Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Teams That Play a Real Game in the Season Opener (NCAAF)

Each week this college football season, or until I get tired of it, I will be posting the three games of the week with the largest BCS implications. Not just for the title game, but for who will be invited to the BCS.

While most big-time NCAA football teams play a de facto exhibition game to start the season, at home against an overmatched opponents, a very few play a real game. In fact, there's only one game that matches Top 25 opponents, so we'll start with that one:

1. #15 Tennessee at #12 California. Both of these teams are are at the fringes of title consideration this year, talented but overshadowed by others in their conferences. The winner of this game establishes themselves as a real contender, while the loser is pretty much out of at-large contention. Since Cal probably can't take USC, and Tennessee probably won't beat both Florida and Georgia, they would both be well-advised to win this game. Adding flavor for California is the fact that last year, when they were touted as a real competitor for USC, Tennessee crushed them.

2. #19 Florida State at Clemson. As Wake Forest proved last year, the ACC Atlantic is pretty much anybody's for the taking. While they both disappointed last year, the Bowdens' teams have the most talent in the division, and the winner will be in the early driver's seat to reach the ACC title game.

3. Wake Forest at Boston College. Thank goodness the ACC opens with conference games. The Bowden Bowl matches the two most talented teams in the ACC Atlantic, but this game matches the two most accomplished. With NC State and Maryland returning solid teams as well, any team in this division could finish first or last. For Boston College, who has been one win away from the conference title or title game for three straight seasons, and who is starting fourteen seniors, it's now or never. For Wake, this is the first step toward defending their ACC title.

Predictions: Tennessee, Clemson, BC.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

On The Future of US Soccer

Soccer formations vary, but teams generally follow variations on four templates. Listed by number of defenders-midfielders-strikers, there are the 4-4-2, the 4-3-3, the 4-5-1 and the 3-5-2. One will note that each of these involves somewhere between three and five midfielders, and at least one striker.

The United States, fielding just about their best possible team against Sweden, played four defenders and six midfielders. The scary thing is that it made almost perfect sense.

Right now, there are a lot of very good American midfielders and very few top-class strikers. In fact, with Brian McBride’s recent injury, there are exactly zero American strikers on the game-day rosters of major European clubs. Because of this, National Team coach Bob Bradley elected to play Landon Donovan, who is naturally an attacking midfielder, and Clint Dempsey, who is a right wing midfielder, up front. It was a worthy experiment.

But it didn’t work, and the question is what to do next. I think the first order of business is to extend Bradley’s contract through the 2010 World Cup. This is not because I have been impressed by his record so far (although he has done well), but because what is best in the short-term and long-term of US soccer is not the same. Trying to shoehorn Donovan and Dempsey into attack is dangerously short-sighted. It is also the correct move for Bradley to make, if he is interested getting results now and therefore keeping his job. Only once his job is ensured will he be able to get down to preparing his team for the National Team’s next important match, which is in 2010.

That’s right, the USA plays soccer games that matter exactly once every four years. Only European teams have a continental championship that truly counts. The Gold Cup doesn’t matter. The Copa America would be interesting if everyone took it seriously, but in general, they do not. Certainly we didn’t. Even the World Cup qualifiers don’t really matter, in the sense that there is not a significant probability we would not qualify. We could lose to Mexico 10-0, and all we would still need to do is finish ahead of Costa Rica, Jamaica, Canada, Trinidad, etc. In fact, one of them could beat us and we’d still go. Even if two of them beat us, we would get into a playoff with the fifth South American team, who we might still beat. The point is, we’re making it to South Africa.

And that tournament is going a huge opportunity for us. This is because much of old guard (McBride, Reyna, Pope, Keller) has retired from the national team since the World Cup, meaning our best team right now is almost completely made up of players who should still be in their primes in the summer of 2010. Soccer stars tend to peak earlier the further forward they play; strikers usually peak in their late teens or early to mid-twenties, midfielders anywhere in their twenties, depending on how much their game is speed-based, defenders in their mid or late twenties, and goalkeepers in their late twenties or early thirties.

Here is the approximate US roster now, along with the players’ ages and current league.


Tim Howard (28)
Marcus Hahnemann (35)


Jonathan Bornstein (22)
Carlos Bocanegra (28)
Oguchi Oneywu (25)
Steve Cherundolo (28)
Jonathan Spector (21)
Jay DeMerit (27)

Central Midfielders

DaMarcus Beasley (25)
Michael Bradley (20)
Ricardo Clark (24)
Clint Dempsey (24)
Landon Donovan (25)
Benny Feilhaber (22)
Pablo Mastroeni (29)


Brian Ching (29)
Eddie Johnson (23)
Taylor Twellman (27)

As you can see, almost all of these players should have three more good years in them. Hahnemann may not, but Howard is definitely the top goalkeeper regardless. Oneywu, Bornstein and Spector, as inexperienced defenders, will almost certainly be better than they are now, and unless Bocanegra and DeMerit both suffer a drop-off in play, that will form a capable back line.

