some would say we lost the space race

The news that four Pistons had been selected for this year’s all-star game has provoked a tempest of mixed feeling here at FreeDarko, as consideration of its implications has shifted from the immediate and painful (Arenas) to the broad and unsettling. As many observers have noted, the number itself is not without precedent. Six other All-Star Games have featured four players from a single team – one in every decade since the revelry's inception.

Yet if the honor itself is not unique in ASG history, the justification – prizing defense and teamwork over individual talent – probably is. It was not for team chemistry or sublimated stardom that the ’83 Sixers team sent its four to the game. Moses Malone or Dr. J could have led a team of girl scouts to the semi-finals, while youngsters Mo’ Cheecks and Andrew Toney were recognized only for their promise of future greatness. The same formula goes for the ‘98 Laker foursome (Shaq, Kobe, Van Exel, Eddie Jones), whose terrifying potential and youth was then still largely unformed by Phil’s triangle. Here, the success of the team seemed almost incidental to the valuation of individual talent (at the time of the break, the Lakers did not even lead their division), while for Detroit, it has become its very premise.

There is also a second, more concrete way in which Detroit’s nominations lack precedent: it is the first time that all four players have been picked as reserves by the coaches. All other teams sent at least two starters, and some (such as the Sixers) sent as many as three. This shiny bit of ASG arcana has been given surprisingly little attention in the press, but I believe it has much to tell us. After all, what is most unusual about this year’s All-Star game is not how many players are from wining teams, but how few. The 12 players on the 1983 East and 1998 West won almost 70% of their first 41 games, with starters winning 76% and 71%, respectively. Yet in the past 5 years, the correlation between great players and great teams has become increasingly tenuous. Starters in the last four All-Star games (2002-2005) won an average of only 58%, 52%, 57%, and 61% of their first 41 games. It is in this context that coaches have mobilized their voting power to enshrine team success as a condition of individual player value. Thus, in a sharp break from the historical norm, the reserve players in the last four games came from better teams than the starters, with winning percentages of 59%, 58%, 60%, and 62%. This year, thanks in large part to Detroit’s big four, the East and West reserves will boast an average winning percentage of 64%, compared to just 57% for starters. But however hard they try to redefine it, the contradictions between individual and team greatness are becoming too obvious to ignore.

Last week, the rationale given for passing over Arenas and Redd was the same as that given for the rookies in 2004; that team effort and team success are the better measure of individual player value. This is a very recent invention. Jordan and Oscar Robertson were rookie season all-stars from sub-.500 teams. And top-five scorers have always had a place set at the all-star table.

As for Detroit, certainly much of their success can be attributable to the players, all of whom deserve acknowledgment and respect. Yet an equally important share of that success is due to altogether different forces, the most significant of which – savvy cap management – would seem to be the very last thing an All-Star game is meant to honor. Yet how many times in this week’s media has the ostensible praise of Rip and Chauncey wound up as paean to Joe Dumars’ payroll skills. Reading his column last Monday, I half expected Chad Ford to redefine all all-stars in terms of their maximum rate of surplus value.

However the profits are split, the rewards for “good management and teamwork” (to use Ford’s tidy phrase) are increasingly abundant in today's league, while the rewards for stars and style are shrinking. Perhaps someday the two-headed hydra of globalization and stat-tracker will finally rid the league of teams; then, every game will be an all-star game, with a single weekend set aside to remember the bygone virtues of "all that is right and good in baskeball" - loyalty, humility, and a savy front office. Until then, though, let us keep the weekend sacred, and close.


At 2/13/2006 4:10 PM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...

I think you just "dropped science and built with math." By the four-Piston postulate, there is no way that KG should be an all-star this year. Scary thought.

At 2/13/2006 4:12 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

what really scares me is that this might not be an either/or line in the sand, but a slippery slope that will value, say, a pair of talented teammates over two lone stars, or, at its freakish extreme, penalize players for being the only bright spot on their rosters.

At 2/13/2006 5:13 PM, Anonymous White People Don't Know said...

you say "the rewards for stars and style are shrinking."

