Saturday, March 03, 2012

03/03 (LeBron, Bounties, Peyton, CBB) Quickie

Process > Result.

As 2,200 folks gather at MIT yesterday and today for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I think most would agree with that. I think most fans -- regardless of analytical orientation -- would agree with that, for the most part: That the result matters -- OF COURSE -- but how you got there matters more. A fluky result doesn't mean as much as a solid process most likely to yield the result you want over and over and over.

When LeBron -- brilliant throughout the 4th quarter last night -- passes up the final would-be game-winning shot to get a teammate a better shot and that teammate misses the shot, it was the right thing to do, if the wrong result.

Would LeBron have made the shot? Maybe, in a one-time situation. But maybe not. But, inarguably, not at the same rate an open teammate would. His process was absolutely right; the result means that he will take more criticism for shying from the game-ending moment (even if his 4th quarter heroics the previous 11 minutes and 50 seconds had put the Heat in a position to win the game at all).

Should LeBron have taken the shot? Would critics rather have LeBron take the shot and miss -- to show he has the fortitude to take the shot at all, even if isn't as good of a shot? -- than pass to a teammate for a higher percentage chance of making the shot and winning the game?

I suspect that what minimal credit LeBron would get for taking the shot would be drowned out if he missed -- "LeBron can't finish!" "Michael Jordan made the smarter play!" "CHOKER!"

LeBron did the right thing. (PS: I'd differentiate last night's decision from the one he made in the All-Star Game last Sunday night, where there were no stakes and he probably should have just thrown up the shot, even if his basketball IQ insists the smarter play is to find the open teammate).

And as his brilliant season continues -- it is the best season if his career, and if you're not watching him, you're missing an all-time great player at the height of his abilities -- I find myself beginning to root for him to succeed, if only to reward process over result. The result will come eventually. LeBron is just too damn good for it not to.


*Saints/Bounty scandal: As the anecdotes pile up, I can absolutely see Roger Goodell banning Gregg Williams from the league. Not a one-year suspension -- an outright ban.

A few reasons:

(1) This is a particularly nasty scandal, because it is so easy for casual or non-fans to grasp and be horrified about it (particularly as stories come out involving intentions to hurt some of the league's biggest stars, like Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning). Banning someone for life would send the most powerful signal possible.

(2) It is in the league's best interests to pin this on an individual bad actor, rather than a franchise or organization (although make no mistake: the league is going to crush the Saints for this -- the fines are incidental; the lost draft picks could be severe. And if the Saints want to get in front of this, they should fire GM Mickey Loomis, who directly defied an order from owner Tom Benson and allowed the bounties to continue. I don't want to be so proscriptive -- let me be predictive: I think they WILL fire Loomis). It is also easier than trying to punish individual players.

I suspect that the Rams will fire Williams before the league can punish him, and that even if he gets "only" a one-year ban, he will never work in the NFL again. Based on his statement last night, I don't think he understands his new reality. If he wanted to get in front of it, he would quit the Rams and voluntarily ban himself from the league for a year, dedicating his time and energy to traveling around the country talking to youth teams about what a mistake he made. I suspect he won't go this route and the league will hammer him.

*Peyton Manning caught on video at a passing workout at Duke: If Manning's team leaked this, it is a brilliant move, because the grainy YouTube footage sure makes it look like he can still wing the ball -- and that's with a full six months until the season starts. I still wouldn't sign him if I was a team -- there is a big difference between light throwing workouts and getting drilled by Ray Lewis.

*MLB Playoffs format changes: As a big fan of MLB's Wild Card system, I think this new system will work out fine. This initial season will be a clusterf--- because of the compressed schedule to wedge everything in, including the initial one-game Wild Card Wild Card game rolling into the LDS round, which lets the team with the worse record host the first two games of the best-of-5 series. But setting that aside, I think the new one-game playoff round will be enormously popular, and the accompanying chase for those new playoff spots will increase fan interest in September. Will we eventually see a third-place division-finisher win the World Series? Absolutely -- no one but stodgy baseball purists will care. (For reference, see how no one questioned the legitimacy of the Giants winning the Super Bowl, despite having the worst regular-season of any champ in NFL history.) Will we see some 89-win team knock off a 96-win team in a one-game playoff? Absolutely -- again, the response is... "So?" People like playoffs. People like do-or-die playoff games. This is going to be a huge success.

*College Hoops Saturday: Duke-UNC gets all the attention, but I've always thought that while it is a great rivalry, the games themselves are meaningless in the bigger picture. So UNC lost to Duke a few weeks ago -- what were the consequences? That UNC dropped from the 1-seed line to the 2-seed line? Meh. ACC regular-season title implications? Meh. If your aspiration ends at some regional honorarium, that's fine. Last time I checked, UNC and Duke fans enjoyed beating each other a lot, but not as much as they enjoyed winning a national championship (or even just making a Final Four -- a reminder that college hoops is the only sport where being a semifinalist is given as much distinction as winning a championship.) And so it continues tonight: If Duke wins... OK, they lock up a 1-seed. So? If UNC wins, they avenge the loss to Duke, sure, but... anything else? They're still no worse than a 2-seed, win or lose.

Want real stakes today? Northwestern is playing at Iowa with its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid hanging in the balance. If NU loses, they are finished -- bubble burst. If they win, they might very well have played themselves into their first-ever NCAA Tourney. (Other folks think that NU also has to win a first-round Big Ten Tournament game next week, but winning today is an absolute prerequisite.) Meanwhile, Championship Week heats up with small-conference championship games with automatic NCAA invites on the line -- one of the great moments of the sports year.

-- D.S.

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