Six of the seven midfielders listed should be available. Mastroeni is the lone exception, and his red card against Italy last summer shows that he is likely to be a liability anyhow. He was put in the squad for his tackling, but by now either Bradley or Clark can perform that role just as well, and with better offensive skills.

Beasley, Dempsey and Feilhaber are especially encouraging. All play on top teams in the UK and all have played well recently. Along with Donovan, they are the heart of the team.

That leaves us with a big hole in attack. Ching and Twellman will be old, and they have never been world-class anyhow. Eddie Johnson has potential, but ranges constantly from brilliant to awful. In MLS, he followed a 12 goal season in 2004 with 7 in 2005 and 2006 combined, but has 12 again this year. It is worth mentioning that as a striker, at age 23, he has still not yet found a place in Europe.

This leaves us with a potential lineup as follows:

GK Howard
LB Bornstein
CB Bocanegra/DeMerit
CB Oneywu
RB Cherundolo/Spector
DM Bradley
DM Feilhaber
LW Beasley
AM Donovan
RW Dempsey
CF Johnson

We have gotten very close to the lineup that Coach Bradley used against Sweden. The only difference is that Mastroeni started as a defensive midfielder, pushing Feilhaber to the right and Dempsey up top. Since Donovan and Mastroeni were called from MLS, we can assume that Eddie Johnson’s absence was no coincidence. It was worth it, in the man whose opinion we pay for, to play more than one player out of position in order not to use any strikers at all. And that is not encouraging.

Luckily, we have one great hope. Let’s see if you can guess him. He first impressed on the U-17 team, before moving into the MLS. He starred at this summer’s U-20 World Cup; at least one of his goals there made SportsCenter. His parents weren’t born here. His last name starts with an “A.” Have a guess?

It’s Jozy Altidore.

Altidore, who is five months younger than Freddy Adu, is our best chance to have a world-class striker by 2010. He is listed at 6’1” and 175 pounds. He is fast. He scored his team’s only goal in his first MLS playoff series. He has scored or assisted 11 goals in 16 games this season. He has drawn European club interest, but was not eligible to be transferred overseas this summer, because he has yet to turn 18. Altidore is almost as good as Johnson already, and he, not Johnson, has to be the eleventh starter for the future US team.

Does that mean Bradley should have Altidore starting right now? No. We need look no further than Adu to question the wisdom of christening a player the savior of American soccer too early. But it does mean that Bradley should stop experimenting with Dempsey in attack, and let him play in the wider position in which he starred—and scored—at the World Cup. There is no use in teaching Dempsey to play Altidore’s spot.

In the meantime, Bradley should just play an Altidore proxy. Since none of the potential starters are really effective, pick the one whose game is closest stylistically to Altidore. That probably is Johnson, who is about the same size, but I suppose could also be Ching or Ante Razov. Bradley has been reluctant to use these players because they are not up to standards in the present, and they are certainly not the future. That’s okay. If someone comes out of nowhere, you can see it at club level and give them a shot. Unless that Player X falls from the blue, the right guy for the attacking job now is the one who can best keep Jozy’s spot warm for a year or so. I know that’s putting all our eggs in one basket, but what else can we do?

Besides, of course, getting Brian McBride’s agent back on the phone.

Mike, On Five Worse Than Vick (general)

Let me start by saying I despise Michael Vick. I never thought he was a good quarterback, just a good athlete who happened to take the ball from the center when it was snapped. He was always better suited for a running back or a wide receiver, but for some reason, the Falcons insisted on using him as their franchise QB, as well as the face of their organization. Now, owner Arthur Blank and the rest of the front office and coaching staff have to deal with a huge PR nightmare because of their despicable star committing some despicable acts. I won’t go into them - you know what they are.

However, the slant of this column might surprise you. Despite my deep dislike for Vick, I have listened to news and sports columnists, reporters, talk show hosts, and pundits condemn Vick and rant and rave about his actions. As I said, yes, they were horrible. But honestly, there have been worse acts committed by athletes and people involved in sports over the years. And so, without further ado, here’s one man’s list of 5 people currently involved in sports than are more despicable than Michael Vick:

5. Kobe Bryant
Never has there been a more destructive athlete to team morale than Kobe Bryant. Look at the track record. He forced one of the ten best players ever out of town and broke up a dynasty so he could try to win a championship all by himself and not have to share the glory. Next, he ushers his coach out the door, only to pout and moan and whine and complain until his coach was hired back. Then, to top it all off, he doesn’t even run his coach’s offense and instead jacks up a hundred shots a game and continues to complain, saying he has no help. The final straw this offseason was his demand that the Lakers get him more help or trade him, a statement he still hasn’t entirely taken back. What kind of role model is Kobe being with all this me-first thinking? He’s really taking sports down a bad road. What would happen if every athlete thought only of himself first?

4. Joe Paterno
So a couple of your players get in a fight and are arrested. Does that mean you make the entire team clean a stadium that seats over 100,000 people after every home game? Of course not. In fact, even making the accused clean the stadium would be callous and cold hearted. What kind of man is this, punishing everyone for the sins of the few? It almost seems like Paterno is trying to teach teamwork and show his players that no one man is bigger than the team. Joe’s still stuck on the whole, “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” mantra, but someone needs to tell Joe that there is, in fact, a “me.”

