Why Did the NBA Miss On Jeremy Lin?

In my last post, I reviewed how difficult it was to evaluate quarterbacks in the NFL draft. Essentially, I noted that there were several factors connected to where a quarterback was selected in the draft. But those factors failed to predict future performance. Given how difficult it was to just predict the future performance of veterans in the NFL, the difficulty people have forecasting the NFL performance of college quarterbacks is not surprising.  In sum, “mistakes” on draft day in the NFL simply reflect the immense complexity of the problem.

In the NBA, though, it is a very different story. Veteran NBA players – relative to what we see in the NFL – are far more consistent over time. And although we cannot predict future NBA performance on draft day perfectly, we certainly know something. Part of that “something” that we know is that NBA teams make mistakes by focusing on the “wrong” factors.Right now, people are wondering how a player like Jeremy Lin could have been missed by NBA decision-makers.

Talent Evaluation is Different in the NFL and NBA

The sudden emergence of Jeremy Lin has led people to wonder about talent evaluation in the NBA. Two recent examples -- from Stephen Dubner in this forum and from Jonah Lehrer at Wired Science -- both take similar approaches.  Both begin with the story of Lin, and then pivot to a discussion of the National Football League.  In essence, each writer argues that talent evaluation in basketball and football is similar.  

In my next two posts, I wish to address why I think talent evaluation in the NBA and the NFL is quite different.

Football Freakonomics: What Can Linsanity Teach Us About the Upcoming NFL Draft?

In his first six NBA starts, Jeremy Lin averaged 24.3 points and 9.5 assists while leading the Knicks to six straight wins. 

If those numbers were attached to someone like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, you wouldn’t bat an eye. But until a couple weeks ago, Lin was little more than roster fodder, an undrafted player already cut by two teams and about to be cut by his third. That’s when a desperate coach who had run out of able-bodied point guards threw him into the fire. The rest – for the moment, at least – is history.

Let’s be honest: the reason we’re hearing so much about Lin is because he was overlooked. This might lead you to think he’s a true anomaly, a great game-time athlete who somehow slipped through a pro sports league’s finely-tuned talent-scouting machine. But if you look closely at the NFL, you’ll find Jeremy Lins all over the place.

Revenue-Sharing Isn't Needed to Make NBA Small-Market Teams Competitive

According to the Sports Business Journal, the NBA is going to fully phase in a revenue-sharing plan in 2013-14 which:

1. “Calls for all teams to contribute an annually fixed percentage, roughly 50 percent, of their total annual revenue, minus certain expenses such as arena operating costs, into a revenue sharing pool.
2. "Will shift $140 million around the league
3. Will allow a single team to receive up to $16 million (this year the most any team could receive was $5.8 million), a mark that is about 25 percent of this year’s payroll cap

All of this will -- according to Jeanie Buss (Executive VP of business operations for the Los Angeles Lakers) -- allow teams to become “economically viable so that every team has the opportunity to compete.”  And according to Buss, this will “make for a healthier league.” 

As the article notes, Buss served on the committee that created this plan.  And as the article also notes, Buss and the Lakers will contribute the most revenue.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this plan will dramatically change the level of balance in the league.

Playing the Nerd Card: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Playing the Nerd Card.”

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It's about the rise in basketball players (and other athletes) showing up at press conferences wearing the kind of eyeglasses usually associated with Steve Urkel and Buddy Holly. Among the practitioners: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Robert Griffin III.

What's going on here? Has the rate of myopia exploded, even among premier athletes?

We talk to Susan Vitale, a research epidemiologist with the NIH's National Eye Institute, who worked on a large study on myopia in the U.S. There has indeed been a huge spike in recent decades, and it's especially pronounced among blacks.

NBA Fans Give the League a Predictable Present on Christmas

Before labor peace came to the NBA, it was not uncommon to hear stories that the lockout was going to negatively impact fan interest in the game (here is one example in this genre). The story basically went as follows:

1. Fans become angry when the games are taken away.
2. The longer fans go without games, the angrier they become.
3. Stay away too long and the angry fans will never come back.

This story actually gets repeated every time a labor dispute that taken away games in North American sports. And the story certainly seems plausible.

A few years ago, though, Martin Schmidt and I investigated the impact disputes have upon fan attendance; and much to our surprise (yes, we tended to believe the stories sports writers had told us for years) we failed to find an effect. Attendance in the major North American sports is not statistically impacted by labor disputes.

NBA Players' Union Decertification As Owner Opportunity: What if Mark Cuban Had Gone Maverick?

David Stern ran roughshod over owners during the recent NBA lockout negotiations. He was willing to levy stiff fines for any public comments that might undermine an image of management unity.

But the league’s power to control dissident owners possibly changed on Nov. 14, when the union representing NBA players formally dissolved. The league treated dissolution as a bad faith bargaining ploy by the players to gain bargaining power. You see, sports leagues can engage in collusive conduct that would otherwise violate the Sherman Antitrust Act – so long as the collusion takes place as part of a collective bargaining agreement. By disbanding the union, the players were threatening to expose the league to massive antitrust liability.

The league treated the players' dissolution as though it had no impact on its control of team behavior. But imagine for a moment that one of the team owners took the players decertification seriously.

Why the NBA Players Keep Losing to the Owners

The following is a guest post by David Berri, a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is also the lead author of Stumbling on Wins, the general manager of the sports-economics blog Wages of Wins, and is a frequent contributor to the Freakonomics blog.

In the past couple weeks I have written about labor negotiations in the NBA and the recent labor agreement in Major League Baseball. Now that we have agreements in both sports, thanks to the new NBA deal, I would like to address why the two unions involved in these negotiations have historically achieved such different outcomes.

Let’s begin with how the outcomes are different.

The Economic Battlefield of the NBA Lockout

The following is a guest post by David Berri, a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is also the lead author of Stumbling on Wins, the general manager of the sports-economics blog Wages of Wins, and is a frequent contributor to the Freakonomics blog.

With the NBA away, sports fans are looking for something to satisfy their need to watch teams strive for victory. Well, why not take a look at the teams competing in the lockout? Okay, maybe this is a contest only a sports economist could love. But while it may not appeal to everyone, the labor dispute is still best thought of as a contest between two teams.

The first team is the NBA owners. The owners are the dominant buyer in the world market for elite basketball talent, so they have substantial monopsony power. In the other corner are the players, who are currently trying to disband their union. This union gave the players monopoly power in the sale of elite basketball talent (more specifically, in helping to determine the conditions under which individual players would sell their services). When a monopsony meets a monopoly on the economic battlefield, the outcome is determined by bargaining.

Economist Kevin Murphy Talks NBA Lockout Negotiations

We've written a lot about University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy. He teaches at the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, where Steve Levitt is the director. Murphy was a MacArthur Genius Fellow back in 2005, and Levitt readily admits that Murphy is the smartest person he knows.

This fall, Murphy has been working with the NBA players union in its negotiations with team owners over the NBA lockout. Steve Aschburner of NBA.com sat down with Murphy for a lengthy and very interesting Q&A on the tricky economics of the NBA, and what role Murphy is playing. Here are a few highlights: