Monday, February 2, 2015

The Big Board Problem

Not too long ago, a few Redditors doing the Lord's work noticed Chad Ford's big boards on ESPN Insider changing retroactively. There was a ghost in the machine, moving players who had done well in the NBA up his draft boards and knocking down guys who had done poorly. Just like that, Ford has been on Giannis the whole time, putting him at No. 9 despite his lack of a track record either at the club level or in major international tournaments. It was history in Soviet Russia all over again, with enemies of the state wiped from the record books as if they had never even existed.

The difference is no one actually cared whether Ford nailed all of his picks on the Big Board. It just doesn't make a lot of sense - is the reward of a negligible improvement to your reputation worth the risk of being discovered as someone who doesn't have the integrity to stand by your predictions? Nor has ESPN been very forthcoming. All they have told us is that A) Ford denies doing it and B) they have no way to know who changed the rankings. Ford has made no public comments about the controversy and he has continued writing articles as if nothing had happened.

The message is clear. Nothing to see here, move along. I would love to hear Ford's side of the story, but my guess is we never will. Here's why - no matter what he says, it would look really, really bad for ESPN. Since we know for a fact the rankings were altered by someone within the organization, there are only three things he could say.

1) Someone below him did it without his knowledge.
2) He did it.

A moment of weakness becomes an addiction, a compulsive habit that he can't break despite the insane risks he was taking? Or perhaps he thought he couldn't be caught? He has been around long enough he might not realize how much the internet has changed. Did the Way Way Back Machine exist when he first started covering the draft?

The problem with admitting this is that it destroys his credibility as a reporter. If he is willing to lie on something so small purely out of a sense of vanity, how can we trust him not to lie on other things he is writing? Most of his job is quoting people anonymously. Who knows what people are really saying to him? How could we ever check? If we aren't taking Chad Ford at his word, there's really no reason to ever listen to anything he says. That's what I keep coming back too - the risk/reward for pulling anything like this is totally out of whack. Stephen Glass was pushing an agenda and Jayson Blair was too lazy to actually do any reporting. Ford has been doing the work. Why put his job and his reputation on the line?

 Then I saw this report in Deadspin:
That means just about anyone, including Chad Ford, could have modified his rankings without leaving a trail. The motivation? As an ESPN Insider writer, Chad Ford has significant incentive to have his track record be—or merely appear to be—as accurate as possible. While to casual fans this sort of prognostication may seem silly and a waste of time, to industry experts and hardcore NBA wonks the best predictions are worth the money, and we're told Chad Ford drives a lot of ESPN's Insider revenue. [emphasis added] That would make it worth the while of anyone with a vested interest in Insider's success to tamper with Ford's records.
If Chad Ford is going to say he didn't do it, that leaves only one explanation for how the rankings were changed. And you can see why he won't be allowed to give that explanation.

3) Did someone above Chad Ford edit his rankings?

Here's the other way to ask that question - just how far does the rabbit hole go? This is the point in the story where the trail goes cold. If there's a conspiracy, there's no incentive for anyone within the conspiracy to talk. Unless we are going to go all Woodward and Bernstein on ESPN, there's really no way for any of us to find out. When you try to make sense of it, all you are left with is the final scene in Burn After Reading.

It's a Schrodinger's Cat problem. Either A) Ford did it or B) one of his bosses did it, but you have no way to collapse the equation and find out. You don't want to operate as if either one is true because you want to believe the best out of A and B.

Like most under-30 basketball writers, I grew up reading Chad Ford. I want to believe him. I have never met him, but he seems like a nice enough guy.

Conversely, if higher-ups at ESPN are doing this and then letting their employees take the fall in the public eye .... what is there to say? Everyone at the media wants to work for ESPN. They are the Evil Empire. They have all the money. They are one of the only organizations still hiring. In the world of sports media, they are holding every key and guarding every door. In essence, you either play ball with ESPN or you become an un-person.

There's only one way to collapse the equation. Ask yourself this question - does it even matter who changed the rankings? Whenever there is a breakdown in a large bureaucracy, when some of the dirt that happens behind closed doors slips into the public eye, there's always a rush to find a scapegoat. Who is responsible? Who is abusing their authority? Where are the bad apples and how do we get rid of them? Maybe the problem isn't any of the players in the bureaucracy. Maybe the problem is the bureaucracy itself.

