There's an article in the New York Times today lamenting the passing, if you will, of the great passing guard. This is the latest installment in the longest running series in sports journalism - the decline and fall of western civilization, as told through sports.
I'll get to that in a minute, but I did want to respond to a couple the comments about my Dungy post yesterday. I think it goes without saying that only an exceptionally active imagination could get from criticizing Dungy for his position on gay marriage to fascism, but this is an unfortunate feature of our contemporary discourse. Many who see themselves as great defenders of our liberty are extremely disingenuous - insisting on the one hand that to criticize a particular point of view (whether it's the President position on Iraq or someone's position on moral issues) is tantamount to destroying America and its basic institutions, while on the other annointing themselves as defenders of democracy. This is a consequence of a fundamental failure to understand the meaning of dissent and debate in a democratic society. But, so be it. I think any honest reader knows I wasn't suggesting that Dungy be thrown in jail or, contrary to his own position, advocating the denial of anyone's basic rights because I disagree with them. In fact, that's all I did - disagree with Dungy and challenge the basis of his arguments.
On that point, the second commenter writes:
First off, where is Tony Dungy suggesting that we use the Bible as the basis of our public policy? The Bible itself does not command us to do so, indeed quite the opposite. All Dungy is doing is taking a stand on a public policy issue, which last time I checked, we are allowed to do in a democracy. If we are no longer a democracy, and people are only allowed to publicly state certain stands on certain or all issues, then you would have to let me know when that changed.
Yes, and speaking of classic intellectual dishonesty, this paragraph is nothing but. First, Dungy said he held his position because it was "the Lord's position." Guess, how Dungy knows that? Because the bible tells him so. The commenter suggests I am either two standard deviations below normal intelligence, or I am dishonest. I would suggest that anyone who knows anything about the views of IFI, or Focus on the Family (of which IFI is a state affiliate), knows that when Dungy says it's the Lord's view, he means that it came from the bible, which is understood by many Americans to be the literal word of God. It's not serious to argue, therefore, that Dungy's position is not informed by the bible and I promise you that Dungy would acknowledge as much, without any defensiveness or embarassment, because it's transparently true. And, he's entitled to. Just as, in a democracy, people who disagree with him are entitled to disagree with him. This is why the abject whining quoted above is so absurd - how one could possibly argue that criticizing someone's stand on an issue (which I did) could be interpreted as "denying" that person's right to take such a stand (which I obviously did not do) is simply beyond comprehension. Only because our political discourse is what it is are these points even necessary to explain, so obvious are they.
And since Dungy does, of course, believe that his position on the issue of gay marriage comes from the Lord (and,hence, the bible) it is, of course, fair to ask, why the bible doesn't inform his position on the other issues I mentioned. Of course we are all selective in our interpretations and the conclusions we draw. But, Dungy's assertion is very clear: I oppose gay marriage because the Lord does. That rationale begs the question: why on this issue, and not on others? Dungy may have a rationale for singling out gay marriage for legal prohibition on the basis of the Lord's position. I'd be interested to know what it is. But, there's no denying that the movement to bar gay marriage is singling it out. And, as distressing as it is to many, as long as we live in a democracy, people are going to challenge the rationale behind individuals' positions on public policy issues. Last time I checked, that is still "allowed." And, some people are going to treat skeptically arguments that merely assert "because the Lord (or bible) says so." Such skepticism, distressing as it is, is also "allowed." Welcome to the modern, democratic, world.
OK, enough of that. According to Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel:
Players like Acie Law IV, Kevin Kruger, Mike Conley Jr. and Ty Lawson have led their teams by looking to set up teammates for scoring opportunities, rather than by scoring themselves. Those players, however, have become more the exception than the rule in recent years.
Coaches, N.B.A. scouts and talent evaluators say there are a variety of reasons why the pass-first point guard seems to have gone missing. But the primary reason they point to is that a generation of players weaned on Allen Iverson crossovers does not value passing as an art.
“No one wants to set the table anymore,” Mount St. Mary’s Coach Milan Brown said in a telephone interview. “Everyone wants to eat.”
The selfish, modern player rears his ugly head yet again. Evans and Thamel cite one piece of data to back up their argument:
But the less publicized and perhaps even more meaningful trend in the college game has been the absence of pass-first leaders at the point-guard position the past few years.
Traditional point guards like Bobby Hurley, Kenny Anderson and Mateen Cleaves, who dominated past N.C.A.A. tournaments, have become as rare in college basketball as thigh-hugging shorts. Since 2000, the number of players averaging more than seven assists a game has decreased from 11 to 2.
And, so the point is not lost, some people believe that this trend is ruining the game:
“I think Allen Iverson messed up the game,” Weaver said in a telephone interview. “All these little guys dribble around instead of passing the ball.”
It's no surprise really that Iverson's name would appear here - he's single-handedly responsible for so much of what is wrong with America today, so why not blame the entire way basketball is played on him, too.
Maybe it's true that there has been an increase in selfishness among point guards because of Allen Iverson and that is messing up the game. Or, maybe, this is a paper thin argument, so consistent with the prevailing zeitgeist that the authors barely considered challenging their own pre-conceived notions (as an aside, there's probably no sports journalist I have more regard for than Pete Thamel).
But, there are other possibilities here. One, when reading this, I wanted to know whether passing itself had declined in college basketball. Maybe the point guard gets fewer assists, but does it automatically follow that this is a sign of selfish play. Maybe more aggressive on-the-ball defense requires point guards to pass off more than they used to, so that made baskets are more likely to be the result of multiple passes with the final one (the assist) coming from someone other than the point guard.
I couldn't find NCAA statistics going back before 2001-02 for teams, but i did look at the rankings of assists per game by team from 2001-02 to 2006-07. In 2001-02, the top assist team in the country - Kansas (which made the final four that year) - averaged 20.7 assists a game. Maryland, the defending national champ, was second at 19.8. That's the best 1-2 tandem over the six years in question. But, as one moves down the list - comparing the fifth best team in assists each year, the tenth best team, the 20th best team and the 30th best team, one is hard pressed to find a change in total assists per game per team. The fifth best team averaged 18.1 assists per game in 2001-02, and 18.0 in 2006-07. The tenth best team averaged 17.3 assists per game in the earlier year, and 17.4 assists per game in the later year. (you'll find similar data for the years in between).
In other words, focusing on the decline the number of individual players who averaged seven assists a game masks a larger reality - that there is no obvious drop off in team assists. And, on the question of what statistic better reveals the overall quality of play and level of selfishness, the latter stat is, for my money, the more significant one. To repeat, maybe defenses are making it harder for point guards to simply dribble down the floor, pass to an open player and ring up an assist. But, that doesn't mean that the point guards are shooting more, or that the overall ball movement on the team is compromised.
I am not saying I am right about this. I am saying there is an alternative explanation, one arguably better substantiated by the data, that happens not to re-affirm the decline-of-civilization thesis that is at the heart of so much sports coverage these days.