3. LeBron James
Here’s a guy that needs a scandal. Sure, he does the Sprite commercials, and yes, he has major endorsements with Nike. But LeBron’s rap sheet is squeaky clean. Not even a speeding ticket or traffic citation. With the current climate of athletics, how can LeBron expect to stay in the mainstream spotlight and continue to garner any air time on ESPN if he doesn’t commit some kind of crime? He needs to at least do steroids or something – sure, people will hate him, but maybe then Dave O’Brien and Rick Sutcliffe will have something to do and ESPN2 will have programming people will actually watch. Come on, LBJ – the NBA Finals is cool and all, but really, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t get yourself on a police blotter soon.

2. Alex Rodriguez
Who yells “boo” at a third baseman trying to catch a popup? If you’re looking for a real villain, this is it. First, he sabotages an entire franchise by signing a 10-year, $250 million contract, then orchestrates a trade to the sports’ most prestigious franchise, the one with more championships than any other major professional sports franchise, and in the span of four years, the team completes the biggest collapse in the history of baseball, loses in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the new century, and is now poised to fail to win the division for the first time in more than a decade. And some people still have the gall, after one decent year, to ask if A-Rod is a true Yankee? I think not.

1. Tiger Woods
If there’s one person in all of sports to hate more than Michael Vick, it has to be Tiger Woods. The list is remarkable. A supermodel wife. 13 major championships. Yelling at the crowd to be quiet. Failing to do anything of significance for his country in international play. Skipping out on Barclays Championship, the first tournament ever of the FedEx Cup. A clean rap sheet. More endorsements than any human should ever have. There’s just so much to dislike about this guy. And he’s way too good for his competition. It’s simply unfair, and what’s worse than an unfair playing field?

Oh, yeah, that’s right – dog fighting.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On the Greatest Game in MLS History (Soccer)

The MLS couldn’t have scripted it any better. New York. Los Angeles. Sixty-six thousand fans. Nine goals. Starring performances from both “Designated Players” and high-profile Americans. A full game out of a fairly healthy looking David Beckham. And a dramatic finish.

First and foremost, Becks looks ready to be the star the MLS needs him to be. His strengths really are perfectly suited to engage the casual fan. Since free kicks are his forte, there is a built-in stoppage of play for announcers to explain what he’s about to do. Otherwise, his long passes from play are roughly equivalent to long bombs in football or outlet passes in basketball, a skill that is easily understood. Most importantly of all, his competitive nature is unmistakable. During Saturday’s game, he was encouraging his teammates. He was trash-talking with opponents. He was yelling at referees. He was ecstatic when his team scored. He was disgusted when his team gave up the winning goal. He refused to come out. If there is one thing American sports fans expect from sports icons, from Lombardi to Jordan, it is a strong, frankly psychotic dedication to winning. And Beckham’s got it.

But against New York, he was foiled by the combined effort of three opposing stars. Juan Pablo Angel, a Columbian player brought in from the English league, scored the first and last goals of the match. The Red Bulls’ second goal came from Clint Mathis, who was a much-hyped American striker at the 2002 World Cup, and the third and fourth from 17-year-old Jozy Altidore, who is going to be our much-hyped striker in 2010. Landon Donovan, our much-hyped player of 2006, also scored for LA.

One reason for the high-scoring nature of the affair is the enforcement of the offside rule. In the European leagues and international play, it often seems that on close calls, the benefit of the doubt goes to the defense. In this match, the offense was getting those calls, which made for an entertaining style of play.

While Beckham certainly brought forward an exciting debut, in the end he walked out with a loss. Eight of thirteen MLS teams make the playoffs, a ratio that would embarrass even the NBA, but still the Galaxy are not sure of a place in it, especially considering that Beckham will have to miss some of the remaining games while on national team duty in Europe. A win would have gone a long way toward ensuring Beckham’s place in the postseason, and thus the MLS’ continued relevance in public consciousness.

OK, I guess it could have been scripted a little better.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mike, On His Preseason Predictions (MLB)

Every year around this time, I like to step away from the current baseball season and look back at the predictions I made in April, then revise and adjust as I see fit for the stretch run. Like Coate with his statistics and mathematical formulas, I absolutely love making predictions and watching to see how they turn out, plus mine requires a lot less critical thinking. So, without further ado, let’s look back at how I’ve done so far.

AL East (April) – New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
AL East (August) – New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
I’m not changing a thing with this division. Everyone I talked to wanted me to count out the Yankees when they were double digits back, and I refused. This is a team that has four guaranteed Hall-of-Famers (Jeter, Clemens, Rivera, and Rodriguez) as well as three borderline (Pettite, Mussina, and, believe it or not, Posada), an owner with no soul and an unending cash flow, and a manager that knows what he’s doing. Why would I disregard this team? Boston’s been good, yes, and their pitching IS better than the Yankees, but J.D. Drew has been a huge disappointment (which I think everyone but Theo Epstein knew would happen), Ramirez and Ortiz are off of their career paces, Varitek looks old, and Gagne’s been a mess since he was acquired. Oh, and did I mention this is the Yankees and Red Sox? Yeah, New York wins.

