Monday, July 30, 2012

The Dream Team, And Why It's Pointless To Compare Different Eras

During the run-up to the Olympics this year, some reporters goaded Kobe Bryant into saying that he thought the current US Olympic basketball team would probably beat the 1992 "Dream Team", sparking the predictable media furor. A ton of ink was spilled, mostly arguing that there was no way the current team would even come within 15 or 20 points of the Dream Team. Scottie Pippen said that the Dream Would "win by 25". This is obviously a stupid debate, which is why I resisted talking about it on this blog. But I think that the reason why this is such a silly debate is a worthwhile discussion point: just why is it so ridiculous to compare teams from different eras?

First of all, it's worth nothing that nobody can say what "would" happen when two teams play. What would happen if the 2011-12 Missouri Tigers played the 2011-12 Norfolk State Spartans? The Tigers would win on average by around 20. They'd win occasionally by 30-40. Sometimes they'd win a close one. On really rare occasions they'd lose 86-84. So if you're not willing to admit that it's possible for either the 2012 or 1992 team to win a game quite handily, you're in denial of the uncertainty of sports. There are very few things in sports that "can't" happen.

Of course, the real reason that a generational debate is stupid is because it isn't defined. To me, there are two very different ways to ask that question. You can ask what would happen if we built a time machine and went back in history Bill & Ted style (kids, ask your parents), and dragged the 1992 Dream Team to the present day. You can then ask which team would be better. Alternatively, you could ask what would happen if everybody on the Dream Team was born 20 years later, and had the same parents, environment and experience. These are two very different scenarios.

Let me be clear that I loved that 1992 Dream Team. I grew up rooting for those players, and I'd root for them against the 2012 ensemble. But the fact is that if you dragged the 1992 team Bill & Ted style into the present, they'd lose way more often than they'd win. The level of athleticism that players have today is just so far and away above what existed 20 years ago, it's almost a different sport. When Magic Johnson says that only Kobe and Lebron would definitely make the 1992 team, he's being an idiot. A player like Kevin Durant simply didn't exist back then. A guy who is 6'11" and has arms that nearly stretch across the court who can move like a shooting guard? That guy wouldn't make the team over Chris Mullin? Really?? Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, anybody who was over 6'10" was slow and plodding and played in the post. Players like Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett hadn't been invented yet.

But this is true for all sports. The world's fastest track athletes in the 1950s would struggle to make a good high school team in 2012. The same goes for the fact that guys like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, who destroyed baseball in the early part of the 20th century, would be blown off the plate by a modern closer throwing a 98 mph pitch with movement. This effect is even more true in basketball, which is a relatively newer sport. Look at these highlights from the 1966 Eastern Conference Semifinals (only 6 NBA teams made the playoff back then, and the Celtics team shown here ended up winning the title):


You really think any of those guys other than Bill Russell and maybe Oscar Robertson could even make a good Division I basketball team if we brought them to 2012 in a time machine? Or even better, watch this footage from the 1940 NCAA Championship game and tell me whether this looks better than a typical pickup game in most college gyms nowadays:


Let me be clear that I'm not arguing that the 1992 Dream Team looked like 1966 NBA teams or 1940 NCAA teams. But it's evolutionary process - it wasn't like we all woke up one day in 1975 or 1985 or 1995 and the entire NBA had suddenly gotten as athletic as it is in 2012.

The fact is that human evolution isn't that fast. We haven't biologically evolved in any significant way in 60 years. What's changed are training habits, eating habits, workout habits, et cetera. The top athletes in the world in the 1950s would spend their offseason working another job, often going weeks without working out in any way. They'd smoke, they'd eat badly, and they wouldn't lift weights. No wonder they didn't have any Lebron James or Kevin Durant-type players. Bob Cousy is considered one of the greatest point guards of all time, yet he couldn't dribble well with his off hand, something that is a requirement to start for any high school team today. But a Bob Cousy born today would learn to dribble properly. A Ty Cobb born today would use that tremendous intensity and competitiveness, which combined with modern training methods would create a really good baseball player today, and a much better player than 1910 Ty Cobb. Imagine what a modern personal trainer could do with late-1980s Charles Barkley. And imagine what modern medicine would do for Patrick Ewing's knees, or Larry Bird's back.

Sometimes writers will pay lip service to this by comparing teams to their competition - the 68 point win the US had over Angola to open the 1992 Olympics is often cited here. But even this is flawed. The depth of international basketball in 1992 was brutally poor. In 2012, every team in the Olympics has at least a couple NBA quality players. Barring a few injuries, France could have fielded a team with 12 NBA players, and even then would still not have been considered one of the top two contenders to Team USA. In 1992 the only team with a significant NBA presence was Croatia, which featured three NBA players. They held the Dream Team to a reasonably close 32-point margin (it was only a 14 point game at halftime). That team would have been even better if Yugoslavia hadn't broken up (a unified Yugoslavian team would have included all of those Croatian players as well as Serbians like Vlade Divac and Predrag Danilovic). Let's recall that the 2012 US team will be favored by 15-20 points over their top opponents (Spain and Argentina), both of whom would likely have utterly destroyed any non-US team from 1992.

