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Fretting about margin of victory is a distinctly American problem – but also a real one

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What’s wrong with Team USA?

The Americans aren’t losing. They’re 5-0 in the Rio Olympics and have won 22 straight Olympic games.

They’re not just winning close, either. The United States’ average margin of victory in Rio, 23.4, is by far the best in the 2016 Games.

The problem is twofold:

1. Expectations for Team USA are exceptionally high.

2. The Americans aren’t dominating the right teams.

Let’s start with the first issue. The U.S. has outscored opponents in Rio by 23.4 points per game. Second-best Australia (+15.2) is closer to fifth than first. Most countries would love to be the United States’ position – 5-0 with the best margin of victory.

But the United States isn’t most countries.

The Americans have posted 15 of the 17 best average margins of victories in Olympic men’s basketball history. No nation that still exists has topped 2016 Team USA’s +23.4, but that still ranks just 13th in U.S. history.

The best scoring margins in Olympic history:

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The 2016 U.S. team could even see its number fall as the level of competition presumably rises in the knockout stage (more on that later), but the Americans’ biggest problem is a lack of cohesiveness. They could improve significantly as they develop chemistry, even as they face better foes.

Want to take the field over Team USA in an eight-team single-elimination tournament? That’s fine.

It’s much harder to favor any single other team.

But it’s not impossible, which leads to the second issue.

The Americans built their formidable margin of victory by beating up on China (by 57 points) and Venezuela (44). China and Venezuela are now eliminated.

The U.S. fared much worse against teams that advanced to the knockout stage – beating Australia by 10, Serbia by three and France by three. Though there’s not necessarily equity between Group A and Group B, that’s a better representation of Team USA’s level of competition from here.

Narrowing the sample to games between teams that reached the knockout stage, margin of victory is far less less encouraging:

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Spain, which finished second in Group B, has the opposite issue of the U.S., which won Group A. Against teams that also advanced, Spain beat Lithuania by 50 and Argentina by 19 and lost to Croatia by just two. But the Spaniards also lost to Brazil and barely beat Nigeria, two teams already eliminated.

This is the ninth Olympiad where eight men’s basketball teams advance from group play to the knockout stage. In six of the previous eight, the team with the best scoring margin during group play against teams that advanced to the knockout stage also won the gold medal. The two exceptions – 1988 and 2004 – were the only years the U.S. didn’t win gold.

In 1988, the Soviet Union (+7.0 in group games against advancing teams) upset Team USA (+21.7) in the semifinals. In 2004, Argentina (+4.3) passed Spain (+14.7).

Neither instance featured as wide a gap between the United States (+5.3) and Spain (+22.3) this year.

Simply, when push has come to shove against the world’s top national teams so far, the U.S. has not been convincing. Those will be the only opponents the Americans see the rest of these Games.

If it beats Argentina tomorrow, the U.S. will face either Spain (which has dominated its best competition) or France (which played Team USA tight without Tony Parker). Neither matchup looks easy.

The Americans are strongly favored to win gold for good reason, but given their sky high expectations, the concerns are equally valid.

Kelly Loeffler calls WNBA players supporting her opponent for senate ‘out of control cancel culture’

Sue Bird wears shirt supporting Raphael Warnock in senate race against Kelly Loeffler
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WNBA players and Kelly Loeffler hit a stalemate.

Players want to oust Loeffler as Atlanta Dream co-owner because Loeffler – a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia – holds political stances they disagree with and is advocating against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler said she won’t sell, and the league won’t force her out.

So, players have turned to Loeffler’s senate race, wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in support of Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock.

Holly Rowe of ESPN:

Loeffler statement:

ATLANTA—Today, political outsider and conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler issued the following statement in response to WNBA players wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” t-shirts. The shirts endorse Kelly’s Democrat opponent, Raphael Warnock, following her criticism of the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter political organization.

