Increased Transparency Has Revealed that Awards Voting is More Broken Than We Thought

The most fun sideshow of the playoffs is awards season, where seemingly every day a new award winner is announced. Nothing will top Dirk Nowitzki accepting the MVP trophy while his Mavericks were getting bludgeoned by the eight seed Warriors in 2007, but this awards season does have a new wrinkle: transparency.

Due to pressure from the Professional Basketball Writers Association (of which I am a member), and especially President Mary Schmitt Boyer, this year all award votes are made public. The call for this to happen intensified last year when a lone voter prevented LeBron James from an MVP sweep, inexplicably voting for Carmelo Anthony instead. Dan Le Batard took advantage of the anonymous nature of the balloting and trolled everybody by pretending it was him for awhile before Boston Globe columnist revealed in a column that he was the one that had voted for Anthony.

In the abstract, increased transparency is a good thing and I fully support the PBWA’s push to make this happen. But just a few votes in, increased transparency has raised many more questions than it has answered.

Why are team and quasi-team employees allowed to vote?

Sam Smith, a writer for Bulls.com has a vote. John Denton, a writer for OrlandoMagic.com has a vote. Walt Frazier, broadcaster for the MSG Network (whose executive chairman is Knicks owner James Dolan) has a vote. Chris Marlowe and Jason Kosmicki of Altitude Sports and Entertainment (owned by Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke) have votes. I’m sure there are more examples if I delved into the ownership structure of every regional sports network, but you get the point.

The conflicts of interest here are huge and obvious. Do any of these voters feel pressure—whether explicit or implicit—from their employers on who to vote for? Do they feel it necessary to support certain candidates to stay in the good graces of the person who cuts the paychecks? For their part, the NBA is unconcerned, with NBA Senior VP of Communications Tim Frank telling me that while the NBA monitors all votes, they aren’t really concerned and, “just haven’t seen any type of bias”. That may well be true, but when it comes to conflicts of interest, the appearance of one can be just as damaging as a conflict itself.

This concern is also present, though not as acute, for people who aren’t employees but regularly cover one team. Arizona Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro, for instance, wrote a great piece on how teammates griped when he didn’t vote for Brandon Webb as Cy Young, and generally the pressure he feels as an awards voters. His conclusion though, seems sound: “hiding behind anonymity isn’t the answer”.

 

Why does the media even vote on awards in the first place?

For six years the AP’s college football rankings were a major component of the formula that determined which two teams played in the college football national championship game. But in 2004 the AP pulled out, with the AP’s sports editor saying the decision was, “prompted by reading and hearing stories from voters of ethical concerns and harassing e-mail messages and phone calls.” The Charlotte Observer’s sports editor said, “’My issue was with the ethics of reporters determining where all that money went. I didn’t think that was right.”

These concerns aren’t quite as pronounced when voting for awards after the season—NBA media aren’t voting on who gets to play in the playoffs—but the same basic concerns exist. One of the golden rules of journalism is to report the news, not be the news, and that is violated upon choosing award winners.

Why are award voters allowed to impact millions of dollars and change the competitive nature of the NBA?

The question may seem hyperbolic but it’s not. Codified into the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement is the ability for awards voters to affect salary and team salary caps, known as the Derrick Rose rule. The maximum salary for the first year of a contract extension for players who have fewer than six years in the league is 25% of the salary cap. But if a player is named to an All-NBA team twice or voted Most Valuable Player, that maximum is 30%. Crucially, the extension can be signed when it is unknown whether or not the player will meet the criteria for a 30% maximum salary, and thus a subsequent Third Team All-NBA vote (for instance) could be the difference between a player’s salary starting at $14.7 million and $17.6 million, which has obvious ramifications.

The Derrick Rose Rule isn’t the only way awards voting can massively affect the financials of players and teams. Many players have contract bonuses related to awards that have a large affect on league functioning. As Zach Lowe detailed earlier this year, The Warriors Andrew Bogut will get a $425,000 bonus if he is voted onto one of the two All-Defense teams. The Warriors are roughly $375,000 below the luxury tax threshold; Bogut on an All-Defense team would put the Warriors over the luxury tax limit and completely change the competitive dynamics in the league.

Will fans unfairly judge voters, thus leading to a homogenization of voting?

As the votes for each award have been made public, fans and media members have immediately pored over the records for anything interesting. Warriors fans have laughed at Mark Jackson receiving his only Coach of the Year vote from Warriors sideline reporter Ric Bucher and Klay Thompson receiving his only two Most Improved Player votes from Ric Bucher and Warriors broadcaster Jim Barnett. The six votes Patty Mills received for Most Improved Player came from two national writers, two Spurs beat writers and two Spurs broadcasters.

In some ways, this is the kind of voting transparency is designed to stamp out. I can accept arguments that Mark Jackson is not as bad of a coach as I think he is, but there is absolutely no sane argument to be made that he was the third best coach in the league this year.

On the other hand, the point of having 130ish voters for each award is to look at those votes in aggregate, not in the specific. Because of Bucher’s indefensible vote, Jackson finished tied for eighth in the coach of the Year voting. Is it so crazy to believe that he was the eight best coach this year? Might Klay Thompson actually be the 16th most improved player in the league this season? Should we single out an individual voter when the aggregate vote falls within the realm of acceptability?  In this sense, voting for the candidates you truly believe in is a no win proposition. Ric Bucher gets castigated for his “homer” Mark Jackson vote, but if he votes for somebody else he isn’t voting for the candidate he believes in.

