Saturday, December 25, 2010

LeBron James Misunderstands Contraction

In honor of the NBA's insane practice of playing fifty games on Christmas Day, here's a basketball post for all of you yule-tide guards, forwards, and centers who are skipping out on dinner to watch hoops and surf the web.

I read an interesting piece last night on in which LeBron James says the following: "Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team," James said. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]."  LeBron goes on to propose that taking good players off of bad teams and then putting them onto better teams would improve the NBA, principally because - we can assume - such a move would increase the overall talent pool of the league, and thereby improve competitiveness.

Leaving aside the many financial reasons why the NBA would never even begin to consider contracting franchises, let's take a quick look at the classic argument that fewer teams equals more competition.  The claim that any league will become "watered down" with the addition of new teams is a surprising one to me, given the large number of contrary examples available across sports.  Without even beginning to do quantitative or statistical analysis, you can point to college football, college basketball, or European soccer as prime examples of sports where more teams hardly thwarts competitive balance.  While certainly the overall talent level of the NFL is higher than the NCAA, no one (that I've heard, anyway) really argues that the NCAA should trim the FCS down to its 30 best programs, in large part because you'd have a lot of argument about which programs belonged and which didn't.

Similarly, while European soccer leagues are notoriously top-heavy (Rangers and Celtic win the Scottish league every year; Roma, Inter, and AC Milan duke it out in Italy; Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only two Spanish contenders; Manchester, Arsenal, and Chelsea usually top the EPL; and so on), there's not nearly so much to separate those league champions and runners-up from each other, as the Champions League routinely demonstrates.  And, what's more, the there are enough fans to support not only Premiership (or equivalent) teams around Europe, there are enough to support second, third, fourth, and sometimes even fifth tier professional clubs.  Far from decreasing the competitiveness or intrigue of the leagues, that there are well over 100 progessional soccer clubs in England alone seems to improve the overall quality of the game, because more people (hence, more talent) actually have an opportunity to make a living playing the sport.

This last point is especially important when you consider player development.  European soccer stars often hone their skills at a young age by playing for lower-division teams on loan.  Instead of riding the bench and just participating in practice, a future phenom has a chance to participate in real competitive matches, real promotion races, and real cup games with other players who - while not of Premiership quality - are also professionals, are experienced and knowledgeable, and are trying really hard because, hey, it's their job and their passion.  Compare that to American sports, where development almost always takes place in leagues dominated by - indeed, almost exclusively composed of - younger players.  Perhaps it's a minor difference, but the point is that more professional teams seems not only to help soccer in Europe financially, but competitively as well.

Returning to the NBA, LeBron is right in assuming that the overall level of talent in the NBA would increase with contraction.  It stands to reason that, if you take the current 150 starters (from 30 teams) and trim that down to, say, 100 starters (for 20 teams), you're generally going to improve the average overall quality of starters league-wide.  Likewise down the roster, where the roughly 360 NBA players (assuming a roster of 12) would be cut substantially to 240.  Since the NBA is the premier basketball league in the world, it's safe to assume that you'd be going from very close to the best 360 basketball players in the world to the best 240.  Of course there's some fudge-room at the edges, where evaluating talent and meeting team needs might mean that the 250th best player makes it onto a roster before the 230th best does, but roughly you're going to be in that range.

But does decreasing the number of players, and therefore increasing the overall average quality of players league-wide, really improve the league?  That really depends upon what you want to see, as a fan, and what the league is trying to accomplish from a competition standpoint.  Certainly you're likely to see a higher quality of basketball in a smaller league, but not by very much.  Given that basketball talent, like talent in most areas, is almost certianly normally distributed, some rough math (assuming about 10,000 professional / aspiring professional basketball players in the world; a very rough guess) tells us this: in real terms, the difference between the 240th best player and the 360th best player in the world is about the same as the difference between the best player in basketball and the second best.  Those 120 players in-between, in other words, are pretty close to each other in skill.

What LeBron James misunderstands, then, is two-fold.  1) Success in the NBA - like in any sport at the highest level - is only partially the result of talent. 2) Improving overall average talent does not necessarily improve competitiveness.

