Monday, February 16, 2009

Remember When...

...Duke had a good basketball team? Those were the days:

Stats taken from Ken Pomeroy's site, which are tempo-free statistics. Scroll over to the right for the defense stats. Efficiency is measured by Points/Possession x 100, and the other percentages are also per possession. The rankings are through games on February 15, showing the clear difference between teams Duke played in the calendar year 2008 compared with those played in 2009 (The ACC season plus Davidson and Georgetown).

Duke has also played about 10 percent less efficiently on both ends of the court in the last thirteen games. Depending on how much schedule played a part, this is either terrible or perhaps expected. Still, here is the defensive efficiency rating turned in by Duke in the last six games, along with that team's Pomeroy offensive rating (in parentheses):

@ Wake Forest (51): 92
vs Virginia (126): 77.8
@ Clemson (15): 118.3
vs Miami (26): 97.4
vs North Carolina (1): 127.6
@ Boston College (22): 116.2

Perhaps this performance is no accident; four of the five best offenses Duke has faced this season have been in the last four games! The only other defensive efforts worse than 1.00 points/possession came against Georgetown (19th ranked offense), at Michigan (66), and against Rhode Island (31). While it may be tempting to cut Duke some slack because of the level of offensive play they've been against, getting far in the NCAA tourney by hoping to play crappy offenses is not exactly a winning strategy.

Breaking it down, the component statistics that most closely parallel Duke's declining efficiency is rebounding. Duke is not a horrible rebounding team on the offensive glass, grabbing about 40% of their own missed shots, good for 15th in the nation. On the defensive glass, however, things are a lot less pretty: 31.8% of Duke's opponent's missed shots are grabbed by the other team (128th nationally). This particular statistic has gotten much worse in ACC play, where opponents are grabbing 35% of their missed shots.

I have not said much about the offense because it hasn't been as much of a problem in 2009, games versus Clemson and Wake Forest excepted. North Carolina is frequently seen to have a soft defense but it still ranks 14th in the nation, and the fourth best defense Duke has seen (behind Purdue, Wake Forest, and Florida State). Duke ran out a 109.9 offensive efficiency against UNC at Cameron, which is not too shabby-- it was the 127.6 stinker on defense (worst of the season for Duke) that was the deciding factor in that game. While Duke is indeed limited by some of the best defenses, such as at Wake Forest (89.3) and Florida State (98.0), it is not as stark a difference as on defense. What Duke's offense is not, however, is an offense that can carry a poor defensive performance to victory against top teams.

Curiously, none of the main component statistics stand out for Duke, which has the fifth best defense in the nation as ranked by Pomeroy. The only stat that kind of stands out is that Duke makes a steal on 12.9% of possessions, which ranks 19th nationally. The other stats, which Pomeroy calls the "four factors" are above average but none seem to scream "This why Duke has the fifth ranked defense." Indeed, just going by raw statistics Duke is ranked 29th, which seems a lot more in line with the components. Pomeroy weights each performance by the strength of schedule, which is how Duke ends up fifth. But if Duke plays exceptionally against poor offenses and poorly against exceptional offenses, weighting by schedule is going to skew the actual ability of Duke's defense.

The conclusion I am forced to draw is that Duke's high defensive efficiency was inflated by a mediocre non-conference schedule (ranked 91st by Pomeroy), and is incapable of playing at an elite level against top-25 offenses. Last Tuesday night, before the Duke-Carolina game, Mike Krzyzewski spoke to the Cameron Crazies. One thing he said stuck with me: "You guys don't need to chant 'Let's Get Hungry.' This team is hungry, believe me they are hungry." And so when I watched the dismantling of Duke's defense by UNC and by Boston College four days later, I couldn't help but think of this South Park clip:

If Duke is interested in keeping their Pomeroy ranking high, may I humbly suggest abandoning the Atlantic Coast Conference, with a move to the less elite A-10. Or at least the Big Ten. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the Annual Duke Sweet Sixteen Bowout. Because at this point in the season, even that's a reach for the Blue Devils.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Fraudulent Response

Disclaimer: This post is not entirely rational, nor is it backed up by the normal statistics readers of this infrequently updated blog have come to expect. This post is a direct response to this one, by fellow Yankee fan and poster on Bronx Banter, Chyll Will. My previous feelings on the subject can be viewed right here.