AL Central (April) – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Kansas City
AL Central (August) – Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, Kansas City, Chicago
Ok, so I missed on the White Sox bouncing back. Oops. I did see the Indians struggling more than most people expected, simply because they’re still young and, for the most part, lack any postseason experience. That’s the advantage Detroit will use to win the division. Also, I predicted that the AL East would be too bad and the AL Central would be too good for the Wild Card to come from the Central. I wasn’t totally accurate on that, but even if the Yankees catch Boston, there’s no way both Cleveland AND Detroit do the same. Thus, it’s two from the AL East and only the Tigers from the Central. Meanwhile, the Royals had back-to-back months of over .500 baseball. They will catch the Sox before the season ends.

AL West (April) – Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, Texas
AL West (August) – Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, Texas
I like Seattle, I really do. I would love to see them pass the Angels, just to change up the postseason field a little. I just don’t think the pitching is there for the stretch run. Granted, LA is awful offensively, but September and October are pitching months, and the Angels still have, in my opinion, the nastiest closer in baseball in K-Rod. He showed LA’s superiority in the All-Star game where he had to clean up J.J. Putz’s mess in the ninth, and Putz pitches for – you guessed it – Seattle. Meanwhile, I called Oakland’s falling off after losing Zito and failing to add any sort of significant bat to an already weak lineup, but I definitely didn’t see Texas being this bad. Either way, last place is last place. Go me.

NL East (April) – New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Florida, Washington
NL East (August) – New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Florida, Washington
Yes, the Mets have struggled this year. They’re not the same team that they were last season. Still, despite the poor performances recently, neither of the chasers – Philly and Hotlanta – have managed to make any ground. These teams are matching each other stumble for stumble. Both the Mets and Braves are 5-5 in their last 10, and Philly’s only one better at 6-4. The Phils still have no discernable pitching after Hamels, while the Braves, despite good additions at the trading deadline, continue to play to the level of their competition. Meanwhile, the last 14 games for the Mets are against Florida and Washington, with a makeup against the Cardinals thrown in. If they’re still in first after September 16, you can forget about catching them.

NL Central (April) – Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh
NL Central (August) – Milwaukee, Chicago, Saint Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh
Joining the White Sox as my worst pick of the year, ladies and gentlemen, your 2007 Cincinnati Reds. I honestly thought the pitching would be better than it’s been, and in a weak division, I expected them to compete. However, I would like to introduce myself to Dane Cook as someone who DID see the Milwaukee Brewers coming. Young and talented, with veteran pitching, a good manager, and more than one bona fide future superstar, this team has what it takes to win the division. Like the Mets, this team constantly seems willing to give up the division to the Cubs, and like the Braves and Phillies, the Cubs refuse to take it. With the Cubs now minus Soriano, expect the Brew Crew to pull it out. It does my heart good to see two things about the defending World Series Champion Cardinals, though – 1) good for Rick Ankiel, he deserves it, and 2) good for the organization to miss the playoffs, LaRussa, So Taguchi, Yadier Molina, and the rest of the crew deserve it.

NL West (April) – Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Colorado, San Francisco
NL West (August) – San Diego, Arizona, Los Angeles, Colorado, San Francisco
Where has the Dodgers’ O gone? My preseason division winner will rebound to pass Colorado, who despite having a good season seems bound to lose more than win down the stretch, but without a drastic offensive improvement, LA can forget about the playoffs. Meanwhile, what in the world was Bruce Bochy thinking? “Hmm… let me leave a two-time defending division champ to go to a team who couldn’t win the rec league at the local nursing home and put up with Barroid all season – yeah, THAT sounds like career advancement.” All the Padres have done is not missed a beat, and I think they’ll pass Arizona down the stretch because of their postseason experience. Don’t cry for the D’backs, though – they’ll still be in the post season as the NL Wild Card, and with all due respect to Ned Yost, you can hand Bob Melvin that Manager of the Year trophy at your earliest convenience.

ALDS – Boston over LA Angels, Detroit over NY Yankees
NLDS – NY Mets over Arizona; San Diego over Milwaukee
ALCS – Boston over Detroit
NLCS – San Diego over NY Mets

World Series – Boston over San Diego

On Not Making Mistakes (EPL)

In sports, great offense is about brilliance. Steve Nash creating passing lanes. Peyton Manning audibling at the line. Sidney Crosby, as I understand it, doing pretty much anything.

Defense, on the other hand, is not so glamorous. It pretty much consists of not making any mistakes. This makes it difficult for casual fans to appreciate defenders who are not on their own team; the MVP of any given game is probably going to be an attacking player, for a moment of brilliance. Only over the course of the season does the defender’s ability to avoid mistakes look as good.

In soccer, which does not have the wealth of statistics available in most American sports, it is even harder to tell.