Really? Unless I read those stats wrong, i read this going in the complete opposite direction. The fact that fewer all-stars are winners means that people are giving more weight to style and flash. The coaches, in voting in team-first players as reserves, are simply a reaction to this greater impulse, which necessarily goes against the very foundational values that coaches must believe in. i'm with the rest of the fans; rip shouldn't be there, and chris paul should be.

great stats.

At 2/13/2006 6:21 PM, Anonymous pete said...

longtime pistons fan, but this is going to be a boring allstar game. can you imagine, Flip's gonna put them all out on the floor together... it'll be an allstar game full of jumpshots and sheed 3's. That's fun to watch when the result of the game matters but... the allstar game is about ridiculous shit like vince carter.

except chauncey billups belongs there becauase he's the man.

At 2/13/2006 6:43 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

the reason stars can't win is as much their organizations' faults as their own. detroit may have no single great one, on the floor or in the checkbook, but san antonio sure does. and yet they scout well enough that they don't have to pay out the frame for above-average complementary players.

how many other teams, if they had duncan, would have to offer someone like parker or manu a vastly-inflated contract as an already-proven free agent to come stand by TD? and then do the same thing if they want to lure in proven role players? when borderline all-stars get compensated like perennials, very good role players like borderline all-stars, and bench help like role playing starters, you can't really work around a max contract unless you draft well or go for speculative talent. and the "big splash" move of acquiring a second all-star is practically suicidal.

i still think, though, that a (harmonious) shaq/kobe team (both in their primes) on which both were paid the max could win a championship with minimally shrewd gm'ing. needless to say, that kind of pairing can hardly be counted on every time a team decides to put all their money in two contracts.

At 2/13/2006 6:59 PM, Anonymous mvpotisthorpe said...

This is just (of late?) freedarko habit: a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Four Pistons?!? BORING! Teamwork is clouding out stars and style.

But whose style? Which stars?? If we're upset that Rip is in the All-Star game, we sure as hell don't want Michael Redd to fill his spot. And this is an easy one: Big Ben or Big Z? If there's any legitimate argument, it's that Dwight Howard should be playing instead of Rasheed... but I haven't heard ANYONE say that... maybe Christian fundamentalism isn't exactly the style we're looking for, either?

Take Rip off. Put on Jason Kidd. That's the entire story.

At 2/13/2006 7:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Way to shout to my boy Lukacs! Word to Barthes, Althusser and Adorno - y'all are soft serve. Ossification, playa.

DON'T SLEEP ON FREDRIC JAMESON IN 2006. Seriously, don't put any weight on him at all. He will collapse under your weight Stalingrad-style.


At 2/13/2006 7:54 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

DLIC - you're right about KG. it occured to me sometime late last night and upset me so much I almost stopped writing.

white people don't know- i like your optimism, and i think you're right that the coaches position is a reactionary one. the rewards i meant to refer to are the main material and symbolic rewards that the rest of the season is oriented towards - contracts, the playoffs, etc. in this respect, i think it is getting more difficult for yesterday's franchise player to cash in. (from the perspective of the other 82 games, the cultural triumph of style for one weekend can seem a bit reactionary itself). i really do think that the future of the league will be one that is necessarily without teams as we know it.

shoals - yeah, looking back on it, that shaq/kobe team really was the rubicon of old and new managment models. the core was all franchise, but all around it was cheap and faceless disposable labor. i don't know if it could work today or not. i mean, at some point, that heat team is going to have most of the same pieces, so i guess we'll find out soon enough.

anon - this reminds me about how for the longest time i was convinced that fredric jameson was black. i guess just because his name is so ill, i couldn't imagine it otherwise. i still get confused by the book jackets.

At 2/13/2006 11:45 PM, Anonymous aug said...

