The New York Times Ends TimesSelect and a Forgotten Iverson Column

Posted on September 19, 2007 by

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Over the past 15 months Marty and I have written eight columns for The New York Times.  Now that TimesSelect is a thing of a past – which was announced yesterday by the New York Times — everyone can now read these columns.  Additionally, the review of The Wages of Wins written by Joe Nocera can also now be enjoyed by everyone as well.

If you click to read more (yes, I finally figured out how to activate the “read the rest of this entry” feature on this blog), you will see links to all our columns plus a link to the Nocera review. 

Plus I have posted a column written in March of 2006.  This column looks at Allen Iverson and discusses why Team USA did not need The Answer on the 2008 Olympic team.  David Leonhardt – a writer for the New York Times – provided some much needed editorial advice on this column (read the column and see if you can find where Leonhardt helped).  Despite Leonhardt’s assistance (which I briefly discuss at the end of the column) the column was ultimately rejected by The New York Times. 

The reason I was given for this column being rejected will surprise some.  What I was told is that this column was unnecessary because people already know that Iverson is inefficient.  Malcolm Gladwell’s review of The Wages of Wins, which focused on Iverson, did not appear until two months after my Iverson column was originally written and rejected.  As I recall, many people disputed our take on Iverson (and Gladwell’s focus on that perspective).  This reaction was somewhat amusing given what I had heard from The New York Times just a few weeks earlier. 

Okay, enough reminiscing. 

Here are the columns we have written for The New York Times.

David Berri. “The Short Supply of Competitive Balance.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (May 6, 2007)

David Berri. “Star Power Can Leave Home Fans With Empty Feeling.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (February 18, 2007)

Martin Schmidt. When it Comes to the World Series, Luck Conquers All.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (November 5, 2006).

Martin Schmidt. Success in September is Key to Winning in October.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (October 8, 2006).

David Berri. “To Get a Grip on Turnovers, Follow the Bouncing Ball.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (September 10, 2006).

 Martin Schmidt. “Numbers Often Lie When It Comes to Football.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (August 27, 2006).

Martin Schmidt. “For Best Actor in a Diving Film, the Prize Should Be a Card.” New York Times – Keeping Score. (July 2, 2006).

David Berri. The N.B.A.’s Secret Superstars.” New York Times – Invited Op-Ed. (June 10, 2006).

And here is the review from Nocera:

Joe Nocera. “Sports Economics Beguiles 3 Economists.” New York Times (July 24, 2006).

And here is the forgotten column on Allen Iverson.

Remember, this was written in March of 2006.  So it is a bit dated.  At the end I will identify the part Leonhardt helped with.

Why is the Answer not the Answer?

The U.S. Olympic team recently announced the players it will invite to “try-out” for Team USA, and Allen “The Answer” Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers was not invited.  

Why is “The Answer” not the answer?  Iverson is a great scorer, having led the NBA in scoring four times.  He can also steal the ball. In fact, he set a record leading the league in steals per game for three consecutive seasons. 

The official story on why Iverson will not be an Olympian focuses on his age in 2008 – 33 – when the games will be played in Beijing. But there might be other reasons not to include Iverson on the Olympic team.

Our research in sports and economics offers a simple and accurate way to measure productivity in the NBA, and it doesn’t involve looking strictly at points per game. It also doesn’t suggest Iverson is one of the league’s best players. 

Let’s begin with turnovers.  Although Iverson has demonstrated the ability to take the ball away from his opponent, he is equally adept at giving it back.  In four different seasons Iverson has led the NBA in turnovers per game.  In fact, his propensity to give the ball away consistently eclipses his ability to create steals. He would be a better player if he never stole the ball and never turned it over.

A bigger issue than turnovers is the problem Iverson has with shot selection.  Consider his work beyond the NBA’s three point line.  For his career Iverson has averaged more than four three point shots per game, or nearly one third of the shots his team takes from this distance.  One would think that a player who took this many shots from beyond the arc would convert these shots with some consistency.  Well, the average NBA player converts about 36% of these shots.  The average Philadelphia 76er not named Iverson has converted on 33% of these shots during Iverson’s career. Iverson, though, has a career average of only 31%.

Inside the three-point arc the story does not get better.  The average NBA player makes 47% of his two-point shots.  Iverson’s conversion rate for his career is only 44%.   So Iverson does not post lofty points totals because of his efficiency, but primarily because he is willing to take a large number of shots. 

By comparison, Chauncey Billups and Jason Terry, point guards on two of the top teams in the league, are generally more valuable. Billups and Terry don’t score as much as Iverson does, but they score far more efficiently, wasting fewer of their team’s offensive opportunities.  This is one reason why Billups and Terry more often leave the court as winners.

To put Iverson’s scoring in perspective, think about baseball for a moment.  Way back in the 1870s baseball began to track batting average.  When people began to notice that number of hits per at-bat didn’t tell the whole story, measures like on-base average, slugging average, and even OPS (on-base average plus slugging average) were developed.

What do all these measures have in common?  The answer is efficiency, a topic near and dear to the hearts of economists.  Baseball fans know that players should not be evaluated in terms of totals, but rather in terms of efficiency.   In basketball, though, this lesson is not often heeded.

In the 2004 Olympics Iverson led Team USA in scoring, but he was hardly his team’s best player.  From three point range, Iverson converted on 37% of his shots, about average for an NBA player, although not quite so good when one considers that the international three point line is closer than the NBA’s arc.  From inside the arc Iverson only shot 39%, well below the performance of an average NBA player, and even below what Iverson normally offers in an average NBA contest. 

What should be surprising is that decision-makers on Team USA would allow an inefficient scorer to take the most shots.  What isn’t so surprising is that Team USA took the bronze medal, rather than the expected gold. 

Economics teaches that resources must be allocated efficiently if an organization is to maximize the probability of success.  Across Iverson’s career he consistently leads his team in shot attempts yet he does not score efficiently.  So it is not surprising when Iverson’s team barely win more often than they lose.  And since the objective in 2008 is to win the gold medal, perhaps Team USA is wise not to build its team once again around inefficiency.

Where Leonhardt Helped

Leonhard interviewed Marty and I for a Keeping Score column he wrote for The New York Times in March of 2005.  The column was titled: “Strikes? Drugs? We Love Sports Too Much to Walk Away.” and basically reviews our research on the impact strikes have on attendance in sports (a story told in Chapter Two of our book).

When The Wages of Wins was completed our editor at Stanford Press suggested we try and write some newspaper columns to promote the book.  Although I had never written a newspaper column, I gave it a shot and sent some of what I had written to Leonhardt.  He was nice enough to not only read my efforts (which were not too good) but also extensively re-write this piece on Iverson.

Although I can’t remember all that he did (a good rule would be that if it reads well, that is Leonhardt, and if not, that’s me), I do remember one sentence he put in this piece: “He would be a better player if he never stole the ball and never turned it over.”  I thought this sentence was simply a great addition to the story (and it’s true as well). 

I would add that Leonhardt re-wrote this column very quickly.  And this is what has always impressed me about journalists.  Writer like Gladwell and Leonhardt (as well as Henry Abbott, Alan Schwarz, Darren Rovell, etc…) have an ability to look at a story and quickly spot the important point that is being made.  They can then put the story together so that the important point is presented to the reader as quickly as possible.

In contrast, academics (like me) tend to ramble on and on, never quite making a point and never quite grabbing the reader’s attention.   An observation that is obvious if you made it to the end of this entry.

– DJ