Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Stern's Folly - The Referee Crisis

Stern has a mixed record in my estimation. What will tip the balance is his response to the reffing crisis. So far I have to say that his slapping of a gag order and attempt to depict it as 'one bad apple' does not bode well for his legacy. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Stern became commissioner in 1983-84. This was a year that witnessed the league reaching a pitch of competition and level of play that has rarely been equalled since. That includes the most memorable finals in the past three decades (in part, I would argue, due to the 2-2-1-1-1 format that Stern dismantled for TV reasons).

Now obviously Stern had little to do with the cresting of the wave in 1984 - a peak that I would argue lasted roughly five years before 'bad boy' thuggery eroded the aesthetic appeal of the game. Stern has always sought to raise the profile of the NBA and take advantage of the good fortune of his inheritance, but in so doing he has as often catered to the immediate return rather than the long-term health of the game.

Unlike Wilt, for example, when the NBA widened the lane to reduce his dominance, Stern has overseen changes that have made dominant players more dominant not less. This could be related to his marketing focus on individual stars rather than the team dynamic. For example, the three point line was brought in, obstensively to increase scoring - a poorly thought out strategem - but it also coincidentally minimized the one weakness in Jordan's game. Likewise the 'no charge zone' - which could have been enforced by rules already on the books (you can;t stand under the basket to take a charge from a player making a layup) - also coincidentally gave Shaq free rein to wreck havoc without restriction.

I think the short-sightedness of these initiatives lay in a failure to think through the impact of changes, but that failure was due to the fact that the game dynamic was not valued whereas individual accomplishments were in promoting the game. There has been some progress in this over the past few years, but the record has not been stellar by any means.

Stern seems to have made a similar error of focusing on short-term rather than long-term with regards to reffing. Rather than think long-term what is in the best interests of the game (breaking up the cronyism and favoritism that is apparently rampant in the reffing ranks and promoting refs who can control the tempo of the game rather than ones who are 'technically' the best on each and every call) Stern has resorted to fines, technicals and gag orders to punish dissent. He has not examined the problem from a disinterested perspective (or commissioned anyone else to do so) but rather behaved as one would expect an authoritarian to do - tell everyone that things are fine and to 'shut the eff up.'

After all, the problems with the reffing have been bubbling up for the past 15 years. The key with the gambling is not that it occurred, but rather that it could occur over a period of years without it being especially discernable, because the refs have become such a dominant aspect of the game that incoherent calls, favoritism and meddling wiht the outcome of contests has become the norm, not the exception. That is the failure that Stern has to clean up, and he has shown no notion of the challenge that he faces.

If you really think that the reffing of 2007 is comparable to 20 years ago, then please watch some old recorded games, you will be astounded how behind the scenes - and effective - the refs were. There were fewer of them and hence of higher quality - expansion has not only hurt player quality. They were not micromanaged, they were allowed to manage the tempo of the game depending on the demands they faced and in general facilitated a much more free-flowing sport.

After all, the importance of being a ref is not in making each call conform to what someone who has never refereed considers 'the correct call' regardless of context (refs today are 'scored' on their calls by people with little to no basketball experience) but in being consistent and getting the big calls right. I myself never minded the make-up call (which is not allowed anymore) since it was an admission by a ref that (a) they are not perfect and (b) that the balance of the overall game was more important than any particular ticky-tack call. And in general the refs of old were able to strike a judicious balance - in part because they were allowed to and in part because it was expected.

Being a ref in a sport like basketball is like being a judge. You have the laws but in order for the spirit of the law to emerge you must be able to take the context into account. If you micromanage a judge (through mandatory sentencing) or a ref (through all the 'scoring' Stern has instituted) then you remove their ability to ensure that the spirit of the rules are observed. Instead you have a nearly 400 pound Shaq being allowed to knock people over on the basis of a rule that was designed to prevent a defender from undercutting someone going for a layup.

Richie Powers was the ref in the triple overtime in '76 who refused to call a timeout for Paul Silas when Silas was signalling for one right in his face with mere seconds left on the clock. Why? Because Boston had no more time outs at the end of regulation and as Richie reportedly said later, he did not want to see a title decided by a ref rather than the play of the participants rather than a technical foul shot with no time on the clock. You can argue whether he was right or wrong (I would say right) but what you can't be argued is that it is this sort of responsible attitude toward the integrity of game on the part of the refs that Stern has been very successful in eradicating. Heck, Stern himself banned two key players from one team from the pivotal game in what was essentially the 2007 championship series for actions that had ZERO impact on a game just completed!?!