No offense, but i feel like i've read this article at least 3 times in full on article form and a dizzying amount of comments on those various articles. It was still interesting and well written, but...i don't know. Maybe it's because there is really nothing going on in the nba. Unlike many of the FD crew, i didn't find the beginning of the season to be so horribley boring just because amare wasn't playing. Every beginning to a season is like this one where stories are beginning to develop. It just depends if you like the certain stories. Now, i feel that the stories and "what ifs" are a reality, and there are really no suprises left until march when 1) amare comes back which is a good story not because he's the savior of the league or some other hyperbole, but because it'll be interesting to see if the suns improve drastically, if he still has the stuff, or if the suns cruise along about the same but with another highlight dunker 2)if there are any more trades before the deadline and how those teams and the others that made trades react and 3)how teams jockey for position for playoff spots and how teams are looking coming down the stretch for the playoffs. Everyone knows, the real action starts with playoff time(thank god i have nbatv so i can get more playoff games than just the espn ones). I agree with white people don't know. I wouldn't go so far to say that style is dying in the nba when i'd argue that style is becoming more popular and important for players and the league. It's not as hip or "deep" but the pistons have gotten a lot of hype for their (pre last 2 week falling apart) chase at history being the best team of all time. People got caught up in their teamwork and fundamentals which became their style(if you use the definition of style as more than just hipness and excitement). Players, coaches, media, fans were all loving how the Pistons sacrificed their own stats and potential for a common good. Is it wrong to reward them for their individual AND team achievement? I don't really think so. I also wouldn't go so far to say that it's a slap in the face to arenas, melo, and lady style. We've never really seen a team quite like this, and fans, writers(including you all), mainstream media, players and coaches aren't really sure how to react to them. That's why we get so many arguments about the merit of the individual players, the coaches, the system, the all star game, their position as a great team, etc....

I agree with you shoals about how gms and teams need to utilize their superstars better. I think some teams get too caught up in getting a superstar for fan support purposes, they get lost in building the team that's right for that superstar. The lebron situation is almost too easy to point the finger at for an example. But you could argue Houston as well. They have some key pieces, but haven't added players to compliment them properly like the 00's lakers, and the 90s bulls and rockets did. As a magic fan, i have been mortified with what we're doing to support the future best center(he's a center people, quit pretending he's garnett) in the nba. A insecure, selfish, poor shooting, poor distributing point guard, an aging star who still has the right stuff but is playing on the wrong team, and a jumble of other misfit toys. Thank God(literally in his case) that dwight is a patient, hardworking, humble and loyal 20 year old man-child. There is still time to get a good supporting cast there by the time he's 24, then get 5 prime years where they can hopefully be dominant. Thanks for the respite from college papers, good night to all.

At 2/14/2006 12:15 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

no one in freedarko history has ever used a number before, especially not comparatively. that alone should be seen as a milestone.

and look, maybe we have had a lot to say about the pistons fiasco, but i think that this post gets at it from a new, triumphant angle. and remember, we are far less about any single story than the many deeper angles each can imply.

At 2/14/2006 1:09 AM, Blogger elandfried said...

The problem with this season is that it has been the most predictable one that I can remember. Even the "big" stories (Kobe's 81, Pistons domination, Artest demanding a trade) aren't REALLY all that surprising - maybe the degree is a little shocking (especially 81), but not the outcome. Check out the non-existent big stories this year:

1. The big hoopla before the season about the dress code and the no prep-to-pro rule has gotten barely a word written about it after Opening Day.

2. The Pistons, free from the shackles of Larry Brown, go on an insane run to start the season, then cool down once they realize they don't need to stick it to Larry anymore. Their top 7 players from a team that was one game away from being the 2-time defending champs have all played all 50 games. They are one game ahead of Dallas and San Antonio.

3. The Miami Heat are having trouble meshing and Riley took them over to "right the ship".

4. Grant Hill has missed an inordinate amount of time with injuries. Ditto Larry Hughes and Shaq.

5. Ron Artest demands a trade, is finally traded for Peja (remember, this was suggested many times before the season), makes the Kings a much better team. The Pacers meanwhile lose Jermaine O'Neal to yet another injury and don't miss a beat.

6. The Knicks, GM'ed by Isiah Thomas and desperate to own every shoot-first point guard poor-rebounding big man in the world, are the worst big money team in history.

7. San Antonio and Dallas are the two best teams in the West.

8. Phoenix, sans Amare, continue their run-and-gun style and barely miss a beat (some may call this a surprise, but not me).