This fear could lead voters (and I have talked to at least one voter who said the threat of being ridiculed was leading them to consider not voting for candidates that might be considered by the basketball intelligentsia to be a “fringe”) to instead vote for who they think everybody else is doing to vote for to avoid standing out.

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To be clear, the solution to these (and other) problems with NBA awards voting is not anonymity. Anonymity allows them to be ignored, not solved.

My preferred solution is for the media to stop voting on awards altogether. Call me a journalism romantic, call me out of touch with how things work in 2014, but I really believe that journalists’ impact on the league should come through their reporting, not through their voting. Their votes definitely votes shouldn’t affect players’ salaries and teams’ finances. If I were ever in a position to have an awards vote, I would turn it down. Let the players, the guys that actually have to score against people, determine who the Defensive Player of the Year is. A lot of these issues revolves around the different types of roles that constitute, “the media”. Most writers don’t believe that broadcasters count as “journalists”, and I’ll bet some broadcasters don’t either. It is hard to call yourself an objective journalist when your employment is at the mercy of the team’s whims. It can be a distinction without a difference, as former broadcast sideline reporter man Matt Steinmetz asserts.

 

 

Working under the assumption that “the media” will continue to vote on these awards, I’d like to see the NBA adopt a few rules on voting:

  • No team employees may vote for awards
  • Any media member with a team or broadcasting job is considered a broadcaster: Ric Bucher should not be considered a Bleacher Report voter when he is also the broadcast’s sideline reporter
  • The number of independent media members voting in a given market must be equal to or greater than the number of broadcasters voting
  • No family members may vote for any categories in which their blood relation is eligible

Does anybody object to these commonsense changes?

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Series of the Week: Indiana Pacers (1) vs Atlanta Hawks (8)

Editor’s Note: As in years past, Games of the Week transforms into Series of the Week, an extended discussion on a single playoff series, and the themes and trends that define it. We start out East, in the 1-8 battle between the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks.

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Whereas most playoff matchups have some basic features that seem uniform across the board, the 1-8 series delights the modern fan (or, at least this modern fan) because of its signature unpredictability. Of course, there are exceptions. The 4-5 series typically features two evenly matched teams who were often only separated by a few games in the standings throughout the season. The 3-6 series pits the team that wasn’t good enough to finish first against the team that was too good to finish last (in playoff standings). And while it begins to approach the fickleness of the 1-8, even the 2-7 series carries many consistent features from year-to-year. All have their perks, and none are loved any more or less than the rest. But to me, the 1-8 stands apart from the rest of its peers. It carries a special designation that separates it from the crowd.

Perhaps this has something to do with the teams themselves. In my opinion, the top overall seed and the last-to-qualify are the teams who have hard-line stories that are the most likely to bleed and blend in the wash of the postseason, creating strange purples and blues in our mind. For the top overall seed, the motivation is to conclude an excellent regular season that featured no less than 58 wins by dispatching four lesser opponents in the NBA’s long second season. Though the journey to the overall seed varies from team-to-team, the expectation typically is the same: win the championship, and save yourself from the unforgiving hatchets of fans and journalists who are out for blood. The bottom seed’s motivations couldn’t be any more different, however. Whereas the top seed stakes everything in winning it all, the bottom seed relishes the opportunity to wash themselves of their regular season grime, and begin the post-season anew. This team, finally at the end of a trying season that likely yielded results no better than .500 (unless, of course, you play in the unforgivingly competitive Western conference), now has the opportunity to rewrite some of the story, and garner some admiration from observers and scribes alike.

No two playoff series are completely alike, and while many of these features are present in the 1-8 matchup versus the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks — which the Hawks presently lead 1-0 — there are enough switchbacks in the generally-accepted storyline to keep us marching along, waiting to see what the summit holds. The Indiana Pacers are the team that is trying to shed their stained clothes from the regular season, streaked with listless performances and finger pointing. The basic themes are fairly well known at this point: a team that started talking about securing home-court back in during the heavy heat of the offseason, and who talked, played (and acted) like champions in December, have come crashing back to earth in the second half of the season. At the center of the decline have been Paul George and Roy Hibbert, two all-stars who have been unable to elevate their level of play so as to set an example for the rest of their teammates, and Frank Vogel, a wunderkind who has lost his glasses. In their decline, we see many of the buzzwords that plague a languishing team — “over-dribbling”, “listless”, “lost their confidence”, “tried everything at this point”, “bad body language”, and “searching for answers” — and it’s hard to not relish in that ill-timed humanity. Unlike other top seeds, the Pacers are not a robot, able to be turned on-and-off at the whims of the controller. In fact, their problem may be their inescapably organic nature; an inability of be anybody but themselves.