And that illustrates why Stern does not and will not be able to clean up the primary problem currently plaguing the NBA - the marked intrusion of refs into the action through standards that allow a whistle to be blown anytime, anywhere with little regard to the essential fairness, balance or justice of the game. Because by essentially meddling in the outcome of the NBA playoffs for little to no reason, Stern showed himself to have no comprehension of the anything beyond the basic letter of the law and hence no understanding of the elemental concepts of fairness and justice - which must alway take into account context and proportionality. And if the commissioner himself has little to no clue regarding what is essential for maintaining the respect of league among its fans, then how can we expect him to instill it and demand it of those who represent his league? In short, you can't - and that goeas a long way to explaining how we ended up mired in an NBA referee crisis to begin with.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Celtics: The Vision - An Assessment

My take on the Garnett trade and its potentially transformative effect on the Celtics team and organization. Initially posted 8/5/07.

Make no mistake, the Celtics’ 2007 off-season will go down as one of the most successful in all of sports. The addition of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett should not just have an additive effect, it should be transformative. These two, combined with Paul Pierce will make the rest of their teammates much better. Let’s look at the reasons why:

Offense: The benefits of Danny Ainge’s off-season additions are easiest to appreciate when it comes to the offensive end. In the NBA two dominant scoring threats are better than one, not simply because ‘two is better than one’ but also because the defensive team’s energy and attention are zero-sum entities. In short, the more attention devoted to one potential scoring threat results in a less attention to another. So having two dominant scorers typically makes it easier for both players. You can see where I am going with this… three is obviously better than two, making scoring that much easier and efficient for all three than it had been the season before when each was the primary focus of their opponents defensive schemes.

And in a league where the perceptions of the refs are just as important (or actually more important) than the reality, having three acknowledged, accomplished scorers is far better that any that are up-and-coming, particularly given how refs have been encouraged by the league office over the past few years to award free-throws, even at the end of games in decisive circumstances. Grade A

Defense: This is an area where we should expect a true transformation. Already after the Ray Allen trade I expected our defense to be better for the following reasons: (1) Ray Allen would push Pierce to play SF almost exclusively, (2) Ray Allen, whatever his defensive deficiencies, can stay in front of his man when motivated, unlike Wally Sczcerbiak, and (3) the loss of Delonte West (who had trouble staying in front of speedy PGs) means more time for Rajon Rondo on the court. From my count that results in improved defense at all three perimeter positions, but particularly at the most important, the PG position, where the pressure at the point can result in delays in establishing the offense leading to hurried sets and rushed shots as the shot clock ticks down.

Now Ainge has added Garnett to the equation, a perpetual Defensive POY candidate. This transforms the PF position, which had been our most vulnerable position from a defensive standpoint, into a defensive strength. Al Jefferson simply did not have the lateral footspeed required (which is why most of his minutes were at the center spot), which often resulted in blown assignments whenever he and Kendrick Perkins were on the court together (often resulting in fouls on Perkins as he tried to compensate). Now with Garnett and Perkins the Cs will have two shot-blocking linebackers as the second line of defense, but with the improved perimeter D and Garnett at his side, I would expect Perkins to cut down on the fouls and stay on the court longer while being more effective when out there. In short the Cs should expect to improve their D at every position and the two positions where they were weakest (PF, PG) are now their areas of greatest strength. Grade B+

Rebounding: One would expect improvement given that the Celtics are adding the league’s top rebounder for the last several years in Kevin Garnett. Some might counter that the key player Boston surrendered, Al Jefferson, was coming into his own on the boards so that the improvement might be marginal at best. There are some reasons for believing that Boston should be a much better rebounding team, however. As mentioned, the improvement on the defensive end should allow a player like Kendrick Perkins to stay on the court longer. And Perk (as well as Leon Powe and Glenn ‘Big Baby’ Davis) should be more effective on the glass when out there if only because of the attention Garnett will attract. Given Garnett’s ability to play away from the basket, it should allow whoever he is teamed with to crash the offensive boards against single coverage without too much concern about gumming up our offensive sets.

