Archive for August 2007

The Most Valuable Player on 2006 Duke was Shelden Williams

August 29, 2007

The 2006 squad was the greatest of my Duke career. Though it bowed out to LSU in the Sweet 16, making Tyrus Thomas a rich man in the process, it was the #1 team for a good while during the regular season. The biggest reason for Duke’s success, most thought, was J.J. Redick. He won the Naismith Award, given to the finest college basketball player of the year, and if a writer thought he was the best player in the country, he certainly would have agreed he was the best at Duke University. My favorite player, though, was Shelden Williams, who seemed to always be there to bail us out in the paint. Earlier this summer, I studied the numbers and realized the sportswriters should have asked me before they voted.

Last week, my friend Shawn Kwatra posted my analysis of the 2007 Duke basketball team on his fine sports blog. He did a good job of explaining my methodology, but if you missed it, here it is again: I based my numbers on a system created by economists at the Wages of Wins blog, and I am in their debt not only for their system but also for their way of thinking about basketball. They base their model on the basic box score statistics, and it has a 95% correlation between predicted wins and actual wins, so it’s very solid. Their metric for performance is called Win Score, and it’s calculated thusly:

Win Score = Points + Rebounds + Steals + ½Assists + ½Blocked Shots – Field Goal Attempts – Turnovers – ½Free Throw Attempts – ½Personal Fouls

The value of points is obvious, but we unfortunately tend to gloss over other statistics which are just as integral to a team’s success. Rebounds and steals end the opposition’s possessions and give one’s team more chances to score. Blocked shots create rebound opportunities and also indicate how much a player helps on defense. Assists help quantify how much a player facilitates the offense. Field goal attempts, turnovers, and half of free throw attempts (the 2nd shot) end possessions for your team, so they subtract from the score. Personal fouls both end possessions and give free throw opportunities to the other team.

I have one more acronym to explain: PAWS (Position Adjusted Win Score). This stat compares a player’s win score to that of the average player at his position. (Is it strange that centers are more productive than guards? Not really: note how much teams obsess over finding good big men.)

I also added Win Score/min and PAWS/min to the table so we can more easily compare players with unequal minutes played.

Enough of that, here are the numbers (click on the thumbnail to expand):

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A couple passing observations:
1. The numbers indicate neither Josh, Greg, nor Marty changed much between ’06 and ’07.
2. Jamal Boykin outperforms expectations again, albeit in garbage time. Should he have played more?
3. This team was clearly better than ’07: the Win Score differential is 1463.5-1019.5, although the ’06 team’s faster pace may explain a bit of that.

Moving on, here are how the seven regular rotation players fare:

Shelden Williams: 0.432 WS/Min (0.207 PAWS/min)
Josh McRoberts: 0.271 (0.056)
J.J. Redick: 0.185 (0.057)
Lee Melchionni: 0.150 (-.002)
Sean Dockery: 0.145 (.013)
DeMarcus Nelson: 0.133 (-0.019)
Greg Paulus: 0.080 (-0.051)

So Josh and J.J. were very good; Lee, Sean, and DeMarcus were decent; Greg wasn’t very good, and Shelden was ridiculous. No one from either ’06 or ’07 comes close to the Landlord’s year, either in absolute numbers or in comparison to average players at their own positions.

Why is Shelden ranked so much higher than J.J.? Here’s the tale of the tape:

1. Blocks and rebounds. I loved Shelden because he always seemed to bail us out when we missed shots or when the interior defense collapsed, and the numbers bear that out. He collected 12.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per 40 minutes. In 2006, he had 137 blocks. In 2007, the entire Duke team had 157 blocks.

J.J. averaged 2.1 rebounds per 40 minutes, and despite playing nearly every minute of every game, he blocked only two shots all year. These are awful numbers even for a guard, and they’re a big reason he can’t get off the bench in the NBA, where everyone is even bigger and even faster.

So far, Shelden is way ahead.

