Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remedial Football Math

Sports talk radio guys gotta eat, and they can only cadge one meal a day through plugs, so I probably shouldn't have been too surprised nor upset when Mark Bertrand and Scott Zolak, who know better, began their show this morning by wondering if the subpar performance of the Patriots' offense against Kansas City and his own utterly forgettable evening meant that Tom Brady was in danger of getting benched in the 2017 season.

No, the sad thing is that this obvious effort to drive listeners to the phones in sputtering rage as a way to fill up four hours of air time was based on the program's knowledge that most fans are 1. always overly focused on offense, especially the quarterback; and 2. completely innumerate when it comes to the NFL.

Did Brady play his best or even within shouting distance of it? Oh, God no. Did the offense sputter or worse at vital moments. Sure. But let's take a look at the scoreboard. At game's end last Thursday night it read Chiefs 42-Patriots 27.

Let's multiply 27 by 16, the number of games in an NFL regular season. This gives us a total of 432. Now let's look at the NFL scoring stats for last season. What do we find?

First, we find that scoring 432 points would have made a team the third highest-scoring offense in the league. In fact the Packers, rightly known as one of the league's top offenses, scored exactly that. The Patriots, during a season where nobody called for Brady to be benched, scored 441, all of nine points more.

Delving a bit more, let's note that the average NFL team, winners and losers alike, scored a smidge less than 23 points a game, 22.8 to be more precise than smidge. Of course, this means that the average team also allowed that figure.

This is well within the parameters of NFL scoring since pass blocking was deregulated in the late '70s. Over the decades, scoring has climbed from a little less than 21 points a game per team to 22.8. For all the changes pro football has seen in that time, one thing has remained constant. Score 27 points, you are way more likely to win a game than not.

Of course, there's one other constant, too, one that's of the most relevance to the Pats' 0-1 record than is Tom Brady. Give up 42 points, and you have an over 99 percent of losing, and over a 90 percent chance of losing very badly indeed.

I guess devoting an entire four hours of broadcast time to the proposition "a defense that made Alex Smith look like Brett Favre gunslinging on one of his best days had better improve" just wouldn't drive the ratings meter. But I'll bet Bill Belichick has spent hours a day considering it, and about five minutes worrying about Brady.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

No Days Off, Just the Occasional Night

Local reaction here in New England to the unexpected-by-everyone-on-Earth-especially-me Chiefs win over the Patriots by the embarrassing margin of 42-27 has been instructive. Among the Patriots themselves, disgust was the prevalent emotion. They turned in a performance unworthy of their talents, knew it, and reacted accordingly.

That's good. A "just a few bugs to work out" reaction would've been an alarming sign of a franchise so accustomed to success it had forgotten how to cope with failure. Among fans and commentators, reactions were more mixed, indicating some had indeed forgotten, as if Super Bowl LI had given their heroes a perpetual pass from the sport's inherent difficulties.

Oh, sure, there were the usual subset of Boston fans who believe that the game meant certain doom, just as a win would've had them tweeting about a 19-0 season; It was the (slightly) subtler analyses that were more revealing.

Mr. Proud Negativity himself, Michael Felger, was the leading exponent of one of the silliest rationalizations. He argued, as did others, that had two, three or four plays gone differently, the Pats would've beaten Kansas City easily.

Anyone making this case is honor bound to ask themselves the following question. What would you have said had any Falcons fan said the same thing back in February? One doubts there'd have been much sympathy here.

Another reaction was to isolate each and every Pats misdeed in purely technical football terms. That's OK in itself, analyzers gotta analyze after all. But so much time was spent dissecting the offense! To focus on Rob Gronkowski's indifferent evening or Tom Brady's for that matter is to ignore the obvious. New England's offense scored 27 points. The total average for points scored by NFL teams in all NFL games is about 22 points. The Pats scored enough to win most games.

Of course commentators and fans lambasted the defense, too, as well they might've. If Dont'a Hightower is so invaluable his loss to injury means the defense collapses, well, that's kind of a problem given his injury history. Giving up 78 yard TDs and 80-yard two play scoring drives to an opponent who due to both talent and coaching inclination usually takes 14 plays to go that far is alarming.

All NFL defenses stress preventing big plays as their Prime Directive. It's a religious tenet for Bill Belichick. They only happen for two reasons. 1. Somebody fucked up. 2 and much much worse. Your guys chasing the men with the ball just aren't as fast as they are.

There might not be anybody in the NFL who can catch Tyreek Hill from behind. Leave that one aside for now. Defensive screwups happen. If all those KC big plays came from such errors, that's disturbing for the coaching staff, but errors can be corrected.

What can't be corrected except by every man on the roster is the following narrative. The Pats led after three quarters and went further south than Rio in the fourth. It was a total team collapse not seen, well, since the last game New England played, except in reverse. And such a collapse puts, or ought to put, the burden of proof on the team that suffered it.