That was the theme of The Wire. In David Simon's telling, our institutions - whether it's the police force, the education system, the newspaper or your friendly local neighborhood crack gang - are the Greek Gods of our era, hurdling down thunderbolts and immune to any of our efforts to reform them. In his version of Baltimore, it wouldn't matter if you changed every detective and every teacher and every politician and every newspaper reporter. The system itself would keep on going on. McNulty becomes Sidnour, Avon becomes Marlo, Omar becomes Mike, Bubbs becomes Dukie, Royce becomes Carcetti.

ESPN wants you to focus on whether or not Ford has enough integrity to do his job for the same reason they want you to focus on whether or not Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith have finally crossed the line on First Take. It's the same reason the NFL wants you to worry about whether or not Roger Goodell lied about Ray Rice. If only we had a good commissioner, the media tells us, if only we had a strong commissioner who could investigate these things further, then we would have some justice in the NFL. Down with Goodell! Can't the owners see what a terrible job he is doing?

Of course, the converse of that question is whether the owners would even want someone who is more "effective" than Goodell in office. Would Robert Kraft really be fine with Adam Silver grilling every member of the Patriots organization up and down about Deflategate? Or would he rather have someone who isn't going to ask the tough questions, someone who knows when to back off without even having to be asked? Why do you think Goodell is being paid $45 million dollars? To do his job or not to do his job?

Translation: I'll take anyone's money if they just GIVING it away.

The question isn't whether or not Skip Bayless is an asshole. If Skip Bayless didn't exist, ESPN would have had to invent him. Which is funny because that's basically what they did. Without ESPN, Skip is a local sports columnist trying to fill the airtime on his 3-hour call-in radio show. Without ESPN, Chad Ford is a college professor in Hawaii who likes to watch a lot of college basketball. If someone else took their jobs, would it really look all that different? If ESPN Insider needs their NBA Draft expert to generate a lot of subscriptions, he had better be accurate.

An actor reading a script. 

Here's a thought experiment to illustrate Ford's dilemma. Let's make a Big Board of the 2011 draft and compare it to where guys were actually drafted:

1. Kawhi Leonard (No. 15)
2. Klay Thompson (No. 11)
3. Kyrie Irving (No. 1)
4. Jimmy Butler (No. 30)
5. Jonas Valanciunas (No. 5)
6. Nik Vucevic (No. 16)
7. Tobias Harris (No. 19)
8. Markieff Morris (No. 13)
9. Kenneth Faried (No. 22)
10. Chandler Parsons (No. 38)
11. Brandon Knight (No. 9)
12. Kemba Walker (No. 8)
13. Donatas Motiejunas (No. 20)
14. Nikola Mirotic (No. 23)
15. Reggie Jackson (No. 26)
16. Alec Burks (No. 13)
17. Enes Kanter (No. 3)
18. Tristan Thompson (No. 4)
19. Marcus Morris (No. 14)
20. Iman Shumpert (No. 17)

For starters, NBA teams clearly haven't figured out all there is to know about the draft. This is not an easy thing to do.

I'm not saying this is in anyway the definitive list. If you put a gun to my head, this isn't the list I would make, but that isn't the point. Make your own list and you will start to see how difficult an exercise this is. What are we judging on? What they have done in the last 4 years or what they will do in the next 4 years? Is there even a difference? Tobias Harris is still only 22 years old. Nikola Mirotic is in his first season in the NBA. Are we really ready to put a ceiling on their game? How will this list look a year from now?

A year ago, not many people would have Klay at No. 2 or Jimmy B at No. 4. A year from now, maybe Kyrie is the 2nd wheel on the defending champs. Maybe Reggie Jackson goes to New York and becomes an All-Star. Maybe Terrence Jones never stays healthy and Donatas Motiejunas develops into a 15-8 player on a championship contender or maybe Jones gets his starting job back and D-Mo starts bouncing around the NBA as a shooting PF who comes off the bench. Always in motion is the future.