9. Kobe "He Hate Me" Bryant makes himself into a superhuman to prove everyone how much they should love him and singlehandedly takes the Lakers on his back, culminating in 2 insane performances. The Lakers are 25-25.

10. Chris Paul is by far the best rookie this year shaming the teams that passed on him (if you didn't see that coming, you need to watch more basketball).

11. There were All-Star snubs.

Seriously, show me the interesting stories this year. This season has played out EXACTLY as everyone expected.

There is only one thing I will concede: The New Orleans Hornets lose their home, move to Oklahoma City (OK City?!?), sell out most of their home games and now sit in SIXTH PLACE IN THE WEST. At least there is one thing no one saw coming.

At 2/14/2006 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So no one thinks the Lampe/Norris trade is worth talking about?

At 2/14/2006 10:11 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

elandfried, nice rundown. i would say that the ones of these that are surprises (such as the kings getting tough) are just not that interesting. teams starting to run is fun, teams tighening the screws on the world is just not going to shave my face for me in the morning.

and some of these, like the knicks' continued decline, are almsot insultingly predictable.

At 2/14/2006 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So arenas is in the all star game now....

At 2/14/2006 10:47 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...


At 2/14/2006 11:59 AM, Blogger emynd said...

I found the statistics in this article dizzying. Being confronted with numbers at FreeDarko is like taking a math final and seeing a word problem that is more reading comprehension than it is actual math. Hence, this post was priceless in its un-FreeDarkoness. In fact it was so un-FreeDarko that it just solidified it as one of the most FreeDarko of FreeDarko posts. In other words, I (as usual) disagree with aug that this post has been posted many times before.

By the way, I'm feeling the post-marxist shout outs.


At 2/14/2006 12:26 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

The travesty this analysis most clearly highlights is that most of the true superstars in the contemporary the Association dither away their talent on mediocre teams. They may have a season in which they get a slightly better supporting cast or their efforts are so heroic that they make it to the finals or a great playoff series results, but most of their teams hover barely above 0.500 and exit during the first or second round of the playoffs.

Perhaps it has always been thus. My knowledge of league history isn't great enough to know what I may not know. But the modern talents have little opportunity for true greatness because they almost never really compete for a championship (even in the finals, thier chances are slim--AI and Kidd, e.g.), and their teams aren't good enough to create the kind of historic rivalries that used to provide the stage for their self-overcoming.

But something must be done so that the giants of our age don't end their careers where their current trajectories seem to be leading them.

At 2/14/2006 12:34 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i totally agree. like i said above, bad drafting and hysterical contract inflation--coupled with the "league of (possible) stars" supposition that allows any very, very good player to hit the market and cause a superstar-like logjam--are the culprit here. we shouldn't have to resort to the pistons to find greatness. in fact, you could argue that, if other teams acted responsibly, the pistons and spurs wouldn't even be possible. it's the same way that i said once that isiah upset the comeptitive balance of the league--the pistons, spurs, and probably pacers have an embarassment of efficient riches because of how retraded everyone else plays it.

At 2/14/2006 12:38 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

... or at least, the Commish must put on his thinking cap and figure out how to prevent another generation of greats from leading an uncomplementary supporting cast (some of whom should be on another team supporting some other talent) approximately nowhere interesting.

At 2/14/2006 12:41 PM, Anonymous Art Long's Horse said...

With due respect SB5000, I think you misinterpreting your statistics to reach a conclusion that is not altogether accurate.

First of all, comparing the winning percentages of starters to those of reserves ignores the ways in which they are different. Just as it is remarkable that the coaches picked all four Pistons this year, it is remarkable that fans consistently choose All-Star starters who have no business being considered among the top ten players in the game. Grant Hill was an All-Star starter in 2001, when he played only four games. Not surprisingly, through 41 games the Magic were 19-22. Since the NBA offered ballots in Chinese, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have gotten inflated vote tallies. Last year the Rockets were 22-19 at the break, and this year they are 21-30. In 2001, Alonzo Mourning was voted as a starter and had only played 13 games. The Heat’s winning percentage was .561 after 41 games.