The Falcons play the Bears tomorrow. I am sure every Atlanta fan and commentator is looking towards the game with the wariest of eyes. The Falcons themselves must have inner doubts. What will happen the next time things get tough for us? That's why, oddly, they'd be better off winning a close one than blowing Chicago out as talent says they should.

For decades I've noticed the peculiarity that athletes whose teams suffered beatdowns to blame their own lack of effort, an enormous professional sin, rather than just saying "those guys were a lot better." It's a defense mechanism. Anyone can try harder at anything. Human beings, however, cannot just will themselves to be faster, smarter, stronger and more poised.

But sometimes the self-loathing is justified. I think the Pats themselves are closer to the reality of the Chiefs game than are outsiders. When the going got tough, they stopped going. They're right to be disgusted.

Every NFL team turns in at least one pure stink bomb per season. Perhaps the Pats have gotten theirs out of the way early and it'll be smooth sailing on a sea of excellence for the remainder of 2017.

But fans saying that is unhelpful, whether it's true or not. New Englanders should spend the next week getting a little Philly on their heroes' asses.

It'll be good for the heroes, and make the fans feel better, too. They'll have done their part in the re-education process.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

All In Off a Guess on the Other Guy's Hole Card

Danny Ainge likes to gamble. An NBA GM who doesn't should be in another line of work. As a veteran gambler, Ainge knows the time to bet big is with a big stack. But big stacks are not always the professional gambler's best friend. More often than not, they do their best work when the stack's low and the rent is due.

Thing is, gamblers like to gamble. And by trading Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder AND the Nets' unprotected draft pick next year to get Kyrie Irving, Ainge has bet close to his whole stack without really knowing what hole card his opponent might have.

Might be a great bet with a huge reward, and if that happens I wouldn't be too surprised. But that outcome rests on the hole card Ainge can't see. He can suspect, but that's all.

Obviously, the hole card is LeBron James. If James is intent on heading to LA or Golden State or anywhere else at the end of next season, Ainge rakes in the chips. Cleveland becomes Boston with a draft pick who I'm going to say right now will not be as good as LeBron. He will also have Irving, who's better than Thomas (not by all that much) and doesn't have a health issue that got him shut down in the Conference Finals. That's Ainge's hole card and the Cavs can't see that either until physicals roll around.

But if LeBron is happy in his home town and doesn't leave, then Ainge has swapped equal parts of his not as good team for those of the better team and then let it have a draft pick which even if it's not an all-time will make it better still. Let's not forget Jae Crowder. Is he great? God no. Is he the kind of player who winds up on title teams? Let's ask Robert Horry.

Don't interpret this post as a knock on Ainge. No big bets, no rings.  But there's no such thing as a worthwhile big bet without an equally large risk

Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Is Too Short to Waste a Second Thinking About Fall

The Patriots are both defending Super Bowl champions and the NFL's most historic dynasty, so naturally there's a lot of fan interest as training camp has just begun. But there should also be even more interest in cookouts, golf, swimming, going to the beach and other activities of the season besides thinking about large men in plastic armor sweating as they go though the unutterable tedium of football practice.

Therefore as a public service, I present the following guide to following the Pats' preseason, or any team's preseason in any summer for that matter. It's not a complex process.

1. Pick medium of your choice for receiving sports news, print, broadcast, social, whatever.

2. Access Patriots' news.

3. Are there injuries in the news? There usually are. Read or listen to injury news carefully. (For the purposes of this process, assume a surprise retirement like Rob Ninkovich's is an injury story).

4. Is there no injury news? Stop paying attention immediately. You KNOW Tom Brady is a good passer. His practices mean nothing to you. Resume summer-related activities.If you just can't let sports go, call WEEI or the Sports Hub and bitch about the Red Sox.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Brief Sports SAT Answer

Aaron Judge is 1 for 21 since the All-Star break, the one hit an infield single.

Winning the Home Run Derby is to baseball what being on the cover of Madden is to the NFL.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Only So Many Successful Swindles Per Swindler

Celtics fans are unhappy because Danny Ainge has so far been unable or unwilling to use Boston's endless array of "assets" (pretty good players plus many high draft picks) to acquire the likes of Kristaps Porzingas, Paul George, Jimmy Butler or Zombie Wilt Chamberlain in a trade. This is because Celtics are spoiled and Ainge did it.

I think one reason Ainge may not have made any trades to date, and appears likely to pursue free agents instead, is that's he's spoiled, too. His standards for successful larceny are too high for normal flesh market wheeling and dealing.

Ainge brought a title to Boston by acquiring Kevin Garnett, instant Hall of Famer, for Al Jefferson, competent NBA player. That's a steal of heroic proportions. He then traded Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets for the franchise's first born children, excuse me, draft choices until the next century. That one made Bernie Madoff jealous.

