Age limits, quality of play and other nonsense

Jonathan Weiler is back again today!  As noted yesterday, Jonathan is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. His first book, Human Rights in Russia, was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2004. His second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published by Cambridge University Press in August 2009.  Jonathan is a frequent contributor to Huffington Post.  He also has a blog, theESPNwatch.  Like yesterday, the following story appeared at Jonathan’s blog today:

More and more people are jumping on the bandwagon of the need to increase the minimum age at which players are eligible for the NBA draft.

Let’s clear up one matter right up front – unless there is a rule of which I am unaware, no NBA team is required to draft a player it does not wish to draft. Anthony Bennett’s decision to declare himself eligible for the draft did not trigger a special clause mandating that Cleveland make him the first overall pick. NBA teams have long made really stupid draft selections – Michael Olowakandi, a.k.a, The Candy Man comes to mind – and age limit or no, they will continue to make stupid decisions. It’s in the nature of the beast. We’ve become accustomed to treating owners of major league sports franchises as if they should make money hand over fist no matter how poorly they run their teams. So it’s no surprise, I suppose, that sports media would feel sympathy for sports leagues who claim that their franchises really shouldn’t be responsible for the consequences of their own decision-making. Better, obviously, to deny 19 year olds their basic economic right to make a living when they’re clearly ready to.

The NBA’s number one argument – though it’s also trotting out the nonsense that it wants to raise the limit for the betterment of the players themselves – is that the inclusion of younger players in the league is hurting the quality of the product. Charles Barkley has been ranting lately about how the quality of play has never been worse, aligning himself with the harsh criticisms of league play by the “logo” himself, Jerry West.

This can’t be said often enough – in every era. retired players complain about how much worse the quality of play is in “today’s game,” how much harder the older guys played, how much more they played for the pure love of the game and so on. Never mind the undeniable fact that elite athletes are in better shape than ever, since they work at their sport longer hours and year round. Or that the NBA is drawing from a larger pool of talent – a global one – than ever before. There ought to be a better argument than “kids get off my lawn” for insisting that the NBA is being killed by (the still small number of) 19 year olds who enter the league.

There are more games available for viewing nationally than ever before. So, the casual fan can now tune in any night and watch the unwatchable – say a match up between the Sacramento Kings and the New York Knicks. This may be one reason why some think today’s game is of such poor quality. When we think back to the good old days, we tend to remember highlights, big games, memorable moments. But let me assure you that if all of America, circa 1977, was able to catch the  likes of Lonnie Shelton, Ticki Burden and Mo Layton logging quality minutes for the Knicks every night, they would not have come away with an especially favorable impression of the league. There is an inescapable intermingling of nostalgia and selective memory at work in cross era comparisons.

I took a look this morning at league wide statistics from the mid-1980s, after Barkley had entered the league and today. Is there something in the data that suggests the overall quality of play is worse now than it was thirty years ago? If there is, I couldn’t find. Teams score, on average, about ten points fewer per game now than they did back in the days of high Reaganism. But it’s not because shooting is worse. League wide free throw percentages are very similar – about 75% or so now, versus about 77% (varying by year) back when EVERYTHING WAS GREAT. So is two-point shooting – it was in the ballpark of 49% back in the late 1980s. It’s about 48% now. The biggest difference is from three-point range – last year, the league average was about 36%. Back in the day, it ranged from 30-33%.

Players aren’t turning the ball over more today and, league-wide, assist-to-turnover ratios are slightly better now than they were in the Jordan/Bird/Magic era.

The biggest statistical difference is that teams shoot the ball much less frequently today than they did in 1987 (and shoot many fewer free throws). In other words, there are fewer possessions per game. What explains this? Well the old-timey types aren’t going to like it, but I think it’s pretty obvious. Night in and night out, teams play better defense than they did thirty years ago. Possession to possession, teams have to work harder to get good shots nowadays and there are fewer gimmes than there used to be. Nostalgia and selective memory cloud our judgment here.  We recall some bloody battles between the likes of Robert Parish and Bill Laimbeer and (mistakenly) read back into the historical record that every night in the NBA was hand to hand combat, where real men never gave an inch and you had to earn everything you got (there were more fights back then, it’s true. But that’s because the league simply doesn’t allow them anymore).

Anyway, this idealization of the typical NBA game of yore is nonsense. Speaking of Laimbeer, it’s hard to overstate what a shock to the NBA system the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were when they started winning games in large numbers in the late 1980s. They upset the applecart by punching their opponents in the mouth, by making each team the played work harder than it was accustomed to working. It was ugly basketball, many complained, but it was damn effective. And it upended a longstanding fact about life in the NBA – that during the long grind of the regular season, players took lots of possessions off on the defensive end.

Can I “prove” that? No. But the data are more consistent with a world in which fewer possessions are throwaways than was the case in the good ole days. Yes, the Dream Team was a staggeringly awesome collection of talent (Christian Laettner notwithstanding). Those players were a great showcase for the league, as were the five teams that collectively won every NBA title between 1980 and 1993. But that doesn’t tell us about the overall quality of play. If too many young and inexperienced players are resulting in teams being sloppier with the ball, taking a greater number of ill-advised shots and playing less defense – the parts of the game that would presumably most benefit from more seasoned players – it’s not obvious in the numbers. And I know that i spent many nights watching mediocre players (the Knicks had a surfeit of those from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s) slog indifferently through games.

In the next post, we’re going to take a fun little trip through the league’s all-star rosters in order to answer another part of the age-based indictment of quality of play. Spoiler alert – it turns out that having the privilege of only playing one year under Rick Barnes doesn’t kill your chances of NBA success.

- Jonathan Weiler

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