Those are only the most egregious examples, but commonly players are selected on name recognition alone. Your contention that “the correlation between great players and great teams has become increasingly tenuous,” assumes that there is a correlation between being an All-Star starter and being a great player. That is a bad assumption based on recent history.

Also, using the 1983 East and the 1998 West teams as examples of All-Star teams with great players from great teams, then comparing those two teams to the last four All-Star teams in each conference is the definition of cherry-picking. If there was a distinct downward trend over a period of years, your argument would be more convincing. I am not swayed that “the contradictions between individual and team greatness are becoming too obvious to ignore.” An analysis of the coaches’ picks, and perhaps the eventual season MVPs would provide a more solid statistical basis for whether the basketball establishment “prizes defense and teamwork over individual talent.”

At 2/14/2006 12:45 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i did think it was a little conspicious that only the '83 and '98 teams got checked for winning percentages pre-2002, since those were ones that included multiple people from (presumably) great teams. as in, what were the starters like when they didn't have the advantage of being multiple players from a team that was running shit.

At 2/14/2006 2:53 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

as you can probably guess, its a pain in the ass to go back and figure out and calculate winning percentages from the mid-season of leagues of the distant past. which is why i used 83 and 98 as a comparison. the pattern also holds for 1980; reserves were slightly better than starters in 1990, but both had win percentages well over the near-.500 of todays starters. nevertheless, as a matter of statistical accuracy, your point is well taken. i must say it has given me great joy to have this post referred to as an 'analysis' so many times in the comments (thanks emynd!), but by the standards of my trade, it needs some work. at the same time, until someone goes back and cranks out the stats for the past 30 ASGs and finds a different pattern, i'll stand by the conclusions. lies, damm lies, or whatever.

i don't get your point about yao and t-mac. are you saying they aren't great players (t-mac?!?) as for the name recognition part - yeah, its true that now and then, lesser players get through. but its not a systematic effect like it is for the coaches, who actually have an interest in changing the meaning of the game. and the causality usually works the opposite way, like the fact that kobe and AI have name recognition because they're great players.

At 2/14/2006 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off topic - Since you guys like calling out the Page 2 cats when they shamelessly boost material, I thought you'd get a kick out of this link:


Don't have the link, but Rolling Stone did some corny map of the hip hop universe a couple months ago. For all I know, RS could be part of the whole Disney/ABC conglomerate, but still... Pathetic.

At 2/14/2006 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how Baby Lue Year gets thrown in with the short guys who can play but Speedy Claxton and Jameer Nelson get left out

At 2/14/2006 4:50 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

I think some are reading too much into this whole "4 Pistons on the All-Star team" thing.
Do they all deserve to be on the team? Probably not. You could easily make a case for both 'Sheed and Rip not belonging (Dwight Howard anyone?)

This is obviously a case of the coaches voting for those 4 Detroit guys when everyone thought this team had a realistic chance at 70 (or maybe even 72) wins. Had the vote been cast say last week, it's very unlikely that all 4 would have been on there, and it's also quite unlikely that Arenas would've needed a special invite from the Comish.

At this point, it looks quite foolish to give all Pistons All Star nods, but at the time of the coaches' voting, Detroit was running away from the rest of the League.

As for the establishment rewarding team play over individual greatness, I'm not so convinced. The NBA knows that fans (and more importantly, consumers) respond better to individual stars as opposed to dominant teams. For example Jordan (or the idea of him) was always more important and profitable than the actual title-winning team he was on. This is still the case, individuals sell the game better than any team will ever be able to. We're always going to hear about what great teamwork the Pistons and Spurs have from the media and everyone else who has a real say in the NBA, but the most significant thing from this season will be the fact that Kobe scored 81 or that a short white guy won the MVP again (unless of course another historic brawl breaks out).

At 2/14/2006 4:59 PM, Anonymous aug said...

Word on the street is that Darko is headed to Orlando. I couldn't be more excited. The New York Post or daily news talked about a few trades that were supposed to happen in the next few days that would leave me finally loving the magic again.

Next season's lineup:
PG Nelson, Arroyo,Diener
SG Stevenson, Crawford
SF Turkalu, Hill, Ariza
PF Howard, Battie
C Nene, Darko

i might have to transfer to ucf


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