And in general, all sports are much deeper athletically today. We have many more athletes who get proper training methods, who are spotted by scouts, who specialize and work out at younger ages. Babe Ruth was hitting more home runs than several entire baseball teams in the late 1920s - it's simply impossible for a player to be that much better than the rest of the competition nowadays.

So stats guys can apply all the objective metrics that they want, but it's an exercise in futility. It can be fun to compare teams from different eras, but trying to apply any sort of rigor to the analysis is always going to be silly and pointless.

Monday, July 23, 2012

NCAA Sets A Bad Precedent With Penn State Scandal

I have argued for some time that the NCAA President should have more power to do what is in "the best interest of the game". For example, I have said that I want the President to step in and punish John Calipari, since the fact that he always manages to flee schools before he can be directly implicated in any of the shadiness that happens at programs he runs doesn't change the fact that he should be responsible for what his players and coaches do. But as awful as what happened at Penn State was, I think that the power the NCAA has grabbed sets a really dangerous precedent.

While I very much acknowledge that what happened at Penn State is still in doubt, and we might find out at the trials of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz that something different happened, let's assume for the sake of argument that the worst possible scenario happened - that the leadership at Penn State knew that child abuse was going on and they participated in a cover up. And let's assume that it's okay that the NCAA has completely skipped the investigation and review process, completely skipped the appeal process and rushed through a "for the good of the game" punishment for the first time ever. Even if that's all true, I still don't see how the NCAA has any jurisdiction here.

NCAA stands for "National Collegiate Athletic Association", and I'll put an emphasis on the words collegiate athletics. The NCAA runs athletic competitions, and has rules designed to prevent unfair athletic advantages (such as paying players, or contacting potential recruits outside of approved dates and mediums). Crimes like murder and rape are not against NCAA rules - those are simply not NCAA violations. If somebody commits rape, or participates in a conspiracy to cover up a rape, then their punishment is to be meted out by the criminal justice system. Jerry Sandusky is in jail for the rest of his life, while Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have their own trials coming up. Graham Spanier is out of a job and will probably be sued (as will the university) in future civil litigation filed by the families of the victims.

There's a reason why we have a legal system with very clear rules and restrictions. When we all found out what Jerry Sandusky did we were all outraged. Yet when I saw people outraged at his lawyers, or outraged that his lawyers were cross-examining witnesses in trials, I was also saddened. As angry as we are at what he did, our legal system guarantees the rights of even the most despicable criminal to defend themselves. Every defendant has the right to a lawyer. We don't just string people up in the town square - we have a jury system that allows Sandusky every chance to argue his innocence. And we could all be happy with the end result, which was Sandusky being found guilty on 45 counts and sent off to prison for the rest of his life. And we could all be happy that no power was abused, and the trial was performed according to the rules in place.

I've seen arguments that somehow the stain of having a former coach be a rapist therefore meant that the university sports programs benefit in some way from the cover-up, but that's a vague accusation with no clear definition. By that logic, can we go back and punish Duke for the institutional failures involved in the lacrosse rape case a few years back? Can we go back and punish ACC and SEC teams for discriminating against African-American athletes in the 1960s and earlier? Once you set the precedent that the NCAA is getting involved in issues that aren't directly related to competitive advantage, you open a Pandora's Box of possibilities.

The NCAA is trying to argue that this is a one-time-only situation, and they won't mete out a punishment like this again. And certainly it's true that the intense media pressure to "just do something!" was the reason for punishments that, in my opinion, were not particularly well thought out. For example, why would they take away Penn State wins going back to 1998? Even the worst possible interpretation of what happened at Penn State is that the cover-up began in 2001. The 1998 rape accusation was investigated by police and Sandusky was found innocent... what exactly was Penn State supposed to have done about Sandusky between 1998 and 2001? The punishment, if there's any logic to what is going on here, should start in 2001 - not 1998.

But I don't buy that argument. We didn't get to decide that Jerry Sandusky wouldn't be afforded the right to a fair trial because we were really angry about what happened, and the NCAA shouldn't get to decide to be involved in criminal matters just because the media is pressuring them to.

