Category Archives: Unanswered Questions

Why China is NOT an Olympic Basketball Power?

China’s recent Olympic success continued in 2012 London Games – they finished in the Top 2 in medal standings third time in a row – but they also fielded arguably the worst team in the basketball tournament.
In the previous 5 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Atlanta and Barcelona they finished no higher than in 8th place.

This begs a question, how can a country with over billion people and a proven track record of preparing athletes in other sports fail so badly at one of the most popular sports in their land?
Why China is not a power in basketball?

From time to time I hear this question and I’ve wondered it myself so I explored it but I think the answer is surprisingly simple and it boils down to the four factors [they are NOT intended to be in order of importance]

  • Height Matters

  • Obviously huge majority of basketball players are tall but even though it’s an universal problem because of “short supply of tall people” it’s not an equal and fair playing field. According to various sources China is on average among the shortest nations in the world and none of the countries in the bottom third has a good basketball team on a world stage (Nigeria qualified for the Olympics but they were also a cannon fodder for other teams). In other words, population of very tall people is very limited everywhere but chinese men have a lower starting point which makes it even harder for them to grow up to typical heights for basketball.

    How does it work and why is very nicely explained at as a lesson in Statistics for Average and Standard Deviation which makes it even better. Just an example…

    It turns out that men’s height falls onto what’s called a standard distribution, or a gaussian curve, or a bell curve. Out of one hundred men, about 2/3 of them, about 68, are between 5’7″ and 6′. About 2/3 of all American men are 5’10” ± 3″. About 1/3 of them are outside this range, with about half of those on each side. So, about 1/6 are 6’1″ or taller, and about 1/6 are 5’6″ or shorter. If we start looking for men who are much taller than 6′ tall, we find that as their height goes up, they get more and more rare.

    There are just about exactly 100,000,000 adult men in America. Now that we know their average height is 5’10” and the standard deviation is 3″, we can predict how many of these men fall into various height categories.

    While no country can do much about it outside of illegal experiments with human DNA China even worsened this problem…

  • One-child Policy

  • I don’t want to make it a political or moral discussion but China’s attempt to lower population by law also had to affect their national basketball team.

    Why does it matter just take a look at the Team USA where there were only two single children (LeBron James and James Harden), three other players were the oldest kids in the family (Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams) while all others probably wouldn’t be born in China because they have older brother[s] (Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala) or sister[s] (Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant). Just like that a lot of talent would be gone. I would like to make it a broader study but data seems scarce but I doubt it would change the point that you just can’t cheaply force mother nature to deliver the best athletic specimens in the first attempt and because of the height basketball players almost by definition are nature’s outliers anyway.

    I’ve read there are some exceptions to this rule for the tall or very athletic people but this approach basically destroys all the possible advantage China could have thanks to it’s population’s size.
    And it’s not the only obstacle…

  • Race Matters

  • “Black people dominate sports in the United States. 20% of the population and 90% of the final four. We own this shit. Basketball, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and as soon as they make a heated hockey rink we’ll take that shit too.” – Chris Rock

    While it was a joke and Chris Rock obviously exaggerated it is a good observation and facts are really simple. From recent NBA’s Racial and Gender Report Card

    In the NBA, 83 percent of the players were people of color, an increase of one percentage point from last year’s totals. This represents the highest percentage of players of color since the Racial and Gender Report Card began reporting the composition of the NBA teams. The percentage of African-American players increased by one percentage point to 78 percent, equaling the highest since 2001-02. […]
    At 17 percent, this was the lowest percentage of white players since the Racial and Gender Report Card began reporting the composition of the NBA teams.

    Whatever the reasons behind this [which in itself could be an interesting topic] China’s population of black people is miniscule at best so again, a huge chunk of possible top basketball players are not available to them despite massive population. I wonder, how would team USA play with only white players?

    There are countries which manage to play well despite that like Spain or Russia or even Lithuania because of another important factor…

  • Training Matters

Aforementioned countries and some others including USA have a semi-natural evolution-like path from kids to the pros but Chinese officials approached it with the sheer force of numbers [people and training hours] and without any regard to the nuances and while it seems to work well for swimmers or gymnasts it’s not for basketball. How is it a problem in this sport was well covered on so I’ll just quote it.

Talent is scouted early. Government scouts roam the country, looking for tall kids that have tall parents. One trainer told Sports Illustrated, “We X-ray their hands, when they’re quite little and from the length of the bones we can predict how tall they will grow to be.” Children that are selected are placed in after school programs. If they show promise they are placed in full-time, live-in sports academies.

But it raises the same uncomfortable question that Yardley’s main character… can’t shake: Why is it that a nation of 1.4 billion people and several hundred million basketball fanatics has never produced a single creative, world-class point guard? In other words: Why are there no Jeremy Lins coming out of China? The answers lie in the murky labyrinth of China’s elite sports system, which Yardley — a former New York Times bureau chief in Beijing — explores during his season with what was once the worst professional team in China.