I understand the anger. Well, strike that- what I understand is that someone else could have a different reaction than I do to the A-Rod steroid news, and that the reaction may include anger. To be honest, my reaction does include anger, but not at the player or the media. My anger is with the fans who enable the latter to apply uneven standards to the former without repercussion. Those fans then feign their own anger while conveniently ignoring parts of the issue that don't fit into a nice tidy box.

Look, we knew that Alex Rodriguez did ungodly things to his body. He is a professional athlete performing at the highest level of a generation, rising above his peers on the strength of.... something. We (speaking metaphorically as the collection of baseball fans, who apparently voted behind my back to oppose steroid use) were perfectly fine when that something was working out 14 hours a day, with protein shakes or herbal supplements or vitamin cocktails or creatine or monosodium glutamate. Before today, we knew that Alex Rodriguez was doing everything he possibly could to enhance his performance. But now, because there was a chemical that entered his body that was on a list only sort of implicitly banned by baseball at the time, suddenly he is dishonorable for trying to enhance his performance?

An analogy: A leading oncologist at a major research university knows she is on the verge of a breakthrough in cancer treatment, but just can't seem to figure out the last piece of the puzzle. Let's also say there's a chemical that improves focus and mental ability by 300%, but it was implicitly banned by the American Medical Association in a vague statement ten years ago. There are random drug tests, but zero consequences for failing that test. She decides to take the drug and with an improved focus has one of the best years an oncologist has ever had. Her new treatment makes a lot of people feel better. Six years later, the results of her random drug test are made public, and angry cancer patients start showing up at the hospital to boo the poor doctor all day.

Now, replace all the medical terms with baseball terms. Personally, I see absolutely no difference. I think that many sports fans realize the hypocrisy and choose to ingore it. We even practice hypocricy within the world of sports: when was the last time a football player was hauled in front of Congress, lied about steroid use, had their career ruined, and made Congress angry enough to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on a perjury trial during an economic depression?

I am not a parent yet either. But when I am, the message to my children will be this: We are not slaves to our genetics. Depending on our environment, our talents can either be destroyed or enhanced, and we are the engineers of that decision. So if there is something at which you have talent, something at which you want to be the best you can, by all means make your environment an enhancing one. Having a few sports "heroes" allegedly "cheating" in order to entertain us is not a dangerous message to our children. We want, and in some cases need to live vicariously by, their doing whatever is necessary to be the best that they can be. The far more damaging lesson is this: "we are a nation of innocence before guilt, of treating people equally. Except of course, when it comes to home run hitters. Then, what any reporter spews is direct evidence of guilt, but only if a player is sorta disliked anyway."

In conclusion, my thoughts restated in more easily accessible bullet form:

  • Why does enhancement of performance through some chemicals count as "cheating," while using other kinds of chemicals counts as "training"?
  • If it's simply a legality issue: Many of the supposed Performance Enhancing Drugs (such as HGH) have never been proven to have an impact on muscle growth or performance, enhancemet or otherwise. Why, then, are they on the banned list?
  • If it's the "do anything to get ahead, unfair advantage" issue that is dishonorable: why don't we as fans collectively look down upon players who use herbal supplements or hyperbaric chambers to try and get ahead? To make this argument look even more ridiculous, what about players who pray to God for a better performance? I think Congress needs to waste taxpayer money investigating whether God is indeed enhancing the performance of faithful athletes.
  • Shouldn't players who took innefectual drugs be treated differently, like a dumbass teenager who smokes a dime bag of oregano?
  • For those "worried about the message to children": Why are people worked up about baseball players who are on steroids, but continue to tolerate/celebrate football players who are known steroid users, such as Shawn Merriman?
  • Players who are caught breaking the steroid rules all face the same official penalty from the league. However, this fairness is not extended to the "court of public opinion" whose instincts are guilt before innocence. For some reason, particular players return to good opinion among fans while others wallow in collective loathing from fans. Shouldn't all suspected steroid users face the same public opinion?
  • And finally, to those who whine about the integrity of the game, or about the sanctity of statistics: clearly, you have no knowledge about the history of baseball.