Add to this, however, the definitive move of Pierce from SG to SF and Rondo into the starting lineup and you have the makings of a dominant rebounding team. The closer Paul Pierce plays to the basket, the better off the Cs will be on the boards. And Rondo’s uncanny nose for the ball should earn him recognition as one of the best in the league at his position once he get the minutes to show his stuff. If Rondo can simply do in starter’s minutes what he has already done playing primarily off the bench, then it will give the Cs three elite rebounders for their positions at PF, SF and PG. And since we already know Perk can rebound if he can stay on the floor long enough, then the Cs have the makings for a potentially dominant team on the glass. Grade A-

The Bench: The bench is the obvious loser when evaluating this summer’s deals. Now, while I would much, much rather be in the current situation of having a loaded starting line-up and looking to shore up the bench than the converse situation of having a bunch of complimentary players with few set starters (as was the case prior to this off-season), we still do need a bench in order to maximize the value of our starters and hope to truly contend for a title. I think the Celts are correct in their apparent estimate that a nine man rotation for the season can be shortened to eight in the playoffs. Now the question is how good do these 3-4 complimentary players need to be? One thing, however, is sure: the Cs should not switch out all their stars simultaneously. So whatever contributions the bench will make will be in the context of blending in with rather than wholly replacing the starting five. This simply has not been possible for the Cs to do in recent memory, and for that reason the expectations for the bench may be a bit higher than they may actually need to be.

Boston apparently feels that Leon Powe is ready to step up and back up the PF spot. At this point it is difficult to assess this judgment – only time will tell. Likewise, they seem comfortable without a pure PG to back up Rondo, apparently estimating that instant offense, three point threat Eddie House will suffice. While this line of thinking is not surprising given how PGs have been used in Boston for the past decade, it is also a judgment that crucially depends on the effectiveness of blending the bench with the starters rather than replacing them outright. Scalabrine seems to be penciled in for spot minutes at the three. Obviously, a healthy Tony Allen would be an invaluable asset. Here again there is little data to either confirm or contradict the apparent judgment by the Celtic brass to rely to some degree on a full recovery. The last piece of the puzzle would seem to be a signed Dikembe Mutombo. He has performed well in short minutes last year for Houston. Certainly he would not be expected to do any more than guard the paint and contribute on the boards for short minutes here. So among the potential backups, only House and Tony A could be considered an offensive threat. The others are at best defensive stop-gaps unless Powe really surprises.

As for the rookies - Big Baby, Gabe Pruitt, Brandon Wallace and (essentially) Jackie Manuel – I would be surprised if any got substantial minutes. Perhaps Big Baby later in the season or Brandon Wallace in specific situation, but for the most part I think these folks are considered investments for upcoming years. I would expect the Cs to leave the final roster spot open, since teams will need to pare rosters in the coming months and you never know who might negotiate a buy-out or be released in the aftermath of a trading deadline trade.

Barring a major injury, the Cs will be fine – but then that is true for most teams as well. Their bench will not be a source of strength, but considering what should be required of them, I don’t think at this point it is the insurmountable liability some have purported it to be. Grade C-

Coaching: As has already been pointed out in various other venues, this is a make or break year for Doc Rivers. Luckily for him, the sort of veteran team that Ainge has assembled minimizes many of Docs greatest weaknesses: rotations are fairly obvious and straight-forward, in game decisions can be handled by veterans themselves on the fly or through contributions during time outs, the point guard position has been resolved. Doc is also purportedly going to focus on defense with the departure of his previous defensive coordinator, leaving the reins of the offense by in large in the hands of Dave Wohl, and while this is no guarantee of improvement, I think most fans would agree that both sets of schemes could do with a change whatever the source. But it will be up to Doc to maximize the value of his newly minted starting five in all areas of the game and if he cannot do so it will mean a lot of wasted motion, effort and money. I share the doubts of many whether he is up to the job or not. I think Doc is on a short leash this season. Let’s hope he makes the most of it. Grade C

Intensity/Effort/Intangibles: You’ve likely heard the comparisons between Garnett coming to a much improved Celtics and Barkley going to the Suns. Both were superstars trapped in unworkable circumstances, who had seen their rivals succeed in the playoffs while year after year their hard work and best efforts, while recognized at one level, were diminished and belittled by the impediments placed in their path by incompetent GMs. Both have a passion for the game and a hunger to win. And like Barkley, it is expected that Garnett will move heaven and earth to take advantage of what is likely his last best chance at winning it all and silencing detractors. However, in the Celtics case I think you can multiply the ‘Barkley factor’ by three – since Pierce, Allen and Garnett have all in one version or another been living the same nightmare. Their commitment will be absolute, and don’t think that they will not expect the same from each and every one of their teammates. Add to that the fact that all three are good character guys and that their skills are eerily complimentary and I think you have the makings for a perfect storm of a season. How it ends we obviously do not know, but I think we can all agree it is going to be special for both the players and the fans. Grade A+