2. Assists. J.J. had 2.8 per 40 minutes, Shelden 1.3. Both are below average for their respective positions, but regardless: advantage, J.J.

3. Steals. Shelden had 60, J.J. 52. So Shelden has a slight edge in an area that should be an advantage for the guard.

4. Turnovers. Shelden had 89, J.J. 90. It’s a wash.

5. Fouls. Shelden had 114, J.J. 54. Advantage, J.J.

6. Shooting efficiency. This was J.J.’s greatest attribute, the one reason he was an excellent college player. Yet the numbers indicate that Shelden was even more efficient. J.J. had 1.5 points per field goal attempt, which is fantastic…but Shelden had 1.65.

How? Well, our opinions are largely shaped by our memories, but our memories favor the most vivid events. A three-pointer is easier to remember than a 5-foot jump hook. Thanks to the degree of difficulty, we also tend to remember missed 5-footers more than missed three-pointers. So great-shooting big men are sometimes forgotten because they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do.

Everyone remembers the nights J.J. went 9-13 and scored 30 points, but on the year, he shot 47%, including 42% on 3’s. These are fantastic numbers, but Shelden shot 58%. Even when you add the extra points from long-distance shots, Shelden was more efficient.

J.J. made 221 free throws on 86% shooting, Shelden 201 on 74% shooting. That’s an advantage for the former, but it’s not enough to move the table.

One could argue that Shelden would not have been as efficient a scorer without J.J. there to punish double-teams. That’s probably true. Shelden’s excellence, however, must have benefited J.J. as well, the way a healthy Shaq creates shots for his own smaller teammates.

Was J.J. superior to Shelden in heart, teamwork, and so forth? J.J. was a more vocal leader, but if I remember correctly, Shelden was no mercenary himself.

Most importantly, Shelden’s contributions in the other aspects of the game still far outweigh J.J.’s. (So do Josh’s, hence his own higher ranking.) Unfortunately, sportswriters are infatuated with scoring and forget about how teams get the opportunity to score in the first place. Note that the 2nd place finisher for Naismith with Adam Morrison, another prolific scorer who is struggling in the NBA because he is below average in every other category. J.J., I love you, but I can rest easier knowing your underrated counterpart also has his jersey retired in Cameron.


Josh McRoberts and Mr. Basketball

August 29, 2007

This was originally a comment I wrote on Shawn Kwatra’s blog, but I decided to repeat it here for the benefit of my Hoosier friends. This is a response to a claim that Josh was always overrated because he only finished 3rd in Indiana Mr. Basketball despite being ranked the #2 senior in the United States that year:

Josh came in 3rd in Indiana Mr. Basketball due to the three most common biases of sportswriters:

1. Overvaluing postseason performance. Josh’s team played in the same regional as Pike, which has sent many players to D-I, and Lawrence North, which featured Greg Oden and Mike Conley. Josh’s team was weaker than theirs, so he never got far in the tournament.

Whereas Josh played a couple of the nation’s best high school teams, Luke Zeller, the winner of Mr. Basketball, played in Class 3A (out of 4). He lead his team to the state championship there, and many believe he won Mr. Basketball due to a 70-foot shot he made at the buzzer to keep his team alive in the tournament. It was a fantastic play, to be certain, but over the entire season, Josh was far superior. Note you’ve never heard of Zeller, who plays at Notre Dame.

2. Favoring scoring over other statistics. The 2nd place finisher in Mr. Basketball was Dominic James, who lead Indiana in scoring. While he is a fine player who killed us in the Marquette game last year, he doesn’t fill the stat sheet nearly as much as Josh does.

In high school, Josh averaged 17.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 3.0 blocks and had a .593 FG%. James’s high school stats aren’t available, but he’s shooting 40% from the field (read: he’s inefficient) and averaging 5 assists, 3.8 boards, 1.9 steals, and a quarter of a block at Marquette, which indicates that Josh was superior to him in almost every way in high school.

