Paul Shirley comes to town

Paul Shirley

A little over two weeks ago I got an e-mail from Paul Shirley letting me know that he was going to be driving through Cedar City. Readers may recall (or may not) that Paul and I were introduced on Huffington Post Live last April. Since then we have exchanged a few e-mails and gotten to know each other.

Paul was on his way back to Los Angeles, so we only hung out together in Cedar for a couple of hours. In the course of our conversation (and I have no idea why the conversation went in this direction) I briefly discussed the various places I have worked. That discussion involved noting that I started my career at Coe College (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and then moved on to Cal-State Bakersfield. Before going to CSUB, though, I entertained an offer from Bethel College in Kansas (and again, no idea why Bethel came to mind).

But as it turns out, Paul is from Kansas. In addition, Paul had just given a talk at Bethel College (yes, we thought that was sort of bizarre, too).

This story is not particularly interesting.  But I tell the story to introduce something that is.  More specifically, here is Paul’s talk at Bethel:

Paul Shirley at Bethel College.

Here are some of the highlights from the talk:

  • The purpose of the talk is to discuss the state of college athletes. Paul has a unique perspective.  First, he was a successful college athlete (one generally does not go on to a professional career without have success in college). And Paul was an Academic All-American who majored in engineering. So — unlike many “student-athletes” — Paul actually cared about his academics.
  • Given this experience, Paul’s perspective on the nature of college sports is well worth hearing. At least, it is worth hearing if you are not a representative of the NCAA that likes to trumpet the importance of academics for their “student-athletes”.
  • Paul also comments in the lecture on Jamaal Tinsley, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant. Those comments are fun for everyone not named Tinsley, James, and Bryant.
  • Have you ever been moved to tears by sports? Paul notes how a much older man told him that Iowa State basketball had this effect upon him. Paul notes that a) this is weird and b) athletes are not as impressed by your tears as you might hope.

There is much more to the lecture.  So give it a listen.  You will find that Paul is a very entertaining speaker.

Unfortunately, Paul and I did not record our discussion in Cedar. I do recall asking the following questions I often ask basketball players at SUU.

Question: How do you compare to the players in a typical pick-up game of basketball?

Paul’s answer: He is about 1,000 times better (probably not an exact quote, but he said something along these lines – I think).

Again, Paul was a professional basketball player for a number of years. And very few people on this planet are paid to play basketball. That alone should tell you that relative to most people, Paul is “very good” at playing basketball.

Paul’s answer is also similar to what SUU basketball players say (although they are not nearly as good as Paul).

Then I asked:

Question: How do you compare to LeBron James?

Paul’s answer: LeBron is about 1,000 times better (again, maybe not an exact quote).

For SUU players, I ask that they compare themselves to players at top NCAA programs. And they also note that those players are much better.

These questions highlight an interesting aspect of basketball: the differences in talent at the very top of the talent distribution are quite large. Paul was one of the best players in the world (clearly in the top 1,000 or 2,000 players). But he is far behind a player like LeBron.

These differences result in two of the most important characteristics of NBA basketball:

1. NBA players are relatively consistent. Relative to the NFL and MLB – two sports where differences in talent appear to be smaller – NBA performance is quite predictable over time. This is because there isn’t much a team can do to stop players like LeBron. Players like LeBron are simply better than most other players. So year after year, LeBron dominates. And players who are not LeBron…well, they get dominated. This pattern makes outcomes in the NBA much more predictable. Players tend to maintain their talent slot (good players are good, bad players are bad). So you can expect to see – again, relative to baseball and football – relatively consistent performance from year to year.

2. The NBA lacks competitive balance. Because the number of truly exceptional players is small, there is simply not enough talent to go around. So some teams — those with the exceptional players — will be great. And the other teams will not. This is very much how Major League Baseball looked in the first half of the 20th century. Baseball was ultimately saved by integration and the influx of foreign talent. Because basketball relies on very tall people — who are in short supply around the world — it’s not clear that the NBA will ever have enough exceptional talent to improve competitive balance.

Back in Business?

Let me close by noting that this may be the longest post I have written for the WoW Journal in a couple of years. This is because many of the brilliant people who have been posting in this forum – Andres Alvarez, Devin Dignam, and Arturo Galletti – have joined Patrick Minton at BoxScoreGeeks. This website just went online a few days ago and has been amazing so far. The combination of data and commentary is quite impressive.

Unfortunately, though, the exodus from this website has presented a problem. For the past few years I have been quite happy to have other people post in this forum. At this point, though, we don’t have enough people who wish to post often enough to keep fresh content available at the WoW Journal.

So I am presented with two choices. Obviously I could just close shop here. At the moment I primarily write for Freakonomics and Huffington Post. And I only write about once a month in those forums. So closing down the WoW Journal is a possibility.

I am, though, reluctant to close down this site. On average, about 3,000 people visit this website on a daily basis. So there seems to be some interest in what is said here.

Given that people are inclined to visit (and that is still pretty cool that this happens), my current solution is to go back to what this site was a few years ago. For now, I will try and do most of the writing. Hopefully some other writers will volunteer to help out. Until that happens, though, I will try and show up here a few times a week with some quick (and hopefully interesting) comments.

– DJ

P.S. I should note that I am also going to be the primary person moderating the comments. My patience with comments had declined considerably over time. When this website started in 2006 I was happy to let most comments be posted and I was even willing to respond to people who disagreed. But I do not have time (or interest) in responding much anymore.

This is especially true for people with truly stupid on-line names. So if you are a commenter who has chosen a very stupid on-line name and you choose to post a dumb-ass argument (and I get to decide what qualifies as “stupid” and “dumb-ass”), you can expect to see those comments trashed. I might have time to write posts in this forum. I definitely do not have time to respond to silly comments. So when you see your comment trashed (and/or not appearing), consider that to be my response [Editor’s Note: unless the comment is accidentally automatically marked as spam!]

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