Sometimes, then, the best way to observe the quality of defensive players is to see what happens when they’re gone. Manchester United and Chelsea, teams with an embarrassingly large number of attacking options, were derailed last season with injuries to defenders. In Nemanja Vidic’s absence, AC Milan’s Kaka sent the Red Devils crashing out of the Champions League. Man U’s second choice defenders were running into each other trying to stop him. Literally. You can see it on YouTube.

Meanwhile, Chelsea had the same problem in both league and European competitions. When John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho are both playing, Petr Cech becomes the best goalkeeper in the world, Frank Lampard becomes a European Footballer of the Year finalist, and Chelsea becomes unstoppable. When they’re not, things are different.

That’s what happened this week. Although they escaped both games with Ws, they looked vulnerable. They gave up two goals to newly-promoted Birmingham at home. They were a post’s width away from being run off the field in the first half at Reading. Unless Terry and Carvalho make miraculous recoveries, Chelsea will be in serious trouble this weekend at Liverpool.

Liverpool, incidentally, was great. The team’s depth was on display, with new signings Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel looking especially good. The Reds’ goal didn’t look threatened at any point; the game-tying goal they did concede was a freak PK on a play that wasn’t really even dangerous. And when that happened, local superman Steven Gerrard cleaned it up by drawing a foul and then dropping the ensuing free kick in between the post, crossbar and keeper’s hand, a space approximately the size of an envelope.

The other team to impress was Manchester City. They got a good bit of offensive creativity from midfielder Elano of Brazil, and wingers Martin Petrov of Bulgaria and Stephen Ireland of Ireland. They have Peter Schmeichel’s son in goal. Most importantly of all, at the back, Richard Dunne and Micah Richards look like a pair that isn’t going to be making a lot of mistakes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Mike, On Rooting for A-Rod (MLB)

Editor's Note: This column title begins with the author's name, as will all future guest columns. Of which there will hopefully be many.

I never thought I’d actually get to the point in my life where I’d say this, but I’m rooting for Alex Rodriguez.

Hold on. Before you all chuck rotten vegetables at me, I did not say “New York Yankees.” I refuse to ever root for the bastards of baseball. A-Rod, however, has my full support.


Because he needs to pass Barry Bonds.

I wrote an article in October of 2005 for this very website that pleaded with Bonds, whom WFAN radio personality Steve Somers refers to simply as “Barroid,” to retire. He was currently at 708 homeruns, and I didn’t want to see him hit 709, much less 715 or 756. Unfortunately, he hit both of those marks, and implied recently that he’s even considering returning for another season after this one because he finds himself less than 100 hits shy of 3,000 for his career. According to Barry Balco, his godfather Willie Mays has always wanted to see Bonds get to that benchmark, even more so than Aaron’s record.

Wake me up when I should care.

Honestly, I’m sick of even talking about this person, but it’s the hot topic in sports, so for my return column, there wasn’t much of a better idea. Here’s the thing: Bonds is a liar. Bonds is a cheat. Bonds is an arrogant, obnoxious individual who cares about no one besides himself. For those reasons, even more than the steroids, I dislike him.

The problem I have is that Bonds was a Hall-of-Famer before he ever used performance enhancing drugs. Look at the numbers he’s amassed: career .298 average, 514 stolen bases, and a .444 OBP. Some of those are a bit inflated because of the ‘roids, but especially with regards to the SB numbers, most are pre-1998, i.e. pre-McGwire and Sosa. Bonds was widely regarded, along with Ken Griffey Jr., as the premier baseball player of his generation. In ’98, however, it was Sosa and McGwire who captivated audiences and garnered the national media attention with the great home run chase, and Bonds couldn’t handle it. Someone told him he could do what those two did, and Barry’s ego being what it is, he went after it.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of blame to go around with this. Bud Selig and MLB executives for turning a blind eye as the game tried to rebound from the strike, which was partly their fault anyway. The other half of the blame, at least with regards to the strike and disregard for drug testing, goes to Donald Fehr and the Players’ Association. Regardless of that, however, Bonds could still have been just like Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn, who were both recently inducted into the Hall, or even like Griffey, who with all the injuries and lack of upper body growth clearly steered clear of the juice. Those guys simply kept their egos in check and relied on their God-given talent to hit a little white ball with a little brown stick. Instead, Barroid found Victor Conte, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So now I root for A-Rod. Griffey sits at 587, but I don’t see him pulling a Bonds and smacking 73 homeruns at age 38, so I think he’s going to fall shy. Alex, however, hit number 500 on the same day Bonds hit 755, leaving him 255 shy of Mr. Large Head (see kids, stay in school and you too can do simple arithmetic). At only 32 years of age, I think it’s a no-brainer to take the over on an A-Rod line of 255 more homeruns in his career. And I really hope it happens, so that all this talk of steroids and asterisks will be unnecessary.

Well, at least until Jose Canseco’s next book.

Monday, August 6, 2007

On the best 100 NBA players of the 2000s (NBA)

As promised, I am using my value rating system to determine the best players in the recent years of the NBA. Before I get into it, a couple of definitions.