3. Favoring players with nice personalities. Luke Zeller is an affable guy with small-town charm, and sportswriters enjoy Dominic James as well. Josh’s persona is his weakest attribute. How this affects his play on the court is uncertain, but it certainly affects his position with sportswriters, the ones who voted for the award.

I Almost Survived Thai Torture

August 26, 2007

Published in the Fall 2007 edition of Carpe Noctem, Duke University’s humor magazine

TWELVE WINGS IN THIRTY MINUTES. Eat them all, and you get your money back. No other food allowed. Water and soda are permitted, but milk isn’t. No vomiting.

Seems easy enough. So why are they making me sign a health waiver?

The scene is Chai’s, a pan-Asian restaurant, on a lazy Tuesday night in Durham, NC. I’ve just inquired about a dish called “Thai Torture.” The closest I’ve come to competitive eating is cheering for Kobayashi in Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on the 4th of July, but I feel like trying this one out. Unless a restaurant fails sanitation code, comparing its offerings to The Rack is a little much, so I want to tone down the hype. The girl at the cash register is cute and hopefully 19 years old, and I have a yen to impress her. My summer was pretty boring, and I need some stories. Oh, and I’m hungry.

As soon as I sign up, and the hype machine starts churning. First, there’s the waiver, a nice example of a Duke Law student doing something for his community. Then my friends rub my shoulders, tell me they’ve heard horror stories, and give some requisite gastronomical gallows gags. The chef on duty gives me his advice (don’t drink water, and let them sit for a while to cool off) and tells me no one has finished the twelve all summer, so he’s cheering for me. This worries me a little, but then again, they haven’t had many college students, either. Everyone else is served their food at least fifteen minutes before I get my own. Things officially become ridiculous when the register girl sets up a chair behind our table to insure the propriety of the proceedings.

The wings arrive. They’re blazing red and much bigger than the usual, but they don’t smell much different from typical spicy fare. They’re fresh from the oven, though, and that calls for a lesson in the 0th Law of Thermodynamics. I keep my hands on the wings to cool them down, then place each of them on individual napkins so they’ll cool off faster. Five minutes is all I can stand to wait. Here’s how the first four go:

1: Hey, these are delicious!
2: They’re hot, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.
3: Hmm…it’s taking a while to swallow these, but I can wash it down with some water.
4: Okay, maybe I should stop.

I burp for the First Time, and almost everything comes up with me. The restaurant watches, horrified. I take a couple minutes to gather myself, and I have a moment of clarity. It’s all so simple that Freud could have explained it:

Superego: Oh, James, see how your friends cheer! How firmly do they believe in you! May you vindicate their faith!
Ego: Well, you’re both right.

Off we go. Now that my hunger is sated, the wings aren’t delicious anymore: the spice is so strong that it demolishes all other flavors. Not that it matters. I’m in a zone. All I have to do is chew and swallow.

Temperature, Spice, Size. My eyes and nose are running like Michael Johnson, and my stomach feels like a sinking ship, but so far I’ve handled three of the four horsemen of the Wingpocalypse. The last is what’s bothering me, though: the Strange Ingredient. The food’s sitting in my esophagus, trying to escape every couple minutes, because my body doesn’t understand what’s inside them.

“Get down there!” I say.
“?” it replies.

Nine. Ten. Eleven. The girl can’t decide if she could encourage or discourage me. My friends tell me I have plenty of time left, but I think they’re lying. Do I have three minutes left or seven? With the eleventh still in my mouth, I take a couple bites of the twelfth, but I need to swallow, breathe, swallow…

This burp is too strong. I’ve had a “reversal of fortune,” as they say in the world of competitive eating, and now my mouth is full of food I’ve eaten already. Heroic Kobayashi overcame this problem earlier in the year, though, so I can…oh, never mind. Ten, nine, eight, seven wings are all that reside in my stomach now. “Oh, gross!” the girl behind me says as she puts away my “I Survived Thai Torture” T-shirt. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” my friend John said sagaciously.

