Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

This System Is Broken

Well, this stinks. Being a Knicks fan on the day of the NBA Draft stinks.  Being a Knicks fan on any day stinks, but on the day of the NBA Draft it stinks worse than most other days.

The draft is supposed to offer a chance for renewal, yet it never seems to renew the Knicks. It’s not hard to look at recent draft results and see numerous errors the Knicks made which prevented possible opportunities for renewal. We drafted Frank Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo, drafted Kevin Knox over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and, going back a bit further in time, drafted Iman Shumpert over Jimmy Butler.

Sure, the Knicks have made lots of mistakes. No duh, as the kids say.

Even so, as terrible as the Knicks have been at drafting – or at, well, anything – their dismal performance is not entirely their fault. The Knicks are, dare I say, victims. They’re victims of a broken system, which has been giving other teams an unfair advantage.

The draft is the means by which incoming talent is distributed across the 30 teams in the NBA. To some degree, it is set up to put the best talent on the worst teams. That’s why the teams who qualify for the playoffs aren’t eligible for the Draft Lottery. At the same time, the draft is set up to avoid giving too big of a reward for losing. That’s why there’s a weighted Draft Lottery, instead of simply assigning draft order in reverse order of finish, as the NFL does.

It all sounds good in theory. But it’s not working.

The randomness associated with bouncing ping pong balls has led to a few teams getting disproportionately lucky, thereby defeating the purpose of the system. To see the problem, let’s look back at the past 30 years. With 30 teams in the league, we can do some easy math if we look back 30 years. Over that period of time, each team has won an average of 1 championship, and has won the draft lottery an average of 1 time. Looking at the list of NBA champions, we see that only 11 teams have won in the last 30 years. (Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not among those teams.) The Bulls and Lakers have each won 6, the Spurs 5, the Heat and Warriors 3, the Rockets 2, and each of the Raptors, Mavericks, Pistons, Celtics, and Cavs have won once. Fair enough. None of this necessarily means there’s a problem with the draft. It just means that having Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kawhi Leonard gives you a tremendous advantage. I have no problem with that.

Looking at the list of lottery winners, though, we see a clear problem. Namely, we see that this random-by-design system has given a very small number of teams a tremendous advantage. In the last 30 years, the Orlando Magic have won the lottery 3 times – yielding Shaq, Chris Webber, and Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers have won the lottery an absurd 4 times – yielding LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. Yes, Anthony Bennett wound up being terrible. That doesn’t prove that the system is working; it proves that the Cavs were fortunate enough to botch the #1 overall pick and still have fallen into enough assets that they could recover.  Seven teams have won the Lottery twice – the Sixers, Clippers, New Orleans (Pelicans / Hornets), Wizards, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Bulls. And, nine teams have won it once. That list includes Charlotte, Houston, the Nets, Trail Blazers, Raptors, Warriors, Suns, Spurs, and Celtics (who won it in 2017 and traded the pick to the Sixers). Adding that all up, only 18 of the 30 teams have won the Lottery over the last 30 years.

That leaves 12 of the NBA’s 30 teams who haven’t won the Lottery over the last 30 years. If those 12 teams had been consistently very good, then perhaps this system could be defended.  If that were the case, we could conclude that those 12 teams didn’t need an infusion of talent to make them good enough to advance the overall goal of competitive balance in the league. To be sure, some of those 12 teams have been very good for most of the 30-year period we’re looking at – including the Lakers, Mavs, and Heat. The fact that the Lakers haven’t won the Lottery during a period of time when they had Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron doesn’t establish that anything’s wrong with the Lottery system. The Mavs and Heat rode the careers of Nowitzki and Wade to sustained excellence for a long while. No problem there. The Pistons haven’t been consistently good, but they hung a banner during the previous 30 years. That still leaves 8 teams who have won neither the Lottery nor a championship: the Hawks, Jazz, Kings, Pacers, Thunder (Sonics), Nuggets, Grizzlies, and, of course, the Knicks.

I know that I’m just a slow dude with a blog that only three people read, but nonetheless I know enough about the game to see that this ping-pong-ball-based system isn’t giving us a fair distribution of talent. I see better possible ways of distributing incoming talent, assuming that the goals are to (1) maximize the league’s competitive balance, while (2) disincentivizing losing and minimizing the possibility that randomness winds up awarding a small number of teams nearly all of the time. For example, how about a rule establishing that when a team wins the Lottery, it’s ineligible to win the Lottery again during any of the next 5 years? That would have covered the Magic’s back-to-back wins in ’92 and ’93, as well as the Cavs landing the top pick in 3 of the 4 years from 2011-2014. It also would have prevented the Timberwolves from landing the top pick this year. Or, what about a rule establishing that when a team wins a championship it’s ineligible to win the Lottery during the next 5 seasons? That would have covered the Bulls winning the Lottery in 1999.

Reversing those unearned advantages would almost certainly not have been enough to make the Knicks respectable. It’s hard to imagine what would have had to happen to achieve respectability for the Knicks. Even so, it’s clear that they’ve suffered from an unfair system. Our own inability to imagine a world where the Knicks are competitive shouldn’t prevent us from imagining a better system for the league to use when it distributes incoming talent.

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Dear Basketball

Dear Basketball.

That’s the title of the short film Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for. An Oscar! His 5 championship rings weren’t enough; Kobe also won an Oscar.

Since his untimely passing more than a week ago, I’ve found myself consumed by Kobe content, including but certainly not limited to watching Kobe’s short Oscar-winning film.  I’ve been reading articles. Listening to podcasts. Watching old highlights.