“This is just more proof that the out of control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them. It’s clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball, and I stand by what I wrote in June:

“We come together around sports, but promoting a political agenda divides us rather than unites us. The lives of every African American matter, and there’s no place for racism in our country. But I oppose the BLM political organization due to its radical ideas and Marxist foundations, which include defunding the police and eroding the nuclear family. On the other hand, our flag represents our values of freedom and equality for all. If we can’t unite behind our flag, much less the national anthem during this struggle, then what keeps us together? It’s sad to see that there’s more interest in tearing our country apart than in solutions that bring us together. I’ll continue to defend American values and our flag, because this is not a game – it’s the future of our country. “

“Cancel culture” is a vague term with shifting definitions. But people supporting voting for one political candidate over another? That comes nowhere near any reasonable definition of cancel culture.

WNBA players are not just basketball players. They’re human beings with varied interests – including politics. That should come perfectly naturally to a self-described “political outsider” who’s a sitting senator and running for re-election. If it’s reasonable for Loeffler to be interested in politics (it is), it reasonable for WNBA players to be interested in politics.

As far as Loeffler restating her previous points, she remains errant.

Writer recants report that Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president because team didn’t spend enough

Pacers executive Larry Bird
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The report from ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president because the team didn’t spend enough?

Never mind.

Pacers release:

Statement from Larry Bird

“A published report indicated that I left my position as President of Basketball Operations in 2017 because ownership was not willing to spend “big money” and that it frustrated me enough to step aside. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want everyone to know I left there because it was time for me to move on from the Pacers.

“I had worked with Kevin Pritchard and at that time I felt Kevin was ready to take over and he has proven that. I can’t thank Herb and Mel Simon, along with Pacers Sports & Entertainment, for the opportunities to, at first, coach, and then later move into the front office.”

Statement from ESPN senior writer Jackie MacMullan:

“About three weeks ago during a discussion on the podcast The Hoop Collective, I misspoke when I expressed my opinion regarding the business practices of the Indiana Pacers, and inferred that Larry Bird had been frustrated during his time as team president. It was a careless remark, based solely on my opinion, and therefore should have never been said. Larry Bird never expressed those feelings to me, and I apologize to both Larry and team owner Herb Simon for poor choice of my words.”

I don’t know why the Pacers bothered quoting Bird, who still works for the organization as Advisor to the President of Basketball Operations. MacMullan’s clear recantation says everything necessary (and speaks to her integrity and humility).

It’s good this story got cleared up.

Some things that remain true:

Three Things to Know: Is it time to worry about the Laker offense?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Is it time to worry about the Laker offense?

The Los Angeles Lakers have the worst offense in the bubble.

We’re not just talking about the 86 points on 35.2% shooting in Wednesday’s loss to Chris Paul and the Thunder, although that was a low point.

Four games into the NBA’s restart, the Lakers are scoring less than a point per possession while shooting 39.4% overall and 25.2% from three. Their offense has been worse than the Wizards in Orlando — and how many Wizards starters could you name right now? The Lakers’ starting five — LeBron James, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee — have a dreadful 74.4 offensive rating though four games (and a -30.1 net rating).

Or, since a picture is worth 1,000 words, take a look at the Lakers’ shot chart in the restart.

That’s a lot of red.

Should Lakers’ fans be worried?

Probably not. This is some small sample size theater with just four games. Coach Frank Vogel has been playing around with the lineup rotations, things haven’t been playoff tight. Plus, after the Lakers beat the Clippers opening night they had the top seed all but sewn up, there hasn’t been real motivation for L.A. to play its best.

The Lakers players feel they are just missing shots they normally hit.

“I think it’s just as simple as making shots. We’re getting good looks. Everyone’s not shooting the ball very well, especially from three…” Anthony Davis said on a Zoom call with reporters after the Thunder loss.

I think we’re fine. I don’t think this is anything eye-opening or something that we need to be afraid of. If our defense was bad, I think we’d be a little more in shock about our team and where we are but I think our defense is where want it to be. I mean, we clinched first. We’re fine.”

The bigger reason the Lakers are fine: LeBron James. The Lakers have a very motivated LeBron (although he has shot just 42% overall and 27.3% from three over the last four games). They still have Davis, who has been one of the MVPs of the bubble so far. Those two form the best pick-and-roll combo in the league, and so long as they are on the roster the Lakers have a chance to win it all.