The Hawks, however, present themselves unlike many other eight-seeds we’ve seen in recent years. Though their 38-44 record is exactly the same as the 2013 Milwaukee Bucks, who also qualified for the playoffs, they carry the mark of shame awarded to the lackluster Eastern conference this season. The Hawks endured their regimen of setbacks throughout the season, including the loss of their best player Al Horford for the second season in a row, a brand new first-time head coach, and a gaggle of new players. They never backed away from their shortcomings, including an 11-game losing streak, and a winless trip out West during the middle of the regular season. They never wrote off their most talented players, including Paul Millsap (who became an all-star this year), Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. They managed to fend off both the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers to hang on to that last spot, and continue a journey they began at during the midpoint of autumn, when the team was third in the conference, and mentioned as one of the league’s pleasant surprises. There is no overt desire to leave the regular season behind, and don a new skin. Instead, the goal seems to to be more constructive; to keep building and complete the formation of a scrappy identity that is neither reflected in their regular season record, nor their lack of household names and/or a clearly quantifiable team zeitgeist.

In Game One of the series this past weekend, we saw how these mismatched identities affected these individual teams in real-time. True to form, the Pacers appeared tentative and unsure; continually fighting upstream against a Hawks team that jumped into every passing lane and and reached for every minimally-exposed ball. They looked shellshocked by the Hawks’ expansive attack, featuring slashing from Millsap and Teague, long-range sniping from Korver and Pero Antic, and steady, informed post play from veteran pivot Elton Brand. The game itself felt like the beginning of a boxing match, where the favored fighter took their licks with both care and concern; knowing that they would have to counter in the later rounds, but still believing that victory was a guarantee. The result — a 101-93 victory for the lower-seeded Hawks — was as peculiar as it was portended; a curious case of decline, and an admirable display of confidence. It left me wanting to see more, and got me wondering how different people handle different expectations, and how prophecies can become self-fulfilled in a myriad of dramatic ways.

There are more glamorous playoff series one could dig into right now. Warriors versus Clippers features both star power and star glower, and Raptors versus Nets is ticking upwards in the Intrigue Index. Even the 2-7 series in the West has the markings of a potential classic, given how exciting last night’s 111-105 overtime win for the Grizzlies delighted a national audience. But one should not ignore this strangely emotional, and wholly unique confrontation out East, featuring two teams that occupy familiar spaces, but whose behaviors indicate anything but typical development.

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Sunday, April 20th, 2014.

The Bathroom Reader is back! You can stop holding it in now.

Philly Historian Scores in Bid to have Pioneer Eddie Gottlieb Honored
Hillel Kuttler
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

I actually have to tip my hat to my father for sending me this one, otherwise I would’ve missed it. This short piece by Hillel Kuttler from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency tells the interesting story of Eddie Gottlieb, who was just awarded an official historical marker by the state of Philadelphia. Now, Gottlieb is already a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, mostly for his efforts as the owner of the Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors, and as the man who is credited with signing Wilt Chamberlain and Paul Arizin, among others. But I didn’t know that Gottlieb lived a life that looked like many other Jews in the United States during WWII and immediately after the war. Gottlieb was an immigrant from Kiev who founded several basketball teams, and played an important role on the NBA’s rules committee (former commish David Stern played a key role in getting Gottlieb a historical marker, and the NBA is underwriting the cost of the plaque). This was a very interesting story about a seminal NBA figure I’d heard nothing about. Take some time to learn a bit about him.

Sunday to Monday Thoughts on Basketball #5
Kris Fenrich
Dancing With Noah

It’d been far too long since I’d dropped by Dancing With Noah, the one-man-band run by regular Diss writer Kris Fenrich, and was happy to find these series of “Sunday to Monday Thoughts on Basketball” running down the screen like a waterfall of brilliance. No topic is off-limits in this feature, which is written sort of like the smartest ESPN ticker you’ve ever read. Fenrich approaches the game with calm and balance; informing his analysis with both keen historical knowledge, and a sharp mind for modern stats and cultural trends. This is just excellent, pleasantly meandering reading from a very smart dude who knows the game better than just about anyone.

D-League Could Be Major Part of NBA Raising Age-Limit, Sources Say
Sean Deveney
Sporting News

The D-League really caught my eye this year, not really because of the players, but rather, because of the way the NBA uses the league as a laboratory for future ideas. Sean Deveney explains that the NBA is again looking to the D-League to conduct some wargames over one of the most controversial topics in NBA labor circles: the age limit. According to Deveney, the NBA is considering expanding the D-League’s pay scale in an effort to attract better players who are more interested in being paid for their labor than attending college. The lack of an executive director for the players’ union prevents this issue from actually being debated, but Deveney’s piece lays out the particulars of the plan. I don’t have a strong opinion about the age-limit (plenty of others do), but this seems like an interesting idea. It will be compelling to see the ways the D-League evolves over the next few years.

Kings of the North
Seerat Sohi
TrueHoop

TrueHoop’s “TrueCities” series has been one of the stronger regular features on the basketblogosphere this year, and Seerat Sohi provides us with another strong contribution to the compendium. This time, the focus is the Toronto Raptors, which has been branded as “Canada’s team” since 2008. In this piece, Sohi tackles the problems that come with a single team, and a single city, marketed to represent a vast, diverse country. Sohi roots her analysis in the competitive trajectory of the Raptors, who have stumbled through several disappointments before this season. Sohi remains one of the very best at instructing readers about various subjects through descriptive language, be it the style of offense the Raptors play, to the various zeitgeists of a country that most Americans paper over with jokes and exaggerated accents. I have very much enjoyed the rise of the Raptors this year, and Sohi’s piece compliments their excellent season nicely. And Tim Horton’s is the shit.