Through all the reading, listening, and watching, I started to wonder why I was so interested.  I’ve known for a long time that Kobe was an imperfect person – with reason to think he did something horrible to a young woman in 2003. And I grew up watching Michael Jordan in his prime, so I’ve also known that Kobe is an imperfect player.  Why, then, is it so hard for me to stop thinking about him?

For a few days, I thought it was because Kobe is the basketball star whom I’ve got the most in common with.  I was a freshman at Penn in Philadelphia when Kobe was a high school senior – and a phenom – at a local high school.  He played a game on Penn’s campus, and sold out the arena. Years after that, when he was at the peak of his powers, I found myself living in LA for a year, and went to a Lakers game.  I grew up as a Knicks fan, so attending that game while living in LA was the closest I had ever come to being a home fan cheering on an all-time great superstar.  As such, Kobe, simply by being right around my age and overlapping with me in both Philadelphia and then LA, was the closest thing I ever had to a “peer” in the NBA.

But, that explanation for why I couldn’t stop reading, watching, and listening to people talk about their memories of Kobe felt insufficient.  Kobe had 5 championship rings, which he won as one of the most dynamic players our sport has ever seen.  He also won an Oscar.  Me?  I’ve got a basketball blog that only 3 people read, and 1 championship ring which I won in high school by riding the coat-tails of 11 guys who were much better at basketball than I was. Plus, I proudly think of myself as someone who would never do anything so terrible as the best possible explanation of what Kobe did with that young woman in 2003.  No, Kobe and I don’t really have much in common.

There are other easy explanations.  Kobe’s death shows all of us the need to appreciate every moment and take nothing for granted.  His death touches all of us who are parents – especially those of us who are #girldads, because of his explicitly expressed gratitude for being blessed with multiple girls. But those don’t explain it, either. My father died when I was 19, and I already live my days fully aware that tomorrow is promised to none of us. I was already quite mindful of the need to spend as much time as possible with my kids.  Plus, I love my son as much as my daughter, so while I’m a #girldad I’m also just a dad.

As I’ve tried to make sense of why I feel such a need to consume yet more content about Kobe’s legacy, what I keep coming back to is basketball.  Dear Basketball.

Dear basketball has brought me multiple friends whom I wouldn’t have met had we not met playing basketball together, and has fortified multiple other friendships that otherwise would have probably only have been casual acquaintances. Since Kobe died, I’ve been in touch with many old friends whom I only speak to occasionally.

Of all the superstars we’ve seen, Kobe stands alone as the one who was most consumed by basketball, and was the most transparent about his love for basketball. Kobe gave his soul to the game, and he embodied the soul of the game, in a way that almost makes it hard to separate one from the other. Kobe never left his team to take an easier path to a title, like a few modern superstars did. In fact, Kobe all but pushed Shaq away so he could come closer to fulfilling his own basketball potential.  He never took less than his market value to give himself a competitive advantage like many modern superstars have – in Kobe’s mind, he was the competitive advantage.  He never engaged in “load management,” like many modern superstars do.  Rather, Kobe engaged in pain management, so he could most effectively play through the pain of multiple injuries.

At the same time, Kobe reached outward.  The stories we’ve heard since his death tell us that he used his platform both to teach and to learn; reaching out to people whom he thought could be helped by the wisdom he had acquired, while also reaching out to people whom he thought had something to teach him.  We’ve learned that Kobe reached out to countless women basketball players, and came to be viewed by many of them as an influential voice pushing for gender equality – even after having been credibly accused of rape.

In sum, Kobe Bryant, more than any other player we’ve seen, represented both the competitive spirit and camaraderie that are the ying and the yang comprising the soul of basketball. The more work he put into kicking ass on the court, the closer it brought him to his teammates, fans, and even opponents.  It was Kobe’s unique form of work-life balance; be so ruthlessly dominant on the court as to create a platform for building meaningful relationships off the court.

It’s not irony, it’s harmony.

Explaining how his Mamba Mentality applies to all of us, Kobe said “You have to dance beautifully in the box that you’re comfortable dancing in. My box was to be extremely ambitious within the sport of basketball. Your box is different than mine. Everybody has their own. It’s your job to try to perfect it and make it as beautiful of a canvas as you can make it. And if you have done that, then you have lived a successful life. You have lived with Mamba Mentality.”

That, I think, was Kobe’s greatest gift: making millions of people think they each had something in common with him.  It turns out that my initial instinct when he died – that I was upset because Kobe was the NBA star whom I had so much “in common with” – wasn’t incorrect.  In fact, it was widely held, by millions of people.  And that’s the point.

By showing us so much of himself, Kobe gave millions of people something they felt connected to; whether as a competitor, a fan, a #girldad, a teacher, a student, or simply as a human on a continual journey of self-improvement. In turn, his death has made us appreciate how much we have in common with each other.  During this time of extreme divisiveness, while we’ve got a leader who says “I alone can fix it,” and whose every impulse is to turn us against each other for his own personal benefit, Kobe told us that the thing which made him different – the Mamba Mentality – was available to each of us. Kobe took what made him distinctively different, and he shared it with us. The ying and the yang of basketball, extending far beyond basketball.

At the end of the day, I think that’s why this death resonates so deeply; it has given a divided nation an opportunity to focus on how much we have in common.  For starters, we’ve got shared memories of watching Kobe Bryant play basketball.  Plus, we’ve got injuries to overcome, mistakes to put behind us, and dreams we want to fulfill, all while building the most meaningful relationships with our friends and families as we are able to.

For helping us see, even if just for a short while, our commonality, I send a salute up to the Mamba In The Sky, and, with the deepest of gratitude, I say…

Dear Basketball,

Thank you.

 

 

 

1 Comment:

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read a lot on Kobe the last week and a half. No one nailed it better than that. Great work Rosie.

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