Fix the Government by “Wasting” Your Vote

The Problem

Recent polls have concluded that 40% of Americans identify as “independents” and 81% are not satisfied with the federal government. Nevertheless, in next month’s presidential election the vast majority of them will vote for one of the two major parties that, combined, are responsible for every action and piece of legislation the federal government has made in our lifetimes. The party in power changes every now and then, but when one party falls into disfavor the other steps right in.

This practice borders on insanity. It’s like getting cavities from drinking sugary sodas, then switching between Coke and Pepsi every time you get a toothache.

The two-headed monopoly in American government has several consequences. Most importantly, politicians are practically required to secure a nomination from one of the two major parties if they want to get elected. Often times, the nominee of one major party runs in a partisan district and is therefore a shoe-in for the general elections. The problem is that these parties are private organizations that represent the interests of their donors, the largest of which are typically corporations and special interest groups. Generally, the winner of a primary is whoever best represents and serves the interests of that party’s platform. If you need an example of a political party rejecting a candidate who does not adequately represent its platform, look no further than the way Ron Paul was mistreated in the 2012 RNC.

What this means is that all elected officials come from two narrow-minded, private organizations that are driven by wealthy and powerful interests. Most of these officials would, in all likelihood, not have been elected without the support of their parties and they are well aware of that fact. Furthermore, politicians whose policies and performance are frequently antithetical to the interests of their constituents are bound to get elected as long as they have enough partisan voters – or if the other party nominates an even less appealling candidate. For the President, he’s practically guaranteed to be win his party’s nomination after his first term. Even if he broke numerous promises, disappointed many of his supporters, and continued many of his predecessor’s policies which he originally ran against, he’d still get reelected as long as the other nominee is perceived to be worse. The incumbent could even be revealed to be an evil space alien bent on human enslavement, and STILL get elected as long as he was the “lesser evil.”

“Don’t blame me! I voted for the other guy!”

As for the aspiring politician who won’t sell out to one of the two major parties, they’re hopeless unless maybe they’re obscenely rich and can pay for an entire campaign out of pocket. In fact, I’m surprised the Witness Protection Program doesn’t have their witnesses disappear by running for federal office under one of the lesser known political parties. I’m pretty sure there’s no better way to make sure nobody ever hears of you again.

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons; campaign finance, media, the debates, and even unscrupulous attempts by the major parties to keep third parties off of ballots. But the crucial reason third party candidates struggle, and the one I will discuss now, is that too many voters play along and allow it to happen.

Vote third party? Nah…

We take it for granted that only two parties are viable enough to win elections, a notion which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of the millions of Americans who identify as independents or the legions more who are dissatisfied with the options from the major parties, far too many of them follow the thought process outlined below.

As you can see, this always leads to failure

This behavior, voting for the perceived lesser of two evils or not voting  at all, is a positive feedback loop that only strengthens and legitimizes the two-party monopoly. Third party candidates are irrelevant because few will consider voting for them, and few will consider voting for them because they’re irrelevant. Remember, these are people who are decidedly dissatisfied with the federal government, who profess allegiance for neither of the two major parties, yet they won’t even consider voting for someone besides a major party candidate.

Many disillusioned citizens simply do not vote. Either they think their vote won’t make a difference, or they decide they don’t like either major candidate and don’t bother voting at all.

But it seems even more adhere to a utilitarian voting strategy, voting for the less objectionable of the two major candidates since they are the only two with any realistic chance of winning the election.

Voting for the lesser of two evils – it doesn’t work

Essential to the utilitarian voting strategy is the belief that one’s vote has a chance of affecting the outcome of the election. In 2012, one might vote Obama only because one really doesn’t want Romney to be elected and believes that one’s vote might actually help keep Romney out of office, or vice-versa. This belief, that one’s vote can change the outcome of the election, is downright delusional for most Americans and merely extremely unlikely for a small minority voting in swing states.

Most states, numbering at least 40 each election, lean for one candidate significantly more than the national average and the eventual winner of these states is all but a certainty. These states are givens in the electoral math that determines who wins the Presidential election. While they could theoretically become competitive, any scenario in which that were to happen would include a massive national shift towards one candidate that would make the election a landslide.

Let’s take a look at what needs to happen for one’s vote to determine the winner of an election.

  1. The election needs to be close, really close, on election day.
  2. One needs to vote in a state that is a true toss-up between the major candidates.
  3. Neither candidate may accumulate more than 269 electoral votes outside of the state where one votes.
  4. One’s state, with its hundreds of thousands or million of votes cast, must be tied without one’s vote.

Sounds unlikely?

Nate Silver, who runs the FiveThirtyEight blog which simulates and predicts elections, published a paper that aims to quantify the probability of a single vote being decisive in a presidential election. Using polling data from two weeks before the 2008 presidential election, he concluded that a vote in a small handful of swing states had a roughly 1 in 10 million chance of deciding the election, while most states were at a small fraction of that or essentially zero. Of course, by election day in 2008, Obama had widened his lead to the point where his victory was all but a certainty. As it turned out, even a million votes allocated strategically in swing states wouldn’t have given the election to McCain. As it turned out, 98.6% of Americans voted for Obama or McCain anyway.

Even when the 2008 presidential race was still close, the best chance a single vote would have of deciding the election was one in millions. In the map below, I’ve attempted to qualify the chances of a single vote in each state deciding the 2012 election according to the current electoral outlook, recent polls, and expected number of votes cast in each state.

Most Americans have no chance of deciding the outcome of the election with their vote, and the few that do have a chance that’s roughly on par with winning the lottery. Voting for the lesser of two evils is about as effective at stopping evil as voting for Captain America as a write-in. So what should a citizen who’s concerned about politics do?

