Category: Sports


By Sean Carroll | April 20, 2008 8:01 pm

My beloved Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, under the coaching tutelage of local hero Maurice Cheeks, have returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence. It wasn’t easy; they started the season with an ugly 5-13 record, but turned it around late to slip into the seventh seed in the tepid Eastern Conference. Their efforts earned them a series with the Detroit Pistons, a perennial power who finished with the league’s second-best record. Pistons center Rasheed Wallace has played in more playoff games than all 15 members of the 76ers roster combined.

But this afternoon, the plucky Sixers came back from a 15-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Pistons in their first game. That’s why they play the games. In their honor, here is my favorite video of Mo Cheeks, back from when he was coaching Portland a few years ago: chokes me up every time I watch it.


Any Given Sunday

By Sean Carroll | February 3, 2008 10:18 pm

As a native Philadelphian who spent many years in Boston, I can sincerely attest that New England has the most insufferable sports fans in the entire country. So I was kind of not looking forward to today’s Super Bowl coronation of the New England Patriots as the Best Football Team in All the Galaxy and Throughout Eternity. And then, against all the various odds I saw in Vegas last week, they lost! And I was happy.

Then it occurred to me that the winners were the New York Giants. Well, the happiness was brief.



Win the Smallest Trophy Ever!

By Sean Carroll | January 29, 2008 12:24 pm

Physics Central is sponsoring a contest with a Super Bowl tie-in — a prize for the best video “that demonstrates some aspect of physics in football.” (Is there such a thing? Need you even ask?) Just load it up to YouTube with the tag “nanobowl,” but hurry — the deadline is this Sunday, February 3rd.


The winner will receive (seriously) a nanoscale trophy, visible only with an electron microscope! Oh yes, and the winner will also receive $1,000. In normal-sized money.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Sports

Fixing the Lottery

By Sean Carroll | June 28, 2007 12:07 pm

I’m back from dinosaur hunting, no worse for wear, save for the indignities suffered upon me by Delta Airlines on the trip home. A brief report will be forthcoming.

But a looming event demands our attention: tonight’s NBA draft, the process by which the world’s most promising young basketball talent is apportioned to the Association’s various teams. A process, which, by all accounts, is in serious need of fixing. But don’t worry, I have it figured out. (Hey, I was stuck in airports for over eight hours.)

The basic problem is one that is common to the draft process of most professional sports leagues: the draft rewards failure. The teams that finish at the bottom of the season’s standings get to choose first in the draft, funneling the best players to the worst teams. The motivation, of course, is fairness: the good teams have had their chance at success, let’s give the bad ones a fighting chance. The ultimate goal is to win, so the incentive to grab a better player should be offset by the incentive to win games.

In most other sports that idea basically works, but it fails drastically for basketball. The problem is that the difference in game-altering ability between the first one or two players and the next few can be huge. There are fewer players on court in hoops than in other sports, so one great player can wield a disproportionate influence. The incentive to get that very first pick can be tremendous, especially if it’s between a group of teams that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs anyway.

As a result, a straightforward worst-pick-first draft structure leads to a race to the bottom, where bad teams intentionally lose games to have a chance to make the first pick. Repulsed by the idea that teams would purposely tank, the NBA decided to alter the incentive structure by softening the reward for losing. In 1985 the NBA instituted the Lottery: all of the teams that had missed the playoffs (seven back then, fourteen today) would be entered into a random drawing for draft position, with equal chances of getting any of the first picks.

The lottery removed the incentive for finishing with the worst record in the NBA, but introduced an even worse incentive: now a team that just missed the playoffs could possibly land a franchise-caliber player if the ping-pong balls bounced their way. The last thing the Association wants is to see teams trying to not make the playoffs, so they instituted a compromise: via an ungainly formula, each non-playoff team would have a weighted chance of getting a top pick, with better chances for the teams with the worse records. This year, for example, the 14th-worse team had a 0.5% chance of getting the #1 pick.

Which, of course, is the worst of all worlds! There is still some tempting incentive to miss the playoffs, but there is also incentive for non-playoff teams to lose more games. It is almost inevitable: the first pick, in the right year, can be enormously valuable, so any chance to get it will be highly sought-after, no matter how such chances are distributed.

Aside from all this, there is another nagging problem with the basic idea of worst-pick-first drafts: teams can be rewarded not only because they struggled valiantly but lost with inferior talent, but also because of sheer incompetence. Good players can be steered to teams that regularly suffer from bad decision-making at the level of coaching or management.