When Cedric Moodie Met Michael Jordan
Sam Riches
The Classical

We wrap up the reader with another contribution from our neighbors to the North; this excellent medium-sized long-form effort from the immensely talented Sam Riches. The piece itself tackles and oft-treaded trope — the semi-pro baller with a story — but the product hardly resembles other pieces that deal with similar themes. The protagonist of Riches’ story is Cedric Moodie, a 35 year old baller who resembles other globetrotters we’ve met over the years in terms of his crowded passport and lifelong dedication to the hoop dream. However, Riches roots this semi-pro story in a truly unique moment: when a 21-year-old Moodie dunked on Michael Jordan at one of his camps. From this dunk, magnificent branches grow; weaving together to tell an engrossing and wholly unique story. Riches is at his best as he describes the Canadian basketball league Moodie toils in: “When the game begins, he shoots a jumper from the elbow that lips out and from the stands someone evidently unconcerned with seeming too stereotypically Canadian shouts out, ‘that’s a good try!’” Moodie is an incredibly interesting character, and Riches really nails it on this one. It’s definitely worth the read.

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Diss Guy Miss Guy, Vol. 74

Diss Guy: Lakers, Knicks & Celtics whiff on the Playoffs

It had to happen eventually and 2014 is as good of a time as any to have no Lakers, Knicks, or Celtics in the playoffs for the first time since the league began back in 1947. What does it all mean? Let’s try and find out.

The well of history runs deep with these franchises and dates back to the pre-NBA Basketball Association of America which included the Celtics and Knicks and concluded with a Minneapolis Lakers title. But all the Mikans, Russells, Chamberlains, Wests, Havliceks, Magics, Birds, Pearls, Fraziers, Reeds, Ewings … and of course, Melos, Rondos, and Bryants weren’t enough to propel these proud (and wealthy) franchises into the 2014 playoffs.

According to Forbes, these franchises make up three of the top-four valued NBA franchises and between the three, they’re worth over $3-billion. With the mega media opportunities in New York and Los Angeles, it’s hard to fathom anything less than an extended drought impacting their overall values. Even the starved for success small market Kings and Bucks have recently sold for over $500-million in the past 12 months.

Back in 2011 when the owners were split between the small market madness of Dan Gilbert and Michael Jordan and the big spending Jerry Buss and Micky Arison there were cries for controls to limit the power of big market teams. In some ways, that’s been effective as the Lakers and Celtics appear to be curtailing spend. But the Knicks and their new deep-pocketed Brooklyn neighbors don’t seem to be bothered by trivialities like the financial penalties that accompany habitual luxury tax offenders. So in these three different franchises, we have a tidy spectrum of experience that’s all ended the same in 2014:

  • The Conformist (Boston)
  • The Straddler (Los Angeles)
  • The Inept (New York)

But we know the Celtics missed by design. As the lone conformist of this group, Boston wrung all they could out of the KG/Pierce/Allen troika before shipping them off and going all in on a rebuild approach that appears to be en vogue at the moment.

The Lakers are a bit more complex. Their problems started back when they insisted on going about business in the traditional Lakers way: Acquiring the biggest star available: Dwight Howard. We all know by now how miserably that turned out, but that deal in concert with adding an over-the-hill Steve Nash to an already aging core with a coach unable to get the most out of their combined abilities has resulted in a pair of un-Laker like seasons. Catastrophic injuries to Kobe Bryant sped up the acknowledgement of a rebuild of sorts, but more than anything, Bryant’s injuries revealed how poorly this roster was constructed. Once Bryant fractured his kneecap in December, it seemed like the Lakers were finally willing to acknowledge the need to shed salary by trading Steve Blake and at least exploring the opportunity to move Pau Gasol’s expiring contract for future assets.

And of course the Knicks of New York are the resident jesters of the NBA court. Unable to adapt, unable to conform, unable to blaze a meaningful trail under owner James Dolan, the front office has refused to accept the mediocrity so obvious to everyone else. It’s as if the buzz of the Manhattan nightlife has Knicks employees existing in a delusional fog where they insist they are championship contenders despite all evidence indicating the opposite. Now they’ve gone all in on a General Manager with no GM experience. It wasn’t by choice, but rather by the unexpected grit of the Atlanta Hawks that forced the Knicks into acceptance that the future is now.

I somewhat struggle to pinpoint exactly where this mini event lands, but it’s definitely a mile marker on this long road of NBA history. Something is changing as old owners (Dr. Jerry Buss) and old players (Kobe, KG, Pierce) move on while the franchises they leave struggle to reclaim old success in this new version of the league. Whether 2014 is just a blip on the radar or the early stages of a power shift away from the history of big markets is something we’ll start to learn in the next few months as lottery balls bounce and players make decisions about whether or not they want to chase bright lights and glamour in coastal media capitals, get paid in small markets, or maybe do both with the Lakers, Knicks, or Celtics.

Miss Guy: The Playoffs

I couldn’t resist. Everyone’s kicked up dust, given a motherfuck about this topic from the second we realized the grotesque competitive imbalance between East and West and now that we’ve arrived at this Suns-less darkness, I wanna get my licks in.