The Solution

The answer is simple. Presidential elections are major events that attract a number of diverse candidates with backgrounds, philosophies, positions, and ideas that are truly different from what the two major parties are offering. While they won’t get much media coverage, there is no shortage of information about them on the internet. Go read about them and see if you like any of these candidates or their ideas. If you do, support those candidates or ideas and discuss them with friends and family. Then, when election day rolls around, go out and vote for whichever candidate you think would be best for you and the country. Don’t neglect voting and don’t give your vote to a major candidate only because he or she seems less objectionable than the alternative. If nothing else, the presidential election is the most visible and significant opinion poll of the U.S. population there is, and votes for a third party candidate lend support and credibility to that candidate and his or her platform.

Hold the major parties and candidates accountable when they disappoint you. If you’re one of the many Americans who are tired of the usual lies, letdowns, and broken promises in presidential elections, then do something about it.  With the election less than 4 weeks away, you can start right now.


100 Mile Walk

I’m going to attempt to walk 100 miles without sleep. It’s crazy, it’s extremely difficult, and it’s very likely I won’t be able to do it, but that’s kind of the point. I want to see what it’s like and I want to see how my body will respond. I want the experience, and if I manage to somehow succeed I can say I’ve done something that very few people have.

I’ve been planning this for close to a month. I will be walking predominantly on the W&OD trail in northern Virginia, which is about 45 miles long and passes close to my parents’ house. I have a schedule that includes six stops that total 5.5 hours of rest for food, water, restrooms, and phone charging. I plan on leaving at 2 PM and returning at 5 AM two days later. If I’m unable to continue, I’ll call for someone to pick me up. Throughout the entire walk, I’ll be tweeting updates about my progress and condition from @sangaman.

My 100-mile walk route

The last (and only) time I tried an endurance feat was the Charlottesville ten miler in 2008. I wrote an article about it for the school paper here. It was a last minute decision, I hardly trained at all, and I used basketball shoes since I didn’t own any running shoes. My knee started hurting very badly for the last mile or so which slowed me down, but I managed to finish at about an 8:45/mile pace. The thrill of finishing was incredible; easily worth the pain.

My stamina now isn’t as good as it was then. I play basketball about once a week these days, but I don’t get as much exercise as I’d like. Regardless, one thing that’s in my favor is I love walking. Whenever I’m walking long distances, I feel like I can walk forever.

However, feeling like I can walk forever is not the same as actually doing it, so I’ve been preparing. I’ve done some running/walking for medium distances to get myself ready and to break in a new pair of walking shoes. I’ve done a lot of research on ways I can avoid common pitfalls such as dehydration, injury, blistering, and chafing. To stave off boredom (and possibly sleepiness) I’ll listen to audiobooks on my phone, starting with The Long Walk.

When I first got this idea, I sent off e-mails to a bunch of companies who sell energy/endurance/athletic products asking if they would sponsor my walk by sending me a bit of merchandise. Almost all of them turned me down, but the one company that was generous enough to accept my request was 5-hour Energy. I’ve never actually used their product before, and in my experience I’m immune to the energizing affects of caffeine, but this might be crucial when I’ve been awake for over 24 hours. Regardless, I really appreciate the generosity and goodwill, especially considering how many companies turned me down or ignored me.

Thanks 5-Hour Energy!

I’m also trying to raise some money for charity, so that I’ll know that some good will come out of this attempt even if I don’t make it. I chose the Arlington Food Assistance Center, which helps feed low income families in Arlington, VA. I chose them because they are local and because they get high marks for transparency and efficiency from Charity Navigator. Donations of any amounts would be greatly appreciated and a motivating factor for me. If you want to donate $10 or more and get a receipt for tax deduction purposes, you can donate on their website. Send me a line if you do this so I can keep track. If you want to donate a smaller amount, you can send me money on PayPal at ‘mcnallydp at gmail dot com’ and I will donate on your behalf.

If the weather in VA is projected to be dry and mild this weekend, I’ll probably start this walk on 4/20. If the weather is bad or if something comes up, I’ll attempt the walk on one of the next two weekends. I definitely want to do this before it gets too hot. I’ll be updating this post when I know the starting date for sure. Wish me luck!


Update: I’m starting this walk around Noon on Friday 4/20/12.


People in traditional workplaces can sometimes feel like they’re owned by their employer. They have to follow their employer’s rules and structure their lives around their employer’s schedules and working hours. They rarely get to keep the fruit of their labors at work, aside from a largely fixed salary that doesn’t always accurately represent their value or contribution in the workplace. But at least they make a living and are free to use their skills, name, and image to do as they please in their free time. Well… unless they’re athletes and their workplace is one of the many NCAA member institutions scattered across the USA.

NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept any amount money from coaches, agents, corporations, local businesses, or really anyone who they’ve met since they started getting recruited by college coaches. They are not allowed to profit off their own image; Anthony Davis may not sell a t-shirt with his distinctive eyebrow on it while others do. They are not allowed to get paid to play their sport, either in the present or in the past. In fact, a player who briefly accepts a stipend for playing as a 16 year-old can be banned from ever competing in the NCAA. In a country that prides itself on free enterprise and individuality, college athletes must sign away their right to earn money from their talents if they wish to compete for their school while pursuing an education.

The men’s college basketball championship is the biggest source of income for the NCAA. If you watch it on TV, you’ll see propaganda commercials from the NCAA over and over that suggests their athletes are just ecstatic to have a chance to go to class and go on to become rocket scientists and brain surgeons. Other indoctrinating informative advertisements portray the NCAA as a benevolent, altruistic organization that funds and supports academic and athletic programs alike at institutions all over the country. The NCAA doesn’t miss an opportunity to insist that their athletes are amateurs and students above all and that their education and well-being is the NCAA’s top priority.

"Hold on, you mean other sports leagues actually let their players make money?"

