Monday, October 20, 2014

Kobe and NBA Rank

On the surface, Kobe's NBA Rank shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, Kobe is 36, he only played in 6 games last season and he didn’t look very good when he was on the court. If you put out a list of every NBA player’s statistical projections for this season, Kobe wouldn’t be very high on it and no one would really care. People would understand why the numbers were so low and they would feel free to accept or reject the assumptions behind them.

The problem with NBA Rank is there are no metrics to evaluate - it’s a popularity contest where every player is graded subjectively. The only thing to argue is the validity of the opinions of the people doing the grading. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad argues with the Mandelbaum family about whether being “No. 1 Dad” trumps being “The World’s Greatest Dad.” As Jerry says, I don’t know how official any of these rankings really are.

The broader point is why exactly does it matter if Kobe Bryant is the 40th best player in the NBA this season? He is one of the biggest stars in the league and one of its only players who draws casual fans and brings them to the arena - the exact “value” of what Kobe does for the Lakers on the court isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. To put it another way, where would Derek Jeter have been in MLB Rank and why should anyone care?

Jeter’s final season with the New York Yankees was one of the biggest stories of the season, even though he was no longer near the player he once was. The Yankees weren’t paying him to put up All-Star numbers - they were paying him because their team wasn’t very good and he was one of the only reasons for fans to go to the ballpark and watch them on TV. Like Jeter, Kobe is an iconic figure who makes money for his team every time he plays.

The argument about whether Kobe is the No. 40 player in the NBA completely misses the point for the same reason that it doesn’t matter whether he is still the player he once was or whether he is “worth” his $25 million salary. If Kobe was making the minimum and taking 8 shots a game, the Lakers would still be terrible. The only difference in that scenario is their fans would have no reason to come to their games or watch them on TV.

Even if Kobe had taken less money, the Lakers would not have been able to sign any of the best free agents on the market. Only a year ago, Dwight Howard took less money in order to leave LA. Why? Because the only thing the Lakers could sell him on was playing next to a 35-year old shooting guard in the final stages of his career. Free agents aren’t coming to a losing situation - LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren’t walking through that door.

Kobe’s salary with the Lakers was partly a goodwill gesture, recognizing that he was underpaid relative to his production in his prime, partly a nod to his drawing power in the box office and partly a way to put lipstick on a pig. L.A. had nothing to gain out of nickle and diming Kobe and everything to lose - if he was going to take less money this season, he could take less money on a team that could contend for a title and how would they ever sell tickets?

A lot more goes into the decision-making process behind the Lakers payroll besides expected value for the 2014-2015 season. In that respect, they are no different than any other corporation in the United States. Are we going to pretend that there aren’t people at ESPN who are getting paid to be the guy they were 5-10 years ago? For all its ruthlessness, ESPN isn’t trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of its employees like blood from a stone.

That, unfortunately, is the mindset in which fans have been trained to view the modern player, as a result of a series of lop-sided CBA agreements which tilted things the owners way. In a league which just agreed to a TV deal worth $2.4 billion a season, the owners pleaded poverty and enacted a strict series of luxury tax penalties to reign in spending on player salaries. It’s a contradiction that Kobe himself pointed out on Twitter last month.

In the brave new world of the modern NBA, a player’s contract is as important as his skill-set. The most valued players are guys whose value exceeds their contract - young players on cost-controlled rookie deals and elite players on a max salaries. Being “overpaid” has become the worst sin in the NBA. Joe Johnson is still a very good player who won a lot of games for the Nets last season, but the only thing people can talk about is his contract.

Take a look at how the story is framed. The Hawks trade Joe Johnson, their best player, for a bunch of nobodies on expiring contracts and a future draft pick. (Also, keeping MarShon Brooks was a key objective for the Nets in the trade - these are the same people who told you Anthony Davis, MKG and Thomas Robinson were the only instant impact players in the 2012 draft) This, we are told, could help them acquire Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Never mind the fact that no big-name free agent is going to sign with the Hawks, precisely because they do things like give away their best player for nothing!

Look what happened to the first pick they acquired for Johnson. They drafted an interesting prospect, who may or may not turn out to be a good NBA player in a few years, and traded him to the Toronto Raptors for John Salmons (whom they promptly released)*. Go ahead and guess what the spin on that was. The move helped them open up a lot of cap room, which they used to give Thabo Sefolosha $4 million and not give Luol Deng $10 million because he had a little bit of African in him.** As for the pick swap? There's no guarantee they finish with a better record than the Nets this season, especially if they end up trading more players to increase their financial flexibility.