Along with basketball, boxing is one of my favorite spectator sports. As a fan of the sweet science, you realize that your sport’s Super Bowl may never happen. The best don’t always fight the best because of longstanding feuds between promoters and fighters or promoters and promoters. The current cold war has driven a wedge between Top Rank Boxing which has been run by Bob Arum since 1973 and Golden Boy Promotions of Oscar De La Hoya fame. Top Rank fighters don’t fight Golden Boy fighters and haven’t for a few years. The result is that two of the sport’s most talented, marketable, profitable, and popular fighters (and any other superlative you want to apply) will likely never meet in the ring. Undefeated Floyd Mayweather is in the Golden Boy camp while Filipino part-time Congressman and full-time welterweight battering ram Manny Pacquiao is loyal to Arum’s operation.

Imagine a basketball world where the ABA and NBA never merged. Julius Erving becomes a high flying dunk champion who embodies the ABA’s freewheeling style while never ever crossing paths with the NBA’s great white hope, Larry Bird. Moses Malone dominates the ABA while a tailor made opponent named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar goes unchallenged beneath the boards of NBA games. And meanwhile, we all shake our heads in disgust that the controlling business interests can’t figure out a solution beneficial to one and all. That dark alternate pro basketball universe is what boxing fans endure while Floyd and Manny prove and re-prove themselves two or three times every year. Meanwhile, father time stalks both, boxing fans grow apathetic, and mainstream media continues to come up nonsensical falsehoods like “Boxing is dead.”

However poor the Association’s playoff setup may be, it’s nowhere near as dysfunctional as the present state of boxing, but for completely different reasons. From a principled viewpoint, stubbornness or slowness to react to present conditions (the NBA) is maybe a little more forgivable than desperately clinging to old grudges (boxing), but the outcomes are the same: fans and competitors lose out to poor decisions from the powers that be. Looking at the table below, the playoff format has a decent success rate, but if we have the power to ensure the best teams make the playoffs, why wouldn’t we? If we want to press the issue further, research shows that five teams in league history have made the Finals with records worse than this season’s Suns. Two of those teams went on to win titles. This isn’t to suggest that the Suns were a Western Conference contender, but how is history rewritten if the eventual 1995 champion Rockets never even make the playoffs? Does Orlando win a title? Does winning help Shaq and Penny find a common ground? Oh Dragic and Bledsoe, why couldn’t you have been born earlier, met up in 1995 and rewritten NBA history?

See a Western trend?

See a Western trend?

Supposedly sports offer the playing field as the ultimate equalizer where competitors of diverse racial and economic makeups, different body types and genes, varying degrees of skill and ability, agree to a certain set of rules and compete to determine a winner. But the NBA’s outdated playoff structure wherein the power of geography carries just a little less fate-determining weight than actual wins and losses fails to deliver on the fundamental agreement of the game: The best play the best to determine the best. As fans, do we conceptually prefer the East/West rivalries to pure wins and losses? The vocal chorus of playoff naysayers make me think we prefer sensible equality to arbitrary geographic alignments. Are there still fans clamoring for divisional and conference playoff rivalries? Perhaps seamless movements like Ray Allen to Miami or KG and Pierce to Brooklyn or Shaq all over the country should stand as symbolic reminders that today’s NBA isn’t on par with the Lakers/Celtics or Bulls/Pistons of the 80s.

Maybe we should just ingest our favorite psychedelic substances and let our imaginations take us on a Timothy Leary-piloted magic carpet ride where the 13-seeded Suns get the wobbling Pacers in the first round. Or the defending champion Miami Heat are matched up with Thibodeau’s grinding Bulls. Or just an alternate place where Danny Ferry’s Hawks are granted their wish – a coveted spot in the lottery in exchange for a playoff spot their front office is indifferent about. Just because the playoffs aren’t broke, doesn’t mean they don’t need fixing.

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What About Bob?

The Warriors won their final game of the season last night, 116-112 against the Denver Nuggets, to move to 51-31 on the season. There was little of note regarding this contest — it featured the second and third units of both teams — other than that, at around the nine minute mark in the first quarter, Bob “Fitz” Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett announced that their 21 year partnership would continue (in some form or fashion) into next season. At that point, thousands of Warriors fans, and fans of the league at-large, exhaled a huge sigh of relief. And though we won’t have to say “so long” to the beloved color analyst at the end of this year’s first round, Jim Barnett will begin the process of “retiring” from the Warriors after 29 years of service (most reports imply that he is being pushed out in order to take a new role with the team that will involve some broadcasts next year), and the team will begin to try out different personalities to take his spot. Some interesting personalities have been suggested. Tom Tolbert has been rumored as a replacement, especially after his strong performances alongside longtime radio broadcaster Tim Roye during last year’s playoff run. Brent Barry, currently with NBA TV, has emerged as another potential candidate. My dear colleague Kevin suggested Chris Webber, currently of Turner Sports, as a dark horse replacement. But in general, the sentiment has been that Barnett should remain in his current position to continue doing what he is lauded for doing: providing unbiased, entertaining, incisive and instructive commentary about the game. 