One 6-foot-1, 14-year-old boy told the Los Angeles Times, “I was picked out of a line up in the second grade. I didn’t even know what basketball was.” Like other promising kids he is required to work out on his days off and vacations. “Even during our day off, we have to jump rope at home and get our parents’ signature to prove it.”

“molten-iron” training, so deeply rooted in the Chinese sports system, provides one clue in the case of the missing point guards. China’s athletic army, much like its mass of factory workers, has been extremely productive, going from five Olympic gold medals in 1988 to 51 in 2008. Yet the rigid training methods, Yardley points out, suppress the very characteristics needed to produce an NBA-quality point guard: creativity, freedom, passion and leadership. One other clue comes when the Brave Dragons’ mediocre point guard confesses to Yardley that he won his position by default when his body didn’t grow as tall as predicted. In a system where players are still recruited solely on the basis of projected height — preferably 6-7 or taller — Jeremy Lin never would have played basketball in the first place.

So to recap, China can’t grow at will tall or black people and they even limited the upside of having massive population by law. On top of that they reportedly train badly those few tall players they have.
Do those 4 points explain why China is NOT an Olympic Basketball Power? Have I missed anything?


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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Why Michael Beasley Failed & Can He Bounce Back?

Recently Michael Beasley completed his rookie contract and he didn’t receive any competing offers from his last team. It’s notable because the list of Top2 NBA draft picks in the last 10 years who received the same treatment is short and kind of damning: Hasheem Thabeet, Greg Oden, Darko Milicic and Jay Williams.

So the question is what the hell happened with Michael Beasley’s career so far?

I’ve had a theory so I dived into the numbers, I checked multiple angles on this story and now I’m almost positive it’s true so hear me out before judging why is it ridiculous to think he still can be a good player in the NBA… even though so far his statistics mostly create an urge to shrug shoulders or shake head.

But we have to start with a question “was he worthy of 2nd overall draft pick?” because maybe he was just over-hyped and over-drafted to begin with?

Before the draft Kevin Pelton from basketballprospectus wrote

Subjectively, I like Rose as the top pick, in part because of the way the modern NBA game favors guards, but it’s hard to go against Beasley’s overwhelming statistical superiority.

He wasn’t alone in that assessment. Arturo Galletti’s model from Wages of Wins had him as a clearly #1 in the class by far with one of the highest projections in the database.

John Hollinger based on his Draft Rater wrote

Beasley’s rating is the highest of any player going back to 2002, and it’s the best by a pretty sizable margin. Obviously, this isn’t new information — nobody doubts this guy’s talent level.
But he might be even better than people realize. His numbers were superior even to Kevin Durant’s from a year ago, and Durant had everyone gaga over his performance as a college freshman.
Somehow Beasley didn’t resonate quite as strongly, perhaps because of concerns over his character, but if he keeps his head on straight he’s going to be insanely good.

It’s safe to say that according to his numbers in the NCAA the answer is “he was definitely worthy a second overall pick and you could even argue he should have been drafted first”.

So very talented player joined the NBA and disappointed. It’s so easy to say he was just a knucklehead and focus on his off-court reputation but in my opinion he was put in a position to fail. Why?

There are 3 reasons for it with one common denominator.

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Posted by on July 5, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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What’s the Point in Creating Own Advanced Metric?

After I wrote about instances where advanced statistics agreed and disagreed about players’ value I think it’s a fitting moment to explore mostly theoretical/philosophical topic which has been on my mind for a while now so I wanted to simply pose questions below with a vague hope that someone knows the answers and will share them with me. And they are mostly very fundamental:

Which factors decide about popularity/usefulness of one advanced metric over any other?

Is it even possible to create any statistic about NBA players’ value which will be universally acceptable and impossible to ignore by others?

Even if we focus only on minority of people in a camp “numbers can tell us enough to judge players without seeing them” is it possible to create a metric which almost all nerds will use and agree with it’s merits?
In this small group, could there ever be an agreement on a front between boxscore and non-boxscore metrics or both sides will simply follow their own paths forever?

As a community do we even want to create something like that or are we destined for a growing number of camps and it is a good thing?

I’m a little worried that so many years has been spent on throwing other side of the debate under the bus which really could have turned off interested by-standers… but on the other hand I think that competition creates a great environment for improvement… but am I wrong or advanced statistics basically stand still with some marginal changes along the way?

Whatever the answers…

What kind of ingredients such new metric should/would have?

Accuracy in Evaluation

It’s an obvious reason and it would pretty much end this topic… if not for one huge problem:
almost every author is convinced that his metric is the best one! What makes this situation worse are incentives – if someone created his own advanced statistic… why would he use any other?