The Vision: Danny Ainge stated when he first came on board that given the realities of the league (and Boston winters) that virtually the only way to acquire the veteran talent needed to win it all was through trades. Now the only way to acquire veteran talent is to exchange prospects – ‘chips’ as he called them. But the process would take time because you had to either (a) develop prospects to the point where their value had increased sufficiently or (b) ‘flip’ assets with other teams with an eye to consolidating multiple lesser assets into larger, more valuable (but still flawed) chips. Obviously, Ainge pursued both avenues, collecting picks, young players and larger, veteran contracts. Both were necessary to finally pull of the two major trades of this summer: cheap young players with upside combined with larger contracts that actually enabled the transactions to be completed on the financial side.

Now it would be foolish to say Ainge never made a misstep or misstatement. Likewise, however, I think any balanced assessment would also have to admit the basic validity of his original ‘vision’ as well as extend him credit for having the intelligence, grit and perseverance to see it through to this stage. To simply try and pass off the events of the summer as ‘desperation’ (as if one needs to be ‘desperate’ in order to want to add Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett) or ‘luck’ is not simply mistaken it is willfully ignorant.

I think Ainge, Red, any GM worth their salt, would agree that luck plays a role, sometimes a key role in making great transactions. But in almost every situation the opportunity afforded by luck is wasted unless one has had the foresight to plan to take advantage of such opportunities when they do present themselves. It is this foresight and preparation that separates the visionary GMs from the plodders.

Did Ainge know he was going to get Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett? No, of course not… but did he plan to take advantage of rebuilding teams that wanted to shed salary in the form of expensive veteran talent – yes. And did he target which veterans he would prefer and work his tail off to do all he could to make sure that his offer made the most sense, yes again. It was not a mistake that Ainge had not loaded up the team with overpriced mediocre talent by spending the full mid-level exception year after year for a marginal return (once was bad enough LOL). Did each individual move push us forward? No, and I don’t think it is realistic to expect that every move always will, given the inherent degree of uncertainty when dealing with extraordinary talents (and egos) who are nonetheless very vulnerable to injury. But when taken as a whole the pattern that emerges is one of pragmatic trial and error that essentially adhered to the basics of vision.

I expect that right now Ainge wants to maximize the flexibility he has with the few roster spot he has to play with. I think a key criteria in filling out the bench this year will be finding players willing to accept one year deals so that the roster is not locked up for the remainder of this team’s window of contention, all the while nurturing the next generation of young talent.
The Celtics have not won anything yet and Ainge’s job is not done, but on the other hand, one can stand back in assessment and state ‘we’ve come a long way, baby!’ Grade A

Celtics: Ray Allen - Good Possibly Great Trade

I wrote this after the Ray Allen trade in reaction to the widespread criticisms of Allen, the trade and the direction of the Celtics in general. Posted 6/30/07.
After giving the matter some thought, I find it hard to believe that picking up a 7 time all-star two-guard in his prime in exchange for a combo guard, a draft pick and a big contract for a player who never fit is somehow a step backwards.

To address the fears of many: 32 is not 35 or even 34. Allen should have several more great years and a few good ones after that left in the tank. And bone spurs are not career threatening - painful, but not mechanically limiting.

Allen is not only a phenomenal player in his own right, but he solidifies our rotation by pushing Pierce back to his natural position at SF. Our offense is instantly diversified. Our defense is improved, as much by subtraction as by addition, as neither Pierce nor Wally couldn't stay in front of two-guards nor Delonte in front of points.

And the gravy to this whole deal is that we have our youth movement still firmly in place, only having sacrificed Delonte. (And if it came down who to pay after this season I think most would agree it would be Al before Delonte).

Now that we are actually players in the East, other potential pieces of the puzzle will no longer view us as a leper colony. Just one more good trade and we could be favorites to head to the finals. Great move, can't wait for the next one to solidify our contender status.

If Denver is serious about dumping salary we may be able to pry Marcus Camby (33 yrs old, three more years on his deal) from them for not much more than Theo's contract - keeping Al while adding Garnett-lite. Camby and Evans (4 year deal) for Theo works straight up. Or possibly Camby and a sign-trade for Steve Blake (Gene would have to smile at that, no?) for Theo. I would imagine in either scenario we would have to part with an addition asset (pick/player or both) but neither deal is pie in the sky. And either deal would make us pre-season contenders for the championship.