I feel pretty guilty about my mess, so I cover my plate with napkins, pick it up, and turn towards the kitchen – but the look of horror on the girl’s face indicates that that would rip the health code in half, so I forget it. As I wipe off my hands, a few frat friends walk in, see me, and offer handshakes. I look at my hands…at my plate…the wheels turn…and I pump their fists happily. Sorry, mates, but it was too good to pass up.

I may have lost, but my friends still love me. I have a nice conversation with the chef, too. What about the girl? The transcript would make Shakespeare weep:

“Hey, that was fun! Oh yeah, my name is James.”
“……okay, uh, see you later.”

“I’ve been at college less than 24 hours, and I’ve already seen someone throw up. This year is gonna be awesome!” I need two days to flush the poison out of my body, but the tale makes me laugh every time, and the legend is growing. For the Build kids, “Wing #12” becomes the moment when you just can’t take it anymore.

Throwing up on the last wing was better than winning. It creates interest while making the achievement possible. So I return a couple days later so a couple of my friends could try it. “If James ate 11, and I’m the spice master, then I’ll be able to finish it easily,” one says. The other is a tree: 6’4 and strong enough to bench his own weight and clear 21 drinks without stumbling. He can definitely fit a dozen in his belly. What happens?

The Spice Master: 5
The Tree: 1
I: Greatly enjoy my Korean Skirt Steak and throw in a wing for old time’s sake.

Now I pass the story on to you. So, ah, here’s to the spirit of adventure! Go forth and devour the wing challenges of your own lives.

What is that voice?

August 26, 2007

Bill Simmons is probably the most popular sportswriter in America. His face is a fixture on’s front page, and that status is well-deserved since his columns, mailbags, and chats draw untold thousands of hits. What makes his success intriguing is that he is in no way a journalist. When he got started, no one would give him a job, so he created a blog (back when people actually called the Internet the “World Wide Web”) and rose to the top thanks to two things: his unique perspective (he writes as a die-hard, unashamed Boston sports fan, not as an objective historian – it’s post-modernism for the jock-strap crowd) and his voice.

By “voice” I mean his writing style, not his windpipes, and this is an important distinction. He is impulsive, boastful, and quite funny. Ten pages with him passes like a breeze. His inappropriate but brilliant analogies between sports and pop culture or his personal life are so pervasive that he is probably responsible for 10% of the jokes his readers make in real life. His most recent venture, however, is a biweekly podcast, and I can’t listen to it for more than thirty seconds because his enunciation is abominable. “The Sports Guy” as written on the page has an enthusiastic, lusty voice with an aftertaste of alcohol. Bill Simmons, on the other hand, is nasal and slight, the kind that fits on an acquaintance but not on a person who seeks to be memorable in any way.

This happened to me last year, as well, when the senior football writer for Sports Illustrated tried a video segment in which he and a supermodel predicted games. Doctor Z was a sage, but Paul Zimmerman was a grouchy old turtle. What worries me is that these experiences might kill their writing for me. Zimmerman has made jokes about going senile for years, but since that video, I’ve actually believed them. Should I hold that against him? His talents for writing and for speaking needn’t be transitive. That’s why he became a writer.

For now, I’ll dock both of them for venturing beyond their talents, but Simmons especially. He decided to break the fourth wall, so everything about him is fair game. I’ve often suspected that he’s not as assertive, manly, and entertaining as he appears in his columns, and this is more evidence. His personal stories will seem a little droopier. Oh well. I can still look forward to his jokes.

Petrified Wealth

August 25, 2007

When Europe was still a Christian continent, every city wanted a glorious cathedral. So the local church would sell some indulgences; the aldermen would hike the tax rates, and the citizens would commence a construction process that required decades and sometimes centuries of capital and labor. At the end of these public works projects, we had the priceless houses of God we know and love today.