That’s why I wonder… aren’t metrics simply the best way to describe author’s point of view?
It would imply that metric’s popularity or usefulness is nothing else but an estimated number of people who share the same point of view therefore agree with all the assumptions.
Could it be that simple?

Availability of Data and Explanation

I’m pretty sure there are many interesting evaluation tools around the NBA… but they are only for the internal use so we just don’t know about them and we probably never will.
What’s more, such priorities create a situation where talented people could be signed by NBA team before they finish work started in a public forum.

But generally speaking availability of the metric gives a clear incentive to discuss it by other people and spread the word about it. I don’t think metric can become popular without it and by the way that’s a reason why I’m totally baffled by basketballprospectus’ policy regarding WARP.

So far I haven’t even try to create my own evaluation tool for NBA players even though it’s probably typical for nerd to wonder about it [to be clear, I spent a lot of time designing own metric for fantasy basketball so now that’s covered I wonder about the next step to explore in this area]… but I’m not smarter or better equipped than people who’ve already tried so is there a point in this exercise? Is it possible to improve existing ones? What is the best case scenario? If you’ve tried, would you recommend it?
In short, what’s the point in creating own advanced metric right now?

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Posted by on January 30, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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Playground Tournament between Advanced Metrics?

Because I play pick up games and fantasy sports I often wonder…how would league/tournament look like if NBA players were distributed among teams by different metrics?

You can approach this topic in many ways but metrics agree about value of top stars so I don’t think standard draft of all players could work without issues typical to snake drafts in fantasy NBA.
Instead I wanted to focus and magnify differences in evaluation and here’s a twisted idea:
based only on last season’s numbers I subtracted player’s ranking according to given metric from average ranking for him based on 4 other statistics and sorted it by the biggest difference for each metric. In other words, I wanted to find players for each statistic which were valued the most by it when compared to others.

To make it clear, let me give you an example, last season Andrea Bargnani was ranked by PER as 80th best player in the league. Win Shares, Wins Produces, RAPM and ASPM graded him below Top200 [to be exact 216th, 245th, 231st, 209th for an average of 225.25].
So PER viewed Bargnani’s 2010-11 season 145.25 slots higher than the competition, and it was the highest difference for it, so he would be selected for the tournament as a representant for PER ;-) Got it?

The rest of such draft would look like this… [I included 9 top players for each metric with difference in parenthesis and extra players were mentioned because of positional need]
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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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Close Games in NBA History, What Happened?

After I explored blowouts in NBA history I quickly jumped into the opposite spectrum – close games.
Because if we exclude obvious factors like style and quality for fans who watch games and don’t cheer for any of the team involved close games are the most exciting possible outcome, right? At least that’s my opinion so with that premise I started digging into the same data-set as used in a previous post to search for games which ended with point differential equal to 3 or less and the results were surprising if not shocking…
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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


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Why Franchise Players Stayed with Original Team

I reviewed a couple of recent situations when top NBA stars left team which had drafted them so it was a natural follow-up to take a look at the other side of this coin: what GMs had to do to keep their franchise players?
Rules are the same as in previous post so I won’t repeat them.

Let’s start with probably the most popular and the most often cited case…
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Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Unanswered Questions


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Review Why Top NBA Stars Left Their Teams

Have you heard recently about Top NBA Stars which left their hard-working and poor teams?
OK, that was a joke, if you follow NBA in any capacity you couldn’t have missed that memo ;-)
But there was always one thing which bothered me about this topic: reason for their actions.
Was it big market glamour? Was it a chase for fame or rings? Was it money/greed? Is it some kind of a trend? A lot of articles were written about this so I finally sat down and spent far too many hours to figure out why… but I think I found an satisfying answer [at least for me].

There were some rules for this exercise, thanks to I reviewed every team’s move from the time franchise player was drafted or signed huge extension to the dreaded day given star was out with following assumptions:

  • All decisions are in a chronological order,
  • I included every contract worth more than 5 million dollars [total],
  • I ignored every minimum contracts and all other small ones unless they were important in some way,
  • I included every significant trade – meaning either good or expensive players were involved,
  • I ignored every trade with marginal assets involved like 2nd round draft pick for future 2nd rounder or bench guy for bench guy with low salaries etc unless they were important in some way,
  • I tried very hard NOT to use hindsight in my judgements but obviously in some cases [especially with rookies and injuries] it was inevitable,
  • Obviously some if not all grades are subjective and probably arguable but I doubt you can move them up or down significantly,
  • I measured predictability of each outcome in a very simple way: “what if said GM had used advanced boxscore statistics like Win Shares, PER, Wins Produced to support his decisions?”,
  • It was a quite long list so if I missed anything important please let me know in the comments,
  • If you are not interested in gory details, just scroll down to the end of this post for conclusions.

Let’s start with a case which not only couldn’t be more clearer but also had some impact on others…
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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Unanswered Questions


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