So it's understandable that when Ainge enters trade talks, he may don a mask and carry a gun while on the phone with other GMs. However, trades that benefit only side are just any other trade in one respect. You need a victim, I mean partner.

On the radio, Ainge sounded genuinely offended that Knicks leader Phil Jackson had demanded a great deal in return for Porzingas. You could imagine the thought balloon over Danny's head. "If Phil is bat-brained enough to trade his best player, why isn't he bat-brained enough to do it for almost nothing? The nerve of the guy."

On draft night, it turned out the Bulls were willing to ship Butler out of town for what could at best be described as an adequate return, a price the Celtics could've surely bettered. Ainge insists the Bulls wanted more from Boston than they got from the Timberwolves for Butler. This is plausible. Teams with more assets get asked for more in any trade, on the grounds they can better afford it and are presumably seeking a quick return on investment, such as reaching the NBA Finals.

OK, Ainge wouldn't bite. It is not to question his judgment to wonder if said judgment is overly influenced by his marvelous ripoffs of yesterseasons. Maybe to Ainge, a trade short of a coup is defined as a bad one (Swapping the number one for number three pick in a draft short of perceived historic talent is more housekeeping than anything else).

Free agency is so much simpler. Money offers are fixed by collective bargaining. This leaves franchises to offer, well, themselves. They can and do present their management, coaches and players as the best chance free agent stars have of ultimate victory in a league where dynastic powers have been the rule since its inception.

Blake Griffin and/or Gordon Hayward may well choose Boston. But I doubt the Celts' 2018 and 2019 draft choices will figure in their thought processes.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Perfect May Be the Enemy of the Good, but the Good Is the Enemy of NBA Championships

The things Celtics fans need to remember about Danny Ainge is that he has high standards, and those standards were created through intense personal experience.

The Celtics' basketball chief created a little stir over the weekend by giving an interview to my old Herald colleague Steve Bulpett in which Ainge admitted the obvious, that the current Boston team is nowhere near talented enough to be a serious NBA title contender. Just as candid but perhaps less obvious, Ainge also strongly implied improving that situation would be difficult verging on impossible.

Quite a burst of pessimism for the can-do Ainge, an activist of the first order. He's got a team that went to the conference finals, and the number one pick in the 2017 draft. Why the note, make that symphony, of caution?

The vital sentence in the interview tells the story. "We have plenty of good players," Ainge said. "We need great players."

We're all prisoners of our past, and the more glorious said past, the stouter its prison walls. When Ainge thinks of NBA championship teams, he has to be reminded of the Celtics team he started for in the '80s that went to four straight Finals and won two of them. The other four starters are all in the Hall of Fame. Then his mind may go to the 1992-1993 Phoenix Suns. Ainge was sixth man on that team. It went to the Finals and lost. It had Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.

Of course, Ainge need not dwell on the distant past. The recent will do. He is the architect of the Celtics team that won the 2008 championship and made the 2010 Finals. That team contained three surefire Hall members in Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It also had Rajon Rondo, who could've made Springfield if Rajon Rondo hadn't kept getting in his way.

Those memories are why when Ainge looks at the Celtics of this season, he doesn't see 53 wins, a conference finals, and a bright future. He sees that most dreaded of entities "a real nice team," the equivalent of the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks the '80s Celtics would dispatch from the playoffs with varying degrees of difficulty, but a constant sense of predestination. Talent was going to win out. Talent always wins out.

That's an oversimplification. Every NBA player, even the league leaders in DNP-Coach's Decision, has talent. Tens of millions of human males play the damn game, and only 400 or so make the league. That's the tiny top of a very big pyramid. By talent, I should say, "historic talent." The kind of talent fans remember all their lives. The kind of talent that sells tickets. The kind of talent every NBA champion ever has possessed.

If the draft class of 2017 contained the equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even the equivalent of Garnett or Barkley, Ainge wouldn't have sounded so glum. In his judgment, better than mine I'm sure, it doesn't. Nor are there any Kevin Durant's in the free agent class. In terms of his overall merit, Gordon Hayward is basically the white Al Horford. Any team would be glad to have either and rightly so. No team would do advance Finals planning because they got 'em.

If the 2017-18 Celtics are to meet Ainge's standards, he has only one option. Luckily, it's one that worked before. Find a team with even dimmer prospects and a disaffected superstar desperate to move to a winner. Who might that be? No clue here, but I remember that very few people thought Garnett would become a Celtic before Ainge swindled old pal Kevin McHale to get him. If Ainge has such a target in mind, I'd be surprised if he's told anyone yet, not even Brad Stevens.

But if the draft and its immediate aftermath go by, and all Ainge has to show for his troubles is the use of his number one on yet another teenage guard, don't be surprised if his good cheer seems a little forced. He (and I) will not be fibbing when Ainge states Markelle Fultz makes the Celts a better team.

But Ainge (and I) know that "better" means the Celts might beat the Wizards in six games next spring instead of seven.