That’s what they want you to think, but in reality the NCAA is full of hypocrisies and oppressive restrictions. “Amateur” athletes wear corporate logos for games, jerseys bearing players’ numbers are sold to their fans, and players’ images are used to promote televised events. The players themselves don’t – or should I say can’t – see one penny from all that profiteering. Lets be clear, college sports is a big business. College football programs in the six major conferences had over $1 billion in profit in 2010 – that’s profit not revenue. The NCAA’s recent deal for broadcast rights for the men’s basketball championship is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

The NCAA isn’t really that interested in the educations or well-being of their student-athletes, either. For example, athletic scholarships, by rule, last a maximum of one year and do not renew unless the school and coach decides to renew them. If a student-athlete underperforms or gets injured, or if there’s simply a coaching change and the new coach wants a different kind of player, that player’s scholarship can be dropped on a whim. If a player suffers an injury so severe that he will never be able to compete on a Division I level again, his scholarship will be given to a player with healthy joints. If a player wants to transfer to another school to pursue a degree not offered at their current school, as Todd O’Brien at St. Joseph’s did, his coach can veto his transfer and deny him athletic scholarship without so much as an explanation why.

"Sorry about your NBA career! We'll help carry you to the financial aid office... it looks like you'll need it now."

I won’t go into detail about how unenforceable these NCAA regulations about amateurism and scholasticism are, but you won’t have to look hard to find stories about players getting paid under the table by big programs, agents cultivating relationships with college and high school players, and loopholes used to keep otherwise failing players academically eligible. Corruption, greed, and cheating are no strangers to the current environment of college athletics in spite of what the rulebook says.

I believe there are good reasons why college athletes shouldn’t be paid and shouldn’t have professional contracts. Players negotiating contracts and transferring when they can get more money is not at all congruous with college life. I’m no expert on Title IX, but I think public institutions might be required to pay players in every sport if they pay anyone at all, which would not really be practical. Transitioning to such a system would require a huge overhaul of the college athletic system and, I believe, would distort much of what makes college sports so enjoyable and exciting. That’s not to say I’m against 18 and 19 year olds being able to play professionally (like they do in Europe or MLB minor leagues), I just don’t think it would work in anything like the college structure we’re used to.

However, I think there’s a much fairer and more reasonable compromise to the exploitation of college athletes; players should own their own image and should be allowed to profit off their skills when they’re not playing for their school. This is the same right that other college students and other employees have. If you go to school on an academic scholarship, you won’t get your scholarship revoked for working a job or internship or starting a business if it doesn’t affect your grades. If you work as a software developer, you’re not allowed to sell the code you write for your employer, but you’re free to use your skills to profit off of side projects in your free time. Only college athletes are required to sign over their right to free enterprise if they want to pursue their athletic aspirations.

Under this compromise, college basketball players would be allowed to accept payments from agents who are interested in representing them for their professional careers; sign endorsement deals and sell their name and image for use on jerseys, video games, and merchandise; and play their sport for money before they enroll in college or during the offseason. A system like this would allow many poor college athletes a chance to support themselves and their families while still in school and would bring some of the under-the-table dealings of the college game, like player-agent interactions, into the public domain. It would give players a chance to profit off of the huge business that they power, college sports. And it wouldn’t require colleges to pay a dime in salary to their athletes.

"I'm sorry, I just can't see any reason to change the status quo."

Of course, the NCAA wouldn’t want a system like this because it threatens their monopoly over young talent in the USA and could affect their bottom line. As it is now, if you want a jersey of your favorite college player, you get a jersey from his university with his number on it. If you want to see him compete, you have to buy a ticket to one of his college games. The system above would mean you could also buy an officially licensed jersey with that player’s name on it from a third party or get a ticket to see him play in an exhibition game or basketball camp in the offseason, with a cut of the proceeds going to the player himself. It’s competition, and the NCAA doesn’t want it.

I don’t think this system would fundamentally change or diminish college sports. Some might claim that it would incentivize athletes to go to big-market schools or affect the way the elite, profiting athletes get treated compared to teammates who make little or no money. I would argue that top athletes already flock to big-market schools and that the megastars and future first-round picks already get treated differently given that they are likely future millionaires. I’d also argue that this compromise would reduce the incentive for paying players under the table because it gives elite players a way to get money through legitimate channels. In fact, you might see more players staying in school instead and preserving their academic eligibility instead of going pro because they’d have a chance to earn income in college. It’s not uncommon currently for college basketball players to leave school early even when their chances of getting drafted in the NBA are slim; it’s simply the only way they can support themselves and their families.

Will the NCAA consider a change to their amateurism restrictions like the ones I’ve discussed here anytime soon? Not likely. Not while there’s no legitimate domestic competition for young football and basketball talent. Not while they continue to print money as fast as they can with the current structure. Not while casual fans continue to demonize college athletes found to accept money for playing their sport, but ignore those who get rich off those very same athletes. Maybe, the next time a player is retroactively declared ineligible due to amateurism issues and has to vacate his wins and individual awards, the entities that profited off of him while he was a student should have to “vacate” that money to charity.

Regrettably, 18-22 year olds will continue to be stripped of their capacity to earn a living in exchange for the right to compete at their sport and generate millions of dollars they will never see. They are all certainly athletes and technically students, but, whatever they are, they might as well be labeled “Property of the NCAA.”

Kentucky Basketball – Player Evaluations

I am a huge fan of the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. The reason why is a bit of a long story (I haven’t stepped foot in the state of Kentucky – yet) but they’ve been my favorite college basketball team for over twelve years and the team I’ve followed closest in all of sports for over ten. Thanks to ESPN3 streaming all non-televised Kentucky games online these days, I’ve watched every game and almost every minute Kentucky has played for the last four seasons. I’ve gotten to know the players quite well.

What follows is my take on the seven rotation players on Kentucky’s basketball team this season and their strengths, weaknesses, and outlooks. I won’t be referring to or analyzing any player stats, this will be strictly my own subjective, but (I hope) somewhat educated opinions.