I can understand that people are sad to see Delonte go, or to have dreams of UPPPPP-side fizzle with the trading of the #5 pick. Funny, but the one think most people will agree Ainge understands is the draft and in the last two he has basically said that after the first few picks you are as likely to get a star in the second round as in the first. I don't know much about Big Baby, but from the buzz I've heard that may well be correct about this draft. (I already know that Rajon is easily as valuable as any of the top picks from the last draft.) Don't let the lack of national media exposure fool you about the value of the player we just acquired. This is an exciting time to be a Celtics fan.

Celtics: is it time to trade Pierce?

This post was in response to talk about the need to trade Pierce and seriously tank/develop youth after losing out on Oden or Durant in the 2007 draft. Posted on 5/26/07.
There is no 'need' to trade Pierce just yet. Quite the opposite I would say. Losing out on the draft brought some clarity to the picture. The only way forward is to use the contracts, picks and players available and make a deal for an impact player. This is the season it is either going to happen... kind of like when Philly rolled the dice with Webber, but hopefully a much better result.

People decry Ainge's ability to swing trades, but one thing he cannot be accused of is rushing into anything. And when taken in context, Ainge is the best GM (de facto) we've had since Red actually called all the shots - better than Wallace, Pitino, M.L., Gavitt and Volk. Now this is faint praise, but on the other hand Ainge has not committed the whoppers that the others had been guilty of - I won't bother to list them all.

Ainge's worst trade is, as far as I can tell, the draft day deal from last season, and I think it would be best to see what he can do with Ratliff's contract in combination with our other resources before ginning up the lynch mob. Can Ainge pull something off? I don't know - so I can't say he is a genius. On the other hand I can't say he is an idiot either. He has avoided making any earthshattering blunders so far... that is, as long as he is able to use the Ratliff contract to swing a deal. So as far as I am concerned the clock is ticking on Danny, but he's not down for the count yet.

Right now we are one of the few teams that has the salaries, talent, and picks to make a blockbuster unaided. As far as I am concerned this season is the real test of what Ainge is capable of. For the past four years we have been digging out of the rubble - what else do you call it when you have 3 first rounders and end up with nothing but Tony Delk for your trouble? Or that we are only just this summer FINALLY rid of Gin Baker's financial legacy?

Am I happy we have been losing these past few years? Obviously no, but on the other hand, there is losing while frittering away assets and then there is losing while increasing assets. I'd rather not be in either category, but if we are losing it is some consolation to see our assets - like Jefferson, Allen, West, Rondo, Gomes and even Green - increase in value. What needs to be done now is to hold onto Pierce, Jefferson and Rondo and do what is necessary to score a game changing PF - I've listed some that I'd target before.

Minnesota in particular seems to be in tough straits - now there is a model for how NOT to add assets to a middle of the road team that is losing. They are weighed down with contracts to mediocre players with years yet to run (ah yes, the wonders of MLE), have traded away a good number of picks, have a star past 30 who can't carry the team by himself.... oh, and by the way their conference just added Oden and Durant for them to face for 4-5 games a year each.

Now *there* is a team that needs to reshuffle the deck (and ironically it is because their ownership has been willing to 'spend money' on the MLE and waste picks in sideways trades). And we may be able to cash in IF they do decide to cash in on Garnett precisely because we have NOT been engaging in the sort of behavior that the 'blame Ainge & ownership' detractors apparently desire. If the Celts do end up back on top sometime in the near future, it won't be due to the luck of the lottery balls, but because of prudent decisions - including decisions not to spend - that will enable them to take advantage of other franchises that have spent for the sake of spending.

Celtics: The Way Forward

Here was my reaction to the Celtics getting the worst possible draft choice - #5 - available to the in the 2007 draft. Originally posted on 5/22/07.
Now that the pipe dream of a lucky lottery solving all our problems has burst, where do we go?

Our greatest area of weakness last year was at PF. ANY time Scalabrine is penciled in a lineup that is a sure sign.

The best way to move forward is to deal for a vet PF.

Three come to mind: Jermaine O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol.

What are our assets? The #5 pick, Theo's, Telfair's and Gomes expiring contracts and Green. (I won't include Sczcerbiak, Tony Allen or Kendrick Perkins due to injury/contract issues.) Pierce, Jefferson and Rondo are the only 'untouchable' players.

With those kind of resources you are basically looking for a trade partner looking to dump salary and start fresh, cheap and energetic.

I seriously doubt we have a chance at Garnett. Granted, this is McHale we are talking about so I guess anything is possible... but I seriously doubt it. We don't have enough in expiring contracts to make it worthwhile and if we have to part with our untouchables, then we will not have enough left to make the game with the candle.