But what about Bob? One almost feels like they don’t need to ask a question this silly. In fact, if one polled a group of random cable-subscribing Warriors fans, and asked them which member of the announcing duo they’d like to jettison, most would certainly pick Bob Fitzgerald as the odd man out. Where Barnett plays the role of cool uncle for NBA fans, regaling younger denizens with stories of a wilder, more primitive NBA where everyone flew coach and the players walked 15 miles to games barefoot, Fitz is the polar opposite, despite his best efforts. Most of the time, Fitz is almost like your nerdy uncle who just, in general, tries way too hard to be cool. Jim’s cool and experienced call is buttressed by Fitz’s excitable, loud voice; always prattling on during both spikes and lulls in the action. He has a grab-bag of hokey announcer words, and calls Barnett “Pard’ner,” like he’s Woody from Toy Story. He has tried to shove countless horrific nicknames down the throats of his viewers; the most inexcusable being the Human Torch moniker for Steph Curry, a nickname that made everyone cringe each time they heard it (and which was seemingly retired this season). In almost every way, Fitz seems like a less-worthy counterpart to Jim Barnett; a tabby who has been blessed to be paired with a cool cat straight out of the Aristocats

Indeed, I would wager that many Warriors fans feel that the team is making two mistakes: getting rid of Jim Barnett and subjecting us to a continued existence with Bob Fitzgerald. Much of this has to do with the fact that we have been acquainted with Fitz for a long time, and that his relationship with the team, his colleagues and the fans, is complicated at best. As explained by Rich Lieberman, Fitz became the play-by-play man in the mid 1990s after winning the favor of former owner Chris Cohan, who already were unhappy with then-play-by-play man Greg Papa (who now heads the team’s pre-and-postgame shows on Comcast) who was calling games for the Oakland A’s at the time. Nearly 15 years later, Fitz’s relationship with Warriors ownership came under further scrutiny after Tim Kawakami discovered that Fitz (among other Warriors employees) were posting pro-ownership dispatches in fan message boards under fake usernames (but with highly traceable IP addresses). The news coincided negatively with the sale of the team to current owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber, and other troubling reports which suggested that Warriors ownership was paying Fitz’s six-figure radio salary (which gave him — and them– a platform to issue highly sympathetic takes about the omni-struggling team through his highly sophomoric radio show 12-3 pm weekday radio show “Fitz & Brooks”), and had signed him to a lucrative extension, while at the same time, stiffing his colleagues Jim Barnett and Tim Roye. In addition, Rasheed Malek of Warriorsworld reported that players were rebuking rather immature and self-conscious advances by Fitz to develop relationships that would be beneficial to his radio career. As such, most assumed that Fitz wouldn’t survive long into the new ownership, or survive at all. It is a surprise that he not only has survived in the new ownership, but has thrived. Not only has Lacob and company deemed Fitz the man to keep around. Through their actions, they have all but decided to build their announcing crew around him. This move hasn’t been widely celebrated by Warriors fans, who are reluctant to keep any aspect of the old, apologist guard around; especially it’s old public voice, who has managed to retain the good favor of his new bosses, and maintain his important position of influence.

Even if there wasn’t a large, vocal contingency firmly entrenched in their battle against Bob Fitzgerald, it is likely that there would be more sadness surrounding the departure of the color analyst, who is supposed to connect with the emotions of the average cable-watching fan. Jim Barnett in many ways is like the west coast version of Clyde Frazier; one without the trademark style and panache, but who commands the same amount of respect from both fans and league-types alike. In fact, it seems most NBA teams try and find this type of character to anchor their cable broadcasts. 27 of the 30 total NBA teams utilize a former player as their accompanying analyst, and the other remaining three (the Heat, Trailblazers and Kings) utilize a former coach. Unsurprisingly, the names tabbed as potential Barnett replacements are in this exclusive club as well. Though their styles are different, as are their resumes, all of these former company men are counted on to do the same thing: use their previous experiences in the NBA to provide definition to the broadcast, and add context to what is occurring on the screen, either through their own explanations, or with the help of a tool, like a telestrator. This is what Jim Barnett has been asked to do, through years of terrible basketball, and a few seasons of very excellent basketball (well, very good baskeball, at least). And as most people have established, he’s quite good at it.

However, the play-by-play man has a far more sticky existence, and in many ways, Fitz serves as a useful subject of analysis in terms of parsing out these persistent problems. Whereas we have a fairly decent idea about what makes a good color analyst, and who is the best fit for the job — that is, a former NBA player or coach who can entertain at least as well as they can explain — do we have the same clarity when it comes to play-by-play? What exactly makes a good play-by-play announcer? Who are the best at what they do? What traits are the most necessary? What qualities? Though they often talk more than any other individual associated with an NBA team, the play-by-play announcer has perhaps the trickiest job out of everyone. They must serve as the public voice of the team while the team does what it is meant to do — play basketball on the television for fans — and at the same time, strike a difficult balance between unbiased analysis and impassioned commentary. And while the national play-by-play guys like Mike Breen, Kevin Harlan and Marv Albert have long been championed for their ability to offer this middle-of-the-road analysis that can apply to any team, other local characters seem to fall along a much more subjective spectrum. They do not have the same experiences as the color commentator, so they must make up for lack of experience with added passion and panache. They do not have the same values as a fan, so they must try and formulate thoughts that will resonate with them. And throughout it all, they must be factually correct, and keen upon all the happenings in the league. It is not an enviable job.