The second of these misunderstandings first.  When you cut a league's size, even by a substantial number like 10 NBA teams, you don't change the talent pool all that much, as we see above.  But even more importantly, in changing the average level of talent, you do little to change the distribution of that talent.  Sure, the overall quality of play league-wide might improve by some small measure, but you're still liable to have a small set of dominant teams, a bigger set of middling teams, and another small set of poor teams.  While sometimes the league will skew one direction or another, it would be foolish to forget that team quality, just like player talent, tends to be normally distributed.  Lowering the league size will make that distribution less obviously normal, but it doesn't change that some teams will still be stacked while others are terrible.

Now, it is still right to say that the worst team in the league will be better in a 20 team league than in a 30 team leauge.  However, the point is that the best team will also be better, and probably by roughly the same amount.  Which means that LeBron's Heat would not be playing a star-studded opponent every night.  Far from it; they'd be heavy favorites just as often, if not more often, in a smaller league.

Consider, as an example to bring the point home, your fantasy league.  Instead of distributing the NBA's 360 players amongst 30 teams, you've split them up between 10 or 12 (or something).  Now, in pure talent terms, the team you put together featuring the best players from 5 different NBA teams is pretty awesome, but the other guys in your league have done the same thing.  Suddenly, in that setup, everyone has great players on their team, and winning becomes a matter of getting the best of the best.  Odds are someone (or sometwo) dominates your fantasy league, a bunch of other teams are middle-of-the-pack, and a couple teams - probably abandoned - really suck.  Similarly, in a smaller NBA some of those stars on bad teams might be united with stars from good teams to form all-star rosters, but stardom is relative, and that guy who looks like a stud in a league of 30 might suddenly be average in a smaller league.  Just like in fantasy sports, smaller leagues tend to make what used to be great players look good, and good players look average.  That's what happens when you shift the average talent level upwards.

If anything, LeBron should advocate for expansion if he wants to see teams with more great players.  It's a lot easier to be three standard deviations (or more) above average when the average is lower, after all.

As for the other misunderstanding I mentioned above, even in a league with a smaller distribution of talent, there's not likely to be a substantive change in competitive balance because talent is only a part of what makes a basketball team successful.  Is it a big part?  Of course.  But - and especially as you decrease talent disparity - things like how well players do their jobs, how well the coaches game-plan, and, of course, luck play huge roles in determining outcomes.

Consider college basketball.  In the NCAA, it is enough for Duke to simply show up and beat most teams in the country because they have more talent.  Not so in the NBA.  Sure, the Lakers will probably beat the Timberwolves 9 times out of 10 - or even 49 times out of 50 - on talent alone.  But Duke will beat Bethune-Cookman or Denver University 999 times out of 1000 because they are that much more talented.  Even the worst NBA team is still composed of 12 of the top 400ish basketball players in the world (which is far from true in college basketball).  That alone is enough to allow them to compete against anyone they might play, even if they have a disadvantage.  A gameplanned and prepped worst team (by talent) in the NBA would probably beat a completely unprepared best team (by talent) fairly often.

What separates great teams in the NBA, then, is not merely talent, but how that talent is used, and how the coaching staff decides to employ that talent.  Indeed, it is easy for us to confuse talent for preparation at the elite echelons of sport, especially because the ability to fit into a system often wins out over talent in determining who should get a roster spot.  Regardless, it's silly to think that a smaller league would change the impact of game-planning and roster-construction on NBA success.

I want to close with a final observation that seems almost too obvious.  I wonder whether LeBron realizes that, if you cut the number of teams in the NBA, you also cut the total number of points scored, the total number of assists, the total number of rebounds, and so on.  Even if you keep the schedule at 82 games a team, those two or four or ten missing teams don't have players amassing points and minutes, and as the Heat are discovering this year, it's a lot harder to be the guy who scores 30 points per game when you've got 3 guys capable of scoring 30 per game.

A team, in a smaller league, has a couple options: it can try to distribute the ball evenly to its many star players, in which case none of them look quite as starry as before, or it can anoint a leader, and given him the ball most, and make everyone else a role player (or somewhere in between those two options).  In other words, teams still have to make the exact same decisions in a smaller league that they do now.  And, in the end, most of them would choose to take current "stars" and turn them into role-players to even better stars, just like the successful USA Olympics basketball team in 2008 did with Kobe Bryant (defensive specialist) and Carlos Boozer (rebounder), just like the Lakers do, and just like the current Heat are starting to do.

So to any of you who believes that contraction is the way to a better league in any sport, I challenge you to think again.  After all, if smaller leagues were really more compelling, we'd all watch the Harlem Globetrotters instead of March Madness.

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