First, recent. By recent I mean the 2000’s. For the ratings that follow, I am exclusively using the 1999-2000 through 2006-2007 seasons. So Michael Jordan, for the purposes of this list, played only two seasons, both for Washington. This is the cutoff point because so far, that is all I have calculated. I decided after the lockout season was a good cutoff point for now.

Second, best. Is it a measure of how dominant a player was in his prime? Of how long his prime lasted? Of how long he lasted?

Probably a combination. Borrowing heavily from Bill James’ system in the Historical Baseball Abstract, I have defined three measures, using my Value Score (VS) system.

(1) Total Value Score.

(2) Value Score per 82 games.

(3) Value Score of Best 3 Consecutive Seasons

The first two measures consider a player’s entire body of work over the time period. The overall total rewards durability and consistency, and also encourages conservative ratings for young players who may only have a few years. The per-82 rewards pure quality, ignoring injuries or youth. The top 3 seasons is in there to measure how good the player was at his best. By the way, if someone hasn’t played three seasons, their total is still divided by three. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself on rating rookies and sophs.

I drew the line for consideration at any player who had reached a Value Score of 20 or greater in any of the eight seasons. 119 players fit this criterion. Once I had this pool of players, I normalized each of the three categories, to ensure the three dimensions were weighted equally. By adding up the z-scores by player, I determined my 100 Top Players of the 2000s.

One more thing. Value Scores are only for the regular season, but greatness is often defined in the playoffs. How does that factor in? I made adjustments for the postseason, both up and down. For example, in the 2006-2007 season, the Spurs were the highest adjusted team, credited with 11 extra wins for winning the NBA title. The Mavericks had the largest negative change, penalized 6 wins for their first-round loss to Golden State. Players on teams which missed the playoffs receive no adjustments. I didn’t decide on this method until after I coded the list, so it’s only up for the top 20. So just imagine somebody like Tony Parker is a few spots higher than he is.

Oh yeah, one absolute final last thing. There are a couple players who haven’t ever broken 20 VS, but whose consistency should put them in the top 100 anyway. Unfortunately, they got sorted out, and I don’t feel like looking back through to make sure I catch everybody, so for now I’ll just extend my apologies to Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and probably some others. If your favorite solid player didn’t make the list, that’s probably why.

Any more questions? OK then, here’s the chart, with some notes afterward (if the chart appears in an awkward format, sorry. I am working on it):

# Fname Lname
1 Kevin Garnett
2 Tim Duncan
3 Shaquille O'Neal
4 Jason Kidd
5 Dirk Nowitzki
6 LeBron James
7 Kobe Bryant
8 Steve Nash
9 Tracy McGrady
10 Ben Wallace
11 Shawn Marion
12 Gary Payton
13 Allen Iverson
14 Dwyane Wade
15 Chauncey Billups
16 Paul Pierce
17 Karl Malone
18 Stephon Marbury
19 Elton Brand
20 Chris Webber
21 Ray Allen
22 Vince Carter
23 John Stockton
24 Andre Miller
25 Steve Francis
26 Gilbert Arenas
27 Sam Cassell
28 Mike Bibby
29 Rasheed Wallace
30 Antoine Walker
31 Baron Davis
32 Lamar Odom
33 Pau Gasol
34 Jason Terry
35 Tony Parker
36 Andrei Kirilenko
37 Jermaine O'Neal
38 Marcus Camby
39 Michael Finley
40 Brad Miller
41 Dwight Howard
42 Yao Ming
43 Predrag Stojakovic
44 David Robinson
45 Jerry Stackhouse
46 Shareef Abdur-Rahim
47 Eddie Jones
48 Rashard Lewis
49 Anthony Mason
50 Chris Paul
51 Jamal Mashburn
52 Chris Bosh
53 Brent Barry
54 Richard Jefferson
55 Dikembe Motombo
56 Terrell Brandon
57 Darrell Armstrong
58 Manu Ginobili
59 Kirk Hinrich
60 Antwan Jamison
61 Latrell Sprewell
62 Reggie Miller
63 Jalen Rose
64 PJ Brown
65 Jason Williams
66 Amare Stoudamire
67 Damon Stoudamire
68 Nick Van Exel
69 Eric Snow
70 Doug Christie
71 Vlade Divac
72 Joe Johnson
73 Donyell Marshall
74 Carlos Boozer
75 Wally Szczerbiak
76 Michael Redd
77 Mehmet Okur
78 Tayshaun Prince
79 Andre Iguodala
80 Jason Richardson
81 Ron Artest
82 Scottie Pippen
83 Glenn Robinson
84 Antonio Davis
85 Allan Houston
86 Carmelo Anthony
87 Josh Howard
88 Derek Anderson
89 Mark Jackson
90 Luol Deng
91 Larry Hughes
92 Tyson Chandler
93 Rafer Alston
94 Alonzo Mourning
95 Drew Gooden
96 Grant Hill
97 Zach Randolph
98 Tim Hardaway
99 Brian Grant
100 Udonis Haslem

#1 All right. Garnett over Duncan? I can explain. There are five points I want to stress in regards to that decision.