There is lots of bad about Bob Fitzgerald. But, against all odds, there is also some good. His “homerism” — a highly subjective term relating to an individual’s proclivity towards preferring the team that he or she provides announcing duties for — is at times uncomfortable, but it falls in line with other play-by-play men throughout the league, who cannot explicitly bite the hands that (handsomely) feed them. He does linger on foul calls quite often, almost to the point of obnoxiousness. But at the same time, Fitz’s shrill voice compliments big plays nicely. His excitedly-stated “Good! Goooooood!!!!” has become a welcome counterpart to a big three by Steph or Klay, and a happy sound for Warriors fans to hear in the late-game nail biters that have become part and parcel with this team. His skills as a long-time radio host give him the skills to access the fount of knowledge that is Jim Barnett, and indeed, we likely wouldn’t know Jim as well as we do if Fitz didn’t prompt him to share relevant stories about his own playing career, and his thoughts on the proper ways to play basketball. While no one would think Fitz could leave the booth to go take Mark Jackson’s job, it is clear he knows the sport quite well, and has better knowledge of the league-at-large than some of his more provincial counterparts. And others have taken notice; Fitz is the voice for both men’s and women’s Olympic basketball, and has been since 2004. He is the play-by-play man for the San Jose SaberCats, and provides his services for other NBC-related sporting events on both television and radio. His abilities alongside Barnett have been worthy of seven Emmy’s — at least four won in conjunction with his longtime partner, and the first ever earned by the Warriors as a team. If we looked past these things, we would be pontificating with horse-blinders on; purposely seeing the most narrow of views.

It goes without saying that the best move is to #KeepJim, and allow him to flourish with a team that is just starting to make the long climb towards contention. There is a reason that fans feel strongly about his presence, and have gone out of their way to let Warriors ownership know that their forced retirement is an unwelcome move. And if most fans had their way, they would probably add a #DumpFitz hashtag to their Twitter activism. I’m not here to disagree with them, only to point out that while we have a decent idea about what makes a good play-by-play broadcaster, we have differing opinions on who best fills that role. And while Fitz doesn’t always meet the mark, he doesn’t always miss it either. Much like the players themselves, he, and other play-by-play men, are mixed bags more worthy of nuanced thought than breathless absolutes.

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Why Does the NBA Execute a Broadcast Strategy that Harms the League?

Here in Washington D.C., the professional basketball team is heading back to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their squad consists of youngsters brimming with potential and steely defensive veterans. It is led by a budding star who did this over All-Star Weekend. Yet despite having all of these things going for them, nobody is excited about them. There are a variety of seasons for this, but one of the biggest is the lack of attention given to them this year, with only one national TV game on the schedule that ESPN ended up flexing out of.

When you hear stories of the NBA’s past, one of the dominant themes that emerges is how much David Stern transformed the league. The NBA Finals used to be shown on tape delay! The league expanded by seven teams! While I don’t disagree with these—and other—successes, it is worth examining the league’s standing closer.

The NBA should be more popular than it is, challenging football for American sporting supremacy instead of rolling around in the mud with baseball. This assertion is obviously unproveable—you can’t prove a “should”—but I think it is accurate. The NBA has always had a ton going for it. It is the sport of cities, where the majority of Americans have lived for decades. It is exciting, featuring the most jawdropping feats of athleticism. You can sit two feet away from the players with no barrier. There aren’t any funny helmets or hats in front of the players’ faces.

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Where are all the fans?

Whenever I bring up that the NBA should be more popular and perhaps David Stern presided over flawed strategies, I’m surprised at the almost violent reaction I get, as if I’m questioning the core tenants of the sport or something. I’m not, I’m simply saying that I love basketball, it could be better, and the league could’ve (and can) do a lot more to make the sport more popular.

I’ve written about what I term the short-sighted free arena problem before, where the NBA aids and abets owners in moving to smaller markets in order to secure publicly-funded arenas. From Vancouver to Memphis, Charlotte to New Orleans, Seattle to Oklahoma City to preventing the Kings from moving from Sacramento to Seattle, this strategy prioritizes a short-term financial windfall over the (for the league) long-term gains of showcasing the sport to more fans. It benefits individual owners at the expense of the league.

Similarly, the league presides over a television strategy that benefits a select few markets rather than the league—and its future—as a whole.

NBA

The average team has twelve percent of their games televised nationally each year, but these games are actually distributed very unevenly. This season the Heat, Lakers and Knicks all appeared on ABC, ESPN or TNT 25 times, while the Bobcats, 76ers and Raptors didn’t appear once. The median team was featured on national TV just seven percent of the time, which is reflected in the leftward skew of the graph above: half the league had three or fewer national TV games.

This is just as shortsighted and detrimental to the league as a whole as its arena strategy. You probably noticed that two of the three most televised teams were terrible this year, while two of the three least televised made the playoffs. This resulted in a whole lot of shitty basketball—at one point in January the fifth-worst-team-in-basketball Lakers played three nationally televised games in seven nights—being showcased to the casual fan who tunes in for what are supposed to be the “big” games.

Clearly, this does make a certain amount of (financial) sense. I’d bet TNT’s March 25th match-up between the Lakers and Knicks outdrew its other game, the Thunder and Mavericks, even though the latter is clearly a more tantalizing match-up basketball-wise. The problem is this panders to already existing large fanbases at the expense of working to create new ones. It sends a message to fanbases not featured on national TV that they aren’t important to the league, that the NBA doesn’t care about sharing their team with the entire country, let alone the world. It conditions potential basketball fans to a reality where only a few teams in the league matter, and teaches them they shouldn’t bother paying attention to the rest.