For that matter, what are we even ranking anyway? Is Markieff Morris a better player than Jonas Valanciunas or Brandon Knight? Would I want the two-way shooting PF, the solid young C who isn't elite at any one thing or the first option PG who needs to be hid on defense? Well, it would probably depend on the rest of my roster. That's like trying to compare a FS with a LT or a QB with an OLB. These guys play completely different positions and they have completely different responsibilities so there's really no way to say definitively which one you would want on your team. Then people will say - what about in a vacuum? So we are speaking hypothetically? How exactly are we supposed to come to a resolution on hypothetical arguments?

What is #NBARank if not an attempt to create a Big Board for the entire NBA? Does anyone feel super proud of what we've done with that? Besides the people whose job it is to boost the number of clicks that ESPN's NBA section gets?

I could talk about the problems with NBA Rank all day, but in the interests of time, let's go with the Kevin Love example. What's Kevin Love's NBA Rank when he is the primary option in Minnesota? What's his NBA Rank when he is the third option in Cleveland? Do you ever wonder if there are players in the NCAA who are stuck in a Kevin Love in Cleveland situation? Look at how Chris Bosh's numbers have gone up now that he is not on a super-team in Miami. John Calipari builds a super-team at Kentucky every year.

Furthermore, if we can't come to a consensus on grown men who we have more than a decade's worth of data on at the highest levels of the sport, how exactly are we supposed to do the same exercise for 18-19 years olds with 1-2 years worth of statistics in vastly different situations, all of whom are still growing on and off the court into the players and the people they will become?

If you did a Big Board of each draft class at the end of every season in the NBA, how long would it take until things finally started to shake out? Year 4? Year 5? Year 6? A lot of guys are coming into the league at 18-19-20 and not peaking until they are 26-27 years old. I'm not sure you would have a 100% solid consensus until Year 8-9-10.

So what are we to do? Is there any way to sift out the pieces of gold from all the dirt that is caught in the wash?

What you want to do is look for the things that hold constant over time, that don't change every season as young players get new teammates and new coaches and get put into new roles on new teams at different levels of the game. How big is he? How tall is he? How long are are his arms? How well can he shoot the ball? How well can he dribble? How does his handle hold up against ball pressure? Can he run off screens and consistently knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers? What type of defense can he play? Does he have the speed to hang with NBA players on the perimeter? The size to play with them at the front of the rim? In short, what are his tools?

Tools change over time, but they change at a much slower rate. Guys don't just become great jump-shooters - that takes a ton of dedication and a ton of work and possibly some luck. There are some guys who work their asses off at trying to be a better shooter and it never happens for them. It's the same when it comes to handling the ball, reading the floor, defending a position at an NBA level and having a nose for the basketball on the glass.

In the stock market, this would be called investing on the fundamentals. That's what Warren Buffet does. When you have as much money as Warren Buffet, you aren't really thinking short when it comes to the market. You are thinking real long. You are trying to make the long term play based on the underlying assets of a given corporation, the type of market they are in and the demand for the product they are selling over the next decade.

Mr. Large Sample Size

Say what you want about how Chad Ford covers the NBA draft, but I think we can all agree that he doesn't cover it like Warren Buffet. Whose stock is up? Whose stock is down? Will the big game change how we view a prospect? Did the big game change how we view a prospect? What are the latest rumors? Who likes a guy? Who doesn't like a guy? If you follow every twist and turn of the NBA draft board, guys are going from underrated to overrated to back to underrated in the span of a few months.

Does Warren Buffet need 7 mock drafts between when the season ends in March and the draft happens in June? The information isn't changing. The data is there and you can make of it what you will. All that's changing is the amount of noise around it.

Here's a fun game - try to be the Chad Ford of your fantasy league next season. See how well that goes over. No one really wants to give away their draft strategy. If everyone knew what they were going to do, they would have to change it. More importantly, the draft is a chaotic system - a butterfly flaps its wings and halfway across the world starts a hurricane etc. All it takes is for one team at the top of the draft to make an unexpected pick and the entire dynamic changes. If Chad Ford was given the chance to predict who a team would take right before they made the pick, he would do pretty well. Cleveland stuns everyone and takes Anthony Bennett at No. 1 and the entire thing is fucked. Think of all the man hours it took to assemble all those mock drafts and you could throw them out 5 minutes after the draft started.

