Monday, November 16, 2009

why i hate the nba (but no, the solution to this problem is not to just stop paying attention, so don't even think it)

This is long.  There are lots of numbers.  If you don't care about basketball, you probably won't care about this.  Just so you know.

Friday night, the Nuggets beat the Lakers.  Trounced 'em, in fact.  The final was 105-79. It was just awesome.  Arron Afflalo (and others) shut Kobe down all night.  Mamba went 7-17 for 19 points, but here's the key: he only attempted 4 free throws.  Afflalo et. al. didn't get whistled every time they got within two feet of him.  Weird, right?  As Ben said, "It sure is amazing what happens when these two teams just play basketball.  Funny that LA don't look too good without all those fouls." 

I've noticed this trend from people who write about basketball.  

Saturday on, J.A. (The Laker Lover) Adande posted this article about the Nuggets in the context of their serious beatdown of the Lakers (and while we're talking about J.A., can we just talk a little bit about ESPN's ongoing policy of hiring local writers away from newspapers, then assigning those writers to write about playoff series [or regular season games] involving those teams?  What a crock this is!  Two glaring examples are Adande [formerly of the LA Times] covering the Lakers throughout the playoffs, and Jayson Stark, born and raised in Philadelphia, and a guy who spent 21 years (!) covering the Phillies, writing ESPN's national reports on the Phillies' playoff series over the last couple years.  Yeah, that's gonna be unbiased like these guys are unbiased.  Way to maintain that pretense of "reporting," ESPN).  Anyway, J.A. talks about how after making improvements each year for the last several, the Nuggets got thisclose against the Lakers, but the Lakers were just better in the end.  I thought I'd take a look at the numbers and revisit this horrible series.

    Denver Los Angeles
Game Score Personal Fouls Free Throws Personal Fouls Free Throws
One 103-105 26 23-35 26 20-24
Two 106-103 29 29-37 27 27-35
Three 97-103 31 26-31 24 31-45
Four 120-101 24 37-49 31 24-35
Five 94-103 30 23-30 22 26-35
Six 92-119 22 20-25 19 24-24

Ok, so the scores are listed Nuggets first for each game.  Following that are, obviously, the personal fouls committed by and free throws taken by each team in each game.  Now, a cursory glance at this chart shows that the fouls called on and free throws taken by each team were pretty even.  Let's compare those numbers to the regular-season numbers.

Team Total Fouls Per-game Avg. Season Total Per-game Avg. Pct. Increase
Denver 162 27 1874 22.9 17.9
Los Angeles 149 24.8 1698 20.7 19.8

Looking at the personal fouls, both teams were called for fouls at a higher average than they were during the season, which is what one would expect; the NBA likes to "tighten things up" during the playoffs.  That seems fine.  But look at this chart of free throws:

Team Total FTA Per-game Avg. Season Total Per-game Avg. Pct. Increase
Denver 207 34.5 2487 30.3 13.9
Los Angeles 198 33 2087 25.5 29.4

The Nuggets shot more free throws in games 1, 2, 4, and 6, and had the overall free throw attempts advantage, 207-198.  Ok, so the Nuggets took 4.5% more free throws than the Lakers.  But over the entire 2008-09 NBA season, the Nuggets also had more free throws than the Lakers...they out-attempted them 2,487-2,087.  That's 19.2% more free throws.  So all season long, the Nuggets took significantly more free throws.  If both teams were whistled at their established, season-long rates, the Nuggets would have taken 182 free throws to the Lakers' 153.  But while the Nuggets' free throws only increased by 13.9%, the Lakers' free throws increased by 29.4%.  Now, Lakerites and ESPN would have us believe that "great" teams like the Lakers suddenly play differently in the playoffs, knowing what they have to do to win.  That sure smacks of bullshit, doesn't it?

Going even deeper, the in-game stats show the advantage given the Lakers.  In Game 1, each team committed 26 personal fouls.  However, the Nuggets took 35 free throws to the Lakers' 24.  This indicates that the Nuggets were pounding the ball inside, driving to the basket, drawing shooting fouls.  The Nuggets were being whistled, however, for non-shooting fouls.  Pile up enough of those calls, and the Lakers start getting to the line for some freebies (plus, key players start heading to the bench to avoid more fouls).

Now, in going back and re-reading Adande's column, one paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

But 2009 was different. This time they made it to the Western Conference finals. They were playing at what Ralph Wiley used to call the "highest level of hoop." Not just playing but responding to the challenge, winning two of the first four games and outscoring the Lakers by 14 points through the first 19 quarters of the series. And then, starting in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Lakers threw it into another gear, accelerating into the NBA Finals and leaving the Nuggets behind, staring. Staring and fixating.