Quick Links:

Darius Miller (Sr, 6-8 235 lbs, G/F)

I’ve watched Darius Miller play basketball more than I’ve watched any other athlete in the world. Miller was a top 50 player coming out of high school and started his first three years. Now in his senior season, he has transitioned to a sixth man role which has earned him this year’s SEC sixth man award.

Miller has undergone a major transformation while at Kentucky in terms of his mentality on the court and his role on the team. In his first two years, he was generally timid on offense and would frequently defer to teammates and pass up shots, earning himself the nickname “Disappearius Miller.” When Calipari took over after Miller’s freshman year, he would automatically send Miller to the bench whenever he passed up on a good scoring opportunity. However, Miller has matured immensely since then and has become one of Kentucky’s more reliable offensive weapons during rough patches and late in close games. This earned him the 2011 SEC Tournament MVP award on a team with no fewer than five future NBA players. “Disappearius Miller” has since been replaced with “Miller time” and “Millergasm” by the fans.

Strengths: Miller is strong and physically mature, having packed on a lot of muscle in his years at Kentucky, with great size for a perimeter player. Miller possesses excellent athleticism and is capable of making highlight reel dunks and blocks. He is a solid ballhandler, having filled in for point guard duties several times throughout his time at Kentucky, and can be a playmaker in the halfcourt while not being particularly turnover prone. He is skilled at adapting his game and role to fit in with NBA-caliber teammates, having done so with three different sets of lottery picks over the last three years. He frequently exploits the talents and strengths of his teammates – I believe he comfortably leads the team in number of alleyoop passes to Jones/Davis or passes to an open Lamb/Wiltjer on the perimeter.

Most of Miller’s points come from spot up threes and mid-range jumpers. He is a very good shooter when he has time to set up and displays good shot selection. He has very good touch around the basket, and is effective at getting into the paint and finishing with a floater off two feet. He is perhaps most efficient posting up smaller players, as he uses his size and strength to back them down and shoot over them at a high percentage.

Weaknesses: Despite Miller’s aforementioned transformation, he could still stand to be more aggressive as he occasionally becomes passive and forgets to attack the basket. Even though he has excellent size and athleticism, Miller doesn’t stand out in rebounding as much as one might expect. His speed and quickness is not outstanding, limiting him somewhat in defense and getting past defenders as well as in full-speed transition. While he is a good jumpshooter, he could still stand to improve in that area if he wants to stand out at the next level and considering how many of his field goal attempts are jumpshots.

Outlook: Miller hasn’t received an enormous amount of attention from the NBA as he’s been constantly overshadowed by lottery pick teammates. He is currently projected as a second round pick in most mock drafts, but I expect him to go higher than that and believe he can have a long career in the NBA. Working in Miller’s favor are prototypical size, strength, and athleticism for an NBA player. Miller is a highly adaptable player, seamlessly transitioning into whatever role the team needs from him, fitting in with new teammates, and having no issues with coming off the bench. I expect him to fulfill the same kind of role in the NBA that he’s fulfilled for Kentucky for the last three seasons.

Kyle Wiltjer (Fr, 6’9 239 lbs, F)

Wiltjer is a unique player unlike those Calipari has coached in the past. He is primarily a three point shooter and finesse player. Currently, Wiltjer is useful only as a spot up shooter, a big body on defense, or when mismatched against small defenders in the post.

Strengths: Wiltjer’s outside shot is excellent. Reports from practice are that he’s one of the best shooters Calipari has ever seen. He has nice touch in the paint and smooth post moves when the defense allows him to get his shot off. Defensively, he’s been a pleasant surprise in the post. He displays an excellent understanding of positioning and help defense, smothering opposing post players with double teams and rotating fluidly. His size allows him to contest shots well and block opposing players occasionally, and he plays smart without fouling often. He boxes out well and gets his share of defensive rebounds.

Weaknesses: Wiltjer is currently quite soft and weak with the ball, which greatly limits the ways he can contribute on offense. While Wiltjer occasionally shows good dribbling and crafty passing skills, he also frequently gets stripped or throws the ball away when pressured. He has trouble shooting through contact or in traffic and is often unable to finish after offensive rebounds or passes to him in the paint. He is slow, which hinders him in transition. While his post defense is good, he is not quick enough to stay in front of guards and is almost hopeless when he is forced to switch onto quick players.

Outlook: To become a go-to player at the college level, Wiltjer first must improve his strength, speed, and quickness. He needs to get more comfortable with contact in the paint and with handling defensive pressure, which I think will likely come with practice and playing experience. While Wiltjer’s YouTube videos suggest he is a goofy and lovable guy, which I think is awesome, he needs to get meaner on the court. Wiltjer committed to Kentucky so he could play with elite talent and push himself, so I believe he’ll be up for the challenge. Looking forward to the NBA, I can see Wiltjer fulfilling a role similar to Matt Bonner’s.

Marquis Teague (Fr, 6’2 189 lbs, PG)

Teague is the latest of Calipari’s string of highly touted freshman point guards and the younger brother of Atlanta Hawk Jeff Teague. He hasn’t been as outstanding as the other Calipari point guards in his first year at college, but he plays a major role on the team.

Strengths: Teague’s greatest asset is his speed and quickness. He can dribble past defenders seemingly at will and is excellent at getting to the basket. He is quite good at handling full court pressure and can often break presses by himself. Teague is an unselfish player who looks to set up and create for his teammates. He’s an above average rebounder for his position, sometimes using his athleticism to rebound in traffic or over much larger players. He’s also good at creating shots for himself in isolation sets, using crossovers and hesitation moves to create separation from defenders, which is a valuable asset when the shot clock is winding down.