With all that in mind, here is my magic formula for fixing the NBA Lottery. (Unfortunately, I know of no way to prevent the crimes against fashion regularly committed by draft attendees.) Each year, the draft order will be chosen by the following two-step algorithm:

  • Order the teams by their record over the last two years. Break ties using this year’s record.
    In one simple stroke of genius, most of the draft’s problems are solved. A team’s two-year record is less affected by an individual loss than its one-year record is. The incentive for tanking games is correspondingly diminished. More importantly, it’s the teams that are consistently bad that really need the help, not one-year horrors. The obvious case in point is the San Antonio Spurs, who in the late 90’s were a very good team, led by David Robinson, who couldn’t quite get over the hump. Then Robinson was injured for most of the 96-97 season, the Spurs had the third-worst record in the league, and they won the lottery. They were able to choose Tim Duncan, with whom they have just won their fourth NBA championship. That’s just wrong.
  • Teams will choose in (reverse) order of their two-year records, except that a team cannot choose in the top 3 for two consecutive years. Those that would be in the top three are bumped down until they are not.
    We want to help truly bad teams, not one-year flukes, but we don’t want to reward consistent failure either. By preventing teams from choosing in the top 3 two years in a row, we let bad teams play their best basketball without feeling like they are costing the franchise a great draft pick. Note that there is no randomizing element at any step of the algorithm, but it manages to greatly reduce the incentive for bad teams to tank late-season games. Such an incentive will still exist whenever two teams are in close competition for a single once-a-decade talent, but those players have to go somewhere.

To see how this would work, here are the records of the bottom 14 teams for the combined 2005/2006 and 06/07 seasons, starting with the worst:
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Why I love the Super Bowl

By Julianne Dalcanton | February 5, 2007 2:01 pm

Although I am a fair-weather sports fan, I love the Super Bowl. The drama and spectacle always grab me, even if the Steelers don’t happen to be in it. However, beyond the game itself, my devotion to the Super Bowl largely springs from the party my old college roomate and her husband throw every year. The party has been going on for more than a decade at this point, and the rules are simply:

  • All beer must be domestic and in cans.
  • Empty cans are to be hurled at the TV at Suitable Moments.

The same people show up year after year, and now that we’ve aged to the point of spawning, our roaming, unsupervised pack of offspring has taken up the latter item with gusto. Overheard while they were hunting for empty cans: “I wish the grown-ups would drink more.”

Anyways, this year was particularly festive, given the amazing first return, the fabulously sloppy ball during the downpour in the first half, the glow-in-the-dark Tron marching band during the half-time show, Manning’s quick perky dance that he squeezes between yelling at his squad and the snap, and the deep pleasure of the announcers soberly discussing the fine work of the Colts’ defensive tackle Booger McFarland.

And any event where I can dust off the crockpot and whip up mexican velveeta dip is all right by me.


The Gridiron, Distilled

By Sean Carroll | January 2, 2007 12:34 pm

The deciding game of college football’s Mythical National Championship, in which Northern power in the form of the Ohio State Buckeyes will put a serious hurt on Southern speed in the form of the Florida Gators, isn’t until next week. But yesterday we had the two important games of the season. One saw plucky Boise State finish an undefeated season by squeaking past perennial powerhouse Oklahoma, in a 43-42 overtime thriller that is guaranteed to go down as one of the best college football games of all time. 22 combined points in the last minute and a half of regulation, breathtaking trick-play laterals, gutsy two-point conversions, and a happy ending to boot. It’ll be hard to beat that.

The other important game was the Outback Bowl, since any game featuring Penn State is automatically important. The Nittany Lions smartly dispatched the favored Tennessee Volunteers, 20-10, adding to coach Joe Paterno’s all-time-best bowl victory total. But, as exciting as the game undoubtedly was (what would I know, I was on an airplane as usual), the only reason we mention it here on our ponderously serious blog is to point to this terrific animated summary of the game from Tennessee site Rocky Top Talk.

Outback Bowl Graphic

Click to get the full animation, which colorfully summarizes every drive of the game. (Dashed lines are punts, in case you were wondering.) Some day all sporting events will be virtual; those of us with basic subscriptions will only have access to animated summaries like this, while those who spring for the premium service will get to see artificial highlights generated by the best computer graphics available at the time.


Defense Wins Games

By Sean Carroll | November 14, 2006 6:23 pm

Bowen Blocks Dirk Matthew Yglesias and Tyler Cowen both consider the eternal question of whether defense or offense is more important, especially in the context of new NBA rules that allow for more scoring. Apparently some folks are arguing that, since it’s now easier to score, a team’s priority should be to bring in offensive-minded players, rather than concentrating on defense. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify the logical flaw there.) Yglesias argues that offense and defense must both be important, since the goal is to end the game with more points than the other team:

I concede that the new rules have made it harder to play defense. I fail to see, though, how that makes defense less important. Two factors determine who wins a basketball game: how many points your team scores and how many points the other team scores. Since you have the ball roughly half the time and the other team has the ball roughly half the time, it stands to reason that offense and defense should have exactly the same importance.