Why did the townspeople acquiesce to this sacrifice when the money and labor could have developed industry or helped the poor instead? Certainly some investment in these areas was much needed, and there was a church on every street corner anyway. Christ’s comment that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) comes to mind: albeit Jesus was gone well before the Dark Ages, the prospect of giving him glory in such a concrete way must have been appealing. The cathedrals are works of art which inspire one to holiness. It strikes me, though, that when it came time to decide who was paying for these things, the bishops would employ trickle-down economics. While the wealth appeared “petrified,” or locked inside the bricks and mortar where no one could utilize it, the indirect benefits of the cathedral would outweigh its enormous costs, they’d say. Churches were and still are the landmarks of many cities, so having an impressive one could raise the self-esteem and thus the productiveness of the townspeople while also attracting new talent to the area.

We’re still building cathedrals today. Now, though, they aren’t meant to honor the King of the Universe or to awe us into a life of love and mercy. Rather, they honor entertainment and athletic prowess. I’m referring to publicly funded sports stadia. Just about every professional club receives help from the public these days. Here, I’ll look up the first three stadia that come to my mind:

-Nationals Stadium: the Montreal Expos moved to Washington so they could find people to build a nice stadium for them. In order to pay for the new home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, the District of Columbia (annual budget: $7.6 billion) will sell $600 million in bonds.
-Wembley Stadium: Cost $1.6 billion to build. About $320 million of this was public funding.
-Lucas Oil Stadium: the Indianapolis Colts threatened to leave the Hoosier capital unless the city chipped in for a new stadium. (This is the most unnerving part; at least the Catholic Church didn’t threaten to leave unless it got what it wanted from the city.) Indianapolis will cover $455 million of the $675 million project.

How can a government, which will put you in jail if you don’t pay it enough money, justify giving some of those coerced payments to private sporting organizations? It’s trickle-down econ again: “If the team leaves, our citizens will be morose, and employers will not want to come to such a minor-league place.” In the Middle Ages, we didn’t have economists to question the logic of the bishops, but we have them today, and they say professional sports do not cause development. The construction will create jobs, as all public works projects do, but when it’s complete, it won’t be a thrumming financial hub or a widget factory; it’ll be a place where thousands of people watch a bunch of guys throwing a ball around. It’ll be great fun, but it won’t create any prosperity. It’s petrified wealth. Six hundred billion is a lot to invest in something that isn’t proven to spur growth.

I love sports and beautiful buildings. I just think the teams should build them themselves. If that means the teams leave town, whatever: we can catch them on TV anyway, and if enough cities stand firm, the game will be over. (In Spain, clubs sell shares of the team to the fans to fund construction.) Paying for their own office space is the least the wealthy owners could do considering all the little people who don’t care about sports but who are obliged to pay for such buildings anyway. At least most women enjoy going to cathedrals.

Lucky Number Slevin

August 21, 2007

“Lucky Number Slevin” is a mild sleeper. I have no recollection of its release in theaters, and the critics ignored it as well. (Contrast this with “Sideways,” a small picture which exploded thanks to the adoration of critics.) Nevertheless, “Slevin” has made a home for itself in a some movie collections, and given that it was only released a year ago, it may yet achieve a comfortable position under “Snatch” in the male crime movie hierarchy. (“Boondock Saints” is way out of reach.)

This film made me finally forget Josh Hartnett’s starring role in “Pearl Harbor.” Here, he has depth and maturity to complement his good looks. The presence of Morgan Freedman, Ben Kingsley, and Bruce Willis add gravitas to the proceedings, and Lucy Liu made a good ingenue because she hasn’t logged too many miles in that role yet. The minor characters also did fine work. Thumbs up to the director, who told a straightforward story with his camera work; thumbs down to the music crew which added little to the effort.

What most fascinated me was the script. This work reintroduced a couple of my favorite aspects of old Hollywood:

1. Wit in every line of dialogue. One conversation could have eight subtle jokes in it, and making such precious conversation come off naturally is an achievement. The scenes between Hartnett and Liu especially came off well.
2. Three acts in three days. In other words, the whole story occurs in a short period of time, so it moves quickly, but there is sufficient growth that we’re satisfied with the whole. (Unless, that is, you don’t believe a relationship can go from 0 to 60 in less than a hundred hours.) The pacing in this movie, from the rising action to the measured resolution of the many tangled threads, is good.
3. Funny henchmen. They are so much better when they have personalities.