Weaknesses: Teague is fairly inconsistent at this stage and can get flustered when things aren’t going well for the team. When he is off, he is prone to forcing long jumpshots and making bad passes. He also has a habit of sometimes jumping and picking up his dribble before he knows whether he’s going to pass or shoot, which results in turnovers. He doesn’t have outstanding passing skills or court vision yet. Defensively, he occasionally shows a lack of pride or interest in giving it his all. He is only an adequate jumpshooter for now, although he’s had success with pullup midrange jumpshots. He also isn’t great at finishing at the rim, lacking a gentle touch after his blazing drives to the basket, which causes him to miss too many layups.

Outlook: Teague has a lot of the tools that make a successful NBA point guard, but his game isn’t all the way there yet. He’s developed and matured noticeably in his one season at Kentucky, and another year or two of growth like that would make him a good starter in the NBA. His ability to create shots and plays on his own is especially valuable at the professional level, and he’s shown himself to be able to fulfill a point guard’s role on a squad of NBA talents.

Doron Lamb (So, 6’4 210 lbs, G)

Lamb is an extremely skilled and fluid offensive player. He came off the bench in his first year at Kentucky but now starts in his second. In my opinion, he’s the most dangerous and efficient scorer on this year’s team.

Strengths: Lamb, above all, is an elite shooter. He has a quick release and shoots threes and midrange jumpshots at a very high percentage. He’s routinely one of the best free throw shooters in the SEC. He can also score off of the dribble, putting excellent touch on both layups and midrange floaters. He is a graceful ballhandler, and is more than capable of being the primary ball handler on the court. His movements are smooth and under control seemingly at all times, and he displays a general knack for putting the ball in the hoop.

Weaknesses: Lamb does not look to create for teammates very often. He does not stand out defensively. He doesn’t display great athleticism – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him choose to dunk in a game even on breakaways. He’s also not always as aggressive as he should be given his tremendous offensive skills, and sometimes forgets to attack the basket or create shots for himself.

Outlook: I expect Lamb to transition his game seamlessly to the NBA. His shooting proficiency and touch are undeniable, and with his quick release and high arcing floaters he’ll be able to get his shot off even against larger and more athletic NBA defenders. Lamb may need to improve his defense somewhat to keep up with the NBA game, however.  If Lamb becomes more assertive with his shot, I can see him scoring 15+ points per game in the NBA in a Kevin Martin-type role. I can also see him as an offensive spark off the bench similar to Jason Terry.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Fr, 6-7 232 lbs, G/F)

Kidd-Gilchrist (or as I sometimes affectionately call him, Gillie the Kidd) was considered by many to be the best high school player in the country as a junior. He’s young for his class, enrolling in college as a 17 year old. As a freshman, he’s been a leader for the team emotionally as well as in the gym. He started a “breakfast club” in which he and some teammates would wake up early to go to the gym and eat breakfast together. He’s lived up to lofty expectations at Kentucky, having been named an All-American by several news outlets.

Strengths: Kidd-Gilchrist is a very well-rounded and talented basketball player, but where he truly stands out is inwhat most call “intangibles.” He has a legendary work ethic, motor, and competitive spirit. He plays defense with pride and vigor and is possibly the most aggressive player I’ve ever seen on offense and in transition. He’s humble and has no ego, recently volunteering to give his starting spot to Darius Miller in the SEC tournament.

In terms of his skills, Kidd-Gilchrist is a ferocious rebounder and scorer in the paint. He is great at operating in traffic and finishing through contact. He can take defenders off the dribble and has excellent touch at the rim. He is comfortable posting up, and perhaps Kentucky’s most reliable offensive option this season is Kidd-Gilchrist posting up and shooting over smaller defenders in the paint. He is also an adept interior passer, frequently dumping the ball to teammates for higher percentage shots in the paint. Kidd-Gilchrist is outstanding in transition, and can push the ball himself at a high tempo or run the floor and finish with exceptional athleticism.

Defensively, Kidd-Gilchrist is elite. He has good size and length, quick feet, and endless energy. He rarely gets beat and frequently makes spectacular blocks and steals.

Weaknesses: Kidd-Gilchrist is almost predictable with how aggressive he is and how often he takes the ball to the basket, and defenders in college have taken advantage of this by sliding in front of him and drawing charges. It is practically a given that he will get called for at least one charge every game. Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumpshot also leaves a lot to be desired at this point, and his release is a bit slow and unorthodox.

Outlook: Kidd-Gilchrist is a projected high lottery pick in the NBA, although he has said he will return to Kentucky after this season is over. Whenever he goes to the NBA, I believe Kidd-Gilchrist will be a franchise player. He has the work ethic, determination, and physical tools of a superstar. He is only 18, so there’s plenty of room for him to get even stronger and more polished. I have little doubt that he will develop a solid jumpshot in the NBA – at college he’s much more useful shooting from the paint but he will certainly work to adapt. Also, the NBA has rules that are friendlier to offensive players than in college which means Kidd-Gilchrist will be less susceptible to committing offensive fouls and will have more ways to score.

Terrence Jones (So, 6’9 252 lbs, F)

Terrence Jones surprised onlookers by returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season. Considered a preseason contender for Player of the Year, Jones’ second season hasn’t quite lived up to those gaudy expectations and has had some bumps in the road. Nevertheless, Jones is a key player on this team and shoulders a large portion of the rebounding and scoring load.

Strengths: Jones is a strong and athletic forward with good size. He’s a proficient dribbler and can take defenders off the bounce, making him a substantial matchup problem for slower post players. He’s at his best when he uses his exceptional strength and athleticism to finish drives and post moves with dunks or layups at the rim. He has a respectable jumpshot and is capable of knocking down threes when left open. He comes alive in transition, where he’s extremely capable either pushing the ball himself and making nifty passes or finishing with dunks. He’s an outstanding defensive rebounder, frequently snatching rebounds in traffic or away from opponents. He’s not as active rebounding on the offensive end, but he does often follow up missed shots with putback dunks. Defensively, he frequently uses his strength and length to make shots difficult for opponents and is an excellent shot blocker, rising to swat away shots without fouling too often.