I feel similarly about O'Neal. Indiana has so much sunk in player contracts (Murphy, Dunleavy, Tinsley) that freeing them of one of them does not do enough for them. Add to this calculus that O'Neal makes nearly as much as Garnett but is not nearly as desirable.

That brings us to Gasol. Wiping out his contract would bring Memphis significantly below the cap. Also it would make it a much more attractive buy (the franchise is on the market) since it will already be in position to turn a profit. Memphis has the #4 pick so the addition of #5 will give them great flexibility at the top of the draft with the potential to draft big and small. I would think some combo of Ratliff, Green, Gomes, Telfair, Gomes and the #5 would at least get their attention.

One last thought: we should not overlook Andrei Kirilenko. BSG has mentioned this option too. AK47 He hasn't looked too hot playing out of position at SF in Utah this season, but he would be a great fit in Boston at PF - great D, rebound, help D, blocked shots - energy. Kirilenko for Sczcerbiak and the #5 would help both teams, but it is hard to gauge the balance due to injury and the depth of the draft. It would make Utah only a reliable SG shy of having one of the best starting five, and that could be remedied with the 5th pick in the draft or the inclusion of West or Green. On the other hand, I'd like to see at least a 1st rounder come back our way, but then this is where Danny has to show his worth.

Celtics Is Doc/Ainge to blame? & Stern throws Suns series

Here is an post I wrote tackling the question of Doc's and Ainge's culpability in the Cs woes and Stern's mortal meddling in the defacto NBA finals - the Suns/Spurs series. Originally posted 5/16/07

I think the 'some people blame everything on Doc' straw man has been about beat to death. Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of Doc (as a coach), but no way no how is he the source of all the Celts failings. For a full accounting of that we'd have to go back a decade at least.

But by the same token, I've think anyone who believes that Danny is the source of all Celtic evil is either pretending to be a strawman for attention's sake. Not that anyone seriously subscribes to that theory, but with some of the noise and confusion it sometimes seems that way (no doubt in the same manner it seems to others that Doc is the chosen scapegoat).

So while we can debate the relative merits of both coach and GM (or whatever Danny's de jure title is), let's remember that they are both relative newcomers to the ongoing debacle and that a full assessment of either of them needs to take into account the context of their arrivals (cough cough - Gin Baker - cough cough - 0 for 3 in 2001 draft).

What I find even more alarming today is the farce that the NBA has made of one of the most interesting series in a long time - the Suns vs the Spurs. If you haven't read it the Sports Guy has a blistering article on it here.

Really, is there any greater crisis facing basketball than the quality of the refereeing and the related ineptitude of the league office in rewarding bad behavior if committed by the 'good guys'? I really am wondering where WWF leaves off and NBA picks up? Maybe I am just not cynical enough: so much money, so much 'entertainment,' so much at stake: maybe it is inevitable that the league playoffs would end up as rigged more or less. The bias is obvious in the teams selected for TV during the regular season... is it that much of a stretch to assume such biases persist during the 'second season?' The only excuse I can see right now is incompetence... (nothing to sneeze at whenever Stu Jackson is involved) but isn't that just as bad?!?

"Good news, you are not dieing from cancer, rather from you are instead dieing from antibiotic resistant TB"

Celtics - What went wrong - 2006-07

This is a response I wrote in answer to the question of how the Cs 2006-07 season became such a trainwreck originally posted on 2/26/07:

Interesting question, posed in an interesting manner, Patrick. You begin with a basic observation: early in the season we were at least competitive (even if we did lose more often then we lost), but we are now a train wreck.

You then very succinctly review the usual suspects (injuries, coaching, GM) and find yourself facing two options: active tanking or 'loss of momentum.'

My first move would be to reassess the usual suspects, and perhaps toss a few more into the mix.

Basketball, like all sports, is very psychological. I am not a brain doc, but I would hazard to guess that basketball may well be the major sport most susceptible to the influences of team psychology, given that the size of the team is smaller, the influence of teamwork more pronounced and the margin of error so slight.

Baseball is notorious for its ability to segregate the impact of the individual from the team, which is a leading reason why statistical analysis of baseball players is so much further advanced. Both hockey and football have much larger squads, and the players on a football team tend to be much more specialized, whereas as the margin for error in hockey strikes me as far higher - if a pass does not connect, you chase it down in the corner, whereas if a pass does not connect in basketball it is likely a turnover and quite possibly a fast break for the other team.