Yeah, the series was even through 4 games, and the Nuggets had outscored the Lakers through 19 quarters.  That's a fact.  But Adande contests that "starting in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Lakers threw it into another gear, accelerating into the NBA Finals and leaving the Nuggets behind...."  We'll take a look at that Game 5 fourth quarter, but let's look at another fourth quarter first; the fourth quarter of Game 3.  Denver had tied the series at 1-1 and had, as they say, stolen home-court advantage from the Lakers.  Through 3 quarters of Game 3, the Nuggets led 79-71 and had ended the third quarter on a huge three from J.R. Smith (who then was called for "taunting," gifting the Lakers a free point to start the fourth).  Here's how the fouls and free throws had played out to that point:

Team Fouls FTA
Denver 21 23
Los Angeles 18 31

The game to this point had been called pretty evenly (though the Lakers had quite the advantage in free throws, but that's not so ridiculous).  Here's the fourth quarter alone:

Team Fouls FTA
Denver 10 8
Los Angeles 6 14

Wow.  That's awfully telling, is it not?  This game meant more to the Lakers than it did the Nuggets; a loss would have meant being down 2-1 with 4 games remaining (2 in Denver, 2 in LA).  But a great imbalance in calls results in Melo and KMart both fouling out (and Nene and Dahntay Jones finishing with 5 fouls each.  No Laker had more than 4 fouls.  The Lakers missed 14 free throws for the game...and still had as many makes as the Nuggets had attempts.  Maybe the Nuggets suddenly forgot how to play basketball.  That happens from time to time, right?

The Nuggets won Game 4 handily (and, yes, had a large advantage in free throws and fouls called).  Also, Bennett Salvatore was one of the officials.  If you watch the NBA, I don't need to explain that comment.

So we go to Game 5, Quarter 4.  The game had been very even to that point; a look at the top of this page shows the teams as identical in each quarter 1-3.  Now, remember, is the time the Lakers "threw it into another gear."  Here, again, are the fouls and free throws for the first 3 quarters:

Team Fouls FTA
Denver 19 23
Los Angeles 18 20

Very evenly called.  The score was tied at 76.  Then this happened:

Team Fouls FTA
Denver 11 7
Los Angeles 4 15

Again, this game and the series were tied at this point, with Game 6 to be played in Denver.  This game was extremely important for the Lakers.  And they sure got the assistance they needed, didn't they?  In the end, the Nuggets out-"fouled" the Lakers 30-22, and the Lakers out-free-throw-attempted the Nuggets 35-30.  When you just look at those numbers, it seems fairly even.  But wow...that fourth quarter.  The Lakers won the fourth quarter 27-18, and the game 103-94.

Game 6 didn't really matter at that point, and the Nuggets played like it.  They looked totally demoralized (and why wouldn't they?) and played a crap game, shooting only 43.8% for the game while giving up 119 points on 57.3% shooting for the Lakers.  Very few fouls were called (Nuggets 22, Lakers 19 (!)), and the free throws were similar (24-24 LAL, 20-25 DEN).  It was a crap ending to an awesome Nuggets season.  

Now the resounding chorus is that the truly great teams step it up in the face of adversity and all that crap...and by that logic, it shouldn't really matter what the refs do; the great teams can play 5-on-8 and win anyway.  The NBA has done a great job of selling the idea that their officials are great, and everyone drinks the Kool-Aid.  Even fan-centric blogs (in the Nuggets' case, are loath to blame the officials; Jeremy of RMC (which is a good blog) goes out of his way to point out the "Yeah, but"s...that when the Nuggets lose, they inevitably bone themselves over with a key defensive lapse or missed free throws.  

But that's the point of all, I'm not saying the officials overtly "win" a game for a team.  But a few well-placed horrible calls, and people (in this case, players) get flustered, frustrated, and out of sorts.  Ok, say the writers, then I guess it's just on them to tone down the emotion.  But the emotion and the passion are a huge part of why this is a great Nuggets team to watch; Melo and KMart and Bird and Earl and Dahntay (last year) and Nene play with this awesome fire, and they can't just turn it on and off when they're getting hosed.  

I guess what I'm saying is this: I watch an awful lot of basketball.  And while I don't know if I can go so far as to call it cheating, I think the NBA (and by the NBA I mean David Stern) wants this league to work a certain way.  Certain teams make the NBA look better and become more popular.  And even though Stern stands up there and says in his Sterny way that Tim Donaghy is a dirty rat, I read this and think, "Yep.  Makes sense to me."  

So why won't I stop watching?  Because I love to watch basketball.  I love to watch the Nuggets play, but I love any good, well-played game.  Unfortunately, the NBA takes a lot of that away...but nobody seems to care.  People still watch.  Nobody questions Stern because he's David Stern.  But I watch because I think that sometime the Nuggets will be allowed to just play.  I know that it was just a regular season game, but when the Nuggets were allowed to just play against the Lakers, they kicked their asses.  And it was awesome.

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