* If I really wanted to be cynical, I would point out they traded Lucas Nogueira before they ever had to pay his salary. On another note - is he really going to be better than Rudy Gobert aka the French Shawn Bradley?

** Take a look at the transcript of Ferry's conference call about Deng. Does it sound anything like this

 photo bobs_zps8d113200.jpg

In your own words, what would you say your win shares per 48 minutes were last season? 

It's almost Orwellian the way NBA teams have convinced fans and the media to internalize their corporate spin - the Bobs in Office Space were all about increasing IniTech's financial flexibility, I guarantee you that. So when a team decides to make a move that looks beyond quarterly profit reports, it defies explanation. The outrage about Kobe's contract was palpable - no longer worth the money! Never mind that Kobe is the public face of a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars last year and the goodwill he generates among their massive fan-base is worth at least $25 million. Not only is breaking off a tiny percentage of the profits to Kobe right thing to do, it's also the obvious business move.

The salary cap has turned fans into the unpaid accountants of unimaginably rich people who are making unimaginably large amounts of money and we become indignant when paying the employees eats into even a small percentage of the profits. Do not be distracted by the man behind the curtain. Donald Sterling made $2 billion for running the Los Angeles Clippers into the ground for 30 years, but the real story is whether DeAndre Jordan is worth a contract starting at $15 million a season. Kobe knows the deal - the players are overpaid, but the owners are too.

This season, Kobe is being paid like he is one of the top 5 players in the NBA, even though he probably isn't. Only at ESPN could making a few fairly mundane observations about an older player be turned into a bold exercise in telling truth to power. There's nothing new under the sun - while we may have more advanced statistics at our disposal these days, fans in the 1980's wouldn't have been shocked to find out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the same player at 36 that he was at 26. The only difference now is we are much more concerned with precisely monitoring the efficiency output of every player.

These days, a huge part of the conversation around basketball revolves around obsessively ranking the value of its players. Synergy stats? Let's use them to rank players. SportsVU cameras? Rank players. It's a twist on this famous internet cartoon about sports writing. The problem is that when we commodify human beings and judge them based on their output alone, we end up missing the big picture. At the very least, you should hope your boss thinks that way when he decides what he wants to pay you this year.

That's what Moneyball was all about and that's what this whole story comes down too. The same people who financialized every other industry in this country want to do to the same thing to sports and they want you to cheer along when they talk about how to Moneyball your office. That's why owners are constantly bringing Wall Street people into the front office - if you can figure out a few new ways to crunch the numbers, there is always more money that can be wrung from the players. We are going to streamline the operation, we are going to make it more efficient, we are not going to be wedded to the old ways of doing things.

Did you ever ask yourself why so many companies wanted Michael Lewis to speak to them about Moneyball? Michael Lewis is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell - they are smart guys who know how to follow the money and they know how to write the types of stories that the people in power (who have all the money) want to hear. They write modern-day morality tales with modern-day morals. Blink. The Blind Side. The Tipping Point. Liar's Poker. Outliers. Moneyball. Who is the big hero of Moneyball? The middle manager who assembled a competent workforce from a shoestring budget.

The Oakland A's may have been making a lot of money and they were planning on making a lot more money in the future, but that didn't mean they had any intention of spending any of that money on their players. What did Billy Beane find out? The best way to save money is to let go of all your older employees and hope that you could find a few younger guys who would do their job for a fraction of the cost. If this isn't the story of just about every company in the Fortune 500 over the last generation, I will eat my hat.

That's the way the world is going. Companies aren't trying to reward their employees and spread the wealth around a bit. Every bit of profit must go back to the owners - it is an iron law of business that must be adhered too at all times. Kobe Bryant must not be allowed to steal money from the Lakers, and if he does, the Lakers should be punished for that type of short-sighted management. There is only so much amount of money that a company can be permitted to pay its employees! Once we agree to that, all that's left is figuring out which ones are earning their keep.


  1. 1. 'The salary cap has turned fans into the unpaid accountants of unimaginably rich people who are making unimaginably large amounts of money and we become indignant when paying the employees eats into even a small percentage of the profits.' - brilliant

    2. thank you for the office space comparison for the ferry incident, it's perfect!

    3. i love that a blog ostensibly about kobe's nba rank had me thinking about 'capital in the 21st century' by the end of it

    fantastic piece dude