1. It was very close.

2. The system rewards peak performance, and Garnett’s peak is the highest of the decade. KG used to win a lot of games with a minimal supporting cast. Consider that Minnesota won 58 games with Trenton Hassell, Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen in key roles. Or, better yet, they won 51 games the year before with Troy Hudson as the second best player on the team.

3. Durability played a role. Not that Duncan isn’t reliable, but Garnett averaged more than 80 games a season over the eight years, including six straight of 81 or more.

4. Over the course of their careers overall, Duncan would/will probably be ahead of Garnett. Remember, the Spurs won the title the year before the study began, and Duncan is slightly better than Garnett right now.

5. Don’t forget, it was very close.

I do not think there is much of an argument they should not be the top two.

#3 Shaq outdoes everyone outside those two, despite his recent injuries and the fact that a substantial portion of his prime came in the previous decade. Considering what a force of nature he was at his best, I think this is reasonable.

#7 That ranking also makes this one reasonable. There should be little doubt, really, that Kobe Bryant was the sidekick on the Lakers’ championship teams. Look at how far Shaq helped carry the Florida teams both before and since. After Shaq, Kobe has really performed as just another gunner, not good enough to carry a weak supporting cast much over .500. As far as the regular season is concerned, there isn't much evidence to put him ahead of Tracy McGrady, and even Kobe’s playoff success is tempered by the fact that during those runs, the best player on his team was somebody else. In contrast, there has rarely been a question of the best player on Kidd and Nowitzki’s teams, and there has been absolutely no question on LeBron’s. All of these teams have won a bunch of games and made a Finals appearance, which is far more than the post-Shaq Lakers can say. Also, while he is undoubtedly not as big a factor as Kobe, Lamar Odom’s contributions to the current Lakers are underestimated. The rumored Jermaine O’Neal trade, giving up Odom and Bynum, would not have been wise.

#11 I think it is worth noting that Shawn Marion was an established star even in the B.N. era. Nash is a great player, and fun to watch, but Marion has been almost as indispensable to these Suns. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he gone elsewhere.

#13 Iverson would have cracked the top ten if he could stay healthy a little better.

#17, #23 The fact that both of these Utah guys made the Top 25, in just five and four seasons at the end of their careers, shows how amazing they were.

#36 Kirilenko will be an interesting one to follow. His 03-04 through 05-06 seasons were worthy of a rising superstar, but last year was a major hiccup. If he finds his form, the Jazz will be extremely good for the foreseeable future.

#41 Not quite the trajectory of LeBron and Wade, but Howard will push the edges of the top 25 with another season like last year in 2007-08.

#50 Speaking of trajectory…let me tell you how good Chris Paul’s rookie year was. Not better than LeBron’s, Carmelo’s, or Wade’s. Not better than Howard’s, or Okafor’s, or Deron Williams’, or anybody’s. Not better; better. A LOT better. If not for injury, he would have had the best first two years of anyone in the sample; as it is he trails only King James. In short, this guy should never have fallen to fourth.

#66, #81 In fairness to Mr. Stoudamire, I should probably have counted 04-05 and 06-07 as consecutive seasons, considering he only played two games in between due to the knee injury. This would raise him about ten spots on the list. If I skipped over the Artest suspended season, it would have a smaller but similar effect. But since he decided to do that right as he and the Pacers were on their way up, that whole idea is a lot more speculative.

#72, #76, #83, #85, #86, #91 Proof that the system expects some quality supporting numbers to go with the points.

#92 Proof that the system does appreciate the numbers other than the points.

#105 Not listed, but this is the position MJ earned for his two Wizards’ seasons.

In the future, I hope to expand these ratings back into the 1990’s, and beyond.

On the Statistical Rating of Basketball Players (NBA)

As some of you may remember, I once posted on my old site a rating of the greatest baseball players of all time, by position. As some fewer of you, such as my grandfather, may remember, I never finished posting it. This is because I got bored, because was basically just updating the results from my Bill James book to account for people like Albert Pujols, who were not yet established when that book came out.

Well, this is something new. In a lifetime of trying to make up statistical ratings for baseball and then basketball players, I think this one represents a major breakthrough. The inspiration for these ratings came from a study I did on assists, and from some ideas in baseball player evaluation.

Baseball has a statistic called VORP. This stands for Value Over Replacement Player, which is pretty self-explanatory. The idea is that a player’s value isn’t measured from zero or from average, but from the edge of the major leagues. Basically, how much better is a guy than the next guy the team could bring up (practically) for free from Triple-A? For the categories I am discussing, I have estimated the replacement level empirically from the statistics of end-of-the-bench NBA players.

Anyway, basketball statistics can be measured in this fashion. I considered the standard statistics: points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, turnovers, fouls, and shooting efficiency, and then I jumped through a few hoops to determine the proper weights for the relationship between them. Most of it is pretty straightforward, but here are two things that I have handled differently than is usually seen:

First, scoring and assists. Using assists and shooting percentages, I mathematically estimated the effect of a Good Pass on shooting efficiency. A Good Pass is defined to be a pass that will be credited as an assist if the ensuing shot is made. I also estimated the number of Good Passes made and received by each player.