All these factors tend to enhance the impact of psychology in basketball, so it seems to me. Add to that the fact that apart from football I suspect that basketball players have the shortest careers on average and hence tend to be younger, and I think you have a recipe for potentially dramatic impact for psychological factors.

Hardly a season passes in basketball where a team that has been mired in the lower half of the league begins with a new coach/star/GM whatever and seeks to break from the mediocrity of the past. The start the season with some promise, playing scrappy ball and winning a few upsets but losing a larger proportion of 'moral victories.' Then at some point mid-way to the all-star break, things begin to break down. They become less competitive and less consistent. The 'fresh' aspect of the season that gave the team hope and heart is no longer fresh and as the losses pile up - some heartbreakers, others blowouts - the 'momentum' correspondingly becomes lessens. Before long they are enduring long losing streaks and the promise of the early season seems to have completely evaporated as the team seemingly settles for what they have been in the past: also-rans, losers, the Washington Generals to the league's Harlem Globetrotters.

This scenario, it seems to me is quite relevant to the question Patrick has asked. How is it that a team that at one time was at least passably competitive can fall so low? I think a major part of the answer relates to the psychology of the team, but not in terms of pseudoscientific 'braintypes,' but rather in simple, concrete ways in which we can all empathize.

One item I would not dismiss quite so quickly is the impact of injuries. Our injuries have not just resulted in loss of man-hours on the court. In part because the way the injuries have been handled, the injuries our team has suffered have not only stolen man-hours, but it has reduced (quite substantially in some cases) the quality of those man-hours that HAVE been played. I think Sczcerbiak and Perkins are two excellent examples of this. Neither is the most fleet of feet in the best of times, but to insist that they 'play through the pain' and show 'true grit' has rendered the time they have spent on the court painful in more ways than one. It has hurt the team and it has hurt the team's morale.

After all, it is one thing to lose when you are shorthanded and have to play second-stringers who lose despite giving it their all - that is understandable, particularly given the knowledge that today's loss at least bought time for fielding a stronger team tomorrow. But how must it feel to be cemented to the bench when you see teammates literally struggling to make basic plays due to the handicaps that they suffer? To know that even though it is painfully obvious that a player cannot play anywhere near up to their capabilities, that they are still going to see court time simply because of their status within the team hierarchy? Is that going to spur teamwork and mutual sacrifice? Or might it instead numb you to what true teamwork is all about? Perhaps I am making too much of this point, after all, I could simply state that by not allowing what should have been minor injuries to heal the team has in effect made the proverbial 'mountain out of molehill,' hamstringing the team in the short term by playing a bunch of banged up players and in the long term by preventing those same players from healing, all the while eroding the confidence of their bench compatriots.

In short I see the injury problem as something that has unnecessarily become a cumulatively increasing issue. What could have been a been a plus in some ways (rewarding backups with time when the starters were less than 100%) has instead turned into a psychological negative. Furthermore, one might argue that the injuries themselves have been much more significant than the loss of Pierce, Wally and Ratliff. Surely the loss of Tony Allen must loom as a major shadow over the second half of the season. So I would conclude that injuries have been a major contributing factor to our current dejected state, although the situation has been compounded by a shortsighted approach to player health and the utilization of team depth.

As far as coaching goes, I think it too could do with a reexamination. Every team starts the new year with a wrinkle or two. Some take that and grow with it. Others seem to treat it as a passing fad, and soon it is back to the 'grind' again, and with the grind all to often comes the losing. The long rumored but never seen 'running game' certainly comes to mind. I think it is fair to assess some of that blame to the coach. But even more importantly in assessing the season is how the coach manipulates his roster.

Does the coach get the most out of his team every night? And remember, that is the most out of the TEAM, not player X or Y. If the coach is not getting the most out of the team - and I believe a large part of that is by crafting appropriate roles for players that enhance their strengths and minimize their weaknesses - then is he 'losing' players? Are players being stashed on the bench because, due to a combination of poor usage and subsequent loss of confidence - they are WORSE players than when the season began? If so, then the coach is de facto contributing to the progressive deterioration of his assets (as well as destroying trade value), to the benefit of no one. I think that it is a sign of a poor coach that he cannot find at least one redeeming characteristic of a player and give that player a sense of ownership as a contributing member of the team. Mark Berry, as much as he does not care for Telfair, was able to identify a role for him as a quick penetrating/scoring guard off the bench. Regardless of how it would have worked out, it is still more than Doc has manage to do. And the end result of such failure to identify roles will not be limited to that one player, because it will infect the atmosphere of the clubhouse. Players will be less likely to sacrifice for the team if they see that the team is not treated as a collective but rather as a mere collection of individuals.