Weaknesses: Jones’ most glaring weakness is his inconsistency and tendency to get thrown off his game during rough patches. When Jones gets frustrated, he is a completely different player. He is prone to forcing long, out of rhythm jumpshots. He gets tunnel vision offensively and dribbles into double teams creating turnovers or bad shots. At his worst, he also seems to lose interest defensively and displays bad body language on the court.  Several times during his two years at Kentucky, Jones has had stretches where he plays poorly as described here for the better part of a game, but then looks like an All-American over the next couple of weeks. Aside from this inconsistency, Jones’ touch around five feet out leaves something to be desired. He’s not exceptionally accurate with hook shots from around that distance or when he’s stopped short of getting all the way to the rim on a drive. Jones can also stand to improve his free throw shooting considering how often he gets to the line, and he should continue to work on his jumpshot if he wants to be a shooting threat in the NBA.

Outlook: Jones needs to convince NBA scouts and coaches that he’s matured and in control of himself. Earlier this season when Jones was playing poorly, it looked like he’d cost himself a spot in the lottery. However, he’s been in top form for the past few weeks, so I’m holding out hope that he’s matured for good. If Jones remains determined both on and off the court, I think he will likely have a promising and exciting career in the NBA as a forward, possibly something in the mold of Shawn Marion.

Anthony Davis (Fr, 6’10 220 lbs, PF)

Anthony Davis is considered by most to be this season’s National Player of the Year. It’s well known that he used to be a guard in high school before undergoing a massive growth spurt which has allowed him to dominate the paint this season and break numerous shot blocking records. He’s also singlehandedly made unibrows cool again.

Strengths: Davis is best known for his defense. As a shot blocker, he uses his tremendous length and athleticism to swat away or alter countless shots. He has great shot blocking instincts, rarely fouling and frequently blocking shots in such a way that he or a teammate gains possession.  He plays smart, positioning himself and rotating well to respond to the offense and deliberately avoiding fouling when he is in foul trouble. He has a fantastic motor and great speed which allows him to cover large areas of the court. He also has good hands and anticipation, allowing him to frequently strip defenders and intercept passes. He is a great rebounder and can secure missed shots in his grasp high in the air.

Offensively, Davis is a smooth and skilled scorer. He has fantastic touch around the basket and a knack for laying the ball softly off the backboard. He can take defenders off the dribble and get to the basket in only a few strides. He’s also displayed a few nifty post moves, using spins and drop steps to get past post defenders. He has a nice-looking jumpshot and shoots a respectable percentage from the free throw line. His best offensive move, however, is dunking lob passes thrown to him by teammates from a height that defenders simply can’t reach.

At 6’10 with a ridiculous wingspan, Davis seems like a natural athlete with excellent coordination which is very rare for players his size. Furthermore, Davis displays a great competitive spirit and level of determination. He plays without an ego or attitude despite all the hype surrounding him.

Weaknesses: Davis is fairly skinny, and this occasionally causes him to lose the battle for positioning against stronger post players. His jumpshot hasn’t been particularly accurate this season for Kentucky. On the perimeter, Davis seems to prefer shooting jumpshots, but since he frequently has a great speed and athleticism advantage against other post players that  would make driving to the basket a more efficient choice.

Outlook: Davis will very likely be the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and for good reason. I expect Davis to be a star right away and I think he has a good chance of being an elite player and capturing several Defensive Player of the Year titles. He has an extremely rare package of physical tools, skills, and intangibles, and does things on the court that few others can. And, having just turned 19, he’s far from reaching his ceiling.

Omnivore’s Dilemma and Three Point Shots

Now that it’s time for the 2012 NCAA tournament, I will be writing a few posts about college basketball. I think the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the greatest sporting event of the year by far in many ways. But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about shot selection – specifically when it is a good decision to shoot a three point jumpshot. It can be a difficult decision to make, and it’s one that I feel players often get wrong. In general, taking a bad shot means that the possession ends with a lower percentage shot than the team would expect to have later in that possession. Passing up a good shot means that the team will likely have to settle for a lower percentage shot or possibly turn the ball over.

Not all players are faced with a tough decision. For elite shooters, the decision is easy. They try to get open from three point range and, whenever they do, they shoot without hesitation. Their role on the team is to shoot threes and everyone expects them to shoot when they get a clean look. They shoot at a high enough percentage that almost any uncontested shot is expected to result in significantly more points than an average possession for that team. For non-shooting post players, the decision is even easier. They rarely try to touch the ball on the perimeter and they know not to shoot threes unless the shot or game clock is extremely low.

Unless there's under three seconds left on the shot clock, of course.

Life is easy, just eat bamboo and don't shoot any long jumpshots.

In the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan discusses how omnivores are faced with the tough decision of choosing what to eat. Omnivores can – and often must – eat a variety of foods, but it is not hardwired in them to distinguish foods that are good for them from foods that are bad or even toxic. Animals in the wild that eat only one thing don’t have this problem. Pandas know bamboo will properly nourish them and not make them sick, just as cows do with grass and lions do with hoofed mammals.

In basketball, average three point shooters are the omnivores. Sometimes it is good for them to shoot, but sometimes it is bad. If they habitually decline to shoot, they neglect a potentially productive area of their game and allow defenders to sag off them to contain dribble penetration. If they shoot too much, they wind up wasting possessions on suboptimal shots.

When players take shots that are considered bad, they may be chided by the coach or lambasted by fans and media for being trigger happy. When players pass up shots that are considered good, they may be chided by the coach or lambasted by fans and media for being passive or timid.

But what will the people on Twitter think?!?

To shoot? Or not to shoot?