It is telling that the league’s television strategy is markedly at odds with the NFL’s. There are big differences between how the sports can and should be presented—football has almost always been more popular, it mostly plays on weekends, it has an extremely popular feeder league—but it is still instructive to look at how it approaches TV.

NFL v NBA

The first, biggest difference is that the NFL guarantees each team at least one televised game per year. At least one night each season, whether than be on Sunday, Monday or Thursday Night Football, your team is the only one playing, the focus of the entire league. Furthermore, while the league still does play favorites with certain fanbases (looking at you, NFC East), the distribution of national games is much more even than the NBA’s.

This is because at its core the NFL promotes the league rather than individual teams. Since almost every game is played on the same day, the league promotes Sunday as a day to watch football, not as a day to only watch your favorite team. There is more parity in the NFL, meaning a team heavily promoted last season may suck this season, leading to a more even allocation of promotion. The league has enthusiastically embraced and incorporated fantasy football, a game that requires paying attention to every single team in the league, into everything that it does. There is only a 4% correlation between market size and amount of games on national TV in the NFL; in the NBA there is a 25% correlation.

I don’t mean to say that the NFL is perfect and that the NBA should copy everything it does wholesale. The NBA is different than the NFL in many ways, and its promotion strategies should understand and reflect those differences. But what the league needs is a commissioner willing to promote what is best for the league long-term, even if that means foregoing some short-term financial gain.

The league needs to realize that an ever increasing part of the total revenue pie is made up of the broadcast slice, and its strategies should reflect that accordingly. The league should stop helping owners move teams to minor league baseball cities and instead look to enter (or re-enter) major media markets. The league should put both a floor and a ceiling on how many times a team is allowed to be shown on national TV. The league should consider shortening the schedule to allow fans to watch more rested and less injured players play basketball, and perhaps consider clustering games on certain nights (probably Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday after football season) and promote them as NBA Nights. The league should look to eliminate the incentives that encourage general managers to put a sub-standard product on the floor and treat the final 25% of the season as a joke.

Basketball is a phenomenal sport, but at times it has been severely let down by its stewards. It is time for that to change.

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Games of the Week: April 14-20, 2014.

As is the tradition of The Diss, the final Games of the Week of the year is written yearbook-style, and bids farewell to my three favorite teams who didn’t quite get over the hump this season. These teams are bathed in purple, which is apparently the color of admiration. Isn’t that nice.

This is also the final Games of the Week to ever be written by yours truly on The Diss. It’s been a good run, but I have tired of this feature, and will begin looking for a replacement to continue it next season. Thanks for reading it over the last three years.

Monday: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors (7:30 PM PST on League Pass)

Dear Wolves,

Hey! Life is full of surprises, huh? I know you arrived at school this year ready to become the most popular guy in class, and I can tell you did a lot of work during the summer to work on your Cool Kid game. And you did a great job! Problem is, nine other dudes just like you did the exact same thing! But that’s how this works sometimes. Think about it this way, man: you’ve gotten better each of the last four seasons! You were right there among the top teams in the West! You just were on the wrong side of a few really close games. Think of it as another lesson learned. I’m not quite sure what you’re going to do this year, but as long as it doesn’t involve trading Kevin Love, I think it will make you better. Good luck winning seven more games next year, have a great summer!

KIT,
Jacob

Tuesday: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets (5:00 PM PST on TNT)

Yo Knicks,

Hey. Look, I know we’ve had a hot-and-cold relationship over the last few years. You weren’t very nice to me, and I haven’t been very nice to you. Last year, when you were on Cloud Nine, winning 50-plus games and killin’ it on national television I was about as bitter as could be. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to you dominating the Atlantic Division this year. But watching you struggle all year really made me think differently about you. Just watching the effort, the intensity, the results; all of it dipped. And as a result, things weren’t as fun. The league is better when Melo is on the big stage. The league is better when the Garden is rocking. I think having you good last year reminded me how much fun the NBA is when New York City is fully engaged with the proceedings in a positive way. I’m hoping Phil can do some good things for you guys over the summer. Take care, let’s go catch turtles down by the creek this summer.

Sincerely,
Jacob

Wednesday: Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings (7:00 PM PST on League Pass)

Hi Kings,

The haters will say that this year wasn’t a huge step forward. They’ll claim you’re just as shitty as you’ve ever been, and that there’s no end in sight. Well, that’s why we’re friends, Kings, because I can tell them that they’re wrong. Despite your record, you had a really great season. I just really like the way you guys went for it this year. While other teams in the East just stank up the joint, you went for it. I know Boogie had his ups and downs. I know Rudy Gay can be frustrating. I know Isaiah Thomas is a huge defensive liability. But you guys picked up some interesting players, made some interesting trades, drafted some pretty nice rookies, and hired a coach who could conceivably be the man to prowl your sidelines for a decade. Those are foundation-moves, even if no one took notice. Congratulations on a good season, Sacramento. I’d love if you and the Warriors could be good at the same time. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year.

L8R G8R,
Jacob

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