All that chatter, all those web chats, all those Sportscenter hits, all those feature tabs on the home page on ESPN with every rumor, it was all a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There's only so much you can learn from covering the draft that way. There's only so much you can learn from covering anything that way.

This is a lot funnier if you pretend it's Louis CK doing a bit.

It's just like Bernie Madoff. Why does anyone cook the books? Because they don't have confidence in the product they are selling. That's the thing you have to understand about making a Big Board. The only way to get the questions right is to fill them in after you see the answers.


  1. I think the major thing here is, everyone makes mistakes on there Big Board. But, if you want to take accountability, you leave it as is, to show your thoughts on it at the time of the draft. If you want to make an update, make a new Big Board, make a separate article, just do not go and change the one you made before the draft.

    It is all prognostication and a way to pass the time until it actually comes. Chad's Mock Draft last year was actually pretty poor, even for a draft that was certainly less surprising than the year previous. To me, it just seems like it is a slap in the face to those who are truly passionate about the draft to change your big board.

    Have had very few interactions with Chad, only at an event the past two years, however it seems like he was more busy talking than he was watching basketball. I question how much of a basketball fan he is as opposed to whom he is listening to and reporting on in general. He actually was REALLY high on Kawhi Leonard at one point, than shot him down to where he was going to be drafted.

    The other thing with this that makes very little sense is that Chad was always one who tended to deflect taking accountability of his rankings. He would constantly say, "This is not necessarily my opinion, but that of GM's and scouts I speak with". Which in turn makes even less sense for this to happen.

    It really was a no-win situation and whoever was responsible handled it horribly. Though I will add, to those who actually care about this possible indiscretion. Which I think is an incredibly small percentage. In terms of covering this up and pretending like it didn't exist, it has been pretty solid.

    Still, for everything that was written, how can this not at least hurt someones credibility? I love certain things ESPN does, but that does not mean I love everything they do. Love certain writers and content makers, do not always trust all of them. Chad has been on shaky ground with me for a while, this certainly does not help. I feel like he should have done what Pete Carroll did, than apologized and rolled with it. Their was so little reason for him to do it, and I would say less for ESPN. At the end of the day, if ESPN is saying something about the draft, people are going to listen. Absolutely get that making a Big Board is difficult, even retroactively, but that still is no excuse for what was going on with the changes that were made here.

  2. Good comment. I probably should have emphasized this more:

    The other thing with this that makes very little sense is that Chad was always one who tended to deflect taking accountability of his rankings. He would constantly say, "This is not necessarily my opinion, but that of GM's and scouts I speak with". Which in turn makes even less sense for this to happen.

    That's another reason why it doesn't make much sense for him to change his rankings after the fact.

  3. Absolutely. I can take knowing Chad was what he was and I am an over the top draft nerd. Am guessing that his "credibility" was not hurting. Other people might post articles about how inaccurate his Big Boards have been, but than he could comeback and just point to every single Big Board out there facing the same issue. With retroactively changing it, you have no real excuse if you are caught. Which was bound to happen. Think this is going to make people a lot more careful in checking peoples work.

    I would go back and look at his rankings, than have a chuckle in the past. Little did I know, he might have been updating them. Read all of the Deadspin stuff and "The Big Lead" did a piece pointing out how odd it is that they do not have the ability to just check the logs. Guess the system they used was outdated, or something along those lines. Well, hope they change that.

    What boggles my mind is that even if Ford drives a lot of Insider revenue, would changing these rankings necessarily drive more? He has always been more of a headline maker than a guy whose scouting opinion you take to heart. As much as he seemed to be trying to be the "NBA Draft Mel Kiper', he was not even close to that, he was barely a blip on the draft show.

    Sort of surprised this has been completely swept under the rug. I would at least think they would make up some locker room attendant who made a mistake. If that person did, than I would not even fire him. Everyone does. I believe they put the rankings back to where they were originally. They at least weren't writing about how accurate the Big Board was. I guess this is a "credibility" thing with Ford and someone would "have to pay" to restore it. Am disappointed he didn't at least address it. The people he deals with probably would forgive him. Even so, he still has enough content out that is available out there somewhere that they would have to get rid of forever which was much worse than any Big Board he has made.

  4. I really enjoyed this article (in addition to nearly everything you write).