Yet there is room for this young screenwriter, Jason Smilovic, to improve. I could tell it was his first feature-length film because he tried to fit every aspect of life into it, from romance to revenge to violence to comedy to high drama to slice of life. It is admirable the writer is putting so much of his vision into the work, but he must then manage the proceedings very carefully so the tone is consistent. This work had a little whiplash: it began and ended as a serious mob drama and was more lighthearted in the middle. This can dampen the audience’s appreciation of certain scenes because it was expecting something quite different. Regardless, I believe Smilovic provided a worthy movie, and I look forward to seeing which project he works next.

So long, Indiana

August 20, 2007

(Written at Indianapolis International Airport, en route to Raleigh-Durham and my final year at Duke University)

From the wonderful Christmas morning when I received a new Super Nintendo to my graduation from middle school in the heyday of the first PlayStation, I was a big video gamer. I’d read strategy guides for titles I hadn’t played, scheme entire games in my notebooks, and win Internet trivia contests. I even had a subscription to Nintendo Power. My favorites were without a doubt the role playing games, which often played like animated fantasy novels and were sometimes superior to their hard-bound brothers.

The classics, from Final Fantasy to Chrono Trigger to Lunar, were close to my heart. The one that most enchanted me, though, was a moderately successful title called Grandia. It didn’t have complex characters or a profound plot, but it was the most inspirational game I ever played because it focused on something many other works had strangely neglected: the spirit of adventure. The cover depicts three of the main characters, one a “professional adventurer” and another aspiring to the same calling, standing atop of an enormous wall overlooking countless acres of rainforest. The partition, we learn in the game, is called the “End of the World” because the heroes’ society does not believe there is anything on the other side of it. These characters have to save the world, just like those in every other game, but while other fantasy protagonists enter amazing places with an air of necessity, Grandia’s enter with awe and excitement. Playing it made me want to go both back in time, to exploring my backyard as a wee tot, and forward, to the days I could drive or even fly wherever I pleased, finally free to see the world.

Eight years later, this day has arrived. Sure, I attended school out of state, and I spent half of 2006 in Europe, but after every trip, I’d return to the tranquil state of Indiana. My family and friends validated my time there, but the knowledge I’d eventually hit the road again kept me from stagnation. Having spent my last three summers doing construction, volunteer, and then office work in the Hoosier state, with time-devouring hordes of chores and housework each year, I am fairly certain that homey Indianapolis is not the place for me. I’m a healthy 21 with some intelligence and no relationships or children. More than half my Hoosier friends are already leaving, and the others are easy to contact through the Web (thank you). I may not scale the End of the World or crash through jungles with hostile, man-sized bugs, but surely some occupation in foreign lands can satisfy me. New York would be a good place to start.

If God laughs at this post and affixes me in Indiana permanently, it won’t be a tragedy. Being the 11th-largest city in the United States, it has its share of excitement and opportunity. It is also a fine place to safely raise a family. At times I shall share the fond sentiments Ballard McDonald expressed a hundred years before me. It is strange to look forward to myself looking backward, but anyway, here are the lyrics of that famous song of my state, a standard in both jazz and balladry:

I have always been a wand’rer
Over land and sea
Yet a moonbeam on the water
Casts a spell o’er me
A vision fair I see
Again I seem to be

Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candlelight, still shining bright,
Through the sycamores for me.
The new-mown hay sends off its fragrance
Through the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash,
How I long for my Indiana home.

Fancy paints on mem’ry’s canvas
Scenes that we hold dear
We recall them in days after
Clearly they appear
And often times I see
A scene that’s dear to me

Alas, this is the time not for settling but for radiating. And we’re boarding. Indiana, may God bless your lands that they may always be fertile. I will be back to visit, but emotionally, this is my fond farewell.