There are many factors, in my opinion, that determine whether a particular shot is a good one for a player, including:

  • How good is he at shooting threes?
  • How open is he? A wide open shot is preferable because it can’t possibly be altered and allows time to set up like the shooter would in practice.
  • How much time is on the shot clock? More time means there are more opportunities to get a better shot. A shot that’s good with 10 seconds on the shot clock might not be good with 25 seconds left.
  • How efficient is his team on offense against the opposing team’s defense? A team with a superior offense should be more selective, whereas a team that’s overmatched should have lower standards on their jumpshots.
  • Is his team behind? A team that’s behind by a lot should be more inclined to shoot threes as those increase variance in the game and make comebacks more likely.
  • What kind of rebounding position are his teammates in? When the paint is devoid of teammates, the chance of an offensive rebound is slim and the shot is less desirable.

That is a lot to take into consideration. Players usually have a window of less than a second to decide whether to shoot before a defender gets to them, making their decision even harder. On top of that, I believe confidence to be an important asset for a shooter to have. Second guessing oneself on a shot can only decrease accuracy. Players just don’t have the luxury to process everything or doubt themselves in the heat of the moment.

If you take a three point shot and move it closer to the basket by a foot or two, you get a long two. Long twos are the shots that are 85%-99% as difficult to make as three point shots but are worth only 67% of the points; every player would be wise to avoid them. Yet, players shoot long twos anyway and the ones that I’ve found most prone to doing so are average shooters. I think average shooters may do this to avoid the criticism and mental anguish that can come with shooting (and missing) a potentially ill-advised three point attempt. Or maybe they’re more likely to put themselves in position to shoot long twos because they are not concerned with shooting threes. On the other hand, elite shooters attempt threes with a purpose and make a point to ensure that all their long jumpshots are threes.

Even though a three and a long two are essentially the same in every way except for how many points they’re worth, they get treated very differently by media and fans. In the box score, threes are their own category while long twos are grouped together with all other shots including layups and dunks. Fans and commentators love box scores because it’s easy and deemed acceptable to draw conclusions based on them alone. If Average Shooter X, who averages two 3PA a game and shoots 35% for a season, goes 1-7 from three point range in a loss, that figure will stick out like a sore thumb in the box score. I mean, what was he thinking missing six threes in a game?

One factor that is not on my list of what determines a good shot above is how many threes that player or his team have already made or attempted that game. Very often you’ll hear basketball commentators on TV saying a certain team needs to make x amount of threes to win an upcoming game. Or you’ll hear them blame a loss on a team or player attempting too many threes when they have taken more 3PA than average. Comments like these are often misguided.

As Ken Pomeroy showed in his blog, defenses have a significant amount of influence over how many three point attempts they allow but very little influence over what percent of those attempts go in. This reinforces the idea that there is a lot of randomness involved in whether three point shots go in or not. More importantly, this data supports the theory that a team that’s committed to and/or effective at defending three point shots can reduce the amount of clean three point looks the other team gets and consequently reduces the number of shots they attempt.

It follows that the number of clean three point looks a team gets in a game is at least partially out of that team’s hands. Therefore, striving to shoot or make an arbitrary amount of threes is counter productive and can only hinder shot selection. A player should never think “I’ve attempted a lot of threes, I should stop shooting threes for the rest of the game.” Likewise, he should never think “I haven’t been shooting enough threes this game, I should start forcing some shots.”

Good thing they lost while shooting so many threes or else they might not have learned their lesson!

28 is a big number. 6 is a small number. Time to draw conclusions.

The tweets above came from media members after Kentucky’s recent 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game. Kentucky this season is widely considered one of the best teams in the nation at defense, two point shooting, rebounding, and getting to the free throw line. In this game, Vanderbilt had better offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, attempted 13 more free throws, and shot higher two point, three point, and free throw percentages than Kentucky. Oh, and Kentucky went 6-28 from three point range. You can see which statistic the media decided to make a narrative out of.

I watched the game closely and I did not notice any appreciable difference in the quality of three point shots Kentucky attempted compared to their other games. Most were open looks and most were taken by their best three point shooters. In fact, the shot selection and distribution was quite similar in Kentucky’s 79-49 victory over Georgia a few weeks earlier when they shot 15-27 from three point range. Of course, nobody after that game was lamenting that 27 threes is too many or that Kentucky’s players needed a lesson to teach them to shoot fewer threes. The difference between shooting 15-27 and 5-27 is 30 points, the margin of victory that game.

But what is there that can be learned from all this? In general, I think players should pass up shots more often early in the shot clock but hardly ever pass up decent looks late in the possession. I think time on the shot clock is an important factor in determining shot selection yet it seems to be one that is often overlooked. With lots of time left, teams should be working to get a high percentage shot, preferably a layup or a dunk. Those seconds are valuable, and when a team shoots they forever lose what is left on the clock.

Yet when the shot clock hits single digits, “beggars can’t be choosers” applies. A shot clock violation or a desperate or forced shot are vastly inferior outcomes compared to any reasonable shot attempt that comes in the flow of the offense. As Matt Goldman shows in his study on NBA decision making, the value of holding on to the ball declines gradually for most of the possession and then dips sharply in the final five seconds of the shot clock. Having to create a shot that late is no easy task.

I also think it would be beneficial for players and coaches to discuss what kind of shot selection and three point shooting thresholds would be optimal. This would reduce the amount of thinking about whether or not to shoot that is required during games. And, when a player does decide to shoot, he should shoot with a purpose and with complete confidence… and pay no concern to what negative things people might say on Twitter.

Insurance on that blackjack?

Recently, I got an auto insurance plan for myself for the first time. While I was getting a quote, I was offered comprehensive insurance which would cover damage to my car if I’m at fault in an accident. I declined. My parents, who have comprehensive insurance on their plan, were surprised. When car insurance came up in a discussion with some coworkers, they were also surprised to hear I didn’t have comprehensive insurance. They probably figured I could afford the monthly payments, so why wouldn’t I want to be covered in case of an accident?