The shooting is a concern — and not a new problem. The Lakers were a below-average shooting team in the season before the shut down (21st in the league on open look three-point percentage). We’ve watched LeBron’s play cover up the flaws in a team and take them to the Finals for years, and it certainly could happen again, but the Lakers shooting — and right now their entire offense — is a concern.

2) Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons leaves game with a knee issue

Non-contact injuries keep fans and coaches up at night, which is why Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons walking off the court with a limp and going straight to the locker room with a knee issue Wednesday was very concerning.

Simmons did not return to the game after that.

The good news is there is reportedly no swelling and the MRI came back clean, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. Officially, Simmons is day-to-day.

Simmons had eight points on 2-of-10 shooting when he left the court. Through three games of the restart — where he is playing more off the ball as a power forward — he’s averaged 11.7 points and seven rebounds a game.

3) Memphis lost again, now 0-4 and could fall out of the eighth seed

The Grizzlies came to the NBA’s restart in Orlando with a 3.5 game cushion for the eighth seed, all they had to do was hold on to that through eight games. Now, after and 0-4 start, that lead is down to just one game over Portland.

On Wednesday, Memphis couldn’t slow down what had been a previously struggling Utah offense and lost 124-115.

The Grizzlies next four games? The Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. Memphis is going to have to find a couple of wins in there without Jaren Jackson Jr., who is out for the rest of this season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Before games started in the bubble, the idea of two teams passing Memphis — meaning the Grizzlies would fall even out of a play-in series for the eighth seed — seemed impossible. Right now, both the Pelicans and Spurs are just two games back, and both have soft schedules the rest of the way.

Memphis wanted to get some playoff experience for their talented young roster during the restart. Well, this is it — every game becomes must-win now for the Grizzlies. They need to be a focused team that finds another gear. For them to hold on and get in a play-in series will require a couple of wins in their last four.

The race for eighth in the West remains the best thing at the NBA restart. On Thursday Portland faces Denver, while New Orleans takes on winless Sacramento.

LeBron James: On behalf of basketball community, we won’t miss Donald Trump’s viewership

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NBA players kneeled for the national anthem.

President Donald Trump called the protest – which is meant to call attention to racism, particularly through police brutality – “disgraceful” and said he stopped watching games.

And in yet another predictable turn in this news cycle, Lakers star LeBron James fired back at Trump.

LeBron:

I really don’t think the basketball community are sad about losing his viewership, him viewing the game.

And that’s all I’ve got to say. I don’t want to – I’m not going to get into a – because I already know where this could go, where it could lead to for tomorrow for me. I’m not going to get into it.

But I think our game is in a beautiful position. And we have fans all over the world. And our fans not only love the way we play the game – we try to give it back to them with our commitment to the game – but also respect what else we try to bring to the game and acknowledge what’s right and what’s wrong.

And I hope everyone – no matter the race, no matter the color, no matter their size – will see what leadership that we have at the top in our country and understand that November is right around the corner. And it’s a big moment for us as Americans. If we continue to talk about we want better, want change, we have an opportunity to do that.

But the game will go on without his eyes on it. I can sit here and speak for all of us that love the game of basketball. We could care less.

LeBron has frequently criticized the president. Trump has also criticized LeBron. That’s how it goes.

In this case (and others), LeBron has the moral high ground. Kneeling during the national anthem is a patriotic act designed to make the United States a better place for all its people to live – something far more noble than saluting a piece of cloth during a song.

However, LeBron is wrong to speak for the entire basketball community. A lot of people love basketball. They don’t all hold the same political views. Some care about remaining in the good graces of the president of the United States, whomever that is. Some even care about the approval of Trump specifically.

Is there a limit on how much you love basketball if you’d stop watching because of a peaceful protest before a game? Obviously. But there’s still room to love basketball and also care about other things.

LeBron doesn’t have to personally dignify people who care both about basketball and Trump. But LeBron shouldn’t try to speak on their behalf, either.

LeBron’s rebuke would have been powerful enough (and more fair) on its own.