This has two benefits. First, by determining the effect on points per shot, we can calculate exactly how valuable a Good Pass is. Secondly, by determining the number of Good Passes received, we can set a different boundary for replacement scoring efficiency for every individual player. For example, not only can we credit Steve Nash for creating easy shots for his teammates, but we can also credit him for not having the ability to receive passes from himself. In general, this compensates guards for creating their own shots, something many statistical measurements do not.

Second, turnovers. Many statistical systems subtract absolute turnovers, which is also biased against guards. Given the amount of time he spends with the ball in his hands, a point guard with three turnovers in a game has almost certainly protected the ball better than a center with two. My solution is to consider turnovers as a percentage of possessions. Since the vast majority of possessions end in a shot or a turnover, this is easy to calculate. However, the point is to recognize those who handle the ball, not those who take a lot of shots. If a guard drives and kicks the ball to an open shooter, it is really the passer, not the shooter, who avoided a turnover on the play. So the number of player possessions, for these purposes, is: Turnovers + Shots + Good Passes Made – Good Passes Received.

Now, after combining each player’s contributions in all areas, I had a choice to determine what to do with the ensuing raw scores. One method is to normalize for pace, and then rate players on some sort of per-minute basis directly from that point. This is a perfectly good way to go about things.

However, I chose to borrow another baseball idea. Bill James introduced the concept of Win Shares, which directly relate player success to team wins. If the New York Yankees win 90 games, their players are credited with exactly 270 Win Shares. I think the explicit correlation of team success to player value is a good method.

However, my number—which I’m for the moment calling a Value Score (VS), although I am declaring open season for a catchier name—is not directly analogous to a Win Share. James goes through a lot of trouble to show that Win Shares are not biased toward players on good or bad teams; if a player gets traded from the Red Sox to the Royals or vice versa, his Win Shares won’t be biased. In basketball, where there is much more interaction between players, I did not find that to be true. So in my system, a 60 win team will have a higher total Value Score than a 30 win team, but it will not be not twice as large. It will be closer to one and a half.

I did keep the numbers in the general ballpark of Win Shares, so the following intuition that baseball stat geeks may already know will still hold. A 10 VS season indicates a player is a solid starter, a 20 VS season denotes a minor star, a 30 VS player will be an All-Star and tends to be in the MVP discussion, and a 40 VS player is probably the best player in the league.

This system passes three important tests. First, as mentioned above, a player’s rating does not change excessively when he moves to a team of greater or lesser quality. This is consistent with the idea that the number captures a player’s inherent value. Second, the system is fair to players at all positions. Because of the ambiguity that comes from the majority of players who play multiple spots, I like to divide players into four classifications: guard (PG/SG), swingman (SG/SF), forward (SF/PF), and post (PF/C). (Note: The assigned position has no effect on ranking players, but only for my own organizational purposes. You could use whatever designation you like without changing the numbers). In the eight seasons for which I have ratings, 117 players have had at least one season of a 20 or higher VS. Of these, 32 were guards, 31 swingmen, 29 forwards and 25 posts. Third, the system provides results that are generally consistent with observed excellence.

I would also like to contrast this method of player evaluation with two notable statistical measures: John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, and Wins Produced, created by the authors of the sports economics book The Wages of Wins.

The Wages of Wins’ method is based on regression analysis, and the statistics are weighted to maximize the relationship of the statistics to team wins. This is perfect in baseball offense, wherein players each bat with the intent of maximizing production and minimizing outs, and—this is important—take turns hitting. But in basketball, in which anyone can take any shot, the application of team logic to player logic is not quite as effective. Yes, the team wants to maximize its shooting percentage, but the team doesn’t maximize its shooting percentage by maximizing every player’s shooting percentage. Rather, it accomplishes this by taking its best option each possession. On a possession when the team cannot get an easy shot at all, the best scorers on the team will be disproportionately likely to take that difficult shot.

Consider this analogy. Suppose, in baseball, a team could reset its lineup before the ninth inning of a close game. A team would obviously choose to bat its best hitters against the opposing closer (ace reliever), which would then lower their batting averages. So the team batting average would be maximized, but the best hitters’ individual averages would not be maximized. We might still want to measure the best hitters by batting average, but since there is self-selection, we would also have to adjust for total at-bats.

The Wages of Wins does not make this adjustment. Therefore, while I agree with the authors’ conclusions in general, which is that players who score a lot tend to be overrated, I think their system overcompensates away from scorers. In short, I agree that Allen Iverson was not really the best player in the league in his MVP season, but I do not believe there were 90 better players in the NBA that year.

My differences with John Hollinger’s PER system are more philosophical than technical. His is a per-minute system, thus measuring efficiency. My system examines aggregates. If two players of apparently similar effectiveness receive significant differences in playing time, PER is the way to see their production matches. My system rewards the greater number of minutes, which limits its versatility but does allow it to credit players who play more minutes than their stats would seem to justify, such as defensive stoppers. With PER, you just have to know.

Also, both systems I have mentioned examine absolute turnovers as discussed above, rather than crediting players who always have the ball in their hands.

In my next post, I am going to look at the NBA’s best recent players, according to the VS system.