It’s not that I’m counting on not getting into any accidents. I consider myself an above average driver (so does everyone) but I won’t delude myself into thinking I’m immune from causing an accident. It’s not that I’m afraid my insurance company would deny my claims or make it exceedingly difficult to get compensated. It’s just that I believe insurance is a losing proposition and, in the case of damage to my car, I’m willing and able to endure the variance.

What do I mean by a losing proposition? Well, insurance companies don’t stay in business by charging their customers less in premiums and deductibles than the total amount of claims those customers make. In fact, they charge quite a bit more; enough to cover customer support, sales, and fraud while still ending up with a profit. Insurance customers don’t reduce their expenses by getting insurance. Instead, they reduce the variance in their expenses.

Often, insurance is a good or even necessary thing. Homeowners’ and health insurance, for example, can protect people from disasters that could financially ruin all but the wealthiest families and individuals. Going broke is very bad for one’s quality of life, and therefore it’s something people want to avoid. Fortunately, the chance of one becoming hospitalized or losing their home to a fire is low, so insuring against such things is affordable.

However, all too often I see sale pitches for insurance to cover much less expensive or traumatic losses, such as:

  • Extended warranties
  • Jewelry insurance
  • Pet insurance
  • Child life insurance
  • Payment protection on credit cards

To be clear, insurance companies don’t stay in business by selling plans that save their customers money. Even though we limit our expenses when we make a claim, most of us will pay the insurance companies more than they pay us back in the long run. What insurance companies are really selling is a reduction in the variance of our finances. Insurance customers accept a guaranteed small loss to eliminate the chance of a disastrous huge loss.

Human nature is such that people like to avoid experiencing loss. We are a loss averse and risk averse species. We hate feeling like we’ve lost or wasted something. It’s why you are unlikely to leave a theater if the movie stinks when you’ve already driven to the theater and paid for a ticket, but fine with changing the channel after you’ve started watching that same movie for free on cable TV. It’s why you might drive across town to return $15 worth of defective merchandise to a store, but you’d never accept if a stranger offered to pay you $15 to spend your afternoon running an errand on the other side of town. It’s why you might be hesitant to make a bet with a friend, but your first desire after losing that bet will be to go “double or nothing” on another.

"We're scaring you into buying more insurance coverage than you need. Our marketing department thinks this will make us more money than ads with a talking duck or gecko."

With insurance, we don’t mentally experience loss when we pay monthly premiums; it’s just another fixed expense. In fact, if you’re using automatic payments you might even forget that you pay premiums. How psychologically convenient!

Imagine you hit a deer while driving one day and cause significant damage to the front of your car. Without comprehensive insurance, you would know that you’re going to get hit with a four digit repair bill. And you might think “if I’d left home a minute earlier I wouldn’t have hit that stupid deer!” And you might wonder why the universe decided to punish you. And it won’t be a very pleasant experience or an easy loss to come to terms with.

With comprehensive insurance, you could take solace in the fact that you’ll only be out a few hundred dollars and your insurance company will take care of whatever the bill is. That sense of loss that is so unpleasant to humans will be limited. “Thank god for insurance!” you’ll say to yourself.

But of course, you’d likely wind up with more money in your pocket in the long run without that insurance. If you’re able to put enough liquid assets aside to handle a few thousand dollars of unexpected expenses, and can come to terms with feeling loss every now and then, why not be your own insurance?

It seems irrational from a Homo Economicus point of view to insure losses that could be paid for by oneself. Yet nonessential insurance is a big business, so it seems people are willing to pay quite a bit to steady their finances and avoid loss and risk. That is, it seems that way until you think about how popular casinos and lotteries are. What kind of a service do casinos and lotteries provide to their customers?

In most forms of gambling, the casino or “house” offers a player losing propositions that occasionally result in a big win. Powerball jackpots, 777 on a slot machine, and a royal flush on a video poker machine are some common examples of big wins that are dangled like a carrot in front of players. Players accept a large chance of losing money in exchange for a small chance of winning and a microscopic chance of winning big. What it boils down to is that casinos are selling an increase in the variance of their customers’ finances. That is the opposite of what insurance companies are selling. So why are both popular? I doubt there is a rational answer.

People can have many misconceptions or superstitions when it comes to gambling, but few don’t believe the saying that “the house always wins.” Almost everyone who frequents casinos or scratch off booths has lost money to them, and most trips to those places result in a loss. So why do people tolerate risk of financial loss and the mental anguish of experiencing loss when they’re aware that these risks are not expected to help their bottom line? And how many people who like to gamble on slots and lotteries also have unnecessary insurance plans?

"19" "Hit me" "20" "Hit me" "21" "Hit me" "Bust" "D'oh!"

"Of course I take insurance on my blackjack! I have kids I need to put through college and I can't take any chances!"

Then there’s the ultimate mystery of all. A gambler is sitting at a blackjack table. He is losing money in the long run in hopes of positive variance so he can experience a win in the short run. He gets dealt blackjack, while the dealer shows an Ace. He is offered “insurance” on his blackjack, which will pay him a guaranteed 1:1 win on his bet. Declining insurance will result in a 1.5:1 win when the dealer doesn’t have a ten in the hole for blackjack and a push when the dealer does. It is very rarely a winning proposition to accept insurance in blackjack, and this is one of the most widely understood rules of blackjack strategy. Yet many people still accept insurance because they want to ensure a “win” on that particular deal. They are paying to reduce their variance in a game where they pay to increase their variance in a place where variance is the only chance most players have of winning anything. They might as well put $20 on the table, get dealt some cards, and then get $19 back – now that’s insurance.

Nonessential insurance can give you steadiness and peace of mind but is frequently costly and unnecessary. Gambling can give you a thrill and chance to win big but is almost always costly and unnecessary. Paying for both at the same time is silly. Personally, I’ll take my gambling in the form of not insuring things that I can afford myself. And I’ll keep my eye out for deer when I drive.