As an aside, I thought we had all agreed that we hated the fact that the NCAA punished schools and future coaches/players for past rule breaking rather than the rule-breakers themselves. That Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush were able to get away scot-free while future USC football players who did nothing wrong had to face a punishment. Well, in the case of Penn State, the people who did wrong are being punished - by the actual legal authorities. Sandusky is in jail for the rest of his life, while Curley, Spanier and Schultz will all be spending a lot of their future years in courtrooms if not in jail. And Paterno would have been a part of those lawsuits as well if he had not died (it's still possible that his estate will be included in future civil trials). So those people are being punished. Who is benefiting by making Penn State a non-competitive football program over the next 5+ years? Does it make families of the victims feel any better? Does anybody believe that this action will dissuade future bad behavior - that a person like Tim Curley is going to be more worried about future scholarship reductions than potential jail time? It just doesn't make sense to me.

I understand that we're all really angry at what happened at Penn State. But that's why we have rules and laws in place, so that we can take emotion out of the decision and think about what we're actually doing. And the precedent here is just not a good one. Let's punish the people who did something wrong, and let's try to help the victims. I don't see how what the NCAA did to Penn State helped in either respect. That's why we should leave criminal law to the police and the court system, and leave athletic cheating to the NCAA.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Post-Draft BP68

It's time for my mid-summer, post-NBA Draft bracket projection. My last one was done a week after the National Title game in March, which you can read here. This BP68 will have to hold you, because I won't have another one until Midnight Madness week in October. The regular weekly brackets will start in November.

Although if you think about it, we're really not that far from the next college basketball season. Midnight Madness is only a little more than three months away.

There haven't been too many player movements that had a big impact on the bracket. UCLA restoring some of its recruiting glory of the early part of the last decade helped them move up a bit, but we didn't have any truly huge transfers (any transfer announced prior to the post of my April bracket projection had already been accounted for).

The biggest change, honestly, is the fact that Butler and VCU were forced to accelerate their conference changes, and are (as of today, actually) officially members of the Atlantic Ten. That means Valparaiso moves into the Field of 68 as my new favorite to win the Horizon, and Drexel is my new pick to win the Colonial. I already had Drexel in as an at-large team, but the addition of Valparaiso costs the field an at-large team, and Purdue was the victim. Though being the first team out of the Tournament with approximately 35 games left in the 2012-13 season means that fans of the Boilermakers shouldn't give up hope quite yet.

I'll be posting on-and-off throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall. Near-daily posting will resume once we get into October and are closer to the start of next season. I'll see you all then.

1. INDIANA (BIG TEN)
1. LOUISVILLE (BIG EAST)
1. DUKE (ACC)
1. FLORIDA (SEC)

2. KANSAS (BIG 12)
2. Ohio State
2. Kentucky
2. North Carolina

3. MEMPHIS (CONFERENCE USA)
3.Michigan
3.Wisconsin
3.NC State

4. Notre Dame
4. Syracuse
4. ST. LOUIS (ATLANTIC TEN)
4. Michigan State

5. SAN DIEGO STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST)
5. Baylor
5. GONZAGA (WCC)
5. Marquette

6. Alabama
6. CREIGHTON (MVC)
6. Iowa State
6. Butler

7. STANFORD (PAC-12)
7. Georgetown
7. Virginia
7. UNLV

8. Minnesota
8. Tennessee
8. Miami (Fl)
8. California

9. New Mexico
9. Texas
9. UCLA
9. West Virginia

10. Cincinnati
10. VCU
10. St. Mary's
10. Arkansas

11. Missouri
11. UMass
11. BYU
11. DAVIDSON (SOCON)

12. Pittsburgh
12. DREXEL (COLONIAL)
12. Virginia Tech
12. Iowa
12. Illinois State
12. Temple

13. MURRAY STATE (OVC)
13. HARVARD (IVY)
13. UTAH STATE (WAC)
13. OHIO (MAC)

14. LOYOLA-MARYLAND (MAAC)
14. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (SUMMIT)
14. MERCER (ATLANTIC SUN)
14. VALPARAISO (HORIZON)

15. MONTANA (BIG SKY)
15. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (SUN BELT)
15. ROBERT MORRIS (NEC)
15. CAL STATE FULLERTON (BIG WEST)

16. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
16. BUCKNELL (PATRIOT)
16. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (BIG SOUTH)
16. STEPHEN F AUSTIN (SOUTHLAND)
16. SAVANNAH STATE (MEAC)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)

Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Clemson, Maryland, La Salle, Xavier, Rutgers, Northwestern, Purdue, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Central Florida, Akron, Northern Iowa, Colorado State, Arizona, Washington, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt

Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
Florida State, St. Joseph's, Providence, Seton Hall, South Florida, Villanova, Illinois, Oklahoma State, Marshall, Toledo, Wichita State, Nevada, North Dakota State, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, New Mexico State

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Georgia Tech, Dayton, UConn, Penn State, Texas Tech, Delaware, George Mason, Hofstra, Houston, UTEP, Tulsa, Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Fairfield, Drake, Evansville, Boise State, Belmont, North Texas, USC, LSU, Mississippi State, Loyola-Marymount, San Diego, Denver, Louisiana Tech