Finally, I would add that the coach can have a dramatic impact on the course of the team simply by deciding who plays and who sits. Earthshattering, I know lol, but it seems to get overlooked. Staying with Scalabrine or a wounded Sczcerbiak rather than going with Gomes or Powe time after time after time yields certain results, not only on the scoreboard but in the mindset of the team. And having certain pets can wreck even more havoc. Whatever you think about Delonte versus Telfair, I think we can all agree that at least when Delonte is on the court with either Rondo or Telfair, that Delonte should not be the primary ballhandler. And yet Delonte can apparently do no wrong. I know that such relationships between supervisors and employees are poison in a workgroup's team environment and imagine much the same is true in basketball. So would disagree that coaching should be understood as a constant throughout a season. As under any regime, an accumulation of poor decisions can begin to create a negative dynamic, in just the same way that good management can create a 'momentum' that enables organization to weather bad times. I would argue that good leadership and bad leadership are not static entities but dynamic ones. I think poor coaching has been an equally contributing factor to our constantly degrading situation.

I would argue that the same can be said for the GM as well. While I agree with Patrick's statement that the GM is more removed from the scene than the coach, by that same token, whatever the GM says and does (or does not say or do) is more influential than any single statement or action by a coach. The GM has the final word, both over coach and players, and his view of a situation has more influence than one might expect if one just looked at trades and signings. If players know that the GM is content with losing now to win later, then that is certainly going to color their view of their responsibilities. And I think one would have to be foolish to think that some of that is not happening here. Also, if the GM has not proven that he can pull of the 'big deal' or, for that matter, even manage some midlevel FA signings to provide veteran help, I think that has to color the collective psyche of the team as well. In short - the cavalry is not coming, good luck Custer! And finally, I think the GM's relationship to the coach can also help determine the teams collective disposition. If there is antagonism, then the players can be torn between the coach and the GM (as in the case of O'Brien). If instead the GM is cozy with an incompetent, well then there is no hope. I would agree with those who believe that the GM has compounded what was already a poor situation this season and contributed to its being worse. Whether that will work out in the 'long term' (whether by design or luck) is yet to be seen, but I don't think there is any denying the impact in the short term.

I think all these factors have come into play on the Celts this season, and in such a way as to create a negative feedback loop leading to our current death spiral. There is no need to entertain any tanking theories, such a project would be redundant on this particular team. The only other major factor I have not touched on are the players themselves. And of all the teams that have Ainge has put together, this one seems unique in that it is devoid of the sort of personalities that are most problematic. Perhaps I'm mistaken here, maybe we have yet to have all the laundry aired in public, but this team seems a sight better off than past ones with Payton, Davis, Banks and Steamboat Willy. Maybe we'll find out that Sczcerbiak is a locker room cancer or that Telfair threatened Green with a knife, but as of now it doesn't seem to be the case.

The only knock I have heard repeated is that somehow the players are just exceptionally dumb, even by professional athlete standards. My first thought is that I don't think that their IQs are dropping as the season progresses - at least I hope not! My second and more substantive thought is that, for crying out loud, we are talking about BASKETBALL. How hard can it be? And if it is that hard, then adjust the difficulty level accordingly. Wasn't that part of the problem with Pitino? He never had the 'right' players for his invincible system. I think it was Red's insight that you play the game with the team that you have, not with the ideal team that you wish you had. If the players are that stupid, then simplify the game for them. This comes back to the coach ultimately in my opinion, and that is why I will never accept the excuse that the players are just 'too dumb.'

What may seem bright in a commentator (Player X needs to work on his ABCs top become a top player) can be disastrous in a coach. Players need to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Coaches are there to help them do just that. Working on a weakness *during* the season (as opposed to off-season) just strikes me as asking for trouble. And this is what kills me about Doc: he knows basketball, but seemingly only as an analyst, not as a real-time strategist or tactician. Coaches need to put players in position to succeed, not in a position to 'work' on a weakness. Our team needs to walk before it can run. The coach is the one that can put them in a position to do that. But it seems to me that Doc would rather that they just start flying and blame the players for the fact that they cannot. In such a situation blaming the players for being just 'too stupid' errs by forgetting that a plan, no matter how 'brilliant,' is worthless if it cannot be implemented. A 'lesser' plan, if it can be implemented, will in reality prove the superior. It is the coach's job to devise that superior plan, even if it is not 'brilliant.'