year and a half ago. But with this going on for a season and a half, there’s a realistic chance he won’t. And if so, it’s one of the biggest non injury related shames in a while. The equivalent would be Dwyane Wade losing his body and falling off a cliff 4 or 5 years into his career for the NBA.

Ultimately this ties into the importance of drive in sports. The truly great players are the one who want it more than everyone else. The ones who give it all. Crosby and Ovechkin are possessed with being the best players of their generation both on and off the ice. In other sports we’ve seen players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant live for nothing else. Malkin is not built this way, and it may be the difference between an all-time great career and a borderline HOF one stained by “what ifs?” The truly great players in sports are the ones who push themselves to grab it. And this is part of what makes the comparison of sports careers so fascinating.

2011 NBA POY Watch 12/18

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My version of the NBA MVP list. Updated weekly.

Player (Last Week’s Rank)

1. Dirk Nowitzki (1)

Way, way out in front.

2. Deron Williams (2)

That loss to New Orleans was bizarre, but it’s still just one game.  Day in and day out, among the inarguably good teams, no one is carrying their team more.

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 20, 2010 at 1:09 pm