April 25, 2015

Money Talks, a Little Too Much

Mark Cuban called college hoops horrible and ugly for not adequately preparing players for the NBA.  Before you tear into him, let's take a look at his experience with basketball.  Maybe he played in high school?  Maybe he studied the game, and has an understanding of fundamental play, a basis upon which to form a critique?

History 1010 - Mark Cuban and Basketball

Cuban is class of '81 at Indiana.  By all accounts (Wikipedia), he was creating and leveraging opportunities to make money as early as grade school, being a natural entrepreneur.  Again, by all accounts (google), he was a fan of Hoosiers hoops, going so far as to launch a web company catalyzed by the idea of broadcasting IU games online.  But that's about where it ends.  In fact, it seems he was more a fan of rugby sevens, or more precisely, the parties resulting from rugby sevens, than he was of Hoosiers basketball.  We might be inclined to delve into some armchair psychology, discussing his peculiar fascination with nudity, and male and female genitals.  But the point is this; entrepreneurialism, money, fandom, and rugby sevens don't translate into an understanding of basketball that would warrant commentary on the national stage.  So maybe his comments themselves will offer us insight into his understanding of the game.  After all, he's the one who preaches:

"[k]now your business and industry better than anyone else in the world."

So in basketball, he argues for a larger protected area, wider key at the baseline, and refing out contact at the rim all to unclog the key.  The logic is to reduce physical play and promote more plays at the rim.  Yea, that might work, but it's a crutch, a training-wheel, a Band-Aid, a short-circuiting of basketball fundamentals.  What inherently promotes more play at the rim, and unclogging the key?  Better perimeter play in the form of surgical passing and lethal shooting.  It stretches the defense in its need to prevent the easy mid-range jumpshot, or worse, the three pointer.

Think Frank Kaminsky making the immortal, hyphenated, Kentucky frontline of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein look bewildered when he would step out for a three.  Man or zone, the guards weren't tall enough to get a meaningful hand in his face, Kentucky's bigs were too uncomfortable defending that far out, and too slow to get around a high pick even if they decided to step out of their comfort zones.  Kaminsky forced Kentucky's post men out, which freed up Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker to work inside.   Classic good offense to stretch the defense.  No larger protected area or ticky-tack reffing required.  This is a concept Cuban should be very familiar with.  Dirk Nowitski has built a Hall of Fame career out of drawing bigs out with precision shooting.  He left guys like Shaquille O'Neal baffled in no man's land 15' out.  Too high to protect the rim, but too low to break up a three.  Has Cuban not been watching his own games?  Or maybe he didn't understand the game well enough to be entertained by it?

History 1050 - The Key and the Three-Point Line

Truly understanding what unclogs the key and promotes better play at the rim calls for a quick history lesson:

1. the key - the key and it's sister 3-second rule were introduced in 1936 for the sole purpose of preventing players from camping around the hoop.  It's called the key because it acutally looked like a key hole.  And here we thought it was merely a pretty place to paint team colors and put the conference logo.

The problem was that taller players would cheat the key by simply straddling it with one foot on either end.  So the NBA widened it to 12 feet.  FIBA took the baseline to 20 feet to keep the area around the hoop even more clear, but that just proves European ballers are a bunch of wimps who can't post up against a back-to-the-basket center.  Twelve feet was enough to keep Wilt Chamblain out.

... and stay out...

Now the key is unclogged, right?

2. the three-point line -  Let's give the 3 point line some historical context.  There's still no shot clock, you're up by 10, there's 00:53 left in regulation, you have the ball 25' feet away from the rim, and there's a hand in your face.  What do you do?  Pass it?  Dribble out the clock?  If you're Pistol Pete Maravich, you shoot.  The Pistol started heaving 25-footers worth the same points as a lay-up (2), and sinking them.  If you're anyone else though, you dribble out the clock while the defense packs around the hoop.  The the jump shot forced the defense to step out and contest the good shooters, and the three point line made defending the jump shot that much more urgent.

The point is this: good basketball doesn't need wider keys to unclog the lane and run offense.  It needs better play.

Mid Major Programs Play Well, are Entertaining

If entertainment in college is what you're looking for, look no further than your very own Zags.  Watch as Przemek Karnowski feeds Domantis Sabonis with a no-look pass to neutralize a bewildered double-team.  And finishing wasn't luck; the pair did it again 10 minutes later.

Here's the best part.  You'd think a pass like that might catch Sabonis off guard, that he might bumble the ball a bit having it appear on the right side of a double-team.  But watch carefully, and you'll notice that on both occasions, Sabonis was showing palms.  He knew the ball was coming and he was ready to catch and finish.  It wasn't a case of a veteran guard feeding a freshman big with more heat than the big was ready for.  The Zags have practiced and played together enough to know where their teammates' heads are.

Sabonis finishes a dunk off a baseline pass from Karnowski
in the Zags' Sweet 16 win for its second Elite 8 berth ever.

That's chemistry that leads to good passing, good passing spreads the defense, a spread defense opens the key, and an open key is good basketball.  No amount of repainting lines and refs swallowing their whistles will ever make Karnowski drop no-look dimes to an open Sabonis.

Commercializing Athletics

This is the difference between basketball as entertainment, and basketball as a study in sport.  The difference between the WWE and World Cup wrestling.  The difference between a Chevrolet Corvette and a Lancia Stratos.  One is entertaining, fun to watch, popular.  The other is heady, fundamental, strategic. The main stream might not appreciate Sean Miller's Xs and Os coaching, but Sean Miller isn't out there calling James Harden's double-teamed, cross-over fade-aways with a guy open at the rim, "horrible" and "ugly."  The truth is, save for the likes of the Spurs, Hawks, and a few others, NBA basketball is actually really bad basketball.  Cuban may not understand college ball well enough to stay awake, but then, he was never invited.

Cuban attending one of his famously entertaining games.

Cuban famously lecturing another eager pupil.

This is the difference between Cuban's "entertaining" NBA champion mavericks team who won against a Heat team still finding its chemistry with the formation of Miami's threesome, and the "boring Spurs that have put together a string of 5 titles in one of the most consistent franchises in history.  So no, it appears Cuban has no understanding of the Xs and Os.  As a result, he's simply suggesting we short-circuit the fundamentals.  His success on the financial stage doesn't substantiate a blanket license to comment on everything.  College basketball is about so much more than entertainment.  It thrives on a mix of loyalty to an amateur athletic program, and an appreciation for Xs and Os.

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