Unfortunately, that last bit is just as logically flawed as the previous argument. The truth is that defense is (still) significantly more important than offense in winning games.

How can that be, if teams (basically) spend the same amount of time, or number of possessions, on offense and defense? To decide which skill is more important, we have to consider the variation in results obtained by being good at one vs. being good at the other. In other words, which has a bigger effect on wins: being one of the best offensive teams, or being one of the best defensive teams?

Yglesias looks at some individual playoff results, which are somewhat inconclusive. But we can just look at the season stats and compare the results of being good at offense vs. being good at defense. Of course, we’re faced with deciding how to measure those skills. Points scored is actually not a good measure, since that is affected more by the pace of the game than by true offensive or defensive prowess. Points per possession would be perfect, but I don’t know where to find that stat. So instead let’s just look at Team Offensive/Defensive Field Goal Percentage (FG%), which is a pretty good proxy for offensive/defensive aptitude.

What you should really do is to type in all the data and correlate with wins, but that sounds like work. Instead, let’s just define a “good offensive/defensive team” as one in the top 10 of the 30 teams in the NBA in offensive or defensive FG%, respectively, and “bad” as being in the bottom 10. We immediately see that there is a greater range in defensive aptitude than in offensive aptitude. The median good offensive team shoots at a .474 clip, whereas the median bad offensive team shoots .439, for a difference of .035. But while the median good defensive team holds their opponents to .439, the median bad defensive team only holds their opponents to .478, for a difference of .039. In other words, there is a slightly bigger difference between good and bad defensive teams than good and bad offensive teams. Concentrating on defense, it should follow, would potentially have a bigger outcome in the win/loss columns.

And it does. The winning percentage of the good offensive teams is .580, while that of the bad offensive teams is .413, for a difference of .167. But the winning percentage of the good defensive teams is .615, while that of the bad defensive teams is .358, for a difference of .257. That’s a substantial difference. A good defensive team is much more likely to be a winner than a good offensive team.

The simple ex post facto explanation is just that all NBA players are pretty good scorers, or at least that the players who do the bulk of the scoring are all pretty good. There’s not too much of a difference in overall efficiency between the very-good and the truly excellent. But defensive abilities are much more variable, and perhaps also more dependent on coaching and team dynamics. Putting your effort into defense has a larger marginal payoff than putting it into offense. Which most coaches would agree with. People these days like to blame Pat Riley for that, but I think Bill Russell figured it out long ago.


Tweet Tweet Tweet Tweet Tweet!

By JoAnne Hewett | October 28, 2006 1:38 am

That is the sound of a celebratory bird call. Celebrating the newly crowned 2006 World Series Champions!!!

The St. Louis Cardinals have just won their 10th World Series title out of 17 World Series appearances since the beginning of the franchise in the late 19th century. That record is second only to the Yankees. Their last World Championship title was in 1982 (I remember doing Quantum Mechanics homework while watching the games), and before that ’67 (I was too young to notice), and before that ’64, and before that…was way way before my time. Of course, the whole “World Series” thing is a bit of a misnomer since it only involves teams from North America, but tonight I don’t think anyone from St. Louis notices or cares.

The St. Louis fans did their part to support and bring good luck to their team:

As for me, I’ve been glued to the TV and sported a different t-shirt from my collection each day this week. I also dusted off my lucky hat which I’ve had since high school.

Time for some champagne for a toast to the Redbirds!


Ready to eat Tiger meat!

By JoAnne Hewett | October 20, 2006 1:40 am

If anybody doesn’t understand the title of this post, just consider (i) it’s October, (ii) I’m American, (iii) I’m essentially from St. Louis. And I’m ready to go to DeTroit and maul some Tigers. Revenge for 1968!

In all honesty, the game tonight (baseball in case you don’t get it yet) (7th and final game of the National League Championship Series) was a complete nailbiter. I think I popped a blood vessel or two and it took alot of wine to calm me down. Anybody who thinks baseball is dull should have seen the game tonight.

More on the Fall Classic later after I have regained my senses….


Beckenbauer Obviously a Bit of a Surprise There

By Sean Carroll | September 26, 2006 9:56 am

I’ve been looking for this for years online — Monty Python’s classic International Philosophy football match, Greeks vs. the Germans.

“This is Nietzsche’s third booking in four games.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Philosophy, Sports

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